Talking with Andy Grant

Andy Grant wrote to me recently with the link to a video he once made, “The best way to die.” The angrier commenters called that title a bait and switch. The happier ones thanked him for an unexpected smile. It’s worth a view.

Before we dove into an interview, we agreed we weren’t fans of the anonymous cloak around many personal stories of suicidal thinking. “To me, it implies something that needs to stay hidden and disguised, like somebody in witness protection,” Andy said later in an email. “Certainly, going public is up to each person, but not ever seeing someone step forward with their real name and face and say, ‘Yes, I tried to kill myself, and I’m glad it didn’t work,’ left me thinking that feeling suicidal must be something that never goes away.”

One another note, he said, “It’s always driven me nuts that seemingly non-lethal suicide attempts get called a ‘cry for help’ and sort of are brushed off. In any other event _ someone swimming, someone in a burning building _ calling for help would result in someone rushing to their aid. Yet with suicide attempts, a ‘cry for help’ is some sort of reason to ignore the attempt.”

Who are you?

Let’s see. I’m Andy Grant. I am a husband, an author, a speaker, a teacher, a world traveler, an actor, a transformational energy coach and a multiple suicide attempt survivor.

And where are you?

Littleton, Massachusetts.

Your multiple attempts, were they all when you were a teen, or have they been scattered throughout your life?

I recall planning my death as early as the fifth grade. I attempted at 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 … And then true attempts stopped, but thoughts and making plans continued through my 20s and 30s. I count my “real” suicide attempts as the times I ended up in the hospital, but when I was 20, I met a psychologist who said anytime I had an intention of harming myself, that was an attempt. By that definition, it’s in the hundreds. I knew I was finally growing up or learning when I sought help without an attempt on my life. I was 25. That’s when I realized I was bad at this killing myself game and there must be another way to live my life. It took a long time to find that.

What put you onto your original thinking?

For the most part, I had a rather unhappy childhood. Things happened that I didn’t realize until I was an adult. My parents were college students when they had me, and they divorced early enough that I don’t recall us being a family. It happened when I was 5, but I have zero memory. At the same time, I was molested by a neighbor. I didn’t remember it until I had a memory flash when I was 19. So I didn’t think the world was a safe place. I was bullied. We moved around a lot. I thought I was broken, thought I was flawed. I had deep thoughts about the state of the world, what the point was, the meaning of life. And this was in first grade! And no one else had these thoughts. It was just freaking messed up. But actually, depression, alcoholism, suicide, all run in my family, and my parents were up front about that. I remember being in elementary school and being mad that they had decided to have me, to pass on these bad genes. Do you remember Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump,” he thought it was his destiny to die in battle? I felt my destiny was to die by my own hand, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

Your parents were open with you, were you open with them?

No, not at all. When people started seeing warning signs, I would lie: “Everything’s fine. Nothing’s going on.” People wanted to believe that. I was excellent in school, straight As. I was not the stereotypical kid on the edge. It was easy for people to believe my lies. I wanted to believe them.

This happened through high school and beyond?

Yeah. I probably was in eighth grade when I first saw a child psychologist, but it was just a couple visits because I didn’t share anything. But people would notice cuts on my wrists and ask, but I would make up accidents, and they’d forget about it and leave me alone. At times people heard me planning, and I’d say I was making it up, writing a play or something. It was easy to fool people. But that didn’t help anyone. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is, it’s OK to ask for help. No one has to go through any of this stuff alone. But I was raised an only child by a single mom, so I was used to being solitary.

Was that “ask for help” message as pervasive as it is now?

No. The only place where I met other kids talking about suicide was in the mental hospital, which made it seem all the sicker. Because all these people agreed with me, and we were all locked up.

And now, the message is easy to find?

Based on the level of support groups, fundraisers, awareness, yeah. When I was growing up, my high school was in the news because it had the highest suicide rate in the nation. That’s what we were told. And now you see kids pull together and support each other following a suicide. I believe the reason suicide can spread through a school or community is because other people in pain see it and say, “I didn’t know that was an option.” If you never had the thought yourself, it is very foreign idea. And if people don’t feel comfortable sharing it, they may believe they and the person who died are the only ones who feel that bad. So that’s why, if people never had the thought, when someone kills themself, they just can’t comprehend it! I have a lot of people ask me, “I want to understand it.” No, you don’t. It doesn’t make sense.

So then you don’t explain it?

Right. Be glad it doesn’t make sense to you. It’s not natural. It’s the worst possible choice someone can make under distressed circumstances. The cliche is, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Do you like that cliche?

Oh, I haven’t used it in quite a while! But it’s accurate.

You said that when you were 25, you grew up. What happened?

There had been enough, you know, failed attempts. I had been down the road of suicide attempts often enough. I cried, I hated it, I felt broken, flawed: “What the fuck is wrong with me?” But instead of taking action, I sought help. I told a couple people I worked with, and they were super supportive. They just made it really safe. By that time, insurance companies ran the show, and I was hospitalized for maybe a weekend. But I chose to go in so I wouldn’t do something stupid to myself. At that point, death wasn’t what I feared most of all. I was really afraid I’d cripple myself, disable myself in some way, and make life even worse, make it so I was unable to end it if I chose to. That brings up a big point. Almost what took the longest was to let go of that defense mechanism: “If I don’t like this, I’m checking out.” It was my ultimate threat against anything I didn’t like: a job, school, relationship. “Screw it, I’ll just off myself.” It was my default defense mechanism.

What’s become your defense mechanism now?

I believe all suicide attempts are based on a complete lack of self-love. So I learned to love myself instead of hating and judging myself. So now when things go wrong … I remember getting a flat tire in the rain once, and I wanted to throw myself into traffic. I was so tied to drama, in such a rage. Now I look at it and laugh. Killing myself used to be my first thought when faced with frustration. I learned I could choose my next thought. It starts with loving myself, knowing I’m meant to be here. I’ve created much better coping strategies. I have a number of different rituals I can do to improve my mood, to release that negativity or self-loathing.

What did you do to make all that happen?

I did not have good results with medication, or even therapy, because for the most part I would lie and make things up. With medication, all I had was side effects. I got into self-growth, discovered energy work. I took a year-long class to learn to read energy. I loved it so much that I changed my career. Now I work as an energy coach, speaking and teaching. What I saw as a curse are my gifts. That’s the biggest thing. When you see life isn’t punishing you, that there’s a lesson to be learned … I was a slow learner, but I’ve had what I can only describe as mystical experiences when I felt the love that life has for me. And it was mind-blowing. My biggest healing came when I acknowledged I had survived attempted murder, and I was the perpetrator. I had to forgive myself. I had to recognize my own resilience. That’s how my healing started. I wrote letters to my parents apologizing for what I put them through. I sent each of them a bouquet of roses.

What is an energy coach?

Energy work is much better experienced than explained, but I can read and see the energy of a person without all the limitations and crap we build up on ourselves. I was always a very emotional kid, empathic, and I saw those as horrible weaknesses. From a young age I was feeling a lot of sadness, depression, from people around me, and I thought it was me. I thought I was depression. I learned to embrace my emotions, go for the ride, enjoy them. Everything is energy, and every issue, block, obstacle someone might experience is rooted in energy. It’s not, “She made me upset, and it’s your fault.” Nope. Everything is energy. Any distortions in my thinking are rooted in energy. There is an energetic charge to a thought or experience in the past that isn’t serving me, and that energy can be released. I can see where it’s rooted and can walk people through it with energy tools, sort of a guided meditation. Reiki, Tai Chi, qigong, and acupuncture are all different styles of energy work that people may be more familiar with. Even chiropractic work and massage are forms of energy work.

You can tackle any issue someone has?

Sure. You can look at anything and see what it is rooted in. Energy work helps cut through the crud we all build up, the limitations we take on as absolute truths. When I read somebody’s energy, I look at and describe their essence, who they really are. Some people have burst into tears. They recognize the truth but have never heard it mirrored back to them. No one’s purpose is to end their life due to emotional pain.

What is the purpose?

I have found the purpose of life is to enjoy it. Follow your bliss, your passion. To love. To laugh. I remember one time when I was first hospitalized and diagnosed with clinical depression. I was told that meant I couldn’t feel positive emotions. But later that same day I was watching “The Simpsons” and laughing. Twenty-four hours before, I wanted to be dead! And every time I entered a psych ward I got a different label, another diagnosis. I decided not to put much stock into that world.

What do you do if those past feelings come up again?

I have energy tools I can use, I have a great support system of friends and family. I probably always had that, but I didn’t take advantage of it in my teens. I confide in lots of people. I live as openly as I possibly can. I still touch base with people who’ve gone through the same training I did, I have someone read my energy weekly, monthly: “Wow, I’m feeling this. I’m triggered by something. I’m feeling this issue again.” For the most part in the last few years, if a suicidal thought comes up, I can laugh it off. It is usually a response to frustration or change I’m resisting. I find when I can laugh at myself, I can see how much I’ve healed.

What have people said about your changes over the years?

People are amazed. Once I was consistently feeling good, enjoying life for years, my own dad would say that I’m going to be diagnosed as manic. He couldn’t get used to me being happy. But after, like, five consecutive years of me feeling good, he has relented on that prediction. Some of my friends are like, I’m finally living who they thought I always was. They always saw the parts of me I had ignored and shunned. People are like, “Yeah, you are finally who I always thought you were.” While others have jokingly said they’re pissed that I’ve changed so much, because they haven’t. But those are friends still looking outside of themselves for answers, still not really getting it that the only thing we can change is ourself.

What more do you need to work on?

Hmm. Well, I would drop the word “need.” One thing used to drive me nuts is, “Oh no, there’s always more!” Now I go, “Sweet! There’s always more!” I just finished a year-long certificate program in positive psychology. There’s so much research that proves these things I found through trial-and-error work. I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal since January 2008. And meditating daily since, like, 2007 or 2006, even. Again, I just raised my awareness. I recognized my own triggers, and soon, instead of a bad moment escalating into a shitty day, a bad moment is a bad moment.

For readers who’d like to make that happen, is there some blueprint?

One of the presentations I give are my “Six Keys to Loving Life.” The first one is choice. I was taught by mental health professionals and family that I didn’t have a choice, or at least that was my perception. But I found that I could indeed control my thoughts and thereby my emotions instead of them controlling me. The time I proved this to myself, I was sitting at home, really down, and I looked out a window and saw a tree, and all I could think was hanging from the tree. I made myself choose a different thought: “What if I went to the movies right now?” That thought didn’t feel as bad. I looked at the tree again and thought of hanging myself and felt my emotions and mood tumble. Then it was, “Oh my god!” I grew up believing I was at the mercy of thoughts and emotions, but I wasn’t! No one is! And being able to choose a different thought in the moment to feel better is available to everyone. We can always reach for a different thought. Something that feels just a little bit better.

Can everybody do this?

Oh, yeah. Everybody can. I have no doubt. Because I’m not special. I thought I was one of the most fucked-up people on the planet. I just wanted out. I learned to absolutely adore life. I can look into the mirror and say, “I love you.” For years, I couldn’t even hold my own gaze in a mirror.

What does your wife think of all this?

Well, she learned a lot about herself. She learned that for a long time, she put her feelings on hold believing that nothing she did or felt could top my wanting to die. When she finally shared that with me, it was heartbreaking. I was used to people saying, “Sit down, you can tell me anything.” Great. When I first met my wife, I gave her the talk. I felt I had to warn her away from me. I was fucked up, I had suicide attempts, I didn’t know if it would come back. She said, “You can tell me anything.” So I did. I thought, “I can tell her anything, and it will have no effect on her.” I took the clinical approach. I didn’t think anyone lost sleep over a session with me, that they wiped the memory banks at the top of the hour. But telling my wife I wanted to die took a toll on her. Now we do speaking engagements together. She can share what it was like living with me, someone who is depressed and even suicidal. Because that person, the caregiver, puts their life on hold. If you’re suicidal, and you’re fortunate enough to be in a relationship, that person puts their life on hold. More so than I ever knew. Lori, my wife, told me she had been afraid to say certain things: “I don’t want Andy to go off.” It’s all because I hated myself. I was looking for an excuse to act on, and she didn’t want to be that. But it was all complete bullshit. The only person I hated was me. But despite all my attempts to make my wife leave me, she never did. I’m very grateful for that.

That’s all over? There’s no residue?

The worst is over. It’s been years. But she still will share some new insight, share something she perhaps would never dare say in my worse days. There were times I tried to convince her to divorce me so I could be alone and end my life. But she didn’t bite. Speaking for myself, I was almost addicted to suicidal thoughts, to that level of drama in my brain. I wanted that rush of that drama. I would try to create it.

Where do you get that kind of rush now?

The better rush is all around. Good god, I think I was in my 30s the first time I saw a sun rise and really found it was beautiful. That’s one thing that bothered me as a kid. People would see things in nature or art and go nuts over them and I’d say, “Oh, pretty.” I never felt that spark. Now I get it. The magic and love are all around. My rush is seeing the full moon last night. Playing with my dog. My rushes are endless.
They were always there, but I was blind to them.

Where do you do your public speaking?

At some support groups for suicide survivors, at local hospitals to doctors and nurses, a couple of engagements for NAMI. That still blows me away, because I actually dropped out of college to avoid a mandatory public speaking class. I used to be a nervous wreck just introducing myself. But it was because I hated myself. I thought I was depression. “Hi, I’m Andy, and I tried to kill myself, how are you?” That was my label. That was who I was.

Some people don’t want a label and just don’t speak about it.

Yeah, there’s a balance. I didn’t want to be labeled as the suicide guy, but it’s an entryway to talk about more. It’s how I began to love myself. I finally grew to see that was just one aspect of me, not all of me.

What have been the responses?

Almost unwavering support. I feel like a freaking magnet to this stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever shared without someone saying they lost someone or made an attempt. I’ve had multiple people say I’m the first person they told that to. I learned the more open I am, the more it benefits everybody. When I made my first video, maybe three years ago, I thought, “Well, if helps just one person …” I got so many emails from people who stumbled upon my videos or blog posts over the last few years and told me that something I said convinced them not to do anything in that moment. That is really when I feel like my own struggles had a point.

You mentioned some not-so-nice responses as well, especially to the video you sent me.

“The best way to die.” I made that because I used to search for that, all the time. I know I’m catching people searching for that answer. Some are angry: “Fuck off.” “You should have tried harder.” I’m happy to take that person’s anger. For at least that moment they’re not directing it at themselves. But at the beginning, when people said, “You suck,” I was like, “Dang. Maybe I shouldn’t do this?” Now, it works. That video has over 9,000 views. And again, that many people are looking for the best way to die. I’ve made videos about loving yourself and focusing on the good, and they might get 100 views. It’s sad.

How much of your life does this issue take up?

Not a lot. Especially in comparison to times when it seemed 100 percent of my time and energy was going into my own demise. I used to keep my story, my suicide prevention work, very separate. I kept the suicide stuff in one box, energy work in one box. Now I’m letting them come together. It’s just to show where I’m coming from, that I’m open with it. I never met anyone who survived a suicide attempt when I was growing up. I never met anyone who had been suicidal and gotten past it. I didn’t know that was a possibility. That’s why I let my story be part of everything I do. One of my goals is to do a national speaking tour. I’d like to talk to more veterans. They have such a horrifically high suicide rate. I don’t have military service, and for years I thought, “Why would they listen to me?” But I met an Army psychologist recently who said if I used to want to die and now I love my life, then I am exactly who veterans need to hear from.  That one conversation opened my eyes. Just last month, I left my corporate job to dedicate myself to speaking and coaching. So it will take more and more time going forward, but in a very good way.

With NAMI, and any other big organizations, how to approach them?

I think they came to me. First thing, I found a local suicide survivor support group. I thought I was a suicide survivor! I thought that term meant someone who had survived an attempt, but I got there and realized that’s not who these people are. I took the host aside and warned them: “I tried to kill myself, should I be here?” That first meeting, they were all women, mostly moms who had lost sons, and they asked me questions like I was their son, and it was amazing. I felt of such service to them. I could see their relief and healing. It was awesome. They liked me enough to welcome me back a few times. Someone involved told NAMI, and they asked me to speak at a state conference. I was scared shitless, because I say, “Throw away the diagnoses,” and they’re not saying that to people. I’m much more into exploring alternatives than just swallowing the hot new pill. But it was very well received. And they asked me back. Based on my experience, they’re open to anything. Anything that helps somebody, they will support.

It’s been hard to find any acknowledgement of suicide attempts or suicidal thinking on the websites of the big organizations, or any resources like support groups and so on.

I think in Massachusetts there’s one group for attempt survivors. I was talking to people, “Why not do it?” It seems to be an insurance thing. If you put a group of at-risk people together, there’s fear. Which I totally understand. Each time I was in a mental hospital, I just learned of more ways to kill myself and often would make plans to do so once we were out. I don’t know if a group would really serve people, either. Because it kind of keeps you in your story. If you just keep rehashing it, I don’t think that helps. It would certainly depend on the individuals involved, if they are eager to change theirs lives vs. people forced into a support group by others. People need to learn a new identity, see themselves as much more than a patient, someone’s who is depressed, flawed. I’d rather go to groups for things I love.

Where would you like to go with everything you’re doing?

My going public began with my wanting to write my autobiography, so people wouldn’t go through this crap or at least I could shorten their learning curve. The response from agents was, “It’s great. So needed. But no one knows who you are, so no one will publish it.” But still, I’ve written a few small e-books this year. An affirmations e-book, because I found them powerful for me. I thought they were stupid for years until I actually tried it. Also an e-book on my experiences with Holotropic Breathwork. It’s so powerfully healing.

What is that?

It’s a group process of deep breathing, with loud, tribal music, just ancient music going up to three hours long. Deep breathing, never a pause, like circular, like ODing on oxygen. You put yourself into an altered state, or a non-ordinary state of consciousness is their preferred term. You’re lying on the floor with others in a room, but you’re also somewhere else. It’s based on the idea that we all have this inner healer, and whatever experience or emotions that need to be released, will. I’ve done it six times, and each one was very different. The first time was just this blissful, awesome state. It was like, I was soaring through the universe and I could see smell and taste colors and see emotions, like an acid trip, but all I did was breathe. And then, I started bawling. Because I’d tried to throw it all away. And that began my mourning. I reached all this grief and fear and anger. It was amazing. That’s why I wrote that book. I’d love see this be brought to high schools and colleges. There are groups doing breathwork all over the world. It was created by well-known psychologist Stanislav Grof. People who lead these go through three years of training. It’s just the ultimate emotional and physical release. You have a partner sitting by your side, giving you water, Kleenex, holding that space for you. You watch the transformations, the emotions cross peoples’ faces. I’ve seen people just get up and do these trippy-ass yoga dances. I said to a woman afterward, “Your dancing is amazing, are you a professional?” She said, “I don’t dance, what are you talking about?”

Do you have any grand goal?

Do you know Wayne Dyer? When I would do meditations, I’d keep picturing him. “Why Wayne Dyer?” I would realize it was me! When I’m older. I see worldwide book and lecture tours. I want to teach people how to love themselves. That’s the point. We’re here to enjoy our lives. I can’t believe how seriously I took everything. It’s just not that serious. We can all exhale. The things we’re all freaking out about don’t matter. Something I read is, if it’s something you won’t worry about in five years, don’t worry about it now.

How to make this a more comfortable topic to talk about?

I don’t know if suicide should ever be a comfortable topic. I think it should be a safe topic, one where the person doesn’t feel judged or shamed. But yeah, thoughts about ending your life are not comfortable. It’s not the natural path. But I do believe that every family member who talks about losing someone, every attempt survivor talking about the transformation they went through, just shines more light on the planet. It helps people realize that’s not the path to go down. But if it were “comfortable,” that almost feels like suicide has become commonplace and accepted, which I do not think would be a good thing at all.

Who else are you?

A lover of life. A man with a plan. I recently left my job, so I’m at the precipice of new opportunities. A few years ago, it was the exact scenario that would have triggered suicidal thoughts. Not knowing what was next for me was terrifying. The end of anything was enough to trigger my old default response. But I’ve learned to embrace change and enjoy the adventure.

Pets, hobbies?

I lost my beloved hound dog, Homer, suddenly in January. That was devastating. So many times, only Homer was with me as I cried. But it was another event that proved how much I’ve changed and grown. I wrote a blog post about all the lessons I learned from Homer, and that morphed into a book that spread his positive heart wider. This summer we were finally ready for another dog, and we got a three-legged rescue dog named Sadie who is just the embodiment of resilience.

As I said, I’m also an actor, I do goofy work as an extra in lots of major movies shot in Massachusetts as well as being the occasional zombie or thug in independent projects. I’m an award-winning short film maker myself. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of traveling, and I’m saving up to go to Antarctica next. Last December, we visited the Galapagos Islands. I’ve been to Easter Island, Stonehenge, Nepal, I’ve tracked gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda … Again, amazing experiences I’ve had. There’s just so much to see. When someone is down and depressed, their whole view of the world is smaller and smaller. And there’s just so much more to do, to see, and to experience. And that’s what we’re here for.

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