Talking with Natalie De Stefano

This is a story about someone who worked for years in suicide prevention, knew and preached the coping skills and still ended up trying to kill herself. Natalie De Stefano wrote to me last month, and her story leapt off the page.

Imagine having a migraine, or living on the brink of one, for 20 years. And finding no medications that help. And being told, “Hang on ’til after menopause.” Natalie tried. As she counseled suicidal veterans as a case manager, she wore sunglasses and kept her pills nearby. She loves her work, And then last year, the pain got worse. She began having migraines every day, with nausea and vomiting. After her attempt, she was in a coma for more than a week. She woke up angry.

And pretty bewildered. Her psychiatrist told her he couldn’t see her for three months. “So I sat at home wondering what the heck was I supposed to do. Nobody could relate to me.” In her work, she wrote, “we made sure veterans had follow-up appointments, phone calls, letters, cards, support group meeting appointments, and they were always welcome to call me or drop by anytime. I look at what is happening to me and think, ‘Huh, this is rather strange.'” Finally, her boss at the VA hospital stepped in to take over her care.

Here, Natalie talks about the special challenges of comforting veterans, the national pilot project of veterans’ support groups for attempt survivors and, of course, her most recent lesson in suicide prevention.

I’m a nurse at a VA hospital. I was in the Navy seven years, and so I wanted to be there and serve fellow veterans. Being a nurse is something I decided to do later in life, but I really enjoy it. I really enjoy having vets to talk to. I have a good rapport and understand where they’re coming from because I’ve been exposed to, well, I’ve had depression a lot of my life. I had a lot of the same problems. I know when you’re a vet and you work at the VA, they feel they can trust you more. And if you experienced some of the same things, they feel more open to talk to you about things. So I like that part. I’ve worked in the in-patient psych unit, in suicide prevention. I love all aspects of mental health nursing. Anything about helping people. I just really took the job seriously. If someone called and was suicidal, I just did whatever I could to get them resources to get some help.

I have one son, he lives in Belgium. I had him while I was in the military, to a Italian citizen. We eventually divorced. My son was parentally abducted from me when he was 7, and I haven’t seen him since. He’s 25 now. I only talked to him on phone and Facebook and stuff since he was, like, 13. So that was a lot of depression right there that I eventually overcame, but it’s still there. Both of my parents are gone, no brothers and sisters, just me in the world. So I go to work and really put my, you know, it’s like my family.

I have a dog. My dog is like the thing I love so much. He’s a Boston terrier, his name is Adler. He has so much energy. He gets up on my bed, kisses me, keeps me going. I have a roommate who’s also a nurse at the VA. We keep each other going. She’s a psych nurse also. That’s basically who I am.

There must be something about dogs. So many people I speak with have them.

Yes, I when went to a conference in San Francisco, we had a woman speak about how effective they are as therapy. Really, I always tell vets, if you’re able to take care of yourselves, a dog is so beneficial.

I’m thinking over what you said in your e-mail. One part that really stood out was when you said that you had worked in suicide prevention and knew exactly what to do.

Obviously, I know all the coping skills. We have a group at our VA. If you’re at high risk for suicide, you’ve had a high-risk attempt, we have a group on Tuesdays at 1:30 and Thursdays at 6 for people who survived, because they have no one else to talk to. They just give each other encouragement.  Part of my job was to call people, make sure they were OK. I called them every week: “Hi, this is Natalie, how are you doing today? What’s going on? Any suicidal thoughts? Have you eaten today? Have you taken your meds? Do you need to talk?” Plus, we sent out cards and letters. I tell people they can stop by the hospital any time it’s convenient, just come into my office and I’ll make time to talk. So I knew, I know what people need when it’s over and they’re just left there. And I know what they feel when they’re getting ready, when they’re on the edge. So I know both sides of the coin.

So, after it was over and they told me I could go home, nobody made any appointments for me. I was at a regular hospital. I had been in a coma eight days and was not expected to live. I had a living will, but they didn’t honor it. Anyway, nobody helped me. My psychiatrist didn’t contact me, and when I tried to make an appointment, I was in shock, and he couldn’t give me an appointment until the middle of March. So I was like, “What am I supposed to do now? I don’t have my medicine.” It was like, “This is terrible.” I kept trying to call and page him.

I have really bad insomnia. While I was in a coma, I lost a lot of my short-term memory. I have no ability to sleep now. I will stay awake 24 hours a day. I’m literally awake if I don’t have something to help me. I was awake for days. I finally talked to the chief of mental health at the VA and she said, “Just let us handle your care.” She got me to a new psychiatrist who didn’t know me as a VA employee. So she was very nice to me, and on a day she wasn’t even working, she met me and talked to me, worked out a treatment plan. She understood I couldn’t sleep and made it available for me to get meds to sleep. Because if I don’t sleep, it brings on migraines, which was the number one reason for my attempt. So that was really important. That was good.

Also, normally, our psychiatrists at the VA are so busy, they only see you 15 minutes to do a med check. Also psychotherapy. So she’s really going over and above. Tomorrow, I have an hour’s appointment. I can talk about all that’s going on, what’s changed, what’s gotten better. She’s really more like a therapist and a psychiatrist all in one. Normally you just go into the psychiatrist and it’s, “How’s your medicine working? OK, see you in three months.” My chief of mental health helped me so much. She helped facilitate because I’m still on leave. They’re really just like a family. And I know a lot of people have one bad experience and think all of the VA sucks, so this is just to let them know it doesn’t.

How recent was this for you?

Jan. 11

You’re OK talking about it?

Yeah. It’s all right.

With all of your experience in suicide prevention, how could you still do it?

My number one thing was pain. And pain, as I found in working in that suicide prevention position, pain is a big, big factor for people. You don’t understand until it’s your own personal thing. I had migraines for over 20-something years. And for the last six months before my attempt, the migraines were worse and worse. I missed so much work. I went to doctor after doctor. They tried me on different medications, which made me sick to my stomach, made me uncomfortable, fatigued. They never, ever took the pain away. I went to one, supposedly this person in the civilian world who was a headache specialist. I’m 50 years old, and I can’t go on vacation, can’t go out at night, can’t make plans because I don’t know if I’ll have a headache. It had been that way for a long time. So I see this specialist, or his nurse practicioner. She doesn’t have much of anything new to tell me. She tells me that in time, it will get under control. Well, my time was up. I was tired of having a headache, and I’m sure people were tired of hearing me say I had a headache. The pain was just so excruciating.

I had an outside therapist and kept telling her this pain was really starting to get to me. And I knew what the coping skills are. But to me, in my mind, it was best not to have the pain at all. I just didn’t want the pain anymore. I’ve heard all the arguments about that. You know, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Well, this temporary problem was going on for over 20 years. It was a problem every single day. It had become who I was, and if you knew me, that’s what you associated me with, having a headache. And it wasn’t just me. My mother had had these, and I just saw how she was. And I didn’t want to be some debilitated person. I just wanted to go out my way. That’s it. I really had no intention of ever being alive again. I thought I had planned it pretty good. But someone had another plan for me.

But yeah, I had been going to more frequent counseling. I journal, I crochet, I do tons of different stuff. I have my dog, I read, I do a bunch of stuff on the Internet. I do a lot of coping skills, you know. And I know the coping skills for pain and have told them to people. “Why not have a nice hot shower?” I’m in so much pain that only if I got a gun and shot my head, and you’re telling me to take a hot shower? I don’t think so. For a time I was on narcotic pain medicine, but that just took it away for that moment and then it was back again, a blinding insane pain.

How is it now? How are you?

On Friday, I went to my VA primary care doctor to get medication that you can take every day to cut down on the frequency and intensity of headaches, but nobody wanted to let me take it because suicidal thoughts are one side effect. Well, that’s one side effect of almost every medication. I was getting frustrated, crying, couldn’t take it anymore. So I’ve been taking it since Friday, not really time to build up, still having some headaches. But if I take the medicine immediately. And I know what all my migraine triggers are. Last night, the guy next door, teenagers, started playing their garage band outside, so that one I had no control over. I just had to deal with it. I’m hoping that will cut down on things for me. And I’ve got about six appointments. Before, all they wanted to do was MRI and CT. Now they’re doing vascular studies for circulation to my brain, some really in-depth tests to figure out what’s going on. This much was not done until it got serious.

How much longer are you on leave?

I don’t know, that’s up to the psychiatrist.

What have been the reactions?

Most people that I helped knew I was a veteran. Of course, I didn’t cross the therapeutic boundary and share my personal life. I think some knew I’d had headaches. I had the meds on my desk, had sunglasses on, things like that. The majority of them don’t know, but the ones I’ve seen have been OK with it. They treated me like another veteran. I think the employees have been a little more uncomfortable, not the ones I work with directly, but some others have been more uncomfortable with me than the veterans themselves.

Why?

I think because a lot of the veterans I worked with in suicide prevention, I also had worked with them in the residential substance abuse unit, so I guess they could empathize.

Like you empathized with them in the first place.

Exactly. You don’t have to really know what someone’s reason was. You just have to know it was something they couldn’t deal with anymore. You don’t have to know that much about it to know it was something extremely disturbing to them to do that. It really has to be your very last resort. And I’m not saying it was easy to do. It was something I had resigned myself to. I just got up and, I don’t really remember much about that day even. I just had read a whole lot and wanted to make sure that I didn’t throw up, drank milk between handfuls of pills. I remember lying down on the bed, but that’s not where they found me.

They took you to a non-VA hospital. Once you woke up, how were you treated?

While I was in ICU, they were very nice. I had a one-to-one sitter. At first, I didn’t realize that was going on. That’s the right protocol. The nurses were nice. I couldn’t eat anything or drink anything after they removed the tube from my throat. They gave me some ice chips. I was so thirsty. They got a little impatient with me then. But you know, nurses have a lot to do. I understand it.

How did you wake up?

I don’t know. I have absolutely no idea. I just remember, I guess it was one morning, and I opened my eyes, and when I opened them I thought, “Oh shit, this is not good.” I saw my roommate and my boyfriend and I was just like, “Oh my God.” The chief of mental health came and was saying, “I’ll take care of everything for you, Natalie. Don’t worry about missing work, just call us and let us know what’s going on.” Of course, lots of things were going through my head. I was angry, really angry.

How do you get over that?

Well, I think you just have to …  I think I’m still angry. I don’t think you can get over it that fast. I just try to push it to the back of my mind. I think the only time I think of it is when I get a headache: “I never would have had to deal with this if I had died.”

When had your migraines started?

They started in the military. The day I got out of boot camp, me and two other girls in the same command, we rented a car. We were in Florida and were going to a girl’s home in Alabama for an Auburn football game. We had three days’ leave. She was driving really fast in the country. I was sitting in the front seat: “Please slow down, you’re scaring me.” “Oh, I know the road like back of my hand.”

I just remember the car just rolling, and then I woke up and went through the windshield and woke up in a bush. I don’t know. I lost my shoes. All these trucks had pulled over, and all these people were praying over me. And the girl in the back broke her neck. So, the start of really bad headaches.

How will this recent experience change what you do in your work? Will it?

Well, yeah. I think the three of us, when we worked together in the office, we went to so many educational seminars. I read so much, just trying to get as much information about suicide as we possibly could. I think that we heard so many people say that, you know, suicide is preventable. And I think you can help some people to not do it. But I think in my mind, maybe I just thought that if you reached anybody in time, you can stop them. Now I know that you may be able to reach 99 percent, but pain is the one driving force that people can’t live with. And a lot of suicides I saw, or attempted suicides, were over relationship problems, “My wife left me, my girlfriend left me.” Even the completions were about relationship things. The people who ended up, most of the ones completing, though, were pain things. And at the end of my time in that job, the KASPER reports were coming out, and people were cracking down on not giving out pain medication, and more people were calling the hotline saying they would kill themselves because their doctor stopped the pain medication. People really have legitimate pain, and they all get lumped into the same category of drug-seeking, and you leave out people truly with pain issues, and that’s where these things can happen.

Now you work in a different section of the VA.

I have people who say they had a suicide attempt and were addicted to, say, crack, and so they left the inpatient unit of psych and came to my unit. They’re still dealing with what they did. So I think that’s more insight when talking to people, and understanding.

You mentioned not crossing the boundary of therapy and telling too much about yourself. But it seems it would be helpful if a person knew that the therapist really understood their situation. How do you balance that?

Some things you can do. But you have to be really selective about with whom, and what information, you share. If I was talking one-to-one with somebody who, say, lost a child or had a child taken away to foster care or such, and they’re angry and upset and having suicidal thoughts, “No one understands about not having my child,” I might share something about that. Because a lot of times when you’re in a really dark spot, you feel no one understands where you’re coming from. So, knowing that the person you’re talking to has experienced something in that area, that can develop good rapport. You don’t have to tell your whole life story, because you’re not there to be their friends. Because then they’re confused. You’re there to support, but you want them to know you’re a person and not immune. A lot of times people think, “You’re hospital employees, you have no problems,” but that’s not the case at all. You just have to draw that line.

Can you imagine sharing your recent experience?

I can. Yeah, I can.

How?

It would depend on the person. Maybe if they were still in that angry state. It’s hard for people to actually get clean. So, doing the work of getting clean and just having a suicide attempt, that’s two things to work with. And if you’re angry you’re still alive and you’re trying to get clean, and you feel nobody else understands because “I don’t even want to be alive, but I’m trying go get off crack” or whatever, at times I think a powerful something like that can be helpful to somebody. I don’t think it would be something I would share every day.

I’m always surprised to hear about stigma among colleagues in the mental health profession. That they wouldn’t mention their past. These are just the kinds of issues you’ve trained for.

Sometimes at work, people just freak out, even though they work in that area. They don’t expect to see that from you if you’re working there. They’re at a loss. To me, I think I would be able to make that transition to, “This is someone who needs help,” but I guess some people can’t. It’s too scary for some people. It’s still suicide. And there are still people who don’t want to talk about it. We constantly did education on how to handle a suicidal phone caller. And there were people who were like, “I can’t talk to someone who is suicidal.” Licensed social workers of 20 years! People get nervous and anxious and feel like they might say the wrong thing and don’t know what to say. We do the training to explain it to them, but I think it just obviously takes a special person to work in that area.

And it’s stressful, I’m not gonna lie. There’s so much PTSD, and there’s so much self-medication, and there’s so much suicidal thoughts that even people in the retail store of the VA or other areas like MRI, CT, X-ray, they still have to have those communication skills. Therapeutic communication skills are a must at the VA. You can’t be the VA of the 1960s anymore, where people were yelling at you and ignoring you and pretending your problems were not there. This is where everyone’s trained on how to talk to you if you’re freaking out, having a flashback. If it’s happening in the lobby and a greeter is there, in the pharmacy, they should know to handle it.

Do they?

Yes, that’s part of the suicide prevention policy. I’ve been training all over the hospital. And when something happens, nine out of 10, it’s because somebody didn’t know how to verbally de-escalate the person who was upset. You know, people don’t have a lot of patience. PTSD, people with depression, they don’t want to get out of the house, much less go to the pharmacy and wait two hours. So they raise their voice. So the response is not to raise your voice even higher or to treat them like a child: “Listen here!” That’s not the correct response. The correct response is to lower your voice and ask, “How can I help you right now? Can you explain the situation to me, please, so I can try and help you better?”

I don’t think I’ve asked, where are you?

I’m in Louisville, Kentucky.

How would you change the system, based on your experience?

I still think there’s a lot of stigma as far as active-duty people. You can tell. When I do trainings in different places, it’s just not something … It’s still, “Suck it up and go on.” A lot of times, it’s mostly in the Army and Marine Corps. I think the Air Force and Navy are pushing to not hold it against you when you have suicidal thoughts and get help.

The speakers who would get up and talk, you could tell there was still somewhat of a stigma. And the survivors of the men _ I say boys _ who committed suicide were so angry because had written letters to commanding officers and nothing got done.
And you know, for me, the pain was my number one thing, but for them, it was what they’ve seen that was the number one thing. As much as my pain was an everyday source of stress to me, these young men, what they’ve seen is so completely horrific that it invades their thoughts every single day, and it gets to the point where they can’t deal with it.

We really have to be more aware of what’s going on around us. I would go do a training and ask, “OK, what are the signs that someone might be depressed?” And then, “When they get worse, what are some signs?” Some people might know, but if they’re in the military, the thoughts get kind of pushed aside in the immediate day-to-day things they have to do.

But now what they’re here, the spouses have to be more aware. I have a lady who does my hair, and her husband just got back. I told her if he needs anything to come see me. I’ve asked her, “How are things going?” “Well, he’s having problems adjusting.” “Is he angry?” “Yes.” “Is he violent?” “Not with me and the kids.” And last time, she said he had been drinking more than he usually did.

I think people don’t want to believe it’s something that could happen. And the soldiers don’t want to tell their wives these things. Or they’re self-medicating. They’ve got kids to take care of. The wives just really have to know. The families have to know. The friends have to know. And if you’re not mental health professionals and not involved with their care, you think, “Oh, he’s just going through a hard time, he’ll be all right.” That’s a 50-50 chance you’re taking.

I just talked to my stepmother for the first time last night since I got out of the hospital. She said she had asked my roommate, “Do you think she did that on purpose?” My roommate said, “Of course.” My stepmother told her she had had no idea I was having those kinds of thoughts, but she had heard me every day say what kind of pain I was in.

I’m not arguing here, but saying you’re in pain is not the same as saying, “I’m in so much pain, I’m going to end it.”

You know, to me, if somebody’s talking to me on the phone every day a lot, and they were talking to me about how much pain they were in, crying, how they had no life because they had nothing but pain, I would immediately be talking to their family. I would. Anything that is invading somebody’s thoughts every day to the point where it’s consuming their life definitely is something to be concerned about, and if they’re not talking about it, but maybe something has changed, they’re not talking about it at all, they’re isolating, you know, I would be bringing that to somebody’s attention. It’s not always going to be the textbook signs and symptoms.

When I go out to, you know, I’d go to the mall _ well, not the mall, because I hate the mall _ but I could tell, I could see people’s depression. If I saw someone was crying, sometimes I’d go up to someone I didn’t know and talk to them. I’d be at Costco or whatever and see someone having a hard time and just talk to them.

It’s a lot of work, and lot of times it’s easier for people to think, “She’ll be all right.” And once you bring up that thing and you ask somebody, “Are you having suicidal thoughts? Are you thinking about killing yourself?” you’re kind of in the driver’s seat. To talk to them. You know, that’s why we have the QPR training. It takes time to have those conversations. People, a lot of times, are just involved in their own thing.

You see so many people at these conventions, 900 or 1,000 people at these conventions, all trying to get information on how to help people. Think about that. Only 1,000, then all the people who are suffering, maybe be having suicidal thoughts. And these people are trying to increase awareness.

You know, if you Google “survivors of suicide,” that’s for the people who are like the wives, the husbands, the parents. They’re not for the people who have survived their own attempts.

You said you have a support group at the VA. I’m impressed.

Yeah, but I don’t go to that one. It would be crossing the boundary a bit. I want to go where I can feel free, open up about myself a bit without making people feel uncomfortable. We have people who have come to our support group since day one, almost three years. They all relate to each other, provide support. There’s not something like that in the community. There’s just not. And it’s a shame. And there’s a bit of an insurance thing about that. “You can’t get a bunch of suicidal people in the same room talking about suicide.” It’s like the, “Don’t mention suicide because they’ll kill themselves.” Or like, “Don’t talk about contraception because they’ll go have sex.” Myths.

I’m curious, does every VA hospital have a support group?

No it’s a pilot program that started at ours. Now Dr. Jobes is using his model, helping them with a grant to show that it helps. I really can’t speak to how that’s going, but I know our groups had something to do with that. And people didn’t initially want to go: “I’m not going to sit around with a bunch of people talking about killing ourselves!” But we urged people to go to four groups, and for the most part, people who came to the four groups were glad they did it. Some stayed for months. Some never left. It’s what they needed. And everyone’s free to come back.

Otherwise, you’re just left to deal with it on your own. Really, there’s nothing. You can journal. I journal a lot.

Life and art, part three: Talking with Konii Burns

The exhibition was so unexpected that artist Konii Burns came to the gallery three times during its three-month run, sat alone in the space and cried. “Not so much of sadness, but of relief that this topic was being spoken about so beautifully and honestly,” she says.

This is the last of three interviews about “Inspired Lives,” the reactions to the groundbreaking Australian exhibition and the desire to take the message of suicide attempt survivors and suicidal thinking into mainstream life. (You can see the exhibition brochure here, at the final link.) The conversations with artist Mic Eales and psychologist Erminia Colucci were posted just before this one.

Konii speaks here about how her art and her young daughter help keep her open to the world. Being shy, she preferred to be interviewed vie e-mail. She was thrilled to see the encouraging response to the exhibition, including the media response, since the subject of suicide is so often quickly judged. “I found the work of all the artists involved deeply profound and at the same time uplifting, as they are all still here to tell their tales,” she says.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I am Konii C. Burns, a 39-year-old sole parent, a contemporary visual artist and trained yoga teacher, although I do not teach at present. I have suffered clinical depression, anxiety and eating disorders for 25 years. I am Australian, located in a small town an hour out of Melbourne, Victoria.

How did you come to be participating in an exhibition related to surviving suicide attempts and suicidal thinking? What is your personal experience?

Organizers of the exhibition “Inspired Lives” put out a call three years ago for art to be submitted that had a relationship with suicide and suicide survival and bereavement. I have been a practicing artist for 20 years. When I saw this call, I knew I had to be involved. I submitted my 20-meter charcoal drawing entitled “Atrabilious: Depression of the Spirit” and, thankfully, it was accepted as part of the exhibition.

How did your experience become a part of your art even before this exhibition came about? And why did you want to explore it in this way?

“Atrabilious: Depression of the Spirit” was produced at a time in my life when a particular round of depression hit differently than other episodes I had experienced. I weighed less than 30 kilograms and was suffering extreme depression and anorexia, with several overdosing suicide attempts, and I had to leave a violent relationship with a
man who suffered bipolar disorder. It was a deadly relationship. One day, after a night of
abuse, I lay down and knew I was going to die. This time, I was starving myself to death. To me, it seemed more understandable from another’s perspective, especially my daughter. Easier to understand that mum got sick and had a heart attack than find me dead through violent ways.

The very next morning I took my child and ran away. I guess that’s how you would explain it. I left everything I owned, packed very quickly, as much of my girl’s belongings
as I could, as not to be caught by the man, and I landed on the doorstep of my parents’ place in rural New South Wales. My parents provided a large amount of child care and support, although they were at a loss to understand. They still loved me and provided my daughter enough cushioning from my reality that now, so many years later, my daughter barely remembers this time. Except for the pony at her 5th birthday party.

There was an endless round of doctors’ visits, weigh-ins, psychiatrists and dietician visits to my home, as I refused to go to a psych ward. I had tried six different antidepressants over the prior 14 years and none of them worked, including eight years on Prozac. I found they numbed my mind, and for an artist, that caused me more depression and is debilitating. I do not advocate antidepressants at all, so I gave this traditional, poor, Western vision of health care away. Much to the dismay and concern of my father, who is of the era that what the doctor says is right. I challenge that furiously. I found
them all too intrusive, expectant and infuriating. These services were apparently meant to heal me, yet all they did was make me more conscious of myself and my demons. I became worse within their care. So I did not attend any more appointments.

I began this drawing as one initial piece. I had no intention of it being so big. I completed one piece and felt an obligation to myself, to my environment, to keep going with the drawings. It was initiated by the dead and dying trees along a mammoth river here, the Murray River. At the time, Australia was also in severe drought. Ten years into it, and this country of mine seemed to be dying around me. The trees along the river were fallen and dry, and the farmers of this rural sector were suiciding at alarming rates. Over a 12-month period, I would take large panels of paper and lay them over the fallen trees, each chosen for their textures and hidden stories, I would wet the paper and use a very dense
charcoal and begin to make chaotic, spasmodic rubbings of the tree’s texture. I could hear the tree’s struggle for survival. I felt I was telling its story through the rubbings, which in return helped to tell my own tale of survival. Doing this work helped me survive, gave me a purpose to my being when all else, including being a parent, had failed to give me any self-worth. This work got me out of bed and, more importantly, helped to keep me breathing and alive.

Due to its size and overwhelming nature, I see it differently each time, and it evokes different emotions with each different installation. There are faces, skeletal forms, landscapes, mindscapes. The visuals are endless depending on lighting,
installation and where my mind is at in that particular moment.

What was it like working with other artists who have explored this topic openly? Is suicide usually an easy topic to discuss in the art world?

To exhibit with the Dax Centre and the other artists was a fantastic experience. I had not known there was a gallery specifically related to mental health issues, and as a suicide survivor it’s not something I generally talk about, due to the judgements and taboo and the fear I may lose my daughter. However, this environment created a kind of normality about the subject. It is deeply raw, truthful emotion that some people survive, and, unfortunately or fortunately, some succeed in their departure from the pain of their lives. I found the work of all the artists involved deeply profound and at the same time uplifting, as they are all still here to tell their tales.

All my art, not only this piece, is emotionally based on how the depression and mental illness creates havoc within my realm. Outside of this gallery, I find the word “suicide” can be a deterrent for gaining exhibition places, yet I then think if it’s too confronting for that particular gallery, there will be another that will embrace it.

I do not make any money from my art. The “Inspired Lives” exhibition was all volunteered, and with my other own exhibitions there is rarely monetary gain. Art is my nemesis and my saviour.

What surprised you about the process of putting the exhibition together and carrying it out? What did you learn about the way people respond to the subject of suicide?

I can’t say anything surprised me, as I have exhibited this work for this topic four times prior. I was also pretty removed from the exhibition once it was installed, which I do personally. I suffer anxiety and cannot speak at openings, nor do artist talks. I was pleased at the opportunity for university students to study the work, and I was very grateful to Mic Eales and the staff of the Dax Centre, who presented the artist talks for the exhibition. I have to remove myself from the work once it’s up, otherwise it can drag me through a huge emotional roller coaster. And being a depression sufferer, I am always on the
cusp of balance and decline.

What did you think of the public’s reaction to the exhibit? What comments stood out for you, and why?

I have been really happy with the exposure the topic and my work received. I was lucky enough to have peers in my local region recognize my work and identify it with mental illness awareness. I was included on the ABC website with a video of my work, and also many local newspaper interviews. I have also had some fantastic, heart-opening conversations with people who have opened up to me through social media and to me personally, where they haven’t spoken to anyone about their own struggle with suicidal thoughts and perhaps actions. For me, having one person not suicide and find
strength in my work to empower them to live is the best outcome I could hope for. Monetary gain, industry recognition, it is all secondary to the value in affecting another’s personal struggle.

What about the works by the other artists? Which ones affected you most strongly, and why?

The paper scroll that Mic Eales installed really rang out for me. The paper was made from the pulp of a futon mattress that his deceased brother owned. It was an incredibly delicate piece, huge in installation and, I imagine, a very emotional process to go through for Mic, as a bereaved brother, to make. I envisage a mountain of tears is entwined in the work. I visited the exhibition three times in the three months it was up. I sat alone in the space and cried each time. Not so much of sadness, but of relief that this topic was being spoken about so beautifully and honestly. Mic’s video work also stood out for me. I watched that three times. His advocacy work and study of this subject is very admirable. His art
is incredibly heartfelt and beautiful. I feel very privileged to be exhibiting alongside Mic’s work. Part of me doesn’t feel worthy. That’s the depression speaking.

What happens now? How do you build on the conversation that the exhibition might have started?

For me, now, this exhibition is over, and my work, “Atrabilious,” is packed away under the bed awaiting the next exhibition. There have been suggestions of touring this exhibition nationally, yet I have nothing confirmed. I will continue bringing awareness to mental health through exhibition of my other works.

Is it somehow easier to be open about your personal experience as an artist? What do you think is needed to help the average person talk more comfortably about their experience, whether publicly or with the people they know?

It is easier for me to express myself visually as opposed to verbally. Words escape me often. Emotions run so high within me that conversations about this subject usually turn to incoherent blubbering and tears. To convey emotions through a 2-D art format is the easiest way for me to communicate.

I think what is needed for people to speak of their experiences is not so much organisations or medical help, it’s having someone just to listen to you, to have someone you can cry wholeheartedly with, someone who just lets you experience the emotions and thoughts, without judgement, consequences or expectations. Whether that’s a friend, a counselor, a kind stranger on a help line. Society can be so very harsh and selfish. There also needs to be understanding on our side. The sufferers’ side, that there is no magic pill, no one can make you better, there needs to be a whole lot of self-initiated work, and that takes strength and belief in yourself. That in itself is the biggest hurdle for so many of us, for the base of our ill is our self-worth.

If you could change anything about the existing messaging about suicide prevention and mental health, how would you change it? What would you say or do instead?

Sometimes I feel the mainstream society doesn’t take it seriously enough. There is still a stigma of suicide, that “These people are weak and wanting attention.” This is just not the case. It’s sadly a case of “The illness cannot be seen, so therefore it doesn’t exist.” It does exist and is a silent killer. People need kindness and understanding, not stigma and alienation from family and friends. I have lost so many friends due to my depressive episodes. Family relationships become strained by these episodes, relationships are almost impossible to maintain and holding employment is a constant battleground. Depression and mental illness is so very isolating in so many ways, suicide
can sometimes feel as if it’s your only friend. Society is very quick to place judgement. It can make seeking help an embarrassing experience.

How are you doing? Is this something that seems to be firmly in your past, or do you think it will always be with you?

Right now, I am doing well. It has taken me six years to regain my health, including accepting the weight gain and self-image that comes with that. I am medication free. I continue to study yoga texts and practice yoga every day, as well as exercise regularly. I eat a predominately raw vegan diet and have stopped all caffeine, alcohol and stimulants. This is not to say I am cured. There are still days that I am debilitated by sadness, contemplate suicide and feel worthless. These days hit me physically. They are painful, and I can barely walk. The only way I know I will not hurt myself and survive is
to sleep. I have times where bed and darkness is the only safe place for me . I try not to fight it anymore and have faith that it will pass.

When it really is too dark, I have one friend that I know I can call at any time, who has lived with me through severe episodes, and his support, direction of thoughts and just the kindness in his voice has provided me with the strength to get up. Get up physically and mentally. I am so very grateful to him. As I have mentioned, friendships and relationships are very hard to maintain. Right now, I have very little friends, but that’s OK. I have my daughter, who is my best friend. She has seen far more than an 11-year-old should, although this has made her a very understanding, kind and considerate
person. She is amazing, and her pure being in many ways has also saved my life.

Depression is part of my makeup, a part of my art and a part of my life experience. Accepting it and not letting the demons win will always be a day-to-day fight, although I am pleased that now I feel far more in control than I ever have.

I like to ask this question last, since this experience isn’t the only one that defines you: Who else are you? What else should we know about you and the things you love?

I am a parent, of one beautiful girl. I have just begun to volunteer for an organisation called LifeLine, which is an emergency counseling hotline for people to call in time of severe distress. Producing art is what I spend the majority of my time on. It’s my life. My daughter and I are very close, and we create together in the studio. I dabble in my garden. We have a crazy dog and four guinea pigs. Like I mentioned, I study yoga, enjoy exercising and find it so very important for recovery.

I dream to be a successful artist, to get off the welfare roundabout and be able to self-support my daughter and myself through my art. I would love to be able to afford to travel internationally and explore my art options overseas. Australia is very limited in its opportunities and resources and respect of the arts. I would love to secure an artist residency in Spain and be sipping sangria in Barcelona for my 40th birthday in November.

Life and art, part two: Talking with Erminia Colucci

“I’m always surprised at how willing people are to share if they see a purpose for it and they’re not going to be judged.”

Erminia Colucci was going about her work in academia when an unusual e-mail arrived from a stranger. Australian artist Mic Eales had come across her work on spirituality and suicide and took a chance, telling her about the pieces he’d created in trying to understand his suicidal thinking. He assumed he’d hear nothing, but Erminia was intrigued.

Their collaboration led to a groundbreaking art exhibition on suicide last year in Australia. This is the second of three interviews about “Inspired Lives,” the reactions to the exhibition and the desire to take the message of suicide attempt survivors and suicidal thinking into mainstream life. (You can see the exhibition brochure here, at the final link.)

Suicide shouldn’t be mistaken as being always tied to mental illness, Erminia says, echoing Mic and some others interviewed here. She thinks of China and India, for example: “Suicide is one result of violations of the basic human rights of females,” she says. “Mental health organizations don’t focus much on human rights, but this work is very important to me. … We can’t just work in a traditional way, with the medical model of suicide. A lot of women die because they just can’t be human beings. No freedom. No respect. Where we also need to be able to act.”

She would love to bring the exhibition to other countries and continue the conversation with local artists, and the United States is in her sights.

Who are you?

I’m still trying to work it out! Officially, I am a psychologist by background, but I’ve always been interested particularly around suicide. I did my honors thesis and PhD on suicide, youth suicide. Because of this interest, when I was working as a clinical psychologist I went back to academia and for my PhD did a cross-cultural study on youth suicide in Italy, India and Australia. I wanted to understand what it actually meant, the cultural meanings of suicide. I work at the University of Melbourne, though I just came back. I was in the UK for the last year, doing a master’s in visual anthropology. At the moment, I’m doing a documentary on mental illness and human rights. I’ve been filming people who are working around protecting the rights of people with mental illness in Indonesia.

Who am I? I’m in academia, but I’m really interested in giving a voice to people who are not usually heard, like suicide survivors, the mentally ill, people whose rights are violated. That’s kind of in a nutshell who I am. My interests are not always really mainstream. With suicide, I’m looking at the culture, and I’m also looking at arts as a way of understanding and communicating. I’ve been using theater, and now I’m using film and photography. That’s how all of this came about, through my contact with Mic Eales and this interest in arts and in spirituality, which some in mental health feel uncomfortable dealing with. So I like to sit in those spots where academic people and others usually don’t like to sit.

How did you come across Mic, and how did that lead to the exhibition?

It’s a long story and a lovely journey. It’s been very important to knowing who I am, actually. Mic was doing his honor thesis on suicide, and he was finding it hard in engaging people in this kind of work. He wrote me an e-mail about spirituality and his work, “I do this and that.” He expected to not, you know, find much interest. But for me, I went like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” And we started working together. We did some seminars and workshops at the University of Melbourne about art and suicide. Quite a few people attended, and some of them had themselves dealt with suicide. Some knew someone who had attempted suicide. We wanted to work with people to share their experiences using a more creative way, and share as much as they wanted to share.

For me, it’s always been important that we as advocates, policy makers, academics and services have to have more space for people with lived experience, to have their voices, and in the way they want to express their voice. For some, it’s in a more creative way. We can’t expect everyone to be writing academic papers, you know what I mean? So the exhibition came about. We did a workshop at the university, and all the seats were taken. So people wanted to talk about it.

Mic and I take a non-medical approach. We don’t see it from a diagnosis and mental illness framework. Some people think in that way, but not everybody. For some, suicide is a much more existential problem, how they see life. It’s a much more personal way of looking at suicide. At the same time, it’s cultural. It’s not about imposing a way of looking at suicide. And so, when I saw there was a great response of people about the way we wanted to talk about suicide, in a creative and nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way, for us it meant we were on the right path.

Basically, shortly after, I contacted the Dax Centre. They run some very nice initiatives. I spoke to the director: “Look, I have this idea, around suicide attempts, a creative approach.” They were interested, but it was so new, it wasn’t immediately accepted. But I persisted. Mic and I decided to go ahead. And Jessica. We put out a kind of call to get people together who used artistic means to express their feelings. More than 30 people contacted us in one month, so again, we had quite a big response. We were lucky, we got on board Amy as curator, and she went to work at the Dax Centre. And that’s how it came about. So it’s been an interesting experience, and challenging.

There were fears about having a damaging effect, that people would go and jump off a bridge. That feeling was extremely strong. It is a very simplistic and widespread way of thinking about an issue. If you talk about it, what if people say, “I’m not the only one”? If they know they can get out of that, that others have come out at the other end, they can learn to cope with that, so what about talking about it? And using an artistic, creative way?

I read that the exhibition was rejected by other galleries.

Honestly, it’s been a journey. I want us to write a book about this, how society reacts to the issue. I wanted it to be something for the public. A lot of projects like this target, how should I say, the converted. We wanted to reach out to the general public. I wanted to be in a mainstream gallery, not a small place in the middle of nowhere. These guys are very skilled artists, and their work is at the same level  with any other artist featured in these galleries. But people were really concerned. They thought the public would not be interested. They were concerned about having the word “suicide” there, about potentially increasing the risk of suicide. I’m not going to say the name, but one of the main organizations in Australia looking after depression, when we started the conversation, they said it was a good idea, but it needed to fit their agenda, something fitting with depression. But the artists, they don’t want to identify as people who are suicidal because they’re depressed. That’s not their experience of it, so why should we fit inside this box because it fits the funder? Why fit inside a model that we feel doesn’t really represent the issue? So we said “No,” so no funding.

The Dax Centre hosted us. When we had kind of a panel about this, they said this was the first time they had done something like this, but they decided to go ahead. I’m very honored. We knew it was going to be good. From the point of view of people like Mic and Jessica and Konii, the work could inspire others. From my part, it was how to get academics, policy makers and others to listen, those who make decisions, you know? So it was very tricky.

This project also represents how society reacts to suicide. In Australia, suicide is seen as a very individual problem, about the person, but our project is about society as well. The way people responded is that there’s much fear, that the problem is also with them. I honestly think people don’t want to talk about suicide because it’s too uncomfortable, that somebody they love, or too many people in society, are thinking about it. And so we need to have a project of this kind. Artistically, it was a beautiful project curated beautifully. I think we need to have more of this initiative, make a statement about “This is who I am, and this is what it is for me. And listen to me.”

What were the reactions?

I was there a few times, and it was always very hard to see what people were thinking. I think they had a fourfold increase of viewers over past exhibitions. So there was a big response. And it’s very, very important. There are fears, but there are people in society who want to go and know what it’s about. People came to the panel, and quite a few of them were suicide survivors, so we know there were people themselves dealing with the same issues.

I don’t know, I guess the feeling when we went to see this exhibition was … people thought it was a challenging issue. Some of the comments were, “It was quite confronting.” It really got you, a strong emotional impact. But it was not, like, overwhelming. It was not to make you feel sad or frightened. There was something very positive about it. The show was called “Inspired Lives.” It was not about people feeling dark or, like, being overwhelmed. Actually, it was about these people who in the end have chosen to live. Like Jessica, who just had her second baby two weeks ago. Mic continues his career. So they’ve chosen to live. And that can be inspiring. So the comments were very positive.

Were there any questions asked that surprised you?

Not really, no. I’ve been in this field quite a bit, so nothing surprises me. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how open people are about sharing their experiences. One man who came to the panel was a PhD student. I knew him, but he actually had never said that he himself had tried to take his life. Then, in this public discussion, he said it. I was really touched. I didn’t know. I felt it was a positive experience for him to share with the people he knew would understand him. I’m always surprised at how willing people are to share if they see a purpose for it and they’re not going to be judged.

Did you run into the thinking that, “Well, they’re artists, it’s OK for them to talk about that experience.”

At the workshop, of the people who came there, none were artists. Some of them had never done anything creative. I think in general it might be a bit easier for artists to present intimate experiences, sexual or whatever. It’s seen as more acceptable, but I don’t think it’s all about that. It’s more about using arts as an idiom for people to express and share. I think we haven’t used that enough to explain people’s experiences. As a researcher, that’s where I want to go. I find Australia’s not easy to do that, using more creative ways. The academic structure, like everywhere in the world, is like a business, a way to bring in money. As soon as you get out of what everyone else is already thinking, how to survive? These things I do out of my passion. It’s very sad to have no funding for such things. It’s about getting those kinds of voices out there and learning from them.

What did you learn from this experience?

I’m still learning from it. From the e-mail Mic sent me, he does know: Mic, how thankful I am to you. I’ve read so much and go to conferences, but this has been a different perspective.

Also, this experience made me reflect about “Where do I sit? When thinking about it, who do I want to work with? Do I sit with the people who make decisions? Or do I sit with the people we’re talking about, the ones we make decisions for?” I want to be with the people. That’s my place. I try to use whatever I can to help others to have this voice. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. It’s something I want to pursue further.

Now Mic and I are thinking about where we can take the exhibition. There’s been a very good response in Australia, very good media coverage. We want to inspire others to do similar work. I’m very keen to go to the U.S., to New York, to go to other countries. The way in which Mic and I work, it’s about collaborations with other artists. We see the exhibitions with a selection of the pieces but traveling to other places and then, in collaboration with local artists, putting a show together. It’s building up a kind of conversation, instead of being something static. It’s what I want to see happening. My next dream is bigger, and I know we need support.

I’m interested in people’s experiences, the so-called consumers. Sitting on panels, in working groups, what is that really doing, other than making you feel good about it? What about doing something like this? I have really stepped back. I wanted this to be their show. We have tried to make this their show. It should be where we are sitting in the corner and they have something out about them. It’s not easy, especially in academia, where a lot of big egos are involved.

There’s always some exposure when talking about a hot topic. But I want to take this kind of risk in some way, talk about what really matters. Sometimes the decision makers walk away from things that really matter because it’s something that’s too difficult to deal with. Like spirituality. I think the only way to make sure that things that really matter are on the agenda is having the people affected as part of the agenda, being really involved. I think to have the things that really matter “in” is really important to people with lived experience. In whatever means they choose, which can be the arts.

Do you have a favorite piece or pieces from the exhibition?

That’s an interesting question. I didn’t think about it! It’s like having kids, which one is your favorite kid? I’m very proud of what the guys have done. So it’s difficult for me to say. One piece is a documentary that Mic put together about some of the work done together. And there was one piece, the white lotus.

The one with the umbrella?

Yes. It started when Mic and I were at a conference two years ago, at an IASP conference. I must acknowledge that Lanny Berman and Mort Silverman have been very supportive of our work. They supported us to organize a workshop in China. One of my interests is domestic violence and women’s rights. Suicide is one result of violations of the basic human rights of females. Mental health organizations don’t focus much on human rights, but this work is very important to me.

Mic and I had conversations about the topic. He’s amazing, he came up with the concept, the symbolism of the lotus in China. So I feel very close to the piece, which is also a memory of Mic and I in China and our adventure together. I really care about the issue of domestic violence against women and suicide, so it was touching to see it visually represented by Mic. Also, Konii’s piece was powerful. Being in the space was a very strong response, and I’ve seen people reacting to it. I don’t know if Konii realized the powerful impact of her work. I hope she does.

How would you describe the piece?

The panels are all around the wall, a room with panels of charcoal, from the bush fire. You needed to walk in, and once in the space you are surrounded by these panels. It’s the cover of the catalog, a panel from Konii’s work.

Can you think of other countries that would welcome this exhibition?

I think of countries like America, with the means to support this kind of work, and using it as a way to continue the conversation. New York is a great place, a great place to talk to people from all over the world, and I expect a country like America to take this project on board, to continue this conversation with local artists. But I’d also like to go to countries like Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, where actually it is difficult, where we need to make a lot of changes and need to respond to this. I mean “we” as a global “we.” We started in China, and China has the highest rate of suicide among women. So many lives every single second. Or India, where I’ve done a majority of my work. Suicide among women is increasing. There’s a lot to be done.

We can’t just work in a traditional way, with the medical model of suicide. A lot of women die because they just can’t be human beings. No freedom. No respect. Where we also need to be able to act. So this exhibition, to me, is part of my being an activist, using the scholarly ability to be an activist. We need to get together and make some important social changes.

Who else are you?

This kind of work, for me, is who I am. It is who I am. I am also an ethnographic documentary filmmaker and photographer. I love the outdoors. Like this morning, I went very early on the beach for a run and a swim. Though I’m a very bad runner. But I love the outdoors. Encounters with nature really make me feel good. And I love animals. And I love sports. And I love food. A very typical Italian. Food and good wine and cheese. And I love my niece. I was thinking about the things I love, and she came to me.

Life and art, part one: Talking with Mic Eales

For the next three posts we’ll be hearing from Australia, where a collection of artists with lived experience came together last year for a groundbreaking exhibition on suicide. “Inspired Lives” was hosted by the Dax Centre, one of the world’s top art galleries related to mental health. Officials there took some convincing, but the exhibition became the first that had not come from the Dax’s own collection. (You can see the brochure here, at the final link.)

For that, the artists thank Dax development director and exhibition co-curator Amy Middleton, who pushed for the project. “Many of my assumptions and understanding of the phenomenon have changed,” she says. “I no longer associate suicide with depression or mental illness. I consider suicide to be a human condition _ a complex phenomenon that affects everyone, in different ways and to varying depths.” The media, she adds, was quite supportive in promoting the exhibition, “which was a welcome surprise.”

We speak first with artist Mic Eales, who talks about his reaction to losing his brother to suicide, why he makes an effort to make his works on suicide life-affirming and what his wife thinks of it all.

Who are you?

I’m old. I just turned 60. Who am I? I don’t know. I guess, you know, first and foremost, an artist. A sculptor, an installation artist, a printmaker, a ceramist. And I guess I’ve been working in making artwork about suicide since my brother took his own life in 2002 and just wanted to try and understand my own sense of suicidality. I became suicidal after Bryan died. So that’s how my artworks came into being, just trying to understand that. I’ve had lots of different jobs. I’ve been a potter, many years ago, and an adventure-based therapist. I worked in the States in drug and alcohol rehab in Montana, taking the lads into the wilderness for 21 days at a time. They got to the third step of the AA program, then we took them into the wilderness so they could do the fourth step. Then they’d go back to the ranch and do family counseling, then go to halfway houses. But I’d been working with street kids, the long-term unemployed, drug addicts, offenders for 12 to 15 years. Eventually, I just burned out.

One day, my doctor said to me, “Why not go to art school? It’s what you love!” We used to have long, intense conversations about art because he was a frustrated artist himself. So that’s what I did. I loved sculpture. My daughter was doing her honors in printmaking. The first day of university, she took me by the hand, went with me to classes. At the end of the week, she told me, “OK, Dad, you’re on your own now.” We’d meet for coffee, discuss art-type stuff. But I love sculpture. So that’s what got me into doing installation pieces, I guess. They are very abstract works, very conceptual, using lots of different materials (media). Though I do love bronze. I have a real passion for bronze. I don’t have a great deal of call for it. A lot of my pieces are created by using whatever materials will tell a particular story. I have two kids, two grandchildren, my wife and I have been married 39 years, and we live on a farm.

What should I ask next? About the exhibition? Or about your brother and how you got into this?

It doesn’t bother me anymore, talking about it. He took his own on May 18, 2002, but his partner didn’t tell me until the end of September of that year. For what reason, I have no idea, but when I received that phone call, as soon as I heard her voice, I knew he was dead. And as soon as she said he’d taken his own life, my immediate reaction was, “The bastard! He succeeded, and I failed.” When I was a teen, I twice tried, when I was 15 and 18, I think, and I’d suffered from suicidal ideation most of my life. I’d been through a couple more suicidal crises. And once I’d sort of gotten over it (the phone call), my wife’s reaction was, “Why did Margaret take four months to inform us of his death?” There was a six-year difference between us as well. I’d always looked up to him. I always thought he’d been the shining light in the family. All my teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” So all kinds of issues were going on.

And then, probably not until the next year, I started to spiral into a big black hole. I started making plans to take my own life. Then suddenly, we got a call out of the blue that our daughter was quite ill and suicidal herself. We brought her home, and her depression was so bad that she had to be carried at times, she couldn’t physically walk. So for the next few months, my wife and I nursed her back to health, and my plans were put on hold. Finally she was better, and we got her back to her sister in Melbourne. I started making plans again. For some reason, I rang a friend whose husband had taken his own life. I started talking, telling her what my plans were. She said, “Go ahead, I’m jealous.” For her, the death of her husband had taken away her opportunity (to take her own life). She saw the difficulty in their children in dealing with their father’s death, and she was jealous that I had that possibility of taking my own life. It was a strange reaction, but it made me think about her daughter and my daughter. Several years prior, this particular woman contacted me and said her daughter was really struggling with her father’s death and was blaming herself. I didn’t think much about it, although I was concerned for her. Then about three days later, I was sleeping and woke bolt upright. A voice said I have to write to this girl from her father’s perspective. I went downstairs and wrote to her. I sent it to her mother and said, “I don’t care what you do with it, give it to your daughter or not, do what you think.”  So she did, she gave it to her daughter. She read it, and it had a huge impact on her. She and I ended up going bushwalking a couple times. We had a good relationship. She’s now happily married with a bunch of kids. But I lost touch with that after Brian’s death. And it was this girl’s mother saying “Go ahead” that backed those feelings of, “OK, how’s my daughter going to react? My wife? My other daughter? What sort of impact will it have on their lives?”

When I reached out to help, seeing a counselor and psychologist, I found that what was happening was, I would avoid answering questions. As I said, I was an adventure-based therapist for a number of years, and the boys showed me how to avoid questions. So on my way home I’d think, “Why did I avoid that question?” I’d go through this process each day, putting those questions into my artwork. So I’d deal with my own issues through art. And that’s what I’ve been doing. And I started making artwork called “Rope tears then stone.” It was a big slab of black granite, and on that I created the Indian rope trick, made a bronze rope, curled it around on the base of this slab, and it went up about 4.2 meters. At the time, I thought it was about Bryan’s suicide and his escape from reality. And it wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that it was more about me and my desire to escape. I started working on another piece which at the time was more about me, a piece called “In the Blue Corner,” in which I created another piece of bronze rope, attached real rope to the ends and suspended it so it was like a tightrope for someone to cross. I pivoted a piece of stainless steel across it with a pair of boxing gloves. It was about my ongoing fight with depression and suicidality. I also did another piece called “DNA Spiral,” again, two pieces of cast bronze rope with sandstone, which stood on a blank canvas with a big industrial light projecting down from above. My mother was depressive, and it just seemed there must be some sort of family history of depression. Having nursed our daughter back to health, and with Bryan, and my own history. Something was going on within the family.

That’s how it started. And after that, I started wanting to do more. I was not looking so much at my own life but at how it affected the wider community. Again, using rope, two inches in diameter, I looked at statistics that for every person who takes their own life, at least another 30 people are attempting. “Forgotten field, 30 to 1 against” was created to draw attention to that statistic. After that, more and more artworks were created.

Do you say it that obviously, what each artwork means?

Yes and no. I think my artist’s statement read, “In May 18, 2002, my brother made the decision to take his own life, then I fought my own demons in my own.” That was it. A couple of people actually ran out of the room where “In the Blue Corner” was exhibited. One woman, her daughter had taken her own life. So they were quite powerful works. There wasn’t, like, a warning on the outside on the entrance. For the “Inspired Lives” exhibit, the Dax Centre had a warning on the outside saying the works were about suicide.

Before the exhibition, were you the only person you know who did artwork about suicide?

The only other person I know of was Seamus McGuinness in Ireland, working with a psychiatrist and looking at the bereaved. He did a couple of artworks looking at the increase in suicide among young males, but not from the lived experience perspective. Since then, I’ve heard of a number of artists who’ve explored the issue, who made maybe one artwork from their own perspective. I’m the only one I know of who just makes artwork about suicide, again from lived experience. And Jessica had done her own piece, I think “Suicide Silence, Suicide Spirits,” where she had projected images and text of the sorts of things that were going through her mind during her suicidal crisis onto her. She more or less was in the fetal position with these images and text projected onto her and a screen. It was pretty powerful, emotional work, incredibly so.

One thing I made a very conscious decision to do right from the beginning was, there needed to be a positive aspect to any of the artworks that I did. If I focused on just the negative aspects, the spiraling pain that being in suicidal crisis is, I wouldn’t have survived. It just would have made the spiral go quicker. So there had to be some sort of life-affirming quality to artworks, so it had to be a bit playful in a way. A few years ago, I looked at what is the opposite of suicide. After months of digesting that question, I came up with childhood innocence. That’s the opposite for me, not necessarily for anyone else. That’s the only time in my own life when I felt free of that pain. I’ve been happy in the meantime, but there have been times when that psychache overpowers. So my own daughters are artists, and they incorporate a real naivete in their work, real playfulness. I’ve tried to incorporate that within my own work. Again, some childhood aspect gets incorporated into each work.

What does your wife think?

We’ve had some interesting discussions! It bothers her at times. If I go into a space, which lately, I’m feeling exhausted at the moment, I become burnt-out.  Last year I had spinal surgery, plus months of recovery, and I had to finish the exhibition and get it down to Melbourne. So there’s a huge emotional cost. So now, I’m just working through my PhD, and I’m so incredibly tired. So my wife can pick up on those moods and wonder what she’s going to come home to, if I’m going to be here or if I’ve taken my own life or something. I try to reassure her that won’t happen, but underlying that is always that possibility. But we’ve had some frank and open discussions within the family, about suicide. And they’re quite happy in talking about those issues, and those issues their papa deals with, and they are incredibly supportive.

That seems rare. Do you know other families that talk that way?

I have, actually. I was at a forum recently, and talked about how my family discusses it. One woman came back and said her teenage children have had friends at school who have taken their own lives, and that has instigated a round of dinner table discussions that are quite open and frank. I think it’s a rare event, but it’s lovely to hear other people could go there. We are a fairly unique sort of family, and I guess most husbands and fathers don’t work on the issue of suicide day in and day out.

What have been some of the reactions to your work?

After I questioned the opposite of suicide, I decided to start my honours at Uni. I had a good idea of what the artwork was that I wanted to make. I ended up creating “too few ladders.”  I had already been in contact with a couple of suicidologists. I told them what I was doing, and they dismissed me out of hand. They loved the artwork, really good for the cover of a conference paper, something like that but very dismissive.

I just Googled “suicide,” “spirituality,” and Erminia’s name came up. I read her bio and thought, “I’ll write to her.” Within the first few e-mails, she had invited me to Italy to exhibit “too few ladders” the following year, because it was her passion as well. And it was from that association with Erminia that, once I had started my PhD, she invited me down to Melbourne to do workshops, and that’s where Jessica came to a seminar and then e-mailed me and told me a bit about her story. We got together and decided we would like to collaborate. And it just snowballed from there. That’s where the idea of the book came about, and the “Inspired Lives” project came into being. And then we got to find out about Amy. Jessica had put an ad in the paper, and Amy came on board. Yeah, it just snowballed. But there was lots of knocking on doors, applying for grants. We were just getting rejected the entire time until Dax said, “OK.” That was due, I am sure, to Amy really pushing from the inside to have the exhibition recognized, the issue recognized. Even though they deal with mental health issues, suicide is not on the priority list.

They deal with mental health issues?

It’s a mental health gallery, one of the top three in the world that deal with the particular issue. It has its own collection of about 15,000 artworks, I suppose. It’s huge. mainly paintings. But Cunningham Dax, who started the collection, worked in psych hospitals, came out from England and started doing art therapy with patients and collecting artworks as time went on. And making judgements, diagnosing people’s illnesses from those particular artworks. Now, you’d never do that today, but that’s how it started. I’m really glad that we were at the Dax, because it gave us some credibility. It was the first exhibition they had had outside their own collection, so we really were outsiders.

Was their hesitation because your work was outside the collection, or because it dealt with suicide?

Amy is better to answer that, but I think the issue of suicide was too difficult to handle, so we had to jump a lot of hoops right up front. I more or less had to explain what our artworks were about, what they would look like, so they could see it from my perspective, that I wasn’t focusing on on that darker, more negative aspect of suicide. That you could talk about suicide in art in a way that was meaningful. So yeah, I think they were just hesitant and didn’t know what the works were going to look like. It was a big leap of faith for them. Also, it’s an education gallery, so they had school groups going through and education staff talking about mental health issues. And again, it’s OK to talk about mental health issues, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty of suicide, it’s a whole new ball game. So it took a bit of convincing. As I understand it, we’ve broken huge new ground for the Dax Centre. Some of the work proposed for the future is even grittier than ours. That’s what Amy tells me.

What did you hear from people at the exhibition?

The overall comment was inecrdibly positive. It was like being part of an exhibition a couple of years prior when a group in Melbourne organized some community artists to work with the bereaved. They made artworks for this exhibition. Tony Gee (from the Life Is… Foundation) and I had met in Uruguay at a suicide prevention conference and had became good friends. He knew I was an artist and knew I was also bereaved, so he asked me to be part of the “Pieces” exhibition. I created “Paper Shadows,” which consists of two big sheets of suspended handmade paper. The response from the exhibition was absolutely amazing, no standing room in the gallery. Many had been bereaved or were attempt survivors, and the “Inspired Lives” exhibition was exactly the same. Maybe not quite as many people. I suppose there were about a hundred-odd people at the opening, then a fivefold increase in visitors, excluding the people who came for the education component or the art therapists who go there to study or the doctors and psychologists who go there.

I thought it was absolutely amazing, brilliant. We had 60 to 70 people at the forum. When Erminia and I had the workshop, we had 18 people in each one. We couldn’t have handled any more, but had two back to back. There was so much interest. It was made up of therapists, psychologists, people who had suffered from suicidal ideation. There was one guy who inspired the musical notes piece (“Be a right good pal”), he had tried to take his own life a month prior or two prior. There were people who worked with youth groups, in detention centers, a real variety, really very positive. We ended up making these Columbus cubes, we just got people to create their biography on six A4 sheets of paper and put those together. We could put things inside of them. So yeah, there was some pretty special, wonderful feedback. Out of that, I was invited to speak at a number of conferences.

In Australia?

All over. I’ve spoken a couple times at postvention conferences here in Australia and another one on narrative inquiry, original voice narratives. Then two IASP conferences in Uruguay and Beijing. Then Erminia invited me to the World Association of Cultural Psychiatry in Italy, where the Brussels version of “too few ladders” was exhibited, and then my video went to the conference in London last year. So yeah, the word’s been getting out. Again, it’s taken a lot of hard work, a lot of money. I don’t know where it comes from.

And how about coming to the U.S.?

It would be absolutely fantastic. I’ve thought about trying to get there and doing something with “too few ladders.” It’d probably be easier to transfer than half a ton of lead. I love the States. I spent time in Utah, Wyoming, Montana. I just love that part of the world.

How to make the public at large more comfortable with discussing the topic of suicide?

Slowly and sensitively. It’s not something you can rush. There was one artwork that was meant to go into the “Inspired Lives” exhibition, and I really wanted it to go in. It was a ladder with about 20 meters of 2-inch-diameter red rope that had come out of a Narnia movie. And it had black cord running around the rope and meeting in the middle and then that black cord would then form the word “yarning.” And that’s a term here, where you sit down and you yarn, or talk. And I wanted to talk about the conversations people have and can have about the issue of suicide. So this rope would weave its way through the suspended ladder, around the room and just be suspended there. But the education people within the Dax Centre opposed it because it contained rope. And also, I was going to take the Indian rope piece “Rope tears then stone” for outside the gallery, but they didn’t want that either because it represented rope. And because so many schoolchildren were going through, they felt uncomfortable with that, that they might get the idea to hang themselves. Hanging in Australia is the most prevalent way of taking one’s own life.

My initial reaction was one of, well, not anger, but I was pretty upset. But I had to look at it from their perspective. They hadn’t seen it, and we hadn’t talked about it a great deal. The piece was evolving as the exhibition was going along. So I thought, “OK, we have to move slowly. It’s really important these people feel comfortable with the artworks we’ve got and can explain them.” We compromised. Now I’ve said to the Dax that if the gallery does decide to tour the exhibition to regional galleries, one stipulation is that “Yarnings” goes in. They’re OK with that because they don’t have that education component in the exhibitions that go to regional centers.

Any of that sort of work, one has to respect people’s feelings and thoughts about suicide. It’s a really sensitive issue. People have been affected in ways that, well, in lots of different ways. And I don’t know how they’ll react. As I said, one women ran out, in fact, two women when they saw my exhibition in 2003. It’s a very raw subject for some people. A comment at the Dax Centre was a woman saying she was still dealing with the effects of the suicide 27 years after the death of her brother. She was still not able to describe how the artworks had effected her, but they had, positively. It’s a really difficult issue. Now Suicide Prevention Australia has invited me to be a member of its lived experience committee, and the first meeting was a few weeks ago. It’s a group of people who survived suicide attempts and those who have been bereaved by suicide. We’re advising them on policy. It’s a very emotive issue, even in that room. Some people have a variety of experiences with suicide.

How do you feel?

(So I tell him, and I end by saying I’ve never really been reproached for my work or for bringing up the subject.)

It’s not even a reproach, but there was one artwork I did with Baden Offord, “The end of statistics,” about statistics, and it has a trolley, a timber trolley with steel wheels, and it moved backward and forwards. I know it as a timber jinker. You put logs on it and roll it into the saw that cuts timber up. But I met a woman who was a third-generation Holocaust survivor, and she said it reminded her of the Holocaust. I’d never made that connection in any way, shape or form. It was interesting to hear.

Was she angry?

She wasn’t angry, she just made the observation. It was a cultural aspect of what I was doing that I hadn’t considered. It was an interesting observation.

The other thing I should point out, the other reason I really got into art was, I couldn’t write anymore. I used to be a big journal writer, every day. Until I worked at the jail. I worked in corrections for about three years, and one of my jobs in running this program was, I had to read inmates’ mail, incoming and outgoing. And I had to search their lockers and rooms periodically. I found that such an invasion of privacy. Maybe some people would say I’m too sensitive. I can’t even watch a documentary with animals in it. But I thought, “What if someone reads my journals? There’s nothing particular or offensive in them, but they’re my journals and my thoughts.” It was through making art that I found that I could express myself. It was a huge thing for me at that particular time.

You mentioned earlier becoming burnt out in that earlier work. Do you worry about being burnt out with what you’re doing now?

I just think that I need a rest. Once my PhD is finished, I promised myself that I’m going to go bushwalking. I love it. I loved teaching other people bushwalking and rock-climbing skills. Tthe Larapinta trail takes about 12 to 15 days to complete, or longer if you stretch it out, and that’s what I want to do at the end of the PhD. I need to do something completely away from just focusing on the issue of suicide and have another life, if you like, outside of that. It’s been almost 24 hours a day in my life, and you get tired and burnt out.

It sounds like you have a bird or a monkey in the background there.

Lots of birds. I should send you the video I made. In the background, there’s a rooster who crows every now and again, and the number of voiceovers that I had to redo or delete, but somehow, Roger the rooster still got in there. But no, I said we have 12 acres, so there’s lots and lots of bird life here.

Who else should I talk with?

I haven’t met anyone. I mean, conferences are incredibly boring! It’s the conversations outside the sessions that are the most enriching. I guess one reason I started doing my PhD is, I want a seat at the table. No one takes an artist for real. I don’t have much credence among suicidologists. I’m a bit of a joke. but if I have a PhD, I hope that will be taken a bit more seriously, I’ll have something to offer. I certainly do have a bit of a fan group, and they’re incredibly supportive, but they’re academics or running programs based on helping people bereaved by suicide. But there’s a lot of support in looking at suicide from different perspectives, examining it in a way people feel more comfortable with and giving them a sense of, maybe not of peace, but of … Yeah, just a different way of talking about it, from lots of different perspectives. I’d like to work with other artists, I mean the full spectrum, dancers, musicians, people in drama, visual artists, whatever, who have attempted to take their own lives and would like to create to express what the experience was like and how they moved on to live an inspired life, a meaningful life.

Baden’s a writer and academic, but his history of suicide, the number that have occurred in his family through the generations, is absolutely horrific. After his brother’s death a few years back, he approached me to talk about my artworks. Eventually we decided to collaborate. We’d sit down and have coffee and talk about suicide. And he and I would just talk. And it was incredibly healing for both of us, and a wonderful experience. I count him as a really close friend now. I really treasure those moments. I’d like to do that with other people. I’m working on a project at the moment about loneliness and its association with suicide and how we might look at that sense of loneliness and how to develop that into hope. I’m not sure how we’re going to do it. But that’s one aspect. One of my artworks was an umbrella and cast lotus pods. That was about suicide amongst women in rural China. I did a piece on suicide among women in Afghanistan. I’d really like to explore more at some stage with other people in addressing the issue, draw attention to sociocultural aspects of suicide that people may not have thought of.

And break away from the medical model, to show there’s so much more to it than having this or that.

Yeah. My niece is suicidal at present. Her mom’s had to hide the knives, all that sort of stuff. The issues are around us, all the time. But suicide prevention is a whole community problem, an all-of-the-community solution. We need to learn how to talk about the issue in ways that can help and support one another. Of putting our hands up and saying, “Hey, I need help.” That’s my fervent hope, that we can change the issues and get past this medical, mental illness persona. When you talk about mental illness, a shadow goes up. I don’t know about there in America. But you become a basket case. We need to move away from that. Mental illness is one great big label. We don’t do that with cancer or other diseases. There’s enough stigma with that.

And we have to change the perception. And if artworks can do that, that’s great. There’s an organization in Australia, Roses in the Ocean, and in that week around the suicide prevention day, they’re planning a number of events where they throw roses into some kind of watercourse, the ocean, a dam, a river, as some way of drawing attention to the issue. She’s on our lived experience committee. She’s trying to do that as a sort of worldwide symbol.

This is what I do. This is my calling. This is where my passion is. Life changes. That’s the one constant in life. Life changes. It might get worse, it might get better, but it never stays the same. That’s why I’m so open. Somebody’s got to talk about the damn issue.

Talking with David Granirer

Can suicide, and mental health at large, be funny? This isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed someone who believes it can, but perhaps no attempt survivor has taken on the question as directly as David Granirer. The Canadian founded and runs an organization that teaches stand-up comedy to people with mental health issues.

David sees his work as part of the growing outspokenness of the recovery and consumer-driven movement. “The idea about peers is educating people to educate themselves as opposed to having a psychiatrist come in and say, ‘Take this. Don’t ask any questions. Your five minutes are up. Get out of my office,'” he says.

Here, he talks about taking his students to perform in psych wards, the scandal of a teen’s recent suicide behind bars in Canada and what happens when a psychiatrist takes the stand-up stage as well.

Who are you?

I’m David Granirer, a counselor, stand-up comic, author, speaker and a mental health consumer. I have depression. I run Stand Up for Mental Health, my program teaching comedy to mental health consumers as a way of building confidence and fighting public
stigma.

And where are you?

Vancouver.

How did you get to this point?

My depression started when I was 16 or 17. I attempted suicide when I was 17, and I was in the psych ward for six weeks. All the red flags were there. I look back, knowing what I know now, and I can’t imagine how they could have missed all the signs. No one caught it ’til my mid-30s. So from the time I was 16 til my mid- 30s, I just thought it was normal to always be depressed. I thought everyone was like that. I had no idea there was any other way of being.

Until I was about 26, I was a musician. Then I hurt my wrist. I played guitar but wasn’t able to play any more, so I went through a floundering-around period. I started doing volunteer work with the Vancouver Crisis Center, and it clicked. I met great people, they hired
me as a trainer, and I trained as a counselor.

Then, around the same time, I started doing stand-up comedy and was asked to teach a stand-up comedy course at a local college. This was 1998. It gave me the idea for Stand Up for Mental Health. I would see people come through the class and have these life-
changing experiences after doing their showcase. One woman said she had a fear of flying, then after our show, she got on a plane and didn’t have that fear anymore. I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to give people this kind of experience!” I taught comedy to a group of recovering addicts, then cancer patients, some of them terminal, some in remission. Then I started Stand Up for Mental Health.

But you weren’t diagnosed yet, right?

No, I started it in 2004. I was diagnosed in 1993. Yeah, being diagnosed. I’ve done lots of therapy, but getting on medication made a huge difference. I know it’s fashionable in some places to be anti-medication, but anti-depression medication made a huge difference.

Are you still on it?

Yes.

How has your group gone?

We started with one group here in Vancouver. The next year, there was a documentary called “Cracking Up” made on us in 2005. “Cracking Up” won a Voice award by SAMHSA, are you familiar with them? Thanks to the documentary, it really expanded my reach. Now I run classes all over North America. Basically, I’m contracted to run the classes by different mental health organizations in various cities.

Right now, I’m working with a group in Phoenix and I give classes via Skype. Then, at the end, I fly in and do a big show with the comics. I will also be running a group in Australia starting in the summer.

Is any subject taboo?

In Stand Up For Mental Health, the rule is nothing racist, sexist or homophobic. All the comedy is clean, no swearing, nothing obscene or grossly sexual. We’re often asked to perform in all kinds of places, military bases, correctional institutions, medical school
programs, government departments, corporations, universities, etc. We need to be able to go in and present a positive face of the mental health community. That certainly isn’t helped if people are gross and obscene. It’s really classy, well-done, clean humor. But other than that, people pretty much talk about anything: psych wards, hallucinating, times in psychosis, drug and alcohol problems, suicide attempts. Yeah, that’s pretty much whatever they want to talk about. You can see clips on the website.

Is it easy to find humor in a suicide attempt?

In some ways it’s a pretty black topic, but certainly we’ve had comics talk about it in acts and come up with really funny stuff.

For example?

Yeah. Actually, well, there’s one comic who has a great line, quite black, she says, and I’ll try to get the quote right, she says, “I’ve attempted suicide. Obviously I wasn’t successful, but I did learn one thing: that I CAN tie a knot to save my life.” So that’s an example.

When it’s mentioned, is it kind of fleeting, one joke, or is it all a comic
talks about?

I don’t think anyone just talks about one thing in their whole routine. I think in stand-up you tend to talk about different things. So, no, there’s no one who does a whole routine on suicide.

Does anyone ever point it out and say, “I can’t believe you go there?”

I think sometimes people may be a bit taken aback, but they also realize that people are not making fun of suicide attempts, they’re talking about their own lives. So when you hear it in that context, it sort of takes the edge off. So people would hear it and say, “Oh wow,
that was a pretty intense experience that person must have had.”

Do you have your own joke about it?

Yeah, I talk about my own suicide attempt. To roughly paraphrase it, the joke is, people are really afraid to talk about suicide. My friend says, “I’m afraid if I use that word, it will give you ideas.” I say, “Listen, when I’m depressed, I think about doing myself in every second of the day, so if you ask if I’m suicidal do you really think I’ll say, ‘Wow, I never thought of that before’?” So people use terrible euphemisms. Like, “You’re not going to do anything crazy, are you?” “Like talk to an idiot like you?” When I tell the joke in Canada I say, “Someone asked me, ‘Are you thinking of going to a better place?’” And I’m like, “Hey man, I’m from Winnipeg, any place is better than that.” In the U.S., since most Americans aren’t familiar with Winnipeg, I use a local reference they can relate to. So basically, it’s a joke about how afraid we are to talk about suicide, and how important it is to bring it up.

(I mention my previous interview with Mike Stutz, who made a documentary about suicide that includes humor and who has faced nervous responses from some suicide prevention people.)

We’re not specifically a suicide organization. Since we talk about so many different things under the headline of mental health, that makes it more acceptable. In general, we’ve had very little pushback. In some ways, Stand Up for Mental Health is the right idea at the
right time. Right now, the recovery movement is pushing the edge. People are looking for new modes of recovery, new modes of spreading the anti-stigma message. The fact that we came along with a unique way of doing it has been picked up by a lot of mental
health organizations: “We’d love to do something like that.” There’s been a minority of cases where someone said they took it to the board: “Comedy? You can’t do comedy about this.” But usually, once they see the documentary, the resistance is gone. I send out tons of copies. Once they see it, they totally get it. I think they’re afraid we’ll trivialize the subject, make fun of it. But then we have fun with it. Mostly what I’ve experienced was enthusiasm, interest, positive interest.

Your website mentions that you’ve performed in psych wards. How did that go?

It’s gone great. People, when we’ve gone into psych wards, they love us, you know. The patients love it, the staff loves it. Let’s face it, it’s not a lot of fun to be in a psych ward, and it’s not fun to have a mental illness. People are dying to laugh. And when you give them a
chance to laugh about it, and the comedy is actually being delivered by people who’ve gone through what they’ve gone through, it’s very inspiring: “Wow, I have the same condition, and if they’re capable of doing that, I can do something amazing, too.”

What was the first time like for you, performing in a psych ward?

The first time we performed in a psych ward, it was a place called Riverview, one of the big ones out here, probably in 2004 or 2005. They actually asked us back every year, but the audience is getting smaller because they’re gradually closing down. The first show had
probably 200 or 300 people, the auditorium was packed with people, and it was hilarious. I think the last show we did, there were 30 or 40 people. Like I say, they’re closing down. I’m not sure, but I think they’re trying to get people back into the community. But yeah, it was
great because there was staff and patients.

It didn’t bring back any memories of your own experience, walking into that setting?

I think enough time had gone by, like 25 years, so no, it really didn’t. I think I was more concerned like I usually am with things like, “Do I have the order of comics right, what parts of the act am I going to do, etc.?”

Do you change the message depending on the place you’re in?

We’re going to be doing a show in a couple of weeks for a government organization. Certainly with them, it will be more mainstream. I’ll probably do the suicide joke, but what I find is if we’re playing to mental health consumers, we can push the edges a lot more. We don’t have to worry about them being taken aback about something that’s too black. For corporate or government audiences, we keep it mainstream.

Is there something you’d like to explore but is too over the line?

Not really. The only thing I haven’t found anyone make funny is the topic of sexual abuse. I just tell people to stay away from it, not because it’s a bad thing to talk about, but because I’ve never heard anyone find any humor in it.

I see you have a Wikipedia page, and I like that it has a note at the top that says, “This page has issues.” That was kind of cute. But maybe that’s an Americanism.

I’ve seen the page, and I know it says, “This page has issues.” They think it’s like a promotional piece. Someone wrote that a while ago. And I’m not sure, to me, it seems factual. It doesn’t seem too _ yeah, it’s out of date. I should get someone to update it. I don’t know quite what they mean.

Have you had any memorably bad responses to your shows?

In general, in terms of myself, I can remember some really bad comedy experiences at crappy bars, stuff like that, just dreadful. I can remember my very first comedy experience. I had wanted to do comedy for a couple of years. I finally got the courage to do amateur night at a local club and had no idea what I was doing. The club sat about 200 or 300 people, but only about 25 were there, just a sprinkling. An empty cavern. They put me up first, threw me to the wolves. I did five minutes of dead silence. So that was my first experience. I thought, “OK, no need to do that again.” I probably wouldn’t have gone back, but this comedy course came to Vancouver, and I took it. The next time I got up there, the club was packed with all our friends etc. I was an amazing audience, an amazing night. I was hooked.

Is there any group you’d steer away from in the future in the mental health routine?

Not really. I’d say sometimes some audiences … You know, it’s really hard to say. Basically, the overwhelming number are really good. Occasionally, you run into an audience that’s real quiet. Sometimes, in part, people in the audience were heavily medicated, not responsive. But there’s so little of that. First of all, people want to be
there, they’re up for it. For corporate and government groups, there’s usually quite a bit of buzz around it. People are excited: “Wow, how often do you have comics come into the workplace?” Some people, they’re intrigued: “Wow, they’re going to be talking about
mental illness?” There’s usually quite a bit of buy-in already. I make sure the comics have good experiences with comedy. We don’t do pubs unless we’re really clearly advertising what they’re getting. If it’s a drinking crowd on Saturday night, we’re not a good fit for that
because they want a certain kind of humor. When you’re partying on a Saturday night, you don’t want to talk about schizophrenia and suicide and all that. And so I screen all the venues really carefully. I think that’s been part of the success, getting in front of the right
audiences.

Among the students, what moments stand out for you?

Probably I’ve taught since 2004, I’m thinking between 300 and 400 students across North America have taken the class. So, a lot of great moments. In terms of stories that stand out, there have also been a lot, so many. I’m thinking of one fellow featured in “Cracking Up.” Robbie Engelquist had just come out of Riverview after almost six months. He had finally stabilized. When he went in, he was really sick. He thought he had to drink his own blood; he was hearing demons, smashing his head against walls. Anyhow, he came out, and he was finally stable. But it was like he was dead. Unfortunately, the mental health system had nothing to offer him. He said, “I didn’t want to sit around all day going to groups and talking about my illness.” His mom found out about SMH and brought him to a show and he decided to take the program. But he was convinced he would fail. He had failed at everything. I mean, how do you pass school when you have undiagnosed schizophrenia? He was always in trouble with police, etc. But then he succeeded, then he succeeded again and again. He’s probably done 150 shows. He’s one of our stars. It’s completely changed his life. It’s the first time he got attention for something positive. That was in 2005. He’s still around doing shows with us seven years later. Yeah, he just turned into a really good comic, does rap music now, really cool stuff.

Is there anyone you feel you can’t work with, who doesn’t fit?

There have been a couple of cases. I remember we had one woman _ there are certain ground rules, ways of behaving, how to behave towards the class, etc. And also certain ground rules about stand-up comedy. One thing is, it’s all original material. You’re not allowed to steal jokes you read on the Internet or hear at parties and pretend they’re your own. It’s just not done. It lessens the value of the act. The cool thing about stand-up is that you’re doing something the audience can’t do, and if they see you doing jokes they’ve heard they think, “That’s no big deal, I can do that.”

Long story short, one of the comics was doing that. At first, I didn’t realize it, but people started coming to me: “I’ve heard that joke.” I did research. So basically I said, “It’s gotta be original.” She got really angry. She said in her culture they did that (used other people’s
material), and it was OK. I was like, “Um, no. This is stand-up comedy. I don’t care what you do in your culture. These are the rules you all agreed to. You know, if you’re not willing to play by them, you can’t be in the program.” At that point, she lost it on the class, and it
was easy to say, “You can’t be here.” So yeah, a small minority. I can think maybe two or three, who were not let in or asked to leave.

Going back a bit, you mentioned that the recovery movement is kind of on the cutting edge? What does that mean?

There’s a lot recovery through the arts. So people are putting on plays, one-man or one-woman shows about their stories. Ways of reaching the public that way. People also do artwork, paintings, sculpture. So I think the recovery movement, consumer-driven, is
very progressive in the sense that it’s not willing to settle for the medical model that says, “We need to get you on the right meds, and that’s it.” Meds have helped me, but meds alone are not recovery. I think the bottom line, and most people would agree, is that recovery means you have meaning in your life, whatever that meaning is for you. A lot of people find meaning in the arts and explore their talents.

We have a place here in Vancouver, Gallery Gachet, for people with mental illnesses to do their artwork, do art shows. I also work with this organization in Norwich, Connecticut, called Artreach, and they do recovery through the arts. Their big thing is to put on plays, sketch comedy, and they also have a Stand Up for Mental Health group. And yeah, they’re all peer-run, by people who have a diagnosis.

The recovery movement is a big movement, much more so in the U.S. than Canada. You guys have a much more organized, cohesive movement. And every year, you have an Alternatives Conference. I did a keynote there once on my own, about half comedy and half talk, about my program. And last year, 2012, they had it in Portland, and we did a Stand Up for Mental Health show because we have a group in the Portland area. It was really cool. We did a show for the whole conference. So Alternatives is a great example. You see the power of the peer movement. It’s great to see because you meet people
who’ve been involved in the movement for a long time, like the elders who have been around since the ’60s and ’70s, who can tell you what it was like back then: forced shock treatment, lobotomies, all sorts of horrible shit, how far we’ve come, how far we still need to go.

How much farther does it need to go? What would you like to see?

Well, sort of where we’re going is peers. Most mental health agencies now have peer specialists who work for them. So they’re actually considered an important part of mental health system. So peers are working on multidisciplinary teams, leading workshops, all sorts of stuff like that. Also, peers are helping people coming into the system find the help they need. So yeah, it’s really wonderful. I think there needs to be a whole lot more of it. The idea about peers is educating people to educate themselves as opposed to having a psychiatrist come in and say, “Take this. Don’t ask any questions. Your five minutes are up. Get out of my office.”

I did an event for Seven Counties in Louisville, Kentucky, and I worked with their peer staff. One woman was amazing. She has bipolar, and at one point the psychiatrist said, “You’re bipolar. You’ll be sick the rest of your life, you’ll never work again, you’re gonna get dementia and die.” Since then, she’s gone on and pretty much trained all the peer support workers in the state of Kentucky. She’s trying to retire right now, but they won’t let her go. She’s had an amazing career. So this person, who according to her psychiatrist
was supposed to be a useless member of society, found out single-handedly about the recovery movement and brought it to the state of Kentucky. And so I think there are still places where the medical model prevails, still a struggle going on, where those
interested in the medical model don’t want to give it up.

Are things different when it comes to people with suicide attempts or suicidal thinking?

Here’s where I think the peer model is so great. Whatever the issue is, including suicide, you would think a lot of people have been trained as peers. They’ve been through it, psych wards, suicide attempts, often numerous suicide attempts, they’ve experienced being treated against their will, all sorts of stuff. I’m thinking of some people I know. Who better to work with for someone who’s suicidal than someone who’s been through it? Obviously, I think medical specialists have a place too, but I really think that well-trained peers are just a huge asset for whatever the issue is. And personally, I think, especially with suicide.

We just had this case here in Canada, a horrendous case. This girl, Ashley Smith, was in prison. I think she was 17 or 18. She was put in prison for throwing apples at a mailman. So she was acting out. She obviously had a mental illness, but the morons in the corrections service gave her no treatment, just locked her up in seclusion and made it worse. She was transferred so many times in the space of two years. She kept trying to kill herself, and she got the reputation for being a really difficult prisoner. They kept drugging her, putting her in seclusion. They have video with her on a plane with her hands
duct-taped to the armrests. And in the videos, the corrections people say she was dangerous, but she seems to be quite cooperative. Long story short, she finally succeeded. What happened is, the guards kept getting different orders. First, if she tried to suicide, they were supposed to stop her. Then they got other orders: Stop her only if she
stops breathing. So she succeeded in killing herself.

And Corrections Canada videotaped all these incidents and then spent millions on lawyers trying to make sure the public didn’t see the videos. Finally, these videos came out, and there was a huge outcry: “What the fuck did you do with this person?” She had a
mental illness, and being in the system made it a million times worse. She received absolutely no treatment. So, yeah.

You know something, I get so pissed off I can’t remember the point I was trying to make. Whatever I was saying.

I’d have to scroll back … Oh! I remember.

I read accounts that she was trying to strangle herself seven or eight times a day. She really could have used really good peer support. Other stuff, too. But sedating her, seclusion, duct-taping her arms, I mean, they need some peers in that correctional system to make sure hat never happens again. And they need peers with the power to
make decisions, not just a token hire, “We’ll just hire one person and have them empty ashtrays.” Someone with some power to change the system.

(I mention peers in the sense of support groups and the fears that suicide attempt survivors would inspire each other to kill themselves or refine their methods.)

I think once again, that’s the kind of uninformed _ you know, like, my thought is, “Why don’t you ask people if they want a support group like that, rather than make the decision for them?” In class today, one woman was saying, “I don’t go to support groups because it makes me more bummed out.” My thought is, first, “I don’t blame you.” Also if that’s all groups are, I don’t think they’re very well-run. Yes, you need to be able to talk, but if all people are doing is talking about how terrible their lives are, yeah, I think the group needs to be more than that. I think we need survivor groups, and my guess is, most people
who have survived suicide attempts want that and don’t want to be left on their own.

In the professional world, the psychiatrist people, how is their sense of humor?

Most psychiatrists I’ve encountered have a great sense of humor. One performs with us regularly. Also in Ontario. It was fabulous, they were in the green room before the show and they were just as nervous as the comics. The boundaries melted away. They weren’t
on that psychiatrist pedestal. In general, they had a really good sense of humor and welcomed this project.

In general, how do you break the ice on this subject?

Like in our daily lives? I think two things. Two different perspectives. If you suspect a friend is going through a bad time, it’s important to be direct. It’s a huge relief if you say, “Are you thinking of committing suicide?” Because finally, someone gives them a chance to talk
about it, rather than sort of pussyfooting around it, like, “Are you thinking of going to a better place?” Just ask someone directly.

I think that if you are someone considering suicide, obviously it’s a lot harder. It’s really hard to go to someone, “Hey, I’m thinking of committing suicide.” Sometimes, the best place to start is a crisis line.

What if it’s in your past and you want to bring it up? Like, while you’re getting to know someone?

I think people have pretty good instincts. Obviously, it’s not something you’re going to talk about over coffee on a first date. I think most people have a sense when a relationship, a friendship, is building toward a place of trust. So yeah, I think I would say use your instincts
because they’re usually right. Some people are ready to talk about it. It depends on the responses they’ve had.

Where else do you want to go with this?

What usually happens now is that an organization will contact me and have funding for a group, then there’s no more funding and it doesn’t continue. What I’ve been doing is creating another phase when the initial program is over. The comics then have monthly classes and continue performing. I want to have more of these ongoing groups in cities across North America. Australia is also looking pretty good, maybe the UK, New Zealand. Obviously, I don’t speak any other languages.

What’s your favorite memory from this work?

So many great experiences. I guess I’d say my favorite part is once the group is trained. I love the experience of flying wherever and doing a show with them. It’s such a wonderful experience, meeting the group in person, watching them step through that ring of fire. How
great they feel. And so I guess what I would say is, I love performing, but I also love making other people into the stars, giving those who never had that to the chance to be a star.

Who else are you?

I’m pretty ordinary. I have two kids. A 14-year-old boy who actually has been doing stand-up comedy since he was 5. He’s done shows talking about what it’s like to have a dad with mental illness. He’s taken a break the past couple years, but he’s coming back to it now. My daughter is awesome, 21, in the third year of university. My great wife and I have been together 16 or 17 years. I have two wonderful cats. Yeah, when I’m not on the road, I have a pretty ordinary life. I enjoy that ordinariness, no drama, no chaos. Sort of a really nice happy life.

I had meant to ask earlier if you ever get tired of talking about mental health issues.

No, I enjoy it. It’s something really important to me. I find I’m one of those people who has to be doing something he feels is important. I’m really intense, passionate about things important to me. This is one of them.

Talking with Kevin Sheffield

Today is Kevin Sheffield’s birthday. He wrote to me recently from Canada and introduced himself as a young man whose social anxiety had led him on an uncomfortable path through the world _ releasing his bottled-up fears at home as a hyper and destructive kid, and later working a night shift, “obviously, a great hiding spot.” He hugged isolation. He did have a wife and two children, but family life was shaken when he was hospitalized and tried to kill himself.

Over the past year, he’s started to emerge. A friend he reconnected with on Facebook is introducing him to naturopathic remedies, including healthy eating. He has signed up for engineering school in the fall. And he wants to move on from support groups and be around people who don’t remind him of where he’s been for so long. “I’d rather be around a bunch of hippies just hanging out and having a good time than listening to people much older than me try to deal with their depression,” he says, not unkindly. “It’s such a reminder to myself of where I am, and it keeps me trapped in that negative position.”

He far prefers a more holistic approach to mental health and not the stark dictation of doctors and the blank hospital world of empty rooms with chairs and a single TV.

I had worried that he never leaves the house at all, but as it turns out in this conversation, Kevin had somewhere to go.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Kevin Sheffield. I live in Wasaga Beach, Ontario. I grew up in Brampton, Ontario, and moved up here when there was a job opening for me. My fiancée at the time had family up here, and it just kind of worked out for both of us to come up here, to start our family. This is, I’d say, about six and a half years ago that I moved up here. Also, my parents moved up here as well. And yeah, I was working for a retail company in Brampton and they opened another store close to Wasaga Beach in Collingwood, so I came here to work at the new store.

In your e-mail you, you mentioned that you don’t really go out. How do you work?

Well, I think, when I was married, I was working a night shift at Home Depot, and it was easy for me to travel back and forth at night because there was no one on the road. It was very quiet, and I’d work overnight with, like, five other people. So it was something I’d become accustomed to. But I guess as things progressed in my marriage, I found it really difficult to cope with having the responsibility to have to do things during the daytime. So, basically, when I started working 17 years ago, you know, I hid out on nights, and when I got married, I suddenly had to force myself to go out of my shell, and it became a little bit too much, too overwhelming, and it kind of led to me being hospitalized, me being put into Homewood (Health Centre) in Guelph in treatment, and my marriage falling apart, and me losing my job.

What was the worst episode for you?

My difficulties began at work. Basically, I would start to worry about little things, like, “Have I had enough sleep during the day? Am I going to be able to handle myself emotionally when working at night?” Those things would build up prior to me leaving for work. I’d be organizing myself, having everything laid out and ready at the door hours before I went to work, and this pattern continued for many months until I got to the point where I was actually driving into work at night and I’d be in a state of panic, breathing rapidly, and I’d have a lot of negative thinking through my head. That’s when suicidal thoughts would start to come up. If I would drive myself into a tree, or if I took some medications prior to leaving, if I overdosed on something, if there was any way to stop me from going into work. Then, you know, that would be my only way out.

The environment I was working in, along with being on nights, you know, I had a lot of difficulty with the people I was working with. And it just became very fearful to me to go into that environment. And I also had the inability to release any of that emotion when I got home because of my _ I had responsibilities to my wife at the time and to my children. And I was undertaking renovations on the house, trying to keep things organized and working at home. You know, I didn’t have any time to deal with this stuff. I had a counselor at the time, and I would go and see her once every other week. I would express my issues and she would listen to what I was saying. And I didn’t, I wasn’t hearing any of her advice because I was so trapped, so closed that I couldn’t act on anything that she was telling me. I was certain in my mind I wasn’t going to be around much longer. It came to the point when I came in to see her, after dealing with this panic every night, I kind of walked into her office, completely broken. I had convinced myself I was going to kill myself, and I pretty much told her, in a way, that I didn’t want to upset her or cause her any problems, and I thought that would be the end of me.

She immediately put me into a Form 1, took me to the hospital, had me admitted for observation and to see what medications they could put me on. And after that is when my application came through for Homewood Health Centre, where I went to try to figure things out in my life.

How did it work out?

Well, the environment I went into in the hospital scared the crap out of me. I didn’t want to be there. I couldn’t cope with others around me. I had no understanding of other illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar. It was a really shocking environment to go into. I basically made up stories, told lies to the psychologist that I was just having an episode and felt much better after taking Atavan, didn’t need to be there anymore. They only kept me there four days. The whole time there, the only thing to do was to sit in this room, which was just chairs, and a TV with one channel. And it was only on three or four hours a day. The rest of the time, you just sit there. You don’t do anything. After I got out of there, I moved into Homewood. You know, I was doing a lot of different things, a lot of activities, groups were discussing things and talking about their problems. I was managing. I was accepting everything they were explaining, doing all the activities. It felt good to be around people in similar situations. Everyone there was dealing with depression, anxiety. It was easy to talk to people, and to try and figure out things.

But I kind of, well, I did fall apart when in Homewood. Things were really difficult between me and my ex-wife, and I found it really hard to deal with that, to deal with a family at home that wants me to come back but has no understanding of what I was going through and dealing with. The assumption from my family and wife at the time was that this was just something simple, something I can ovecome really quickly, no problem with that. I guess I felt that maybe they were right, something was wrong with me that I can’t seem to get better, can’t seem to overcome this weakness. That’s when I tried to kill myself by overdosing on medication I had brought with me to Homewood. When I did, my roommate at the time came into the room and saw the bottle of pills and asked me what had happened, and he was able to get it out of me that I’d taken a number of these pills. He went and got help. The doctor came in with nurses and asked what I took, and they determined it was nothing threatening to my life. But they searched my room, looked for any more pills, things like that. And at the time, they decided that I should go through ECT treatment. So they did a 14-treatment plan over one month. So every other day I had a treatment. It was bilateral. And after having that done, I would wake up and wouldn’t remember anything about me, really. I wasn’t remembering my family, my friends, my past. I don’t feel that I was feeling any better, I just feel that I lost all the stresses in my past because I couldn’t recall any of them. And so I didn’t find that that treatment did any good for me.

But I came to the conclusion while at Homewood that I wasn’t going to be a good father or good husband anymore. So I made a phone call to my wife at the time and said I wanted a divorce. I didn’t think things were working out. And then at that point, I just turned myself off completely. So I mean, she didn’t really respond. Obviously she was upset with that, but I remember something about her saying pretty nasty words to my counselor, but she didn’t seem to fight for our relationship or anything. So when I got back from Homewood, when I was discharged, I gave a speech to everyone saying how well I was doing, how everything was fine. Again, I guess, I was not telling the truth. I was just trying to make everybody be OK with me so they didn’t have to worry about me.

And I came home, and I moved in with my parents into their condo. And basically, I kept working for the six months after my divorce, and I was having the same difficulties going into work, but I sucked it up and dealt with it until it got to the point where I couldn’t function at work. It used to be difficult driving into work, but when I got into work I could just focus. But then, when I was at work I realized I had no ability whatsoever to keep doing what I was doing there. So I was on and off work many times, many times that I was in the hospital or given notes from the doctor on short-term disability. I got to reach the point where I said, “You know, I’m hurting everybody around me. I can’t keep doing this to people, interfering with their business.” That’s when I resigned my position there.

Then I spent a long time just staying at home in the condo in my room. You know, I do get out occasionally. I do go to visit my sister with my parents. My parents have become very reliant on me. My mother is 67, my father is turning 70, so they kind of realize, “This is good, we have our son here, we can use him to help us out.” So I take my mom to get gas, to the grocery, drive her to work if the weather’s bad, things like that. But it still is a very difficult situation. My father as well suffers from depression, so it’s hard to again be in an environment where it’s very negative.

Then I reconnected with a good friend of mine, a naturopath. I found her on Facebook, and we became good friends. She’s the one who introduced me to spirituality, and she’s helped me, giving me a lot of books to read. And she’s helped me to discover that I’m not alone, I’m not the only one who’s dealing with these things, there are alternative treatments to the medications they have and had me on in the past. I had had a lot of difficulty with side effects.

So yeah, I spent these years in hiding at my parents, afraid to face the world, living in the same patterns as I did when I was a child. Living in fear every day. If the phone rings, who is it? Am I going to have enough money to get through the month? Do I have enough money to pay for child support? All these different worries. But I think I gained enough strength in myself from exploring spirituality that now I’m enrolled in school for engineering, which will start in September. And I’m looking to find a place that I can live, but again, it’s very difficult. Just like when I was at Home Depot, I had to immediately go to Ontario Works and fill out all the paperwork to get on disability, fill out paperwork for unemployment insurance, paperwork for getting on different disability. And so it’s a very time-consuming process for someone who’s having difficulty communicating with anyone or getting out. So it’s the same thing now with trying to find a place to live and get my life back together. Because now I’m only allowed to work so many hours a week if I want to continue my benefit. But if I work full-time and it doesn’t work for me, I could lose that benefit. And also, finding a place to live on such a limited budget is hard. I’d like to get out of this condo right now and have a place to live, but my only option is to wait until September when school starts and have help with rental costs and school fees.

How did you get the idea for engineering school?

I was pondering a career path for quite a while until one day, my friend, it dawned on her the career I should be in. I have a really knowledgable background when it comes to anything mechanical, technical. Not only my experience at Home Depot, knowing everything to know about electrical products, working with electricians. Also, how I am with technology. I use technology, and I can look at it, see what the flaws are. I’m always inventing, creating to make it work better. I’ve done a lot of different things. When I was 13, years ago, I sent off an e-mail, I had a great idea for a blind spot detection system and sent it off to Volvo, thinking it would make a lot of money. I got an e-mail back thanking me. Then I got a phone call from them saying they really liked the idea, that 90 percent of new product ideas comes from their customers. Then they tried to sell me a Volvo. I said, “I don’t make enough money to buy one, but I’m glad you like the idea.” Now it’s a common thing on a lot of cars. I just sent an e-mail to Dyson because I had an idea for a ceiling fan. Instead of having blades, just have a ring that blows. They sent an e-mail saying they can’t accept any intellectual property from individuals. I can have ideas, but unfortunately, I’m not in a place to bring them to life. And I’m not in a place where I have the finances I need to patent anything. I decided, you know, I’ll go into engineering and use the talent I have for creating things, find a career in that field.

You’ve been taking a lot of confidence from the …

… naturopathic approach, that’s what they call it. I have a lot of fear, I know how difficult it’s gonna be for me, but I also know the school does have resources for people with mental illness that I can use to my advantage. The first thing I intend to do is get tested for my ability to comprehend information, to see if there are different ways information can be presented to me. They have options where if you’re writing an exam, you can write in a private room with no one around. So there are things I think can help me achieve what I want to do. But again, I know as I get close to the time of going to school I’ll definitely be battling a lot of fear. I just have to make sure supports are in place when it comes to that time.

What supports do you have?

I have a counselor that I see on average about every three weeks. I have a mood disorders group once a month. I have a psychiatrist I see every two or three months. I also see them at the group every month as well in case of anything urgent. I also have CSP, it’s a community support program, another group that’s there Monday to Friday. I can drop in any time and get help from any of the members.

And then I have my friend. I’m lucky to have a friend who’s a naturopath. She’s also qualified as a nurse, so she can identify if someone needs treatment immediately and she can know to send them into the emergency department. And I think that’s my biggest thing, the thing that helped the most. The treatment, unfortunately, is not covered by our health care system, but it does have a tremendous impact. My first run of remedies completely detoxified my system, took out all the bad stuff. Now the next run will have movement in my life, help me with social anxiety, to work more effectively. Also the fact that it introduced me to things like spirituality, nutrition, exercise, yoga. To shed light on those things to someone in my position was really healthy for me.

You’ve been introduced to them, but do you follow up?

Yes, I have yoga books, a yoga mat, and I practice it when my parents aren’t home. And I’m looking into different groups that are available. I’m slowly building up my ability to do it well before attempting to go into a group environment. I want to find something that’s small, not like a YMCA, gym-style, but something more personal, five to 10 people max. Where I feel safe, comfortable.

In your e-mail, you said it’s not easy to have a healthy diet on a low income. How do you do it?

I’ve watched a lot of documentaries, “Food That Kills,” “Forks Over Knives,” “Supersize Me,” but I came to understand that the store that’s closest to me is the Wal-Mart, and I go in there and think, “All of this food is what’s attributed to me wanting to kill myself, sucking the life and motivation out of me.” I look around and see food filled with preservatives, pesticides, genetically modified. Eating food from Wal-Mart is like eating food from McDonalds or any of those places.

I started finding recipes online, not an easy thing to do, and I found there are superfoods out there that are really cheap and easy to cook. So I started with lentils, making lentil soup, lots of steamed vegetables like asparagus, spinach, different things like that that I’ve been able to throw together. But then again, I’m not 100 percent. It’s something where I need to find a place where I can learn to cook, where I can find meals, make meals that are inexpensive and yet healthy for me. It would be nice to find a nutritionist and get information from them, go to a cooking class that I wouldn’t have to pay for and learn this stuff. It’s very difficult to figure things out on your own when you have no experience in these things, and I think healthy eating is something that is so important to overcoming any kind of illness whatsoever. But it’s not something that’s practiced.

Doctors don’t know anything about nutrition. You go to the hospital for surgery and you get a glass of milk that’s, like, 60 percent sugar, and a muffin that’s like 100 percent sugar. They don’t know what these foods are doing to people. I think it’s something that’s changing right now, and that’s good. But it’s just beginning to change. So it’s difficult to find resources. Where I live, there’s just one health food store, and it’s very undersupplied. There’s no fresh produce store or farmers market. I have to drive outside of town.

I’m thinking a cooking class would be more productive than sitting in a room with just a TV and chairs.

Exactly. I’m reading a book now, it’s called “The One Plan.” It’s a week-by-week guide to restoring your health and happiness. It’s a process: Today do this, tomorrow do this, until you reinvent yourself and create new patterns in life. And those kinds of things need be taught when you’re in a long-term care environment. Otherwise it’s just, “Here, take these pills and go home and talk to your psychiatrist maybe in six months or a year, when it’s possible to get an appointment.”

If you were, like, Canada’s health minister, what would be your solution?

My solution? Hmm, I’m not sure. I believe that things happen with _ you know, it’s like dropping a rock in a pond. Once you start the process, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I think what you’re doing, telling stories, is like that, dropping a rock in the pond so people can start to understand what people are going through, can stop and think a bit before they place judgement on how someone behaves because they don’t know the whole story. The biggest thing is to get people into an environment where people actually listen. Not, “OK, we should medicate you, give you ECT, lock you up because you’re going to kill yourself.” It should be more of, “Who are you? Why are you feeling this way? Let’s come up with a treatment plan that encompasses your whole life and understands your behavioral patterns, the proper way you should be eating, that gets you involved in the community where you’re not isolated, you don’t feel like you’re alone, like you’re the only one who’s not functioning the way that society expects you to be.”

That’s why I was mentioning we need an online forum where people can communicate about their problems and have a professional counselor seeing that. “Oh, you live in Wasaga Beach? There’s a group that happens every week on healthy choice cooking. There’s the address, get involved!” But I don’t think there’s any one answer, because mental illness is such a diverse thing and so new that just getting the message that there are people out there like me who are suffereing and dealing with this pain, people need to know this stuff. People need to know that there’s people that are dealing with this and that could use help.

You’re good with technical things, and you’re bright. And it’s not easy to go out. Could you create an online world and live online if needed?

I have a lot of social dysfunction, so me having acquaintances online is something I find difficult. I do send a lot of messages out to people, but again, it’s not anything, it’s me coming up with ideas and sending them out to app developers and stuff like that. It’s really difficult to get in touch with those people. I e-mailed Mike Zuckerberg, I think it is, with Facebook, with an idea for a website. I basically told him, “Let’s make a website like Facebook but basically a website that’s an online country, a virtual country. So anyone globally can join up to the site, log on and become a citizen, and the goal is to create a global constitution, global rights and responsibilities as individuals for the whole planet, not just the piece of land where you live, for all of humanity to live in, as a way of developing a template for eventually uniting everyone on the planet to one goal and purpose.” But yeah, I haven’t gotten a response to that yet. I’m sure he gets a billion e-mails a day.

What would you like to create to help yourself?

I think the biggest thing is finding friends, people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in, groups and activities close by, so not the only thing I do is go to a mood disorder group, so not the only thing I do is go sit in a room with a bunch of negative people who are lost and confused. It’s good because it’s support, but it’s bad because it’s negative and unhealthy. I’d rather be around a bunch of hippies just hanging out and having a good time than listening to people much older than me try to deal with their depression. I go in there and try to voice my opinion, do all I can to help out, but it’s such a reminder to myself of where I am, and it keeps me trapped in that negative position.

I went to a concert recently with my friend, because my friend is into all this stuff. She had me come along and meet her friends. It was a concert called Crystal Journey, David Hickey, you can look him up, but it’s a very uplifting, spiritual, high-energy concert. And everyone I met there was so open and at ease with themselves and happy, and you could walk up and introduce yourself and instantly be friends and have no fear of them being someone other than what you see in front of you. That’s the kind of thing I really enjoy doing. I like obviously being in an environment where I feel safe, and where the energy is really good is something I had never done in my life.

You could travel around and follow these concerts.

Yes, I plan to. He does it far away, but yeah, I do plan to continue going.

It seems like a matter of finding the right people and getting out of the house.

Yes. My friend will be here in two minutes, so I’ve got to let you go. Thank you very much for this opportunity.

Sure, and how old will you be on Monday?

I’ll be 35.

Talking with Michael Woods

“It happens to the best of us.” Michael Woods couldn’t have put it more clearly. Michael is studying for his master’s degree in rehab counseling, working for an independent living organization in Montana, getting ready for marriage and trying to reassure his family that he’s doing the right thing by buying a home. He’s 23, and it seems that since his attempt he’s been finding the best of himself.
The pot smoking’s over. He’s drinking far less than he ever did in high school, when he dropped into despair, shot himself and ended up in a wheelchair. He’s found a smaller, stronger network of friends. And his family brags about him. “They’re happy I’m expanding my horizons more than anyone expected I could have,” he says.
I’ll warn you that Michael’s kept a rather wicked sense of humor. He uses it in a more gentle way to make his audiences laugh when he talks about his experience and suicide prevention. Rolling around town is another story. I will never go to Wal-Mart with this guy, that’s for sure.
Tell me a little about yourself. Who are you?
Michael Woods, I grew up in Great Falls, Montana, live in Billings now. Hunting, fishing, always been outdoors, still am. Played football, was a state champion marksman at one point. Let’s see, what else. I got six months to a year of depression and alcohol and drug abuse that kind of led me down the suicide road.
How recent was that?
It will be six years Feb 9.
How did you get on that suicide road?
I think it was probably my sophomore year. I started drinking. One thing led to another, where it was one night every weekend, and soon to every night every weekend, and spending all the money I had from work on booze for that weekend. And then that led to smoking cigarettes, smoking pot all the time. All the money that didn’t go for gas or insurance on my car went to booze and pot. I joked around that “now I’m quitting this weekend,” but of course I wasn’t able to quit. I was addicted to the point where I couldn’t quit. And during that period of time, I had broken up with my girlfriend, and her boyfriend was bent on calling me up, and he and his big brother had already beaten me up. I was 16, he was 19, and his brother was 32. He’d call me every once in a while and say he would come and jump me, etc., and I was going through quite a bit of relationship problems, family relationship problems as well. A sibling rivalry, with my step-siblings and myself, with my stepmom, and soon it led to my dad, problems between him and I, it kept piling on and on and on. It seemed like everything started bringing me down. I’d have suicide thoughts once in a while. Then I started thinking about different ways to do it, with what means, etc. The alcohol and pot seemed to make everything worse. I felt more depressed when drinking. And I guess the worst part was that I hated myself and letting down my family. This isn’t who I wanted to be.
I always tell people there’s never one thing that makes a person want to commit suicide. It’s always a pile of things. For me, the tipping point was I lost my job. Instead of picking up a friend and going back to work, I stayed to party. So I had lost my job. So I was parking at work to look like I was at work and then going out. I had gotten caught parking my vehicle at work. It made me realize how badly I was hurting my family. It seems the suicide thoughts came with regrets, how much of a loser I was. I hated myself for what I’d become. And so, on the night I got caught parking my car, I went and got my car _ I was supposed to go home, I had actually moved out of dad’s house _ so I went and got my car, and I used to fish in the river in Great Falls, I carried a pole in the back of the car and would stop on the way to work and catch a few fish that looked good. What I did was, I parked the car at one of my favorite spots. I was smoking cigarettes, thinking about all my regrets, how I let my family down. About a month prior to that, I had gotten a gun to carry in the car for protection from my ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. I went and parked. I tried to calm myself down. I determined the only way out from being a loser was to commit suicide. So I sat there and wrote a note, most of it apologizing to my dad for letting him down, saying that a suicide attempt was a very selfish thing and I was very sorry about that. So I wrote the note, set it right next to me.
The gun, I was trying to figure out the best way to hold it, the way to point it. I just wanted it all over with. I thought maybe I’d point under my chin, so what I eventually did was hold it right above my right ear, up and to the left, from right to left in my brain. And before I did it, I remember I did not want my family to find my body. I had heard horror stories about families finding their loved ones and how it scarred them the rest of their lives. I thought I’d call 911 real quick before I did it. All I said was, “This is the car I’ll be in, where I’m parked, don’t let my family see the body.” I hung up and almost immediately held up the gun.
When I pulled the trigger, I had a split second of consciousness where my head was hanging down and I saw my pants were covered in blood. And the ambulance eventually got there, and my jaw was locked so tight they had to give me drugs to relax my body. They stuck a tube down my throat. The bullet only affected the motor functions of my brain. The bullet lodged in the skull of my left side. It avoided all the sensation, all the organ functions. As vital as your brain is, I avoided the vital parts of it. They induced a coma. My brain was swelling. I probably would have died if the bullet would have gone out the other side, bled to death. But luckily it didn’t. So they drained the fluid out of my brain.
When I was in a coma, I remember dreaming I was in a car wreck. When I woke up, I thought it was for that. They couldn’t convince me of what I had done. Until the memories started to come back. They thought I’d have no memory of anybody. They didn’t know what mental capabilities I’d have. I remember waking up and seeing my grandma. I had to mouth everything. The doctor’s like, “Do you know who that is?” I’m like, “Heck yeah, I know who that is.” The memories started coming back. I think I just kind of came out. After the injury, looking back, I was a completely new person. I tell people I was kind of a jerk. I’m happy-go-lucky with a big sense of humor, but anybody that was different, or considered as a nerd, or other derogatory term, I would avoid or treat badly.
Did that happen immediately?
I think so, yeah.
When you were  in the hospital recovering?
Yeah, I even told everybody I didn’t want anything to do with drugs anymore.
Have you ever spoken with the people who helped you just after your attempt, the people who found you or treated you in the emergency room?
I have spoken to a lot of the people that were helping me in the hospital. I would go visit the rehab unit, ICU, PCU, and one of the ambulance drivers and I are still good friends.
Physically, how long did it take to come back, and what did it take?
They induced a coma for about a month, then transitioned me from the ICU to the PCU. Then to the rehab department. I went into the hospital on Feb 9 and came out about June 9 or so back to my dad’s place.
And how were you?
I was a completely different person. I had psychologists trying to shove antidepressants down my throat, but I said I wasn’t depressed anymore. I tell people I’m impatient to go out and live my life. There’s so much I want to accomplish now. My passion is about showing others that same thing, that there’s more out there to live for than not to live for, I guess.
None of those feelings have come back? Even drugs?
There was a point where I was doing a lot of drinking and pot again. I met my fiancee and I realized, “What am I doing?” So I kind of stopped hanging out with those same friends, stopped the pot, way less drinking. I drink way less than I did in high school. Shortly after leaving the hospital, I had dozens of friends visiting while I was in there. The moment I left the hospital, I had gone from 20 or so friends visiting to maybe three. Now I have maybe three or four close friends. All healthier relationships. The period of time transitioning from hospital to home, it seems everyone left me at the drop of a hat. I was very depressed during those moments. Part of that was, I was seeing a psychologist. I also started to realize there was more out there, I had a story to tell. So I did my first suicide prevention talk like a year after I left the hospital.
How did it go?
Pretty good, not as organized as the talks I do now. I have a few videos. Yeah, it was mostly a testimonial announcement to reach out for help. Now I have a longer spiel, about an hour’s worth. It’s been a work in progress. I think I’ve got it down to a science.
You’ve done it by yourself?
Most is done by myself. There’s been a few presentations I’ve seen where I talked to them afterwards. Most weren’t related to suicide prevention, but I’d say I’m going to use that idea for mine.
What’s the message?
Pretty much that suicide prevention is a permanent tool to fix a temporary problem. There’s no problem a person can’t overcome. And in part of my talk, I talk about sunburns. When you have a pretty bad sunburn, you think, “I’d do anything to get over this.” It’s so agonizing. But before you know it, you’re over it, and you have this really nice tan! Or, if you get dumped, you’re better off without them. I always end my talks with jokes about the good things and bad things about having a disability. The last part is the jokes about the good and bad things about being in a wheelchair.
For example?
The bad things are, a lot of people will talk down to you. “Hey, little guy! Where’s my big boy?” “Hey, sport!” And everybody wants to pray for you, even in a public place, even in a restaurant. I’m all for people trying to pray for me, but in a public place it’s a little awkward. So I ask them, “Well, can I pray for you?” It catches them off guard, like, “A guy in a wheelchair wants to pray for me?” Also, they slow down their speech and slow their voices and get really loud. “How … are … you?” “I’m … O … K.” Also, I like to use what I call my crippled card. People don’t expect to be messed with by someone with a disability. Another bad part is, at a restaurant, the waiter always looks for who’s in charge of you and asks, “What does he want? Does he want some more?” I’m like, “Yeah, I want some more.” And then they come back and do the same thing.
Once, at Red Lobster, at a conference for an independent living center, we were messing with the waiter all night. I got an idea: What if I started screaming, “I made a stinky, can you change me?” But we found out he was standing right behind us and heard it. The funny thing was, he lives in our town and always makes a big deal about saying hi. I love doing that at Wal-Mart though, with my mom, I was chasing her around with my wheelchair: “Mommy, I made a stinky!” My fiancee gets mad when we go to Wal-Mart and I scream, “Hey, Ashley, you left your herpes medication at the pharmacy!” I have a crooked sense of humor. My last joke is, my wheelchair, I can park in the passenger seat, and if you roll down the window it looks like I’m in a regular chair. It’s fun to pick fights with people. They slam on their brakes and get out, then they see me getting out of a wheelchair. “Oh, I’m worry! Want me to pray for you?” Sometimes it’s demeaning, but you get the best of it.
How old are you?
23 next month.
You mentioned a fiancee. Are you married yet?
June 2014 is when we’ll get married. I’m still in a masters program. I finished my bachelor’s in the spring of 2012. We’re just moving into a new house we just bought.
A lot of people ask me what I miss. I pretty much do everything I did before I was in a wheelchair. I have a gun mount that I point with a joystick. I went camping last summer. I do pretty much anything I set my mind to. I also design my own assisted technology. Similar to the gun mount. It’s a pool cue that shoots by a joystick.
Obviously for playing pool?
Yes.
Are you going to patent this things?
It would be nice, yeah. My problem is, I have more ideas than I have money. If I’m buying a house, I have to limit myself.
You mentioned being in a wheelchair, but I hadn’t realized that more than your legs were affected.
All of my motor functions were affected. I do have mobility a little bit in my arms. I can stand myself up if I put my hands on a grab bar. If I’m standing with a walker, if someone moves my leg forward, I can initiate the walking process. It’s just training parts of my brain to take over motor functions.
You mentioned a gun mount. Do you feel uncomfortable, considering what you went through?
Well, I can’t blame guns for what I did. It’s not the gun’s fault. It’s something I’ve grown up doing. It’s a passion I love doing. It’s not an issue for me. It was just a means to an end. If someone was going to hang themselves, it’s not like they stop using rope. I’m comfortable talking about my story. It’s not something I need to hide or be ashamed of. I’m proud of my disability, sharing my story. It’s kind of my gift for me to share.
What I meant was, it’s not like you have flashbacks about that experience when you handle a gun?
It’s never been an issue for me. It’s not traumatic. I don’t have any affiliation with that at all, post-traumatic.
When you tried to kill yourself, did you think there were risks of something like this happening, ending up in a wheelchair? Did you think you would kill yourself for sure?
I was thinking I could just drive my car into a semi or something. I thought, “No, I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair.” So it’s kind of ironic. I was thinking there was no way to survive it.
If that message was used in suicide prevention, that nothing you use to try to kill yourself is foolproof, do you think that would keep people from trying?
Probably not. The hardest thing was not the sacrifice I gave up but what I did to my family. People always ask, “Would you take it back?” I would not take it back for myself. It’s hard to think my life actually improved, but it has. I’d probably have ended up in jail or dead by other means. But one reason I’d take it back is how much I hurt my family and friends over the process. There was lots of grieving involved when it first happened. Most of my family members have gotten over that part, but I saw family members grieving over the fact that I was in a wheelchair, even though I still gained so much and have gotten ahead.
How are they taking it now?
All my family relationships have improved. All are really proud of me. They brag about me all the time, how I’m doing in school. I’m on the governor’s advisory board for vocational rehab. I’m a full-time master’s student working 40 hours a week. Now a home owner. Suicide prevention talks. I’ve been in two newspaper articles about what I’ve been doing in suicide prevention work. I was in a suicide documentary called “Unspoken” for the University of Montana. They’re happy I’m expanding my horizons more than anyone expected I could have.
And how did you meet your fiancee?
I was chosen to go to a Montana youth leadership forum. It’s a training camp for youth disabilities on how to become self-advocates to live independently. I was chosen to go as a delegate, and she was working there as staff. She had been a delegate previously. She’s hard of hearing, that’s her disability. So we volunteered at that for several years, then retired from the staff.
How do you guys get along?
Great. We’re kind of opposites, balance each out pretty well. It’s kind of funny. She likes vegetables, I like meat, so when we order a dish, she eats the vegetables and I eat the meat.
How did you get around to telling her your background?
Since she was on staff, the staff kind of told her. I wasn’t in her small group. She heard the story, and after the training forum we exchanged e-mails because we found out we were going to the same college. And one thing led to another. After about six months of exchanging e-mails and stuff, she came to visit me in Great Falls. We did the long-term relationship thing until I moved out to Billings.
Do you think people still worry about you?
The only worry I think they have is, it’s more concerned with my disability, that I have help. Do I know what I’m getting into when we buy a house? Like that. Most of my family knows I can do anything I put my mind to. I don’t do anything too rash. As far as suicidal thoughts, no, it’s not even like a thought to them.
What made you decide to start giving talks? And what was the response?
I was asked by my youth pastor at church one day. I said yes. I realized that’s kind of what I survived for, give those talks. I’ve always gotten really good responses. I get a lot of people telling me I’m an inspiration.
Do you get the sense people are nervous about the subject?
Sometimes, like, in the grocery store or other public places, they ask and I tell them. “Oh, I’m so sorry.” “No, don’t be sorry.” I’ll tell them the whole story in the middle of the grocery store. Yeah, at first. But I’m OK with it.
What kinds of questions do you get?
Most of them are, why did I do it. How I get my care done. You now, more of the stuff is regarding my disability. A lot ask if I’d take it back.
Do you get different questions one on one?
Sometimes people come up quietly like, “Thank you. I’ve had bad ideas about suicide, and it’s good to see there’s hope. I’ll make sure to get hooked up with a counselor.”
Are you ever surprised people don’t know that resources exist?
Honestly, no. I tell them to get help, don’t be afraid, they’re not gonna lock you up in an insane asylum. It happens to the best of us.
What more would you like to do with this?
I thought about writing a book, a memoir. I thought about getting a doctorate in rehab technology. I work for an independent living center, so I’m constantly working on disability rights. I just have so many ideas, so I’m kind of impatient about living my life. I would love to move my talks nationally instead of statewide.
Have you met other people like you?
Not as a suicide attempt. No, I have met a couple other people with traumatic brain injuries from an attempt, but they never openly said. I just heard from other people.
In your e-mail, you mentioned having theories about the experience. Are there others you haven’t mentioned here?
I think insecurities are the big issue among those who try to commit suicide, the insecurity of being able to maintain a relationship. And I feel I can always tell whether a person trying to commit suicide _ I know this sounds weird _ but there’s some who do it for attention, but some, like me, they think they’re better off dead. I can usually tell when I meet a person whether they’re doing it for attention or they’re genuinely miserable. A few people at my high school accused me of doing it for attention. I was like, “Why would I use a gun?” You know, people swallow a bunch of pills, I feel, not always, when people use that way they’re crying out for help. It’s not a bad thing, they just need to go to the hospital and say, “I’m having suicidal thoughts, somebody help me.” As opposed to going around saying, “I wanted to die.” You see a lot of girls in high school swallow, like, eight Tylenol. When my older sister tried that, I knew it was a cry for help because she had the same relationship problem with my dad that I did.
You knew she had tried something?
Yeah, she was admitted to the hospital for swallowing pills in an attempt. I heard it from my parents, my grandparents. It wasn’t enough pills to actually get the job done. It was to make it look like a suicide attempt. I mean, there are individuals who try to use pills, usually enough to where they swallow the whole bottle. I’ve heard stories where people swallow so many pills that they mess up parts of the brain so it never functions the same way again. But you see statistics, that females try it more but males accomplish it more because they use more effective means. I feel as though when a person is really dedicated in killing themselves, they will use the more effective method than something survivable. I’ve talked to others: “That one’s gonna work.”
I’m really lucky, I can breathe on my own, I can stand, I’m able to talk. I’m kind of a smart ass. My physical therapist said, “I wish you had a little less mental and a little more physical.”
So you’re very open about this.
Very open, easygoing. I say my boundaries are made out of rubber bands.
For a person who understands the difference you just described and doesn’t want to die but just wants the feeling to stop, what would you say?
I’m a counseling major. You want something that will prevent and stop and eliminate those feelings. You want your toolbox. Get as much tools in your toolbox to help you when you come across problems. I always say, you know, those moments when you’re emotionally hurting, you’d give anything to get over it, but all of a sudden you’re over it. All those moments you get over, I call those in-your-face moments. So put it in the toolbox, and when a moment comes, say, “If I can get over that, I can get over this. In your face!”
How do we get the topic out there so it’s more comfortable for people to talk about?
I incorporate my sense of humor in everything. My goal is to leave the suicide prevention talk with everyone in a great mood. They’re crying, and then they’re laughing so hard they’re crying.
You never get people saying, “This isn’t funny”?
I’m not making jokes about suicide itself. I’m making jokes about my situation, but the jokes I do make about my attempt itself is like, well, two things. A lot of people are like … I have one of those mentalities like, “Shit happens.” What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll be in a wheelchair? I took a bullet to the head. There’s not much worse that can happen.
Then, I think when I’m 80-something I’ll be the oldest living person with a bullet in the head.
How do you know that?
I heard some show about a Civil War vet with a bullet lodged in his head for so many years. I did the math. It would be about 84, 86 years. It’s still lodged in my skull. It could’ve done more damage taking it out. It’s not gonna be coming loose at all.
You can’t feel anything?
No. That’s another question I get a lot.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think I pretty much got them all out. People should feel free to contact me. I’d love to see my talks go national. I’d like to help as many people as I can.