Talking with Eric Weaver

I came across Eric Weaver by accident while researching a post for the related site What Happens Now? He comes from the rare, if not unique, background of having been a police officer, a pastor and an attempt survivor. He now runs an organization to train police officers and others about suicidal thinking and other mental health issues.

Here, he recalls his journey, including the response he gave to a police captain when he first wanted to tell his story openly to colleagues. “Eric, what would people say?” the captain asked.

“Captain, that’s the problem,” Eric said. “We’re so concerned what strangers think about us that we’re willing to throw away our families, our careers, our very lives. If people don’t like Eric Weaver by now, they’re not gonna.”

He also talks about the one experience in his life that’s been tougher than suicidal thinking _ and it’s not quite what you would expect.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

Sure. My name is Eric Weaver. I’m a retired sergeant of the Rochester, New York police department. I entered law enforcement after my 20th birthday, and I retired in 2005. I spent 13 years as a sergeant, several years on the SWAT team, several years in internal affairs. My last assignment was commanding officer of the Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team, a group of officers that respond specifically to people with mental illness, suicidal. I actually was the mental health coordinator of the police department.

After 2005, I became a pastor for five years at a large church in upstate New York. I dealt with issues of mental health, mental illness, suicide for quite a while. I now have my own consulting and training group. I train on these issues.

How long has that group been going?

Since 2010.

What exactly do you do?

A lot of keynote speeches, seminars. I’m a national trainer for Mental Health First Aid. I’m an ASIST master instructor. I do a lot of training for law enforcement and a lot of training on issues of mental health, mental illness on the part of officers as well.

How did you come to be talking with me?

People say, “How in the world did you go from a SWAT team to a team for those who are suicidal or have mental illness?” My whole journey has been an amazing one. I was training coordinator for the SWAT team, that was one of my jobs. During that time, my own issues of mental health, depression were so strong, my own feelings of being suicidal were very strong. Nothing specific happened, just all of a sudden things started coming up in life where I felt suicidal. I told my wife one day, “I need to tell you something. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m thinking about killing myself.” She said, “Don’t you need to get help?” I said, “Don’t tell anybody, that would be the worst thing to happen to me.” I went to my primary care doctor, who hooked me up with a psychologist. Then, in the spring of 1996, my suicidality was so severe I knew I needed to be hospitalized. My first time in the psych hospital was in spring 1996. The thoughts of suicide were so intense that I needed hospitalization or I would take my own life. One of the first things to do was call in sick. Like anybody else, I have to call in sick. So people say, “What did you say?” I had said I was working out, and my back went out while doing squats, and I have to be out for a while.

I was in the hospital for a week or so. I was discharged. Then a week or two later, I was still out sick, and I found self barricaded in my house. I locked myself in, banging my head on the toilet, trying to cut head open, anything I could to cause myself physical harm. Thank God I didn’t have my gun with me. As I was yelling and screaming through the bathroom door, my wife at the time called my doctor and said, “This is Mrs. Weaver, I don’t know what to do. This is what he’s saying.” My three daughters went down to the basement playroom. My doctor said, “Go stand by the front door, make sure he doesn’t run out. I’ll call 911.”

You can imagine my reaction as a suicidal SWAT team sergeant when I heard 911 being called on me. I screamed through the bathroom door, “If you bring a deputy, bring 20, because no one is going to take me out of my home!” Which I’d heard before. 911 was called. A lieutenant showed up and knocked on the door: “You gotta come out.” I told him no, not unless my captain advised it. Only if he comes out and orders me out. This lieutenant was standing there. My wife calls the captain, who came right to my house and told me to come out. I said, “Yes sir.” I was taken to my second hospitalization.

My first and second hospitalizations were not at a Rochester hospital, because everyone knows me there. So I went to a smaller hospital farther away in a different county. At one point in time, however, they said to me, “Mr. Weaver, there’s not a lot we can do for you here. We do short-term acute care, but your depression and suicide, that really doesn’t seem to be going away.” So they said, “There’s this great day treatment program in Rochester that we set up for you. Go to support groups, see a doctor.” I realized my depression and thoughts of suicide, nothing was getting better, so I did day treatment.

I did that a couple of weeks, and my suicidality once again got so great that I was hospitalized for the first time in Rochester for about a month. I was doing groups, and I was discharged after about a month. Again I became suicidal, and I was hospitalized again another four, five, six weeks. To make a long story short, in spring-fall 1996 I was hospitalized five times. Each time was anywhere from 10 days to four or five weeks. During that time, they tried a tremendous amount of medication, but nothing worked. My doctor introduced us to ECT. At that point, I was in no position to make a lot of decisions for myself. I was just a mess. We decided as a family to try ECT. There’s a lot of conflicting thoughts about ECT, but to my experience, it was a life-saving experience. The medication started doing what it was supposed to do, and I went back to work.

I was ready to come back to work, and I got approval from my doctor. No one knew other than my captain and the deputy chief, since he reports to his superiors. So when I went back to work, I had hundreds of officers asking about my back.

Oftentimes when I speak about issues of stigma, people think, “Everyone is going to find out. Does that happen sometimes?” Maybe. But other times, that doesn’t happen. Our department has 700 people in it, and nobody knew. I try to make that clear for people who are afraid to get help because someone might find out. Often, that doesn’t happen.

So anyway, I was back to work, doing well, and all was fine until all of sudden my depression came to a head once again in 1998, where I found myself down in the basement of an old public safety building trying to take my life with my handgun. Then I heard water running in the bathroom are near the locker room, so I put my gun in its holster and walked to the bathroom, but no one was there. Take that for what that’s worth. I take it as a divine intervention. I went back upstairs, called my wife and said, “I need to go to the hospital again.” Once again, everyone thought it was a back injury.

I was hospitalized once in 1998. So that was a better year than 1996. When I back to work again in 1998, things started changing a bit. In 2002, my life changed dramatically when an officer completed suicide. An officer I worked with and knew. I knew then and there, when I heard, I knew in my heart that God didn’t save me from all those attempts and hospitalizations to keep it all to myself. I felt really strongly that I should share my story with people. I know a lot of officers were struggling, and I needed to tell my story so others wouldn’t die.

I asked for time on the agenda of the command staff meeting. I asked for about 10 minutes, and I was given a few minutes. I came out with my story and shared with all these captains and commanding officers where I really was in 1996, 1998. That I didn’t have a back injury, but I have a mental illness and suicidal thinking. To one captain, I said, “Please let me put together some kind of training to tell my story and tell officers how to prevent this, and the challenges officers face.” And I had one captain tell me, it was really kind of wild what he said, “Eric, you can’t get up in front of all those cops, 700 officers, and tell them you were in a psych hospital and mentally ill and suicidal.” I said, “Captain, why not?” He looked at me and said, “Eric, what would people say?” And I said, “Captain, that’s the problem. We’re so concerned what strangers think about us that we’re willing to throw away our families, our careers, our very lives. If people don’t like Eric Weaver by now, they’re not gonna.” I said it’s not about me, it’s about them. And so he realized I was on to something.

I started putting together an Emotional Safety and Survival training. I taught the whole police department and quite a lot over the years, 10,000 to 11,000 officers around New York state and parts of the country. Traumatic stress, alcohol abuse, suicide, all that kind of stuff. Stigma, how to recover, how to live life in full.

When I became the commanding officer of the Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team, I spoke out more on mental illness and suicide. It was really kind of neat being in full uniform, with all my medals and badge: “My name is Eric Weaver, I’m a sergeant with a police department and I have a mental illness.” I make sure I include this: My deputy chief at the time, Dr. Cedric Alexander, who is also a clinical psychologist, was incredibly supportive in my telling my story. If not for his support, no way I would be able to speak about a very difficult subject. So he is a huge part of how I came to doing all of this.

In 2005, I was going to retire. I retired because it felt like time to go and move on to another stage, going into pastoral ministry, but the mental illness didn’t go away. I’d been diagnosed with anything from bipolar to major depression to anxiety disorder to OCD to PTSD, I’ve been diagnosed with many different illnesses. PTSD and OCD for the most part. And meds for all of it. In 2005, I was able to start speaking on mental illness and suicide from a faith perspective. Being able to stand up and say, “I’m a pastor with mental illness” was just as striking. It’s not something you talk about very much in the faith setting. To stand up in the pulpit and say it opened doors for others to talk about it.

In 2008, nothing specific happened, but in December 2008, I found myself hospitalized for the seventh time, and suicide and issues came up again. I was hospitalized as a pastor, so certainly there was lots of stigma surrounding that. At least I was able to admit who I was.

I’ve always been in some kind of counseling, where I’m on my way to right now. I’ve been on meds since 1996 or so, including ECT, but my recovery journey is an amazing one. My experiences professionally and personally, my own understanding of mental illness and suicide, has allowed me to speak to lots of people. And allowed me to tell my story. It’s really been a continuing journey.

My thoughts of suicide still occur. It’s part of my life, and I have to accept that it is. My thoughts of suicide happen frequently, sometimes weekly, sometimes daily. I’m able to work with people on my recovery. I look at my mental illness _ and it’s weird to say this _ but as a blessing, because there’s no way I would do what I do, speak to people I speak to, if I didn’t have a mental illness, because I would have no reason to, no understanding. I used to have a very distorted perception of mental illness, my own stigmas of it.

So yeah, I deal with it, mental illness and suicide from a variety of perspectives. Someone who responded to literally hundreds of people who were suicidal, to dealing with them from a faith perspective, from the perspective of a consumer. I probably will be a consumer for the rest of my life, which is OK. And as a parent. I have three daughters, and two have diagnosed mental health issues. It’s a challenge to deal with it with my kids. What do I do? So I learned a lot about family members with mental illness. All my family is incredibly healthy physically, we just struggle with mental stuff. We openly talk about it publicly, to help people understand what goes on.

That’s pretty much it! I told you a lot!

What do all of these people, or many of these people, have in common? What patterns have you seen? You’ve been in a unique place to observe.

It really all depends. Every situation, just like every person, is unique. They may have something in common and things may be handled similarly, but each crisis is a unique experience.

Was there ever a time when you mentioned your own experience when responding as a police officer to someone suicidal?

Yes, I have. On occasion, and only when I felt it was appropriate to do so, I shared a very small portion of my experience with suicidal persons. However, I never wanted to make a situation about me. As a pastor, I shared it quite often in counseling settings, since most people sought me out for counseling because I had the experiences I had.

How easy is it for a police officer to seek help, especially openly? Do you see your speaking and training making a difference on local police?

It’s very difficult for an officer to seek help openly, due to stigma and a perception of weakness. However, there are programs out there such as EAP (Employee Assistance Programs) or OAP (Officer Assistance Programs) where officers can go to get confidential counseling. I hope my speaking out and trainings have made a difference. According to a vast majority of feedback I receive, it has.

You said that before getting ECT, you were in no position to be making decisions. What is the best way to make sure a person’s wishes are respected while in crisis? And from your experience with hundreds of people, are most thinking clearly despite their pain or desperation?

I trusted my doctors and my family to help me make the decisions that I made for ECT treatment, similar to how I would trust them if I was faced with a physical illness. I strongly feel that the consumer should be involved as much as possible with any treatment planning. Remember, I was in the hospital, but I wasn’t in crisis. A person is usually in crisis when they are getting admitted, but once they are there, the crisis period is usually over. And no, I don’t feel that most people who are in crisis are thinking clearly at the time of interaction with law enforcement. Perceptions are very distorted when a person is in crisis, which makes training for police officers on the issues of mental health even more important.

(I ask about a comment from a recent interview in which the person said they feel pressure to not tell audiences if he’s having a bad day.)

I speak very openly, where I’m still on meds and probably will be forever, and it’s still OK, and I have thoughts of suicide often, including today, and I’m very straightforward. I’m working on it, just like anybody should be. I heard similar stories in regards to, “Gee, don’t you want a time when you don’t have to take meds anymore?” Sure, but I’m OK with it not happening. I would tell people it’s kind of disheartening that the only way to “be better” is to not take meds anymore. I wouldn’t tell anyone that struggling with physical illness. But because we struggle with daily life, many of us with long-term persistent mental illness will always just be in recovery. It’s one of those things. In certain times in my life. there’s no way I’d do public speaking because I was in the hospital, a mess. But my level of recovery now, my story is so powerful and you’re willing to talk about struggle, people want to hear that. People fall into that perception, they want to hear you’re all better. But that you’re still getting through it is OK. I’ve never really run into someone telling me not to say something. With all the speaking I’ve done. I’m not sure what I’d tell them. I’m not going to lie!

What about the possibility of a national messaging campaign for attempt survivors, would something like that work?

It’s the kind of thing you want to be cautious about. You don’t want to put people at risk with your story. As we all know, talking about suicide doesn’t make people suicidal. But it could put people at risk if it’s graphic, a lot of details. Every time I speak, I assume there will be suicide survivors in that class, either they lost someone or are attempt survivors. I don’t want to trigger someone with my story. I’m very cautious with speaking about the details. That’s why when I told you the story about the basement, I don’t go into details about what happened. It’s not really necessary. You got the point without me saying what I did. Just to be very cautious. Simply because a lot of people want to tell their story, but be careful to do it in a recovery-focused way.

What can be done to make it easier for people who speak out to find each other?

That’s tough. You have some people who want to tell their story locally, others nationally. Sometimes I run across an article where someone talks about suicide locally that I never heard about before. I think organizations like NAMI, DBSA, have the ability to reach out, make national headway with some things. It would be great to kind of centralize some things, some thoughts and ideas, whether it’s starting on a website or LinkedIn to get people connected. I think it’s a good thing that more people are speaking out, it’s just how to organize.

Why aren’t the organizations jumping in on this?

This is purely my opinion, but I think the topic of suicide is still difficult even for mental health organizations to speak about. We can talk about mental illness, but it’s difficult to speak about suicide. Because no one wants to be the person who puts someone else at risk. The issue of suicide, we don’t want to go there. And I hope that’s changing. I know I’m trying to change it. I think in general, it’s a huge issue. Even though we know 90 percent of people who die with suicide have a mental disorder, they go hand in hand, even to have mental health organizations to speak on it themselves … Suicide is still the s-word that no one wants to talk about. It’s a shame, and an attempt is made every 30 seconds to a minute. There’s attempt survivors everywhere we look. And it’s really time we started speaking about it. Something’s got to change. Something’s got to change. I’m still a small fish in a big pond.

You mentioned responding to hundreds of suicidal people as a police officer. Hundreds?

In 22 years. One of the things an officer responds to is someone who attempts suicide. I’ve responded to way too many calls of completed suicide. I’ve been to countless suicide scenes. It’s one thing we take very seriously. We take people to the hospital, to treatment, that kind of thing.

(I ask about how some people feel traumatized when police respond.)

What happens is, people who … There’s two distorted perceptions. One, on the part of law enforcement. In 20-some years, no one calls 911 to say how good they’re doing. They’re in crisis. Police officers don’t come across the millions of people with mental illness who are doing just fine. They simply come across those in crisis. So often, officers get a very distorted perception of what mental illness is. “They’re always trying to kill themselves.” That’s obviously not accurate.

It’s the exact same thing for consumers. The only time they deal with law enforcement is when they’re in crisis. They get a distorted perception of the police. And so that combination could go really well, but often times it goes bad. Two sets of distorted perceptions about each other, like oil and water sometimes. What we can do is more training. In New York state, officers get just 16 hours of mental health training, at the academy.

Sixty or 16?

Sixteen. Surely that’s not adequate whatsoever. Imagine having a job where you’ve never been trained for 80 percent of your job.

How much?

In my opinion and experience, about 70 to 80 percent of police responses have mental health issues there that the person is dealing with. It may come in as a family trouble, someone stealing bread, whatever, but the mental health issue is there. Simply, the training we have and ought to have will change perceptions. We try to change that perception.

At the same time, I do a lot of speaking to consumers. And I tell them, “When police come to your house, this is what happens.” They have no choice other than to take you to the hospital, that’s for your safety, your family’s safety. If you threaten suicide, by law you’re taken to the hospital. I do training for both police and consumers to form that bridge. To make it more understandable.

Are you the only one out there doing this, talking from this perspective?

I’m the only one I know of that speaks from the perspective of being in both law enforcement and in ministry, as well as being a consumer. Lucky me, I’m the one. But once again, because I do have that unique story, that’s one reason why I speak.

You mentioned having suicidal thoughts today, and you’re going to your counselor now. How do you take care of yourself?

Sometimes we have thoughts that are fleeting, and sometimes where you require hospitalization. Sometimes the thoughts I have come and go, sometimes they’re greater than others, sometimes they’re whatever. The medication I take helps tremendously. I know what life would be without medication, so that’s why I take it. I’m working through trauma I experienced in police work, and in working through it I understand it’s part of my life, and I’ve learned to accept that. And I tell my wife and especially my doctor when I have them. I made a promise to myself.

What more would you like to do in this work?

My ultimate dream from what I do now? I want myself to be in the business of putting myself out of business. Does that make sense? I want to be in the business of making it so mental illness, everyone just understands mental illness, the suicide rate goes down to zero, that people speak openly and honestly to reduce stigma, speak about issues surrounding this. I want to not have to work anymore. I don’t have to go speak. I don’t have to train in suicide prevention, because everyone speaks openly about it. Really, that’s your ultimate goal. So the issues you speak on, everyone already understands. To not have to speak anymore. that would be awesome.

Who else are you?

I’m a husband, I’m a father, a grandfather. A father of three daughters and two stepkids, five grandchildren. I work out every day. My daughters and I have done competitions together. I’ve been a Tough Mudder, if you know what that is. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, Cara. All the SWAT training, in the police department, I’ve never done anything tougher than Tough Mudder. I made the promise, never again. I’ve been married three times. My second marriage was 25 years, and my mental health took a toll on that. It’s difficult. My current wife, a year and a half ago, really got thrown into the pool of mental illness, to understand what it’s all about. I’m 50 years old. If I had one dream, I would wish to be taller. I’m only 5-5 and a half. I’ve done bodybuilding shows, competitions of physical stuff. That’s behind me now that I’m old. So yeah, that’s it! Father, grandfather, husband and just one heck of a nice guy! Well, you can take that ‘heck of a nice guy’ part out if you want … but I am.

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Talking with Nate Cannon

Nate Cannon’s story is multiple stories woven into one. It involves gender identity, suicidal thinking and increasing physical discomfort, along with an incredibly tenacious will. He’s written one memoir and is applying to pursue a master in fine arts so he can work fully on another. His work, both in writing and public speaking, was recognized this year with an invitation to attend the GLAAD Media Awards.

Here, he talks about how these issues have come together _ the first sentence of this interview hints that it hasn’t been easy _ and how he has come to share his story so openly.

Along the way, he talks about striking a balance in public speaking, in being real about life’s difficulties without turning off people who expect a perfect hero. “I don’t want people to be let down to learn that I’m not entirety cured, which is not going to happen to any of us,” he says. “It’s human to struggle. It’s a sign of strength.”

Please introduce yourself. Who are you?

That’s a complicated question. I am a fighter and a survivor. I’m transgender, an author, a public speaker, a recovering addict/alcoholic, and I live with an incurable neurological disorder called dystonia. I developed this condition in large part because of a brain injury I sustained during a suicide attempt when I was 17. Apart from that, I advocate for LGBT and mental health awareness via the organizations GLAAD and NAMI. I’ve also worked with dystonia organizations and do advocacy in a lot of different areas pertaining to neurological illness.

I’m also an avid marathoner. I’ve run the Twin Cities Marathon the past five years. I began running when I got myself sober almost 10 years ago now. I was told by my neurologist when I subsequently developed dystonia that I would probably never be able to run a marathon. I like to prove people wrong, so to be able to finish the race five times in a row has been very rewarding for me.

I have found that the complexities of what I’ve gone through made it difficult to reach a niche audience, if you will, because there are so many facets to my story and who I am. It’s frustrating at times because my goal has been to reach as wide a range of audiences as I can. I present my story in layers to show that mental health and suicidal thinking and actions are very much related to other areas of our lives. Those other areas have a very big influence on how suicidal thinking might be manifest in the actions we might take.

My heart and soul is my first memoir, “Running on a Mind Rewired,” which describes my experience living with mental illness, my battles through chemical dependency and how dystonia has impacted my life and my recovery from these other illnesses.

Describe dystonia a bit for people.

The canned definition is that dystonia is a neurological movement disorder that results in involuntary muscle spasms and contractions often leading to painful movements and postures. What that really means is that the mechanism that makes muscles relax when they are not in use malfunctions. This causes muscle contractions and pulling that can be extremely painful and uncomfortable. It affects my ability to sit in a chair upright, the ability to stand tall. For myself, it developed from a brain injury compounded by chemical dependency. Mine is called secondary dystonia because it comes from outside factors. Because I had brain damage due to a brain injury, the best treatment for me is Botox injections. For primary dystonia, which is a genetic variety, sometimes you’re a candidate for deep brain stimulation. That treatment is not an option for me. I get Botox injections once every 10 to 12 weeks. It’s incredibly expensive and, as my doctor has said, it is not a perfect science. Every round is different. Sometimes I get decent relief from the pain and discomfort, other times not. The injections get billed to insurance at $11,000 each round. But it is imperative that I get these shots. Without them, I would be miserable, unable to run, and all of that would drive my depression deeper.

Dystonia impacts everything from my reaching into a cupboard to get cereal to getting groceries from my car to driving that car. It’s a life-changing condition. I’ve been living with it since 2006, but it has changed and evolved over time. It started in my neck and shoulder and has, over time, spread through my upper body now. I get about 18 shots when I get Botox now. Unfortunately, in the last year or so, I’ve had problems running. It has caused me to start to fall. The condition causes me to lean towards the right, where dystonia pulls me. I don’t know what happens, but it’s always my right foot that catches and I end up falling. So it continues to change, and it’s a scary prospect to think it could continue to evolve to where it affects my entire body.

Accepting the unpredictability of my condition, and accepting that I caused this through my own actions, is an ongoing struggle.

Why did it start in 2006?

I don’t exactly know the answer to that. I was two years sober. I had kind of gotten through what I had thought was the darkest part of my life: the chemical dependency and depression. Early in my sobriety, I got on a treadmill and started running. I then finished college, got a paralegal certificate, got a great job downtown, bought a house with my partner. Everything was going great. All of a sudden one day, I started getting a pain in my shoulder. I couldn’t understand what the pain was. I went to the doctor, who sent me out the door with antidepressants. I knew something bigger was going on. This was not “depression-related pain.” It took me almost three years to get the correct diagnosis. It was just a bad experience trying to find the right diagnosis.

I’m really of the opinion that it was much more complicated to get the right neurological diagnosis because of my psychiatric history. Because of my history of psychiatric issues, the doctors were quicker to say, “See, it’s all in your head.” I knew that was not the case. It took some time and a lot of second opinions and seeking out specialists. Finally I saw an epilepsy specialist after being diagnosed with epilepsy. I mentioned the pain, and she suggested it might be something called dystonia. She asked that I see a movement disorder neurologist. And it was indeed the diagnosis he gave.

How could there be any psychiatric confusion?

Unfortunately, with dystonia, it can happen quite a bit. Dystonia can be caused by some psych meds, particularly antipsychotics. So I think there’s been a lot of opportunity for us as people living with this condition to advocate for differentiation between psychiatric and neurological history. My experience has been that psychiatrists don’t tend to think you can have any neurological symptoms when you have mental illness. They seem to assume it’s all in your head. Likewise, neurologists tend to be more suspicious and cautious with you because you have a psychiatric history.

There is such disbelief when you get a neurological diagnosis. The acceptance process is tough when you get told you will be living with a painful, incurable neurological disorder whose trajectory is unknown for the rest of your life. It’s very scary. I’ve required a lot of reassurance from my providers that this is happening, that this is real. On the flip side, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want a neurological disorder for the rest of my life, and I sometimes find myself telling myself this is all in my head. Well, I know, after five years of treatment, that this is very real. Every specialist has recognized this is very real. But there’s been a lot of disbelief and denial. I’ve wrestled with that.

You mentioned that this came on after you had emerged from your darkest period. How did you come to be talking to me?

I knew from the time I was 17, after my first suicide attempt, that I wanted to write my story. I took public speaking in college as well. My passion was in words, and also in sharing my story with others. After I went through that darkness of chemical dependency, which didn’t help my depression one bit, I emerged thinking I was on top of the world. I decided that I was going to fight this, have the fighter mentality. It impacted me so much, though, that I was not able to continue my paralegal job. I would leave work, if I was able to get through an entire work day, and I would lay on the floor and absolutely cry from the pain I was in. And it was unacceptable to me. At that time, I was female and living as a lesbian with my partner of many years. We decided I should stop working and work on my book. I started working on my book full time in 2009. It was then that a lot of stuff with my gender identity came to the surface.

I’d been confused about my gender identity my whole life. Writing that first memoir, “Running on a Mind Rewired,” was really cathartic. I knew I was in the wrong body at age 5, but once I was about 13 I finally got the message that people around me had been delivering: “You’re a girl, you’re going to wear a dress and go to this recital, and you’re going to like it.” I put that gender identity piece so deep inside that I forgot it. When I came out as a lesbian, I thought that I had figured it out. I like girls! That’s why I was asking my mom for a sex change at age 5! In the course of writing that book, I realized that wasn’t the case. I’d been confusing my gender identity with my sexual orientation for much of my adult life. Suddenly I realized that wow, I’m actually transgender. I had a very difficult time accepting that. After all I’d done to get my life settled, all of a sudden this new thing came to the surface and suddenly I was forced to confront my demons yet again.

The dysphoria that came to the surface … I don’t understand why it’s a mental health diagnosis at this point, and you require that diagnosis to move forward with the transition. Anyway, there was this internal urgency like I felt when I was using drugs: “I need this now. And I need it to happen today.” It felt much like when I was addicted to crack. Nothing was going to stop me from getting what I wanted. The dysphoria peaked when my book came out with my female name on it. My depression worsened into the worst episode I’d ever had. My partner was struggling with my transition to be a man. And this round of depression in 2011 caused me to have suicidal thinking to a degree that I don’t remember anything. I don’t know what led up to the attempt in 2011 that resulted in my going into respiratory failure. She found me unresponsive, not breathing. I then went into a coma. When I came out, she met me in the hospital and broke up with me. She moved out of the house we owned, where I had attempted suicide, before I ever got out of the hospital. It was awful, and I felt very much abandoned.

I had nothing, no job, no money, no safety net whatsoever. It was at that point I really realized this was serious. My first suicide attempt at 17, I had brain injury, and it rewired my brain to set off the dystonia years later. But this second attempt cost me my partner, the one thing I didn’t think I could ever lose. We wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. In retrospect, I can’t imagine the trauma she must have went through, having found me hanging there, not knowing whether I would pull through. That, coupled with her struggles with my gender, must have just been too much for her to take.

Depression and suicide are just as serious as any physical ailment. All of that gender stuff needed to be resolved, though. If I didn’t deal with it, the depression would continue to be there, and I would continue to have suicidal thoughts. I’ve realized now, through my involvement with NAMI and the feedback from people who have read my book, that suicide is considered a taboo topic in our culture. We can’t shove those thoughts down. We need to talk about it.

Talking about my depression with my partner was very uncomfortable for her. She wanted to shove it under the rug. Everything was fine. That doesn’t work. The messages I got from her, and from some of my friends, was “You’ve got to snap out of this,” and that only fed my depression more and made me feel more misunderstood. That isolation prevented me from reaching out to professionals. Maybe if my partner and friends had been more educated on how to help a person with depression or suicidal thinking, maybe I would have been more willing to get the help I needed. And that could have avoided a suicide attempt that almost killed me.

So, in light of all that, I want now to be an advocate for people who’ve had this thinking or lost someone to suicide. I really want to stand up and say, “You know what, this is a part of my life.” And I believe fully that things happen for a reason, and I’m still here for a reason. I’m here to share my story.

One thing that I’ll add is what I mention when I give talks. I believe that our language is faulty when we call it a “successful” suicide or a “failed” attempt. At times my brain, when in the throes of depression, can start thinking that suicide is success and if I don’t succeed at a suicide attempt, then I’m a failure. There’s been a lot of negative thinking in my mind that if you get the job done right, all of this will be over. As a society, I think we need to make it more OK for people to talk about these feelings so that we don’t shove them so far down that when they come out they don’t come out in the form of a suicide attempt.

After all that, what support has helped you?

Interesting question. I had very little support in terms of state or county help, but did manage to get some support for a brief period of time. I cashed in my 401k to get through those first couple months. I applied for job after job. I hadn’t worked in an employment setting since 2009 and applied for close to 120 jobs before I actually got an offer. Then they asked, “You seem overqualified, why do you want this job?” It was a very difficult time. Some members of my family were supportive. Unfortunately, my dad and that side of my family has been extremely unaccepting of my transition. They have had absolutely nothing to do with me since my suicide attempt. The other side has been supportive, and it’s been a little better now that they see I didn’t stop my transition and that it really does fit me.

I advocated for myself, got my feet back on the ground with work, got speaking engagements lined up. I got a place of my own, which was extremely rewarding. And I continued forward with the transition process. That was challenging, again because of my psych history. When you have gender dysphoria, you need a diagnosis of gender identity disorder to get hormones, but if you have other things going on, i.e., depression, the professionals became more like gatekeepers than helpers. They had a lot of concerns. How would testosterone affect my depression or my past with substances? Would surgery affect my dystonia? We didn’t really know. But the initial providers were not so friendly and put up a lot of roadblocks. It was absolute persistence that was able to get me to providers who were there to help me.

By that time, my work was 9 to 5, just a job to have income. I struggled a lot with harassment in the workplace from a variety of sources, from HR at one job to clients with another. I knew what I needed to do. I kept going to work. To make a paycheck. It was almost like I had tunnel vision. And I didn’t care who rejected me. I was in such a state of that mind for about a year that I didn’t really care about much else other than focusing on getting my feet back on the ground and learning to love myself. Work, while challenging because of my dystonia and mental health issues, gave me health insurance. I desperately needed good insurance due to the cost of my care. Of course, the gender reassignment surgery was not covered, though. I decided to take a loan out to proceed with that. I wasn’t going to sit around and wait for insurance companies and our politics in this country to change. Dysphoria had almost killed me. I couldn’t let it control my life any longer, and I knew that in order to make the suicidal thoughts stop _ or at least be less frequent _ I needed to address the gender identity piece and not let anyone or anything else get in the way of my transition. Transgender folk have a disproportionately high rate of suicide. I didn’t want to be another statistic. There’s the phrase, when you get to the end of your rope, hang on tight. I just kept holding on.

What helped you deal with the depression and suicidal thinking?

What I needed at that point was to work on the gender issue and also grieve the loss of my partner. I continue to grieve the loss of her and the life we had together. We were together 10 years. We separated almost two years ago now, but it is still tough. I have to believe someone out there is going to accept me for me and love me for me. As far as depression and suicidal thinking, what helped most was talking with my psychologist. I had started seeing her in 2010. She saw me when the dysphoria surfaced, when it peaked, and she also saw me through the separation with my partner. Being able to check in with her during that time was extra important to me.

Writing was an important thing, too. Words are my heart and soul. I have to be very careful with writing when I have suicidal thoughts, though, so I don’t spin it and all of a sudden I’m writing a suicide note. It’s a delicate balance. I have to work through what I’m feeling, but I also need to try and tap into that part of my brain that wants to live. Not the part that wants to die.

Running is also key. Oddly enough, I went out for a run the morning I attempted suicide in 2011. I went out for a run, five miles, and then tried to kill myself. I didn’t even change my clothes. The endorphins, they were there, but that high wasn’t enough to overpower the depth of my depression anymore. But running gives me a natural high that rivals any drug I’ve ever done. It makes me feel I can conquer the world one step at a time.

How did your psychologist and you get along after the attempt?

I was hospitalized twice in 2011. In February of that year, I told her in a session how dark I was thinking. I went home and went about my day, and all of a sudden, police knocked on my door and took me away. She was so concerned she had them come pick me up. After I got out, I kind of gave her the what-for. I told her, “I’m here to talk to you about this, about what thoughts I have. What I don’t need is the police showing up at my door to take me to the psych ward. If I feel unsafe, I will tell you. I didn’t feel unsafe. I just needed to talk about my suicidal thinking.” At that point we made an agreement, that if I get to that stage of feeling unsafe I will communicate that to her. So I think the fact that I had communicated a lot to her prior to my taking action and attempting suicide in December 2011, even though we had made that verbal agreement that I would not take action, was helpful. She didn’t turn her back on me. She kept in contact with the psychiatrist at the hospital and was more than willing to see me when I got out. In that respect, I’m very grateful.

You’re still able to talk as openly as you like with her?

I think so. I think sometimes I would like to express a little more accurately how dark some of my thinking is. I think sometimes I hold back out of fear she will have me picked up again. I agree to be truthful and follow her recommendations: Go check in, or have two sessions this week, or let’s get you to a support group. But I do think I’m able to convey now, sometimes to my surprise, how dark my thinking can get to her, and I think she knows my getting it out is what I need. Other people have rejected me for speaking about my dark thinking. But if I can just get it out and have someone hear me and not be so frightened, then that makes me feel a little better. I don’t feel so alone. Unlike some people in my life, my psychologist never ran away, and that’s been helpful for me.

How did you decide to be so open about this, and what have been the responses?

With my first attempt, I had a pretty elaborate near-death experience. I was on course to go to college and play collegiate hockey. That near-death experience opened my eyes to the afterlife and what it means to be alive.

It gave me a sense that death may not be the end. And I believe there is a real reason I was kept on this earth. I feel strongly there was some kind of pull calling me to share my story with others. When I did manage to get to college, that’s immediately what I started getting into, doing small talks to drug and alcohol education departments, going to hospitals. I was an active alcoholic at the time and really struggling with my addiction and depression, but I still felt this need to share my story. I trace it back to my near-death experience.

I believe my purpose here in the world is to share my story and help others, whatever that means, whether that means helping a kid learn to ice skate or helping a person with dementia have a more pleasant day, fulfilling my purpose on this earth.

How have been the responses?

It’s just been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been so moving and touching and heartwarming for me when I hear the feedback I get from people, when they approach me after a talk and say, “That was so powerful” or contact me after reading my book and say, “This inspired me not to give up on myself.” That, to me, means everything. There’s no price tag on that. I’ve had a couple of negative responses from people who, primarily, just had not had exposure to people with mental illness or suicidal thinking. Like my former partner, who thinks maybe it’s best not talked about. It goes back to that taboo nature, to how we talk about suicide in our culture.

What have you seen with NAMI as a speaker?

I very much appreciate being involved with NAMI. It’s been a life-changing experience for me. During our training we got the message not to get too detailed about attempts, not to describe the method. That can be a challenge for myself because the brain injury I had was very much tied to the method I chose. Their position was twofold. One, they don’t want to traumatize people in the audience. And two, they don’t want to plant a seed for people who never thought about hanging. I appreciate that. I remember when I was in the psych ward when I was 17. I hadn’t considered hanging as an option until they took my shoelaces, my belt, all these objects that implied hanging, and that seed was planted in my mind.

In my own talks, I talk to all kinds of students, as well as outside audiences, from adolescents to older adults. I have to gear my talks differently to the group I’m speaking to. A group of nursing students might be very interested in how a hanging attempt might result in a brain injury, but that would not be appropriate for a group of middle school kids. It’s all about knowing your audience. I think NAMI’s concerns are, they don’t want to plant seeds or traumatize anyone. I understand.

Can you still get your messages across?

For the most part, yes. Being in places like a coma, having sustained an injury that caused a neurological condition, kind of requires a backstory. But it’s important to communicate that without opening fresh wounds for audience members. I think it’s important, too, when I get into that topic to express empathy in how my story is being conveyed. I don’t want people to be intimidated by all I’ve gone through. It’s my hope to carry a message they can relate to.

What do you mean by “intimidated”?

That, “Wow, that was gruesome.” Like a very graphic horror film on Halloween. It could be a little intimidating for an audience member.

Also, I don’t ever want people to feel sorry for me. Sometimes I hear from people that I’ve been through so much that they can’t imagine how I’ve made it through all I have. I don’t want audience members to be intimidated by the severity of some of my experiences. Everyone’s life is different, and I always try to remember that for as bad as it can get, there is always someone in a worse position. I don’t want audience members to feel like their symptoms are trivial or minor compared to mine. I want to reach them in such a way that will inspire them to get through their own challenges, whatever those challenges may be.

What more needs to be done to make this conversation more open?

In general, I think we need to understand as a society that for a lot of us, suicidal thinking can be very persistent, and just because we’re not in an immediate psychiatric crisis doesn’t mean that the thinking isn’t there. A lot of people think, “Well, you went to work today” or “You just ran a marathon, why are you still thinking about suicide?” Well, I don’t know, but the thoughts are still there. The thinking is still there. I can’t make those thoughts go away, and it can get frustrating at times. Sometimes I think, “Gosh, I’m going to lose another friend if I say again that I feel like a loser or that I want to be dead.” Then I feel I can’t speak my mind. So again, it comes back to making it more OK to talk about how people are feeling. In a public speaking setting, I want to do that without planting a seed in their head. That’s where I think it gets tricky.

There’s a lot of thinking out there that any talk about these issues needs to be wrapped in terms of hope and recovery. What do you think about that?

I have encountered that and have communicated to my psychologist how that creates a struggle for me. Between my book and the talks with NAMI, there’s a lot of emphasis on recovery, hopes, dreams, and I support that, because recovery is possible. However, there have been times when I have felt unable to express how I really feel, whether that be on Twitter or in public speaking engagements, because I don’t want … I don’t want people to be let down to learn that I’m not entirety cured, which is not going to happen to any of us. It’s human to struggle. It’s a sign of strength. My experience has been, people put me up on a pedestal. There’s a happy ending to the book, yes, there’s a powerful ending. But that’s not always going to be the case. And if you’re on a pedestal, it’s easy to be knocked off.

I have shared some of the struggles I continue to have and have lost some fan base: “Oh, that person’s not perfect after all. They’re still having problems.” In the NAMI format or on my own, I certainly don’t want to leave an audience saying, “Well, that’s depressing, he still has suicidal thoughts.” Recovery is a journey, not a destination. And for me, it’s particularly true. I’m on that journey all the time. I sometimes have suicidal thoughts that cause me to retreat from social media and other things. And sometimes I don’t have those thoughts and still retreat. If I’m engulfed by that thinking, then I feel like a hypocrite, sharing this rah-rah story with a happy ending, when it’s a struggle for me to look put together and not disheveled and sad while presenting this story. It’s a very delicate balance, I think. When mental health symptoms are more severe, I need to express that to an audience but also make sure the message gets heard that hope is there. A cure might not be possible, but I can continue to improve. So that’s the message I try to leave the audience with.

You mention that there’s no possibility of a cure or of getting better for good. Where did that idea come from?

Well, as of yet, we don’t have a cure for dystonia. So I have to prepare myself to live with symptoms for the rest of my life. The dystonia itself is due to brain damage, and that too is permanent. Likewise, there is no “cure” for mental illness. It can be managed, and I can hope for better days, but much like with addiction I have to remember that those demons are still there. If I go about life thinking that “I’m all better,” then those demons may be quicker to resurface.

Do you see any parallels between the fight for gay and transgender rights and the emergence of the voices of people who’ve had suicidal thinking?

I think there are a lot of parallels. For a long time, the voices of LGBT folk and folks with suicidal thinking have been silenced by a blanket of stigma. The expectation is that you not talk about it. For the gay community, this was reflected in the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy that our military had in place. That same message, despite not having a name, has been in place for a long time with respect to suicidal thinking. The expectation is to not tell anyone about it, at least not friends or family. This sort of forced secrecy only serves to make one feel isolated and alone. Bringing these voices out of the darkness promotes healthy dialogue. It also promotes change, in both cultural perception and in policy.

What else would you like to do? Another book? A talk show?

Well, if Ellen would like to hand over her talk show, I probably would take it. Heck, I’d settle for being a guest! But seriously, I’m going to be returning for grad school to pursue my master of fine arts in creative writing. That will give me an opportunity to work more on my second book. But since my partner and I separated, I’ve been working two jobs, despite doctors telling me not to work at all. I have had to do it to keep a roof over my head and pay medical bills. It leaves very little time to write, though, and in that sense I feel like life is passing me by because I’m not engaged in the activity that I know I’m here on earth to do. How much longer I can continue working, I don’t know, but I know my heart is in writing and speaking and teaching. So an MFA is in the forefront of my mind. I need to once again make time to write. In an academic setting, you’re not so isolated as a writer. I believe that pursuing my MFA will allow me time to write my second book and also get the credentials I need to teach creative writing, to help others express their own stories.

Who else are you? You have a lot going on.

Boy, that is a really tough question, to be honest. Are you asking in terms of, “I like cats, I like pancakes?”

Sure. Most people actually tell me about dogs.

A lot of people would tell you I am a pancake connoisseur. No butter, lots of syrup. It’s a weakness of mine. So is ice cream. I love ice cream. And cats. I have one cat of my own, and he’s my closest companion.

I guess I like to see myself as a champion of the people. Pretty much everything I do, both for paid work and in the volunteer work I do, in the races I might run, I always feel what I’m here to do is give back to others. By doing so, I’m better able to help myself. If I can reach others, it’s the best gift of all. I’m not a material person fixated on income, the possessions I have. For me, being rich is giving back. In that sense, I consider myself a very wealthy man.

Talking with Ted Spencer

For Veterans Day today, here is our interview with Army veteran Ted Spencer about his experience as part of a pioneering support group for suicide attempt survivors. This is also being posted at the site What Happens Now?

Suicide in the military and among veterans is a huge issue. A growing number of people who’ve survived attempts or suicidal thinking are talking about it openly, as this recent series in The Huffington Post shows so well.

As they do, they’re giving the public a vivid idea of what works _ and doesn’t _ in looking for help. “I just wanted to get my emotions off my chest,” veteran and journalist Thomas James Brennan wrote for The New York Times website this month. After describing how his search for support led to a stay in a psychiatric ward, he added, “I had wasted three days _ three days that convinced me I would never ask for help from someone new ever again.”

Stigma remains around asking for help, as this article for the Huffington Post series points out. “In the military, we value strength, mental toughness, elitism and self-sufficiency, but the culture of mental health is deficiency-oriented and values emotional vulnerability, which contradicts the core identity of many service members and veterans,” writes Craig Bryan with the National Center for Veterans Studies.

Some of you might argue that that core identity goes far beyond the military and applies to any high-achieving, competitive environment.

As Ted says in our interview, a lot of people are watching his support group at the Veterans Administration hospital in Louisville to see how veterans can open up and help each other, and whether the program should be replicated at other VA hospitals around the country. Ted hopes so. “I know this program works, because I lived it, I breathed it, I come out on the other side pretty good,” he says.

He begins here by talking about his experience in the military:

I was 17 when I joined. One night during basic training, I got up to use the restroom, and a guy choked me and raped me. And I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t report it for 31 years. I kept it inside, and it literally ate at me. The other issue was a few months later, at my permanent duty station. I saw a kid get run over by a personnel carrier. I was the first person to get to him. And when it backed over him, his head exploded in my face. People were telling me to get back, but I was playing it strong, trying to act: “I can take this.” Then I looked down and was just covered with … whatever. So that’s my two main stressors. I came from a really, really bad family upbringing, both physical and mental, so I carried a lot around. That’s just the baseline story. So I can go on about how I got into the group.

I injured my back at work, and they wouldn’t pay me worker’s comp. I was really depressed. I finally got nerve enough to go to my sister’s, and she called the VA and said I needed to be seen right now. Which, I give the Louisville VA credit, they got me in immediately to talk to someone. During that conversation, it was the first time I told anybody about the rape. That led me into a couple different therapies. The great thing the Louisville VA does, if you do have an attempt, they come to the psych ward and initiate the procedure to get you involved in their suicide prevention group. That’s how I was introduced to the group.

And, on the record, it’s a magical thing that happens in that group. My first day, everybody wanted to let me know they’d all been through the same kind of thing, they all had suicide attempts, and how much they cared about me living. It just, the way they run the group, they pretty much put it in our hands, and that made it so real to me. And the likelihood of suicide for me started dropping at that moment. I knew people cared about me. And I started caring about them after hearing their stories. I’ve been in the group since then. If every VA across the country adopted a program like this, it would be a great thing. They’re on to something. The worry was, if you get a bunch of suicidal people together, they’ll compare ways to kill themselves. But it’s so to the other extreme. We get in and talk about issues happening now that are making us suicidal or might lead up to thinking about suicide, and we try to help whoever has the main issue of the day. They get the most attention. I could keep going on how wonderful it is. It led to me volunteering as a helper for suicide prevention. That led to the peer support training. I got that, got certified in that. We went out to Fort Knox a couple times, told our stories. They seemed really to accept it, to not look at us like, “Stigma.” Yeah, I attempted, or I thought about it. In that group, the stigma is completely gone, because everyone has either thought about or attempted to kill themselves. It forms a bond, it really does.

How does the group go? Walk me through it.

It’s once a week, Tuesdays at 1:30 til 2:30. You pretty much walk in and sit down, and they pass a piece of paper around, and you put your name and Social Security number on it. Once everybody is signed in, the group starts. Barb or Lori, usually Barb, asks us to introduce ourselves. A typical intro is, “My name is Ted Spencer, I’m an Army veteran, and I’m here because I attempted suicide.” You say how you’re doing that day. And Barb asks, she has a blue chip and a white chip, she asks me if I want some time, which is a blue chip. If I say no, and someone picks up on something they seen in me, they get me a white chip, which means they’re concerned and want to know a bit more. That works out because you eliminate a lot of losing time talking to get right to the point of who needs time today. And once you get the blue chips, they tell what they got on their mind willingly. And then when there’s white chips, once that person is picked and starts telling what’s going on, people can raise their hand, give advice, you know, just try to help. And we go through each person until we’re finished, and the group ends.

Is an hour enough time?

We have a half-hour cushion time before we have to get out of the room. Quite often we go over, as a matter of fact. I wish they would go ahead and make it an hour and half, myself.

How many people come?

It varies from week to week. I’d say 10 to 12, sometimes less.

Are there any guidelines?

It’s open. They do have some rules. One person speaks at a time. You can raise your hand if you want to make input. They ask if you have a cellphone, turn it to vibrate. If you get a call, take it outside the room. Third and most important, what’s said in the group stays in the group.

If we get into a situation where we’re getting way off course, Barb or Lori steps in and says, “Let’s change the subject, bring it back.” So they do keep control over that aspect. If anybody comes to the group and is noticeably on drugs or alcohol, they ask them to step out and consult them outside the room. Which we’ve had happen.

Is there room for feedback?

Once the group starts, they pretty much turn it over to us. One of the first things they told me was, “This is you all’s group, we’re just here to kind of keep it on track.” They try to let us resolve stuff among ourselves as much as possible. They do have input, too. They raise their hands and can give thoughts on a subject.

Lori and Barb are …?

Lori has a doctorate. Barb’s an LCSW. She was married to a military man in earlier years.

I got comfortable with Barb in particular because she’s the one who come to see me in the psych ward. She mentioned the suicide prevention group, and I think they require you to come to a certain number of groups after you get out. I chose to stay, and it was the best move I ever made in my life. It saved my life.

What have you learned?

I do a lot of mindfulness. That was real key in the breakthrough for me. See, I also see a separate therapist, and her and I do a lot of work. I’m not bragging, but I’ve done a lot of work to get where I am in my recovery. One of the main things I use to work for me is what they call mindfulness. I try to stay as grounded as I can in the moment. If I start drifting, thinking about this stuff, I go into a relaxed state and think of something else. If the thought comes to me, put it on a leaf and let it go downstream. It’s probably the biggest breakthrough for me.

The other thing, you start getting to know these people in the group, and you don’t want to let them down. You don’t want to cause them the pain of hearing you committed suicide. You’re so intertwined in that group so thick that I guarantee you that we think about others in the group, the promises we made to them, and to families and therapists and counselors. It got so that I made so many promises, and I’m so thickheaded that once I made my promises … I would have the thoughts, I would want to act on them, but I couldn’t. Before I got over the hump, I would say I was stuck. I really didn’t want to live, but I really didn’t want to let all these people down. It was tough going. You just keep going to your therapy sessions, going to your groups, get as much out of them as possible and think of ways to live.

Do they encourage you to know each other outside the group?

They pass a piece of paper, and if you want to give your name and number and a time of day that they can call, you and everybody gets a copy of that. I got all of them in my phone, so if I do start to feel bad or think bad, I’ll pick up the phone and call one of them. They leave that up to us. They’re not involved. It was actually a group member’s idea.

You’ve called, and people call you?

Both.

Are you guys the big test for other VAs across the country?

Honestly, I think the Louisville VA is the first to have such a group. I could be wrong. That’s why I’m so passionate about getting the word out. I hope others start this at other VAs. I know this program works, because I lived it, I breathed it, I come out on the other side pretty good. I still have my problems, but I’m not … I was so bad that suicide was the answer. I woke up mad that I didn’t die when I overdosed.

Would you have talked about your feelings before your attempt?

No.

Why not?

I didn’t want to live. I didn’t want help. I didn’t see help as a possibility.

What about crisis lines, therapists, etc.?

I didn’t know they existed until I got into the group. One of the things I do now as a volunteer is spread that stuff. We take it out to Fort Knox and pass out cards. We got a group of guys to go to VFW posts, anywhere we can think of. They’re very proactive.

Is it s tough sell?

If you’re working with veterans, they usually take the card. Occasionally, you give a card and you know they need that card at that time. Some of them even cry. You check, make sure they’re safe right now, try to stick with them until they make the call. If things are bad enough, you stay with them until they get help. Or take them to get help.

How was your peer training?

It gave me insight into ways to ask questions. And how not to ask questions. Plus, once you go through this process, wherever you come out in recovery, you know, there’s always people in different stages of their recovery. Now I can look back and identify those stages. We just kind of tell them, “You made a great move coming here, please come back,” encouraging them to come back and be a part of the group and be accepted and find some help, because it’s out there.

Who else are you?

I’m 54. I have three children. Two are mine, one is a stepchild I raised since he was 2. My son, Gary, is 30, and my daughter, Danielle, is 22. I’ve had four back surgeries, so I’m really limited to what I do physically. I bought me a nice camera, I have a Canon p4i, I’m kind of into photography, piddling around, not professional by any means.

I still do a lot of isolation, and I don’t know what I have to do to get over that. I don’t really go places unless I really need to, or someone wants me to. Short of going to the hospital, I’m in my apartment. I’m not real comfortable in public. I have a lot of anger issues, relating to the rape, mostly. I’ve had to deal with that part of my life. One of my ways to attempt to commit suicide was to go into bars and pick a fight and hope someone would draw a knife or gun and have someone do it for me. But no one ever pulled a gun or knife. I’ve been in more fights than I can remember.

I have a Yorkie I got when I moved into this apartment and first got my benefits. He’s my baby, spoiled rotten. My ex-wife comes over occasionally, and we get along great. I told her about the rape, and she understands better how I did things, treated her. It wasn’t right, I know, but I had a lot of anger and took it out on her. Now she sees I’m really trying to save my life. She wants to be a bigger part of my life, which is great. We get along great. She’s the one who makes me get out of the house when I isolate too much. I have a poor relationship with my son. Jeremy, my stepson, we had problems all along because of overbearing grandparents, I might say. When I married her and took him on, they never acted like I was his father. It just caused problems in his life and mine. He’s a recovering heroin addict. He’s clean right now. My daughter I hardly ever see unless she needs money. She doesn’t call anymore, or text. That’s about it.

Some of the closest people to you are group members.

Yeah. I don’t hang out with old friends anymore. My main socialization is at the VA hospital. It’s where I see people, interact by far the most. And that’s helped along with the recovery, trying to help other people. You become so passionate about this subject, you don’t want to see another person kill themselves. It makes it real easy to volunteer.

Has the group ever lost anyone?

We lost one, and she was there a little bit before I came. I met her through a different organization. Her name was Katie. Everybody took it hard. It was an eye-opener how a suicide does affect people in the group. I saw them just break down when they talked about Katie. They broke down completely.

How did you help each other through it?

There were a lot of phone calls back and forth. We talked about it that day, and the ones who took it the hardest, Barb and Lori worked with them individually. They made sure everyone was OK and safe, at least giving their word they’d be safe before they ended the group that day. “Is everybody going to be OK?”

What more do you need? And what more do you need to work on?

Myself personally? I need  to work on isolating, and I need to work on guilt associated with the rape. I always say to myself, “There should have been something I could have done to prevent it,” but in reality, there wasn’t. But that doesn’t take the shame and guilt away. And then, one of the big problems when Brian died, it happened so close to me, I had two choices. It happened in split seconds. I could have grabbed him and pulled him away from the tracks and got his limbs run over, or I could have run and got the driver to stop. Yeah, he might have lost his legs, but I could have saved his life. And the nightmares. I suffer from recurring nightmares from both subjects.

And you can talk about all of this with the group?

I’ve discussed all of this with the group.

Do you feel like you’re finding your way out of something?

That’s what I’m hoping. To hold something like that 31 years and bring it out … You know, I’m not ashamed of it. I’m ashamed it happened, but I’m not ashamed to tell the story, because I’m sure there’s a lot more like me but who don’t have the courage to tell it happened.

Are you public speaking?

I’m not personally. I have been to Fort Knox and told stories to, I believe it was, 3,600 troops. They were split in two groups. We had two groups telling our stories. Then we flip-flopped.

How was that for you?

You know, if I’m working on this subject, it’s like I have beacons on. I focus on what I’m doing at the time. I had a rough time telling my story. It was the first time I told it in public, but I got it out. My whole thing was, don’t wait 31 years. Don’t let your life slip away 31 years. Get help immediately. And I even said, “You know, with whatever you’re going through, it doesn’t have to be a rape or seeing somebody run over. Just don’t wait 31 years to get help.” See, both of these events happened when I was 17 years old. I joined the military 23 days after I turned 17. Both events happened in six months. When Brian got run over, they didn’t even offer us any help. They all knew him. It was my second day in my permanent duty station.

I was going to ask if the military has changed in those 31 years.

Yes, night and day. I got out in ’79. I started going to the VA in ’79. And what it was like then to now, you couldn’t even imagine it. They had one primary care area for the whole hospital, and you literally could go at 8 in the morning and sit until 4 in the afternoon before being seen. It’s so much more professional nowadays.

How did the Louisville VA get chosen for the group project?

From what I understand, it’s the first one started. Barb had worked in the civilian sector, in Kentucky suicide prevention. I think she probably brought a lot of that with her. But I’m really not sure. I guess as the group evolved, and they saw the outcome, they started saying, “Hey, this really works!” I think it’s just now getting out there. A lot of people are looking at the Louisville VA suicide prevention group right now.

Is there anything you’d change about it?

Nope. Nope. Wouldn’t change a thing.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think I said it all. Right now, I’m safe. And right now, it means a lot to the group. It means in the group that you’re not going to hurt yourself. I’m still a work in progress. I still have the thoughts, still have the nightmares.

But you do know how to talk about it.

I do. And I’m not afraid to talk about it anymore. Here’s the thing. When we get there, we think we’re the first to ever go through this, and then you go in and hear stories that are so similar to yours. It sinks in: “Hey, you aren’t the only one.”

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.

Talking with Taryn Aiken

I came across Taryn Aiken in a news story about her and her public speaking partner, 16-year-old Tanner Kirk. Tanner is physically limited by an attempt of his own a few years ago, and in the past year he lost his brother to suicide. Taryn has been surprised by what some people have told him: “Because you talked about it, glorified it, maybe that’s why it happened.”

Both of them disagree. They are passionate volunteers for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Taryn says she welcomes the uncomfortable conversation; “Otherwise, how to make it comfortable for others to come forward?” Over time, she became known as “the one who talks about suicide.”

As for the concern among some in the suicide prevention world that talking about being suicidal will somehow normalize it, Taryn is typically brisk: “It is a norm in that it happens every 13 minutes. To our loved ones. In our communities.”

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Taryn Aiken. I’m 37-year-old single mother, with an 18-year-old son, Colin, and a daughter, Caitlin, 12, who will be 13 next month. I live in Utah, grew up here, born and raised. I got into what I currently do with AFSP kind of for a couple of reasons. I found them after my own father died by suicide. I found myself really lost, trying to cope online, and of course I Googled, because that’s what we do. And back then, when you Googled “suicide” it brought up resource information, while now it’s a bit scarier. But this was 11 years ago.

The first resource mentioned was AFSP, so I jumped in and looked through the website. I learned a lot of risk factors and warning signs that we could have looked for, and that drew me in because I identified with a lot of them, not only with my dad, but with my own life. When he died, it was his third attempt. So we knew there were struggles. I remember when I found him, I found it almost to be a bittersweet moment. As a teen, I had struggled with depression and sex abuse and had attempted many times as a young girl, and my dad found me after pretty serious attempts. So it was hard but also comforting, and I was grateful it was me who found him. Not the police, not my siblings. I knew it was something where I had experience, so I was better equipped to handle it than maybe they had been.

And how did you get to the point of being so involved with AFSP?

The website talked a lot about prevention, signs to look for, where you could get help. Also, it focused a lot on survivors, people who lost a loved one, not necessarily someone who had survived an attempt. I had felt very alone, isolated in grief. There was a lot of stigma. My dad’s own family didn’t want to admit how he died. So for me to find a group to talk about it was helpful. Then I wanted to get involved, to help families not to have to go through it at all. How to help loved ones. They always say hindsight’s 20-20. And my dad had made threats, comments. Maybe if we had looked harder … Maybe not.

I became impassioned to become a part of it. I found out they had local chapters across the U.S., run by volunteers, that did fundraising. The chapters distributed resources, provided info at the local level. I started doing fundraisers. Then, part of the charter to become a chapter is to do an Out of the Darkness walk, so I got involved in creating that. We held the first one in Utah in 2007. And from there, this will be our sixth year this year that we’ve done the walk. Just to see the growth in our state is tremendous. It’s gone from no one talking about suicide to last year’s walk having 1,500 walkers who raised $60,000. A lot more are talking about it now, families, those who’ve survived it. It’s an awesome organization to be a part of. I hope one day it can be my job. I still work, do volunteering, but it would be nice to have some way to have suicide prevention be my job.

I started college this year to get a social work degree, just to be able to work with kids, teens. To help.

Do you have a dream of what you’d like to do?

I think just now, just working at the school level. Kids, in my opinion, they’re not being taught coping skills, how to deal when it gets hard. There are a lot of reasons why people complete. There are life’s stressors, but mental illness is still an underlying factor. I think we see so much teen suicide because they’re unable to cope. They’re so inundated with technology that they spend all their time there, with no human interaction. So I see a need in my own state for more mental health wellness in the school system. We have PE, but we need a focus on mental health as well. In our school system, there’s only one social worker in the entire district. Well, one person can’t take care of 80,000 kids. So there’s a need for that.

Definitely, I enjoy AFSP’s role in getting out to schools. Tanner comes with me and shares his story, how he survives, his desire to keep going. And watching the way kids react to him is so powerful. It makes them think differently about suicide. What if you attempt and don’t succeed? He can’t speak on his own, walk on his own. He thought he was ending it all, and now he has a different life. Now he’s focused on what he can do to save others.

Talk a little about his story.

At age 13, he hung himself. He doesn’t remember a good month before, or a few weeks after, because of his injuries. He was found by his brother and life-flighted to the hospital. He came out of a coma after weeks. He has complete normal brain function, but his muscles are very tight, and that’s what prevents him from talking and walking. He spends hours a day in physical therapy. He doesn’t remember what his attempt was over. Apparently, he and his mom got in a fight over missing zit cream. Maybe that set him off, we don’t know. We know kids don’t have the logic. I remember at that age, my parents divorced, and I didn’t see any way past that, to get better. Maybe he had a history of mental illness in his family. He had lost family members to suicide.

I met him through the support group, Heart and Soul, and when I was inquiring who could speak at one of our walks, he was brought to my attention. He spoke, and I just fell in love with him. I just think it’s inspiring. I really enjoyed getting to know him. Then, unfortunately, in February his youngest brother hung himself and did not survive. It was devastating for all of them. But here again is a family with a history of suicide. It can still happen even though you’re aware and educated.

How did both of you respond?

In the beginning, it was just hard. Speaking for myself, I wondered, “Did we make this happen because we’re talking about it so much?” I don’t know if Tanner was thinking the same thing. I know he has had people say, “Because you talked about it, glorified it, maybe that’s why it happened.” I can’t spend my time, energy on that. We’re still going to talk about it, inform the public, educate. If not, we’re going to lose people with this illness. I know in the beginning, Tanner entertained thoughts of stopping, but then it ignited again his passion.

How long did it take to start speaking publicly again?

We’ve done several speaking engagements in the last few months. He needed a couple of months to grieve, of course. They miss him every day. They honor him, Ethan, share his story too. Nobody understood, maybe, how the world was for Ethan because they didn’t live in his shoes. The bullying of kids at that age. I’m sure there were a lot of factors. But it’s been awesome to see Tanner continue to share. His family has experienced this so many times, I know it is a passion for them.

You mentioned this is volunteer work. How much time do you put into this?

I spend hours a day doing this, organizing different events. I’ve done speaking engagements once a week, regularly. It’s something we spend a lot of time on. I’d love to see this as something Tanner does as his job, and be compensated. I’d love to see something come out of this to sustain him for his life, provide income for himself. I think his story is one that needs to be shared. We’ll also do volunteering as long as we have to. It’s important to him, and that’s how I feel. It’s the only thing that eases the pain of losing my dad.

How old is Tanner?

16.

How do you keep yourself healthy and protected?

Believe me, it’s a huge issue. I’m a recovering addict as well. I’ve had bouts where I get back into using. You take on a lot of people’s energy because they want to talk about the experience. And I’m not a therapist, but that’s part of the reason why I decided to go to school, to learn to separate those things. I still see a therapist myself, and I’m in a program of recovery, and tomorrow I celebrate for the first time being sober for 60 days, in a long time.

How did you decide to speak publicly?

I was tired of the show. I came out very early on and talked about my dad. I think he died because he couldn’t be vocal, he worried about what others might say. I thought, “To hell with that. This is the truth. This is what happened.” He did not have to be defined by suicide. He lived for 50 years. Because that’s how he chose to end it, that’s how we define his life?

A lot of us need to come to ownership of our lives. We do things that are not always right, that get us in trouble, but being quiet about those things keeps us stuck in that shame. Being able to say, “I’ve done this, I’ve done that,” frees us to move on from it. I want the uncomfortable conversation. I think the more that the brave of us say it, the more others will reach out instead of hide and be afraid of what people might think. I’m loud and proud. Otherwise, how to make it comfortable for others to come forward?

How did you start?

I think mostly at our walks. My name started to get out there in the media: “Oh, you’re the one who talks about suicide.” Our chapter was very instrumental in getting legislation requiring teachers to have two hours of suicide prevention training. It was an online video that AFSP produced called “More Than Sad.” But they had to fulfill another hour of training. We were listed as a resource for that other hour, so we had schools reaching out to me. We shared statistics, partnered with local health departments, to get stats and let them know what was going on locally. So that’s how it kind of started.

How have responses changed over the years?

It’s been huge. You kind of can tell the teachers who are excited to learn and the others who say, “I don’t need to worry about that.” I think if they’ve experienced it, they understand the importance of it. It’s heartbreaking that it takes a life lost. At the same time, conversations have been started. There’s still the stigma, the shame, the crap you deal with with ignorant people. But I feel our community’s more open to it than ever before.

How to make it easier to discuss this topic? I don’t mean speeches, but among ourselves?

Look at the ’60s, when sex wasn’t talked about. The more the conversation happens, the more comfortable it is. I think, too, the more we have understanding and compassion about people with mental illness, the same thing will happen. The same changing of mindset from, “Oh, they’re crazy.” No, my mind can get sick the way my lungs can get sick. It’s not, “Oh, you did it to yourself.” Addiction, eating disorders, these are forms of mental illness. So many factors play into it. The more the conversation happens, the more normal it become, not a taboo topic.

Some people in the suicide prevention world worry that attempt survivors speaking publicly will somehow “normalize” it. What do you think?

I can appreciate where they’re coming from, but it’s happening. So if you ignore it, you only perpetuate it. It needs to be addressed. It is a norm in that it happens every 13 minutes. To our loved ones. In our communities.

What do you think about media portrayals?

I think the media has a responsibility, like anything else, a responsibility in reporting of things. The news station here had an awesome 45-minute, commercial-free special on suicide, talking to parents, teens, kids, adults. It’s so hidden that people don’t know its going on around them. See KSL 5, “Breaking the Silence.” It was just awesome. We didn’t spearhead it. They came to us. They took it upon themselves.

What should change in the mental health system?

We need more access to good mental health care. People are going to family doctors for mental health. Not that they’re not great, but they’re great for a cold. They give recommendations based on what drug reps say.

And coverage for mental health care. A lot of people don’t have insurance or mental health coverage. Access to care is huge. Unfortunately, most people who experience suicidal thoughts get turned away if they don’t have coverage. Unless you go in actively threatening, you are told, “Nope, we can’t take you.” Access needs to be improved. I tell people all the time to straight-up lie, tell the ER you have a plan. At least if we can get them somewhere safe. A lot of mental health facilities here do a 24-hour assessment. For most people who are actively suicidal, if you can get them past that moment, you have a chance.

What would you do if your own feelings came back?

I would know what to do, where to go. I would know it’s a moment and can get past it. I also know that like any other illness, I have to take an active role. I can’t expect things to get better by themselves. I need to become educated, be willing to do the treatment. Unfortunately, until they come up with tests, “OK, this is what you need to treat this,” it is a lot of trial and error, and it can be frustrating to people. They have to try several options before finding what works for them. It’s just exercising that patience and being willing to fight.

I get lots of requests from family and friends of attempt survivors about what they should do and say. Any advice?

I think the best resource is to get in touch with NAMI. It has support groups for families. Like Al-anon, they have help for families of people who have the disease. They don’t always have the right answers, but they can refer to people who do. That’s why I love the Lifeline; 24/7, I can call and talk through it. Even that 5-minute window of “I want to be done, end my life,” you can reach out to someone. You don’t know the power it can have.

You briefly mentioned your experiences. Are you comfortable talking about them?

My very first attempt was when I was 12. And I ODed and was found by my father. And I know 100 percent why. I had been sexually abused as a kid by my parents’ friend. When I came forth and told my family, I was told to forget about it, forget it ever happened. Well, you try forgetting. I was taught at an early age that I don’t have a voice, that when bad things happen I didn’t matter. No one cared enough to stop it.

And so then when my parents decided to divorce, I thought, “This is awful, I don’t want to go on.” I was stuck living with someone I didn’t want to live with. My dad was leaving. How to function? I just didn’t see any hope. That was my first attempt. It landed me in a hospital for three weeks, where I was able to process and explain and talk about sexual abuse and have people who did listen. But over the course of my life, I was raped again as a 15-year-old, and it put me right back into that same thinking. No one wanted to hear about it. I’m victimized, abused, no one gives a shit. So I attempted at 15.

I was a cutter a lot of my life. It wasn’t about attempting. People would see the marks: “Oh, you’re trying to kill yourself. No it was about getting out the pain. No one listened to me talk, so maybe if they see it … After that, I started seeing a counselor, and it’s a counselor I see to this day. You know what, my family will not always have my back, but there are others I can go to, that I do have a voice. And sometimes it won’t always be the people who are supposed to love me. And that’s what saved me. Having that support, even though they’re not the people I wanted it to be. People still cared. (Crying.) I’m sorry, I don’t know where that came from.

Who else are you?

I think the thing people should know is that everything in my life, everything I went through, you know … I am what I choose to become, not what happened to me. I get to have that final say, to have that final power. I’ve let so many people have power over me. I can choose at any moment what I let those things be. And I chose to be someone who looks on the bright side, who looks for hope for others. I spent plenty of time doing the bad. I can choose what I create in that next moment, even when it’s shitty.

And what else is part of your identity?

My identity is this. It’s what I do, how I spend my time. I love to spend time outside. My gosh, if I could be paid to be a Hawaiian Tropic swim model, I would love it. I need that vitamin D. I’m one who enjoys being out in nature. I just want to help people. It’s where I’m at. It’s what I do.

Talking with Steve Harrington

Steve Harrington didn’t decide to come out about his depression. The local newspaper did it for him.

“I was living in a small community at the time I went to the psych unit, and it was actually on the front page of the newspaper,” he says. “It was, you know, ‘Local resident Steve Harrington has checked in with major depression to the psych hospital.’ How they found out and why that was a newsworthy subject is beyond my comprehension.”

In his 40s, with a law degree, he found himself diagnosed not only with depression but with schizophrenia. He was told he’d never accomplish anything again. After a few years of sitting at home and crying, he eventually worked his way back into life, started working with policy makers on national mental issues and now leads a peer support association. His psychiatrist once told him, “You’ll never live a normal life.” “And I say thank god, because I live an extraordinary life,” Steve says.

Here, he talks about how to be taken seriously after coming out, the need for more funding for peer-run support services, and the thinking behind his declaration that “Some of the most stigmatizing initiatives I’ve seen are anti-stigma initiatives.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m Steve Harrington. These days, I’m the executive director of the International Association of Peer Supporters. That’s what I do most of my time. I also do a lot of training on recovery issues. Very often it’s for peer supporters, but I also do presentations for physicians, psychiatrists at universities. Oh gosh, I do a lot of keynotes at conferences of all sorts. Let’s see, I’ve been to Europe three times do to those, Australia, so … Oh, academically, if it matters _ I don’t think it matters, but to some it does _ I have a law degree, but I didn’t practice too much law. And I finished a post-doc fellowship last year at Boston University at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. I did teaching and research there for two years. Gosh, I don’t know, I think that’s probably the most important stuff.

How did you come to be talking to me?

OK, well, basically, I will try to keep it short but relevant. Basically, gosh, how many years ago was it? I don’t know, it seems like a lifetime ago. Like in 1995, due to the loss of a close family friend, I went into a serious major depression and had a lot of psychotic features. I had hallucinations, visual and auditory, and I ended up in a psychiatric unit. And what happened there was, I was in northern Michigan, and it was a psych unit at a hospital. And I was there for about three days, and I wasn’t feeling any better. They were giving me meds, but I was not feeling better. So I decided if I was going to get better, I would have to do it myself.

I had experience before I got sick, I had worked for a consulting firm where I did a lot of strategic planning for large corporations and state governments and that kind of thing. I thought, “Well, my head is sort of an organization. I can do strategic planning of my own.” I went to the nurses’ desk and asked for some chart paper and a marker. Those are the tools of the strategic planner. I shared a room with another person, and I started doing my own strategic planning, what I wanted out of life. I had a mission statement, a vision statement, value statement. I did what is called a SWOT analysis. So I came up with a number of goals, very comprehensive. And what happened was, my goals were like, I wanted to get my house back, since I lost that as part of the illness.

Also at this time, they diagnosed me with not only depression but schizophrenia. In my 40s I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which was pretty unusual. But I was thinking back to when I was 18, 20 years old and was having hallucinations and thought everybody did. But I learned how to cope with them. And then when I experienced depression, I lost my coping skills, and that’s why the hallucinations became more obvious. Anyways, getting back to my goals, I wanted to get a job again, a car again. I wanted to write another book. I had written a few. I wanted to get another graduate degree, in public administration. And I had those kinds of things. You know, kind of regaining my life back. And I wrote all these things down, filled up my room, and I had papers all over the room, and I ran out of room on the walls, all over my bed, on my roommates’ bed. And the whole time I wasn’t feeling depressed, for the first time in months. These three hours of planning.

And my roommate came in and was a little disturbed. He called my doctor, and he came down, and I said, “This is how I’m going to get better. This is my plan to get better.” He didn’t say a word, just looked around the room and left. He went to the nurses’ station, and a few minutes later they had two, what they call mental health technicians, who ushered me into a stark padded room that was locked and took my clothes. So I ended up in this room, and after it took me about two days to get the attention of a nurse _ they were just giving me meds through a slot in a door _ I asked, “What am I doing here? Just when I was feeling good, why am I in here?” She said, “We saw your papers. You really believe you can do all those things? Get a house, a car, reclaim life?” I said, “Yeah. Of course.” She said, “Well, you’re delusional. And if you believe that, we don’t know what you’ll do.” So I was in the room for my own safety.

So a couple of days after that, I was released. I was talking with my  doctor. He sat me down and said, “Let me tell you what your life is going to be like.” He said, “You’ll never have your own house. You’ll probably end up living in a group home. You’ll never work again, you’ll never write a book again, you’ll never get that degree you wanted.” He said, “You’ll never live a normal life. Face it, you have a mental illness.” He said I’d be in and out of psych units all my  life, two or three times a year, taking meds, having suicide attacks. Anyway, a pretty bleak picture.

So when I was released from the hospital, I had virtually no hope, because I thought this guy knows what he’s talking about, right? He’s a doctor, he deals with these things all the time. I had no hope, and I went back to my parents’ home. And because I had no hope, I created a plan where I would take my own life. It seemed like the only reasonable option. So I wrote a note: Who will take care of my son, raise him, you know, doing the planning for my own demise. And I had half a pill bottle of painkillers, and I took those with beer, and I thought, “Well, that’s gonna do it.” I woke up a day and a half later, and I was still alive. And so, obviously, it was not a successful attempt. After that, you know, the parents saw the note, of course, and they didn’t know how to help me. They made me promise not to try again. My son, who was 16, was pretty upset. I made the promise, but I sat on a sofa every day for five years, sitting and crying. That’s all I did. It was almost 10 percent of my life I spent doing that. Then my parents said, “Gee, things are not getting any better, why don’t you go down to the community mental health center and see if there’s anything they can do?”

So I did. I met a case manager there who gave me an assessment. The second time I met him, he said to do person-centered planning. I said, “What’s that?” He said, “We sit down, you tell me goals, and we work on that as your plan.” I said, “Goals and objectives? I did that once, and I’m really uncomfortable doing it if you’re trying to get me into a padded room.” I explained what had happened, and he was rather angry. At any rate, I ended up meeting other people like me who had had their own challenges, and virtually all had had a suicide attempt. And it started a period of growth. We said, “There’s hope for getting better.” Things just took off from there. Yeah, and I look back now and I proved the psychiatrist wrong, except for two things. One, he said, “You’ll never write a single book again,” and I’ve written three since then. And the other thing was, he said, “You’ll never live a normal life.” And I say thank god, because I live an extraordinary life. So that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

How did you get into this peer leadership role?

As I moved along in my recovery journey, I realized that, first off, people can get better, and that there’s a lot of misinformation and bad attitudes among traditional mental health providers. It kind of fueled a passion in me to do something about it. I don’t really know, one thing led to another, and the next thing I know, they were bringing me to Washington and other places to help with policy development, workforce development. I got a job as a peer specialist, and I worked for four years as a peer specialist. They hired six of us at the same time, and we were among the first in Michigan. We felt kind of isolated, and we wanted to know what was going on, and we formed this association. We said, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we had 50 members and all get together?” And next week, we’re having our seventh annual national peer support conference, with about 300 people. And we’ve got about 2,000 members. So it’s gone well beyond expectations. But I think, you know, what led to leadership positions has just been, you know, when you don’t have any hope and start getting hope and your eyes open up, you get this appreciation for what could be. You learn to look at challenges as opportunities for personal growth. It just seems like people saw that instead of a really negative attitude I once had. It turned into a very positive attitude. So things just kind of fell into my lap to a great extent.

How did you get people to take you seriously?

Well, sometimes they don’t. I guess quite frankly, I hate to say this, because it’s not important to me but is to others: If you have academic credentials. Often they’re surprised that a person with any kind of psychiatric condition can do things, even though history has shown time and again that’s reality. Sometimes, though, they say, “You’re the exception.” And when they say that, I have a long list of other people, some historical, some contemporary, who are doing very well. I say, “I’m not the exception. How long of a list do you want?” Yeah, for the most part, people are open, and there’s nothing more powerful than that one-on-one contact with people.

I’ve noticed there’s still stigma among mental health professionals, even though the field has so many anti-stigma campaigns. How to change this?

Well, it is changing. I’ve talked to a number of people about this, why it’s changing, and they say the peer supporters are entering the mental health workforce, and they see the power of having that shared experience. And even though they may be a psychiatrist or psychologist or a therapist who isn’t ever really going to be a peer supporter, they are becoming more open about it because they see how powerful it is to develop a meaningful relationship, how powerful having that shared experience can be. There’s the notion out there that people in the psychological, Freudian school of thought are not supposed to disclose anything. And a lot of psychologists get trained in that. But others get trained in the humanistic view, where the focus is on relationships. And we have research and such, showing the humanistic view is much more powerful and effective than the psychoanalytic view. So we are seeing that the vast majority of traditional mental health providers and professionals don’t disclose, but we’re getting progress in that area.

How to find them? For someone who might be suicidal and wants to work with someone who understands and won’t panic.

Well, it’s not necessarily the self-disclosure that’s the key, in my view. It’s a having a therapist, a case manager, whoever, with whom you can create a meaningful relationship. A real, true, caring relationship. And that’s not easy at all. I went through a number of therapists before I found people who were really helpful. And a lot of people, especially in the public system, they don’t know they can change their psychiatrist, they can change their therapist, and I encourage people to do that. One of the best ways is word of mouth. If you meet other people who have mental issues, ask them: Who’s good out there, who are you seeing? What are they like? Word of mouth, I’ve found that to be the best.

What should people ask the therapist in the first meeting to gauge their comfort in talking about suicide?

You make clear your expectations. A lot of it is intuitive. Are they making eye contact, are they really listening? The words they’re using, the tone, the body posture can tell a lot. It’s not an easy thing, and sometimes you have to see a therapist three or four times before you know.

What is the least risky way to broach the s-word?

Suicide? Lay it out there. It takes some courage. There’s such stigma associated with it. But just to lay it out there and if the therapist or psychiatrist or psychologist is not comfortable. Just say, “Yeah, I had a suicide attempt,” and just see the reaction. And that will tell you a lot right there. If they’re not comfortable, move on. That person is not for you. I’ve found that being direct and frank is the best way. If they dance around it, it won’t be addressed very quickly, if at all. The suicide attempt, to me personally, was a sign of how hopeless and how much in despair a person can be. And my life since that attempt has changed so much that you start to grow and develop a different attitude about life and challenges. It’s just how powerful hope can be. I don’t know, it’s just my experience, from one extreme to the other. From totally hopeless to filled with hope beyond imagination.

How do you avoid those thoughts coming back? Or do they?

I haven’t had suicidal ideation. I have had instances where I thought, “Gee, maybe I should consider suicide,” but it was a very passing thought. What I do is, I’m able to look at the relationships I’ve got, what’s happy in my life. I thought about that once, and now I understand how life can change so quickly for the better. So it’s more of a personal thing.

Another thing I do is, something that’s a bit of a trigger for me is stress. So every morning, I wake up and do a self-check. I’m still in bed and think, “How am I feeling today? Did I sleep well? What is it in my day that might be stressful? And how am I going to handle that? How to take care of myself?” And self-care, unfortunately, is difficult for us to put a high priority on, that sometimes we feel that if we’re not productive, we feel we don’t deserve to take care of ourselves. Unfortunately, because that’s what so often fuels the hope. Doing things with friends, that kind of thing. So, really paying attention to self-care is really vital.

How did you decide to be so open about your experience, and how have people’s responses changed over the years?

The decision was made for me, actually. I was living in a small community at the time I went to the psych unit, and it was actually on the front page of the newspaper. It was, you know, “Local resident Steve Harrington has checked in with major depression to the psych hospital.” How they found out and why that was a newsworthy subject is beyond my comprehension. But yeah, I guess the other thing is, so much good has come out of that challenge that I want to share it. It’s something that is, a lot of people find it inspirational. They say it’s helped them. Hearing that story. And it’s not just a story about being sick. A big part of the story is getting better, and how wonderful life can be.

Shortly before calling you, I read an article in The Atlantic online by a young anonymous woman who said she was not able to tell her colleagues about her bipolar disorder because of stigma. What would you say to her?

When you self-disclose, there are a lot of considerations. First of all, it’s not for everyone, for a variety of reasons. Maybe there are workplace issues, or others. We still have a lot of stigma out there. A lot of people don’t understand. I don’t fault anybody who chooses not to disclose. It’s a very personal decision. There are risks involved.

How do we eventually erase those risks?

Education. That’s why I do what I do. I stand up in front of 1,000 people and say, “This is where I’ve been. This is my journey. It’s not just me. There are hundreds of thousands just like me. Some are up front, and some aren’t.” It’s all about educating, and the best way is one-on-one, making connections with people. It’s really funny because so many people have _ when you self-disclose, so often you self-disclose to someone with the same or similar experience. But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk in doing that. But when you figure that 20 percent of the population at any time has a mental condition … There’s still an awful lot of fear based on ignorance.

What kind of changes would you like to see?

First, and this could get me in trouble, but that’s OK, I’m frustrated, like the emperor has no clothes. First, we have a lot of peer-run organizations, and if they get any funding, they’re always the last. And if there are any budget cuts, they’re the first to go. Some provide peer support, some provide education to the community, all different kinds of roles. But there’s still that funding prejudice, the economic oppression that continues. And I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see, you know, when funding comes, it goes to for-profit organizations, to hospitals, to universities, to state and local governments. Why not directly to peer organizations? We have bushels of research that says it’s the most cost-effective way to help people. We’re not seeing it because our policies are still oppressive, our funding policies. And related to that, I’d like to see in these anti-stigma and suicide prevention programs, so many of them are not peer-run or have no meaningful peer input. And you know, it’s really odd that that happens. Some of the most stigmatizing initiatives I’ve seen are anti-stigma initiatives. Because they don’t respect peers. They’re supposed to fight stigma but practice it all the time.

For example?

Well, there’s a California university that was funded several hundred thousand dollars for an anti-stigma program, and when doing their presentation at a conference, I asked, “How many peers did you employ?” It’s all run by academicians. “We don’t employ any. They help us with programs and tell stories, but we don’t pay them. We buy them lunch sometimes, reimburse them for travel.” That was like my first time my eyes were opened. Yeah. but there’s a lot of them out there that operate the same way. And maybe that’s why I’m a little sensitive about academic credentials. I’m fortunate because, with the timing of my illness, I was able to obtain academic credentials. But they’re often used as a barrier. And people with psychiatric conditions often don’t have the opportunity. They get sick after high school, or it gets too expensive, or they’re dealing with internal stigma. A lot of these organizations use a lack of credentials as a barrier to keep peers out.

How to change that?

By doing exactly what you’re doing. We have to step up to the plate and take risks and be vocal. And again, it’s not for everybody, but we need more leaders. We have a shortage of leaders. That’s one of the things I’ve been working on. Through your efforts and others, we can change the notion that, you know, you have to have an MSW to have any credibility. Instead, it’s about your life experience.

Finally, who else are you?

I’m so glad you asked that question. What am I? I love to take pictures, landscape and nature photos. I like animals, especially birds. I’m an avid bird watcher, though they actually call us birders. I have a great number of very good friends, and to me that’s really important. Let’s see, I like to write, so, yeah.

Talking with Katie King

As I went again through this interview with Katie King, I realized that I still knew little of the details of her everyday life. Instead, she had guided me through the thinking that has occupied her since her attempt a year and a half ago. It was pretty fascinating, because she hadn’t figured it all out and didn’t mind saying so.

She appreciates the growing number of mental health resources out there, but she makes a good case for resources specifically for attempt survivors. “I’m on medications, I’m seeing a therapist, and absolutely it helps. But for me, it’s hard for me to fit into quote-unquote normal living,” she says. “How do I deal with, you know, all my friends knowing that I attempted suicide? How do I deal with getting back into normal living?”

Here, she talks about certain parallels with the world of eating disorders, the practice of “suicide baiting” and her desire to hold on to just enough of her experience to be able to connect with others who are having their own.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name’s Katie. I’m 28 years old. Currently, my husband and I own a toy business. We’ve been doing that for the last five years. I have an eating disorder, a severe eating disorder. I’m getting help for that. I’ve had it for six years. I’ve been in and out of treatment centers. And I’m on the road to recovery, a long road, but I’m headed in the right direction. I have a dog who is my life, who keeps me going sometimes. But, you know, overall, things are looking up.

How did you come to be talking to me?

I had attempted suicide a year and a half ago. I had struggled with passive suicidal thoughts since I was 18, from various issues that had come up throughout my life. I had started struggling severely with depression. I wasn’t getting help for that. And when I attempted suicide, after the attempt, it’s like, “Well, what do I do with this?” I had so many questions. How does this fit into my life now? Where do I fit in? And how does this fit into my story? What do I do with this attempt, with these feelings? I had no idea, so I just looked online for any kind of support groups, any research I could find to cope now.

And how did that go? Did you find any?

Not as far as the suicidal ideation and the suicide attempt. I found a lot of help for mental health issues and the depression and things like that, but as far as support groups for suicide attempt survivors, I found very little. And so I came across you guys.

With resources out there for broader mental health issues, are resources specifically for suicide attempt survivors needed?

Absolutely. I think there’s a huge gap right now in society and mental health for … I don’t even know what the word is. There’s so much now for the mental health field, so much more research is done, we’re learning so much, there’s the new DSM, but I think that suicide is such a taboo in society, something that is unspoken, that’s so “You can’t go there” right now in society. And there’s support groups for suicide survivors, who know people who have committed suicide, but when it comes to suicide attempt survivors, we kind of get pushed under the rug or are tried to fit into some other mental health category. A lot of times there’s carryover, but not necessarily. I think that absolutely, we are a group that needs support. We learn a lot through the attempt, but there’s still all sorts of questions: How does this fit in? And right now, I don’t see or haven’t come across any kind of help in society with that.

The usual suggestions are crisis lines, therapists, medication. Are those enough?

Personally, no. I’m sure that absolutely, those help. I’m on medications, I’m seeing a therapist, and absolutely it helps. But for me, it’s hard for me to fit into quote-unquote normal living. How do I deal with, you know, all my friends knowing that I attempted suicide? How do I deal with getting back into normal living? It changes you, obviously, in such a marked way. And yes, you can see a therapist, get medication for different other issues, but even going to therapy it’s still a one-on-one thing. And I personally need help getting back into a larger group where I can talk about my struggles in a safe area, where people can understand what I’m going through. Even though I have supportive friends, there’s the gap of, “We don’t know what you’re taking about, we haven’t had those feelings.”

Have you found any kind of group?

I haven’t. I know there’s SA, Suicide Anonymous. I had gone to a couple of their meetings. And I’m sure there’s other stuff, I just haven’t found it.

What more do you think is needed?

I don’t even know if it is possible, but in a perfect world, I would love to physically be able to go to a group. With Skype, with the technology we have, you can sit in the comfort of home and attend a group, potentially. But to physically go and physically be with other people, I think there’s power in that, comfort in that, safety in that. I don’t know even if it’s possible to have such groups, but it would help me immensely.

(I mention the concerns some professionals have about people in such groups potentially comparing and refining methods and inspiring each other to kill themselves.)

Absolutely. I have come across that with the eating disorder groups I’ve been in. There’s a risk that people are gonna share methods, that talking about it will keep you stuck in it. I think the same thing would be the case with suicide attempt groups. I don’t want to diminish the risk by any stretch of imagination, but sometimes it’s worth the risk. You know, if you save some lives … To me, it’s worth the risk, but it’s definitely a risk.

What has been most useful to you in recovery, both shortly after your attempt and overall?

Well, I attempted suicide in a pretty graphic way, so I was in the hospital for two and a half months. So the immediate help wasn’t, you know, a couple days or a week after. I had two and a half months to sit and dwell on it before I came out. I have physical complications because of the attempt. A lot of it was just things I had to learn to do again and put energy into something tangible. I think part of it, even though it wasn’t getting back to a job or anything, was being busy, doing something tangible. Therapy is invaluable. I have learned to do so much. Finding a good therapist. I’ve had bad therapists, but I’m seeing an awesome one right now. Invaluable. I personally have the support of my family, and even though they don’t understand, they are hurt, they are angry about it, all those feelings, they ultimately … To have people to want you to live is awesome, and it’s safe and it helps me process things in a safe way. It’s hard because I can’t necessarily talk to them about how, you know, “Well, I lived. I didn’t want to live, and I’m alive.” I can’t necessarily talk with them. But to have them say on a daily basis, say, “We love you, we’re glad you’re here,” that’s been huge. But I think for me, it’s now a year and half later, it’s … I don’t even know how to express it. I’m a thinker, I like to think, I research things, and that’s personally helped me so much, to learn the reasons why I did what I did. Getting to the root issues has been very helpful. It wasn’t, “Oh I’m crazy, and one day I just chose to do this.” There were so, so, so many things that led up to the attempt. And getting to the root of them helped me stabilize.

Have you found reasons that you didn’t even know were reasons at the time?

Absolutely. I guess it’s hard, after doing work since the attempt, and still doing work, you know, as issues come up. It’s hard for me because the attempt still makes sense to me. I haven’t figured out how to take the information and the issues leading up to it and say, “Well now, looking back, I would make a different choice.” The attempt still makes the most sense to me. I know conceptually it’s distorted, but part of it is still logical, and I’m working through seeing the illogical side of it. That’s specifically what I’m working on now. That’s an issue that’s really surfaced, the illogical side of the attempt. So I guess what I’m saying is, a lot of issues I did know because I was going to therapy beforehand, but what surfaced after the attempt were the connections from point A to B to C. At some point, there’s a disconnect there. It’s OK from A to B, but you kind of missed it on point C. … It’s something that’s kind of opened my eyes.

Can you look to a day where the illogical side drops away, and do you know how to get there?

I don’t have a clue! Which is why I’m still in therapy. I don’t know, to be completely honest. Part of me would like that to be the case. Part of me doesn’t, because I don’t ever want to lose that relatability to someone who’s struggling. I want to use those feelings to reach others with those illogical thoughts, to say, “I’ve been there, but being on the other side of it, I know there’s another choice. I know you can’t see it, but there is one.” I hope for me, I come to a place where I see the illogical. But as far as helping others, I still want to hold a piece of that, so I can truly empathize with someone struggling.

Did you have someone who truly understood?

No. I … no. And I think it’s hard to find because it’s so swept under the rug. Maybe there are people I know who have attempted, but it’s one of those things that’s unspoken. Absolutely my therapist gets it, but outside of therapy, I haven’t had anybody who necessarily even tried to get it. Which I understand. That’s absolutely a scary place to go. But that is hard, and that’s one of the reasons why I personally would like to see a support group.

How did your family take it?

My family got help. And someone had once told me that the people that love you will change with you. And I’ve seen that firsthand with my family. They have gotten help to see, “How do we show her that we love her in a more real way for her?” And when I say that, I grew up in a very loving home, so that’s not an attack on them. But it helped them really open their eyes to, like, that something big is going on. They couldn’t live in denial when slammed in their face. “Your daughter wanted to die and tried to die.” They can’t ignore that serious internal issues are going on. My husband and I don’t have the best relationship, so it did not … It was rough, and it’s still rough. It’s still something he doesn’t acknowledge. He didn’t come to the hospital. And it’s a big black spot in our relationship. So that’s, I don’t know if that’s his form of coping, that being in denial is his way of coping with it, I’m not sure. But I feel very alone, for sure.

Did you bring it up with him, have you tried?

I’ve tried. It’s something where his mentality is, “You’re crazy, so go get fixed. Take medication, go to therapy, get fixed and life will be fine.” So there’s a big disconnect. In his mind, there aren’t reasons for it. “You’re crazy, and you went off the deep end here. Go get as much medication as you can, as much therapy as you can, get fixed and come home.” I have found in our relationship, it is an easier way of living in the home if I don’t bring it up. When I have brought it up, it’s been detrimental to both of us. So in our home right now, we don’t go there.

What if the feeling comes back, what will you do? Will you talk to others, will you be secretive?

Right. I have created a plan of when I start to feel this: “Here’s step one, two, three. If I start to feel this feeling, here’s step one, two, three,” and I play to different scenarios. I have people, my family, a couple of friends who have gotten help, who know as best as they can what to do if something comes up. The feelings have come back. A lot of times, people who attempt suicide, a couple of days later they feel like, “Oh, that was such a terrible decision, I’m so glad I lived.” I can’t say at this point I’m glad I lived. There are reasons I wanted to die, and they still make sense to me. The difference is, I’m not going to act on it now because I see that my life is more valuable than all those reasons. Maybe I don’t feel or see it, but the fact that I lived tells me that I’m here for a reason. If it was up to me, I would have died. But I think that one of the things that keeps me safe is, I’m not necessarily in complete control here. There’s something bigger than me that kept me alive for a reason. And that reason for me right now, what I hold onto, is helping others. To use it to say, “I went through this so others don’t have to.” So when I want to turn inward, just fester inside of myself, it’s that getting out and even just going to the park and sitting with people that’s just helpful for me. For me, it’s something I have to nip in the bud as soon as I have the initial feeling, get that plan in place before I get to a place where I’m melting inside.

Because what you did was so serious, do you think it put more space between you and those thoughts?

Yes,  absolutely. If it wasn’t so drastic and so blatant, I think I would feel like I still have an option of it. Now, after doing it so graphically and somehow living, it’s like, “Well, this is out of my hands a little bit, and if it didn’t work the last time, it doesn’t matter what I do, it’s not gonna work.” So absolutely, it’s one of those safety things I have written down on the cards.

Like index cards?

Yes. Because sometimes I have found in the past that when I just keep it all upstairs in my head, those distorted thoughts really have a way of worming their way in, twisting up my game plan a bit. If they’re tangible, written down, I can’t get away from this fact, right there, staring me in the face. It helps me stay logical when my mind wants to deviate.

I worry that some people take huge risks when they attempt because they have no idea what they’re getting into. And it goes both ways. People think they’re going to die and end up blind, in a wheelchair, with permanent effects. And other people think they’re not really going to go too far but die. Is there any usefulness in addressing methods and risks and realities? Or is that just causing more trouble?

I realize there are differing opinions on this. For me, absolutely, there’s value in awareness. And I have found that’s true in the eating disorder world, that yes, there are, if you’re sharing methods, that … A lot depends on how it’s presented. You can present it in a way that encourages it, almost. But if it’s presented in such a way as to highlight the severity of it and the realness of it and the potential side effects, I know for me, if someone would have, you know, talked me through it, “Here is something that can happen, OK …” Now, on the other side, I know it, but it wasn’t on my index cards before. I think it’s hard, especially for young people. There’s suicide baiting, like, “Why don’t you go kill yourself?” thrown out there, like a ha-ha statement, and it creates a state of invincibility, where someone just does it for attention or other reasons: Just pop a couple pills and, “Yeah, I just attempted suicide.” And it’s extremely dangerous. This is a serious issue. And I think awareness in respect to, you know, this isn’t a joking matter, people can die, people are dying, would save lives.

You mentioned wanting to help others. What would you like to do?

I have contacted the suicide prevention hotline and would like to do that. And it’s in the works, as far as my therapy is concerned. They have a span of, like, two years before you can hop on that if you have attempted. Something like that. I’ve kind of been waiting on that. Also, and I don’t even know if it’s possible, but I want to have my attempt figured out a little more in my head. For instance, right now, I can say that I understand the pain someone is in. I can relate, and I can give insight into other options. But if someone asks me if I am glad I lived, I can’t say “yes” right now. So, in that regard, I would feel bad helping someone while still struggling myself and wrestling with the attempt in my own life. I want to be as prepared as I can be to really, truly help. The last thing I would want to do is go naively into “I’m going to save the world” and not really be prepared to help people. So I’m treading lightly with it. But definitely, absolutely, I’ve always had a heart for people. And now, going though it, I wish someone would have been there for me. And I’m sure there were, but I didn’t know how to connect, to talk about it. So I’d like to offer it to somebody else.

How would you prepare yourself? Internally or actual training?

Both, for sure. I think the more knowledge I have on the subject, the better. For me, it’s a ton of research, a ton of background, a ton of psych work. Here are issues going on with people that could potentially lead to a suicide attempt. I think the more I can learn about others and about myself, the better prepared I can be. And saying that, I don’t believe that I can save anyone, I don’t have that power, but I believe people can be utilized to help. I really, truly believe for me it’s a lot of research, just connecting with people who are quote-unquote normal people, just to see how they tick, what’s behind the things they say. There’s something deeper going on there, and the more I can let myself go there and see the deeper side, the more able I will be … Training is absolutely necessary in my mind, so I think it’s a combination.

And who is this who would qualify as a normal person?

No, nobody is normal! I hate that word, but in society, that’s what people are like: Either you’re normal, or you’re crazy. And that’s kind of the way society operates right now. But absolutely, everybody has their own unique story, and everybody’s story makes sense in their context. So I don’t think there are any crazy people. People have mental issues, but no one’s crazy, and no one’s normal. There’s no set definition, “If you’re X, Y, Z you hit the criteria for being normal.” If there was, the world wouldn’t be the place that it is. The individuality of people really makes the world tick in a beautiful way.

(A very large-sounding dog barks in the background.)

You don’t just have a dog, you have a very big dog.

Yes, he is. He gets his way.

How can we make this topic a more comfortable one to talk about, both one-on-one and in general?

Great question. I don’t necessarily have the answer. I think awareness is huge on both sides of that question. When I say awareness, I’m not talking about like, “Oh, suicide is real!” Flippant statements. But true awareness of, you know, these are issues that lead into a suicide attempt. Here are some reasons why and the mental process side of a suicide attempt. If there’s awareness brought up on that level, that would really help. As far as someone reading this and saying, “That would be great, how to get there?” I don’t have an answer. I’m still working on it. I don’t relate. I feel old. People my age are having babies, and I don’t relate to that. I don’t, I feel old and disconnected, and I’m not sure how to just have fun again. I don’t know how to do that. And I don’t know, on the other side of that, how to say, “I’m ready to help people, this is how I’m going to do it.” For me now, it’s using the resources that are out there. I mean the hotline, the AAS, stuff like that, with the professionals who know what they’re doing. So, plugging into them, finding, “OK, what do I do with this?” If I tried to do it on my own, I would be up a creek without a paddle.

(I mention the situation where many professionals in the mental health and suicide prevention fields go into those fields because of personal experience but don’t feel comfortable disclosing that.)

I don’t think it should be this way, I don’t. I think that the more genuine you can be, the better able you are to reach other people. And I’ve found, the more someone is willing to share truly who they are, I feel safe enough to share my struggles and to ask questions of, “OK, you’ve been there, or on some level you get some issues in the mental health field. Can I run this by you? I don’t know if this is normal, I don’t know what to do with this thought.” And it’s hard for me to do that with someone who’s quote-unquote professional, that is, like, cold and textbook. And I mean, I’m the type of person and have done enough work that I’m willing to talk to someone who’s textbook, but it’s absolutely easier for the majority of people to open up when someone is opening up with you.

What else would you like to add? Or what are you glad that I haven’t asked?

No, I’m a complete open book, you could ask me absolutely anything. I guess my ultimate, I would just really hope that .. I want my message, I want someone to hear this or read this and think, “Hey, maybe I’m not crazy. Maybe this does make sense, the feelings that I have do make sense, and maybe there’s another choice for me other than suicide. If she’s saying she thought there wasn’t another side but there was, maybe that’s true for me, too.”

For the high-achiever types, or anyone who doesn’t want to disappoint people by opening up, that factor, how do we get over that?

I think a really helpful thing with that is learning to value your own life. To say, “No matter what anybody else thinks of me, I’m extremely valuable, and my life is worth more than what they think.” I found that was one of the things that led me to the conclusion, “I am always going to let people down, and there’s no other way to relieve them of the burden other than to die.” I valued their opinion and what they did say to me more than my own life.

Who else are you?

That’s something I’m working on discovering. I’m not exactly sure. I know I’m multifaceted. I know I have a gigantic heart that can truly … I have the desire to help others. And I think that I am capable of doing that. I could never say that before the attempt, I would never say I was capable of anything. But fact I’m still alive, though not my choice, says I’m capable of something. Of what, I’m not sure. But it’s a starting place for me.

What are some other parts of your life?

I’m Christian. My faith is very strong. Does that mean I’m perfect, I’m above a suicide attempt? No, but when it ultimately comes down to “Who am I,” I know I’m a child of god. That’s at the core of my identity. But you know, as far as on a day-to-day level, I’m an animal lover, I love to paint, I’m an artist, I love to work, I love to study, I love to think and feel and to be alive, I love to be outside. So a lot of things I’m learning to enjoy again. I had lost that for a long time. I’m getting back into that side of me.