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.

Advertisements

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 Jim Atkisson

Many people can hide the evidence of their suicide attempt. Jim Atkisson can’t. What happened when he was 16 years old has trailed him ever since, disqualifying him for the Army and for law enforcement and other jobs.

He believes that anyone who attempts suicide in the violent way he did has had this thought in the split second afterward, whether or not they survive: “Oh god, what have I done?” And he doesn’t want that happening to anyone else.

But he knows the challenges in even starting the conversation. “I think people are unwilling to accept the fact that people they know are contemplating suicide right now,” he says. “It’s OK to have the conversation, as long as it’s nobody you know. If it’s the guy down the street, it’s OK to talk about him. But if it’s a son, a husband, it’s unacceptable. Because that would mean something’s wrong.”

Here, Jim talks about his father’s anger at him over his attempt, the need for suicide prevention groups to be far louder and the unexpected power of a cup of coffee.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m 43. I am married 13 years, with three kids. I’m a writer, and like many writers, I’ve been job to job. Everything from health care to a bouncer in nightclubs. I just started telling my story by accident. My wife said, “You need to write about the night you pulled the trigger.” I gave up talking about it because of the social backlash. When you tell people that you intentionally shot yourself, the looks you get. I was a kid. There was no one to help me cope with that. They never rejoiced that I was alive. They were angry that I shot myself.

What happened?

My parents divorced when I was 4. I didn’t see my mom after that. My dad remarried. I never assimilated into the family. I was on my own. My father was violent. I grew up fearful. I was 8, 9, 10 when I began to experience depression, anxiety. I noticed that whenever there were problems, if I imagined myself flying away, I’d feel better. If my dad was screaming, throwing things at me, if I was flying, he was not hurting me anymore.

Then in June 1985, I had a really bad semester. School was always my sanctuary. I was looking at a bad summer. I went from thoughts about flying and suicide to saying, “Yes, I’m going to shoot and kill myself.” It took seven months to work my life into that position where I had the nerve to do it. I demonstrated the classic symptoms, gave things away, talked of a future without me. They never picked up on it. I was dipping my toe in suicide waters, trying to get a feel for it. I think it happens to a lot of people. I think it’s crying out for help. They’re trying to desensitize themselves to the fear of death.

And when I pulled the trigger on Jan. 24, 1986, I had made a mistake. I remember laying in the field dying, thinking, “I made a mistake.” When you shoot yourself, it’s impossible to undo. A year after I shot myself, my vice principal and a fellow classmate shot and killed themselves. I thought, “Surely they had had the same thoughts I did: ‘Oh god, what have I done?'”

How were you rescued?

I lived in a rural community where the nearest ambulance was 18 miles north and the nearest hospital was 18 miles south. Pastures and hills. The only people home were my 9-year-old brother and grandfather. When I left home, I was wearing my best shirt and tie and carrying my rifle, and I grabbed the Bible. I felt I needed it for inspiration. I drove a quarter mile into the woods. I sat for an hour. I couldn’t do it. I unloaded the rifle.

Then I remembered I had been threatened the night before, and I said, “I can’t do it anymore.” I sat down by a creek and put the gun an inch off my sternum. I took the safety off and pulled the trigger. I had tried to prepare myself. There was so much blood, I wasn’t prepared. Then I thought in my head, I simply said, “Name one reason to hope for.” At this point I was still alive. “It doesn’t have to end like this. I grew up in a crappy home. I want to provide a loving home to my kids. I want to be a dad.”

So I engaged in the battle of getting myself out of the woods. I called for help. I cried and called. I don’t know how long. When I’d wake up, I’d start calling again. My brother felt a tugging sensation, an urge to go in the woods and stack firewood. He saw me bleeding to death. He got my grandfather, called an ambulance. Another few minutes, and my life today would not be a reality.

People are gonna die today and tomorrow, and their last thoughts are gonna be, “I shouldn’t have done this.” And they’re not gonna get that second chance.

What were the reactions to what you did?

It happened almost immediately. I remember lying in the field. I woke up and was faced with a deputy sheriff looking at me. “Who did this to you?” “I did this to me, sir.” He scowled at me, shook his head and walked away. I didn’t want to die alone. I thought he left me to bleed to death. I wished he could kneel next to me, be with me.

A few days after the shooting, they closed the curtains and wheeled up next to me to talk about the shooting. One thing jumped out at me. They said, “It would have been better if your legs had been cut off, if you had been burned in a fire than to have those scars from suicide.”

I remember thinking, “I’m so glad to be alive.” But then there was this condemning: “You. Shot. Yourself. You have to create a lie about how you got shot. You can’t say you did it on purpose. Tell them you were hunting and fell on your rifle.” Later, I was at a conference for teens, and there was an open mike for people to share stories about how god helped them. I got up and told my story. And I remember the kids, they wrote me for months, telling me they had been suicidal and got help. I repeated this a few times at different camps. I was helping people. But then they told me, “Don’t ever share this in public again.”

I tried to get into the Army. I’m standing in front of the doctor, and they see the bullet hole. “Did you put that there?” They said, “You’re unfit.” I was like, “I’m sorry. I was a kid! 16! It’s not like I was 35 and did this.” It was so bad that I could never be forgiven for what I’d done.

So I fell into a depression in my 20s, and I became homeless when I was 28. I can never escape my suicide. I said I would never talk about it again. Then my wife said, “You have to tell.” I can cope with it. I can deal with the stigma. There’s nothing they can say I haven’t heard 20 times.

You wife, why did she urge you to speak out?

I got to the point where I thought that if I have a relationship with someone, I brought it up. I told her, and she wasn’t bothered by it. Occasionally I would share it at Sunday schools, and she saw people’s responses. When I started writing, it popped in my head. “You can tell this story. You were inside of it. You know how it entices people.” I get calls from counselors, ‘Will you talk with my client who’s suicidal?” When you deal with death, you can’t walk away from it. If not for her, I never would have talked about it again.

How did you start putting yourself out there?

So far, it’s been limited. I’ve sold 100 copies of my book. Amazon offers resources now for anyone to publish to different platforms. The self-publish movement has taken off. I had thought about traditional publishers, but I’ve sent 200 e-mails out, with maybe a few responses. I think my suicide prevention platform is to write, like, 100 books in my lifetime and link every book back to my suicide prevention book. If I want to write a horror book, a science-fiction book, and if someone reads about the author, they say, “Oh my goodness.” And I’ve wanted to be a public speaker, but it’s difficult to break into the market.

But you’ve tried?

Yes. I’ve driven places, knocked on the door, even handed out fliers, and then three people come out. If you know suicide, for every death there’s 25 people trying. How many people in my area are contemplating this? It’s rampant, and it can be avoided. It’s not like cancer, with no cure.

Where are you again?

In Maryland.

Did you say gun safety is a motivation?

The guns I had access to, they were actually safe. I had grown up around firearms. Had they not been around, I know I would have … There was a mountain with these rocks, and I had thought about climbing up and throwing myself off. Guns are so prevalent because they’re so lethal. If the Golden Gate Bridge was in every community, that probably would be the top route to go. People like to make a statement. The Golden Gate Bridge is a statement, this romantic air about it, I suppose. But guns, it’s done. I never wanted to get caught up in that platform. So many of my friends own guns, I didn’t want to lose their support.

There’s other ways to cope. More and more people are stepping out, not afraid of stigma. “If we can, maybe you can get help.”

How has your family taken this?

Not well. It became brushed under the rug. I’ve had no contact with them til this day. I was an embarrassment. A year after the shooting, I was dragged into the woods and made to stand in front of the tree. “Boy, you did this to yourself. You have to own it.” I had to touch the tree. My family told me how pissed they were that I did this to them. It was never why I did this. It was always the aftermath. The crime of shooting myself was greater than the abuse I was enduring at home.

Why did they make you touch the tree?

To get over it. To confront my fear. I could not go into the woods. I could see them from my bedroom window. My family is active in the woods. I had an issue with them, PTSD. My father was always needing help in the woods. For a year, he gave me grace. One day I had a biology report to collect bugs. I went into different woods. As I was coming out, he saw and said, ‘It’s time for you to go down there.” He dragged me down, made me touch it. I thought the ground was gonna swallow me alive.

I was under a psychiatrist’s care for eight to 10 months. I enjoyed it. It made me feel better. I could talk openly. But it was such a shame to have to see a shrink, and I was told, “When you’re 18, you’ll have to hide this.” Whenever you fill out a job application, there’s the question, Have you ever had psychiatric issues? Have you ever been convicted of a crime? No. Have you been hospitalized for a suicide attempt? Yes, I have. It’s humiliating. I’m still a criminal. I try to tell recruiters. I wanted to be a firefighter. “Yes, sir, I attempted suicide.” When I told the story that I shot myself, it was like I was done.

They would have been OK if you had taken pills instead?

I think so. Based on the responses, when I talk to others who have said they’ve been suicidal. They said, “I’ve been suicidal.” I said, “So did I.” “What did you do?” “I shot myself.” And then they say, “I’ve been suicidal, but I’ve never been able to shoot myself.” I’ve had people say, “You are the real deal.” That’s why it’s important to try to fight and save lives.

The people I talked to were further up the road than me. Thinking, taking some pills. I said, “But both you and I attempted suicide.” Then I thought, “Maybe we’re not equally committed.” They were being dragged down the road to something they would regret. I just watched the video on YouTube of the man who had shot himself in the face and survived. The people who jump off the bridge. I think that frightens a lot of people. Just an observation. I’ve heard it more than one time. Since I released my book, talked to people who said, “I’ve thought about killing myself, but I never thought about shooting myself.” There’s a disconnect there.

And again, it starts with a thought. If you can interrupt the process early, like a progressive illness. If you can reach them sooner, before they have had several attempts of suicide. Because the odds of trying again are so high.

Has that ever been a thought for you again?

Good question. Twelve years after the shooting, I had gotten a divorce. I had nowhere to go, living in my car, penniless, sleeping in a parking lot. All my possessions in a bag. In the middle of night I thought, “What am I doing? How did I crawl out of the woods and have my life end up like this?” Having shot myself, I wasn’t afraid to do it again. I had broke something in that. But I vowed to myself that day, “Never do that again.” There’s always things to live for. And I enjoy coffee. And I looked at that and thought, “If I take my life, I won’t have another cup of coffee. I will deny myself the chance for another cup of coffee.”

I started inching forward. The next day, I rewarded myself with a cup of coffee. Within two years, I was married, I had a house. That’s what I write about in my book. I acknowledge a higher power. Like if I had been in the woods, if I had laid there, I would have died. But I thought I wanted to be a father.

Some people are addicted to drugs, alcohol. For me, it was thoughts of taking my life. But I know it’s not the way to handle life. I always find a way. Now I have children. I could never do that to them. I’d be denying myself a chance for a better tomorrow. The crap we think is worth taking the life for, it always burns away. So I’ve moved forward.

The stigma, has it gotten better over the years?

I’ve noticed … I can’t imagine trying to get a job right now. That’s why I’m a writer. The overall culture, I think, with younger folks, 35 and younger, I think, is more open. Probably the boomer generation is unwilling to talk about it. There’s a strong state of denial in our churches and schools. I think people are unwilling to accept the fact that people they know are contemplating suicide right now. Either they won’t see it or they’re fearful. It’s OK to have the conversation, as long as it’s nobody you know. If it’s the guy down the street, it’s OK to talk about him. But if it’s a son, a husband, it’s unacceptable. Because that would mean something’s wrong.

My book came out at Junior Seau‘s death. My friends put an online a link to WebMD on how to recognize symptoms of suicidal thoughts. They asked friends to share the links. No one did. I wrote this post, “There will be people in your life, in 12 months, someone will die of suicide.” Within 90 days, three people I knew had already lost somebody in their circle. And I asked, begged, “Please, just share this. Demonstrate that you’re willing to be that person they can talk to.” I’ve posted photos of 10-year-olds who have taken their life. Everybody assumes it’s a guy in his 40s, jobless in a trailer, who takes his life. What about a 10-year-old?

Where I live, there’s not one billboard recognizing what to do if someone feels suicidal. There’s nothing, no public awareness to say, “Hey, life has really taken a dump on me. I’m reduced to living hour by hour. I’m ashamed of saying this, but life is not worth living anymore.” How to reach out to someone like that? The megachurch pastor whose son died by suicide. It’s out there. But it’s a lot better than in 1987.

You mean, people willing to talk about it?

Right. You could not talk about it back then. I remember thinking, “The police are going to arrest me,” while I was in the hospital. People were whispering about me. Again, I was so glad to be alive. The air was so sweet to be able to breathe after fighting that violent death. To be able to enjoy life, to walk out of the hospital. But then I was met with this monster! I didn’t know what I was dealing with. It was that stigma.

On job applications, do they really ask about a suicide attempt?

On certain jobs, it will. If you want a job with government. I had tried law enforcement. I would imagine for a government security clearance. It’s on there, on some applications. “Have you ever been hospitalized for depression or issues related to suicide?” If I had taken some pills, I could lie about it and say, “No, I’ve never had issues of suicide.” But when they take off my shirt for the physical, there’s the bullet hole and all the scars. “Well, how did you come by those?” My lie I came up with was so weak, people with firearms experience would say, “That doesn’t make sense.” The last time I went through this was 2001. After the attacks. I tried to get a job with police. I filled out the application and never heard back.

The suicide prevention messaging, is it working?

If I’m an average guy that has been laid off, unemployed two years, my home in foreclosure, a college education, never had problems with the law and suddenly have thoughts of ending my life every day, if I struggle to get out of bed, my friends are people I play golf with, go to church with, as far as I know, they never talk about suicide, they’d think I’m crazy … I have no idea there’s groups out there like that Out of the Darkness. I did not know these groups existed until I published my book a year ago. I started reading about these national groups. Where have they been? What they’re doing is a godsend, no criticisms, only I wish they were louder. I think in time they will reach that place, and they’ve come a long way. But for a guy who’s never been initiated into the world of suicide, they don’t know they exist.

A year ago, with PTSD, I had a breakdown and went to the ER. I had no insurance, and they told me to go to the local county mental health department. They laughed at me and said it would be a year before I could see anybody. I broke down and sobbed in the lobby. Then they stopped laughing. I dealt with it on my own at home. I found stuff online. It’s atrocious the way they treat mental illness. You know?

When that gun went off, I saw it for what it was. I wanted to live. I would not have fought that battle to get out of the woods. I wanted to live. I wanted to run into the arms of society, enjoy my life.

What would you like to see changed?

At a minimum, there should be billboards in every county. A billboard. So it’s not fearful to talk about. So everyone from a 10-year-old to an elderly person knows they’re not alone, that its not crazy to think about taking their life. With a 1-800 number. What happens is, you get in this crisis. I had been under the pull of suicide for so long, I just needed that one crisis to push me over. If I could just call a 1-800 number and call someone to calm them down, encourage them to get to a hospital to get care. Start with a billboard.

What more would you like to do?

I would like to visit high schools. Have psychiatrists send me a study. I’ll fill out every clipboard, questionnaire. Start asking us, interviewing us. Maybe you can study enough of our experiences so you can better educate yourselves to save lives. It might open your eyes. People ask me, “Why did Joe kill himself?” I say that’s the wrong question. How did he kill himself? We aren’t born to want to kill ourselves. That’s a hard wall to overcome. How did someone override their fear of death enough for them to take their life? How did they overcome their fear of dying?

Billboards. Invite survivors to speak, to talk to military people. I shouldn’t have to pull teeth to talk to anybody. I want to share my story. If I can save one life, that’s one less life I have to read about in the newspaper. It’s become a personal thing to me. It felt like a monster pulled me down, like a crocodile, that grabbed me, pulled me under. Oh my god, I could not have imagined. I understand what it feels like.

What have I not asked that you’d like to add?

The last time I talked about this was when Reagan was president. The last time I looked at the statistics, they’d gotten worse. The 10th top cause of death? At least half of those people probably deep down don’t want to do it. Think of all those human beings we could give their life back to them. It’s unacceptable. Why are vets dying every 65 minutes? Why do you have to have this blog to address this issue? Where’s the humanity? We can operate at a higher level of compassion and understanding to fellow man. And then we can save more lives.

Who else are you?

I would say I am, without a doubt, a dad, through and through. My kids don’t just go to bed and get tucked in. Seven days a week, we have a 30-minute process of getting tucked in. We wrestle. Stuffed animals come alive. I treasure it. My wife is my best friend. I love spending time with her. I love to write. I love my family.

How old are your kids?

9, 7 and 6.

Will you ever tell them what happened?

Good question. Last year I had a tent rented where I was selling the books, discussing the topic in my community. Some people came, talking. And my little girl said, “My daddy shot himself.” I remember the looks people gave me. I said these words to them, “I can’t hide it. When Daddy doesn’t have his shirt on, they see the scars. So she knows about it, as much a 9-year-old can know about death and dying.”

If it’s hereditary, I watch them. I’m very active. If there are any issues with mental health, I will fight tooth and nail to make sure they get the care they need. I know they’re very proud of what Daddy’s doing.

Talking with David Parnell

David Parnell has spoken publicly for years about his past drug addiction, but until a few weeks ago, he’d never been asked only about the times he’d tried to kill himself. He was part of a live segment on The Huffington Post about attempt survivors.

A decade ago, he woke up in the hospital and found his face shattered. At some point in the following months of recovery, he scribbled down a promise: He wanted to tell people the truth about drugs. But then he hesitated, embarrassed. “No, go now,” his wife told him. “Show them what the drugs have done.”

Here, he talks about finding religion, giving graphic but well-received presentations and happily turning into David the Dad.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m David Parnell. I’m 46 years old, a recovering meth addict, and a suicide survivor. I’m
also married, and my second wife and I have seven children together.

How old is the oldest?

The oldest is 20, the youngest is 9. I actually have a daughter who has already graduated
college, 26 years old, from my first marriage. So actually, I have eight altogether.

How did you get to the point where you’re here talking with me?

Well, I had been on drugs for 23 years by the time I attempted suicide the last time. I
had tried three years earlier. I hung myself, went unconscious, and someone found me
face down in the dirt in a barn. The rope had broken after I went unconscious, that’s
what saved me. I stayed sober five months, then went back on meth. Then, three years
later, I ended up taking a rifle, putting it under my chin and pulling the trigger.

I started like most kids, experimenting with drugs as a teen, and by my early 20s I was
introduced to meth in Dallas, Texas. I liked it, and it gave me a lot of energy. I didn’t
know what it was made out of. I didn’t dream where it would take me. The longer I was
on it, the more depressed I was and the more anxiety I felt. I became psychotic on meth.
I was very explosive and assaulted people for no reason sometimes. Then, when I
sobered up, I had all of this guilt about the way I treated my wife and other people in
our neighborhood. That guilt fed the depression and anxiety.

I tried to quit a bunch of times. When I tried to quit, I didn’t ever change the people I was around. So I would quit for five or six months but still be around drug users. I would do good for a while, but then I would be back around these old friends, and of course they were getting high. I’d say “No,” then all of a sudden I would hit a joint or do line of meth and start over using again. I felt hopeless and didn’t think I would ever be able to quit. Then, as the depression got worse, I started thinking to myself that everyone would be better off if I
was dead. I heard a guy tell me once how cowardly an act it was. It really ticked me off.
I know it seems cowardly, but most people who commit suicide, they look as it as trying
to help people around them. In my twisted mind, I was trying to help them. Of course, I
know how wrong that was. But that’s what I thought. Death seemed like the only option
at the time.

How does the mind make that jump to “Everyone would be better off”?

I thought I was doing them a favor because I thought I was a monster and that even my
kids didn’t like me or want to be around me. My wife was about to have a nervous
breakdown, she couldn’t understand why I was acting the way I was. I really don’t know
how I made the jump to think that. I know the day I shot myself, I asked my wife to lay
down next to me. I was real sick and had lost about 60 pounds. We were arguing about
her leaving with the kids. I said, “I can’t stand up, will you lay down and talk?” She said, “I’m going to lay down and talk for a minute, but me and the kids are still going to leave.”
When she said that, I snapped. I just reached over and grabbed the rifle in the corner by
the bed. In my mind, I thought, “That’s it. This dope has robbed me of everything.”

With meth, because it’s a stimulant, I still remember my thoughts clearly. That’s what
clicked that day that I shot myself. I thought life wasn’t worth trying to go on. The day I
hung myself three years earlier, I was having hallucinations and hearing voices. The
voice was telling me that day _ and it sounds very strange to a normal person _ but that
voice was telling me, “Your wife and kids would be better off if you were dead. There’s
no forgiveness for the things you’ve done.” I immediately just got up out of my chair,
walked to the barn, found an old rope, tied it to a rafter and stepped off my riding lawn
mower. My wife and kids were not home that day. I had gone to jail for a couple days
for assaulting my wife and for having marijuana, and my wife and kids were living
somewhere else when I got out. I was alone and went right back to doing meth. About
three or four days being out of jail, I tried to hang myself. Someone stopped by to check
on me because they had heard me and my wife were having problems, and they went
to the barn.

Also, I think the reason why I didn’t shoot myself then was because whenever the police
came to my house, they confiscated my .22 rifle. Thank God for that, because otherwise I
might have grabbed the gun. I don’t know why the thought to hang myself came in my
head. It really was instantaneous. Maybe at the time it seemed like the only thing I had.

But how did she know to go to the barn?

I guess when she didn’t find me in the house, she walked around back. The barn was
right behind the house. She freaked out. It actually was my sister. She went into a
severe panic. Freaked. She got me up and coherent after a while. I couldn’t swallow for a
long time. I couldn’t hardly eat for a week. I couldn’t hardly talk. My family didn’t take
me to a rehab. There were no rehab centers. They took me to a preacher, a recovering
alcoholic. I could relate to him. He knew the struggle of addiction. He helped me. I got
off everything for about five months. Then, when I went back to work, the same old
routine. I worked the second shift in a tire company and started hanging out at
suppertime with friends who were getting high. It was like a recurring nightmare. Each
time I went back, it seemed like the addiction got worse.

How did that change after the second time?

The second time, I woke up three days later in the Vanderbilt University Hospital trauma
center. I asked God to come into my heart. I wanted to change. I told people I needed
something stronger than me I could believe in. I had made the decision that I was done,
I wanted to lay it down, but I needed some help. I believed that my faith in something
stronger than me could help me get through it, and it did. I know God isn’t for
everybody, and some people tell me that at seminars, “I’m not into the Jesus thing,
what do I do?” I say, “I don’t know, I can only tell you what worked for me.” When I got
the craving, I got out the Bible and read. I did it about 10 times a day. I couldn’t
understand the stuff I was reading half the time, but it helped, and I give it credit for my
being sober.

I had been to state prison, I tried to commit suicide twice, and nothing ever
worked for me before. But when I quit everything and started studying this guy who
said he loved all people, no matter if they’re homosexual, prostitutes or whatever,
what I got out of it was a lot better than what I got from preachers. I thought, “Maybe he
loves me, too.” It changed my life. I see nowadays, people who start studying the Bible
get very judgmental. I don’t think that’s what it’s about at all. It helped me to live by
those laws of loving people. It changed my life. I talk to schools a lot of time, with a huge
majority of Muslims or Hindus, and most all of the faiths have this thing of loving
people. So that’s where I am at today. That’s what I try to live by.

How did you stay away from old friends?

No one had been by or sent a letter to hospital. The most important thing with my
friends was getting high. All we really were was drug associates. Then, when I was able
to come home, I had to come back to the same house. They had already pulled up the
carpets and cleaned the room, but I didn’t like to go in that room for a long time. For a
few months, I was not strong enough to get around. While I was in the hospital, I had
written down on a piece of paper, “I want to tell people the truth about drugs.” I didn’t
really know what I was writing, but I was feeling all that guilt of selling dope in my
neighborhood for 20 years. I was just having these faces popping in my head I had sold
drugs to. One had committed suicide, one had ODed. Even though they could have got
their dope from someone else, I still sold it too. When I got stronger, my wife started
asking me, “Are you going to talk to people?” I was embarrassed. I didn’t have a nose, I
wanted to wait until they fixed me up. She said, “No, go now. Show them what the
drugs have done.”

I found a jail that let me come in, they let me go in and talk to inmates about where drugs had taken me. Then I went into drug court, then a church group, then state prison. There I was, eight months later, talking to people about not doing drugs. The people on meth were so paranoid anyway, they thought I was a rat. That ended up being a blessing in disguise. Nobody come around. I looked back on it as I was talking to my sheriff one day: “I think it freaked them out so bad, they didn’t come around!” Of course, I had my mind completely set also. I didn’t have the intense cravings like some people when I went to the store and saw the Sudafed, for example. I did have some cravings, but most was because I felt so bad. It took months to get my energy level back. One day I started crying because I felt so guilty. I didn’t know anything about mental addictions or even physical. I was crying because I thought, “How can I crave something that almost killed me?” I didn’t understand at the time.

The worst thing for me was the dreams. I would have dreams I was using. When you
have dreams and wake up feeling little buzzed, you get confused. That was very
frustrating. I haven’t had one in a real long time, but after talking to you, I might go to
sleep tonight and have a one.

Oh no!

It’s all right. I was talking to a man at a funeral last night. He was struggling with
addiction. He’s 53 years old. Now he’s hooked on pain pills. I was trying to tell
him, “Eventually, your cravings will go away.” It took me a year. And one day I turned
around said, “Hey, two or three weeks and no craving!” Now it’s been 10 years.

How long did it take to physically recover?

I think it took six or seven months before feeling better physically. It took a year before
feeling better mentally.

How long did it take to reconstruct you?

They’ve been working on me for 10 years. I’ve had about 30 operations. I haven’t had a
surgery now in about 10 months. The blast had literally split my face in two and broke
every bone in my face. I’ve got over 30 titanium plates and screws in my face. I have had
bone grafts out of my hips and ribs. They cut a big square of skin off my forehead and took bone out of my hip for a nose. I have my nasal passages opened, I’m able to taste good, and I can smell again. I can’t completely see out of my right eye, but I’m very lucky not to be blind.

I think we’re about done with reconstruction now. I still don’t have any front teeth on the top or bottom. Just a few on each side. I think the last thing will be implants to have front
teeth again one of these days. I also blew 70 percent of my lips off. Where they sewed
me up, the hole was hardly big enough to get a small spoon in. So they’ve cut me open
to widen my mouth a couple of different times. I’ve found that lips are the hardest to
reconstruct. I’m happy with what they did. A lot of areas around my mouth and
throughout my face have no feeling and are just numb. Sometimes I get a burnt lip with
hot soup or something, and it shoots pain into my eyes instead of my lips, like my nerves
are wired back wrong or something.

But they did a wonderful job with the damage I did. I really shouldn’t be alive. I have crime scene photos I show in seminars with my face blown apart so people can see what surgeons have done with me compared to the pictures.

You show the photos?

I’ve gotten lots of e-mails about that. I was doing about 80 percent of seminars at
schools. Most e-mails were from kids about the photos, how powerful they were. Many
of us work off of visual descriptions. I could tell them all day what meth causes to do to
a little child, or me or them, but when I show them the photos, that’s when they really
can grasp the seriousness of the problem. It’s the older people who seem to freak out
and have a problem. Like the other day at a school, I asked them, “How any of you have
seen the show ‘CSI’?” And I’m not kidding, about 90 percent watch it. It’s graphic, and
that’s why my kids watch it, it’s so frickin’ gross. I tell the kids at schools, “What I show
you is no different from TV, but this isn’t made-up. That’s the only difference.” So that
kind of helps relax people. If you want, I can e-mail you.

I don’t know if i want to see it! I don’t even watch “CSI”!

Then you probably don’t want to see! You know, I’ve had great opportunities in my life. I was not raised around drugs. The only person I can blame is myself. All my decisions were left to me in the end. I had the opportunity to go to school and play basketball on scholarships. I gave it all up to get high. I show them pictures of dunking the basketball. I tell them I had a bright future. My decisions were so bad, they altered my life for years.

You can dunk?

I used to could. I kid people that’s the Cherokee in me. I’m part Cherokee and Irish, and
the Irish are not known for jumping very high. I’m almost 6-1, so I don’t know where
I got that. I love the game, and I would practice for hours after regular practice. Plus,
that was an outlet for me for when life was not going real well. Some people retreat to
reading, different stuff. My retreat was out on the basketball court. When playing, it
was like a great meditation. All the issues of life left my head.

What’s your retreat now?

My retreat now is, I play a lot of poker on the computer. I’ve gotten so old, it’s hard to
play basketball. Out of my kids, three are boys, and not one of the boys likes basketball, but all four of the girls love it. I’m joking about the poker, but my real retreat is gardening.
I’ve got a half-acre garden, which is huge for a backyard garden. I grow beans, peas,
watermelons, all you can think of. I spend hours out there. I love it. I love watching it
grow. Plus, you get the benefit of eating good organic stuff.

How have your kids taken all of this?

They’re doing good now. The youngest was not born yet. My wife, Amy, was pregnant
the day I shot myself. We didn’t know she was pregnant. I don’t know if it would have
made any difference, because I was insane from the drugs. It ultimately was down to
the way I was feeling about life. I was very selfish. I thought they’d be better off. If she
had told me she was pregnant, I probably would’ve still did it and thought, “Better he
not know me.”

So I woke up three days later, and Amy had taken a pregnancy test. It might have been
morning sickness that made her think of it. She went down to the drugstore at the first
floor and bought a pregnancy test. That was the very first memory I have when I woke up,
is her telling me she loved me, and the next thing stuck in my mind is, “Also, I found out
that I’m pregnant.” I remember crying because I was happy, and I remember
thinking, “This kid is going to have a better chance than the rest of my kids, because I’m
done with doping.”

I have Gabriel, Abigail, Rebekah and Josiah, those four don’t remember a whole lot.
My 16, 17, 20-year-olds do, but this was 10 years ago, and my oldest was just 10 then.
So they have some memories, but thank goodness I stopped when I did. The memories
they do have is me fighting with their mother, assaulting their mother. The one thing
that shocks people is, I didn’t spank my kids. I still don’t spank my kids today. I’m not
trying to tell anybody how to raise their children, but I don’t think spanking them, for
me, is the right thing. I do other things like ground them. I have people get upset when I
talk like this to them, and don’t know why, because it’s my choice. So my kids don’t have
any memories of that, they’re not traumatized by any physical abuse. But there was
mental abuse. I neglected them. I used to shut myself off in a back room of my house
four or five days at a time. I wasn’t helping change diapers, not helping feed them. They
were severely neglected. It took them years to get over it.

Sarah, the oldest one, was with my oldest son, David, sitting on the couch one day. I had
been sober nine or 10 months and was just learning to talk again, so I’m just getting
back to talking. I realized they were acting real weird. We were watching TV together. I
looked over and said, “What is wrong with you guys?” They were really quiet, and that’s
unusual for my kids. Both of them said, “Nothing.” It hit me, and I looked at them and
said, “You guys think I’m going back to drugs, right?” And both of them said, “Yeah” at
the same time. I said, “Look, guys, I’ve lied to you so many times over the years saying I
quit. I’m going to show you this time. It’s gonna take a while, but after a while you’re
going to realize I’m serious.” And they said, “OK.” It took a long time, a couple years. But
you could ask Sarah, “Do you think your dad will go back to meth?” and she’d say, “No.”

I realized one day how I had really scarred her. When she was 16, when she was still
living with us, she was having a bad day, her and her mother had gotten into it. She
started crying. She said she hated me for what I had done, the way I treated everybody.
She said, “You and mom used to fight every day.” And I said, “Yeah, but it’s six years and
we haven’t fought, have we?” She said, “No.” I said, “Listen, you’ve got to find a way to
forgive me for what I did and the way I treated everybody. Here I am going around
speaking to people, feeling great. I didn’t even know you were holding this in. The only
person you hurt when you don’t forgive is yourself, and you stick in that rut with anger
and hurt.” I think that day was a good healing thing, because she seems to be doing
good now.

My biggest mistake was not getting my kids some counseling. It was offered, and I told
them no. I look back now and say it was one of the worst mistakes for my kids, rejecting
any kind of counseling. I’ll tell you why I made that decision. When I shot myself, I was
seeing a psychiatrist. My company set it up for me. I had told them I was on drugs and
suicidal. They sent me to the company psychiatrist, who was pumping me full of
Klonopin and other drugs. I was only getting worse. It just so happened that the doctor
had lost his privileges to send me to the hospital. I didn’t know at the time. I thought, “This guy’s trying to kill me, too!”

So when I got out of the hospital, I’m sober, I stopped taking all the depression meds.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling people not to take them, but I didn’t want all those
chemicals. I had such a bad taste in mouth from my psychiatrist, I didn’t want one
messing around with my kids. It’s like having a bad policemen and saying all are bad. I
wish I had gotten counseling for the older kids, who were home that day. I like to think I
am mature enough to tell people, “Hey, that was a bad mistake, don’t do what I did.
Please, get them some counseling.” Or they go like my daughter, for years with it bottled
inside.

Now she seems better?

She’s doing really good. I’m so proud of her because she’s in college, living on her own
and paying for everything. Every time I see her, I try to give her $20, but she’s so
independent. The only thing I’m disappointed in, she’s drinking herself a little bit. She’s
in a sorority. I’m very paranoid, because look at what happened with me. I’m worried,
but she’s doing so good. My son David, he’s the next one that remembers a lot. He has
had some counseling over the last year or so. He was real heavyset when he was a kid,
but he lost 80 pounds in like four months. He’s a skinny boy now, but he couldn’t seem
to stop trying to lose weight. I got him counseling for an eating disorder. I didn’t hesitate
with him. We actually had him in the hospital for two or three days. He’s doing really
good now though. I didn’t think it was dangerous the way he’d been working out with
weights, running. I didn’t realize. Some of it may have went back to me and his mother.
He blamed us for being overweight. Teenagers blame you for everything, even if they
haven’t been through trauma, I guess. I couldn’t hardly argue with him about it, though,
because I wasn’t there for him when he was little. I was in the back room getting high.
Rachel, she’s just getting her first job, just turned 16. She doesn’t seem to ever have any
issues, but she was only 6. I don’t think she remembers a lot of that day. Out of the six
kids, four were at home that day. Just the oldest two are the ones who seemed really
affected.

About your speaking, you do most of it at schools?

Yeah, I’m headed to Alabama next week, then New Mexico. I just come back from
Indiana and Minnesota. We used to average 230 programs a year. Now it’s probably 60
schools a year, then 20 to 30 other things like prisons and rehabs. I think I put off
churches because of some of the things I say. I took out of what I read in the Bible that
we’re supposed to love everybody. That’s the most important thing in the whole world.
Not “Only if you believe like me, live like me.” It seems like it offends some people.

What have been the reactions? Any surprises?

Oh yeah, it’s really neat. I’ve been in 33 states, Canada, and London. If they didn’t like it,
I wouldn’t have been to 33 states. I don’t talk about religion to schools at all. I think they
like that part, because there are so many beliefs and faiths in a school system. I only talk
to them about my mission, to get them to make better choices.

When I first come out on stage, you know, I’m disfigured, and the kids are just shocked, you can see it. By the time the program’s over, they usually surround me and shake my hand. It was a school in St. Paul, Minnesota when there were all these girls with the head coverings on, shaking my hand and telling me how much they loved the program. What’s really been nice, more than one time, the kids come up to me and one girl said, “I gotta be honest, I didn’t want to come to your program. I thought, ‘Oh god, not another one!’ But I’m so glad I came! It’s so different than what I expected!” I have to tell you, that made me feel
good. I think it’s the most wonderful compliment I ever had. Once in state prison an
inmate said, “I didn’t want to come in here. Man, I’m glad I did.”

When my wife encouraged me to go speak, I said, “If I’m going to do it, I have to be
completely honest.” She said, “I want you to be honest.” I remember the first time I
took my kids to a program, I was so scared I’d embarrass them. They were all looking at
me. I started crying. On the way home, they were just cutting up and laughing in the car.
It was totally not what I expected of them! I figured they thought, “Hey, Dad really is
sorry if he can get up in front of people and say this, he really is.” They went so many
times over 10 years they don’t want to go anymore!

People just love the program. They know it’s real. A sheriff told me he’s seen many
programs, but he said he’d never seen one as graphic or real. I have had some bad
feedback, but out of thousands, I got maybe a dozen who didn’t like it. They were saying
they don’t think marijuana is a gateway drug. I’ll explain why it is real quick. Because it’s
not legal. If it was, I don’t think as many people would go onto meth and other things.
When it’s illegal, when you have to go to a house to a dealer to buy, they can say, “I
don’t have any weed, but try this meth.” I would push the meth on them, and the next
thing you know, they were addicted. It puts us in the world of drugs. All we care about is
making money. I don’t think marijuana’s a killer drug like meth or crack cocaine. I don’t
want you to think I’m promoting it, though.

Have suicide prevention groups said anything to you about your seminars?

Yeah, I heard a few times over the years, “You’re trying to run a shock program.” No! I
just collected photos from policemen all over the country. Over the years, it just
developed into this graphic program. I have a section on abused women and one on
child abuse. I tell them, “I’m not trying to shock the kids, I’m just trying to be real.” I
don’t know anything pretty about addiction. If I did, I’d put it in there. Hollywood’s
glamorizing that lifestyle. I just want to tell the kids the truth. I’ll cut it back sometimes.
If I go to a junior high and they say, “We don’t want to show the most graphic,” I take it
out.

What about the photos of your own experience? You don’t have people telling you that might inspire others?

No. I don’t think so. I haven’t had anybody say that. I show the crime scene photos,
which I don’t think will make anybody want to do it. I show my basketball photos, prison
photos, after prison with my wife, as the years progressed as my face changed. I don’t
show any party pictures. I think if I showed some pictures from certain areas, then it
might make them think, “Hey man, dude’s having a good time, aint’ he?” The ones I
show, I try to keep directly tied to the ways drug destroyed my life.

What goals are you still working toward?

Right now, I think I’m going to go back to school and get my counseling license. I just
wrote a book, it came out, I think, last December. I’ve been thinking about going back to
school for a number of years. I want to go because I want all my kids to go. If they see
me, they might say “Hey, Dad’s doing it,” and maybe that will inspire them. You’re never
too old or too young. Even though I’m 46, I’m not too old to go back. That’s my goal.

Is there anything else I should be asking?

The thing I always tell people is, suicide is never the answer. I told the guy at the funeral
last night, who had thought about suicide, “As long as you’re still breathing, things can
always get better.” Suicide is definitely not the right answer. Going and getting some
counseling, that would be doing people a great favor, not killing ourselves.

This isn’t easy to talk about. How would you like to make it an easier topic?

If people would do more interviews and stuff about it I think it would help. By not
talking about it and making it a shameful thing, less people want to talk about it. I know
people who’ve been through situations like me and don’t even want people to know
they went through it, there’s so much stigma and shame involved. If we did more like
that Huffington Post session, it makes it easier and helps people relax a little bit and
open up. It takes away some of the shame and let them know millions of people are
struggling like this. They need to be able to feel like nobody is going to look at you like a
second-class citizen, and you just need some help. I really don’t know the answer, but I
think if they did more education about this and let it be known that “There’s millions,
you’re not the only one, we’re going to treat you and not look at you weird,” it would
help.

I realize I didn’t ask about your wife!

She’s been doing really good also. She does all the scheduling, so she’s been a key part
from the very beginning. We moved for a couple years, then come back. The house has
been in my family five generations. My great-granddad built it. The room I shot myself
in, we didn’t like to go in, like I said before, but we eventually took that back room and
turned it into an office. I thought that was kinda cool. My wife was like, “We’ll fight
drugs from the same room we sold drugs out of.” The first couple years were really
tough, though. She got to using and had quit before I shot myself. She would go through
periods where she was really angry with me. She’d sometimes start crying. It’s been 10
years now. I don’t think she really associates me or her with that old person, it’s been so
long. It’s like thinking about somebody else’s life. She doesn’t think like it was us.

Who else are you?

I’m a dad that tries to put his kids before anything else. I never had a dad. I didn’t know
how to be a dad. But when I die, that’s what I hope the legacy I leave, my kids will be
able to say, “He was a good man.” That’s the one thing, and being a good husband.
When I play basketball, it’s with the kids. I love to go fishing and I love gardening, but
the kids don’t like to help with that. I go to soccer games, I don’t know what the heck
is going on half the time, but I’m supporting them. If I really think about it, that’s who
I am. I have kids 9 to 17 at home. The next decade, I might be able to give you another
answer. But this particular time in my life, I’m a dad. I’m trying to make up for all the
time I lost. I love them and try to put them before myself. If I’m thinking of buying a pair
of underwear for myself, I think, “Hey, do the kids need some socks?” And then I buy
them first. They’re all I think about when I’m not out working. I’m David the dad.

Talking with Brandi Care Hicks

Brandi Care Hicks has been speaking publicly about her experience for almost 15 years. When depression hit her as a high-spirited, high-achieving teen, she didn’t realize what it was until after her suicide attempt. Now she urges teens and others to speak up before letting themselves be cornered by their own troubled thinking.

She’s noticing more people like herself talking publicly about their experiences. “The only thing that I think helps is hearing other people’s stories, knowing that it can get better,” she says. “I guess one of the biggest life lessons I’ve had is truly that we’re not perfect. You hear people talk about that, but trying to live up to that image is really just crushing you in the end.”

Here, Brandi talks about reaching out _ and knowing whom to reach out to.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I am a married woman with two children, and I definitely have a typical happy life, you know, with a son and daughter and a great job. I’ve been with my corporation for almost 10 years now. Life is pretty good, but when I get the chance, I like to share my experience with depression in the past. It goes back over, gosh, close to 15 years now. I was in high school at the time, and I was the typical kind of happy-go-lucky teen, lots of friends, involved in lots of things, as far as sports and student government, and a part-time job. I got involved in a lot of social activities. In my freshman and sophomore years, I was kind of living the life, on a high of life. Everything was going great. I loved getting up for school, being with friends. Everything was sort of as it should be. I was very focused on school, I worked very hard, I stayed up all hours. I was just very energized, constantly go go go.

And I started to, in my junior year, I started to experience different things that, you know, at the time, were part of being a teen, but it was over time that things started really changing. Not so much external but internal, feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, lot of sadness. Many nights I found myself crying myself to sleep. It was really hard to concentrate in school. I could see my grades slipping, and I could not understand what the teacher was saying. I got things so easily in the past. I just couldn’t seem to keep up anymore. I felt like I was slowly losing myself. I wasn’t enjoying sports, and there were several days where I would basically claim to be sick, where it was more sadness or not being able to get through the day. Just to not have to go to practice. I ended up sleeping all afternoon. It was all sort of slowly compiling, but I never told anyone how I was feeling. I didn’t even complain about the tiredness. I started gaining a little weight. I was filling myself with food to have that full feeling. You go down the list of symptoms of depression, and I had every one, but I never once thought I was depressed. I didn’t share it with anyone and was such a busy teen that no one really questioned when I missed a practice or social gathering. “Of course she’s tired, she has so much going on.” So no one was questioning the changes. It also wasn’t very visible. I still kept a smile on my face and tried to keep things normal. Under it all, I felt like I was losing myself. I didn’t know who I was. The Brandi everybody knows was no longer who I felt inside. I was struggling. There were two different worlds getting farther apart, and I started to daydream about ways to end the misery. I distinctly remember being in biology class, feeling so defeated: “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t get through each day.” And when it got to that point, I started thinking of different ways to end this quickly, painlessly. “I don’t want to go through this pain anymore.” It was such a deep-seated emotional pain, it was hard to articulate to anybody else. Also, I was that friend that everybody relied on. I prided myself on being the one you could come to. Even the thought of sharing with my friends didn’t cross my mind. It was not part of who I was. I was the strong one who could figure things out. I was not one to complain. It wasn’t a question. It never crossed my mind. So when I started having those thoughts, kind of fleeting at first: “Oh, just to end it all.” But I wasn’t really serious. I was kind of fantasizing about ending my misery. I would try my best, when really feeling down, to surround myself with friends, try to get myself out of that, what I thought was a funk. I tried to focus on others, be cheerful, do what I could to put a smile on my face. It was kind of how I led my day to day.

I was turning 17 at the time. My brother had friends over one night, very last minute. He’s 18 months older than me, so his friends were kind of my friends. We hung out and had a good night, where I had my mind off of things. I really enjoyed myself. Then the next morning was a Sunday, a day I hated. Because Friday nights and Saturdays as a teen are an escape from reality, from commitments, schoolwork and being the Brandi everyone knew me to be. Then back to reality on Monday. I hated Sundays leading up to that week of responsibility and everything to be done. I needed to read an English book, and I distinctly remember lying on my parents’ bed trying to read and getting to the end of the page and having no idea what I had read. I could not keep my mind on the book. My mental capabilities were not there. And my mind just started going again through this pain. I was trying to work through that: “I just don’t want to feel this way anymore.” I thought, “I’ve got to write all these thoughts down.” They were racing in my mind. I grabbed a notepad and started writing. My thoughts turned into maybe a page or so, then the next page was, “Dear Mom,” and I started a suicide letter to my mom. Before I started the letter, the thought of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge came to my mind. It was a quick thought, but it was, “I can do this.” I don’t think I’d seen anything recently about it, but for whatever reason, that moment it jumped into my mind. I would hit water, go unconscious, feel no pain and this all would be over. A simple answer, I thought. “I can’t go on.” And I had mentally come to the conclusion. And started writing this letter to my mom. It was really hard. I started crying, but at that moment I had made that decision. “This is it. No turning back.” I kind of got tunnel vision. I had no second-guessing what I had to do. While writing that, one of my brothers asked me to give him a ride to the local marina. I quickly covered my tears up. “Sure, no problem.” I finished the letter. That was kind of the moment of getting me out the door.

I put the note between the two seats. We had a normal conversation, but I realized I had no money for the toll for the bridge, so I asked him for cash for Taco Bell on the way back. He gave me a few dollars. He got out of the car, and I said, “I love you.” It’s not like I said that every single time, but it was not too ordinary that I said that to him. He left, and again I kind of broke down: “Oh my gosh, I’m really about to do this.” I really had tunnel vision. I quickly thought of him, my mom and dad and my other brothers, and I really put that to the side. “I’ve got to end this pain.” That was my tunnel vision, to get to the bridge. There was all this traffic that day, and I was so frustrated: “I need to do this now.” Long story short, leading up to the jump, on the way there I had picked a spot where I thought I would jump. When I got to that spot, I literally pulled the car over, stepped up three steps from the railing, and jumped. There was no hesitation. There was no second thought. I think I at least had thought of putting my hazards on. I didn’t want others to get hurt.

I remember you know, the three words in my mind when I jumped: “This is it.” Those three little words. And I felt pitch black. Sometimes they say when someone is about to die, they have flashbacks of childhood or dreams of what they’ll miss. I had none of that. Pitch black and three words, and I remember feeling my stomach drop. Afterwards, experts said that where I jumped was close to 130 feet. I’m not sure. I remember hit the water, like hitting brick. It was an incredible impact. And really, it was just shock then. I actually opened my eyes under water, seeing brown all around me, thinking, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know which way to go, will it end here? What’s happening?” And I instinctively swam to the top and let out a huge scream, like pure horror, because I never had in my mind thought that it wouldn’t work, that I would not die that day. So shock and survival instantly kicked in. I didn’t know what to do. I certainly felt numb in the bottom half of my body. Incredible pain, like I had never experienced before. And at some point a boat came towards me and threw a life jacket. They at some point threw me a rope and pulled me in. But I was in excruciating pain. I was screaming in terror. My body was like, every single tiny movement was shooting horrible streaks of pain. I was in shock mode, like people were trying to help and I was accepting the help, but at the same time I was kind of screaming at them because my body hurt so bad. “Don’t touch me!”

They had to drive me back to the coast, of course, and horrible pain. If you think about it, it was choppy water. I think they tried to go slow, but I was just screaming the whole time. They called 911, and a trauma helicopter was there. I was transported to shock trauma in Maryland. And all of this was still a blur. I guess I was taken in, given a bunch of tests and all that. Again, I’m not sure how much time passed. Before I saw family and friends, a nurse came in. At this point, I’m not sure if she was a medical nurse or a mental illness nurse. She was coming in and saying, “Do you think you’re depressed?” That was the first time that word was associated with everything I was experiencing. I never thought, “Oh, is this depression?” I never associated it with me when I heard it before. I thought it was something someone experienced because of a specific event. Someone goes through a horrible divorce, or a mom loses a child to a car accident. I never thought it happens to a happy-go-lucky teen that has everything going for them. I honestly don’t remember how I reacted to her, but I remember thinking, “Is that it? Maybe it is. I don’t know.”

My parents came in and, long story short, I didn’t stay in shock trauma long. We tried one mental illness program that night, but it was not the right fit, so later that night I ended up at a psych unit of a hospital in the area. I ended up there a week. I kind of had full inpatient for a week. I remember being there, and maybe it was the first or second day, but at some point I was waiting for a group session and I was looking through a magazine about mental health, and I saw a list about depression, the list of symptoms. And I’m seeing “feeling of sadness, emptiness, helplessness, loss of concentration, overeating …” I’m going, “Check, check, check.” For me, that was the moment I truly associated it with what I was going through. I could’ve gotten the help! It was just a realization. For a period, I had a real high: “I know what this is, this is curable!” I had this sense of energy. “I’m going to figure this out and be 100 percent again! I’ll get meds, it’s gonna be great.” I really went through this high. And then reality hit. It’s not that easy. I was definitely comforted that there was a name for this, that other people had gone through it, that it was treatable, but it was a hard reality. You don’t cure this overnight. That was the start to my long road to recovery. Years of therapy, years of meds for some time.

And I started sharing my story. It sort of came about from sharing with friends informally, just opening up and saying, “These are my true thoughts and feelings.” And then, I guess, you know, stories just get out, and someone reached out for an interview for the newspaper. Then Oprah, and “Dateline” and different magazines. It kind of turned into an opportunity for a mental health awareness organization wanting me to speak at one of their events. And then it built to other events. So this obviously transpired over the years. I think it was 15 years, because it was May of ’98. A quick recap: I started going back to school senior year, but it was really hard to focus on my health and getting better. I needed to say “no” to a lot of activities. I had been elected president of my class, I had field hockey, all of these things already set to do that I had to say “No” to. I couldn’t be this everything to everyone else while trying to get myself healthy again. I got approval for home schooling, and it was a huge blessing. I started a new part-time job, found new friends, discovered myself all over again through a different avenue instead of being the  Brandi everyone knew me to be at high school. I started to figure out who I was again, and that was a huge part of my recovery. And I stayed close with the good friends I had before. A very close network had been there for me.

I remember going to college and being very scared that this could hit again. I remember, it’s kind of embarrassing and silly to say, but I remember having a freshman biology class and actually studying and grasping it. It was such a good feeling: “My mind, it’s healthy again. I can learn, I can study and grasp things.” Kind of that validation for me: “I am back to that person I am.” I went to one of the counselors on campus just to share my story: “I need to tell you this, to have someone on campus to talk to in case I have feelings again.” Kind of a safety net. When it happens again, I don’t want to have to rehash the story. I didn’t necessarily go to her on a consistent basis, but I knew that if something was to change, I could go to her.

So that’s where that kind of brings me to today. I have a whole program I go through. I show the “Dateline” piece that NBC did, I tell the story, then I show them a slide show at end, show how my life is today. I lead a very successful, “normal” life. It’s not perfect by any means, or happy-go-lucky either. In the past couple years I had bouts of anxiety. I’ve had periods of sadness. I’ve gone back to the therapist as an adult to get a handle on situations I’ve gone through. It’s never been that severe. In my opinion, it’s because I accepted it as an illness. And I know the triggers that cause stress. And I just talk about it now. I have an amazing husband who lets me vent, lets me cry for no reason, talk through my emotions. I have great friends. I have a girlfriend now who works with me, we were friends in high school, and we meet for lunch every week. I joke that she’s my counseling session. It’s my chance to chat with someone who knew me through it all. I can open up to her and know she’s not going to judge me. It helps provide that perspective, that reality perspective. Sometimes we can get so deep in our thoughts that we’re not thinking logically anymore. Depression really altered my mental capabilities, and I look back now on those thoughts, and it was really a depressed mind making those decisions. I can see the difference in how my healthy, logical mind operates and how it operated before. I have to remind myself to keep that healthy, logical mind. If I don’t tell others how I’m thinking, I can easily get into the trap of thinking it’s logical. If I don’t have someone to put it into perspective for me, I can easily get sucked back in. I’m much more open, I talk much more about my inner thoughts and feelings. Again, it doesn’t take away the challenges, but it’s manageable.

And I feel I’m in a really good place. I like to share my story because I want people to know that depression or thoughts of suicide can happen to everyone. And if I had known depression could happen to an outgoing, happy girl, and if I had opened and up and shared what I was feeling, I feel that if I had done it early enough, one, maybe I had never gone into thoughts of suicide, I could have coped, or, if I had gotten to that point, at least I could have had that hope that it was treatable. But I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t have the education. I didn’t communicate. I wasn’t open with others. So that’s kind of my long-winded story. But that’s the journey I walk people through.

How do you know how to find the right people to confide in?

I don’t know if there’s a black-and-white answer. You have to know who your friends are. It’s all about who you trust. I try the best I can to say, “This is a lot to put on another teen. They may not know how to react. That’s OK, you can share, but you have to also share with an adult, whether it’s a friend’s parent, a teacher you’re comfortable with, a pastor, your own parents, but you’ve got to find someone who logistically knows how to get you professional help.” I really feel, too, you really should speak to a professional. Even if you open up to a friend or parents, this is someone who has an unbiased view and can assess the issues. There are teens out there going through the aches and pains of being a growing teen, and some of it is figuring it out. A parent isn’t going to be able to identify that. It’s getting to a professional. I also feel that a big part of society is getting people to give that person a chance to be there for them. What I mean is, we talk about how to react if someone does share. You have to take it seriously. Don’t take as a joke. You’ve got to tell an adult. Don’t worry about if they’re not going to be friends with you. You could have saved their life. One of the things I still deal with today, I still get little emotional, is how my attempt affected my friends and family. I never gave them the opportunity to be there for me. I never gave them that chance because I chose to keep it all inside. It still breaks my heart today. My friends probably had that question, “Why didn’t Brandi think I was a good enough friend? Did she think I wasn’t there for her?” For me, that’s so far from the truth. And it had nothing to do with my parents being there for me. It was about me accepting that responsibility and being OK to share my inner thoughts and feelings, to live up to that image. You know, it just gets to me. It’s letting people know how important it is and letting people know that if someone shares, they’re putting a lot of trust in you. They’re being brave, trying to get help for you. So there’s no black-and-white answer knowing who that right person is, but knowing the importance of determining who that person is.

You mentioned living up to an image. So many people want to appear perfect and fear disappointing others by not being good enough, especially teens. And suicide rates are high among doctors and lawyers, for example, people who push themselves. How do you get over this?

It is a huge hurdle. The only thing that I think helps is hearing other people’s stories, knowing that it can get better. I guess one of the biggest life lessons I’ve had is truly that we’re not perfect. You hear people talk about that, but trying to live up to that image is really just crushing you in the end. I found that since I opened up and became more open in sharing with people in general, people are drawn to others that admit their shortcomings or things they are going through, being open to saying they need help. I’ve found that people are even more drawn to me when I open up because they can relate. “She’s not up on that pedestal. She’s just like me.” I had so many e-mails, letters written to me, some strangers saying, “Thank you,” knowing someone is out there who’s been through this. A typical teen who had so much going for them. It brought me so much comfort. I’m still very high-achieving. It’s part of my personality that won’t go away. I work so hard at work. But I’m very open about work-related and other challenges. What am I struggling with? And being able to laugh about it. I know it’s pie-in-the sky stuff, but you kind of have to get back to those principles, educating people that this is life and nobody’s going to be perfect. It has helped me connect with people more. I have more sympathy for people going through this. You build stronger relationships, networking, through sharing experiences. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, it strengthens friendships. Teens are just learning how to build relationships, how to trust people. I don’t think there’s a magic answer. Just continuing to talk and open up about the positives.

What have been some of the more striking reactions to your talks? And how have the reactions changed over the years?

There have been surprising reactions. One stands out. I did a parent night once, and the parents were very grateful. They got a lot of insights, and we talked about how to break down stigma. And then I had a mother say to me, “I don’t want my daughter to speak to the guidance counselor because I’m afraid she will put it in her file and it’s going to be in her file that there’s a mental illness issue, and that could prevent her from getting into some colleges.” And I was really taken back. And she was being completely honest. This is really the thought in parents’ minds, how it will affect in the long term. I spoke about the mental illness programs at colleges, that, “Really, your child’s health _ their life _ should be number one, not their education. This is her health you’re talking about, and you need to put that first, and she needs to speak to someone. In my mind, what college you get into is not important at this stage of the game.” And I’m sure it went in one ear and out the other.

Do you think it’s easier for a younger person to come back from an attempt, and why?

Unfortunately, I don’t think I have a good perspective on that. I haven’t had that mindset as an adult, so it’s hard for me to really compare. I guess I would say that of course, in general, teenagers have a different kind of pressure on them, image-wise, and being able to deal with the emotions and hormones of everything they’re going through, so I definitely think it’s different. Of course, there’s just the pure opportunity they have, many more years, and they are kind of young in adult life to kind of restart, and that’s a benefit to them. When it happened, I had not graduated high school, and it gave me an opportunity to refocus, to learn who I was again in order to then get healthy, go to college, kind of restart. I would think potentially it would be harder as an adult. Certainly they have a lot more responsibility if they’re a parent, have a job, a career. Taking time to fully recover, get treatment … I was in inpatient for a week, I went through a lot of therapy, and I had to step back from a lot of responsibility. Being class president, having a part-time job, I had to step away from all of this to focus on myself to get better. I was in a situation where I was living with my parents and could do all that. I would think in that state of mind, it probably would be harder in a place in life where you can’t push everything aside and focus on yourself.

And do you think it’s easier for a younger person to speak openly, or publicly, about it?

I don’t think I would have great perspective on that, either. It probably depends on the personality of that person. I got a very welcoming, supportive reception. I did have a great support network to begin with, and it was very healing to share my story, to speak afterwards. There is that stigma when you’re going through the issues, but it’s probably equally difficult if you’re not necessarily someone who opens up and shares about challenges. I think it would be the same regardless of your age.

Should more people be coming out about their experience? And what have you noticed in terms of openness about this topic in the years that you’ve been talking about it?

I think absolutely, I don’t see any reason why someone who experienced this should not share it with others. I think obviously there’s a time and place for everything. I think wherever there’s an opportunity to share with others, you know, the hard time you’ve been through, how you’ve come through, in my mind, only good comes out of that. It helps people connect to it. I absolutely think it’s important. For me, I’ve definitely seen a difference in people being open about it, but I couldn’t tell you if it’s a true evolution over time or it’s really just me being different from a teen to an adult. When going through it all, I didn’t know I was depressed. I didn’t equate someone kind of like myself being depressed, having a suicide attempt. Over the years, talking to people, it seems much more open now. I’ve spoken to so many high schools, where no one ever came to us about that topic. I feel like I see it more on the news, celebrities opening up about the struggles they had. I don’t know whether I’m more attuned to it. But growing up, the only significant exposure I remember having, at least with celebrities, was, of course, Kurt Cobain. But that was really the only significant event. I don’t remember hearing about depression or bipolar or other mental illnesses. I feel like I’m hearing it more now. At least personally, speaking with friends, I feel like in my network of friendship support, everyone is much more open to sharing about tough times. You don’t have to act like everything is great all the time. I feel I have a good support system where all is open, we can vent.

If you could change anything about the way society talks about suicidal thinking, what would you change?

I think the biggest thing about suicidal thinking that I would want to come across better, from my experience, is if you’re truly depressed or have suicidal thoughts, you’re not necessarily _ your mind is not fully healthy, thinking rationally. It’s not like a rational person saying, “OK, I don’t want to be here tomorrow, and I’m making this choice and giving up.” If you haven’t experienced it and the thinking, just seems so hard to understand, it’s like, “Just talk to someone. Why would you choose to end your life?” If you’re working with a mind that doesn’t see things clearly, basically your own mind is telling you lies. When I think back to the person I was, the thoughts I had, I almost feel it wasn’t me. Yes, it was me because I recall those thoughts. But the Brandi I am, I’m a logical person. But my mind was not operating in that way for several months. People told me my mind was sick. I needed to somehow get treatment to get healthy in order not to go down that path. It truly is your mind not functioning 100 percent.

How about any changes to the way suicidal thinking is treated, in a mental health sense?

You know, I read an article recently. I can’t remember where or the whole context, I just remember a mother talking about the challenges with her mentally ill son, the challenges she had with him behaviorally. She felt the only help she could get from the system was if she basically got in trouble with the law. If his actions somehow broke the law, because then he could get treatment through that. I don’t know, what I wish could be different is, we would really look at mental illness as a _ something on its own needs should be treated, regardless of situation. If behavioral issues or other things are associated, don’t wait for that to trigger treatment. You have to look out ahead of time to get to what the key problem is. As opposed to not offering the resources when they’re needed.

Anything to add?

I feel the need to kind of go back to it: For those people who haven’t experienced it directly, who don’t really understand mental illness, I guess I would really urge them to get educated to learn more about it, to learn that it is an illness, that it’s not something you can snap out of. That’s part of the stigma, like, “What’s wrong with you? Pick yourself up!” It just puts guilt back on the person if it’s truly a mental illness. Your brain is not healthy. You need to get treated for it. It’s not something you can just snap out of. That’s really hard for people to get. Some people think it’s almost a choice, choosing to have a bad day. It’s so much more than that. You just want people to learn more about it so if they have a friend, a family member, they can be more sympathetic and let them know they’re not alone, they can get help, they can’t just figure it out themselves.

Someone wrote to me saying her father told her that her attempt was just a way to get attention. What would you say in her place?

That’s a hard one. What would I say to him? I think you want to know where he’s coming from, his history or exposure. I think the key is to go back to the facts. Men are pretty logical. I’m speaking generally here. But maybe going back to the facts: “There are symptoms associated with an illness. I am seeing those symptoms. I’m having these thoughts.” I don’t mean to put words in her mouth. To go through all of those symptoms and say, “I need help. I need treatment. It’s the way my brain is thinking, and I want to get healthy again.” It’s helping her get out of the emotional state of things: “It’s just how I feel.” However she can articulate that there’s a clear list of symptoms she’s experiencing. Mine was not a call for help because I really thought I was going to end my life. I wasn’t doing it so people would know I need help. But I can understand if someone’s gotten to the point where they don’t know what else to do. So they’re doing this. “But hey, if you can help me, figure this out, find another way.” … I’ve heard that from several other people. If someone in the family is having a hard time with it, it’s usually the father.