Talking with Mike Stutz

“You want to stop a conversation quickly? Tell someone you’d like to make a funny movie about suicide. It’s a little like asking a stranger about their favorite masturbation techniques. A sour look is followed by uncomfortable silence and a quick exit.”

This is how longtime director Mike Stutz introduces his new documentary, “Don’t Change the Subject,” which barges through all the careful whispers and outright silence on the topic with a healthy mix of warmth, irreverence and personal experience. And clowns. And stand-up comedians. It’s safe to say you’ve never seen anything like it. And now you should.

Mike as a child cradled his mother as she was dying of suicide, and it took him years and years to realize that his stepmother had done the same for her dying father when she was young. They had never talked about that shared experience. It had never come up. “If Judith and I had avoided this conversation all these years, then how many other folks out there are still busy changing the subject around the dinner table now?” They decided Mike should explore it, make a film, see if he could change the way people deal with suicide. The first plan for the documentary was to feature celebrities he knew. They all said no. “First decision: Fuck the famous people,” Mike writes in his director’s notes.

So they talked to real people. They include several suicide attempt survivors, including comic Brian Finkelstein and a man who describes jumping off a bridge, recovering in the same room with a man who had tried to shoot himself and feeling sorry for him. One young woman describes the annoying gap between the typical responses to an attempt _ “It’s just a gesture” _ and to a completed suicide. “They only see it in one extreme or the other,” she says. “It’s like, for me, to be really serious and have people believe that I’m really serious about it, I basically would have to die. But then if I were to die, everybody would be like, ‘Oh I should have seen the signs. I can’t believe she did this to me.'”

Mike has been taking the documentary to screenings around the country and plans a wider rollout later this year. He’s had encouragement from suicide prevention groups, though they’re so nervous about any mention of suicide methods that they won’t show the film themselves. “They are so cautious, so unbelievably cautious,” he says.

After watching the documentary and talking with Mike, I’m pretty convinced he can make anyone comfortable. He leapt into our conversation with several questions of his own, and after a while I realized, “I’d better start writing this down.” Here goes, easing into one of his thoughts midstream:

It was important to me as an interviewer to show respect to the person that I’m interviewing and to understand that this can be a really difficult subject to talk about. But that doesn’t mean I should walk on eggshells when interviewing them. Rather, I try to give them the space to talk honestly and openly about their experience. I think it’s condescending to speak in hushed, overly reverent tones. Talking frankly about it really helped, allowed them to open up about their stories, so they’re not treated like, “Oh my God, you’re such a freak, how did it happen?” Who ever wants to feel that way? And that’s very much the goal of the movie, to try and take some of that stigma away.

Did that approach always work?

I find that with the survivors I talked to, anyway, when we’d sit down and have an honest conversation, generally yes, it worked really well. I know sometimes when I take the film somewhere, or people hear about the film, they think it’s not gonna work. A lot of resistance: “Not respectful.” I understand that. Obviously it’s a very painful subject. But I find, with few exceptions, that when people see the movie, or we talk, they understand there’s no disrespect intended, no slighting of the problem, no “Get over it.” Of course you take it seriously. I have very rarely, almost never, talked to someone directly about the subject and had a good conversation with them and then have them say, “I think this is inappropriate.” It’s hard for a viewer of a movie like this. You have to kind of trust the filmmaker. You have to trust I’m going to take you down this path, create that hopefully fulfilling experience in the end. But I get the “Why should I trust you?” I’m just glad in general, those who are willing to go down that path are willing to go down it.

(He asks what I think of the documentary.)

It was amazing getting to talk to everyone. When you ask where did I find the people we interviewed for the movie, we kind of started off through official channels, different psychiatric connections people on the film had. Imagine, when we’d explain what the film was going to be, people would say, “Oh no, forget it.” We ended up mostly doing Craigslist postings. Also, one producer, a lovely warm person, talked with people in the field, did pre-interviews, made sure we were not going to make them uncomfortable. I didn’t talk to them until we sat down on camera. I think we only interviewed, say, 18 people, and 16 are in the movie. And it seemed that many of the folks who came to us wanted to talk to someone about it. For some, it was the first time they’d had a lengthy conversation about it. You sit down in this dark room, talk for a while. It’s nice to be able to share their story, hopefully not in a judgmental place. It’s nice to be able to talk to someone. One of the places the movie was born out of was me saying to my wife, “Oh, it’s interesting to talk to people who’ve gone through this,” and she said, “You’ve never talked to anyone?” I’d written about it but never had a discussion with others who have had suicide in their family. So I think they felt the same way. Extra rewarding to me was, the people in it have seen it, and I got really strong responses from them supporting it. A couple of folks I haven’t talked to, so it’s possible. But I know our producer Matt talked to them afterwards, to make sure they were OK. My fear would be, you create the movie and a year later people are like, “On my God, I can’t believe I did that.” It’s funny what you’ll give up sometimes. The people on your site have been very open.

The film is full of color and humor, but it seems like there’s less of that in the interviews with survivors and attempt survivors. Why?

One, on a practical level, we were low budget. We were doing it in different settings. We needed enough room where we could set up lights. The first interview is with Richard, who talks about jumping off a bridge. It’s not a black background. It was the first interview we did. We had this room not really prepared correctly, full of junk. Richard was there, ready to go, and we kind of set it up. We pulled these big 70s white chairs together and just went with it. It turned out to be a fascinating interview. But because we were always in different spaces, we were going to have 16 abstract backgrounds and they weren’t going to match at all! So it became practical. I mean, you could do things metaphorical. At least they were uniform-looking interviews. Why black instead of more color is, I really wanted to focus solely on their story, didn’t want you to be distracted by anything. I didn’t want to dress it up. The words they were saying were so important. If you look, we had a very good director of photography. One thing I’m proud of is, we left in a lot of “um”s and “ah”s, we didn’t try to cut away while they thinking. You could actually see the thoughts register. You see the thought process happening. You see them making the decision, almost as if we are seeing them say, “What I’m telling you is the truth, then I’m telling you another level of truth.” Everything about the movie, we just had to allow things to happen. Every plan got knocked off course. We also tried to interview all these celebrities, but they seemed horrified, So the interviews were with people you had not heard of before, and it was much more compelling.

Who did you approach who seemed horrified?

I don’t really want to out anybody as not participating, because it’s not their fault. They’re not bad people for having said no. It’s just surprising to me how universal that answer was. We did approach 12 to 15 reasonably well-known folks, some I’ve known personally. The answer was always very polite: “Oh, it sounds great, what a fascinating idea, let me check my schedule,” and it kind of went on from there. Sometimes it was just “No.”

(I mention the common feeling that it would take a celebrity to bring the subject into the open.)

I think it’s true. I understand why they don’t want to talk. You know, you have a site dedicated to talking about suicide, and I bet a lot of people wince when they hear about that. If it’s a celebrity, who works in comedy or lighter entertainment, the people around them tell them, “People don’t want to hear that.” You ever watch Dr. Drew? He gets that look, all sad, kind of pouty when he talks to some of his patients. As an entertainer, you don’t want people to make that pouty face. If either you attempted or someone close to you did, people are like, “Are you OK, what issues did they have?” They avoid the topic if they can. But I agree. If all the people in the entertainment industry who have attempted or even thought about it talked about it or at least said it exists, it would be tremendously helpful. The thing about suicide is, people think they’re the only one who has these feelings, they think something’s wrong about them for having these thoughts. If we could just talk, say, “Everyone has had some level of anxiety, depression, mental distress in life, and some have to cope with it every day. We all go through it.” And I’m shocked whenever I go to colleges and talk to people, how many college students don’t understand depression is a disease, that it can be treated, that we should talk about it. But they don’t know because no one talks about it, or if they do, it’s mostly hushed and downward looking. More anymore, people are opening up about their own problems. But with a few exceptions, it’s not something you’re going to volunteer. Like you said, “I’m not going to talk to someone on the street about it.” I wish we were at a place where we could talk about mental anguish to the point where we could talk about having the flu last week. And the irony is, you’re not going to catch it! I can hear that, I can feel for you, but I won’t necessary catch it.

(I ask a rather tangled four-part question about how long the interviews usually took, what parts were usually edited out, how humor played a part, if at all, and whether the interview approach differed for survivors and attempt survivors.)

They were typically 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes. I didn’t go at it differently between those who had lost someone and those who had tried it themselves. I mean, it’s all the experience of suicide, right? Obviously there are differences, but I guess I can only talk to someone and ask them questions about their lives. I let them, hopefully, guide me. I had no agenda coming in as to what I wanted out of them. I just talked to them about their experience. Everyone was pretty open, different levels of openness. A ton of fascinating stuff. I could post the raw interviews, and it would still be very interesting. In the end, what I chose to put on screen was usually that one person was going to share one angle on suicide, another person would give me a different color, all overlapping nicely. But as a viewer of the movie, I don’t need to hear it twice, you know? You asked about humor, when the interview was done, whether we joked about it. We joked about it during the interview! There were moments that were serious, but Richard, for one, was able to find dark humor in a serious subject. And Vanessa, making herself throw up because she didn’t want to disappoint her aunt. It was them sharing their own. Humor is very much a way of naming your fears. If I am able to share something that might make you laugh, you will allow me to open up about a subject where, if I approached in a guarded manner, you would not accept it. That’s why I chose to talk about my own mother’s death by using other performers, surrogates, in a semi-humorous way, semi-clowning my way through it. You’re able to step one step back. Nobody wants to sit and hear you talk about being a 12-year-old and finding their mother.

(I asked about the scene where he’s holding the bottle of pills his mother used to kill herself and saying it felt foreign to him. I wondered if he meant the idea of someone wanting to kill herself was foreign.)

I can see how you might read it that way. Even now, looking back on my mother’s death, in some ways when you’ve told the tale enough times, it can seem it wasn’t you. Actually holding the bottle of pills feels foreign because I can’t wrap my brain around that this bottle was one of the actual last things my mother held. That my mother is an abstract thought in my head now, I don’t remember specifically. But now I have these boxes of tapes, diaries. She was real as a person, but I can’t quite jump across that divide and feel her, smell her, hold her. She’s gone. I get where my mom’s mindset was, but the foreignness was in the idea that it was almost like talking about someone else. You just can’t believe whatever situation you were in, that that can just be real. In choreographing it, the whole concept of the movie is that a lot of people are not going to sit and talk to you necessarily honestly what they’re feeling about suicide, but if you allow a writer to sit in a writer’s room, or a dancer to work in the studio, etc., they’ll find it easier to talk about the subject. I wanted to put myself in the same situation. I direct people for a living. If I’m directing others, I might be able to go into it deeper. That’s my hope with the creative process in general. It’s interesting that you talk about color. When you’re depressed, the colors, everything gets very gray and you forget the details that make you want to stick around. That is to me like, all the things I’ve seen, in a sense they are the places I can be myself and find that color and detail. If the film was one giant piece of advice, it would be, “Try to find that place where you can see color, where you can feel more alive, because it’s very easy to forget that place exists and think there’s nothing worth sticking around for.” Obviously it’s more complicated than, “Oh, just go find your happy place,” but … I was reading about one of your articles, and a woman in Canada mentioned Maytree. I clicked and looked, and it seemed amazing. It seems like a place where you could have all these things sparking your brain to stick around.

(I asked him about his personal experience with suicidal thoughts. He’s mentioned being comfortable directing, blocking the scenes, but was he also, you know, blocking them in another sense?)

I’ve never been seriously suicidal. The ideation has not really been part of my funky makeup. Sure, we all have had moments where we’ve pondered. I never reached the stage where I have a plan. I go in a different direction. After my mom died, I was fairly OCD as a kid before my mom died, then I was solidly OCD once my mom died. So I had all sorts of kooky rituals. And to this day, I have to do a lot of sort of cognitive work with myself to keep under control. COD goes hand in hand with catastrophic thinking. I 100 percent understand what it is to have all sorts of thought patterns which are not what you would prefer and others think unusual. I am one large bundle of neuroses. There is one level of OCD of urges to, like, throw yourself out the window. But you have to learn not to act on it. It’s weird. It’s a good question, if some impulse suicides come from that. I have not suffered long-term chronic depression as my mother did. One thing that didn’t make it into the movie that was very interesting was my aunt Martha, as a psychiatrist, and also Dr. Kita Curry, the head of Didi Hirsch, had struggles early as kids and suffered from depression. And interestingly, both said when they got therapy as professionals, other professionals would not ask them if they were suicidal, as if it were professional courtesy. Our family has a lot of depression, but I chose my own form of mental illness. (Laughing.) It’s informed my work. I’m good at attention to detail. I can be focused for long periods of time to tiny things. It’s tiring. Very tiring. I’m guessing you have depression. Those kinds of things wears you down. I wonder, I’m always fascinated by, there’s studies of people where everyone is thinking they’re an outsider. Are there people who are truly, absolutely normal? What would that world be like? That would be amazing, to get up every day and be like, “Oh, beautiful morning!” I have no idea what that’s like. I’m generally upbeat, but there’s always something weird going on in the back of my head.

(He mentions his mother and having sympathy for people suffering.)

It must be really annoying to have people tell you to get up and take a bath. I saw the way others were treated. People are so condescending: “You just need to buck up!” Really? You are not helping me right now. I would love to not be anxious. The one weird, hard-to-explain thing that will never look good in print, which will look like more of a dramatic statement than I meant it to be, is that part of my obsessive nature is I’ve never had a level of suicidal ideation where I thought seriously about ending my life, but because of the way my mother died, the way my brain works, I think I will also die of suicide. I’m not making a dramatic statement that someday i will commit suicide. You look at the world and say, “That’s the way you die. You die of suicide.” It’s the way you see the world when you watch someone die of suicide. I want to stick around. One reason to make the film was to collect the reasons to stick around. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life. And I hope that for someone viewing it, they think the same thing. I will lose money and I will lose time, I will not gain fame, but it has advanced me leaps and bounds emotionally. And I hope that also helps at least, on some tangential level, helps someone out there.

(I ask that despite what he just said, what in his wildest dreams he’d like the film to achieve.)

A typical experience I’ve gone through, it’s rewarding but challenging, is that I’ll go to a school, fly a couple thousand miles to get there, and you’ll sit in the theater, and maybe 35 people show up. But then the great part is, the 35 people will stay there for the Q & A, and people will talk for a long time about a subject they didn’t want to talk about, so sure, there are times that I may think, “Hey, it would be great to talk to a wider audience.” But I don’t delude myself that there’s some sort of wide market for this. The suicide organizations, I got lots of compliments: “Oh, I’d share this with my staffers, but if someone mentions how they killed themselves in your movie, we can’t show it.” Then my answer is, we offer solutions. We do not do any of the things that fall into the realm of suicide contagion. They are so cautious, so unbelievably cautious. Active Minds works on campuses, and they have been really supportive. As has Didi Hirsch. But a lot of other organizations, they talked to me personally and said, “I’m glad you made it, but I would never show it to our clients.” So when you talk about the dreams, I don’t want to say this in a way, I’m very lucky to make this film, I have so many people supporting me, so I don’t mind not making money, gaining notoriety from it. But I do have days when I wonder, “Is this making a difference? When so many people are so cautious about it, am I saying the wrong thing? Maybe people aren’t talking about it for a reason.” We’re doing a festival in October called Day of the Living. An alternative way of suicide prevention. I’m very excited about that. But the battle to, like, even get something up is so big, you think, “Should I be doing this?” I don’t know the answer. I’m not totally convinced this isn’t some weird contrarian adventure I’m on. I’ve joked that if I had the money, I’d print out about 50,000 copies and leave them on bus benches for people around America. There is now with the movie a certain “If you build it, they will come” spirit to it. It’s encouraging to me.

You mention the cautiousness of the suicide prevention organizations. Can that cautiousness actually hurt?

When I read some of the interviews on your site, it was refreshing, the level of candor. I know for a fact that some of the organizations would say, “Oh no, you can’t say he took pills in the middle of Brooklyn.” I don’t want to walk on eggshells with my own answer. I think it’s well-intended. I think suicide contagion is real. But I think there’s tremendous confusion over what that really is. If you glamorize suicide, do a steamy piece on, like, Kurt Cobain, that can have a really negative effect. But I think if you’re approaching it in an honest way and you’re saying, “This is the difficult side of it, and here are places you can look to to get help,” that can never be a bad thing. “People have those thoughts. It’s OK. Talk about them. Talk to us, here are others, but talk.” I have had one person who was at one of the schools who said, “But frankly, we in the psychiatric community have become as much a part of the problem as of the solution, because we are so afraid that we shut down discussion about suicide.” And that’s not the answer. Yes, it’s possible that you could make a mistake in talking about suicide. But how many people will die if you don’t say a thing? You have studies on how many people die because people talk about it, but I’d like to see a study on how many people who’ve died because no one talks about it. I don’t think that’s fair. A movie, or a website, or a letter, or whatever, doesn’t kill someone. They kill themselves. You need to be responsible in dealing with the subject. You do have to take it seriously. You have to at least think about it. The biggest guff I take with the movie is, what is also for a lot of people their favorite part, the comic piece “Daddy’s Suicide.” A lot of people like it because it names that fear. It’s so over the top that it’s clearly satirical. But there are others who watch it and say, “How could you do that?” I’m like, “Are you serious?” We even have a slate beforehand to point out this is a theatrical performance. And then after it, the first words I say is, “OK, maybe some of my stuff is inappropriate.” I don’t know how you can think that’s a real video of a father blaming his children for his death. And yet, you hear that. And all of that said, I want to say, I get it. Some people are so close to the issue that any humor is too much to take. I shouldn’t harangue them for not liking it, but it’s just so obviously … Many people have said it. But then others say, “That was the funniest part, that’s where I bought in.” That’s the litmus test of the movie. People are fragile, you know? Of course it’s a hard thing, but we can wrap ourselves so fully in bubble wrap to keep from being bruised. I’m not sure that’s the best way to go about it. Without opening up a dialogue, without humor, how else are we supposed to explore? To me, comedy comes from a surreal situation.

This is a question very off that topic, but I wanted to remember to ask it: Do you think it’s better for a suicide to come after a warning or to come as a surprise?

I would rather have a warning so I could try to stop it.  But in the end, someone may still kill his or herself, and that is their decision. Even with a warning, you can’t always stop someone. So I don’t know for me. My mother was suicidal, I don’t know if she attempted before she died, but people knew she was suicidal. I’m not sure that I completely understood that. I knew before my mom died that there was a good chance she was gonna die. I didn’t know what to do with that information. Like, yeah, it could happen. One thing the film touches on, there’s some small part of you that goes, “Oh, the trouble’s over.” You feel kind of shitty for feeling that way, but the person was always in pain, in trouble, that at least some part of you registers that thought, even if you didn’t want it. But I suppose if my mother had sat down with me a week before and said, “I’m going to kill myself, I’m really sorry,” it probably would have been really scary, hard to process. So probably not. I did express in the movie that I wish my mother had left a note: “I love you very much, I hope this will be beneficial to you.” I don’t know, in answer to your question. I guess the right answer is, get the warning, but it’s hard for an 11-year old to process.

For all of my flip attitude, if someone close to me, my wife, my friends, committed suicide tomorrow, I don’t know, maybe my feelings would change. I hope I never find out. It would be perfectly valid for someone to see a movie like this and say to me, “Fuck you, I’ve been through a very hard time, I don’t find anything funny about suicide.” I use humor to deal with pain.  Not everyone does.

And you’ve had no walkouts during the film, no hate mail, things like that?

We do have walkouts sometimes. Usually one or two, occasionally more. But not always in anger. It’s a lot for some viewers to take. But, almost to a person, there have been positive responses. The few e-mails really lecturing and giving me the what-for about who I think I am are invariably from psychiatrists. Not social workers, or survivors, or grief counselors. I should say a vast majority of psychiatrists I’ve spoken with have been very supportive. But there have been a few that have had some choice words for me. So. But I also got some really nice notes: “I would show this to my clients, my groups.” The ones with the biggest issues seem to be the ones with the most letters after their name. I’m trying to think about responses from someone who actually attempted. Those generally been really positive: “Hey, I’m so glad this movie exists.” My actual sense of humor is so dark, so weird, that this movie is like a softer version. I think you can find humor in anything, and you should.

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Talking with Kristina Yates

I recently had the chance to speak with Kristina Yates, who is a therapist and a MindFreedom member and runs a business boarding dogs for others. (I’m beginning to see a trend with people on this blog and pets.)

We spoke while she was riding back from the conference of the International Society of Ethical Psychology & Psychiatry. The society is at psychintegrity.org.

Kristina started by mentioning that she had been in the documentary “We Don’t Live Under Normal Conditions,” where a half-dozen people talked among themselves about depression, suicide and other issues. It was made years ago, she said, but its issues are even more relevant today. The site for the film is here.

What made you want to talk with me?

I appreciate the chance to tell my story. Suicide is an important issue. One of those hush-hush topics. Terrifying, painful, overwhelming.

You just came from a conference about psychology and psychiatry. Is it a place where the topic can be talked about more openly?

I think people don’t talk about it. I guess I could ask people. Unfortunately, (Thomas) Szasz’ new book wasn’t there. (The book is “Suicide Prohibition.”)

I have a friend in a wheelchair from a suicide attempt, and she’s pretty open about it. She’ll tell anybody. I think, however, it scares people.

How can that change?

I believe in talking. It we can create a safe place where this subject can be talked about confidentially.

Is my approach with this blog the right way to go?

If I talk about my story, they might start talking. The coming out creates an opportunity for others to come out.

Tell me about your experience.

I first attempted suicide when I was 14. I was very, very depressed. My mother took a lot of medication of all sorts. She really was a prescription drug addict. I took all the pills in the house. It really was not very smart, but I was 14. I didn’t ever go to the hospital. I threw up in the night. We didn’t really talk about it. And she had to have known.

I had these depressions every year that ended in a suicide attempt. Every year of high school. And the second time I took several bottles of over-the-counter sleeping medication. Again, I threw up in the night and in the next morning I was hallucinating. My mother thought I was sleepwalking. She took me to the hospital, but it was too late to pump my stomach. So I wasn’t being very successful. My depressions eventually left on their own and I never told anybody about my attempts.

The third time, I had a small pistol. I took it and pointed it at my chest and pulled the trigger. At that moment, someone came to the door. It turned out that the gun was set up so that the first shot was blank. It scared me so bad. And someone came to the door, so I dealt with them. I didn’t try it again.

Another year went by. I was real desperate now. I took a razor blade to my wrist. I cut across it. I cut everything, blood vessels, nerves, tendons. I didn’t die! I was like, “Oh great, what do we do?” I got my hand sewn up, four hours in surgery. They kept me 48 hours in the hospital, then let me go.

My depression mainly ended when I left home. I tried suicide two other times when I was about 20 years old, I had a relationship breakup that was very traumatic for me and became very depressed. I tried to rig something to gas myself at the stove. But just as I was about to lose consciousness I heard voices of people who loved me calling me back. The other time, I are rat poison but didn’t even get sick.

My body is pretty resilient. There was no damage.

How old are you now?

61.

How did those feelings fade out?

The depression basically left once I left home. I’ve been depressed to varying degrees off and on, not really chronically.

In my mid-20s, I traveled for three years and traveled overland to India on $3,000, which I had saved from waitressing. Traveling alone as a woman in the mid-70s was very stressful. I spent a year and a half in India and studied meditation. When I was about to leave India to go to Japan to teach English, I was under a lot of stress. And very scared. Evidentally I had a psychotic break. Nothing like this had ever happened before, or since. I was hospitalized and given a lot of forced treatment, including electroshock. I’ve never taken psychotropic drugs unless they were forced on me.

I think my emotional problems were related to my home life and my relationship with my mom.

And you never talked with her about it?

My mother never talked much about me anyway. She had a lot of problems. I had no father. It was just the two of us. No, we never talked about it. I got some counseling from a minister who she sent me to. We were poor. People from my class background in Tennessee in the mid-60s didn’t use the mental health system or go to psychiatrists. Essentially there was little help for me or my mother.

Who did you become and who are you now?

I’m a part-time marriage and family therapist. I also have a business boarding small dogs at my home.

You mentioned that you’re an activist.

In the past, I’ve done street theater with MindFreedom. In grad school, I came out about my own trauma in the mental health system. David Oaks of MindFreedom International encouraged me to organize a protest at an American Psychiatric Association meeting in San Francisco.

I’ve also performed my personal story as a psychiatric survivor publicly on a number of stages.

How do your suicidal experiences define you, if at all?

To be honest, I feel suicide is not an option. My body does not want to die. It takes a lot of fucking work. It’s not easy. Also, I have the belief that I’ve just gotta get through this life one way or another. But when I was actively suicidal, I was desperate.

If anything, I’m proud to live through adversity. I’m pretty open. If anyone has a problem with that, I don’t care what they think.

You’re a therapist. Do you think counselors have an obligation to disclose their past suicidal experiences?

The norm is, you wouldn’t. If I had a client who is suicidal, I would not bring up my suicide attempts unless I thought it would be very helpful to the client.

I think it can be helpful for someone to know they’re not alone. I haven’t actually had to disclose my suicide attempts. I haven’t had clients who were actively suicidal. Most of my clients have physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, or are young children.

What do you think about putting the message out there that it’s difficult to kill yourself, that there are so many risks involved in attempting?

I agree that the message about how difficult it is to kill yourself might make someone think twice. I had no idea when I attempted suicide how hard it is.

I don’t know that’s going to be helpful, to be honest. I haven’t really thought about that. If someone is really suicidal, they might say, “I don’t care.” In my case, I just wanted relief. I just didn’t have time to feel rational _ “I don’t want to be a quadriplegic, etc.”

The better thing is to let people know they’re not alone.

If you had known what you know now when you were 14, would you still have tried?

I think it would have made me more desperate: “Oh, shit, now what?” I really just wanted pain relief. The only thing that could have helped would be having a connection with another human being.

You didn’t seek out anybody?

By the time I saw the pastor, it was after my last attempt. Then I left home and went to college. I was pretty isolated emotionally. There wasn’t anyone to take my troubles to. I was trying to make straight As, to be a good girl.

You were nervous about approaching teachers, friends?

I was just so numb, completely numb. There wasn’t much of an opening. Depression is such a thick wall, you know. Plus, there’s the horrible stigma of “I feel so bad, I want to kill myself.”

You mentioned that when you were in the documentary, you all watched some movie scenes of suicide. What do you think of the portrayal of suicide in the media?

I don’t watch mainstream media, but I remember the film _ “Elvira Madigan”? Maybe it was over a failed love or something. It was terribly romantic. They were running through these fields, slow motion, then a bang. Another one, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” They used to have these dances where if you stayed dancing the longest you could win money. Again, it was romanticized. I think that’s bad, I really do.

I recently saw a film, “House of Sand and Fog.” There’s a suicide in that. No, he committed suicide. And what happened in “Harold and Maude”? My friend Nancy is reminding me of that. Anyway, I don’t think it’s good to romanticize suicide because it’s not romantic in reality.

How should the topic be dealt with?

It should be more accurate. In “House of Sand and Fog,” it was very gory. Very difficult to watch. He was very determined. It was coming out of deep, deep pain. It wouldn’t make me think, “I want to do that.” But “Elvira Madigan” kind of did.

You know, I haven’t given suicide a lot of thought. Didn’t Szasz say everyone has the right to kill themselves? I think that might be true. I don’t agree with involuntary hospitalization. So maybe it’s OK. I heard a radio documentary about a woman who orchestrated her suicide very consciously, deliberately, with all her friends there. She just took control. Then there’s the Hemlock Society. I mean, if you’re going to do it, they may know how to do it. I think people should have the right. But I think that most people who are feeling suicidal really want relief from the isolation they feel. When I was feeling suicidal, I didn’t have the ability to think ahead.

How do you reconcile these ideas?

I don’t know.

If I was feeling suicidal and you said to me, “You could end up brain-damaged, quadriplegic, I’d say, “I don’t care. Do you have a better plan? I’ll try harder.”

(Kristina then asked me about my own experience, and I told her.)

I’m all for talking about the hard stuff. It’s important, and it helps break isolation and build connection. It helps alleviate feelings of depression that can be so great that we feel suicidal.

Talking with Trish Lane

I’m happy that you guys continue to agree to talk. I spoke with Trish Lane, who is a clinical psychologist and animal lover. Her three dogs kept us company in the background of our phone conversation. She has appeared in the video “Voices of Suicide,” which featured interviews with people who tried to kill themselves but hurt themselves terribly instead. We began the interview by saying, almost simultaneously, “Fire away,” followed by a “Look what we just said” moment.

Trish: Mine was a shotgun. That’s pretty atypical of women.

The reality is, most people don’t succeed in killing themselves, and the majority of them are relieved to wake up. I was 20, and I had this fantasy of, “No more pain, people will miss me, they’ll be sorry.” Yes, but life goes on.

I’m a 46-year-old clinical psychologist. I recently moved to New Hampshire. I’m married to a woman who is a veterinarian. You’ll hear my dogs barking in the background. We’ve been together I guess 14 years. I’d be in trouble for not knowing that.

Most of my work is with trauma and suicide. I tried to veer away from it initially because I was too close. I feel I have a unique experience in knowing how it feels to want to die and knowing how to get through it. Often I find other professionals say some of the clichés like, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” And yet the person in front of them is in so much pain that they want to take their life. They need to be heard, not fixed.

I can go ahead and talk about my experience. I was 20. I was dealing with coming out (with my sexuality), having been raised by very conservative parents. I couldn’t have had more liberal views from them if I tried. I was a sophomore at Florida State University. I had always been a good student. That’s where I got my traction. Any self-esteem I had at the time really came from school.

I had a close friend I had known since grade school. She shot herself in the head, under the chin, when we were 19. And died. You know, that’s where the gun comes in. I was living in Florida, and you couldn’t buy a handgun under 25. I don’t like guns. I didn’t know about them.

My sexuality was a huge part of the attempt. That, and I was adopted at birth. There was a chronic sense of, “Who am I? Where did I come from?” A sense of searching. I found my birth mother when I was 26. At 20, the main thing was feeling that I’d been given away. I was a pretty bright, sensitive kid who grew up pretty fast. My parents divorced when I was 13, and my father remarried when I was 14. He was the primary caregiver. The sexuality issue, the chronic sense of being alone on the planet, and at 13 my body’s changing, my peer group is changing and my family’s changing _ which is generally the only thing that tends to be stable at that age, and it was giving way. I felt very betrayed by him. I ended up living temporarily with my adoptive mother for a couple of years.

The years prior to my attempt were very tumultuous, lonely. I know now I was clinically depressed. My father was an engineer by trade, raised not to be emotional. There was just not any place for feelings.

After my friend killed herself, I fantasized a lot about killing myself: “If this doesn’t go right, I’ll kill myself. If I don’t pass this, or get into this program …” Since Renee had been successful, I didn’t really have a sense that it would fail.

The attempt was April 25, 1985. I was living at the sorority house, at FSU. It was all a search for family. A lot of those young girls were into dating, boys, finding their future life partner, and I was struggling with being attracted to them and not the boys. At the time, I would have been horrified at the thought.

Sometime in mid-April, I went to a pawn shop to attempt to buy a gun. I don’t know if you remember Ted Bundy, he had killed sorority girls at FSU. So it was very easy for me to go in and buy a gun. I said I wanted to feel safe. They told me I couldn’t buy a handgun unless I was 21, but I could buy a shotgun. They were not in the least bit curious. But I’ve always been so convincing. They showed me how to load it, shoot it. I carried it in my car for about a week, barely covered with clothes in the backseat, kind of hoping someone would see it and say, “What the hell are you doing?” The day before the attempt, a friend did see it. I told her what I told the pawn shop. She said, “I don’t like this.” But once I make my mind up, good luck. She later told me she had a lot of anger at me, and rightfully so.

Then I went to a park in Tallahassee, listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” which is about as depressing as you can get. Pretty macabre. “The Best of Bread.” Another one. I was just really feeding the depression, that fantasy that ending it all would be so easy, so quick.

I first put the gun to my head but couldn’t get myself to pull the trigger. I put it to my chest. To my head, with the safety on. This happened for about an hour. I was ambivalent! I thought I was just getting my courage up.

I finally shot myself in the abdomen. I was sitting in my car. I struggled with whether I could do it. Almost accidentally on purpose, it went off.

Almost accidentally on purpose?

I wanted it to, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to back out, be a loser, I couldn’t even kill myself right. It was like I had backed myself into a corner that I couldn’t see any way out of.

Somehow or other, I managed to put the car in gear and roll backwards. A couple came running over. I am not a religious person, but the guy started praying. He had his girlfriend hold my feet. I was writhing in pain. And then I can’t remember much else. The pain was unbelievable. I’m glad the mind can’t remember pain like that.

The guy ran to get help. A jogger was in the park, and he was told that a girl had been shot. He had been in Vietnam, and he put his shirt on my abdomen until the EMS arrived. They say he saved my life.

I remember being in the hospital, the staff treating me like a mental case: How stupid could you be, so selfish. People were adding insult to injury. I was in the hospital for quite some time. I had to have a colostomy. Do you know what that is? They take the bowels out and you basically go in a bag. At 20, that was a pretty horrifying thing to entertain. I ended up very fortunate, only having it three or four months before it was reversed. I had lots of damage to my large intestines, my small intestines. I had terrible scars. Once the scar healed, I couldn’t stand up straight. I had subsequent surgeries to reverse the colostomy and to revise the scar. I was in and out of hospitals for the next two years treating the injuries.

Fortunately, the only permanent damage has been the scars. I carried a lot of shame around for a long time about the scar. People would ask, and I would joke and say it was a shark bite or make up some other preposterous story .

And that was that. My dad and stepmother came to the hospital. She and I did not have a good relationship. She tried to have my dad have me institutionalized. Fortunately, one of the nurses told my father, “If you do that, you will lose her for good.”

I went to live with my father and stepmother. She literally put the pain medication next to my bedside table. They had given me a lot of pain medication because we lived out of state. I don’t know if she was being passive-aggressive, like, “Go ahead and finish the job” or it was completely innocent, but she left huge bottles of pain medicine next to my bed. I got so angry that I decided to get well. I told my father that I was going back to FSU. I put myself through school and went from there to get my masters, my doctorate. I didn’t go back to live with them. They’re nice people, but they really suck at being parents.

I have done incredibly well with dear, dear friends and a life partner. I found a mentor, the mom I never had. I created a family of choice.

You never considered the gunshot not working?

No. Because Renee was successful, I had this fantasy that I would succeed.

There was an article in Reader’s Digest some years later, by an emergency room nurse. She basically said you can try to jump and end up a vegetable, shoot yourself in the head and end up with a deformed face …

(She takes a quick break to greet the pizza deliveryman.)

… she basically went through, you can take a lot of pills and have your organs fail … She went through all the major ideas people have and outlined what repeatedly happened when it didn’t succeed. Or she proposed you can live on to find happiness in the letter you get next week, the career that draws you to it, the person you meet next year. Basically, you can make it worse by attempting suicide or you can go on and live your life.

After I read that, I no longer allowed myself to fantasize about suicide as an option. I then knew, based on my experience, based on what she said, that the likelihood is it won’t work and will simply cause more pain. Then I worked in an ER a number of years and saw it myself.

Were you the person counseling people who had tried to kill themselves?

Yes, often. I would do the assessment.

Wasn’t it a difficult job for you?

I used my experience to connect with them. But before working with that population, I did my own therapy. I had good psychologists who helped me figure out what were my issues and what were someone else’s.

Was there anything special you told them? Did you let them know about your experience?

Unless I got to know them over time, I didn’t disclose it. But I did use it to really hear them. Some people are so busy talking them out of how they feel that they don’t say, “You’re in such pain. Tell me about that.” Once people are heard and know they are heard, they can generally begin to get to another perspective. But the more we tell them they “don’t want to do that,” the more entrenched they become.

My job is to help people not make a decision in crisis.

The ER nurse closed the article by inviting people to stick around. She took all the romance out of it. You poop all over, and if you blow your brains out … who do you think is gonna clean it up? She made it real.

For me, I heard people. A perfect example is, a young woman came in, said she was pregnant, said she couldn’t be pregnant, said suicide was the only option. I asked, “I know you want to kill yourself, but if you weren’t going to kill yourself, what would you do?” Eventually she came around, saying maybe she would consider adoption, maybe she could call the father. Because I validated her pain, said, “I hear you,” she was able to go ahead and generate options. At the end of the hour, she was able to find an option for not killing herself. I heard her. I didn’t try to talk her out of it from the get-go.

Are you familiar with crisis lines? Do they take that approach? Should they?

I think most of them are well-intentioned. The problem is, most are not well-informed. People are alone and scared and want to hear another person on the planet, sometimes that’s enough. But it only works for a small subset of the population. Plenty of people don’t call. We need more education on the front end. We need to learn as little kids how to cope and how to express our feelings.

We need more education about treating depression. We’re doing a better job about telling people what depression is but not what to do about it. If someone is clinically depressed but doesn’t want to take medication, I suggest that’s like being nearsighted and not wearing glasses. If you’re severely depressed you can’t “try to feel better” any more than you can try harder to see if you need glasses. And the stigma about seeking therapy is still very much a part of the culture. That also needs to change. I believe in a combination of medication and therapy. It’s really the only way to go.

Are you funded by any drug companies?

No. I’m a psychologist, not a psychiatrist. For a depressed person, medication can give an individual the energy and focus to make the changes. Medication alone is not the answer. Nothing changes if nothing changes. Sometimes medication alone only gives you the energy to kill yourself. But you would see no change in the world or in seeing yourself in the world without doing the work. That’s where therapy comes in.

Didn’t you just get a pizza?

I’m eating while you’re writing.

The Reader’s Digest approach, would it work if it were used more?

I get a lot of grief for saying this. Death is not a bad thing, and I do not feel I have a right ultimately to tell someone how to live their life or that they have to choose life. What I do feel is that people shouldn’t make that decision in crisis, and that living life means making decisions with as much information as possible. I believe that the majority of suicide attempts are made in crisis _ and that there is much we can do to educate and prevent people from choosing that option.

There’s this romance, seeing ourselves at our funeral, believing people will be sorry, that somehow we’ll be relieved from pain and have a sense of that relief. That’s not real.

I met a woman who tried to kill herself eight times, including setting herself on fire. I do not think I have the right to tell her to stay in this life if she feels so tortured by it. And this was after a lot of treatment. I think there are a few people, very few, for whom that’s their path.

How should the message of outreach be changed?

There needs to be a lot more education and awareness. I wish more coping skills were taught even in grade schools. It amazes me how little coping skills people have to ask for what they need, much less recognize it. On TV, they solve a crisis in 30 minutes. I feel children are presented with the TV view of life. They should get back to basics. If you’re angry, how to recognize it and what to do. If you’re sad, how to recognize it and what to do. I think people get to the point where they’re so overwhelmed that suicide is so much more palatable than the life they’re living. I met a 19-year-old who had started using drugs when he was 12. He said he thought it would be like being in a cartoon, the “psychedelic version of life where faces melt and you have cool visions.” But that’s the romanticized view of drugs _ forever chasing the relief. The reality is that like suicide attempts, reaching for drugs for relief causes more pain and agony. Neither are the solution.

Who is the most at risk?

Everyone is at risk, but there are groups that as a whole are more vulnerable than other_ gays and lesbians, native Americans, the elderly, to name a few. Many still believe it is still okay to discriminate against gays and lesbians. We need to tackle these tough issues. For example, now there’s more being publicized about bullying. But we have to move beyond trite armchair psychology. It is not enough to identify the problem. People know it’s a problem. People need to know what to do about the problem and do it.

That blunt message of Reader’s Digest, should that be out there more?

I think if someone was coming to you for the first time for therapy, you shouldn’t be that blunt. But you can weave into the conversation the reality of suicide and how the vast majority of people do not succeed; rather, they make their lives more difficult. But as I said before, that message is not shared until the person has had a chance to be heard. Many people, especially adolescents, feel that they are “different,” or that their solution will be different, so it’s important to be caring, not daring, when discussing that most people fail in their suicide attempt(s). Of course, I would not let someone leave my office dead-set on hurting or killing themselves. However, I read that article at a time when suicide was still an option, and realized a point of view that I had never considered. Another important aspect of reading the article was to be educated without having my own pain dismissed.

There’s this romanticized version of suicide, all the pain can be over. Of course that’s attractive. Why wouldn’t it be? But you may cause major damage to your organs, you may never walk again, you may never see again, you may never hear again.

I’d rather focus on how to live a meaningful life.

What do you think of media portrayals of suicide, in films, news reporting, etc.?

The point of view that’s mostly out there is, people are killing themselves in droves. They report the number of suicides, that it’s a dilemma. But they don’t really point to, “And here’s what we need to do to help those people.” They just give statistics. So it points to the feeling, “They did it, why can’t I?” If the media helped get out there again with a compassionate voice that, “Yes, people are hurting, but the vast majority don’t end up succeeding. So let’s talk about how to get you some meaning in your life.

Let’s start talking about what solutions are out there.” It’s very depressing, you know, to see what’s currently out there. That there are so many people hurting.

Anything else you want to put out there?

I think educating the family too. We’re a culture where we want quick fixes. Educating them that, “Look, she needs support.” Try to teach families to communicate as well. We’re just not talking with each other anymore. I’ve worked in places and we’re sending e-mails to each other in offices that are right next to one another. When people say they are so lonely and suicidal, it’s not a far reach for me to see how they got that way. I’m currently working with a man in private practice who describes his family’s disconnect. He said he wanted to take all three of his family’s iPhones _ the two kids and the wife _ and throw them in the ocean. They couldn’t be more separate if they were in different countries.

I think we should stop and be present. I think people don’t know how to do that.

Aside from this experience, who are you otherwise?

I am a _ gosh, that is such a small part of my experience now. It seems so far removed from who I am now. I’ve traveled all over the world, met a lot of amazing people, helped people, found the love of my life, I love animals, found other ways of connecting. I set up a nonprofit for animals, my spouse and I do what we can to promote animal rights without getting too radical. I like to hike and be outdoors. We just returned from a trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I have such an appreciation for life now.

But I have had to learn how to do that. I used to set myself up to fail. I’ve learned how to set myself up to succeed. For example, if I called my stepmother and told her I was feeling bad, she’d say, “Why are you calling me and aren’t telling your father?” When I was younger, and depressed, I would call her or others who I sought affection from but weren’t available, kept looking for them to love me. I thought if I made good grades, a good job, if I made more money, earned my doctorate … when I have that, I’ll be OK. But when I attained those things, I still wasn’t OK, I was even more lonely. People thought I had it all. I’ll never have it all but I am okay now, and it’s not because of status, money or anything external. I’ve learned how to love myself and have love in my life. Now I call people who do care about me and would be on the next plane. I had no idea how to do that before.

Is there anything else you’re still working on?

Of course, I’m still a work in progress. We all are. When your goals are met, you look at creating new goals.

I don’t ever want to be a one-note person. I tried to kill myself, I am a Lane, I’m a psychologist, a teacher, I am gay … I don’t want any one aspect of my experience to overshadow the others. All of them are true.