Talking with Rohan Kallicharan

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We couldn’t resist this photo of Rohan Kallicharan with an example of his starring role in a mental health campaign displayed in the London transit system. How many public awareness messages have you seen with a real person identifying as someone who tried to take their own life?

Intrigued by this relative openness in the UK and the engaging nature of the large mental health charities there, we checked in with Rohan, who spends his time working as a recruiter, taking seriously long-distance runs and enjoying football of all kinds, including the NFL.

Here, he talks about why social media is hardly the solution to messaging, how pitiful crisis care in the UK has become and why speaking out on mental health issues is essential. “It’s so simple,” he says. “We all have a right to live a happy life, a right to not be judged, to not be scared to speak out, to be healthy mentally and physically, and yet so many people are afraid to exercise that right for fear of being stigmatized. ”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Rohan Kallicharan. I’m based in Birmingham in the UK. I turned 40 last month. Since I was in my late teens, I displayed symptoms of mental illness. I never got the diagnosis of bipolar until after I had taken two overdoses, the second of which was in 2006. So for a long time, I was mistreated, undiagnosed until I was 32. From there, it was a case of taking baby steps, rebuilding my life from scratch to where I’m now mentally and physically healthy, and very happy.

You’re now the face of a national campaign. How did you get into that?

As I said, I twice tried to take my own life. After my second attempt, there were two places I turned to for help. I was very lucky get some private counseling, one of my mum’s employee benefits, but the other very important source of help with was Mind, the mental health charity. It was their branch in Manchester who at the time gave me one-on-one and group support, which really allowed me to, for the first time in 15 years, realize I wasn’t a freak, this bad apple and really horrible person I had begun to believe that I was. I realized my only problem was that I had a really serious illness. I began through Mind to be able to speak to other people who had things in common. That was the biggest single step in my life in moving forward, accepting myself again. I had hated myself for so long. To find a group of people around whom I was accepted made me feel normal again, human. It was the most incredible thing. It gave me the strength to start rebuilding my life.

Mind played a huge part in rebuilding my life from where I was absolutely broken. Mind more than anyone helped me to rebuild. So when last year I’d become very overweight, about 19 stone (now I’m 12 stone, but that’s another story), I decided to start running so I could raise money for them. It’s all really gone from there. In the last 12 months, I’ve been involved in fundraising and, to this point, I’ve raised over five and a half thousand pounds, with another 3,000 guaranteed from the US-based chain of fitness clubs Anytime Fitness. I went from not being able to run a bath to running the London Marathon, which was the greatest experience and achievement in my life. Next step, New York … well, hopefully one day!

That’s how I got involved with Mind again, fundraising. However, because of things that I had written on my own blog, I also started doing some writing for Mind and Time to Change. Time to Change is a joint venture campaign aimed at reducing stigma. It’s National Lottery funded, run by Mind and Rethink, the two most significant mental health charities in the UK. Through that writing and fundraising, I applied to and was invited to take place in a photo shoot last October, through which I became a “Face of Mind.” It is an unbelievable honor. I was humbled by it.

When my face first appeared on a poster on the London Transport Network, friends kept on sending me pictures. I would receive photos saying, “I saw you this morning!” I was 100 miles away in Birmingham, but they were referring to the advertising poster for Mind. The first time I saw it, I was on a train in London. I was down there with work, and my friend tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Look up there.” I said, “Oh my God.”

It’s just really, really humbling to be able to give back to a charity responsible for me being alive today. I wouldn’t be here without them. After that second attempt, I remember lying there and I knew full well this couldn’t go on. I was playing Russian roulette with my life. If I wasn’t treated, there would have been a third or fourth attempt, but I had barely survived this one. Without Mind, I’m not alive today, it’s that simple. To be able to give back is just the most incredible thing, and I know they really appreciate it. However, they don’t realize the thanks are all from me. It’s a two-way thing, and it’s nothing to give back to the people who have given me my life.

How did you find them in the first place? What was your motivation to reach out?

It was actually my counselor. After I took that second overdose, for the first time I got a little bit of guidance from NHS. As you’re probably aware, there’s a lot of debate about crisis care in the UK at the moment, something being really highlighted by Mind’s manifesto. Crisis care is a real problem. After my first suicide attempt, I was released with no real aftercare, so it is no wonder I ended up back there again. After the second, I was really lucky that Manchester Royal Infirmary said, “You don’t leave here without going to a responsible adult.”

The only person was my mum, which meant that after being in denial for so long, I had no choice when I rang from the hospital and said, “Can you pick me up? I’m in the hospital, I took an overdose, I have a problem, I need help very badly.” It was the first time I had done that. I had been living with this since I was 17, I just thought I was a really bad piece of work, you know. I didn’t know it was a mental health problem.

By opening up, I was able to seek help. I had five sessions with a counselor, which were great. The first five were free. He then gave me a couple he didn’t charge for. After that, I remember turning around and saying, “How much does it cost to continue?” and he said, “You don’t need me anymore.” “How do you mean?” I responded. He said, “You’re working this all out, you don’t need me anymore.” I said, “Nah, no way.” He’d become my crutch. I think he sensed I’d done the hardest work already, getting in touch with my feelings, facing my demons in the eye, but he also knew I needed that something to lean on, so he signposted me to Mind.

Although Mind is a massive charity, mental health is something nobody wanted to talk about, so it still was not in my field of vision. I didn’t really know about them. Everybody knows Cancer Research, AIDS charities, Oxfam, the Red Cross, all  the big ones. But when it comes down to Mind and Rethink, you know they weren’t charities people spoke about, because they don’t talk about mental health. It was only through the counselor that I turned up at their door.

And they put you in a group with others?

Yes, and through that networking I suddenly realized I wasn’t alone. And you know what? When you live your whole adult life thinking you’re the only one doing these things, this is a massive relief. Bipolar is a horrible thing. You live life on a roller coaster, doing things out of fake confidence, feeling invincible, on this high wanting to party the whole time, then suddenly the things you do make you ashamed when you go down into the depressive period. It has an even higher rate of suicide than any other mental illness, and that’s because you cannot sustain this absolute roller coaster. I’d lived life from 17 to 32 being ashamed. There are no words that can describe how much I despised myself. I could see the hurt I was constantly causing others by my behavior. I just thought I was a really bad apple, that I was, excuse my French, messed up. I’d use slightly stronger language if I could, but I’m not going to.

You know, it was only after I realized, “Actually, no, I’ve got this serious illness, and there are other people with it as well,” that I had the peace of mind to know that I could overcome it, that I was gonna come through. From there, I got to that point at the beginning of last year where I was desperate to make a difference in the lives of others. I want to make a difference. I nearly lost my life because I sat in silence in a prison for 15 years of four walls and darkness. And because of that, I nearly lost my life. I don’t want anyone, ever, to feel scared of talking. I want to be a voice for those too scared to speak out.

What have been some of the more striking responses?

Ninety-nine point nine percent of people absolutely are totally supportive. If you read my Twitter feed, I sometimes have an aversion to what we call the I-word, “inspiration.” That’s one I’m constantly described as. However, I still look in the mirror and see what’s beneath, and I know I’m far from perfect. What stands out to me is knowing I have made even a small difference: Seeing a a couple of colleagues, friends, put their hands up and say, “I’ve got a problem.” It’s getting an email from a family friend a few weeks ago saying, “I had no idea, and I’m so proud of you.” It’s getting a message from a friend at university, our friendship had been destroyed by my behavior in the excesses of manic periods, saying, “I wish I had have known.” A complete stranger on Twitter saying, “You saved my life.” All of those things and more.

And you know, I’d love to lead a really private, quiet life. Because that’s who I am, quite shy, introverted, but the minute I chose to be a champion, I gave that right up because I’m committed to speaking, to putting myself out there, committed to ending stigma. Obviously, I’m not doing it alone. Look, the way I see it, we all have a sphere of influence as individuals, if we can all influence our networks, and then those of others around us as a knock-on effect, we can do this thing.

Mind saved my life, and I’m just committed to ensuring they continue to save others. It really is that simple. We live in such a cynical world that people are looking for an agenda, but there really is no agenda for me. It’s so simple. We all have a right to live a happy life, a right to not be judged, to not be scared to speak out, to be healthy mentally and physically, and yet so many people are afraid to exercise that right for fear of being stigmatized.

Have you ever felt pressured to censor yourself when talking about your attempts?

Very rarely. There are certain words that charities prefer you not to use. I don’t talk about “failed” suicide attempts and don’t perhaps go into detail about those attempts. You’ll notice I used the word “overdose,” and that’s as much as you need to know. I don’t talk in graphic detail, I think that’s the only thing for me.

Other than that, I feel I can be very open. But again, I’ve got a very thick skin. Look, at the end of the day, there’s posters on the London Overground saying I attempted suicide. I can’t hide from that. I was in a national paper in February telling people about my story, so there’s no hiding place for me. I have absolutely no fear in what I say. The charities are very good in terms of non-censorship, but they’re rightly very wary of the audience that reads them and absolutely avoid any triggering language. So obviously, I’m conscious of that, you don’t want to give ideas to someone suicidal about what they might do.

If/when suicidal thinking comes back, how do you deal with it? And as the “face” of a public campaign, do you feel any pressure to be “OK” all of the time?

I have not experienced suicidal thoughts for a long time, although I am still prone to severe depressive episodes. The difference is that where I once suffered in silence, I now tell people very openly that I am going through a difficult period. For so many people with mental illness and mood disorders, knowing that they can speak to someone makes the biggest difference. As a face of Mind, I am very open about when I am struggling. Mind and Time to Change are really trying to get the message across that it is OK not to feel OK, so I feel no pressure at all in that regard.

Is there any kind of suicide attempt survivor movement in the UK?

There are a lot of smaller groups. For example, Forward For Life, they’re based around suicide prevention training. So that’s huge. There’s also Dr. Alys Cole-King, doing a lot of work. A lot of what I see is on the social media sites, there’s a huge amount going on there. What we have to remember is that social media is the merest, smallest microcosm of life. It’s not useful in areas where people can’t get to the Internet. You have to make sure messages are getting out to people who really need them. That’s what I don’t know, I have to question whether we’re really doing that, although it’s not a question of lack of effort.

Take, for example, New York. I have family in Queens, where there’s a big Caribbean community. And in those Asian and black communities, there’s always been massive stigma around mental illness, and likewise here. In the States, there’s an even bigger melting pot when you consider Hispanic communities also. We’re talking about huge stigma. Time to Change is doing a lot of work around what we call BME, black and minority ethnic communities. It is a massive area we really need to engage.

How do you even start the conversation when some people would rather just walk away, avoid it?

You know what, sometimes you have to take a step back … I’m not being defeatist, but if someone is not ready to listen yet, there’s no point in forcing it, because it will push them further back. It’s all about being approachable and just planting the seed and saying, “OK, I understand you don’t want to talk, but if you want to at some point, this is where I am.” It’s about signposting and making them aware. They might not want to talk to you because you now know who they are, but they might want to speak to a stranger. Let them know that if they want to talk, there’s somewhere to go. I did a radio show in March for the BBC Asian Network. A lady phoned in, obviously in huge distress, very powerfully emotive. We didn’t want to let her off the line. In the end, the people in the studio were able to give her support numbers. To help someone, they have to want it. I always look back on my experiences. If you had tried to force help on me, I would have rejected it.

I had a really difficult week last week; one of my old friends from university, she suffered from depression for a long time, and I had lost contact with her for years before she found out what I was doing with Mind. She told me that when we were younger, she tried to take her own life. She got back in a difficult place last week, and even now she didn’t want to talk to anyone, just me. She trusted me. I spent two nights on the phone, being silent most of the time, just being on the other end so she wouldn’t do anything. And finally she said, “Thank you for listening, I’m going to go speak to someone.”

I found that a hugely traumatic and triggering experience. I can empathize, but actually my skills are in campaigning, fundraising, advocacy, not necessarily counseling, but I will always do my best for people. Does that make sense? … I was looking into training for the Samaritans, and a friend said, “It’s not for you.” After last week, I said, “My God, you’re so right.” Someone like you or me, we’re too tempted to draw on our own experience, but each person’s experience is totally different. We can empathize, but that’s actually as much as we can do. The key is knowing where and how to signpost. Every week without fail, I get calls and messages from friends saying, “I have a friend with a problem” … and I signpost them to relevant people. That’s the best advice I can give them.

What’s your take on peer support?

That’s a really tough question. I think peer support is massive, but shouldn’t ever be confused with crisis care. Peer support is listening, understanding, empathizing, but never crossing the line of trying to treat. That’s a skill in itself. It’s knowing, “Where do I stop?” So yeah, look, just as I was explaining, I’m constantly approached by people, which is why I’ve done what I have, to get people to speak up. It doesn’t make me happy when a friend calls to tell me about someone in severe crisis, but I’m relieved they approach me. It’s knowing where that place is to stop, and I’m getting pretty comfortable with that. The model Time to Change uses is the lived experience model. We’re using that in advocacy and championing, saying, “I’m an example that you can live through this.” Or, “I’m still here. I’m someone who really understands.” The same reality is however true even with that, it’s knowing where you stop and where someone who’s qualified to help takes over.

What is the Mind manifesto, for us outside the UK?

Next year is General Election in the UK, so Mind has produced a manifesto to lobby political parties. It’s on their website, saying, “Look, mental health has to be on the political agenda for these elections.” It has to be there. I’ve lobbied my own member of Parliament. Great. It’s not quite meeting with a senator for a coffee, but I’m meeting with an elected member of Parliament to talk about mental health. It is a small step in the bigger picture, but a massive one for me.

What would you most like to change?

Rip out the whole bloody lot and start again when it comes to crisis care. The system is just broken, Cara, I can’t begin to describe it. The system is failing people left, right and center. People are not getting admitted when they need crisis care. It starts with GPs who, unfortunately, cannot be expected to have specialist knowledge around mental health, they’re called General Practitioners for a reason, so all many of them want to do is prescribe everyone anti-depressants. That doesn’t work!

They’re reluctant to throw people into the crisis care system because it’s so understaffed, and even on occasions when they recommend people to counseling, there are waiting lists for forever and a day. It’s taking people to attempt suicide before they take notice, and even then they don’t take notice half of the time. The system is so broken. It’s absolutely scandalous. There aren’t enough beds or staff, not enough knowledge. People want a one-pill-fits-all solution. The system is a joke. And people are going to die if they don’t sort it out. And that’s why it’s got to come from the government. There’s got to be an edict on change. I’m sorry, I’ll get off my soapbox in a minute.

Look, I give the example. When I took my first overdose in 2003, I was kept in the hospital overnight for obvious reasons. They wouldn’t release me until I saw someone from the crisis team. But they were too busy. On the second day, they were still too busy. So I had a 10-minute meeting with a nurse. “Are you gonna do it again?'” “No.” “Off you go, then.” There are people being let back out who can be a danger not only to self but to others. And that’s where you get sensationalist headlines, and people get exactly the wrong idea of mental illness, and start stigmatizing. But the bottom line is, the system is failing people. We say it constantly, one in four people will live with mental illness at some point in life. If we as the National Health Service can’t deal with an illness that’s gonna effect one in four, we have a massive problem.

Where do you see hope?

I see hope because there are so many tragic stories, so for all the wrong reasons, in a way. However, I see that hope because people are beginning to understand how serious this thing is, because more and more are being affected, losing family members to suicide, seeing family members suffer from depression; that shouldn’t bring hope, it should bring despair, but it brings hope because people are standing up and saying this a real, real problem.

I see hope that a generation of teenagers in this country are now seeing friends suffer from self-harm and depression and see that nobody is listening, but these kids want a voice. They want to make a difference. If they can just be empowered to speak out, they will change future generations. I’m absolutely convinced of that. That’s why charities have got to engage with these youngsters who desperately want to speak out and want to be heard. They want people to know, “We’re struggling here, but because I’m a teen you think I don’t understand life. Well, I do. Listen to me.” They’re the ones who will create the future. They’re the ones who will eradicate stigma.

Any interest in running for office yourself?

Not for me. I’ll keep up my soapbox on the Internet and continue to campaign and fund-raise. Anything Mind asks of me, I will give them my life. They’ll never ask for my life, but I’ll give them every ounce of energy I have, because everything I have is because of them.

Is this work your career?

This is all in my spare time. I work very long hours every day as a recruiter. I work for a consultancy, so I place people into jobs mainly in procurement and purchasing.

Who else are you?

OK, I’m Rohan, a recruiter, Rohan, a massive NFL fan up all hours of the night and early morning despite the time difference in the States, a Redskins fan. A massive sports fan, which probably ties in with my running. I’m a season ticket holder at Liverpool Football Club (soccer to you guys!), and I’m a runner. And you know what? I’ve run out of hours of the day after that. I love my family and friends, I’m a devout Christian. As a Christian, I believe God gives us a calling. For me, my calling is speaking out about mental health. I’m very passionate about what I do.

More from Canada, part 2: Listening to Wendy Matthews

One of the several attempt survivors I met last week at Canada’s national conference for suicide prevention was Wendy Matthews, who gave an open, engaging presentation about her experience. “I have finally been able to recover my life, and my illness finally turned into just that. An illness,” she told the audience. “It is no longer who I am. It is something that I have.”

She agreed to let me post her speech here:

Good afternoon, my name is Wendy Matthews. And I thought I would start with a little bit about who I am.

On Dec. 26, I will be married for 25 years to the same wonderful man.

I am a proud mom of an 21-year-old son.

I am a college graduate.

I am a board member of a local not-for-profit agency.

I am a public speaker for the Canadian Mental Health Association of Niagara, United Way of St. Catharines and for my own company. I own three businesses: Happy Being ME, Button Me Happy and Wendy Speaks Up.

My life sounds pretty typical, don’t you think?

What I haven’t told you is that I have a mental illness. I have been ill for over 30 years and was properly diagnosed only 13 years ago. For over 10 years, I was totally unable to do any type of work. My diagnosis is bipolar-schizoaffective disorder. This means that I suffer from deep, dark pits of depression for long periods of time and sometimes for years. Depression for me is like a wet, thick, dark blanket that is thrown over my head. I can’t breathe, I can’t see past the darkness and I can’t lift myself up because of the weight of the blanket.

I also spring over to the other extreme, to the mountainous highs of mania. In this part of my illness, it is the exact opposite. I am light as a feather and as free as a bird. I know I could fly if I just take that leap. During these times, I do not sleep or eat for days on end. I commit myself to everything and anything people ask of me, and I have put myself into unsafe and at times dangerous situations. Mania for me can last for days or weeks at a time.

I also suffer from schizophrenia, which for me includes hallucinations and delusions. Some voices tell me horrible things. Other voices are just my friends, and we chat. Other times, it is just a lot of unrecognizable talk, kind of like being between radio stations, hearing the static and voices but not being able to understand what they are saying. I see dark figures and forms that live in the corners of rooms, behind things and in the ceilings. My delusional thoughts are harder to describe. The best way I know how to describe it is like being awake in a dream or nightmare. Well, more like a nightmare. I think, feel and see life, but no one else is going through the same things. I feel confused, terrified and angry during these episodes. These feelings only intensify when someone challenges me on what is going on.

My illness started back when I was 12, with a deep depression and my first of many suicide attempts. One day after school, I swallowed a bottle of pills that was in the medicine cabinet and left home. I was young and had no idea about how medications worked. I thought I would walk for a while and drop dead in my steps and everyone would be so much better off without me. After walking for a while, I started to feel ill and was getting tired, so I headed home to go to bed and die. I came home, and my parents were there waiting for me. They yelled at me because I had left and not told anyone where I was going.

I was grounded. I listened to them lecture and kept thinking in the back of my head that they wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore. I went to bed and awoke the next morning very disappointed that I couldn’t even get a suicide right. I had survived and no one knew what I had done, and I was still grounded.

By the time I reached high school, I was drinking to cope with school and life. I needed to drink to go to school, to be at home and to go out with my friends.

During my time in high school, I had a few more suicide attempts, and still no one knew. I would overdose and go to sleep. Sometimes I would get sick, but mostly I would lie down and expect to die but always wake up the next morning feeling that same disappointment that I felt years ago. Still, I never told anyone. I didn’t want to admit there was anything wrong with me. I thought other people felt the way that I did, only they were able to cope with life better than me.

So, after five intoxicated years in high school, I left without graduating. After high school, I worked at a bunch of different jobs, dated a bunch of different guys, and finally I met and married my husband. We moved to Nova Scotia, and a few years later we welcomed home a beautiful baby boy. All during this time, I still hid everything, my depression, my suicide attempts and my drinking, which was no longer working for me and had now turned into cutting myself as a way of dealing with everything.

My family didn’t know what I was doing or how I felt. Not even my husband knew. I kept everything from everyone. I was becoming the world’s greatest actress.

When my son was nine months old and I was 26, once again I tried to kill myself with an overdose. However, this time, if no one had found me I would have got it right. I was taken away unconscious in an ambulance in front of all our friends and neighbours.

My secret that I had hidden for 16 years was finally out in the open.

I was hospitalized for a few weeks and was diagnosed as bipolar, even though I was hearing things that were not really there. I was told that the reason for the voices was because I was tired and overwhelmed from being a new mom. So I went home from the hospital. But I needed help and support to look after my son as well as myself. My husband was in the Navy and had to quit his job, and we all moved back to St. Catharines. Back here, my husband found another job and my parents helped care for my son while I attended a day program at the hospital.

Over the next few years, that was how our lives carried on. I had lost contact with my friends from Nova Scotia, and my friends back here slowly dropped off because of my illness. I was not the party girl that they remembered.

Over those years, I had been put on dozens of different medications or combinations of them. Getting on the correct medication was the first thing to help me move forward. Medication doesn’t fix everything, but it helps you with a kind of kick-start to the brain. Even though my medications were working, I, like many others with my illness, have gone off my medications more than a few times, only to disastrous results. My medication does not take away all my symptoms, but it is a good balance between side effects and symptoms.

Finally, at the age of 30, I received my correct diagnosis but was also told that I would never be able to work again. This was hard to hear, but on the other hand, I was almost relieved. I had not worked for a long period of time and knew that I couldn’t. It was validating for me to hear a professional say this. So I went home and settled for the life that was given to me, but only for a while. I wanted a better life. I wanted to care for my family. I wanted friends. And I wanted things to be normal, like I thought other peoples’ lives were. So, never being one to be told what to do, I went back to school. Six months after starting back at school, I finally received my grade 12 diploma.

I then decided that I wanted to work. I started with one day a week. This was hard. It was harder than school. I had not worked in over 10 years, and the medication I was on made me soooo tired. But I figured I could do this one day a week and rest for the other six. Kind of like God, but backwards.

Over the next few years, I was finally able to work full time as well as go to night school. I graduated with a certificate in business management. Work was going pretty good for a few years, but as life would have it, things always happen, and for the first time since I had been back to work I had to go off sick due to my illness.

I felt sooooooo defeated, and I was very hard on myself, but after hiding out with my head buried under the covers for a while, I started to think of what I should do now. During this time of self-discovery, I was also able to finally come to terms with my illness. I no longer was asking my doctor that forever unanswered question of “When will I be better?” It just didn’t matter anymore. My illness wasn’t who I was. It was just a part of me, sometimes big, sometimes small. But I was more than that. My illness does not define who I am.

I had started opening up to people outside of my family, who to this point were the only ones other than a few professionals who knew about my illness. I had worked very hard all these years to hide it from everyone. I was so afraid that someone would find out and treat me differently, or more importantly, my family. I was especially worried that my husband and son would be affected by the reactions of others because of the stigma attached to this illness. But I could not go on hiding who I was any longer. It was exhausting, and it was time to tell my story. So in the summer of 2007, I started speaking publicly about my life. I must say it was quite empowering.

Another thing also happened that summer. I was awoken from my sleep with the fact that I was finally Happy Being ME. Me, the person who had wished myself dead for so many years, was finally happy. These powerful words and feelings would not leave my head. The more it went through my mind, the more I wanted everyone else to feel this way.  To be proud of who they are, no matter what their challenges.

Since this thought was not going to leave my head, I got up and sat at my computer and started a business plan. By the next morning, my business was born. Happy Being ME, offering happy, eco-friendly T’s and accessories, all sporting the Happy Being ME message as well as a fun character from our family, for babies to adults. I wanted everyone to be able to express themselves in this positive way.

The next day, I told my husband my idea, and to my surprise, he said, “Great idea, let’s get started.” But you should have been there for the conversation with my parents. There I sat telling them that their 40-something-year-old daughter who currently was off sick from work due to her mental illness was going to start an eco-friendly T-shirt business with printed stick figures and the words “Happy Being ME” on them. They smiled. You know that smile a parent gives their child when they’re thinking, “What the heck is she doing? But we’re going to support her anyway because we love her.”

I tell you about my business not only to shamelessly plug it _ that’s www.happybeingme.com, and our store is located at 4 Second Dr., St. Catharines _ but I tell you because my business is a very important part of my recovery.

People always ask me what helped me the most, but before I tell you that, I just want to touch on a couple of things that have held me back over the years.

Number one, stigma. I believe that the stigma surrounding mental illness is a direct result of the lack of education. Stigma is probably the most significant thing that has held me back. Stigma was not just pushed upon me by others and society, it was also my own self-stigma that created problems.

The second thing is recovery, or what I thought recovery meant. I look back and remember talking to a support worker and them talking about recovery. I looked at her as though she had two heads. You see, to this point, I had been ill for so long, had problems just getting out of bed in the morning or off the couch during the day. I had already being given that mental health life sentence from my doctor, which I mentioned before. What I didn’t understand about recovery was that I may always have my illness, but I have finally been able to recover my life, and my illness finally turned into just that. An illness. It is no longer who I am. It is something that I have.

So, as promised, I want to share with you some of the things that have helped me in the retaking of my life:

Forgiveness. Give the gift of forgiveness, and start with yourself. I thought that my illness was a character flaw. I had to come to terms with my illness and myself. When I finally realized that the things I had done, felt, or experienced was my illness, it was much easier to forgive myself. Next was to forgive those around me who could not understand my illness. I was angry at people around me, and a lot of that anger was directed at my husband. I was angry at him for not understanding what I was going through or how I felt. I carried this anger with me for many years, but when I started to look at it differently, I finally came to this realization: He was not able to understand my illness. Not everyone is capable of empathy. This was not his fault. It was who he was. But he has stuck with me through all of my years of illness because of his love for me.

Do something new, as often as you can. Say yes. It was much easier for me to stay in the depression, stay in my bed, stay in my cocoon that I had created. It was an awful place, but it was what I knew. But this was not what I wanted for myself or my family. At the suggestion of a professional, I started to add things to my life. I started to do one thing different at a time. Sometimes I would keep moving forward, and at other times I would fall back into the old routine. But I kept remembering that quote by Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Accept help. I took the help offered to me from family and professionals. There were groups and programs out there to help me, whatever I needed help with. This does not mean that they did everything for me. I was the one who had to do the hard work, and with their encouragement I was able to start living a functional life with my illness.

And finally, fake it ’til you make it. This phrase was told to me many years ago, and I have used it many times. I faked a good life, I faked smiles and I faked happiness to the outside world until they actually became my world.

You know, I look at the statistics of mental illness. One in five will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime. One in 100 will have schizophrenia, 8 percent will suffer a major depression, 1 percent will experience bipolar, and so on and so on. And I look at those odds, and I fall into so many of them. I think my number just keeps coming up. I’ve hit the lottery. Unfortunately, it’s the mental health lottery, but as funny as that is, many more people will hit the mental health lottery. This is why I tell my story to complete strangers. My goal is to educate, to reduce and eliminate stigma that surrounds mental illness. I also hope to inspire anyone who is suffering from, or cares for someone with, a mental illness to move forward, to get help, forgive and believe that recovery is possible. But most important, I want people to finally be able to say that I am Happy Being ME.

Thanks for allowing me tell my story.

Talking with David Lilley

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but I like talking with these people. Everyone has a personality that comes through, even when my set of questions are so narrow. David Lilley came across as having a salt-and-pepper personality, if that makes sense. I was a bit worried at the start, mostly because I wondered what he would say, as someone who works in suicide prevention, to a question about the right-to-die movement. As it turned out, he jumped in and answered before I had a chance to finish the question. Once again, I learned not to assume people’s point of view beforehand.

One thing lacking for me was not having anyone to talk to about it, to understand what I was going though. And I didn’t have depression. I had bipolar disorder with psychotic features. I wanted to avoid putting my family through yet another psychiatric hospitalization. I felt I was disgracing them in some way, they would be ashamed of me. I didn’t want to put them through the stress. That was one of the reasons. Another one was, I turned for help and nobody helped me.

What happened?

I went to my psychiatrist and said I was at the end of my rope. He said, “Just keep taking this medication, and you’ll be OK.” I was not OK. At work, I had just been written up for a disciplinary action for a patient safety issue. There was just a lot of stress going on. It was 1996. There had also been a lot of flooding in the area, with no power, no phone. I had a lot of stress and nowhere to turn.

Was there one thing that set you off, made you decide, “OK, this is it”?

I could feeling myself having another manic episode. My thoughts were racing. I picked up on that. I didn’t want to hear the voices again.

I saw part of the video you made for suicide prevention, you telling what happened.

There were many more details. That was more of a highlight, for suicide prevention.

If I were to tell my own story, I don’t know exactly how I would tell it. It would depend on the setting. If I was meeting a peer client and they were having suicidal thoughts, I wouldn’t go into detail about how I did it. I would wait and listen to them, tell them I understand they’re in distress. I think I’d try to stay away from the actual details. If someone was having suicidal thoughts, that might be a trigger.

I don’t remember, did you have more than attempt?

I had one attempt. I was working away from home. I wasn’t seeing my family on a daily basis. I was not interacting with my children, my wife. I was living with my sister. She didn’t really seem to understand what stress I was going through working away from my family. The job itself was stressful. That, coupled with the ’96 flood in this area. Things were a mess around here. I think all that stress spurred my mania, got my thoughts racing.

I think the one thing I do point out when I do talk about it is, a lot of people think suicide is always a result of depression. It’s not. It’s more like giving up, you know. Another thing I would share is, God saved me for a reason. I believe that reason is to help others. I’m very, very lucky. It was very, very close to becoming a permanent solution to a temporary problem. My faith is very important for me. The way God led me through that is very important.

I’d probably stay away from telling them the number of pills that I took, or that I had my gun with me. The only time I talk about it is to prevent someone from getting into that situation. Like I’m doing now.

When the state police got to me, I had almost passed out.

It was like a spiral I couldn’t get out of. The thoughts kept increasing, kept increasing, kept increasing. It was almost time for my children to come home from school. I grabbed the pills, the gun, and ran out of the house. I was afraid my 11-year-old daughter would find me with my brains splattered in the basement. At the end of the day I just ran, though the back garden and into the woods. It was very instantaneous, on a thought that I had dwelled upon most of the day.

Did you really think it would work?

It may seem very risky to someone who doesn’t have a mental illness, but to others it seems a very viable and rational way to end suffering. Whether end-of-life suffering, whether midlife depression. Once I started dwelling on it, it became more and more rational.

You didn’t consider the risks? Liver failure, etc.?

No. That was entirely blocked out. I wanted this to stop, I wanted this to stop, I wanted this to stop. I didn’t want my wife to see this, my kids to come home to this. I think you’ll find this in anyone you interview. In some way, whatever they are going through, they want it to stop. And sometimes when you dwell on it long enough, you become irrational, you don’t see other solutions to the problem.

So there’s no use in including the risks in the message of suicide prevention?

I think before you tell them, you have to listen very thoroughly to what they are going through. Many, many, many times it’s a cry for help, and the only way to help is by listening and finding what they want help with.
If I was on the phone with you right now and if you were suicidal, I would feel very, very sad the rest of my life if I didn’t do something to help you.
Sometimes telling someone, “Have you thought about your family, have you thought about the risks,” there’s a point, but first, listen. Find out what’s stressing them. If they’re sitting there with an open bottle of pills and a gun in their hand, obviously call 911 right away. Because they have the means or the plan.

The average person, when they hear someone say, “I want to kill myself,” they panic. You want to be compassionate in that instance. Let them vent. Usually they break down and cry.

You do this in person or on the phone?

In person. Not every day.

Can you really help them? Can you fix them?

Yeah, you can. You can get them in touch with someone, with a professional, the suicide prevention Lifeline. You can get a family member on the scene. You might not be able to get in there and fix them, but you can sort of guide them.

You mentioned getting them in touch with a professional, but you said that when you spoke to your psychiatrist, it didn’t work.

In my case, it wasn’t helpful. The professional wasn’t helpful. The professionals who treated me after my attempt were very, very, very helpful. Including the state police who followed my tracks in the snow, the helicopter pilot who reassured me at 4 in the morning on the way to emergency dialysis, the ICU nurse who noticed my lithium level going through the roof, very helpful. Even though in my case, with the first professional, it fell on deaf ears. It’s one thing you never, ever, ever make light of, when someone says, “I want to kill myself,” or even, “I wish it all would stop.” You never, never, never want to take that lightly.

What’s the best approach to get a professional therapist or psychiatrist to focus?

I really don’t know. It would depend on the situation. Possibly get a referral to someone else. Or maybe get a family member who is a more compassionate listener. Or call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
I went through years and years and years of trying this medication, it wouldn’t work, that medication, it wouldn’t work … “When is this gonna stop?” I don’t know. There’s different ways to approach it.

How was your body after your attempt?

I had very slight kidney damage. The emergency dialysis worked.

How are you doing now?

I’m doing very well right now. I was on disability quite a few years. That’s another story in itself. I’ve switched doctors, changed medications. It’s been the same for about 11 years. The symptoms are very well in remission. I can’t take lithium anymore. I’m not going to tell you the name of the drug because I don’t advertise for drug companies. I’m able to work full-time, help other people. I completed college for an associate’s degree.

In some strange way, did the experience help you?

Absolutely. It’s not only helped me, it’s helped others. It’s given me an opportunity to speak at suicide prevention events in Pennsylvania. It helped me get the word out in several ways. The first key is being compassionate.

How many times have you spoken out about this?

There was a conference in State College, I was a panel speaker. I spoke in the rotunda at Harrisburg for adult suicide and older adult suicide prevention awareness day. I gave a short 20-minute presentation as an older adult. Sometimes I feel 20, sometimes I feel 200. I’m also doing a public service video for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

It was hard for my children to understand. It took them to get older to understand. I’ve been able to convey to them, “Look, I tried this. Nothing is that bad that you can’t get help for it.” It’s given me communication with my children that most parents don’t have. “Nothing is that bad it can’t be fixed. Call me.” That’s how it’s helped me. I have two children, a son and daughter. It wasn’t the easiest thing because of their age. I had to wait until they could fully understand. My daughter was 11, my son was 9. You don’t sit down and talk about suicide at that age.

It’s been 16 years now and I’ve been doing quite well.

How old are you?

59. There’s an age thing there. Their mother and I had gone through a divorce in 2000.

They were part of the video. It’s given me an experience that I think helps them, helps others as well.

Is it getting easier to talk about this?

(He apologizes, saying he is listening to a football game at the same time and something exciting had happened.) It depends on the individual. Some still shy away from the s-word. I don’t. In order to be a certified peer specialist, I have to publicly say I have a serious mental disorder. Some can’t even do that. I don’t have a problem speaking about it openly. I don’t go around boasting about it, throwing it out there, but when someone is in distress, I tell them I tried to take my life in ’96, and I listen to them. It’s not a big speech. There were 200 people at the conference I spoke at. For me, it’s not a big issue.

I read your blog, read why you’re doing this. People need to stop shying away from the s-word. The s-word shouldn’t throw you into panic. We can’t make this a taboo issue. If someone mentions it, we need to take it very seriously.

Is it healthier to speak out? Or to pretend it didn’t happen?

It’s never healthy to pretend something didn’t happen. God’s using me to help other people. My son lost the leader of his band just a couple of years ago. He got into trouble, got intoxicated, went home and shot himself. He didn’t have a place to go for help. You don’t have a place to go for help if everyone’s keeping it quiet, shoving it under the rug. I sat with my son and his friends and talked about it. If you need to cry, cry.

The number of veterans committing suicide is a growing issue …

The suicide rate for military personnel is higher than it’s ever been. The VA is trying to do stuff with that. I don’t know what we can do in the private sector. Sgt. Brandi has a book out, hold on … It addresses suicide for veterans. I don’t advertise much. Here it is. The title is “The Warrior’s Guide to Insanity, Traumatic Stress and Life.” He gave a very interesting talk. These guys are flying home, within eight hours they are back home. They still have one foot on the battlefield, shooting anything that comes near one of their comrades. One foot in civilization, and one foot still on the battlefield. They can’t cope with it. Some can. It’s very, very difficult. I don’t know what happens in the military when people experience war, some of the atrocities. I do know I just spoke with a man in the doctor’s office, his son used to play little league for me, he took his life. He said, “Davey wasn’t the same after the war.” He shot himself.

So if you’re trying to reach the military, I highly recommend Brandi’s book. He has initiatives to help veterans, to give them time at a military base to adjust.

If strong military types are facing this, isn’t this the time for others to break the silence?

I agree with that. Even before I did the public service video for the Lifeline, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper about the Lifeline. If you call and press 1, you will be connected to to someone who specifically works with veterans. I have a bumper sticker on my truck. I have magnets, I have keychains. It  takes the strength of a warrior to call for help, I think it says.
It seems like a whole heck of a lot of people are not caring about our soldiers with PTSD.

Do people ever get angry with you?

My employer encourages me. My employer also tells me, “David, sometimes you’re too blunt. You get more with honey than with vinegar. In the same respect, I’m not afraid to ruffle some feathers.”

There’s a movement called right-to-die …

You don’t have to ask me that question. I asked my therapist. He has helped me so much. I asked him if he would want to be a part of the video project. He said “No, I have different thoughts on people ending their own life.” Do people have the right to die? If they want to, they do. If they have a terminal illness and get medication, they have the choice not to take it. I’m not saying euthanasia is correct when you’re suffering, I had a cousin on dialysis. He had been on it for years and years and years. It was starting to become ineffective. Look, why do we have hospice? He said, “No more dialysis.” We took him to hospice. He died peacefully. Aren’t there directives for do not resuscitate?

I’m not saying when people are in distress they should end their own life, you know. I guess I should say in some instances it’s OK, in others it isn’t. Maybe if toward the end-of-life stage, diagnosed terminal, it might be OK. But if you’re 35 and your wife left you and you have two kids, no.

Now, what’s your question?

That was pretty much my question.

And in some cases it might be a family decision. My daughter works in a nursing home. A lot of her patients don’t leave alive. A lot of families don’t come to visit them. Do they have the right to say, “I don’t want life support?” Absolutely. My mother had a DNR.

What have I not asked you that you expected me to ask?

I don’t know. I didn’t read the interviews, just skimmed. I said, “I’m going to go into this open.” That way you’re getting my opinion, not someone else’s.

Who else are you?

I’m very involved in my church. I play guitar in my spare time, when I have it. I do a little hunting and fishing. I love to spend time with my family. If my son wasn’t working today, I’d be at his house watching football.

I just finished 12 straight days off of work. They teach us that we need to take of ourselves. I’m very fortunate to have the job I do, to have down time.

I’m very involved in prison ministry. It’s very rewarding.

What drew you to that?

Someone just called me one day and asked me to do it. I hemmed and hawed, decided to give it a try. Once you do it, you sort of get hooked, OK? When you see hardened criminals crying in front of each other because God loves them just does something inside you.

What was this football game you were just listening to?

I was listening to the Patriots and Broncos. I’ll get the score later. Tim Tebow has been taking heat for a few weeks. It’s the big game of the week.

The only thing I want to add is, as a mental health advocate I really appreciate you doing this. We can’t shy away from the word suicide when we hear it.