Talking with Joel Phillips

Joel Phillips’ turnaround came on a bike ride.

He had been overweight, inert, depressed. Enough factors fell into place to click him into a final decision: He would ride out to a quiet spot and shoot himself.

Instead, he returned that day in 2009 and has become a passionate advocate for biking in his Colorado community. He has shed weight and certain mental burdens from childhood. Now he can cycle 100 miles in six hours, which is about four hours faster than we can go.

“I let my mind get out of shape, like I let my body get out of shape,” Joel says. “You eat junk food, and your body doesn’t work right. It’s the same thing with your mind. Fill it with junk, and it doesn’t work right. I had to clear that out.”

He started telling his story earlier this year with a post in a bike forum, and it’s grown from there. He’s now one of several people featured on the ADDY award-winning Man Therapy website.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Joel Phillips. I live in Lakewood, Colorado, in the foothills surrounding Denver. I was born and raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was adopted by my parents.

How about your upbringing?

I was an inquisitive schoolboy. I think I presented certain challenges to instructors, when I look back at what I call my yellow-colored glasses. I asked questions people were not prepared for. In the third grade, my teacher scolded me for daydreaming. I said I wasn’t, and she said, “What are you doing?” I said I was thinking about what was going on in the battle we were talking about, which was Sherman’s March during the Civil War. August in Georgia must be dreadfully hot, those uniforms, they had no latrines, etc. I questioned my teacher, did more solders die from disease than battlefield wounds? I was told to stick to what we’re doing. I got bored really quick in school because I could easily remember names and dates. It caused some conflict. I started to create a world around me where I did was what was easiest for me at the time. As I got older, I realized that a lot of things came easy for me, so I was able to fool myself for a lot of years.

Fool yourself about what?

Oh, being happy, for the most part. I created these wonderful fantasy stories rather than deal with the reality that I had abusive parents. I was able to gain a lot of self-esteem and confidence through athletics. I was very involved in sport:  football, baseball, basketball, track, wrestling. I was able to maintain a presence of fairly normal, but on the inside I was trying to figure out a lot of things. It occurred to me no matter what effort I put in, the world would treat me the same way. So I kind of quit trying.

That was in high school?

No, there was a very specific event in grade school. It was around a paper I had wrote in fourth grade after we had moved to another house, a starting-fresh situation, and I wrote a report on escape velocity. The instructor wanted us to write something neat about space. I got interested in the actual rocket getting off Earth, so I wrote about the speed to break the Earth’s gravity. The principal was impressed and wanted to enter it in a contest, and he asked my parents to come in the next day. When I came home, my mom asked what I did wrong. She said, “The principal doesn’t ask us to come in for nothing.” I took a pretty bad beating from my parents that night. You know what, you told me to be on my best behavior, and this is the result? And I didn’t care anymore at that point.

And this carried on into older years?

It’s certainly the basis of the story I built my life around: No matter what I do, I’m not right. I’m a burden on everyone around me. Those thoughts permeated my life. That’s why I was in the situation I was in before I decided to take my life back. You can only have so much success when you’re afraid of having success. Because I was able to fool myself, I was able to talk to people, I was a good salesperson. In my late 20s, early 30s, I had a six-figure income. I started to believe this was not supposed to happen to me. I started looking for ways to screw it up. I was being late for meetings. And my safety net was disappearing. One big client did leave, and I lost nearly half of my income overnight. It was because one company was bought out by another and we were not the preferred vendor by that company, but because I was living by my story, I let all the things I was doing as a salesperson to insulate myself go. And I got a divorce. And that proved to me I was right. And I never took responsibility for things, because I had a great story to pin it on: I was abused as a kid.

Was that the beginning of your low point?

This was when I first started entertaining thoughts that I wanted to end my life. In about the year 2000. I just went for jobs with the least amount of responsibility and the easiest to do. When you’re in the printing industry, it’s hard to get a job anywhere else. I stayed in the industry, fooled myself I was happy. I met a girl, got married. This is an amazing woman. I’m lucky to have her, but I was not being fair to her because I was not letting her in, letting her love me, letting her family love me. I started to do things I did with my ex-wife.

And I got bigger and bigger. I go to work, I come home, maybe smoke pot and watch movies on cable, eat pizza. But Thursday nights I go out and play softball. But I couldn’t run the bases. I had to have an extra runner. As a kid, I could dunk a basketball. This was really weighing on me: Look at what I’ve done to myself. I had a hernia surgery, then gall bladder surgery. I thought I was having a heart attack when I had my gall badder surgery. I went through stress tests, and the cardiologist says, “I was gonna yell at you because you’re 378 pounds, but your heart’s in great shape. You won the lotto, but you’re not gonna stay like that.” So when the conversation came up, I needed to do more than walk my dog. Then my gall bladder went septic, and they removed it. In post-op, my general practicioner and cardiologist sat down with me, said that I was lucky, I have great markers for being as overweight as I am, but I need to do stuff. I finally say. “OK, maybe I’ll ride my bike at lunch.” And that was the end of that.

I started to grow deeper into my story: I’m not even worthy of being a shipping clerk at a printing company. I had one particular day where I mistook some info and didn’t get a shipment delivered on time. It really caused some big problems. It was the last straw for me: I’m even failing at this. I decided I would ride my bike at lunch tomorrow and shoot myself.

I went home that night, locked myself in the bathroom, wrote an apology letter to everybody I thought I’d hurt, and … I went to bed. And I had a peaceful sleep because I felt finally some relief from all of this. And I got up the next day, and I gave my wife what I thought was a last hug and kiss goodbye, and the last time I see my dog, and I went on that morning. I was very peaceful that morning and calm and calculated in everything I did. And I had gone to great lengths to make sure I wasn’t giving off any signs a person does who’s suicidal. I was very smart about reading what the signs were and avoiding them.

I left at lunch on my bike, fully intending to put the gun in my mouth and pull the trigger. I was riding towards Denver on the Platte River trail. And I rode underneath I-25 and across the river and turned north toward the amusement park, and that was a hill for me, a struggle. And whatever it was that kept me turning those pedals, that had me stop and take a look at a place _ it’s really beautiful where the Cherry Creek and the river come together, and you can see the mountains rise up _ and I got a taste of life right there. I remembered what it was like when I got my first bike. It wasn’t the bike, but it was I felt anything was possible in the world with that bike. And maybe for the first time since then, I got a taste of that. And I decided to ride more than do what I had planned.

About three weeks later, I told my wife, I said I wanted to ride my bike home from work. She said, “How far is it?” I said, “It looks like just over 14 miles.” She said, “You think you can handle it?” I said, “There are bus stops along the way. I think I can do it. I want you to give me ride to work Friday morning.” So we got in my truck that morning. After I dropped myself off at work, I reached with right hand across my body and grabbed the seatbelt and was able to buckle it, and I stopped. It had been 10 years since I had been able to do it. I had set the steering wheel a certain way so it wouldn’t interfere. I buckled it and was like, “Wow.” I hadn’t been doing anything but riding the bike. I did notice I had been wanting to eat better, not craving sweets. I wanted solid proteins. I started listening to my body more. The next thing I knew, I was able to sit up out of bed and put my feet on the ground instead of roll out. I had energy, my clothes were fitting better.

I decided I needed to look at what’s going on here, see what other changes I can make. I started examining what was going on in my life. I wasn’t training for nothing. I wanted to do something on my bike. I wanted to get more people like me to ride a bike. I would quit on myself, but I would not quit on other people. I started a site, Reasons 2 Ride, and blogged about what I was doing while training. I wanted to train for something crazy. I picked Ride the Rockies, a six-day tour over the mountains. Seventy miles you ride each day. I had a year to get in shape for that. I was doing it, and in the middle of that I thought, “How can I weasel my way out of this?” Then I had a stranger out of the blue who was following me and said, “I’ll come up and ride with you.” He was from Texas. I was like, “OK, I have to do it now.” So I did it. I didn’t ride every mile, but I didn’t realize what was the big prize. The big prize was doing what I did to get there.

I started getting emails, comments on blogs, media interactions that were extremely touching, how I had inspired them to take a chance at life. One person started playing the flute again, and their life’s happier because they go to the park and play. And I looked at myself and said, “I never understood why people listen to me. It’s not that I have anything to say, but when I’m engaged in life, playing it fully, I do so with integrity and honesty. And people can relate.” So I embraced that and decided to make it my life’s work, to get more people to ride bikes, to contribute to make a happier community for everybody. That’s the role I’m committed to.

And where you are now?

Now I teach a spin class three days a week, and the days I’m not teaching, I take other fitness classes. I do that in a group environment. Reasons 2 Ride has evolved into an ad agency whose campaign encourages people to ride more, with a network of businesses who are willing to offer discounts to people who ride a bike to their business. The website will have a mobile app. It’s social media, with me and interns out there interacting with people. And also, I started a nonprofit called Arapahoe County B-cycle. I’m going to manage a bike sharing program in the Arapahoe County area. It’s just taking it to the next level, having the confidence to do what I’m doing. I’m also working quite extensively with Landmark Education, I’ve done their Curriculum for Living, and I’m going to take part in their leadership program. This was an ontological view at life, what it means to be human in our relationships with each other. In these classes, seminars, I really learned how to get rid of my blind spots in life, fully express myself, be powerful about what I’m doing, be a cause for action, be a person for my community. It’s the first time in my life that I understand that I am my community, and my community is me. And now I life live joyfully. That’s the best word I can use.

How has your wife taken it? And your family and others you know?

Well, it was a big surprise when everybody around me learned I was at a point where I had wanted to commit suicide. That was something I couldn’t come clean with myself until really this year. They noticed I was a completely different person than the way I had been acting, but it was a person they’d always seen in me. The disappointment I had seen in others, what was disappointing them was they saw I failed to recognize the potential I had in myself. That was most disconcerting for them. That was true for my coaches, even educators. Because who I was as a person was not the person I had acted out in my life. That was the disconnect in the resistance I felt growing up. And I couldn’t see that because I had a tainted vision of who I was. And through Landmark, I’ve been able to see who I am for the first time and be able to act and speak in a manner that agrees with that. I like to think of it as those yellow-colored glasses. Have you ever put on yellow- or rose-colored glasses? The world takes on that tint, but after a while that tint goes away. That’s way I lived my life. I believed I was a burden, untrustworthy, those were my sunglasses, but after a while that faded into background. And now I was able to take those off.

The world occurs to me very differently now. I was able to make great peace with my parents. They passed away. I never let them love me. They did love me, but I didn’t accept it. It’s so emotionally debilitating not to let your parents love you. I was able for the first time to take a look at our situation from their side and feel empathy for them. They maybe were overboard with the beating I took, but what stresses were in their life that I didn’t understand? I was able to forgive them for making a mistake. I really got closure in my heart. It allows me to live. Like, if you have a wobbly tire on your bike because of a bad spoke, you tweak that spoke and everything runs true again. In my life, that was still a wobbly tire because I hadn’t let my parents’ love in. And just by acknowledging that, it kind of trued that wheel. It makes life easier as it comes at you.

I’m not saying everything is easier for me. My wife and I still struggle, but I’m able to accept what comes at me and, in the moment, choose to be happy.

You said this year you became open about your experience. Why?

What made that happen was, I was working with a life coach, and we were able to gain great avenues to getting to the root of why I was mad. I finally admitted to the story about the beating I took in fourth grade. And she called me out, she goes, “So what you’re trying to do with the bike program, the passion you have for that, there’s a disconnect here. You’re almost too passionate about this. It’s really overwhelming.” That’s when I started to say, “Well, the reason I went on that …” And I stopped myself. She said, “What?” I said, “Well, I told you about that ride I took, but there’s a reason I took it.” She said, “Because you promised your doctors.” I said, “That’s true, but the bike had been sitting at work for months.” And I admitted what had happened there. And she enrolled me in the Landmark forum.

And it was in that forum that people were sharing experience from all walks of life, from doctors to clergy to people like me. We learned that as human beings, we’re meaning-making machines. When something happens, we want it to mean something. That emptiness is so incomprehensible. And it’s through that process that we’ve created the world that we live in. All the racism, the hate, everything around us is, we created it because through our thoughts and actions we believe it to be true. And we can choose to not believe it to be true. And when I did that with my parents, that opened up the space for new and exciting things to happen in my life. To make the distinctions. When the voice in my head tells me to listen to my story again, I can stop it and say, “Wait a minute, what’s really going on here?” Mostly what it does it, it opens up my heart and soul to be vulnerable and truly be connected to people around us. To truly experience life, you have to be vulnerable. It’s been a big transformation. Allowing myself to be vulnerable in life has led to more joy than I thought I can ever have.

You mentioned still having difficulties sometimes. What kinds?

So I was let go by the printing company I worked at, almost a year after I decided not to kill myself and the spring before the Ride the Rockies. And so I’ve been working odd jobs, doing social media consulting, other things to scrape by financially, while I stay committed to getting Reasons 2 Ride and Arapahoe County B-Cycle off the ground. It’s a financial strain on us. That can be the source of so many other problems because there’s a lot of stress about it. However, my mental state of being, what I’m doing, my commitment, allows us to deal with the stress that can come up. We can handle it. It’s like a bike ride, not all rides are downhill or flat. Sometimes a hill is steeper than another hill. Keep pedaling, get to the top. That’s the philosophy I operate from. Rather than being attached to a certain outcome, I’m committed to an outcome, which means I’m doing what I need to do instead of finding an easy way or avoiding it. That’s where the stress comes from. Stress doesn’t go away. It builds up. If a bill collector calls, you talk to him, say, “Hey, this is our situation.” They’ll work with you. We can deal with everything life throws at us.

That feeling of wanting to end it all, it’s never come back?

It’s come back in, “God I can;t believe I thought that way once, how did I let myself get to that point?” And it re-empowers me to keep doing what I’m doing.

How did you get into Man Therapy?

As it happened, I gave a presentation to the city of Centennial about B-Cycle. My presentation was going to focus on all demographic and statistical info that painted a picture of a feasible, sustainable operation. But I didn’t want to do that because I had handed everyone a copy of the report that shows it’s worthwhile. “I want to convey to you how useful this can be to people.” I told my story, told how it could lead to a happier, healthy society. It was a left-field approach, but I guarantee each of those council people remembers my name.

That led to an introduction to a person in audience, his friend is COO of the Carson J. Spencer Foundation. They said “Wow, I really want to introduce you to our director, Sally.” We met, and what an amazing meeting that was. There’s something I can do to bring to the table of the foundation and Man Therapy. There’s synergy with Reasons 2 Ride. She asked me to share my story so she could put it on a blog, and I said, “No problem.”

Since then, I’ve come up with an idea for a fundraiser centered around … I love Man Therapy, so my brain immediately thought of “man cave.” So we’ll have a setup in a park, with a big-screen TV, we will have a punt, pass and kick competition, we’ll serve hot dogs and hamburgers and watch the Washington-Denver game. It’s gonna be really family-oriented. No alcohol there. We encourage people to ride their bikes, and I want to raise $10,000 for the foundation and Man Therapy.

And then the role I want to play is, I’m all about inspiring people to live a healthy, happy life, and I know what it can do for people mentally. And if sharing my story can prevent one suicide, I’ll share it a million times. I have cousins who committed suicide. And I’m getting to know their parents now. I had kind of abandoned my family, and now we’re reconnecting. And we’re really forming special bonds because they had children that committed suicide, and I almost did but chose to live. We share intimate stories, how I in some ways remind them of their son. And that’s very special to me. If I can bring a sparkle to their eyes just a little bit. This is what it’s about. I realize in making a stand for others, I don’t have to stand alone. And being a helping hand means I will always have one when I need one.

What have been some of the more striking responses to your story?

The emotion it evokes in others, I guess, has been the most striking to me. But just that, really, how caring and wonderful the people around me are. And I don’t just mean my immediate family and friends. And I think it’s because I’m really living life joyfully, and it comes through when I interact with other people. And I get to see a side of people others don’t get to see. Being vulnerable means others can be vulnerable around me. It’s easier to interact. I don’t feel afraid anymore.

What would you say to people whose minds are where yours was back then?

For me, it was like a light switch of emotion. Prior to deciding, I felt things had come to a head, pressure from all directions. In the snap of a finger, I decided I would do it, and it was calm over me. If you experience that, call someone. Tell someone. Tell them, because you’re a danger to yourself. You have the peace and resignation to end your life. I got lucky, I’ll be honest with you. Life slapped me hard. My legs were burning, my heart was burning, I got shaken out of what I was in. That’s my biggest advice. If you’re thinking about suicide, and all of sudden you come to complete calm, you’ve somehow made the decision to go through with it. You’ve come to the most dangerous point. That’s when you should seek help. And maybe signs of that are wanting to know what signs of suicidal people are, so you can avoid acting like that. Because you’re prepping yourself.

Is suicide something we choose or something that happens to us?

I chose to do it because I felt I was an overwhelming burden to others. I felt my being on Earth was a disruption.

Is this a mental health, mental illness thing, or a decision you made outside that?

I was diagnosed as depressed. That was the time when I was on antidepressants. But really, it all really came from living inside a story that I had believed about who I was. It was poor mental health. I let my mind get out of shape, like I let my body get out of shape. You eat junk food, and your body doesn’t work right. It’s the same thing with your mind. Fill it with junk, and it doesn’t work right. I had to clear that out.

I mean, god, you go on a 100-mile bike ride, it  takes six hours to do, and I didn’t want to think about how bad my legs were burning. It’s really easy to talk yourself out of a bike ride when that’s going on, so I wanted to do anything besides think about how my legs were burning. So I started going through my life: “What did I do that for?” I started to do the mental fitness part of my brain, too.

And that’s an interesting thing that you bring that up. One thing I recognize as a big problem in this country is, we are weaning out physical activity. Never before have we had more devices to avoid physical activity. There’s a big link, I think. We’re still mammals, and we’re still an evolved primate, and deep inside our wiring of our brain we have this desire and need to accomplish something, and what’s more, something physical. When we ride a bike, at our primal state, we’re accomplishing something physical. At our primal level, that’s satisfaction. And if the only thing we’re doing is getting into SUVs or electric cars and getting in cubicles and insulating ourselves there and coming back home, we’re missing something there. We even have schools cancelling PE, and our labor’s outsourced to different countries. Maybe this needs to be more seriously looked at. This is why I’m doing it. If more people get out and exercise, there’s the whole domino effect. Put physical activity in our lives, then some of the problems we have will start to disappear. It bothers me to a deep, deep level that we have a tragedy, and now it’s defined by how many people are shot in a public setting. We want gun legislation instead of talking about what in the world caused that kid to pick up a gun in first place. We as a society are easy to share our nightmares, our horrors, but we don’t share our most precious dreams. What would this world be like if more of us shared our dreams, rather than our nightmares?

What else would you like to do, accomplish?

Really the only thing I plan on doing is committing to helping create a happier, healthier society. As Reasons 2 Ride becomes more sustainable, it will be absorbed by the community, and i can move on to another project. I want to be a messenger of joy. We don’t have to be caught up in our stories. It doesn’t have to be a world of hate and un-health.

Who else are you?

I’m a class clown. I love it when I can make an absolute stranger laugh with a snort. I’m a big kid. Part of the reason I ride my bike is, I go to the park and get on a swing. A while back, my  wife and I were on the playground, letting our dog run around the jungle gym. They had this rock wall there, and I’m climbing on it. I said to my wife, “This was made for a shorter kid.” She said, “Did you just say that? Maybe it’s made for a kid!” And I was like, “That’s who I am!” I’m an adult that can still be a kid. And I don’t know who said we needed to lose that, but man, everything I do is so much more fun because I’m a kid.

Talking with Darick Reed

“I didn’t want to die on my suicide prevention walk. It kind of defeats the purpose.”

So there he was, Darick Reed, about 100 miles into an epic walk for suicide awareness and stuck in the biggest heat wave of the year. In remote Montana, too. He ended up in the emergency room being pumped full of fluids, and we recently spoke before he set out again.

If you’re driving through the West and come upon a young man walking along the road and pushing a double baby stroller, that would be him. He’ll explain the stroller below. Meanwhile, by now he should have something like 1,000 miles to go.

Please introduce yourself.

I’m 36 years old now. I just relocated to Missoula, Montana, to train for the walk. I lived in Las Vegas for several years and was homeless for four months. And then … My background essentially is, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety and have been diagnosed with bipolar. What I put on my site is, in May of last year I had a suicide attempt which was the turning point in my life.

I was born and raised in upstate New York, raised by a single dad, and we moved around a lot growing up, where I think I got my itch to travel. I kind of got the adventurous side.

I started working with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and they have these walks, these Out of the Darkness walks. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but they gave me the inspiration, after the second year I volunteered with them, to do a grand-scale walk to raise funds for them. The second walk I did with them was pretty … It really hit me emotionally, the people, what it was all about. I got inspired in 2012, planning this walk. I’ve been slowly putting it together. In May, I kind of made it official, put it out there, gave it a name. Here we are, I guess.

Talk a little about your project.

I will be walking across four states, from Missoula, Montana, all the way to … Originally it was Santa Barbara, but since the word spread, I think I’ll end up in Los Angeles as the finale. But yeah, along the way I’ll be stopping in communities, talking with media. I have a few speaking engagements in larger towns like Sacramento, Twin Falls, Idaho, where there are chapters for AFSP. So I have signs, a card with the website name, AFSP. It brings a lot of attention wherever I choose to stop, a gas station or somewhere to eat. Typically a conversation is involved. In Montana, especially, the suicide rate has been at the top of the nation for over 30 years. It’s good to let them know I’m walking for my state. I take it as it comes. I do my best to talk to as many people as possible. I walk and talk.

And you’re doing this alone?

Yeah, for the most part, I’m walking alone until I get into populated areas. I’m starting to build a little more of a following, with more people spreading the word. They want to walk a mile with me. Yeah, as the word spreads, they’re becoming more involved. Essentially, it’s just me. I can’t find someone else crazy enough to walk 1,200 miles and live out of a backpack.

Have you taken other epic walks before?

Not epic walks. Once I committed to this idea, I ditched the vehicle and walked everywhere, with weight, and with the inclination to get conditioned. Like today, I walked around the community and did errands and ended up with 15 miles. Yeah, just walking. We do it every single day, and it’s not really that hard. It’s just what I do.

How did you come to be talking to me?

I was probably in my early 20s when I noticed the symptoms and kind of sought help. I struggled with it well over 10 years. I divorced in 2002, and that was the start of the downward spiral for me. For a point, I lost everything from the divorce, went off the radar, so to speak. Hid. I stole my father’s truck and a bunch of money and went to Las Vegas for some crazy reason and chose to be homeless and hide from my family, and I was on the missing person list for a long time. It all came to a head last year, where my suicide attempt came into play, Although I had made attempts to be back with family, we had been in touch, a lot of emotions had built up, and last year is where I ended up. I attempted suicide. There’s a long story in between. But that’s pretty much the gist.

Were you back with your family at the time?

Yeah. it was 2010, New Year’s Eve, when I came back to Missoula to stay with family. There was just a lot of, due to the fact I had been gone for so long, there was a lot that bubbled up with my family and my dad. It kind of put me back into a dark place, so to speak. So the last two years was a big struggle for me to reconnect with my family and deal with issues.

How did your family react to your attempt? And how was your recovery?

I didn’t really make it well-known. My father knew. He was there for me throughout this battle. And I slowly kind of made it known to the rest of the family over the last year, and they’ve been great. Obviously, I was dealing with some issues. But they are on board with what I’m doing. My relationship with my family is now better than it has ever been. It gives me a lot of confidence in what I’m doing.

What helped you come back from your attempt?

I have a 10-year-old sister. There’s a huge age separation, but we’ve grown close. For a long time I went without love, but she’s like having a kid. It’s changed my life. Someone who loves you unconditionally. Between her and just my own will.

You know, with an unsuccessful suicide attempt, coming out of that, I got the feeling I was meant to be here. I wanted to use my experience to make a difference. I’ve written about it. After a week in the hospital, physically battling to stay alive, I made a commitment, and I really haven’t turned back since then.

How have you learned to manage things, if certain feelings come back?

Anxiety has probably been the biggest battle for me. I’ve tried to educate myself. Anywhere from yoga to just talking to people sometimes. When I’m in the worst of it, I reach out to friends and family. Sometimes when you’re in your own head for too long, you make things out to be terrible when they’re really not.

I dealt with it a long, long time, and I don’t know, post-attempt, that whole process for me was physically a struggle, and it was almost like something in me flipped, like a switch. I’d gotten mad that I did what I did. It motivated me to not go back there. And it’s kind of like taking on the walk. The bigger the challenge for me, it keeps me going on the right path. Extreme things to keep me happy and motivated, I guess. I gotta embrace the adventurous side of myself, and it’s made all the difference in the world.

My Facebook page is called Me Against Fear. It was for my family initially, but it kind of grew on its own. I kept with it, turned it into pretty much my life, to communicate with people who’ve been through what I went through. It made all the difference.

What have been the more striking responses?

Once I announced I was doing a walk for this cause and came out with the attempt and made it known, people anywhere from within AFSP or who do individual pages in memory of a lost family member … You know, I’ve heard so many stories and cried with people, talked with people … Once I came out with the attempt _ initially, I didn’t say a word about it, it was fear issues _ but once I came out, the page really grew, the blog grew, everything. Just an outpouring of people reaching out. I started reaching out to different Facebook page administrators. It became a cause I’m extremely passionate about.

Have you done any public speaking?

My background has been anything from promotional work to sales to … I haven’t stood up with a microphone in front of a seated audience, so that’s something that’s gonna be new for me. It doesn’t frighten me. I want to tell my story, reach people. So yeah, you’ve gotta start somewhere.

How do people treat the topic of a suicide attempt?

I think altogether. some people, especially my family, is pretty … I haven’t had any really deep, meaningful conversations about what happened with my family. But with strangers, I’ve had deep discussions. So it’s all across the board. It’s uncomfortable sometimes, and sometimes deeply emotional. We share, we get inspired to battle this thing. You know, with my dad, he’s fully behind me, but we’ve never spoken about the scary stuff, the dark stuff. It’s “I love you” and “I’m glad you’re still here,” but no why or what. It’s hard to talk with people, sometimes, for me, depending with whom you’re talking to.
You really can’t accomplish anything with silence.

Do you have any advice for friends and family of people who’ve made an attempt? There’s a growing number of resources, but not really in that area.

It’s so hard to either admit or to reach out, to get over the pride or the fear of asking for help. Like you said, resources are starting to be more and more, but take for instance Montana, where the suicide rate is so high. A lot of areas have no resources other than a 800 number. But if that’s the step you have to take, reach out. I have people who say, “I haven’t told my family, but I’ll tell you what I’ve gone though.”

It’s enough to know you’re not alone. That’s part of what I push. You have me. Who cares if it’s the Internet, you know? Reach out to somebody. It’s difficult to do, to admit, but there are people out there who do care. There is help.

When I found out about AFSP, the programs they push, the walks, the resources in my community, I felt a part of something. There are people who’ve gone through what I’ve gone through. We all want to belong to something, and I latched on to these people. More so than my family, unfortunately. But it helps to know there are people who have made it through. It gives you a lot of hope to know you’re really not all by yourself.

That’s for people who’ve had the experience. And your advice for loved ones?

Education is completely critical. I’ve had people tell me they lost their son and had no clue that … “I had no idea he was in this state, that it was gonna happen.” I think people need to educate themselves.

You know, like my dad, I wish he would have figured out it was this bad: “What can we do? I’ll do research, find a place where I can figure out how to deal with it.” For alcoholics, there are programs to figure out how to live with people, figure out how to be there for them. I feel like I’m speaking gibberish here, but education is vital. That’s the thing I try to push. I talk to so many family members, especially, now, and they’re curious to know what they can do. I just aim them to AFSP, to Facebook. There are a million pages out there that deal with it.

So, a completely different question, just because I like to hike: What are you carrying with you on your trip?

It’s a long list, but funny enough, it all fits into that tiny cart. The key is to travel light. A small tent, a sleeping bag, a little bit of clothing, It’s minimal, I’ll have to say that. I have water filtration equipment. The wilderness you’re walking through has water sources, and you kind of have to reply on that. Three pairs of shoes. Yeah. Food, tent, sleeping pad and bag, the clothes. When walking on a highway, you have to take the opportunity to replenish in every town. You carry food for three or four days, nothing more. Weight’s a big issue.

I don’t know if you read about it, but I actually walked through one state and had one setback. I experienced heatstroke, went to the hospital, doubled back to Missoula to regroup. It’s where I am now. I took three weeks to regroup, formulate a different plan. I left at the hottest point in Montana in three years. Bad timing. I made about 100 miles and had heatstroke. I didn’t want to die on my suicide prevention walk. It kind of defeats the purpose.

I told everybody about it, that I wasn’t gonna quit. It turned out to be a good story, but it was pretty scary. It took me a good week to feel alive again. That’s why I’m leaving again from Idaho, where I had left off. With completely new equipment. I was pulling a specialized cart behind me. I switched to, actually, a twin baby stroller, which a lot of cross-country hikers use. So this is round two, and I’m a lot more prepared.

So this image of a guy along a highway pushing a double baby stroller …

That’s why you put signs on it, so people don’t think you’re a crazy guy pushing kids in 100-degree heat! There’s a guy, we connected, who doing something similar, with his own cause. He got pulled over in 100-degree heat, and the cops thought he was pushing a kid in the middle of the desert. I have signage to make it look functional.

Have you had any response from law enforcement so far?

Yeah. The key is to contact them ahead of time. One for safety, two to keep them from thinking there’s trouble. But this type of thing is becoming more popular, on bicycle or on foot, taking it to the highways. There’s safety factors involved by contacting law enforcement. They kind of become your friends. They would stop give me water. They’re curious, like anybody.

Are there any stops on your journey that you really look forward to making?

With AFSP, they have an event in Sacramento. I’ve been there before, but I’m looking forward to the stops where there are people. I’m well-traveled, so the exciting part is seeing people. When you walk for four days by yourself, when you see people, you get pretty excited. You talk to gas station attendants like they’re your best friend. Maybe I’ll see some sights, but the purpose of this whole thing is the people, not so much the land.

With so much time by yourself, what will you be thinking about?

Good question. You know, anywhere from the next speaking engagement … I read a lot, meditate. It is pretty weird. I walked 100 miles and would find myself almost in a weird trance, and the next thing  I know I’m five miles down the road. It’s like a road trance. Walking becomes redundant when every single day you’re walking 20 miles a day. I try to think of family, write in my journal. When I have cell service, I try to reach out, update the page, text family, friends. I think they get annoyed because I do it incessantly.

What are you saying to them?

I think of weird questions to ask people. Because it does … I went through a stretch of four days in Montana where there really was nobody, and it gets pretty lonely. So you know, you pray for cell service at the worst points. If not, you write or read.

What will you do after this is all over?

Great question. I don’t know. I’m hoping something will manifest itself along the way. I’ll stick around in LA a while, maybe spend the winter there, look for work, continue to talk to people somehow. I’d like to turn this all into a book, self-published, Amazon, or … I think anybody who completed a long-distance walk has probably written a book, but I look forward to that.

I want to get into some formal training through AFSP. They have what’s called gatekeeper training, where you talk to people. I want to become as educated as I can, from mental health to suicide, Maybe I’ll get into counseling. I don’t know. I’m just a year removed from being at the worst point in my life.

I didn’t give you the fraction of my story, but I pulled myself through a lot of stuff. And I just hope to inspire people and encourage them to maybe do the same and realize there is hope. I try to keep it somewhere simple. I’m not a complex dude. Every day it grows, and I get different ideas, want to do more. I think over four months, I’m gonna end up in a completely different, great place.

I often ask this question: How to make this topic more comfortable for people?

Great question. I don’t know if you can force-feed it. It’s tough. If you advocate, you can go too far. For people who have been touched by it … I’m just learning. I don’t know. I came out with it and just tried to tell my story, and people kind of gravitate towards it. I haven’t gotten good at just saying, “Hey, you need to hear these issues. I know you’re trying to go to work or Starbucks or whatever.” I don’t take it to that level, and I don’t know if I ever will. But I want to be there for people who are searching and want to be inspired. That’s enough for me. I’m not a crazy ninja advocate at this point. Who knows? Like I said, it’s four months. Let’s say somebody tells a story that really touches you, wants you to push harder. I’m pretty new at being in the public spotlight. I just want to tell my story. I keep looking for ways to be able to grow.

You’re right, you didn’t tell much about your background, and I had a couple of questions. Were you all right in Las Vegas?

Initially, I didn’t have a choice but be homeless. The way the divorce transpired, I gave up everything. Plus, emotionally I lost it. I was hiding. I was in a lot of pain. From a failure standpoint, I just felt like I completely failed. I hid from stuff for a long time. But in Vegas, I was successful, I worked for the Venetian hotel. It was just another place to live. I got caught up in drugs, alcohol issues, but it was my home too. I could have lived in Rhode Island and had the same lifestyle. There’s more to Las Vegas than the strip and partying. It’s not a bad place for me. I lived a crappy point in my life there, but at the same time, I like the community. You glorify it: “I’m gonna run off to Las Vegas.” I did, and I ended up living there on and off for a long time. In a weird way, it’s my other home.

How did you decide to come home?

Through the magic of Facebook. I can’t remember what year it was, I think 2008. I finally got a Facebook page, and my family was like, “Hey, Darick is alive!” We slowly started getting into contact.

I was doing fairly well, I let them know, and we started talking more. And my dad, the reason why I came back, my dad had a heart attack, he was having health issues, and it really scared me. My little sister, I knew I had to come back for her and for him. And so that’s why I ended up saying, “Hey, you need to get your crap together and be there for your family.” You can’t go 10 years without family and not want to see them. Half I hid, half I longed to be back with them. I love them. Me, the black sheep of the family.

Are you still the black sheep?

Yeah, yeah. I have a huge family from upstate New York. We all have boats and blah, blah, blah. People would call my family the Kennedys sometimes. And then there’s me, adventurous, doing my own thing. But it’s becoming more accepted now. For a long time. I ran away from stuff. I walked away from lot of things, now I’m walking toward them. It’s taken 36 years to get my life figured out.

Who else are you?

Family is extremely important to me. Like I said, my little sister is extremely important to me. And now that I feel like I have a purpose with this cause, getting involved in mental health and suicide prevention and, you know, that’s kind of become my life. Those things are important to me. It used to be being selfish, doing my own thing. Now that’s what drives me, is people, one way or another. Whether it’s family or people I met though my blog. In the community. That’s me. It’s weird for me, but it’s becoming more and more familiar, to be about something. And people know that now.

Since that’s still pretty close to your experience, what else would you mention?

God, for the last year it’s all I’ve done. I love to travel, experience new things. I’m a lake person, a river person, and Missoula fits that. I like the outdoors, being on the water. I have always been into some sport one way or another. So yeah, I just like to live an active lifestyle. Hence the walk. It just kind of fit. It just fit what I’m about. I wouldn’t have taken it on if I weren’t confident about it. This is the fun part.

Talking with Jessica Blau

“Almost on a daily basis, when I take a shower, or I’ll be looking in the mirror, brushing my teeth, putting face lotion on, and sometimes I’ll be staring in the mirror and be like, ‘Who are you? And what are you now?'”

Jessica Blau is making her way back from a fairly recent suicide attempt, and this is just the top layer of questions she’s been asking. After years of thinking about suicide, to the point where she obsessed over the bridges in the San Francisco area _ and dismissed the Golden Gate Bridge as too cliche _ she’s exploring electroconvulsive therapy for the first time. And openly writing about it online.

Here, she talks about the sharp need for mental health resources even in one of the richest counties in the U.S., her search for the feeling of gratitude in surviving an attempt _ and how eating Popsicles with a stranger outside the grocery store reminds her of the power of social media.

Please introduce yourself.

I’m a pretty typical 39-year old, a pretty typical woman. I include these details for specific/statistical purposes: I’m caucasian, I grew up in a pretty solid family, my parents are still married and just celebrated their 46th anniversary. I did go to college, however, I left with one class to go and never went back to take it, and I’ve worked since I’ve been 15. The majority of my career has been in the nonprofit field, in fundraising. I mention these things because I think people have misconceptions about people who live with mental illnesses or have depression. They sort of picture them a certain way, make assumptions that maybe they didn’t go to college or they aren’t smart or they come from a bad background, but I don’t have that at all. So, yeah, I have been fundraising many years, but I had to stop working because of depression. I got to the point where I was making a lot of errors in my work and missing a lot of days of work.

I can go all the way back to 4 or 5 years old and recall moments where I would be sitting on my bed and feeling really low and really down, but I didn’t ever say anything to anybody. I didn’t even know what language to use around it or that it was abnormal. It sort of followed me through my youth. Often I felt at a young age, 7 or 8, really isolated, even in a family of five. So I kind of kept rolling with it, entered grade school and immediately started having problems in school. I often got in trouble for talking a lot. I had incredible anxiety about getting good grades, even at that young of an age. I come from a very creative family where being “successful” was important. Good grades, being a good student, doing well in whatever you do was very important. And I was just always nervous of failing. And I was always nervous about not being good enough. But I never understood it, and I didn’t talk about it, so I internalized much of what I was feeling. I thought maybe it was normal and that’s how other people felt, too.

And so I made my way through junior high and high school, and the same kinds of feelings were still there. In fact, things got a lot worse in junior high. Not only was I worried about being smart enough and successful enough, but I had become chubby and had braces and was sort of like an ugly duckling. I started smoking marijuana very early in high school because it sort of helped with my anxiety issues. And I also started getting very interested in boys at the time. I had started to develop, got my braces off and dyed my hair blonde and started to get noticed by boys at my school. I started pouring all of my anxiety and feelings of depression into boys, and it made me feel a lot better and kind of carried me through high school and even college.

And after high school I had my first very serious boyfriend, and that’s the first time somebody said to me, “You might want to see a therapist about your depression, because you just don’t seem happy.” I had had two really significant panic attacks while traveling overseas with my boyfriend, and I had no idea what was happening. I couldn’t hear, see, and suddenly I was being taken to the hospital. We were in South Africa, and the doctors were saying, “What’s wrong with this girl?” And once I was back in the States, people said “panic” or “anxiety attack.” I actually didn’t see a doctor or talk about it emotionally until I was 22. So when I look back on it, I think, “Gosh, I think my life would have been a lot different if I had been to a doctor at 15 or maybe 14, a lot earlier,” to get the language, to get acquainted, to be able to say, “I’m feeling depressed” instead of “I just don’t feel right” or “I just have a headache,” because it didn’t make sense to anybody.

When I was 22, I finally went to a therapist, and by that time I was a daily pot smoker, what I call a wake-and-baker, and my boyfriend was also smoking a lot. Then we had relationship problems. I became pregnant, and we went through the whole process of deciding whether to keep the baby. We finally decided to terminate, which threw everything into overdrive for me in terms of emotional stability.

So it’s been pretty much since that time that I’ve felt the weight of my depression. I’m 39 now; I was 22 then. I was working, just getting out of school, with my first job, the career I wanted to be in, and everything started to sort of crumble around me. I kind of describe my younger years like I was living in the French 1920s, like having art parties with my friends, lots of pot and wine, long nights of dancing in dark, smoky clubs. After the relationship with my boyfriend, I had sort of a revolving door of men in my life. I spent a lot of money at that time. I was making good money, doing everything I possibly could to make myself feel better, but nothing did. I was having a lot of sex, smoking a lot of pot, drinking a lot of wine. I always had a very strong support system, great girlfriends, such a huge blessing in my life. But yeah, that period was very free for me. If I could be in a place like that all the time, I probably would, but that doesn’t always work in the mainstream world.

So I spent a good portion of my 20s doing that. Drinking and smoking and crashing on Sunday. But it was just really about trying to cover up how screwed up and sad I felt all the time. …  I’m sober now, for seven and a half years, the longest thing I have ever committed to, and looking back, I was doing it all to mask how awful I was feeling. I still very much live my life from a creative perspective. I love to write, and at some point I would love to publish a book. I paint, I love to express myself that way, be open with my life, and I love to be around people who are the same. I feel fortunate because I feel surrounded by people who are artists and live life on a more spiritual, open level, so they have great compassion, great capacity for listening, understanding. I feel very much supported by my friends and for that, I feel very, very grateful.

So, is that kind of OK, or are you looking for anything else?

How did you come to be talking to me?

Right. So back in 2007, I had a beautiful apartment in Oakland, and I had hooked up with this man who I met off of Craigslist who, after we met, three days later, told me he didn’t even have a house, he was a couch surfer. So I was like, “Move in!” Which was a huge mistake, but we had pretty awesome chemistry. So he moved in, lived with me for six months. I really fell for him. He had some really wonderful qualities, also some not so wonderful. We had this very intense relationship. I had a relationship just before him for two years that ended terribly, with a man who sort of was just going out with me, but I feel he never even really liked me; I think he was as lonely as I was. In hindsight, it was a very difficult relationship. It was like a pattern with me. Guys were not physically abusive but emotionally abusive. I didn’t know how to handle it. So I just kept taking it, thought this was normal, how all my relationships were going to be because of my depression and mental health situation.

So 2007 comes along, in this relationship, and we get to New Year’s, and I come home one day, and he has printed out a bunch of different ads from other women, and they were just sitting on my desk, women he was seeing on the side. I sort of flipped out and became very emotional. And he didn’t come home that night. The next day, when I went to work, I drove about 100 feet from my driveway and froze in my car. I couldn’t even do anything. I could barely get the phone out my pocket. I called my therapist, who had moved to Oregon, and told her what was happening. I couldn’t move, was stuck in the car, didn’t know what to do. She phoned my parents and they came, they lived about an hour away. They drove to where I was and got me back into my apartment, picked me up, and brought me to their house. That night, and I will never forget this, I heard my dad sob in their bedroom. I think they thought I was asleep. But earlier I had said I wanted to die, and later that night, my father cried, one of the only times I have heard or seen him cry in my whole life.

I basically had a psychological breakdown. And that was the first time ever, so I got an appointment with a psychiatrist, the first time I’d ever seen one. I had started antidepressants a while back, but with all the pot-smoking you couldn’t tell what was working and what wasn’t. So when I saw the psychiatrist, he said, “You need to go to the hospital right now,” because I was actively suicidal. So I went to the hospital straight from his office, like three blocks away. I didn’t have anything with me, books, clothes. My parents left me in the psych ward, and I remember the big door slamming shut, and I was standing there thinking, “Oh my god, what has happened to my life?” I completely crumbled. I felt everything I had known about who I was, who I had made myself to be, was totally shattered. It sounds really dramatic, but that’s what it was like. You’re just standing there. I couldn’t even believe it. This is what has happened. It’s my life. And so the first time, I was in the hospital for 21 days, and they loaded me up on a ton of medication. They put me on lithium the first night, Seroquel, Ativan, like a complete zombie. I couldn’t find my language, had trouble making sentences. And it worked, the lithium helped in about six hours, which was a little bit of relief. But yeah, I was so overly medicated.

I went through all the group stuff that you go through, individual therapy, trying to get my medication stable. After 21 days they let me go, and within about three weeks I was back in the hospital again because I just couldn’t function. When I was in the hospital the first time, my brother had moved me out of my apartment, so I was living with my parents. And that was really hard, because the people around you expect that when you come out of the hospital you’re gonna be fine, fixed. I certainly wasn’t fixed. If anything, I was worse than before. It’s probably less about expectation and more about hope.

In 2007, I went to the hospital four times in five months. And all of the times, I self-admitted
myself to the ER. That year, I remember it was Thanksgiving. And we always have
Thanksgiving at my brother’s house with my family and his wife’s family. And that morning I woke up and knew I wanted to end my life that day. My brother is a gun owner, and while I do not know where he keeps his, I was getting ready that morning with the idea that I would shoot myself that day. During dinner, we were all sitting around the table, laughing, eating … and I excused myself and went upstairs to use the bathroom. I was in the bathroom thinking about where his gun might be, ready to go find it. I must have taken too long, because my mom came looking for me. I think in some way she knew what was happening. I went in to the hospital the next day.

Each time I was feeling suicidal, and finally after the fourth time the doctors were like, “You have to get sober or else you’re going to be dead in the next year.” There was no doubt
I would have made an attempt sooner if I had stayed using drugs and drinking as much as I was. So just by good fortune, I don’t even think my parents understood what was going on, they sent me to a rehab clinic in Southern California. My family had not been a huge part of my recovery at that time. I was really confused. They felt it was their fault, I think they were nervous about being blamed for being bad parents. I went there two months and amazingly got completely sober, and I’ve been sober ever since. It’s the best thing I ever could have done for myself. I certainly miss it occasionally, but I feel like when you’re on medication, which I still am … I’ve probably tried over the course of the last 10 years 17 different cocktails of medication, so it’s been a long haul, a long trial.

Fortunately, most of the time I’ve been able to be my own best advocate. I had the ability to understand what the doctors were saying, what I was taking. I feel really lucky on that side of things. So many people who go through the same thing don’t have the good fortune to be able to communicate well with their doctor or understand what’s going on because they’re just so sick. I feel lucky to be able to make decisions for myself on most of my treatment options, and I feel lucky that I was able to do my own research on treatment options.

After I got back from rehab, I went into the hospital two more times in 2007, and then the last time in 2007 was Thanksgiving weekend, and I sort of left the hospital with the idea that “OK, you have to man up, get back to work and just do what you’re supposed to be doing in your life. Work, be a friend, have a clean house.” That didn’t work. So 2008 comes around, 2009 comes around, and it’s been five years basically in and out of the hospital, in and out of relationships, dating a lot. I was just going on night after night dating random guys, just all sort of like consuming me, shopping a lot, really making bad decisions even though I wasn’t smoking or drinking anymore. It just transferred over.

So I became obsessed with bridge jumpers in 2009, and it was sort of before the big movie came out with people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and Kevin Hines‘ story came out. I was thinking I wouldn’t jump off the Golden Gate Bridge because it was such a cliche. I would jump off the Oakland Bridge, just to be different. I became what would be considered OCD about learning every single detail about both those bridges: the highest point, the tides, others who jumped. I would drive across the bridges all the time to see where I would do it from. I wasn’t telling anyone about it. I was in my own head thinking about this. If I wasn’t driving, I was at the house thinking about my plan. When I would do it, which side I would do it on. Traditionally, people jump on one side and not the other. And it got to the point where 24 hours a day, I was thinking about it. I would drive across the bridge often because my family lives on that side of the bay. I would drive across on almost a weekly basis. A couple of times, I was stuck on the bridge in traffic, and I felt like it was calling me, “This is your opportunity.” I started getting scared and told my psychiatrist about it, and he was like, “Go back to the hospital!” I shouldn’t be laughing about it, but what else can you do? Everybody was very concerned about it. My doctors were super concerned about that. I spent 2009 to 2013 in full sort of suicidal ideation mode. It was all I thought about, all the time.

Meanwhile, all my siblings were having children, beautiful nieces and nephews being born. I had always wanted to have children but had not had the opportunity. I had been laid off a couple times, so my depression was getting worse at the same time that I was getting more and more suicidal. And I just started thinking that, kind of on a more philosophical level, why should anyone have to live like this? I didn’t grow up in a religious family, so I had no foundation of faith or god or what happens when someone dies. But I had always believed in assisted suicide, which has also become sort of a conflict for me. Because I started thinking, if I’m living like this and it’s such trouble just to get out of bed and have positive relationships in my life, it’s just everything’s getting too hard, and going to work was getting hard, even taking a shower. I started going days without taking a shower because I was just so exhausted all the time. People started noticing: “Oh, you haven’t washed your hair in a while!” I have very curly hair, and at one point it got really knotted in the back, so I had to chop my hair off. I would say, “I haven’t had the energy to take a shower.” I stopped seeing my friends, stopped dating completely _ which was a marker for me because that’s my fun thing, you know?

In the meantime, I have a very close girlfriend whose mother had lived her life with severe
depression and schizophrenia. I had been given a diagnosis of medication-resistant depression, and then bipolar I and II. And then back to depression at some point. But I started spending a lot of time with my friend’s mom, Joan, because we had a lot in common. I helped them make decisions about her medication. So we had become very good friends. And when I was laid off from my last fundraising position, I sort of became her care provider the weeks she would come up and visit. She ended up dying by suicide on Sept. 11, 2012. And it was horrific. She overdosed and didn’t leave any sort of note or anything. It was a very long and painful process for her body to let go. No one sort of had any idea because she didn’t give any indication she was thinking about it. We’d talked about it many times, but we both said we didn’t want family members to go through a grieving period. She completed the act, and I felt and still feel like she … it’s almost as if she ended her life for the both of us. So it’s been a huge source of guilt for me. I still have a lot of questions about it. Could I have prevented it? I knew our conversations, should I have seen the signs?

So I went into what I would consider my deepest depression. Or how I phrase it, my depression threshold was the lowest it’s ever been. Because I feel like you go through depression and mental illness, you have your better days and worse days, and that threshold at the lowest point moves all the time, so you’re higher functioning or lower functioning, depending on what’s going on. I sunk into a horrible depression after Joan died, and I just felt myself sort of, I was almost like out of my body. Come January, February, I didn’t think I was going to see my 39th birthday which is on Feb. 15. I was sure I was gonna die. My birthday passed. Then I was going through days like a zombie, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt like my whole life had been sort of blown up in a way. So come March, I was just, on March 10, I was in bed listening to music. You know when your apartment is in its best state and is so comfortable, how you love it? That’s how mine was. My cat was here, the Christmas lights were on, music was on, I had hot chocolate, I
was drawing. A perfect relaxing evening, but in a sad way, I knew it was sort of like my last
night. At some point, around 12ish or 1ish, I just kind of felt like I had sort of come to the end of my life and it was time to go, and that suffering was becoming too great to live with, and it needed to end. And I’ve done what I needed to do in my life. And I just started taking pills, and I ended up taking over 80 pills. Anything in my medicine cabinet, almost like drinking them, pouring them down my throat. I was like super calm, like it was something that had to be done.

They said I probably would have died, but at some point around 4 in the morning I texted one of my best and beloved girlfriends who lives in North Carolina. I texted her my email passwords and all my sort of passwords for things. And she called 911. She just knew what was going on. The paramedics got here like 10 minutes after, and I remember opening the door for them, but I don’t remember anything else. I woke up three days later in the hospital, and they said I talked about Joan all the time. I remember waking up and a nurse was standing over me and she said, “There she is,” and I just shut my eyes again.

Because I knew at that point that I wanted to start electroconvulsive therapy _ I had researched it prior to my overdose _ I was sent to a psychiatric hospital that provides that treatment. I decided to start ECT because I figured that was sort of my last option for treatment. I just had my 25th treatment, and I’ve definitely seen success through the treatments, and that depression threshold definitely moved up, which is a miracle. I never
thought I could feel like halfway normal again.

So that’s kind of where I am. And I still have suicidal ideations almost every day, but it’s sort of more like a stress response, almost like it’s conditioned. Because it’s been happening for so long that I feel like once I started having suicidal ideations, it sort of like landed in my head. So when I have a stressor, that’s the first thing I go to. So I’m trying to learn how to manage that, sort of trying to get back into my life.

So at the urging of my friend who called 911 for me, I started a blog in 2011 to chronicle my entire experience and all of my ECT treatments. So I’ve written about everything and have been getting really interesting responses from people all around the world. It’s been really interesting. But I’ve been having a hard time with it. It’s hard to integrate what’s happened into the rest of my life.

How so?

I’ll, like, go to the store, and I feel like now, regardless of how far someone is from me, I can almost pinpoint if they are having a challenging time, and now I hear people talking about suicide all the time. It’s kind of like that phenomenon where like, “Oh, see that red car,” and then you see it all over the place. I just keep running into people who’ve had that experience, and the language is all around me now. I’m trying to live my life like normal. I will be walking through the store and am hyper-aware that I’ve been through this experience, and I wonder if people know when they look at me. Can they tell? I have this knowledge that others don’t have. It doesn’t make me better or worse, but it’s just how it is now.

I have a porta-catheter under my clavicle, where my IVs go for my ECT. It’s a pretty significant scar where that is, it sticks out like a ball from my chest. For a long time, I put Band-Aids over it because I thought people wouldn’t want to see. But then I started thinking it’s part of my body, it’s part of my story. So I’d go out and sometimes wear tops that show the scar, and sometimes people would ask me, “Wow what happened?” And I’d say, “Actually, I have a port for medicine,” and they say, “You have cancer?” and I say, “No, I’m getting ECT,” and they’re like, “What? I didn’t know they had that anymore!” or “What is that?” And that’s been really interesting, to see people’s responses. I tell people it’s not a first-line option, it’s more like the last line of treatment options. And that I lived a really long time trying to manage my symptoms on my own, either through self-medicating or actual medicating.

So yeah, I just feel like life is pretty strange now, which is one of the reasons why I sit for hours at night researching online all types of things _ suicide attempt support groups, people who’ve written books about suicide or attempts, or foundations raising money for mental health. Everything I can possibly find. Which is how I came across your website.

What else are you still looking for?

Excellent question. Because I feel like I will know it when I find it, but I haven’t found it yet. But I don’t exactly know what it is. But yeah, I feel like, I’ve been thinking about starting a group myself because I feel like I could be around people who’ve had the experience.

You know, I have the memory of 10 paramedics coming into my apartment and making me
drink two whole bottles of charcoal, I remember the taste of the charcoal, I remember them asking me what I took and me pointing them to my cupboard because I couldn’t remember, but I don’t remember anything after that. After I got out of the hospital, I actually went to the fire station three blocks from my house to thank the firemen for helping me. I was really emotional. They were just so nice.

One thing I would like to be around other people who’ve had this experience is because I have not experienced what I read others have experienced  _ this overwhelming sense of gratitude for being alive, and I wonder if it’s gonna happen. And if it doesn’t happen, I wonder what that means. I think about that a lot, and I wonder why it hasn’t happened for me yet. And I’m not necessarily concerned about it, but it makes me think. So there are just some things I’d love to be able to sit in a room, have coffee with people, a comfortable atmosphere, and have a really open dialogue about what it all means. I try to stay away from things like, even before this happened, like boxing myself into things that define my life, and this is one of those things I don’t want to have define my life or inform how I look at my life, but it’s almost impossible not to have that happen, I feel.


I don’t know. It could be because I think about it too much, but almost on a daily basis, when I take a shower, or I’ll be looking in the mirror, brushing my teeth, putting face lotion on, and sometimes I’ll be staring in the mirror and be like, “Who are you? And what are you now?” You know? Like I feel like I have some memory almost on a molecular/cellular level that changed. Because of this experience. And people say, a couple of people said, “Wow, you seem like you’re getting back to your old self.” It’s been bothering me to hear that. I understand they’re being supportive. It occurred to me the other night, why do I want to become my old self when I tried to destroy my old self? And just saying that makes me incredibly sad. It makes me so sad for me, but also, I have these beautiful nieces and nephews and they’re so smart, so young, and they’re the loves of my life. If they were my children, I would be so happy. If this ever happened to them, or if they ever got to a point where they experienced depression or suicidal feelings, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do. I would go to the ends of the earth to help them. And I just hope they never have to go through any of this. Because it’s really exhausting, and it just makes you question, I feel like it made me question every bit of who I am. I feel like normally I’m pretty self-possessed. But I feel like I’m like a baby now and sort of having to recreate myself.

What supports do you have? Who do you have, what do you have?

My family system was pretty broken before this happened. I’ve been estranged from my sister for two and a half to three years. I don’t know why she stopped talking to me. My dad told me recently during an argument that my family doesn’t talk to me because I am so emotional and intense. That was really sad to hear. And that was sad for a really long time, but at some point I just was like, my stuff was overriding that. And I’ve always been very close with my brother, but we always used to party together, so when I got sober, our relationship changed. It’s sort of like any family dynamic, when one person changes, everyone else has to make changes or … My mom and I have always been very, very close, and she is definitely a big support of mine, but it’s put a huge stress on our relationship and, I think, on her and my dad’s relationship.

But my suicide attempt has completely shattered my parents, and they’re not the therapy type of people. They don’t understand why I have a blog. They think it’s ridiculous why I talk about my private life so publicly. For them, it’s embarrassing. So my parents are supporting me financially because I’m not working and am actually applying for permanent disability, which has been a huge, very tiresome process. And my dad is sort of managing that process. I just want someone to say, “I love you, and I hear you, and I feel for you, and you don’t have to be scared, and you can be exactly who you are in this moment, and we love you no matter what” and understanding that they have their own lives and need their privacy and private time. What kind of saves me in my life are my friendships, my girlfriends, my art, and knowing that I am a kind person and a good person, and I will do things to help people if they need help, and that makes me feel good. But I don’t need, you know, a clean car to feel good about myself. But that is something that is important to my parents.

When I get ECT, they have pretty set guidelines. You get your treatments; you have someone drive you, because they put you under anesthesia and meds so you can’t drive for 24 to 48 hours. They actually don’t know quite how it works, but they do know it causes your neurons to regrow, kind of reconnect with one another. So they want you after your treatment to be around people you love and love you and to do happy things and fun things and be engaged with people in the days after the treatment, because you’re reprogramming your thought patterns so they’re taking over with new positive messaging. Well, my parents have been in Tahoe most of the summer. And I don’t talk to my sister, and my brother never comes over to see me. So I haven’t had that sort of family reconnecting time that other people have. And I’ve had a lot of resentment around it, and it’s caused a lot of problems with my parents. They spend every summer in Tahoe, but I
don’t understand why, when I’m going through this treatment, why they have to be there this summer. So that’s been really difficult, but I just have had to sort of deal with it … and I just want to say that I’m making it sound like it’s been so easy, but it’s been a huge thing for me, this separation with my parents. Super upsetting to the point where I can’t stop talking about it with people. And prior to my last three treatments they’ve gotten into big arguments with me, which is terrible, because they want you to come in all calm and relaxed. I think that’s my parents’ way of coping. They won’t get outside support, meet with a therapist, or go to NAMI meetings. They’re not interested at all.

So I’ve been feeling they have been wanting me to make them feel better about this whole
situation, but I just can’t. I don’t have the energy to make myself feel better and make them feel better. So that’s been really difficult, to not have my family sort of be in my corner. And in fact, we’ve had these arguments. A couple of weeks ago, my dad called me crazy, saying all these nasty things, that I’m crazy, so emotionally all over the map. He told me no one in the family wants to be around me. And quite frankly, it makes me not to want to talk to him.  My brother and I got in an argument a few weeks ago and he told me to “change my life,” and I just can’t even believe he is saying that to me when I am going through this incredibly physically draining, and to an extent, dangerous treatment. So it’s pretty sad.

But on the flip side, I have really incredible friends. I’ve had them for 20 years, really incredible women who’ve been through a lot themselves. It’s been very hard on them, I think, when I overdosed. It was very hard for some of them to talk to me afterwards. It took them a while to sort of talk to me, and I think it’s just shocking for people. And everybody handles it differently. But yeah, my friends have been pretty incredible, really open to talking about things that are normally painful to talk about. They’ve been really encouraging about my blog. They’ve been really encouraging me to keep that up. Because they see how it’s sort of helped me heal. It’s also giving other people the possibility to sort of learn about ECT, and I get messages from people all around the world who are thinking of having the procedure done. So it’s been great. And I feel fortunate to have them in my life. Even at my worst moments, my girlfriends can make me laugh.

I’d like to add that I do love my family. We are all very different in our needs, and I think we
just don’t meet each other where we need to be met. Maybe that will change one day. Maybe not.

What more would you like to do?

You know, since 2007, my first hospital visit … It’s ironic, since I don’t come from a religious background. I have this calling to become a nondenominational chaplain so I can go back into the psych ward and work with people there. I feel like it’s the perfect fit for me, sort of something I have to do in my life. I feel like almost it’s not an option for me, like something I have to pursue. It will take some schooling, which is expensive, but it’s definitely something I would like to do.

And I really want to stay on course in becoming a mental health advocate, really educating
people on … You know, I used to have a therapist who used this term, “Let’s break it down into the ridiculous.” Like you’re fighting with your parents or there’s a problem at work, and you break the situation down so it’s, like, smaller and smaller, to the point at the end where you’re like, “Wait a minute, it’s not a big deal after all!” I sort of remind myself of that occasionally, but I think about it in terms of becoming a mental health advocate, and people often go, “Oh, it’s a huge kind of job, a big responsibility,” and when I look at it using her model, I think it’s just all about being able to care for and care about people who can’t necessarily care about themselves at that moment in time. And when you’re in the hospital, you see it all the time, people not being able to make decisions for themselves, smart, educated people. I’ve been in the psych ward with artists and writers and teachers and mothers and a rabbi even, and I want people to know that mental illness crosses economic, social, intellectual, racial lines. There’s just no set model for who is going to experience this type of stuff. And that, I feel, is really important for me to get that message out there. Just what you are doing with your site. You’re breaking the stigma around mental illness.

So yeah, I want to keep pursuing that. I would love to, I’ve done public speaking as part of
fundraising, but I’ve never done it in terms of my mental health situation. But I’m very interested in that, especially in terms of the ECT process. A lot of people are interested in it, but a lot of websites are filled with negative information about it, back from when “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” came out and portrayed it as a violent act. But you know, it deserves some positive feedback. People need education about it, because it’s a great treatment option for people who are older, especially who don’t respond very well to treatment, or women who are pregnant because it doesn’t affect the fetus. Because medication will hurt the fetus. It’s a good option for a lot of people, but a lot of people are so scared that they don’t even think about it.

So yeah, I just want to sort of keep educating myself about the mental health world and be a part of the conversation and certainly put my story out there. I definitely think that if a person has it in their head that they’re going to end their life that not a lot is going to change their mind. I don’t share that opinion with a lot of people because I feel it’s sort of negative, it will make someone concerned, it’s not very hopeful. So I kind of keep it to myself. But just the conversations I’ve had with people in the hospital, once you’re at the point where you’re in the hospital, I’d sort of like to change somebody’s mind about that stuff. But I hope that my story can help somebody, and I don’t know how, but I’m hoping that it can.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the reactions to your story, or maybe changes to system you’d like to see?

Something I’ve definitely been thinking about, I haven’t read the entire Obamacare document, but it will be interesting to see what happens to mental health with that. Everybody in the hospital, in the ECT clinic, all the nurses talk about it like it will be so life-changing for so many people, being able to access mental health services. It’s interesting, the foundation No Stigmas, it put an article that came across my Facebook page the other day. The article said “studies show a lack of mental health services in poor communities in California.” I said, “Huh, that’s interesting.” I think that’s true, however, I live in Marin County, one of the most affluent counties in the nation, but there’s a huge lack of services here. I threw out a comment mentioning that I have Kaiser as my insurance, and I’m in a group, like a post-hospitalization group through Kaiser, and there are 35 people in the group. Thirty-five. And the group is an hour and a half. The class is so packed with people that even if you raise your hand with a question, the moderator says, “We can only spend five minutes on this.” So they’ve packed people into this class, so it’s almost counterproductive. You go, you leave, and I feel completely frustrated because you’re not able to ask a question or didn’t completely understand something.

I don’t have the answer to how those things can be fixed. But I know they do need to be fixed. People need individual help. Even if you’re in a group, people need to be individually
recognized, acknowledged, that you’ve been through a difficult time. There are people in there who are having trouble with teenagers, or a person who’s bipolar who is having a bad case of compulsive shopping, people from all areas of the mental health spectrum. But it’s just so impacted. Even if a program is available, it’s just so impacted that it’s difficult to get individual care.

The conversation still needs to be talked about, and I really think social media has had a huge and important role in bringing the conversation to the forefront of people’s minds. There’s so many websites out there now. Suicide prevention sites and blogs, awareness groups.

Any favorites?

There are parents of children who have ended their lives who have started foundations, who are making strides by telling their children’s stories or their families’ stories, getting the message out on a national level just through Facebook or Tumblr, even, which is what my blog is on. These incredible blogs with these messages, “Look at your fellow neighbor, we are all going through something challenging, and life is really hard, but if we can help one another and support one another, we can make it through.” Which can be seen as a very Pollyanna and very kumbaya kind of feeling, but I think there’s real truth to it.

This is the kind of experience I have had. All my life has been in situations where I’d be a total stranger and someone shares their whole life story with me. It’s happened my whole life. Maybe I have one of those faces that say, “I’ll understand.” But three or four weeks ago, I was in Safeway, and part of my relaxation time is my grocery shopping time, it’s so silly but it’s relaxing to me. I was in the ice cream aisle and looking at strawberry fruit bars. I was reading the back, and this lady comes next to me. I ask, “Have you ever had these?” She said, “No are they good?” I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never had them.” She said, “They look really good, sounds good right now.” I said, “Yeah, are you having an OK night?” She looked upset. She said, “Well, I’m going through a divorce.” And out came this flood of emotion. I feel like she just needed someone to talk to in that moment. And she’s telling me about how she was leaving her husband, just devastated, married for, I think, 23 years, some really long time. So we went through shopping, finished and then sat outside Safeway and ate a Popsicle together. And it was like such a beautiful moment, one of those moments you never forget. Here’s this woman, I’m totally in my sweats all scroungy-looking, and she’s just opening up, and we’re two total strangers having Popsicles in front of Safeway. Then we hugged and left.

Those kinds of moments are so priceless, but they’re what people are yearning for. And I think social media has played a role in this, why they’re so popular. People just want to connect with other people and be listened to and be heard and be acknowledged as being important and loved. And I think on our most basic human level, we just want to connect with other people who are really hearing what we’re saying. I know I want that.

I had a couple other experiences like that this year. My sweet cat Moxie, I had to put her down about a month and a half ago because she had cancer. Terrible, traumatic. I had to rush her to the vet. I was by myself. A basket case. A woman who was there with her friend who was putting her dog down, she came over and sat with me and held my hand and put her arm around my shoulders for about an hour and 15 minutes, for the whole process. Then I went in, they put Moxie to sleep, just horrible and awful, and when I came out, she hugged me, walked me to my car. Just so gracious and so lovely, and I couldn’t thank her enough for taking time from her own experience to help me with mine. Then I got a new kitten, and I put flea medicine on him, he had this terrible allergic reaction, shaking, foam all over his mouth, so I took him to the emergency vet. And a woman was there putting her dog down. My cat was fine, so I got to sit with her and got to sort of pay the favor back. Her dog was 16 years old. I told her, “A woman did this for me a couple of weeks ago, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to stay with you while the process happens
so you’re not alone.” I sat, held her hand, I hugged her. Just the little things that are kind of
priceless in life. And that’s how I want to live my life. And I want to have those types of
connections with people, And I want people to know that I’m listening to everything they’re
saying, and I hear them. If I can successfully do that and be present for people, then I feel like I will have a good life.

Who else are you?

I don’t know. Did you have a feeling like, “I dove into all of this as a way to have control over it, because it’s such an uncontrollable thing”? Having a mental illness, you just don’t know how you’ll feel. Doing all this research gave me a sense of control over this. Did you have that?


So, who am I? On a normal basis, I’m super relaxed. My favorite day is just hanging out with my girlfriends, eating good food and just talking about our lives. And laughing. I feel like when we together, we’re like five years old. We giggle. I feel like when I’m not sort of under the weight of this depression, I’m pretty light. And I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m easygoing because I’m sort of always in thinking mode, but I love art, I love being around people, I love film, I’m an obsessive book reader, I love getting lost in stories, and yeah, I’m a really awesome auntie. My nephews and nieces, like I said, if they could all be my children, it would just be fantastic. I love them so much. They’re these extraordinary little human beings, and you can already see how they’re going to be in their adult lives. I always wanted to be a mom, and that’s been sort of a heavy topic to talk about. Genetically, I’m
probably not the best person to have a biological child. I’ve thought about this a lot, but know I’d be a really fantastic mother, but biologically, not a good idea … And I would adopt a child in a heartbeat if I could, but genetically, I wouldn’t want to pass this down to my child. It’s something I never mentioned.

When I first got my diagnoses, my doctors were all very much on the same page about my depression being situational. It had to do with my boyfriend, relationships. Well, over the course of years, it’s become pretty apparent it’s more of a biological issue. So I feel like I have the spirit of a mom, just with no kids. It’s just like I always, always thought that I would be a mom, and now I’m 39 and thinking, “Oh my gosh, there’s a good chance that’s not going to happen,” and I’m trying to figure out what life looks like without that. So yeah, I don’t know, that’s a tough question.

Talking with Tom Kelly

In this era of creative business titles, there’s something pretty cool about being the manager for recovery and resiliency. That would be Tom Kelly, whose life reflects his work. He’s been through a period of homelessness, the questionable interstate shipping of mental patients known as “Greyhound therapy” and more than one suicide attempt. Now he works for a major mental health provider as one of its peers.

He’s also moved from being scared of mentioning his attempts _ what if he was the only person with the experience? _ to being absolutely open. And after he tells his story, he often finds people who reply, “Me too.”

Here, Tom talks about his transformation, his work and the question of whether peers one day will run the mental health organizations that now offer them welcome. He thinks that it will take a lot to overcome entrenched perceptions.

“In my opinion, the professionals that work in the field only see people when they are doing poorly and in need of attention, help etc.,” he says. “They do not see people when they are doing well! When they see people such as myself, they say, ‘But you’re different!’ I am no different than the person who walks in off the street today … ’cause I was that person 20 years ago!”

We spoke by Gchat:

 Tom:  hi
 me:  aha!
 Tom:  Finally
 me:  sweet. thanks for being available!

Tom:  no problem my pleasure

 me:  ok then. is it all right to use your name?
 Tom:  Yes
 me:  great
 Tom:  First and last if you wish
me:  very nice. OK, then, and we’re off …

my first question is always to please introduce yourself. who are you?

Tom:  Well my name is Tom Kelly and I work in the greater Phoenix area for a managed behavioral healthcare company.

I am their Manager for Recovery and Resiliency.  In that role it is my job to help get the voice of individuals receiving services and family members to the table.  As a person with bipolar disorder with psychotic features and as a person who has attempted suicide on more than one occasion (three serious attempts) I am able to use my lived experience to help others understand what it is like for individuals such as myself.  I am able to help coach, mentor, train and educate not only staff members but also community stakeholders and individuals receiving services and show them that recovery is real and possible for everyone … no matter where we came from.

Anything else?
me:  how did you decide to talk openly about your own experience?

 Tom:  I decided to speak openly about my experience after a series of different events that have happened throughout my life!  It was a process.  I remember having challenges with mental health issues going back to kindergarten … throughout elementary school and high school and college I suffered from depression and the resulting desire to end my life.  After going through several hospitalizations and spending some time living on the streets I ended up in Arizona where I started getting the proper treatment. I was misdiagnosed with depression at that point but I knew there were other things.  When I started to understand the swings of bipolar disorder and get the proper diagnosis and treatment my life started improving.

Tom:  When I started getting that proper treatment and my life started taking a turn for the better I thought that it was my turn to share my story to help others who may have gone through what I went through.  I didn’t disclose everything at first – it was some of the things that happened to me! I would talk about the mental health challenges but not the suicide attempts.  It was not until I met others who shared a similar experience with suicidal ideation or attempts that I was able to say … Me Too. I guess there was hesitancy because of what people would think of me if I told them I had attempted to end my life.  I’ve come to the point where I am not ashamed of anything that happened so if I can share and help one person than I’ve helped one person!

me:  Where did you bump into others who talked about their experience?

 Tom:  When I first got introduced into the Arizona behavioral health system I started going to a support group for people with depression and bipolar disorder.  I was referred to the group from I was referred to the group from my hospital social worker at Good Samaritan Hospital.  I thought I was alone, I thought that no one went through the things that I went through … but in that group I found some shared and similar experiences.  From there I started advocating in the system and would meet others throughout the state.  Eventually I began meeting people from all over the country.  It’s interesting in that I can talk to a group of individuals wherever they may be and usually without hesitation there are always one or two people who open up and share their experience.  I wish I had bumped into these people decades ago as opposed to years ago!

 me:  How to make it easier for everyone to find each other, by the way? Any ideas?
(And why has it been challenging to find them?)

Tom:  Let me tackle the “why has it been challenging to find them” first!  Stigma, discrimination and prejudice!!  People who have attempted suicide have shared with me that they were ashamed, that they felt guilty, and that they became disconnected from themselves and others!  I can understand why some choose not to talk about their experience.  I was ashamed and couldn’t even tell my family what I had tried in the past because of the “perceived” belief on how they would treat me – so I just kept it bottled up!  I think we could make it easier for people to find one another by sharing resources and information throughout the “health community”!  Primary Care Physicians should have information about mental health and suicide in their waiting rooms.  They have information about high blood pressure, heart disease and how to get better sleep.  If they had information about suicide, suicidal ideation and behavioral health issues perhaps that would help people find a connection to a professional who could connect them to the community.  Education is also important – we need to start education individuals in kindergarten!

 me:  Did you ever tell your family, eventually? And how was the response?

 Tom:  I was in a hospital in Iowa and transferred to a hospital in Canada (where I grew up) – my doctor thought being around my family would help in my recovery! My sister flew down to Iowa and we drove back to Canada.  I shared with my sister and that was well received.  I have a great baby sister!!  When I got into the Canadian hospital I was able to tell my parents about what had happened and my second suicide attempt (but no one knows about the first or third).  They response was supportive from my perspective – I still have one sister that doesn’t quite understand what I go through – but my family is understanding!

me:  What’s your advice on how to tell family members about an attempt, or about thoughts of suicide? And what’s your advice on how they should respond?

(This being a big concern out there.)

Tom:  I wish I had an answer to that question as it is a big concern!  I guess I would take a matter of fact approach and describe the signs and symptoms of what it going on in a person’s life!  Paint a picture to help the family understand and empathize what their family member may have been going through.  After painting that picture by trying to educate the family about the signs and symptoms of depression, bipolar, etc … and explaining that some people with mental health challenges sometimes attempt (and share
those statistics) …I would suggest that they disclose their attempt.  If family members could understand the underlying issues going on in a person’s life perhaps they could understand the attempt.  I can not imagine what it was like for my mother to hear that her only son tried to kill himself.  My mother could not imagine what it was like for her only son to want to end his life!  By understanding the diseases, illnesses, disorders – whatever it is we want to call them, perhaps family members could understand why someone would attempt to end their life!  How should they respond – truthfully, honestly, and openly!

 me:  I want to go back to something you mentioned, about living for a while on the streets. Can you talk a bit about how you got there and how you got away from that … or at least how you got away?

 Tom:  I was married for about six years and after my divorce I became seriously depressed and decided to end my life!  I ended up at a hotel and took an overdose – about thirty or forty pills – can’t remember what they were and I started to become sick and I wanted to die – I didn’t want to be sick (weird I know) so I called 911.  I ended up at a private psychiatric hospital.  After a few weeks of care I was transferred to the State Hospital where I spent about 18 months.  After my release from the State Hospital my home was the streets of Waterloo, IA. They basically dropped me off on the streets with no plan of action – except the address for a homeless shelter and the name of a behavioral health outpatient clinic.  Well there was no room at the shelter and I spent the next few months on the streets of Cedar Falls/Waterloo Iowa.  I ended up back at the State Hospital and once again after another year or more at the State Hospital I was offered “Greyhound” therapy.   I was given a bus ticket to Florida – I had secured a place to live with my father at his trailer in Fort Lauderdale.  I was given the name of an outpatient clinic but
didn’t follow up. Eventually I left the trailer and spent a few months on the streets of Florida!  I ended up in Arizona in August 1998.  It was here in Arizona that I finally got introduced into the public mental health system.  The public mental health system gave me the support I needed to get back onto my feet.  They helped with vocational rehabilitation, medication, therapy and most important ‘housing’!! I ended up on the streets because I didn’t have any hope, I ended up on the streets because I didn’t care … well the AZ public mental health system offered me that hope and caring at a time when I had none!

 me:  And how did you move from being helped to helping?

Tom:  When I was introduced into the Arizona mental health system I thought I was the only person who went through what I went through.  When I found out there were others I started to socialize with them and attend a few support groups!  The one I mentioned earlier!!  From that I learned about the Arizona Behavioral Health System and a friend mentioned a County Advisory Council.  I didn’t know anything about advocating or speaking on my behalf let alone the behalf of another but there was a person that my friend thought I should meet.  That is the only reason I went to that meeting.  From that meeting someone heard me share a little about my story and said they wanted me to talk to some case managers. After sharing my story with those case managers in the system on thing led to another to another. I met people who were interested in helping me (because I started to want to help myself) and from there ended up doing some contract training for the local managed care company.  I say that I am blessed for what I have gone through (the good, the bad and the ugly) because I would not be where I am unless I went through what I went through.  I’m helping or attempting to help others today because I want to give back to a system that saved my life.  I want to give back to those who helped me get to where I am today!  In all honesty though – giving back is selfish for me –  for when I give back and help others I get the opportunity to let others know that there is hope … the more hope I can give … the more hope I get back in return!

 me:  Do you think the approach in Arizona is pretty representative of the approach in all areas of the country? I suppose this is a way of backing into the question of what changes are still needed to the system at large …

Tom:  I have had the opportunity to do some work around the country and I do not believe that the Arizona approach is representative in all areas of the country.  I was discharged to homelessness in two other States (Florida and Iowa) – I was given transitional living services when I was discharged from my only hospitalization in Arizona back in 1998.  The behavioral health systems throughout the country state that recovery and peer support are some of their overarching principles … Arizona followed Georgia into the peer support world within a few months!  I think some states are strong on peer support – many need help.  In my experience where there is strong peer support, the behavioral health system is a little stronger too!  Maricopa County through Magellan Health Services offers support groups for people who have attempted suicide that are peer-run and peer-led.  There are only a handful of support groups for people who have attempted suicide across the country … there needs to be groups such as this throughout the country.  Funding is a big challenge within the behavioral health world as many programs and states are underfunded.  I think funding would help improve the system at large – I think helping develop programs and including those individuals who go through what they go through need to be part of that program development!

 me:  You mentioned “Greyhound therapy,” and that reminds me of a story about a similar case that made the news earlier this month. Any idea how widespread that practice is? And surely it’s illegal, or at least unethical?

Tom:  Getting a bus ticket from one part of the country to another is cost shifting.  But other states offer that same service!  I do not know how widespread that practice is but to me it’s unethical.  In retrospect when I was given a bus ticket from Iowa to Florida, I did have an appointment with a counselor at an agency in Florida.  I didn’t know where they were, didn’t care, didn’t really plan on meeting anyone because of the ‘mental’ state I was in but the hospital did their ‘due diligence’.  If something happened they could have said “Well we gave Mr. Kelly the name and address of the Henderson Mental Health Clinic and he had an appointment!!”

 me:  Still, it’s amazing that people are just put on a bus. Have you seen any programs that do a really good job of addressing not only mental health but the underlying economic issues?

Tom:  There is one agency in Maricopa County that really focuses on employment for the people they serve.  Throughout the country the average rate of employment for people with serious mental illness is around 10%. This one agency in Maricopa County has an employment rate of 26% for people with serious mental illness.  Help put a job into someone’s weekly list of things to do and not only does it help the individual financially it helps the system because the individual becomes a tax payer and gives back to the community!!  The programs that focus on Housing First and Employment First are those that are doing a really good job of addressing the mental health and helping to improve the underlying economic issues!!

me:  This may be an ambitious thought, but how long will it take to move from peers being part of the system to peers running, or helping to run, the system? And how long will it take for many in the system to be comfortable saying openly that they’re peers as well?

Tom:  What is the saying about a cold day in …

Tom:  There are a handful of agencies across the country that have “peers” on their executive teams.  I was in such a position for a few years with another managed behavioral health agency.  There are many agencies that are non-profit agencies which are governed by Boards of Directors.  Many of those agencies have peers that serve as Board Members. I think that the peer voice is at the table to a better extent today than it was in 10 years ago!  I think that because of the belief that peers can recover and do in fact have knowledge, skill and abilities to move forward in the employment area many of them choose to stay within the behavioral health world. There are two National Managed Behavioral Healthcare Organizations that have peers who are serving at the Executive Team Level …

Tom:  I think the other question about how comfortable people are in disclosing their lived experience is a challenge!  I see more and more when I present that someone will come to me after the presentation and open up and say “Me Too” … when I ask them if others know about their lived experience they say “I can never tell people that I’m a peer – what would they think?” … there is still a lot of stigma, prejudice and discrimination going on … one day my friend … one day!!!

me:  I’m always curious about the more striking or surprising questions and responses people get when they talk openly about this. Does anything stick with you?

 Tom:  Please elaborate a little not sure what you are looking for ….

me:  You’re open about your experience. What are some of the more surprising questions or responses you’ve had about it?

Tom:  I guess I share so much about my experience and I am an open book that I don’t get too many surprising questions.  The responses I get, to be honest, are things people don’t say or ask!  Here I am, an open book willing to let them ask me
any question they want and … nothing!

I will have to think more about this particular question … I think I can find something that is surprising … just cant think about it now
 me:  What would you love to be asked? I don’t mind being guided along here!

Tom:  Once again … I don’t really know!

Tom:  Discrimination and prejudice seem to be more prominent within the behavioral health world and suicide prevention world than in the general community … How do we really get to the heart of the matter when it comes to understanding the damage that fear, ignorance and malice does in the work we do!

Tom:  I think it’s important for people to share their experiences and not feel ashamed to tell their stories.  Every civil rights movement started with a few people who had the courage to move forward … we need to develop courage and character and support folks for sharing their stories!

 me:  Why in the world would discrimination, etc., be stronger within the very field that talks about breaking down stigma?

Tom:  That’s the million dollar question!  In my opinion the professionals that work in the field only see people when they are doing poorly and in need of attention, help etc.  They do not see people when they are doing well!  When they see people such as myself; they say – but your different!  I am no different than the person who walks in off the street today … cause I was that person 20 years ago!!  When they don’t see that recovery is real and that recovery is possible they use “dark humor” and other defense mechanisms to protect themselves from “those people”.  It is funny that there is more stigma in the very field that is trying to eradicate it!!

me:  Interesting that you mention humor … Is there any way to talk about this issue openly with humor, dark or otherwise? I’ve seen a few interesting projects, like cartoons or documentaries …

Tom:  I think that the program coming out of Vancouver, British Columbia – Stand Up for Mental Health – is an interesting program.  David Granirer who is a therapist and has some stand-up comic experience travels around the continent and trains people with serious mental illness to deliver stand-up routines.  Victoria Maxwell does a one woman show about the ups and downs of bipolar disorder at different conferences around the world (I think she has three different shows).  I heard of another gal that does a one person stage presentation on the lived experience of bipolar too … but I forget her name!

Tom:  With the proper funding and support I think developing an Improvisational Comedy Troupe would be a good idea.  That way they could react to what the audience was giving them to work with!!

me:  Those people are good to know! I’ve spoken with David before … And here’s a change of subject. Let me know if you’d rather not go here, but why does it seem like the topic of assisted suicide is completely separate from the usual mental health world?

Tom:  A topic for another discussion for sure!!  Perhaps it should be called Assisted Death …

 me:  And for that matter, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of philosophical conversations in this field …

Tom:  I think the topic of assisted suicide is separate because the person has to go through lots of different things in their decision and are they not being challenged by whatever challenges those who do die by suicide without the assistance!

Tom:  I don’t really have a stance on anything in life … I really try to be a non-judgmental person … if push comes to shove … I would support someone asking me to pull the plug if it were in their living will!!  How about you?

 me:  I think I agree. It was startling to watch my father pass away and have no inrush of nurses because he had a DNR order, but he had declared his wishes and had been very open about his long fight, in his case with cancer. I just think there’s a lot of ground for very good discussions out there.

Anyway … here comes another change of topic:
 Tom:  Sure but you only have me for another 10 minutes …

 me:  Got it. Two more questions, then. This is question I often ask, because it was something that certainly stopped me from a more serious attempt: What if suicide prevention messaging emphasized the idea that no method is foolproof? That you can wake up in far worse shape? I think many people think, “Maybe this will work” and take huge risks in their attempts …

Tom:  I believe I have seen some messaging in that people could wake up and be in far worse shape.  To me it’s kind of interesting, I didn’t think of that at all when I was in a position where I wanted to die!  I didn’t want to jump because I was afraid of heights – not because I didn’t think it was NOT going to kill me.  I know people (two friends of mine today as a matter of fact) that survived bullet shots to their head – so that was out of the question.  With me it was always medication overdose.  I just wanted to end the pain, go to sleep and die in my sleep.  I’ve heard people have ended up in worse shape from all three of those different types of attempts!  I’m blessed and lucky after putting more than 150 pills into my system that I made it out of the coma relatively mentally healthy with no brain damage (that I know of LOL).  Those that think “Maybe this will work” are at a place where they need connection to something, someone in my humble opinion.  Perhaps the messaging would touch them – in my personal situation – I would not have thought anything about messaging around that thought!!

me:  Good points, and I’m scared of heights myself! OK, I like to end with this question: Since this experience most likely doesn’t define you, at least completely, who else are you?

Tom:  I am intuitive, perceptive, fun-loving person that enjoys helping others!  I’m a friend, brother, son, athlete, dancer and all-around nice guy!!!  Do you know anyone looking for someone like me … I’m single too!!

 me:  Ha! Let’s see what happens when that’s posted for the world to see!
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this!
Tom:  Hmmm maybe I’ll need to edit that last comment!

Talking with Samantha Nadler

Samantha Nadler once told her therapist she wouldn’t live to be 18 years old. Six years past that deadline, she now supervises a crisis program and talks openly about her experience with suicidality. She recently went home for the first time in a decade, revisiting a world where she had been seen as the hospital patient, the troubled one. Her transformation was greeted with happy surprise and even tears.

Here, she talks about the limitations of mental health coverage, the very cool rise of social media in suicide prevention and the way her work has created a buffer for her past.

“A lot of people, including myself, expected I would not survive that part of my life,” she says. “Now I’m being able to contribute in my own way _ another reason for it to be very healing.”

Tell us about yourself.

I came into this field because I wanted to get firsthand experience, and a full-time position opened. I answered phones full-time for a crisis line, and also for 211, for social services. I did that for about three years. I also was offered the opportunity to start facilitating a survivors of suicide support group, for those who lost someone to suicide. So I’ve been doing that ever since, for about three years. Then a year ago, I had the opportunity to be promoted to crisis program supervisor. I’m currently working on my master’s in social work at the University of Tennessee. And that’s everything I can think to tell you.

How did you come to be talking to me?

Sure. When I first started here, I was not open about my history because of stigma. I didn’t want to raise concerns about my stability. I did tell them here I had personal experience with suicide, but with family members, which was true. After a couple of years here, I had the opportunity through the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network to facilitate an attempters group. This was a Suicide Anonymous group. It was a 12-step model, but we never had anyone show up, so we stopped having it. At first, my job was concerned that I may not have had enough experience. I was fairly young. I’m 24. And that’s when I had to be open about my history. That’s kind of how I came into the field.

I’m very lucky. My job has been very supportive ever since. People get something from me talking about my experience. I have some sort of professional and personal authority on the topic. Our survivors of suicide group has been helpful for me and others. I started attempting suicide when I was 12. And I have a history of eight or nine attempts, and the last was five years ago.


I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional household. A broken marriage, my parents remarried, a very difficult transition. Depression and anxiety run in my family, so I have that going for me. I came to know about suicidal ideation when I was 12. I didn’t understand it. I just didn’t want to live. Nobody had ever talked about it, that people experienced that. The first time I was hospitalized, I hadn’t even attempted, I just verbalized it. That’s how I found out it was a serious thing.

I never talked to anyone directly about my feelings. It was basically professionals talking over me. I never had a chance to know why I was feeling that way. I had multiple attempts from feeling trapped in my house. School ended up not well for me. I think I ended up cutting most of my sophomore year. I ended up with a diagnosis of bipolar, with a lot of changing medications, trying to find out what works. It was not consistent. I had no chance to find out what worked for me. I had battled depression for the majority of my life at this point. I still experience ideations, but I don’t act on them anymore.

After the last attempt, what made you decide that?My last attempt was the most lethal, with three days in the ICU. My previous attempts were all overdoses, but I didn’t necessarily need medical attention. This time I remember being told, “We’re not sure you’re going to make it.” My liver had issues. I really got to see how others were affected by my actions. Before, I was pretty isolated. I didn’t see how it affected others, the impact my death would have. I was able to see that more.

Honestly, working at my job has been very healing for me. I’ve always wanted to go into mental health and talk about suicide, I just never thought it would actually happen. So coming into this field has been very therapeutic for me. I get the chance to give back what has been given to me over the years. Also, the more I invest in the field, the more it acts as a buffer for me. I know if I were to do something like that, all the work I’ve done trying to prevent this, I would feel it be a waste. Because I would do something I’ve been advocating against for so long. And I’ve been connected with so many people. The impact, I suppose, would be greater.What made you realize you could work in this field?

There was a transition from when I lived at home in New York to being in a troubled teens program for two years in Tennessee. When I was at home, I remember saying to the therapist that I wasn’t going to live to be 18. So just merely being able to leave my house, see that I can make it out of high school, that I do have that ability to go to college, that was what kind of pushed it. I always knew I wanted to major in psychology or social work. I’ve been really enjoying it. I’m very lucky I got my job here while working on my bachelor’s. I’ve been able to have really cool experiences firsthand.

Has stigma in your field ever been a concern?

Well, not since I’ve been open professionally about it. I went through my whole adolescence being the identified patient in my family, always the one going to the hospital, having attempts. So, of course, I had that label there. But coming here _ I went from New York to Tennessee _ I was hesitant because I was afraid people would think I wasn’t fully capable. I did hold back for a while. It would be understandable to think that way. I was only a year out from an attempt. If we were to interview anyone here who recently had attempted suicide, it would raise concern for us. If the opportunity had not presented itself …

After coming out of the closet of mental illness, it’s been fantastic, actually. I’ve received nothing but support from every direction. It’s been really comforting and surprising for me. I think people understand me and my position more. My knowledge in this field is not based on just what I read in books, which has been helpful.

In your field, how many people would you say have experience, and how many have just a book background?

I met a lot of people at the AAS conference. I’ve attended ended two of those. And I connected with a lot of people who had that history. But I met a lot more who were suicide survivors. But there’s a movement now to have attempt survivors talk and be a part. I think I saw that more than four years ago. I’m someone who over the years has opened up as well. But I have to say I’ve met more survivors of suicide than attempters. I only know one other person in the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network who has that kind of history, the only one who has opened up about it.

Have you had any unusual reactions?

From sharing my history?


Well, usually in my survivors of suicide support group, I will sometimes mention it. I know that I have observed group members changing their tone about someone attempting. I don’t want people thinking they have to be more sensitive to my experience. I offer my knowledge about what happened when someone was in that frame of mind. I can offer that validation of whatever they think might have happened. Sometimes people in my group get relief from that.

Another setting is if I choose to share in our call center training, three times a year. I cover the suicide assessment portion. Sometimes I get questions about something they heard about suicide risk, a lot of stereotypes. So every once in a while, I have a back-and-forth with someone about a theory, and sometimes I throw out, “Well, I attempted suicide this many times, and I did not experience this.” That usually gets an interesting response, because until that point the trainees know me as a supervisor. I always get more in-depth questions about suicidality because they know someone who’s experienced that. But I haven’t really received anything wild, because I’m so involved in this field that people aren’t surprised.

Should people in the field disclose that they’ve had this experience, and should people with experience be given priority in the field?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because having that understanding definitely gives you an edge and depth of understanding that the average person doesn’t grasp. That’s why so many people say, “It’s selfish” and “How weak of them,” when it’s the opposite. But on the other hand, there are people out there who are very empathetic and, while not experienced themselves, they may have had a best friend who tried to kill themself and understand having someone in their life with that experience. That’s how I was with the survivors of suicide group, because even though I had not lost someone, I felt connected. I think people out there don’t necessarily have to be in my shoes, but if they have some exposure to it …

You have to have this kind of understanding to have the job. I think people in my shoes should be looked at more seriously for these positions instead of, “Oh geez, they might be more unstable for this job.”

Since you work inside the system, what changes would you like to see?

I definitely feel there are not enough resources for people who chronically deal with suicidal ideation. Our call center is working on starting an attempters group, and I know there aren’t many out there. Basically, the options are individual therapy or going to the hospital, and there’s nothing really in between. I feel there’s a gap in services there. For people who are feeling suicidal, without the fear of working with them. A lot of people fear because they think they’re encouraging an environment where people become more suicidal or plan suicide together, which is ridiculous. You don’t get cancer any more than the average person if you discuss it. And I don’t think people understand. Over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness, and that speaks for what that means when someone tries to take their life.

I definitely would like to see more mental health initiatives in health care. I recently had to seek out a therapist and get anti-depressants for the first time in a while. I’m paying for the cheapest health care, but I can see no one but my primary health care doctor. I should be able to see a therapist under that plan if I needed to. I don’t go to a doctor for anything else. A therapist is expensive, and I see how people end up not getting help. I definitely feel there needs to be more services. I think a lot of people are scared to work with those with a history of suicide.

Also, I would like to see more professionals trained in how to assess for suicide. I think those working in the health field don’t really have a well-rounded understanding of how that works. For example, when I saw my doctor, the question was, “Are you suicidal?” “I have been.” She said, “You don’t have a plan, do you? Because if you do, I have to hospitalize you.” That’s not a tactful way to ask. What if I had a plan? I wouldn’t have been honest. She pretty much set me up to say “no” to her. I said to her afterwards how I heard that question and how others might hear it, and she’s like, “Yup, that’s great, thanks. Next patient.” It just demonstrates the lack of experience in assessing for suicide, and in a way that makes that person feel they can talk to you. And not being afraid to ask those questions and have a conversation, because a conversation could mean everything.

So the only person you can afford to go to under your health plan is your general practicioner?

Correct. It’s the high-deductible plan.

I’m no expert on this, but I’ve heard people talk confidently about changes coming with Obamacare, mental health parity …?

To be honest, I don’t know a whole lot about that stuff yet. This was about two months ago. I could have gone to a psychiatrist, but some were not taking clients, and if they were, it was going to be like $120 to go see them. Yeah. And there wasn’t a huge selection, either. I had tried to see my old psychiatrist, but he wasn’t taking any clients. It’s just a very complicated process.

What about alternatives to the usual system, through social media or such?

Good question. I’ve seen, like, listservs. There is a clinician survivors of suicide e-mail list through AAS, for people who work in the field and have lost someone personally or professionally. So I know they have listservs for people like that, I think because when they tried to do it in cities independently, people didn’t come because of stigma, and professionals don’t want to be seen grieving over clients. But honestly, I haven’t seen too many things for people in my shoes.

But I know people are using social media a lot for, especially, suicide prevention. I have an Instagram account, and a few weeks ago I tried looking up the suicide prevention hashtag. It’s so cool because that could pull up pictures, etc., from all over the world. One photo I found was someone saying, “There is hope,” and they listed our Nashville crisis line! Out of all the numbers, they found ours. It was so neat because, you know, I wonder how many people saw that, and what are the odds? I mean, there are lots of crisis lines. The fact they had our number, and I was able to find it, shows how social media can reach out to people they don’t necessarily intend to each out to.

I know our call center does a lot of outreach events, community fairs. What’s cool about that is if someone comes up and sees that we answer the crisis line, they say, “I had a friend and gave her this number, she made it through the night” or “I used it” or “I need this number.”

And something we recently started doing, we had Fort Campbell, they reached out to us because I have a survivors of suicide support group, and they wanted people from the group to talk to their soldiers to deter the behavior, since it’s been very high on base. They also wanted an attempter. So I went, and that was really neat, since the Army used us instead of “death by Powerpoint.” We had two or three soldiers come up after each session and say they had been feeling suicidal and hadn’t told anyone yet. It as just us talking about it. I guess the stories were impactful enough that they felt they could come forward. It really was a neat experience. We got to go back last Friday to do it again.

Did you feel any sense of not trusting you because you’re not in the military?

Well, they reached out to us. That’s the most interesting part. They were looking to reach their soldiers in a different way. We weren’t trying to train them how to assess suicide risk. We were just four people with stories. Very easygoing. We were really impressed with Fort Campbell. We spoke to about 1,000 soldiers that day.

The people who knew you when you were younger, what do they think about you now?

I have to say that’s one of the coolest things about going into this field. I recently had to go home to New York last week, and I hadn’t been there in probably 10 years. A lot people had not seen me since I was very sick. It’s funny you asked that question. A lot of people found it very cool. I ran into a teacher who was really a guardian angel for me, and she teared up seeing I was alive, I hadn’t killed myself, and things were going well. And it’s especially neat when people know what I’m doing now. A few days ago, someone posted a letter I had wrote from the hospital. She said I had come such a long way, it was neat to watch how I had come from that place to this place. I have to say that’s one of the biggest rewards. A lot of people, including myself, expected I would not survive that part of my life. Now I’m being able to contribute in my own way _ another reason for it to be very healing.

What more would you like to do?

When I grow up? I feel like I have my dream job right now. I feel what I’m doing right now is so perfect for me. I have such a supportive job and supervisors, and what a great environment: ‘”I have this idea, what do you think?” “Great!” They’re very supportive. And I want to stay at my job as long as I can. I want to be an LCSW. I want to eventually be a clinician, but I’m not sure in what capacity. I’m interested in trauma, but I’m not sure how far I want to move from suicidality. But I enjoy my niche and plan on being here for a bit.

Who else are you?

Well, I’m a wife, I’m a daughter, a friend, a sister. I’m really enjoying music. I mean, that’s everything I can think to say on that. Here in the last few years, I’ve been trying to draw that line on “I am not my mental illness” and use it for good. I’m a student and, I don’t know, enjoying life, I guess.

Talking with Jay Johnston

Jay Johnston came to my attention when he recently graduated from law school and was featured on his local news. He’s come far from his days in high school, when his depression deepened and he kept thoughts of suicide secret so no one would think he was being dramatic. Now he talks openly about his attempt and encourages others to reach out before they risk going as far as he did.

“It’s probably the only disease _ and it is a disease _ where the more someone is suffering from it, the less likely they are to seek help,” he says of suicidal thinking. “Do you agree with that?”

Here, Jay talks about his mother’s reaction, what he tells curious children and why an “overly needy” dog has turned out to be an ideal companion.

Tell us about yourself.

The first impression people get when meeting me would be my disfigurement, but that’s probably not the information you were looking for. I’m 34. I live in Portland, Oregon. I’m an Oregon native. I grew up on the coast and moved to Portland in high school. I love this town and have been here ever since. I live downtown with my basset hound Hugo the Wonderdog.

Talk about your experience.

I suffered from depression all of my childhood. I didn’t know it. That was just normal for me. The depression became acute in high school. My depression was like putting on dark sunglasses. It made bright things look dark and dark things look hopeless. I told my mom when I was 17 that I had been thinking about killing myself. Unlike me, she knew that wasn’t normal and took me immediately to the family doctor. This was the ’90s, and Prozac had just come out, and there was a lot of hubbub about the drug. The doctor put me on anti-depressants, but a very low dose. I wasn’t advised to get counseling along with the anti-depressants. If that small dosage helped, it didn’t help much. Eventually, my prescription ran out and I had a hard time getting a refill. It took weeks or months. I don’t want to give the drugs a bad name, saying they don’t work. Maybe a different dosage or counseling would have effectively treated my depression. These two certainly have been effective as an adult.

In the months before my attempt, as my misery became unbearable, I spent a lot of time trying to decide if I would be better off dead and if the people around me would be better off or even affected if I died. I began testing, something like luck or fate, to see if my pain could be extinguished. I did things like driving around sharp corners at twice the speed limit. If I died, then my pain was over. If the car stuck to the road, then I would live another day.

I was also testing myself, trying to determine if I could really go through with suicide. I did this with a shotgun I had bought for sporting purposes. I had no thoughts of suicide when I bought the gun. I would unload the gun and put pressure on the trigger while the barrel was to my head. As I did this, I asked myself if I could squeeze the trigger if the gun were loaded.

I kept all this to myself. I didn’t want to seem dramatic or be perceived as someone seeking attention. I didn’t even tell the people closest to me for this reason and because I was almost certain that they wouldn’t care.

A couple of weeks before my high school graduation, things came to a head. My car broke down, I was fighting with my mom, a girl I had been seeing was showing interest in a friend of mine, my grades were horrible, and it was iffy that I could graduate. I was in absolute misery. I paged my best friend. I didn’t want to reveal anything to him. I just wanted to get out of the house and spend time with him to get my mind off things. I paged him for hours and never heard back. That was as good a sign as any that absolutely no one cared whether I were dead or alive. I wrote goodbye letters to a few friends. They were sort of half apologies. I wrote that “This probably won’t affect you, but just in case, I’m sorry. You’ll
get over it soon, but life is too painful for me.” I didn’t write a letter to my mom, even though she was the closest person in my life. My depression had my perspective so bent that I didn’t think she would care if I died, so there was no reason to write her an apology.

I loaded the shotgun and put it to my head. I bawled my eyes out because I couldn’t find what I thought of as courage to pull the trigger. I was in excruciating pain and angry at myself for not having enough “bravery” to end my pain. In the movies, people put guns to their forehead or temple. I wanted to be sure that I was dead. I didn’t want to accidentally shoot out my eyes and then live on as a blind person, so I put the barrel under my chin. This would ensure that the blast did the job.

I don’t remember pulling the trigger. The last thing I remember is lying on my bed on my side with the shotgun cradled under my chin. I might have pulled the trigger, I might have cried myself to sleep and rolled over on the gun, I don’t know.

My friend eventually returned my calls. It turned out he had been on the highway between Portland and the coast, and he had to wait to get home to call me. This was pre-cell phone days. My mom answered the phone and brought it to my bedroom. She had been in the house when I shot myself but somehow didn’t hear the shot. She found the mess and saw that I had got off the bed and crawled to the door. The shotgun tore off the front of my face but missed my brain. I lost my jaw, part of my tongue, nearly all of my teeth, both my cheeks, my nose, one eye and most of my forehead. Despite my deliberate planning to avoid survival with lost vision, that is exactly what happened.

Then what? How did you even begin to come back from that?

“Waking up” in the hospital was a gradual process. I had to be told several times over several days where I was and why I was in the hospital. I don’t remember much, but I do know that I was communicating by writing on a clipboard. I was blind in my remaining eye and unable to speak without a mouth. One of my most vivid memories is the staunch denial that I had pulled the trigger. I insisted that I had eventually changed my mind and the gun must have gone off accidentally.

The intense and interrupted physical pain is indescribable. Perhaps even more painful was the slow realization that I was now severely mangled and had no sight. Even months later, after I regained some of my vision, I was still feeling very sorry for myself for being blind. I don’t know when my depression started lifting. Perhaps it was when I was able to regain my mobility and some independence. I was still “eating” through a tube in my stomach, but my renewed physical strength allowed me to get around, and I was undergoing blind training. I was getting a more appropriate dose of anti-depressants than when I was in high school, and I was getting counseling. Perhaps most beneficial was my new dog. My neighbors gave me their overly needy basset hound, and he turned out to be an ideal companion.

How long did the blind training last, and what did you do when the training was over?

Life at this point was interspersed with extended stays in the hospital for reconstructive surgeries. After a few years of this, I enrolled at a local college, where I took additional breaks for more surgeries. This extended my college experience, but I got through it and graduated in 2008. I had been living the life I feared, disfigured and visually impaired; however, I was much happier than in my teens. I took a year off from school and enrolled in law school here in Portland, which I wrapped up this summer.

You say you were much happier. How is that?

Anti-depressants and counseling is what has made the difference for me. It took me years to realize that normal people feel good when good things happen and bad when bad things happen. Before my depression was treated, I actually disallowed myself to be happy over good things. There were so many bad things that I shouldn’t and wouldn’t enjoy the few good ones.

Did it help having a clear goal, knowing exactly what you needed to do to help yourself?

It was the reverse. Before my depression was treated, I had no hope of achieving anything, so goals were useless. That’s why I was doing so poor in school. I had no drive whatsoever. Once I was in a healthier position, I was able to have enough confidence to make goals and work toward them.

Where do you go from this point? What would you like to do?

It’s a hard question to answer. And you’re not alone. Everyone wants to know: “You’ve graduated law school, what now?” My future’s uncertain at this point. I haven’t taken the bar exam yet. There’s a lot of directions I could go. I’ll just keep moving forward; it’s how I made it this far.

How has your mom responded through all of this?

My depression and injury have probably been more painful to my mom than me. She had seen me suffer through depression, then she had to watch me suffer through the significant physical challenges after my injury. She’s been a ton of help to me and given me endless support. It’s cost her a lot of energy and pain. Have you written about the notion of the selfishness of suicide?

A little. People mention it as a misconception, that this is done out of selfishness, but no one has said they’ve been accused of it. You?

Sometimes friends have mentioned it. Not an accusation—more of a perspective. I certainly see where they’re coming from. For example, my suicide attempt is in my past, but the pain to my mom is still in the present. But what many people don’t understand is the perspective of suicide attempters. Their perception is so altered from their depression that they don’t see their actions as impacting anyone. Someone who understands that there are people who love them and would be hurt by their suicide probably aren’t suffering from the severe depression that would drive them to suicide.

At what point does thinking turn suicidal? At what point was it for you?

I don’t know what flips the switch or if there is one. My understanding is that a person
is definitely in a suicidal mindset and in imminent danger if they have planned a method of killing themselves. This is one of the questions to ask someone if you fear that they are suicidal. For me, the turning point was probably a gradual transition. When I was firmly in a suicidal mindset it was the result of pain, perceived isolation, and hopelessness.

I couldn’t state it succinctly, but my understanding is that there’s two types of depression, situational and biochemical _ whatever the brain type is called. Situational, meaning you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and your spouse left you and you’re bankrupt all at once. In other words, you’re fundamentally healthy, but the circumstances make you miserable. The biochemical kind is related to serotonin, if I understand correctly. The person is miserable regardless of their circumstances. That’s what I had.

What ultimately drove me to attempt suicide was that underlying chemical or biological or whatever depression, and then adding on to that the situational factors, which in retrospect were minor, silly things. I mean, who doesn’t get in a fight with their parents? And bad grades aren’t the end of the world. They didn’t end up being a hindrance to me as an adult, but someone suffering from depression doesn’t have the benefit of the healthy perspective to see what is good or bad or what’s minor or what’s hopeless.

Maybe it’s getting easier to talk to others about being depressed, but I’m not so sure it’s the same when a person is suicidal.

That may be true. A number of people have revealed to me their current depression and/or a prior suicide attempt, but I can’t recall anyone confiding in me their current suicidality. The worst part about depression and suicidality, probably worse than its prevalence, is that it’s treatable but the people who need to be treated most feel the most helpless and are the least motivated to get help: “No one understands my unique position. I know you think it’s no big deal. I’m not going to seek the help because no one can help me.” It’s probably the only disease _ and it is a disease _ where the more someone is suffering from it, the less likely they are to seek help. Do you agree with that? I think now I’m different,
but it’s because I’ve already learned that my depression can be treated. Before my injury, I wouldn’t have believed that my perspective was different from anyone else or that I could be helped to feel better.

Would it help if more people came forward to talk openly about their attempts? To give others that perspective?

Certainly awareness is important. However, I think someone speaking out should be deliberate in how they do it, so as not to make other people uncomfortable. This isn’t like commenting on the weather. But certainly it’s important to increase awareness about the problem and that it’s treatable.

You’ve probably heard people say this. They’ll say that they “admit” to going to counseling, as if it’s an admission of something bad. I wonder where that came from, that embarrassment for getting counseling. It’s a curious thing because no one would be embarrassed for going to a medical doctor, unless it’s something like an STD. If you have a broken bone or some kind of heart condition, you wouldn’t whisper it or say it only in confidence.

When I was a teenager, I wasn’t embarrassed for being severely depressed. I wouldn’t have wanted to bring it up with friends at lunch, but the high school social scene is unique. If a doctor asked me, I would have told him the truth. That’s something that I was told when I’ve done things like suicide intervention training. I was told never to be afraid to ask if someone’s considering suicide, because you won’t plant that seed in a healthy mind, but at the same time, someone considering suicide would be relieved that someone cared enough to ask. Have you heard that?


I’ve been in a situation with a friend whom I asked if they were thinking of killing themselves. It’s a big question to ask.

You asked it? How did it go?

Fortunately, I got the “Of course not,” but I also got the “I appreciate you asking.” Have you heard of the yellow ribbon program?

I’ve heard it mentioned but don’t know what it is.

They have a neat thing, these business cards with yellow ribbons on them. Basically it says on it, “I’m thinking about suicide, and I need help,” that’s the essence of the message. So you can give someone the card without explaining. Because some people probably can’t verbalize their situation. You could give it to a teacher, so as to not make a scene, or give it to your parents because you’re so scared that you couldn’t put it into words but could hand over this card. It’s a neat thing. I keep some here at the house.

You have them to distribute, or to hand out for yourself?

I ordered them for a school presentation so the teacher could have them sitting on his desk. So if someone wanted one, they could take one on the sly. But no, I don’t keep them for my own use. I am fortunate enough to have professional resources like a doctor and counselor. I could just go to them and say, “Hey I think my meds need readjusted” or “I need to talk about this.” The cards are especially for someone school-age, for example, and doesn’t know what to do.

I assume that people have asked you for advice, and I wonder if you’re of the same mind. I tell people, if you’re not making progress with a counselor, psychiatrist or whatever, get a different one. Because they’re all unique, and a therapist perfect for one person might not be right for another. And if the next one is not a good fit, try again. If that therapist doesn’t work, then stick with him or her because it’s probably the therapy, not the therapist that makes you uncomfortable. Talking about and examining emotions can put you outside your comfort zone. Maybe it’s like taking medicine: It might taste bad, but it’s worth it if you’ll be healthier.

I agree. But affording it, and finding a therapist who works with suicidal people …

In Oregon, if you’re indigent, you get on Medicaid or its equivalent. I can’t remember what the program’s called, but you can be homeless and get it, and there are county-sponsored clinics where you go and get assigned a counselor. I know when I was a young adult I couldn’t afford insurance and was in the program. I think it was like a $20 co-pay that the county-sponsored clinic charged, and the state picked up the charge. Whatever it was, it was totally free. She was as good a counselor as I’ve ever had, and she only had an MSW _ a master’s degree. The worst therapists I had were psychiatrists, MDs. Their training was to fix the problem by adjusting medication. There’s a place for that, meds made a
huge difference for me, but it doesn’t replace counseling. What I’m saying is don’t shop for the fanciest degree when choosing a therapist.

What kinds of questions do you get, including from strangers?

Sometimes people will ask, “What happened to your face?” Others will say, “Oh! I just noticed you have a prosthetic nose, what happened?” Most often, probably, it’s kids, and then their parents yell at them for asking. The kid thing, that’s tough, because what do you tell an 8-year-old? If there’s no parent there, I would say I had an accident. I’ll tell an adult; I don’t mind. For me, my injury is something of the past, and my treated depression is not an issue because it’s treated. So I’m not shy or embarrassed. Being disfigured is tough, you know, emotionally tough. It would be awfully nice to look normal, but it’s one of those things you can’t control.

Do you do public speaking?

I’ve done presentations at schools, and I’ve been on a few panels, but I’m not a motivational speaker. I don’t book myself into hotel banquet rooms, anything like that.

What have you not mentioned that you’d like to?

The only other thing off the top of my head is the message to not keep it a secret if someone tells you. If someone tells you in confidence they’re considering suicide, don’t keep it secret. It’s better to break confidence than have that person languish with depression or kill themselves.

Another thing, I think therapists and auto mechanics are similar enough to compare. You take your car to the mechanic when something is wrong, but you also do it for maintenance. Going to a counselor can improve a person’s quality of life even when there isn’t a crisis. Don’t think of it as resorting to therapy.

Finally, since this experience is in the past and isn’t the only thing that defines you, who else are you?

I love to read novels. My hobbies are woodworking and vintage radio collecting. I’m a dog owner. I’m an uncle. That probably covers the main demographics.

I’m impressed by the high number of dog owners I speak with here. It’s never cats.

Dogs are mysterious. They’re uniquely intuitive. When I lost an aunt, I was just lying in bed absolutely miserable, and the dog crawled up on the bed. He’ll usually sleep on the bed with me, but this time he wedged himself next to me for as much bodily contact as possible, as if he knew I needed the endorphins. He’s done the same thing when I’ve been sick. Dogs are just endless sources of love, always happy to see you. They’re never in a bad mood or selfish. They’re just happy to get and return your affection.

Talking with Linda Fuglestad

The road to talking with Linda Fuglestad started with the National Empowerment Center, which offers a directory of the dozen or so peer-run crisis services across the country. Linda was among the people at the crisis centers who responded to a hello.

Cheerful and articulate, with a Vermont home that’s often full of family, she found time in the final days of a busy academic semester to describe her own experience and explain just what a peer-run crisis center does. It sounds far more comfortable and engaging than a psychiatric ward, to be sure. The project where she works, Alyssum, is being watched as a pilot project in parts of the mental health world.

“We’re all human beings, we’ve all had pain and suffering and sharing,” Linda says. “And I think that’s just the human part that never should have been taken out of the counseling model in the first place. It seems to be on the way to being added back in, and I think it’s been a long time coming.”

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Linda Jean Fuglestad. I’m a divorced mom with four great daughters and, more recently, two older foster children and nine grandchildren. I love having a big family. I’m working on my master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, and am looking forward to later being a therapist to work specializing in trauma, and I also hope to work with foster children and families. I currently work at a new pilot program funded by the Vermont Department of Mental Health, the peer-hosted alternative crisis respite, Alyssum, Inc., in Vermont. And I really love my job.

How did you come to be talking with me?

My executive director, Gloria van den Berg, forwarded an e-mail saying you were writing about people’s experiences surviving a suicide attempt. The way I came to have my suicidal experience happened when I was 15. Everything was about my mom. She was drinking, bipolar, had multiple personalities. She’d had a traumatic childhood of her own. When I was 15, I wanted sometimes for things to be about me. Sometimes I created my own problems, I guess, although I didn’t see it that way back then. I tried to figure out how to feel seen and heard with a mother with so much going on, and I wasn’t really being the real me. I ended up with a boyfriend who was very attentive, and I liked that. He was young, handsome and rebellious, and that was exciting at the time, but later I felt kind of stuck when I was wasn’t ready to be settled down yet. My mom, in particular, was pushing me to keep him. I didn’t agree, but the guilt was huge about leaving him, and everything just felt overwhelming. I decided I was just done. Nothing in my world was about me or what I wanted. I didn’t know who I was, where I was going. I felt I didn’t have anybody to talk to about that. I washed down a whole bottle of aspirin. Then I was thinking about it and started to panic. Maybe I did want to find out who I am, who I want to be. I called my boyfriend’s grandmother, who was a nurse. I panicked and said, “This is what I’ve done, what do I do? I’ve changed my mind.” She told me to vomit up the aspirin and drink lots of milk. I did. I never told my parents, my sisters, not even my best friend. I had quite a long time with ringing in my ears. It was quite a long time before I could or would take aspirin again. Just the smell of one would make me sick.

I struggled in a long relationship I wasn’t happy in after I had time to look at my life, and which later turned into an abusive marriage. But I decided I was not going to give up on me. I promised God I was never going to do it again. And I never did. I feel like I was selling out, like I was shorting myself and not giving myself enough credit for figuring out how to work through it. I’ve been through a lot of tough things in my life, and I’ve been in some phases of being really low, tired, depressed, places when life was tough, and I thought about it, but I decided I was a survivor. I was going to figure out a way to do it or ask somebody else for help. So through another marriage that didn’t work despite my trying really hard to work it out, after having loved him with all my heart, and then becoming a single mom again, it hasn’t been easy. There’s been a lot of struggles. A lot of times I thought maybe I wanted a way out, but I have never again wanted to take that way out. I had my girls to be a role model for, and they were counting on me, and I would want my dad to be proud of me. I’m not a quitter. I adopted the mantra, “It is what it is.” I keep on going. I slowly looked at the areas of my life I needed to change, and piece by piece I worked things out, sometimes alone and sometimes by talking to others, and slowly I put my life back together and felt balanced and stronger than ever. If I’d ever had a label after all my struggles, I would have finally outgrown it again.

How did your thinking turn to helping people like this?

I’d say when I was in my early 20s. I tried being a nurses’ aide before you needed all the licensing criteria. I liked working with elderly people. I saw my mom doing it. Despite her issues, she very loving, caring. She did her best to be a good mom. A good role model in her own way. She loved being a nurses’ aide. I tried it as well and really liked caring about other people and making their struggles as pleasant as possible, so they’re not alone. Later, I spent 14 years working in a factory close to the ballfields and school in my hometown so I could be there for my kids. I had decided that my number one goal in life was to be a good mom, and I worked really hard at it. At some point along the way, I decided that there is more to me than just being Linda and being a mom, and I found out more about who I am after an accident at work changed my life.

When I hurt my back in 2001 at my job, the result was me getting retrained for different work by taking some classes. I started out to get a certificate to be a medical office assistant. About two weeks into it, I realized that sitting still wasn’t going to work with constant back pain. A guidance counselor I went to helped me see that all the classes I wanted to take were under the heading of Human Services, which I didn’t realize until then was a real thing. So I went beyond the classes they were willing to pay for, got my associates in Human Services, got into a field working with people, and I really loved that. I did an internship at Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. My mom had been a foster child, we had had foster kids in the house growing up, and over the years, with the house always full of kids, I started thinking maybe this was something I could do, too. So I took the classes to be a foster parent, got my AS, then a BA in psychology and human growth and development. My first professional job was as a Healthy Babies, Kids & Families home visitor, and I loved it. Soon after I started that job, they asked me to add being a parent educator for the Even Start Family Literacy Group. I was driving all over Rutland County, helping moms and dads finish school and helping them to become healthy families and get everyone’s needs met.

I realized while doing this work that the parents often needed the nurturing even more than the kids. That’s when I decided to apply for the job of therapeutic case manager. I started working with families, helping them to work on challenges their children had. And again, I loved it. I decided to continue with my degree, working on my master’s so I could be a therapist. On the way to that, I found Alyssum, in Rochester, hosted by peers for mental wellness. I love that, too. We work as peers. I got offered the job of peer support host. Before I even started the job, the executive director called me back and said, “We want you to come back and interview for house manager.” I was like, “Whoa, I’ve never been a manager before!” We started talking about my experience and skills and then I realized, “Oh, yes, I do know how to do that. I have already done some of that!” So, I jumped in, and it was great!

I helped Alyssum get started, along with Gloria and Karen Bixler. They had had the idea a few years before that, and we got to start on the ground work and actually make it happen. It’s been really exciting to see the changes, to see different ways to view mental health _ the amazing things peers can do for each other. I think I’ve learned as much from the guests as they’ve learned from me. Very heartwarming, amazing. A lot of people heal because they get to be heard and understood and treated like human beings without all the mental health rules getting in the way. So here I am.

How did you tell your co-workers you were a peer?

That started in Gloria’s kitchen on day one of the interview. The ad in the paper said “peer-hosted,” and I had no idea what that meant. It said you had to have lived mental health experience. I thought, “Does that mean me? Or growing up with my mom?” When I got there, Gloria asked me to describe my own experience. I told her about my ongoing battle in the past with depression and about having PTSD from past trauma. I didn’t want to get mental health services because I was afraid they’d label me like they did my mom. By the time she died, she had been on around 23 medications. It was like they had used her as a guinea pig, trying this and trying that. There was a lot that they didn’t know about personality disorders, especially bipolar, back then. I found out she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, which she wasn’t. She was bipolar, and they missed the diagnosis of multiple personalities she had from childhood trauma. During college, I interviewed her therapist, who agreed with me. After I advocated for her to have the right medications and less of what she didn’t need that was making her miss out on experiencing her own life, her last 10 years of her life was the best time I’d ever had with my mom. Finally, she was engageable again. She was, like, back as a real-life person, laughing and fun and beautiful. I really felt like I had my mom back. I’m sorry my sisters weren’t here to get that time with her, too!

Looking back, I had wanted to avoid the whole mental health system. I had seen what they had done to my mother. So I had struggled silently by myself. Finally, desperate to feel more alive after years of being depressed and after researching it, I talked to my family physician and at his suggestion, wanting something he said was non-addictive, I  tried Wellbutrin, which I thought of at the time as a glorified magic non-aspirin, vitamin kinda thing. I didn’t know anything about medications, as I’d never taken any. It gave me more energy, perked me up, got me through a tough time. I said, “OK, I will not stay on medication for a long time, though. I need to see what part is me.” I was afraid of long-term effects of any medication, so I weaned myself off of it slowly and carefully. I was done with it, without telling anybody. I compared the before and after and remained feeling just fine. Best of all, I realized I had outgrown or worked through a lot of my feelings of being out of balance, all that being on a roller coaster kind of feeling, a lot of ups and downs I didn’t seem to have been previously able to control. I knew I wasn’t bipolar. I had seen my mom, studied it, had helped people living with it. It wasn’t me. So I worked on myself, worked through some stuff, and the closest conclusion that fit was that I experienced depression and issues from past trauma that had disrupted my life, and by purposely choosing to get past it, I forced myself to get out of that mold and get on with my life.

And there are a lot of things I said and did when I was younger that I wish I could stuff back into a box, but I learned from them, and I changed. And I understand other people’s pain a lot better. I guess if I looked back, I wouldn’t change it. I don’t like it, but I wouldn’t change it. I’m glad I experienced it, so I can understand what other people are struggling with. So, that’s how I got to be where I am now. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going next and when I’ll finish my degree. I have two semesters left for my MA, and I’m working on it. I just know I will help people who are struggling and know I will have to find ways to adapt holistic into the medical model.

How can you be a therapist without falling into the typical medical model?

What I do later as a therapist can have all the appropriate balance of the medical model, but I feel it can also still have the caring and compassion that people share as a peer. In the medical model, a lot of therapists don’t share anything about their own personal experience or let people understand they’ve been there. Colleges teach therapists to be professional, keep proper boundaries, to be cautious and more impersonal. And good boundaries are certainly important, but I think that the peer part of sharing, letting people know you understand because you’ve been there, is also very important. More textbooks now are talking about holistic care, wellness alternatives, homeopathic options, and colleges are taking note and are including this as pieces of our training now. We’re all human beings, we’ve all had pain and suffering and sharing. And I think that’s just the human part that never should have been taken out of the counseling model in the first place. It seems to be on the way to being added back in, and I think it’s been a long time coming.

What have been some of the surprises while working at Alyssum, the lessons?

I’m blessed to have a lot of good trainings. At least three months of trainings that I helped choose, along with Gloria and Karen. Later, other staff added things they wanted to have for trainings as well. We’ve had CPR, First Aid, Nonviolent Communication, training on Hearing Voices, Open Dialogue, Self-Harm trainings and such, and the biggie, Intentional Peer Support, and what it means to be a peer. We’ve had some great trainings on safely coming off psychotropic medications and got to hear Robert Whitaker talk about the dangerous side effects of psychotropic drugs. I am going to blog on his website soon, hopefully! We had talks about spirituality, honoring people right where they are.

But we were still nervous when the first guests arrived. We were not sure we’d be ready, so we were learning on our feet. But one of the trainings that is really important, and I think every place that works with peers or anybody in mental health system really should have, is self-harm. We had some really good trainings, discussions about people who use cutting as a coping skill. We say it that way, not just say people are cutters. It’s a behavior, not a label. I would say that’s one of the huge things I have learned, is to see people’s self-harm techniques as a way of coping, feeling something, where a lot of the world views it as, “Oh no! Call 911.” We had some people with those kinds of experiences. You have to assess if it’s a coping skill and if it’s an emergency or not. By being treated like a human being and by working on the feelings under the behaviors, we have had some successes already with people who no longer cut after a stay at Alyssum. We’ve had people come to us who are hearing voices. Some things were new and unfamiliar. We were kind of winging it as we went along.

The experiences, though, of our staff have really worked out to keep us balanced and moving forward. We have many talented co-workers who bring a lot of amazing life experiences and skills to us, which benefit our guests. I guess the beautiful thing is, we have a really great group. We have co-supervision every Thursday, with eight to about 14 of us. We talk through how things are going, ask questions, invite guests. We don’t call them clients. We include them, ask them for suggestions and ideas. We work with each other, role play it out until we think we’ve come up with the best response. We have worked with ideas with guests, with each other. I think every time we work with somebody new, it gets a little better. We keep it human and real at the same time. It’s great to have a place where you can go to work in jeans and be outside barefoot, and where you can dig your toes into the dirt in the greenhouse, talk with guests while digging vegetables, or cooking in the kitchen, or snuggling a therapy dog. Every day is different. There is a positive energy in the house, and as peers, we help guests, we help each other and always, we grow and learn.

Basically, how does it work?

As best I can explain it, we’re the first in Vermont, we are a pilot program, funded by the Vermont Department of Mental Health. We got started with a grant. To get into Alyssum, you need to either send us an e-mail on our website, where we have an intake packet with criteria, or you have to be referred by an agency or yourself. And you can fill out the info on why you need crisis respite and make sure you fit our eligibility criteria. You must be a resident of Vermont, age 18 or over, and not on the Vermont Sex Offender Registry. In order to be eligible, you must have a definite place for housing that you will return to after your stay with us. We don’t have the funding to help with housing, By the time you finish the paperwork, you still need some kind of referral from an agency, a licensed mental health professional that knows you well enough to testify you’re a good fit for the program. We don’t do detox for meds or drugs or alcohol.

People need to have self-awareness to “work on their stuff,” as we call it. You’ve got to have an idea of what it is you want to work on. We can help you get to that part if you are having a hard time expressing it. You tell us about your past experiences, past traumas, whatever you feel you want to share. And while we do ask for people to have a referral saying they’re not a danger to themselves or others, we are also clear that we do take people who are suicidal, in a mental health crisis. We just ask that people are not in imminent danger to themselves or others. So that the staff is safe. And the other guest. So that the person has enough cognitive awareness to at least process feelings with the staff. We don’t turn people away that use self-harm skills. We’ve had people who use burning and cutting, other kinds of self-injury. Like most places, of course, there’s no drugs, no alcohol and no weapons on the property. We do mostly organic food. We grow a lot of our veggies that we use throughout the year. We eat healthy, and we encourage others to do this also.

Guests have to be able to take care of their own activities of daily living, take their own medications. We don’t hold onto people’s meds. They’re in a lock box with their own keys. They’re in charge of that themselves. If people would like reminders for their meds, we will do that. They would do an intake, then once they get a referral from a mental health professional that says they’re a good fit, then they can get on the waiting list. It can be anywhere from a couple of people to 20 people. And a guest stays typically a couple of days to a couple of weeks. A two-week stay would be average. Anybody staying longer would have to be looked at on an individual basis, and the executive director determines if they stay longer on a case-by-case basis.

One criteria, people have to have stable housing to return to when they leave. We’ve learned through trial and error that a lot of people in the mental health system have issues with people being homeless. It breaks our hearts that when people get comfortable, they don’t feel well or safe going back to where they were. We would love to do more with that, we do work with Pathways to Housing, but we’re not a housing agency, that’s not what the program is for. At the beginning, we had a guest come, and later they didn’t have a place to go, and that put us in an difficult position. They do have to have secure housing to return to.

You get on the waiting list, keep calling, checking in. You can have a support stay or a crisis stay. After someone has been to Alyssum, we become part of their support. They can call and say, “Hey, I’m having a rough day, can I just talk a little bit?” Sort of like a warm line. We’re there 24-7, somebody’s awake night and day. We’ve become this really huge family, with 50 to 60 guests who check in, “Doing great” or “Tough day. Having voices.” But we have a really high success rate so far of people working through their own crisis, looking for ways to make their life better. And getting back to their lives.

How many people can be there at once?

Only two. We have two bedrooms. It’s a family-style house. Everybody is there of their own free will. They can come and go as they please. They’re there voluntarily. If they choose to leave in the middle of their stay, they may lose their spot. We have male and female staff. Everybody is peer-hosted. All are peers, including the executive director. And we have anywhere from 10 to 11 staff at a time altogether. We have either one or two people on a shift. If there’s somebody with really high needs, we adapt staff accordingly. We do all kinds of cool stuff, cooking together, gardening, hiking, laughter yoga, meditation, Reiki. We do energy healing. We do co-supervision, or staff meetings, every Thursday, often with a different training by others or put on by one of us. Role plays. Guests join in if they feel like. it. We have a library, music, exercise stuff, arts stuff. We have a deck out back where people can watch nature. We have a nice big yard, a fire pit, a gazebo, a garden, a greenhouse. Down below is the river. People collect rocks to bring back to paint sometimes, or to bring back a piece of Alyssum when they go home. A lot of people call being here “a little piece of heaven.” Many former guests come back and visit. A lot of guests volunteer to come back and work in the gardens. Some people come back and need a support stay, two or three days or a day, and will work little more intensely on what they’re working on. A few guests have later come back to be hired as staff.

We don’t encourage or discourage medications, but we do suggest people educate themselves about what they are taking and how they are feeling, and we are open to discussions if people want to talk to their primary care providers about coming off medications safely, but they can’t do that while at Alyssum. We do advocate that if what people are taking is working, they should stick with what works. We offer healthy alternatives for people to try for wellness, such as laughter yoga, meditations, exercise, energy work, active listening, breathing techniques and much more. A lot of what we do has made some life-changing difference already for many of our guests, and we’re excited about this!

What have been the toughest challenges?

I guess some would be when people were in that place where they didn’t want to live and just felt like they wanted to die, they wanted to just walk out in the dark or the cold and take stuff and just go. And sometimes we can’t have the answer for somebody, what it is they need to connect to, to want to stay. So we really have to dig deep sometimes to figure out what we might be able to share or say. Or sometimes just be patient and listen if someone is trying to vent their feelings. We have to search for, “What can we give this person so they can find something in themselves so they want to stay alive?”

Has anyone walked out and killed themself?

No. So far, so good. And we’re in touch with all former guests at intervals for followups, at typically one week, two weeks, three weeks, a month, three months, six-month intervals. So we get a pretty good sense of how people do after they leave, and this is part of the data we track for our funding. We’ve had guests who started walking down the road and said, “I’m leaving.” Really, all we can do is remind people they’re here voluntarily. We can’t make them stay, we can’t make them want to live, but we hope they do. I would say out of maybe three or four times that has happened since we opened that we’ve only had one person who just decided to walk away and leave. And everybody else thought about it, came back to talk about it, work through it, at least got calm enough to get someone to pick them up and go home because it was not the right time or the right fit. We’ve never had someone walk away and not come back. We’ve had people leave. And so far everyone who’s done that, those couple of people, they’ve changed their mind and decided to come back. And they did.

We’ve had a few people who were not a good fit for the program, not in a cognitive place to be able to work on what’s going on with them. I’d say 98 percent of guests have reported positive experiences there so far. We track this with a departure evaluations, and we use the LOCUS scoring to track stress level and mental health evaluation at arrival and again at departure.

Is that a self-evaluation tool?

Yes, the VDMH and many designated mental health agencies use it as a tool to evaluate levels of stress and overall mental health. For when a person arrives and leaves. It’s done together with a staff person. It’s what we use for tracking. So we can track our success rates, and this helps us qualify for more grants to stay open. The percentage of overall change is recorded and used for monthly tracking and year-end reports to the state of Vermont.

I would say probably one of the toughest things about being peer-hosted is, we’re all human beings. We have some people who push our buttons, who remind us of our own painful experiences, and we have to figure out how to cope with that and still take care of both ourselves and guests. We have a saying of “sitting with your discomfort.” And sometimes that’s our discomfort, and sometimes that’s asking guests to sit with their discomfort. And that’s turned into some learning experiences. We’ve had people sad, hurt feelings, upset, angry, disagreements at times, but the cool thing about being peers is that we just talk it out. And we’ve had a lot of people come to Alyssum who said it’s really good to talk to somebody who knows what they’re talking about. Who’s “been there.” Who understands. There’s no hierarchy of power, all just equals and peers. Everybody is allowed to say how they feel. If people have a disagreement, they talk about it. It’s been a very healing place for peers and guests.

Talking is part of self-care?

Yeah, if it’s peer-hosted, it tends to be a place where it’s OK for a staffer to say, “This is uncomfortable for me.” Or, “I don’t know the answer to that.” Or, “Maybe I’m not the right person for that.” We need to be able to have some limits. And it’s really hard sometimes when someone wants to share something intensely painful. It might bring up old stuff for us, or be unfamiliar: “Whoa, I don’t know how to handle that.” And we tell people that. We have _ I guess you’d call it a rule _ if we have a guest who triggers someone on the staff to where they feel they can’t put their best self forward, they can ask somebody to cover a few of their shifts. Or you can say, “While this guest is here, I want to be off shift.” We encourage talking it out first, we reach out to each other for self-care, and we role model this to guests. We remind each other after a tough day to go home with your family, read a book, take a bath, do something to relax and unstress. The things everybody should do.

Has there been any skepticism from the established mental health community?

We do have people come sometimes who say, “Where’s the schedule? What do you mean guests have to take their own meds?” And guests who ask that or things like, “You’re supposed to be telling me what I’m doing today.” We’re self-directed. We do have many people who may be very used to the medical model. That’s the time we’re just saying, “Well, we’re peer-hosted. If you really want a structured program or feel this is not a safe enough place or want more a secure environment, there’s the hospital for that, or maybe other options.” Most guests grow quickly to love having choices about creating their day any way they want. Guests have really loved field trips and going hiking, going swimming, or being able to leave for a few hours and go have lunch with a friend or family member who came to visit them or with a staff person. Guests also enjoy helping cook or go shopping for stuff at the local market, bookstore or bakery. Some people just sit and watch the birds on the deck and have time to think and relax, and it’s just what they need. Many designated agencies are asking for trainings from us, and many say their clients love the sound of what we do here. Skepticism has been brief and rare. Some mental health professionals say they wish they could come as a guest!

What about the mental health professionals?

I would say when some of our people do trainings on Hearing Voices, Open Dialogue, they have had groups of people with lots of questions. Overall, they love our trainings and have asked for more. We’re training them in a lot of cases. For the most part, everybody seems to love us. We have had psychiatrists and psychologists come to visit us, nurses. Almost everybody seems to agree that, overall, what we’re doing is working. Guests like it. They want to come back, to tell everybody about us. I’m sure there’s people who are skeptical, but we’re also getting more calls all the time asking about the program. There’s a lot of therapists, psychiatrists and counselors out there who say, “Sign me up.” They want to be on the waiting list. We have had counselors as guests. We haven’t had any complaints, except that people wish there were more Alyssums already and that they wish we had more beds for guests.

Why aren’t these centers all over the place?

Because we’re new and the pilot program. We’re going to prove that it works. They need to see the numbers of our success and that we are saving the state money on lowering hospitalizations and use of services for guests who have been to our program. I see it happening already, so it’s already in the works. There’s other places calling asking where there is an Alyssum near them, and they are sad to hear that there isn’t. In fact, I took a call a week ago, from a program in Massachusetts, calling us and saying, “How did you set up your program?” A lot of people are looking to us to model a program after. Some places are starting to want to do more of what we’re doing. Mental health agencies staff are emailing us and asking us for our Open Dialogue and Hearing Voices trainings for co-workers and supervisors. I’m hoping this is going to be the new way of mental wellness.

Who else are you?

I think I’m still discovering who I am. But despite past struggles, I am also a caring, compassionate person who is a writer, a gardener, a budding therapist, someone who is still full of hope that I will have something to share that will make other people’s lives even more beautiful somehow, more whole, more complete, more fun, more real. My children are mostly grown now, turned into beautiful young women, but we are all still very close, and they are my world. I also have nine grandbabies. Just seeing all this life growing is really exciting. I don’t really know exactly all of who I am, but I’m expanding my mind every day. I love learning from guests, from my co-workers, from my children and grandchildren, and I hope that I make a difference. I’m still figuring all that out. I feel like I’m younger than when I was 30.

Sometimes when something makes me laugh out loud, it reminds me of a former boyfriend of mine once who told me that “being this optimistic and hopeful is just not normal.”

Not for you, or not for the world?

For the world. And I said, “Well, if that’s what normal is, I’m fine not being normal.” So I’m still learning. I think we all stay young inside if we continue to laugh and grow. We just try to stay open-minded and realize that each person is new and different. It doesn’t matter if it’s a guest, one of the family, we all learn from each other. It’s what the whole world should be. That’s why I’m excited about Alyssum and glad to be a part of it. I think it will be the beginning of a lot of amazing things that will change in mental health programs.

People should talk about mental wellness like we do any other checkup. When we see our family, neighbors or friends struggling, instead of avoiding them or acting like we don’t see that something is going on with them, we should just be able to say, “What can I do to help?” Mental wellness, physical wellness, it should all be okay to talk about. If someone is suicidal or depressed, we should be able to ask if they are okay and what do they need. Sometimes people need counseling and medication, but sometimes they just need someone to care, to listen, to give them a moment to remember what is good about them, and maybe they need a hug or a good night’s sleep. Maybe they just need someone to ask them what they need. We should just all be peers. Someday, hopefully, that’ll be the new normal.

We have a motto: “It’s not what’s wrong with you, but rather, what has happened to you.” Most or all of our guests with mental health issues in crisis come to us with a trauma background.  It is often through healing the past trauma that we become whole again. If we can’t be totally whole again, we will work to be the best that we can be, and that is good enough. We are all doing the best that we can.