Talking with Joel Kobren

After the 35 or so interviews for this project so far, Joel Kobren was the first person whose responses made me worry, “I wonder what people are going to think.” Joel has strong views on the language surrounding suicide, and he especially feels that the word “survivor” is not being used properly when people who have lost someone to suicide apply it to themselves. Part of that point of view comes from him being left to discover shortly after his attempt that the suicide survivors support groups listed online and elsewhere were not for people like him at all. And the mental health workers who were sending him on his way didn’t seem to realize it.

“When it comes to suicide, it is the only form of dying where those left behind consider themselves survivors of that form of death. The only one,” he says. “And when they use that language, they turn themselves into victims. And when they turn themselves into victims, that means that the person that died is a perpetrator. And I find that offensive. It’s completely wrong in its assumptions.”

Here, Joel also talks about being a generation or two older than many attempt survivors, bonding with other mental health consumers as he drives them to and from their therapy sessions and how unexpected people supported him after his attempt while others walked away.

What do you do and why? What keeps you interested in this issue?

What keeps me interested is my personal experience. To a great extent, and relative to just about every person I’ve spoken to on the subject of suicide, I’m probably the oldest guy in the conversation. My suicide was at the age of 57. And earlier this year, I turned 61, so it’s not that far back. And I’ve made for myself an enormous amount of headway in figuring out a lot of things, not the least of which is, what does it take, what do I need to figure out in order to fix some of the things that obviously went wrong? And looking at it from that perspective, my approach appears to be different. I’m not in such a hurry to move forward as much as I am to move carefully. I think it’s very easy to move forward without fixing some of the things that went wrong, only to have those things come up and bite you again. And potentially end in a suicide. One of the things I noticed at the very beginning when I woke up in the hospital two days after my suicide _ I was in the hospital for two weeks before going to a psychiatric unit for another nine days _ one of the things everybody was asking was, “Why did you do that? What were you trying to solve? Did you think it was gonna be a solution?” At the time, I looked at them and said, “What are you talking about?” Because none of that made any sense to me. I remember being in what I refer to as a depressive stupor. I was totally unaware of what was happening to me. I felt that at some point, I saw my death in front of me and I was now on a roller coaster to that point in time. And I had no control over it. I was not conscious of what was going on. I just remembered that that was the feeling that I had. And so when I reached that point, I picked up a very large revolver, loaded with very highly lethal ammunition, and put it to my chest and pulled the trigger.

Now, it’s true that on that day I was going to be evicted from the house I was in. And it’s true that the real estate manager was due to come to the house at one o’clock in the afternoon. But those facts sort of went into the hopper. And if you’ve ever seen one of those, it’s like some kind of game where you put marbles in the top and then they bounce on nails going all the way down. And that’s how information was going in. There was no clear path. It would just go into this hopper and bounce around to the bottom, and that was that. And so it all just, there was no conscious choice or decision that was applied to this information. This information was just used by my brain unconsciously under the influence of this depression that I never could have imagined how deep it really was. And when I was in the hospital, I had a lot of time to think about it. And you know, I was in a coma for two days, and when I came out of the coma, they made sure there was a psychiatrist standing right there. I remember they even brought me to consciousness to take out my intubation tube, and someone said, “No, not yet, where’s the psychiatrist, get him over here!” So I just lay there, and then they pulled the tube. they put me on a gurney, then, just like on TV, they run me to the ICU. And the psychiatrist asked, “What happened?” I said, “I missed?” And they asked, “How do you feel about that?” Which I thought was funny, because they always ask that. And I said, “Well, if you’re looking for me to be really glad I made it, you’re talking to the wrong person. You know, I can tell you that unless I find a good reason not to do it again, I’m as good as dead.”

I just knew that I was someplace that I had never been, although I had danced around it most of my life, as far back as I remember, 8 years old, always having this desire to die. And yet never, the thought of doing it myself never was in my mind. I wanted to be hit by a bus, a house to fall on me, for someone to shoot me, but the thought never occurred to do it myself. Back around 1997, 1998, I had an X-ray taken, a chest X-ray, and when it came back, the report said. “A mass is here consistent with small-cell carcinoma, yadda yadda,” They CAT scanned, did a biopsy, another biopsy, and the whole thing took place over the course of a little over a month. And all that time, I would think, “It’s finally here. OK, what am I gonna do? Well, I’m not gonna get surgery. I’m not gonna do anything. I’m just gonna do what I can do until I can’t do it anymore. And what it is is what it is.” And I had made that decision. In that context, that was a choice. I wasn’t going to do anything. I just was gonna not do anything. Finally, they got the results of the second biopsy, and it was actually a node that is normal to have after you have Valley Fever. I moved to Arizona in 1995, and in 1997 I got Valley Fever. I almost died from that. But I didn’t know what it was. If I had known, I probably would have done nothing. So I found out this was from the Valley Fever. No one had ever asked if I had had it. When I found out what it was, I became terribly depressed. I was just so bummed out. I was so disappointed. You know, there was always that aspect that I knew was there. But I never put the pieces together. And there were a lot of pieces I was never able to put together.

And after I got out of the psych unit, they just told me, “You can go online and find support groups all over the place.” So I went online. So I’m still dumbfounded after getting out of the hospital. I had my bell rung like they don’t ring bells anymore. I went online, and I’m looking, and I’m looking, and I find a lot of suicide survivor support groups, and I would read further and find out that these people are _ oh, what’s the word I’m looking for?

Bereaved.

Yes, but that’s not the word I was looking for. The word is a synonym for fakes. Fakes. I find it personally offensive that these bereaved people would call themselves survivors. To me, they are no more a suicide survivor than I am a cancer survivor because my mother died of cancer or because my sister battled cancer. It doesn’t make me a survivor. My sister’s a survivor. I’m not. I just have a sister who is. And to take this, and this instance alone, and change the rules of reference is, to me, it is offensive. It is just wrought with prejudice. And I just, I don’t find it misguided, I find it wrong. I think the word I was thinking of was “charlatan.”

Wrong with the one or two people who chose to call it that?

It’s not one or two people. It’s all I was able to find. They were grief groups. They were not for survivors of suicide. They were people who had lost someone to suicide. And when it comes to suicide, it is the only form of dying where those left behind consider themselves survivors of that form of death. The only one. You can have Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, anything, and those left behind are the bereft. They are not survivors of what killed the person who is their loved one. And yet they do it with suicide, and I just find it offensive. I find that the only way they can do that is to turn themselves into victims. And when they use that language, they turn themselves into victims. And when they turn themselves into victims, that means that the person that died is a perpetrator. And I find that offensive. It’s completely wrong in its assumptions. And I just, I was just absolutely amazed that that was the state of affairs in regards to suicide. I was just totally dumbfounded. And they say, “Why?” What happened was, that person became depressed. Depression is a fatal illness. It can be a fatal illness. What happens when someone dies of depression, most often is they died from a self-inflicted injury. I can’t even say that they killed themselves because that represents a choice, a decision that was made. And there was none. And the language we use to discuss suicide, I think, is extremely important. When people would ask me what had happened, I told them I had a near-fatal depressive episode. I had something. I was sick. I was ill. I didn’t give myself cancer. I didn’t choose to have my heart stop. And I didn’t ask for a mental illness that would cause me to do this. I didn’t have a choice available to me in the state of mind that I was in at the time of the event. You know, it’s, that whole conversation became a big deal to me.

And something extremely important to me here in Arizona is, there’s a lot of pushback. I almost had the go-ahead for a (attempt survivor support) group where I work, Southwest Behavioral Health. And at first it was OK, because it was a misunderstanding. And then, “No, this is what we expected.” They were very nice about it. The people I work with are really great, the company is excellent. They apologized for the misunderstanding. They didn’t act as though I did anything wrong, but it wasn’t something they wanted to get involved in because of the perceived liability that they would be exposed to. I had the same thing with the department of behavioral hearth services in Arizona. They had a program, the Arizona Dialogues. I went to a very involved three-day training in order to facilitate these dialogues that were between disparate groups of people to get conversations going. Some of these were as few as 12 people, some as many as 200 to 300 people. Most of those people were observers in those situations. A lot of people, knowing they would not be able to speak, except perhaps at the end, they still wanted to come and hear what was gonna be discussed, what people had to say. So it was a very interesting program. In fact, they’re starting it up again. And I was contacted to participate again. But with them, I suggested a dialogue on suicide, and they, at first, there was a lot of interest. And then when it went up the flagpole, it was too much liability: “Someone will get out of control and kill themself.” It’s like, how much about mental health do you know? There’s a lot of ignorance on the subject. And I think to fill the void, what a lot of people do is, I don’t mean to sound harsh, but they just make stuff up. I don’t want to say that as being mean, but having these holes of information that to most people don’t make sense, they fill those holes with ideas that they can wrap their heads around, even though that information may be erroneous. And they don’t know. And it’s not that they’re trying to create information that doesn’t exist, you know, they’re not trying to do it in a negative way, but the brain has to have a certain amount of order, and they’re just trying to bring that amount of order to a subject that they don’t really understand. And I think it’s for us, and by us I mean people that have come very close to the subject matter, to educate them. One of the things, unfortunately, that makes it difficult is that when so many people ask, “What were you thinking? What did you expect to accomplish? Why did you do that?” a lot of people feel obligated eventually … At first they say, “I don’t know.” Eventually, they feel obligated to answer those questions, throw things out that people want to hear, at least people will accept. It continues these misconceptions. Now, for the people answering the question, it’s very difficult.

Like I said earlier, most of these people are considerably younger than myself. I have a different way of looking at things, partly because of my age, partly because of my illness, that I never knew I had, by the way. I started showing symptoms of bipolar disorder when I turned 17. And it wasn’t until I was in therapy after my suicide and four months after I started where they said, “We want to try to rule out bipolar disorder.” So I said, “You think it’s bipolar disorder?” “Well, we want to try to rule it out.” I just sat there for a minute, and my brain did a fast rewind through my entire life to that summer I turned 17. It was like, well, of course! I didn’t know. I didn’t know why I went through so many jobs, so many girlfriends, so many relationships, so many marriages. All I knew is, I couldn’t figure out a way to hold on to any of it. I ended up in the hospital more than a year later, and when I went back in, they took me off everything I was on. I was on most of the new medications. And they went back to the old standby and put me on lithium. And once they started to see it was starting to accumulate in my blood, even though I was not up to therapeutic levels, they said, “OK.” They were in touch with my prescriber. They sent me home. Over the next number of months, they adjusted the dose to therapeutic levels. We added Wellbutrin, because I was still seeing more depression than I was comfortable with. And I was very antsy, I couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t like it. We were talking, and I told him what I used to do when I was in school around 1971, and I was working on a very big project. And I would start work at about 7, 8 at night, and I would work through the night until about 3,4 in the morning. And then I would take a nap and then I would get up, go to work, or school, depending on the schedule. Then I would do school and work, then come home, get a bite to eat, start all over again. When I started working, now here I was about 20 years old, and I was going to school in Boston, going to the Berklee College of Music. When I got my project ready, I had a card table and a folding chair, and I would take a black beauty, which is an amphetamine, and I would have about four joints rolled on the table to last me throughout the night. And then when it was time for me to go sleep for a few hours, I would take two black beauties and lay down and sleep three or four hours. And my prescriber asked, “You would take two and go to sleep?” I said, “Yup.” “I think we know what to do.” And she gave me a prescription for Ritalin. I take one in the morning, and one in the afternoon, and within 15 or 20 minutes I feel calm, relaxed, just the whole edge off. Which is not the normal response to Ritalin. So there were a number of diagnoses in my chart that were not official, so bipolar is, that’s my diagnosis. But it’s interesting, there’s the bipolar and then ADHD, more genetic than environmental. And then there’s the personality disorder and the PTSD, that’s more environmental. So it’s been a lot of discovery over the last few years as to what exactly has been holding me back. Because I never knew, and I never knew how to find out. So it has been an extremely interesting trip.

There were things, one thing I had early on in my therapy, I had no conflict resolution skills. And my therapist said, “Do you really think it’s a skill?” Well, I hope so, because I don’t have it. So it was an interesting situation. I had a conflict with a co-worker, and it became extremely volatile. Over the next few days, it didn’t get better, it got worse. Although no one said anything to me. I was just getting more worked up, didn’t know what to do. Over the course of a year it took me to figure out why I was reacting that way, why I had the lack of skills, what that lack of skill was, why did I respond to conflict in the way that i did. I could not just go forward  and say, “I’m going to do it differently.” The only way was to figure out why was I doing it that way in the first place. And I did. At one point, I thought I had figured it out, but not all had changed. It was maybe another six months before the second half of the puzzle, my brain was able to sort it out. I had never gone through an experience like that. It just never, for me, it was an achievement that to me was life-changing. And it was something that I needed so badly. And it’s part of the process of what we call recovery. For everyone, it’s different. We need to enter the conversation with respect up front. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of things in behavioral health in the last few years. Some things I was not happy with, some worked well, some things didn’t. I was involved in the DBSA, with another gentleman who was very active with the DBSA in California and is now in Arizona. We organized the state chapter. And when we started, there were issues where we felt, there was another organization called Mental Health America, and I’m sure they are very nice people. But I personally take umbrage. This is not competition. We’re not making money doing this. Yet what they’re doing, they put out things under DBSA and then all the contact information goes to Mental Health America. Why would I spend all my time trying to develop the organization in the state if somebody else is going to come in and steal my reference information and people’s ability to contact me? The DBSA says, “That’s not our job. Our job is to funnel down information and be a resource for chapters.” So I said, “If my job isn’t to grow the organization within the state, you’re wasting my time.” I expected to have a bigger impact. Certain things with the state didn’t work out, certain things did work out. I’m very lucky, I work where I get my services. My boss is my therapist. She’s not my direct report, she runs the program. But I still get to speak with her when I need to. So it’s great to be able to walk into her office and say, “So, you have a minute? I need to talk about something personal.” And we’ve kept it pretty straight for about two and a half years. And it’s nice to be able to walk into my prescriber and say, “I need these prescriptions.” That’s nice perk.

I think suicide, from what I’m hearing on the national conversation, is that it’s extremely misunderstood. We know that over 90 percent of all suicides are people who are in the throes of either undiagnosed and/or untreated depression. It could be bipolar, schizophrenia, very often substance abuse issues, but depression seems to be the one thread that runs through all of them. And yet we still sit here and ask somebody, “What were you thinking?” Who’s got the problem? I’m sorry, but we know. I think the biggest thing is to do away with the word “suicide.” I think the word is misleading. Because when people speak of suicide, they say “He committed suicide” or “He attempted suicide.” I attempted to bake a cake, and it failed, but suicide isn’t something where I woke up one morning and said, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea.” You know that. And when I talk to others who’ve been through the experience, they know it too. But everyone else, they come up with something that effectively will get everyone off their back. But they’re younger. Everyone asking them these questions are parent figures, older, teachers. There are friends, but friends have an entirely different take on it. But we know it’s depression. We know that. Nobody says it isn’t. If we know it’s depression, why don’t we call it what it really is? A fatal depressive episode. And if we start to talk about it in terms of not something that someone does, but in terms of something that happens to them, then I think the conversation will finally start. And the understanding will start. It gets rid of the prejudice that people have. What’s the word I’m looking for?

Stigma?

Stigma, yes. Thank you. You know, because stigma really is prejudice. And the way to get rid of it is to create the understanding. And yet we can’t get rid of the stigma because we ourselves sometimes have such a difficult time understanding what is happening to us. And the behavioral health community isn’t really a lot of help. And here they sent me to the internet for support groups? They should have given me a list. And where did they send me? Grief groups. If they don’t know what’s going on out there, how are we supposed to know? I think the best place to get information is amongst ourselves.

How do we find each other?

You found me, didn’t you? It took you four years, and I have been waiting for you. I think this is definitely one way that it happens. And I think one of the reasons that it did was that article. Interestingly enough, the article was actually on DBSA. And the main person in the article was supposed to be Henry Willey, the guy I was working with in DBSA. But the writer told Henry she wanted to talk to somebody who was willing to talk without an alias. She didn’t want any more of this clandestine stuff. I really appreciated it. And a lot of people found me from that article. The last of which was one of my cousins. A heck of a way to find out what someone’s up to. So this is another step. If we work together, and you have the time and know-how … You’re obviously hip on all the internet stuff, and I know how to get on, I know how to find my e-mail. You know, you can do that. And we can talk. I don’t care how often you want to talk. I know I’m pretty much going off all night here. But I just wanted you to get a good idea of where I’m at. Because I think it’s different than a lot of people’s. And I say that based on the people that I know that also have had near-fatal depressive episodes. I don’t think there’s any other way to say it that’s more accurate for the experience we’ve been through. I get very tired very quickly, but people tried to make me feel it was my fault. I was not gonna do that for very long, and I didn’t. And my feeling very quickly became, they can either educate themselves, find information, or they just go live their life in ignorance and bliss while the rest of us work on a real problem. Because this, it so needs people that care to speak out. I was doing a lot more before I started working.

I went back to work over two and a half years ago now. Even though I’m working part time, I put in whatever’s needed to get it done. There are a lot of clients that rely on the work that I get done. It’s great. And for the first time … In all my other jobs, it was about “How important can I be to make myself more needed or make more money?” And for the first time, it’s about the work that I do that’s important. It has never been, I have never walked away from a day at work and thought, “Boy, wow, did I do a great job today!” It’s like, “I’m not the issue here. The work that I do is the issue. The people that I do work for, in terms of the clients, they’re the issue.” And to me, to have that perspective, to finally have that clarity, it’s huge. Huge to me. And it just makes me want to work. Not just suicide prevention, and the classes I’ve taken, I’ve done a number of multi-day suicide prevention trainings. And even in my office, if there’s a therapist that’s on the phone with a client, and the therapist tells the director they have somebody on the phone who’s suicidal or in crisis, or the front desk gets someone in crisis and possibly suicidal, I have become the go-to guy. And as that continued to happen and that’s developed in the office, it’s, to me, it’s very odd that rather than finding something that I can be proud of, I find it’s something that’s like, “Oh good, because I don’t trust anybody see to talk to these clients.” It’s true! And my therapist, who’s also the director of the program, she says, “OK, you did this, you did that, now can you feel you did something good? Be proud of yourself?” And where in the beginning that was a goal, now it’s like, “I don’t have time for that. I’m more concerned about the clients. And I want to be the one, you call me at home, I’m only 15 minutes from the office. I’ll come in. Make me the crisis guy.” But not because I get a raise or I get prestige. It means nothing. The only thing that means to me is that I feel my clients are safer. And I tell my therapist that I say “my clients,” not like I feel they’re mine, and she said, “Good, because you can get too emotionally involved.” Eventually, and especially for someone like me who puts themself in the firing line, eventually I’m going to lose someone. That’s just the nature of the beast. I cannot save everyone, and I know that. I’m not happy about that, but I know that. So there’s a huge risk that I take. She’s aware, I’m aware, we’re all aware. We do what we gotta do. But I didn’t even think of it until she brought it to my attention. It’s not about me. And for so long it had to be about me, because I was holding on by a thread. Like that little kitten hanging out of the tree by one little claw, you know? And that’s what I was doing for 40 years. And it’s a long time to be hanging there. And now that I’m not, I find I’m not trying to accomplish what I thought I was trying to accomplish. No, I can accomplish more than that. It’s a very, very interesting experience for me. It really is.

How do you protect yourself? And are you still in the process of saving yourself? Does that make sense?

Yes, absolutely right. And very observant. The process that I’ve gone through and the changes I’ve gone through, I never could have imagined. Those are helping me protect myself. I’m very observant, for instance, when I’m at work and working with clients, driving them to and from their appointments, they are in the van for more than twice as long as they are with their therapist. It would be like 45 minutes from their home into the office, a 50-minute hour, then I have them for 45 minutes going home. Very few people don’t say anything. There are some that won’t talk, but they’re relatively few, and what’s amazed me is that I have been able to connect with 17, 18, 19-year-old girls. I’m a 61-year-old guy. I don’t see that connection, but yet it’s there. And you know, I will sometimes ask questions that I decided to ask to see just how far the connection is. And they’re open and honest and talking abut their lives and what they want to do, where they want to go, what’s happening with their parents, stuff like that. I can give them a perspective they respect. It’s interesting to me how that seems to work. That protects me. I always keep in my head that they are who they are, what they are. I can’t change anything, but I can influence things. That influence, it’s given me that distance. Even though somebody, it’s weird, sometimes these girls, they’ll come up, in a group or something, they’ll come up and give me a big hug, that’s fine. You know.

But my brain, I don’t know why, my brain puts it into perspective quickly. Like, this is probably gonna sound very morbid, but I always think if I never saw this kid again, I would really miss them. And that would be OK. Now, if I didn’t see them for a hundred million different reasons, it doesn’t have to be anything bad. It’s just that I would miss them, and that would be OK. So I remove from the equation, my happiness doesn’t rely on this relationship. And so it’s always about them not being there. And that goes with anyone that I know. Some of the people are much more troubled than others. It keeps me, I don’t think about myself that much anymore. And I think part of it is, I don’t need to. I think now I can finally just do the things that I want to do, without being in fear of it coming to an end. Which is how I lived my life. Whenever things were going well, it was like, “OK, when is this gonna go to hell?” Because it always did. I never had a job more than two years in my life. Now it’s finally going on three years. It’s still getting past a big point. You’re right, I do have to be aware all the time of protecting myself. But it’s weird, I would not feel comfortable trusting anyone else to be where I am, do what I do. I’m going to have to at some point. When my position changes and they have to hire more drivers, and I’ll be overseeing and doing more case management. I know that’s going to be coming down the pike. I know I’ll have to give it up. It’s just gonna have to be hard.

This not trusting others to handle things, do you think it’s in any way like the idea of not trusting people to run suicide attempt survivor support groups? Or am I misunderstanding what you were saying?

It’s not a misunderstanding at all. There are certain things, I think more accurate is, I don’t feel comfortable. If there was a client on the phone, and that client was suicidal, I could look at everyone in the office, including the Ph.Ds that we have, and I can tell you that there’s not one of them that I would feel comfortable with talking to that client. And I can equally tell you that not one of them would be comfortable talking with that client.

But that’s their job.

That’s correct.

And it’s possible they might have had this experience themselves but don’t dare mention it.

That’s correct. But based on their, just certain conversations, I doubt … In general, you’re right. You know, there are a lot of therapists, people in behavioral health who’ve had experience with self-inflicted injuries that would never, ever tell anyone because of the fear of repercussions. But sometimes, and I think … If you mention something, and somebody doesn’t want anybody to know, and you’re being really open about your experience, there are certain signals they can’t almost help but give off. Where you would pick up and probably not say anything, but you’d walk away thinking, “That person knows more than they’re telling.” You also know how important is it to respect their privacy. They know how to seek you out. If they don’t, it’s their prerogative. I was going to tell you about Magellan. The reason you hear so much about Magellan, they are for Maricopa County, which is Phoenix and the surrounding areas.

Is what they’re doing innovative? Is that why I hear about them?

There’s one guy there, David …

Covington.

Covington. This is essentially his pet project. I was part of the initial group that he put together. And one of the things that got me there was the promise of a support group for people that had a near-fatal depressive episode. And when I got there, there were two or three meetings prior. Those were interesting. We were all going in the right direction. Then we were going to have this meeting for people who had lived through it. And it wasn’t that at all. It was a group of people who had survived, and now David wants us to research and find the best practices in the country for suicide prevention. And I said, “Well, is there any place in the country that has shown a marked decrease in suicide over the last three to five years?” And somebody said, “That’s not what we’re looking for.” I said, “But David said he’s looking for best practices. Wouldn’t the best practice result in a decrease in suicides over the past three to five years?” Apparently, I have a very strange way of looking at things, because I was told that’s not what they were looking for. I couldn’t understand how to go about it. He said he didn’t just want a Google search. If it’s not reduced incidents, what’s your criteria? You know? And I said, “What if we looked at results, didn’t find any results, and we created a best practice that actually works? Would that not be a project?” No. So I wrote six or eight pages, a paper called “The Language of Suicide.” And David read it, we talked abut it, he got my ideas: “You’re right! That’s it!” I’m like, “OK, I don’t really care about being right, how can I contribute?” “I’ll let you know.” So I’m still waiting. That was about three years ago. I get it. I understand. Which is a terrible thing, because it means I can’t be mad at him. I’d rather be mad at him. He can’t afford to put himself in a position where he doesn’t know everything, or at least most of everything. He needs to be, and maybe it’s because of his position, but he needs to know all the players and all the plays, and he needs to be able to wrap his mind around everything. And although he might have been able to glimpse a lot of the things I was talking about, once he left, he really had to think about it and really truly understand it. It became more difficult to understand it relative to what he already knows. You cannot call it suicide and a fatal depressive episode at the same time. They mean two completely different things. And that’s the most important change in perception that we can make to understand the experience without actually having to go through the experience.

How do we do that?

People like you. Because if you … Let’s say you started a blog. Or added to your blog. I really don’t know how they work, so I couldn’t really tell you. Let’s say you did something and called it “The Language of Suicide.” And you were able to get this change in writing. And we got it on the internet, and there’s now some place that people would land that would disseminate this concept. One of these people could be someone who could add to the effort. But that’s the only way that I know, because I’ve talked to people who are, shall we say, influential and powerful, both in private industry and in the state, the office of individual and family affairs, and they like it, and then they don’t do anything about it. Either it’s too much work, or it might be too difficult, meaning it’s too much work. And I think that the main reason for that is, they don’t really have a stake in it.

Changing the language, that’s what will swing open the door?

I certainly think it will crack open the door and start a conversation. I was in sales for a number of years, and one of the things that was very successful was, when I would put something out there, I would do it so they’re not necessarily going to get it, but I would get them to ask the question. Two things: Even if they were not interested before, they are now. Or at least curious. The other thing is that if I had told them the information before, they would have shut off because I was telling them about what I wanted them to know. And if it was about me, they’re not interested. But if they ask, now what I’m saying is the answer to their question. Now they’re listening. They asked for the info, they wanted to hear, now they’re listening, because they don’t want to look like idiots. The method of getting people to accept new information is to get them to ask for it. And so if they see a phrase, like, say, “fatal depressive episode,” and they say, “Well, what’s that?” that’s a home run. Because they’ve just asked you to explain everything you want them to know. It’s interesting because some people have seen the phrase and they’ll say, “Oh wow, how interesting.” And again, you may have to say, “Isn’t that phrase so much more accurate than saying suicide?” Either they say “Yes” or they say “Huh?” So either you have an ally or someone you can make an ally. But starting a conversation is really important.

After your attempt, you seemed to know right away who would end up standing by you and who would not. How did you sense that so quickly?

Well, I certainly never knew who, just that there would be surprises, and I didn’t want to be blindsided. My wife, now ex-wife, was the first to go. I think it helped that she was so blunt about it. She shut off my cell phone within the first three days so when I woke from my coma, I couldn’t make any calls, including to her. She called about a week later on the hospital phone. The conversation went like this: “Hello?” “Hi. I just want you to know that I’m never getting over this and we’re done.” “Don’t you at least want to have a conversation about what happened?” “No. Goodbye.” Click. My friend Richard, who I met in 2001 as a colleague at work, and whom I wasn’t really very close to at the time, was there for me in as much as he could be. After the gunshot, after waiting for an hour and a half for the “lights to go out,” I called Richard, who happened to have visited the night before with his wife. They felt something might be wrong and did everything they could to get me to give up my last gun, having sold all the others, or stay at their house to swim, hot tub or just hang out. Obviously, I declined. The call was simple, in its effort to buffer the shock: “Richard, I think I just shot myself.” It took him about 30 minutes to get to my house on his motorcycle and another 15 for the ambulance. They ended up airlifting me to the nearest trauma center. After getting out of the psych unit, Richard picked me up, about a 50-mile trip one way. He welcomed me into his home for a week, thinking that’s all I would need to get a job and find a place to live. He just didn’t know. Now, as I assist him with his substance abuse and parenting problems, I still have to reassure him that he did what he was able to do at time. He still brings up that he should have done more. He has no idea how much he did. Ann, my ex-wife’s son’s ex-wife _ my ex-step-daughter-in-law _ had lost her grandmother, her mother and her 32-year-old brother within the last 18 months. Upon hearing I was in the hospital, and why, they would not take anyone’s word for it; they wanted to see me for themselves. They and Richard were the only visitors I had in the two weeks spent in the ICU. After the week at Richard’s, I went to stay with Ann, her new husband and my three grandchildren. Ann’s ex-husband went the route of telling her I am not to be anywhere around the kids, that I was dangerous and she should not let me into the house. He added a letter to me that can only be described as the quintessential “poison pen” letter of about six pages, if I remember correctly. Obviously, I no longer have it. My sisters didn’t call for quite a while, weeks or a month or so. My father never did. However, when he went to visit my younger sister in Las Vegas, she called me to see if they could drive down for a couple of days. They spent two nights, over which time hardly much was said. I don’t think my father said two words in all that time. No support there. A cousin of mine runs a program on his computer that searches for the name “Kobren” on the internet. He does this for business reasons, as he is often quoted on business matters. He found the same article you did and called another cousin that I’m closer to. He found me through Facebook, which another colleague of mine suggested I set up, and was totally and completely supportive, both financially and emotionally. We hadn’t spoken in almost 20 years. No one else really matters. If that changes, I will either welcome it or mourn the loss, but I will still continue to move forward.

You mentioned more than once that you’re probably older than many people who’ve had this experience. Have you noticed that there seems to be more emphasis on suicide prevention for the young, and how do you feel about that? Does that necessarily mean that the issue of suicide for middle-aged and older people is neglected somehow?

Statistically, men 65 and older represent the greatest risk for suicide. That said, I personally don’t believe that any current campaign directed at any demographic will significantly reduce the incidence of suicide due to their approach. From what I’ve seen, they concentrate on the reasons someone would “want” to take their life and the reasons they shouldn’t take their life. No one focuses on the signs of the onset of the depression that can cause the self-infliction of a fatal injury. I find that disturbing.

Have you ever lost anyone close to you to suicide?

Yes. A friend who I was pretty close to from 1996 until her death in 2002. I had been becoming more distant since I had met the woman who I was going to marry. She died in February, but I didn’t find out until April or May. None of our mutual friends thought to call me. Fact is, I blamed myself too.

I’m assuming that when you shot yourself, you thought it would kill you. I tend to worry a lot about people seriously messing themselves up because they go into an attempt thinking, “Well, maybe this will work.” If suicide prevention included the message that it’s very hard to kill yourself and no method is foolproof, do you think that would be a powerful deterrent?

I don’t think so. The method I used was pretty “foolproof,” and yet it didn’t work. By the time I started therapy, after my release from the hospital, I had come up with an even more foolproof method. The idea of surviving would never have deterred me since I would be sure that “That only happens to other people.”

Here I go painting you with a broad brush, but there’s the idea that older men are more hesitant to ask for help when it comes to mental health or emotional issues. If you’d agree, what do you think would be the best approach to ease that?

It seems to me that they’re not so much reluctant to ask for help as much as they feel that their reasons may be different. In some cases, loneliness and isolation will lead to the depression that puts them at risk. For others, pain and deteriorating health may be prompting an “end of life” decision. I know many people disregard the issue, claiming it’s just another death by self-inflicted injury, while others say it is a choice.

I want to go back to the part about suicide survivor support groups, because you were quite passionate about it. Are you actually angry at them, the people who lost someone?

It’s not so much I get angry at them in an overtly angry way. I went to a meeting, a suicide prevention meeting, and at the end of the meeting there were two women that attended that were part of a grief group. And as much as I wanted to, at the time, it was very early on, maybe six months after my event, and I find it sometimes difficult to be angry at people for the way they feel about certain things. I tend to take an attitude of, if they choose to be ignorant, that’s their problem. Yes, they’re making it more difficult for what I want to do, which is to reduce the prejudice around suicide, by telling everybody it’s the worst thing in the world and then saying, “Look what they did to me.” Excuse me, they didn’t do anything to you. They’re the ones in the ground. It happened to them. A lot of what it seemed like was they felt very guilty, thought there was something they should have been able to do. They think they should have been able to stop it. And I can understand that, given their misconception of what it is really all about. But if they were better informed as to what exactly was happening or did happen, they might be able to get past that and stop looking at themselves as survivors. I don’t think they need to stop looking at themselves at survivors first. I think they need a reason not to see themselves as survivors, and the reason would be, it wasn’t something their loved one did, it was something that happened to them. And if happened to them, how could they be responsible?

I think it comes from the language in funeral notices: “So and so is survived by …”

I thought the same thing. But why are they the only group that latches on to that? I think it’s because, and this is what bothers me so much, there’s only one way that could have happened. By calling themselves survivors, if you look at any other group, they had something terrible happen to them that they lived through. Unfortunately, these people haven’t decided to live through it yet. They’re keeping themselves as survivors. They’re making themselves victims. It stands to reason that if you’re the victim, who’re the perpetrator? It upsets me, but I could certainly have a rational conversation with someone. What would really get me crazy is when, after that conversation, they tell me I’m nuts. Maybe so, but I’m taking medication. What are you doing?

(The phone accidentally cuts off. I call him back, and he apologizes.)

I was thinking, nice way to have the last word! But I wanted to ask the question I like to ask at the end: Who else are you?

A really great question. And thinking about it, originally my brain was going to a, “What else do I do?” It’s not what else do I do. She asked, “What else am I?” I looked at that one thing that I’ve always hung on to, and that especially when I was starting out to get better, what I held on to for dear life. I am my integrity. I am everything that I believe is right and wrong. I am my honesty, my willingness to help with both feet, not just “OK, here’s this and goodbye.” I am the person that, given being affected by my illnesses all those years, I am the person that I have created, the person that I always wanted to be, at least as close to that as I can possibly get. But that has always been a guiding principle of my life. I read somewhere a long time ago, “Live your life as though you were writing your obituary.” I guess I took that to heart. In doing that, I’m not necessarily being 100 percent successful at it the whole time, but being the person that at least thinks about that and works toward that, that to me is a person worth being. And that’s always been important to me. It’s funny, my therapist is always like, “Well, aren’t you proud of that yet?” I’m willing to wait so that on my tombstone they can write, “I’m proud of what I did. I’m proud of how I did it.” That’ll work for me. Though honestly, I can’t say I’ve always been that way. I have, but I’ve also been affected by other things. The only way I knew how to keep a job or do a job or have a job or just, you know, something. But it’s different now. In a very strange sense _ and I never ever look at it this way, I really don’t, but with you, I will make this one exception _ in a sense, my event was a really great thing for me. Because at that point, there was no way of going on with that I had, there really wasn’t. I had absolutely no way of figuring anything out. I couldn’t do it anymore. It was done. But the only thing to move forward was to have received the help that I got after the event. And it saved my life. Actually … The help, yeah. it not only saved my life, it actually gave me my life. It didn’t give me my life back, it just gave me my life. So I mean, maybe the reason I’m so passionate is because of that fact. I feel that I owe, you know, I owe it to maybe try to help some people, some person, get their life without having to go through that.

Talking with Craig A. Miller

I came across Craig A. Miller because he did what no one does on the “I Attempted Suicide” section of The Experience Project website: He posted under his real name. Before his attempt at age 20, he fought a strong obsessive-compulsive disorder that had him, among other things, collecting the scraps of paper he found and writing poetry on them. Since his attempt, he has taken control of his life and recently self-published the book “This is How it Feels: A Memoir of Attempting Suicide and Finding Life.”

The response has been good. Here, Craig talks about finding the balance between safe messaging around suicide and the need to speak directly to connect with people. As a friend told him, “If we were 16 again, what would we want to hear to get better? If you were talking to yourself at 16, what do you think it would take for you to really listen?”

Craig also talks about pulling himself back from living on disability as a young adult, his first-date confessions to the woman who would become his wife and what he hopes his two young children will think then they get old enough to read about his past. “I hope when they turn and become teenagers and think Dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I hope they’ll read this and see he does,” he says. “I hope they’ll be proud of what I overcame.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

In general, I’m just an average guy who has had a lot of unfortunate events in my life. Sadly, that’s not very uncommon. But I always had the notion there’s something more, maybe these unfortunate events are gonna add up to something for me. It’s where I focused my hope, to get through the things I did. It sounds kind of silly, but it’s at the core of who I am. It’s at the essence of what got me from my first memories to now. I’m 36, and what’s always remained within me is that hope. There is a purpose. There is a reason. You go through life events to learn, to build something in ourselves, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

Writing was always there for me since I was a teenager, when I first developed mental illness. I guess mental illness, like suicide, is one of those words you can say and silence a crowd. I developed obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. I was about 15 when I was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The doctors at the time determined OCD took up about 95 percent of my waking hours. But a lot of the symptoms were so intense that instead of being physical, like touching things and washing my hands, what you’d expect OCD to do, a lot of it was in my mind. I would have obsessive thoughts, and what made it so difficult was the fear that stemmed off of it, irrational, uncontrollable, extremely real fear. And it wasn’t like I was afraid of any one particular thing or even afraid of everything. It was just the pure raw emotion of fear. It’s the only way to describe it. It’s like waking up after a nightmare. You just sit there, kind of freaked out with nothing to pinpoint how you feel. And that’s what I lived with all the time. So when I say “mental illness,” to me, it was really focused on fear. I was constantly talking myself out of collapsing. And it just led to my writing, which was really the only thing I could do that was off-limits to my OCD. It’s how I poured out all my pain. I’d sit and write as often as possible.

One compulsion was to pick up scrap papers I found on the ground. So I started writing poems on them, whenever, wherever. In writing, I found a way to express myself, balance all those issues. When I was a teenager, from the time I was probably 14 until the time of my very real suicide attempt at 20, I spent every day talking myself out of suicide. The way I did it was by writing out my thoughts, examining who I was, why things happened, why I felt the way I did. Not as in “Why me?” but philosophically, “Why?” It’s what helped hold me together. It’s the essence of who I still am.

After my suicide attempt, it took me some years to get level and grounded. I would not suggest it to anyone, but I did my recovering without much help from anyone and anything. I gave the doctors and medications my best shot, but in the end I realized I was the only person who was gonna help me. I spent a few years struggling with that concept, believing that at some level there was more to my life experiences than suffering and that I had to find the answers within me for myself. In the end I overcame it. I went through a very rough period, but I did it. And my symptoms sort of dissipated. I think because I stopped giving them power.

Like I said, writing was something that was always with me. But it wasn’t until about two years ago when I had the opportunity to write an entire book. I wanted to write about my life. I knew I had learned a lot. And there was no bigger story in my life than my death. So I told my story through my suicide attempt. I think anybody who is coming forward with a suicide attempt story, I think it’s only fair to the reader, or the listener, that you tell the entire story, not just “Things were tough for me, and I couldn’t do it anymore.” People need to understand why someone would do such a thing. I think you have a responsibility to tell everything, or at least what you feel comfortable with. So I told everything I felt comfortable with. Stories of molestation, I talked about my parents, all kinds of people I knew growing up. I made sure to give them all anonymity as much as I could. But more than anything, I talked about myself. It was a huge hurdle to overcome, putting myself out there like that. People are gonna be able to read this, and there’s no coming back from that. Everyone will know I attempted suicide, and everyone will know why.

So I think if you add up the life I started with and the desire to find purpose in it all, and then finding the courage to tell my whole story, that’s really who I am overall.

You mentioned getting over your OCD and anxiety, not giving it power. What does that mean?

Part of the biggest struggle I had was, I let it own me. I think anyone with any type of mental illness, from self-doubt to schizophrenia, and anything in between, when it starts to consume you, you kind of know it in a lot of cases, and you feel like there’s nothing you can do about it. When you see it coming, and you feel it coming, it becomes your focus and it’s easy for it to become embedded in you. Now you find yourself having a mental illness, a chemical imbalance, you can barely even understand your own thoughts anymore. When you combine that with a history of tragedy, neglect and a bad upbringing and a lack of self confidence and self esteem, it becomes very easy to succumb to it completely, to say, “Wow, I’m messed up. I don’t have the strength to make this better.” I battled with that constantly.

But someone said to me once, and I thought it was awesome, “Love is something we’re born with. Fear is something we learn along the way.” We are born with happiness. We are born with love and self-esteem and self-worth, all these tools to help us be a strong human being. It’s only through the actions of others, or even ourselves, that those start to dissipate. When that happens, what you’re left with is emptiness _  the self-doubt, the lack of love, the lack of trust, the lack of self-confidence and strength. And once I reached that point where I really thought I was at the bottom, completely consumed, to the point that I didn’t want to wake up tomorrow, and I attempted suicide and was fortunate enough to survive, I found myself at the lowest point in my life.

I looked at that and realized, “I have nothing right now. I am empty, in terms of my soul, my will, my spirit. I grew up with pretty much nothing but negativity, enough that it caused serious issues. I’m 20 years old. I just tried to kill myself, and I have nothing right now.” Instead of looking at it as a “Poor me” scenario, as I had for the 20 years prior, I thought, “If I stop feeling bad for myself, stop making up reasons for it, like my parents didn’t do a good job, I was molested…etc.” I began to see the rest of my life as an opportunity. I thought, “You know what, if I’m going to live, then I’m going to live. There’s nothing to stop me.” So when I looked at the darkness and wondered how to get on with life, I looked at it as an opportunity to build myself into the person I wanted to be for the first time in my life: “I’m pretty fortunate to be at zero. I can start my life over, in a true sense, and I can begin healing. In a way that I now have control over it.”

That’s how I moved forward. I tried to figure out how to build myself for the first time as the person I wanted to be. I took little pieces of advice from each person I met and kept focus on it. I would stay focused on the positive of each experience I had throughout the course of a day. If I did something well, I would make sure I told myself that. Even if the only thing I did well was get through the day without a breakdown. I made myself acknowledge how strong I was for doing that. I stopped giving control of life to my illnesses and I gave control to myself. You know, I’m not going to wake up doubting myself anymore.

Up until my suicide attempt, I was on Social Security disability, collecting food stamps. I had nothing. I had a few clothes and a notebook. I looked in the paper and got a job. I called Social Security and told them I didn’t want to be on disability. I was 21 years old. Everyone around me was so scared that I was gonna relapse, go back: “Why put yourself through that kind of pressure?” Social Security said, “We’ll keep paying you for six months just in case it doesn’t work out. And if at the end you’re still working, we’ll stop payment.” So everyone around me, although encouraging on the surface, was really like, “Are you sure you want to do this?” But I knew myself. I knew in my heart I was ready to move on. I was gonna go forward, become who I wanted to become, take with me the good parts I learned along the way.

It wasn’t easy. I was living with my dad and his girlfriend, I had been renting a room from them, and even being on Social Security I would give them a portion of my check. I looked at my whole life and said, “This is not how I’m gonna live.” I got a job, started out in a company as what people would call a gofer, and within about two years ended up leading my own group, because I was so determined. I took that focus I had before on my illness and just turned it around and said, “If I could be so passionate about falling apart, why can’t I be so passionate about coming back together?” Within about six months of surviving my suicide attempt, I moved out of my dad’s house, got my own apartment and moved on from there. That was 16 years ago. Today, I’m happy. I’m married. I have two children. And I think I’ve overcoming enough that I’m OK to start talking about it and giving back. I’ve done my healing.

I read the first few chapters online at Amazon and looked through your blog and didn’t realize you have a wife and kids.

At the end of the book, in the author’s note, I put in that I was married and had two kids. The book is written about everything that happened before I was 20 years old, and I didn’t know my wife then. It’s told from a past tense perspective. But in terms of the present tense, my website and blog postings, I wanted to leave some of my family out of it. It’s a lot to come forward and say, “I attempted suicide, and this is why.” When I fill in the “This is why” part, it’s like a scratch in the record and a silence in the room. But I didn’t hold back anything. I thought it was important to be honest. So when people read it, they can see things similar to where they’re coming from. But I didn’t want to bring my wife and kids into it.

Do they know?

My wife, yeah. I have a 3-year-old and a five-month-old, so they won’t know for a while. But my wife, right from the first night we met. It must have been a hell of a conversation when we met. I knew she was the one. I just told her everything, my whole story in about two hours: “This is who I am, where I’ve been, where I am now, what I want to do with life. What do you think?”

What did she say?

She said, “Let’s meet again and get married.” So we got married. We’ve been together eight years, almost. And she’s 100 percent supportive of me. But I think it’s important to me at this stage of the story, this stage of my writing, that I stay focused on the earlier parts of my life. My first book was about my past, all the darkness that went with it. It wouldn’t be appropriate to include them in that yet. As I move forward with other books about how I got from there to here, it’s more appropriate to have them in the story. But it was very important up front to talk just about me. This is how it feels. It was really about me, and I had to put myself out there.

You also put your parents out there. How do they feel? Do they know?

My father, he called me up after he read it. Let me start by saying there’s a lot of stuff in the book even they didn’t know. They divorced when I was 2. So my mother didn’t know what life was like with my father, whom I didn’t see often. And my father didn’t know what life was like when I lived with my mother and stepfather. Neither one of them knew I was molested, either, or how bad school was for me. Kids at school knew I was molested, and that’s why I was bullied and picked on. But no one who should have known knew. I put out the book in July. My father read it, and he called and said, “Promise me one thing.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Never stop writing.” It meant a lot to me. He then took a breath and said, “I’m sorry.” My mother moved away to Florida about 10 years ago. I haven’t really spoken with her since. I did send her an email about the book. I know she read it. I don’t know what her response is. I didn’t ask. I just left it as it was.

Molestation, and kids at school knew? What are you comfortable saying about that?

There was this guy in the neighborhood who was mentally disabled. He was a lot older. I was about 6, and he was somewhere in his 20s. He started molesting me probably when I was 6 years old. It mostly happened beneath the crawl space under my mother’s house. He always tried it with other kids in the neighborhood; they were just stronger people than I was. I didn’t have the strength mentally or physically to fight it, I guess. So other kids knew. They didn’t actually see anything happen, but at that age, I don’t think you need to see anything for rumors to fly. I was really bullied pretty bad at times. But it just never got out. None of the teachers knew, my parents didn’t know, my brothers didn’t know. It was really weird.

You couldn’t tell anybody?

I could’ve. My mother was a very angry person, and I had a really bad relationship with my stepfather. I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me. There was no trust. In a way, I blamed myself for everything that was happening, too. I was also afraid of what my mother would do. I was afraid of how my brothers would look at me. I was afraid of telling my father, another big angry guy. In a sense, I really felt bad for the guy who was doing it to me. He was mentally challenged and had the personality and the brain capacity of a 9-year-old kid. I just kept thinking, “It’s not his fault, not his fault.” There was another neighbor, an older guy, probably in his 60s, and I think he was molesting the guy who was doing it to me. So I think the same thing was happening to him, and he was just doing it to me. I just never felt strong enough or big enough to tell anybody. I felt such compassion for him. Believe it or not, I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. I thought he just didn’t know what he was doing. There’s so much when I look back on that experience, everything I went through. In my teenage years, when I looked at it and hated him, I was very angry with all of it. For me though, it boils down to an incredible lesson in compassion.

You have two young kids. What happens when they grow up and can read this?

Hopefully they’ll be proud. I hope when they turn and become teenagers and think Dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I hope they’ll read this and see he does. I hope they’ll be proud of what I overcame. The book was written to help people, to help see life in a different way and the struggles we go through. And to help people who’ve never been there to understand what it’s like to be there, to attempt suicide. I wanted it to serve two purposes. The people who feel like there’s no hope, I hope they read it and say, “This guy has lived similar things, or at least he knows what it feels like on this level, this is how he overcame it.” I hope they are left with the same hope that got me through it. I think the book so far is accomplishing that. And then for the people who don’t understand what it’s like to suffer like that. … I had a high school teacher, and I was in a homeroom class before school started. He was really upset, withdrawn. The class dismissed. He said, “Miller, hang on.” He came over to me. He was a big guy. He was actually a football coach there. His eyes started filling up, and he said, “I heard on the radio this morning that some teenage kid committed suicide, and I thought it was you.” He started crying. He looked at me and shook his head and said, “I don’t understand, I don’t understand it at all.” I remember the sincerity in his eyes. In my mind, while writing the book, I knew I had to write to people who want to understand but don’t. People who have a loved one who has attempted suicide and don’t get what it’s like. So it was important to me to write with those people in mind too. The title was intended for that. But it’s also a very positive book. I aimed at keeping the book hopeful, while staying truthful and honest about how bad life really is sometimes.

What kind of responses have you had?

When I first finished it, I sent it to a book doctor, someone who looks at a book and says, “Yeah, it will work” or “No, it’s junk.” The guy wrote me back a four-page letter about why he couldn’t make it better. He said, “Don’t let this go, don’t stuff this under your bed. Try to find an agent and you will get published. Don’t give up. Keep going and do not doubt yourself. You have a great book here.” So I did what he told me not to do. I put the book under my bed and I said, “You know what, he was just feeling sorry for me. The book’s not that good.” A few months later I went to another editor, who was more money than I could afford, and there was like a nine-month waiting period. What she wrote back to me I completely disagreed with. She was basically like, “Everything you did here is wrong, and you need to change it all.” I said, “I know I’m not that wrong! I’m just gonna do it, put it out there.” I pretty much dismissed everything she said, and I sent out about two dozen queries to literary agents. Which, looking back, I probably didn’t write the query too well. I presented the book as a memoir about a suicide attempt rather than a story meant to help, you know. I think it scared off a lot of people. I got a few encouraging letters back, but mostly generic, “thanks but no thanks.” Then I had a conversation with another writer, and he told me, “Stop looking for agents. The whole publishing world is changing. Self-publish. Do it your way. The only thing that matters is the readers.” I had everything ready so I said, “You know what, I’m just gonna do it.” I self-published, did a Facebook post to about 100 people and let it go.

The feedback was absolutely overwhelming, way more than I expected. It started going word of mouth. It’s been out for about five months. And I haven’t done any advertising. I put stuff up on The Experience Project, a website, that’s all. I got an e-mail from a woman a while back who wrote she believes the book saved a teenage girl’s life, which was overwhelming to me. And another one I saw on a newspaper’s website. A friend forwarded a link to an article about suicide, and people were writing about my book in the comments section. And someone wrote they were researching books about suicide, found mine, gave it to their grandson, who was suicidal, and he came to his grandmother, crying and said he wanted to live and needed help. She wrote, “This book saved my grandson’s life.” That’s when it really kicked in, “OK, I have a responsibility now. If it is helping people, I’d better be doing this the right way.” I know with suicide prevention, there’s what’s called safe messaging. You have to be really careful. I didn’t have any of that in mind when I wrote the book. I wrote it as pure and clean as I could write it. When I started getting feedback that it’s changing lives, I said, “God, I hope I’ve done this right.” So I’ve asked for help from the suicide coalition to review it, let me know if anything sways from the guidelines of safe messaging. So far, no one’s thrown up any red flags. I keep going back to what that person said, “Pay attention to the readers.” I’ve gotten dozens of e-mails from people whom I’ve never met from different states, so heartfelt and sincere, so overwhelming to read. Strangers telling me that the book helped them, it’s changed their outlook on life, and that I need to keep writing. I can’t describe what that feels like.

The book isn’t out for free online, but can you buy and read it online?

On Amazon’s website, prime members can read it for free until the end of January. You can also buy a printed book from Amazon or download the Kindle version. It’s not in bookstores yet. I didn’t print 2,000 of them that are sitting in a warehouse somewhere. But I think if it were on a shelf, people would pick it up. I’m still working with the coalition. Once I get a thumbs up, I’m going to move forward with getting into stores.

If they said, “You need to be less explicit, you need to tone it down,” would you?

I keep referring back to the person who said, “Pay attention to the readers.” So far, I’ve gotten zero negative feedback. I would have to really weigh it. I’ve gone through pretty much everything I’ve written, poems, songs, even my photography. If you look at it from the perspective of being suicidal _ and I know what it feels like _ almost anything can be interpreted as too much. It really has to be very carefully crafted in order to not be taken the wrong way. I back that up 100 percent, but what I think is equally as important is honestly. If I were to speak to a group where members are struggling, I think it’s just as important for them to know I’ve been there. And yes, those thoughts of suicide are very, very real. In a sense, you have very little control over them. I think it’s important to acknowledge the darkness that goes with the light. You can’t just jump in and say, “There’s hope, let’s move forward.” For me, you have to identify with the darkness before you can truly see the light. I have a friend I wrote about in the book. And he’s a big character in it. And we were talking about whether I should talk about certain things when speaking to groups, and he said to me, “If we were 16 again, what would we want to hear to get better? If you were talking to yourself at 16, what do you think it would take for you to really listen?”

I think how I need to do it is to discuss my story in its raw truth, be myself and let people see the whole picture. It’s not just a suicide attempt that I survived, it’s life that I survived. I think that’s how I need to do it. I think there’s more credibility in that. It’s important to acknowledge the dark. If people reviewing the book see potential triggers, I hope they realize why they are there. The book shows the darkness, but it brings the light back into it, and ties it all together. You need both sides. I hope I get the chance to do that in speaking engagements as well.

Are you speaking?

I’ve been asked to. January will be my first one. It’s at a book store. There’s a school that is considering using the book in study. They like the book not just for its message but mostly for its literary value. I may have an opportunity to meet with students for an author Q & A afterward too. It would be irresponsible of me to speak with a younger audience about the book’s subject matter, though. I need to learn more about safe messaging, what to say, what not to say, then make it my own and move forward.

I prepared a few questions, but I’m going to ask them in pretty random order here. When I was looking at your work online, I also came across a post on another blog in July by a Craig Miller who wrote about the five best ways to die. Was that you?

Wow. It was not me. When I first put the book on Amazon, there’s a section on the book’s page that shows “people who viewed this book also viewed this,” and there was a book like, “How to kill yourself.” It kind of pissed me off. You’re at the mercy of Amazon algorithms. That’s why I put the middle initial  in my name, Craig A. Miller. No, I didn’t write that.

Is there a sense of pride in the experience somehow?

Attempting suicide?

Yes.

When I look at it, what I did, that I was fortunate enough to survive, I don’t feel any pride that I attempted suicide. I feel sad that it took me getting to that point to really turn around. I spent a lot of years talking myself out of it, trying to keep hope. I was always on that edge of, “Either my life is going to turn out really good or really bad.” It makes me sad for myself and for my family that attempting suicide was sort of what it took for me to step off that line. There’s no pride in the fact that I attempted suicide. But I do feel pride in the fact that I was able to move on and be able to learn from everything in my life, not just the suicide attempt, and be able to do something about it. I think the pride comes along the way in the healing process, of looking at everything, knowing that I survived the upbringing, the mental illness, sadness and hopelessness. I’m not necessarily surviving the suicide attempt but surviving all the things in my life. The healing process became the pride. Don’t get me wrong. I still wrestle with self-doubt quite often, but …

Not to that extent?

Not to that extent. In a healthy way. The self-doubt I have is almost like a tool. I don’t go into anything thinking I have it covered. The doubt makes me stay on my toes. In a way, I never let my guard down. I say I can do this, but it’s a healthy balance of pride and doubt. I don’t think it stops me from doing anything. It makes me do the things I do better.

Is there any way for people to avoid getting to that point in their life, a suicide attempt, to make changes?

Everyone has a different breaking point, a different bottom. I would hope that the message in the book and the work that people like me and you are doing to try and raise awareness, I would hope that our message could be received further upstream, people could start seeing things in a new way before things get so bad that they can’t see at all. That’s my intent. What I hope to do. Give that hope before it gets too bad for them. I think that’s what all of us as attempt survivors can bring. We’ve been there, gotten through it, especially attempt survivors who’ve done their healing. I think it’s our responsibility, in a sense, to give back.

Does society make that easy, talking openly about suicide?

I think at this point, it’s not very easy. It’s becoming more and more known. And “popular,” I guess, is a bad word, but the awareness of suicide is being presented by a lot more groups than in the past, especially since I was in high school. It’s primarily driven from the survivors’ standpoint, those left behind. I think it could use more attempt survivors. But there’s that side, where there’s a lot of fear that an attempt survivor could be seen as glamorizing the process. I can understand that. I think it needs to be done the right way. But a very, very strong message can be created by suicide attempt survivors. As equally as a survivor who has been left behind.

Has anyone said you’re glamorizing suicide?

No, knock on wood, no. But you can go into almost anything with that state of mind. You can look at artists, song lyrics, books and look at it in that sense if you wanted to. I was definitely nervous about that. I have this belief that helped me all along the way, getting it out of me. I had to get that negative stuff out of me. A lot of stuff was negative. Not in a driving way as in, “Go do this,” but a lot of dark emotions I expressed. I try to do the same with my photography. If I’m feeling blissful, I take photos of the sun and flowers. If I’m feeling depressed and it’s a gray day, raining for a week, I go take black-and-white’s of the fog. Some say it’s too sad and encourages depression, some say it’s beautiful. I think expressing oneself is extremely important in balancing emotions. Expressing appropriately

What would be inappropriate?

Well, some stuff out there is unreal. You look at some of the death metal bands and gore websites, all blood and guts, there are some pretty dark things on the internet. I don’t think people need to go that far. I think there is a lot of art that’s aimed at getting a reaction rather than trying to purge and express. There is a line where it sort of loses taste.

Did you use to like them?

Not necessarily.

Ideally, is there some way suicide should be discussed?

I don’t know, I think it’s just bringing it more mainstream. I would assume. It’s almost like a lot of things that were taboo years ago. I may be speaking out of line, but I would say gay and lesbian issues years ago were sort of buried and not talked about. Then you have the media and social media and channels like MTV that helped make it more acceptable. It’s gotten to a point where tolerance has gone way up. It can be openly discussed where years ago it couldn’t. You see people talking more openly. I think it’s gotten a lot more to the point where it may be more acceptable, which I applaud. But I would think that in the same respect something like suicide _ being one of those room-silencing words that make people just clam up and not know what to say _ I think if more awareness is brought to it, more understanding, people would get better about talking about it. Just like it was and is being done with gay and lesbian issues. It’s no longer this taboo thing. At least not everywhere.

But with homosexuality, they can say there’s a lot that’s good in it to be proud of. With suicide, there’s not a lot of great stuff around it. Or am I wrong?

Right, how do you find the good side of it? I think we need more awareness around it. People need to meet further upstream and get involved before it happens. But also I think it’s important, and I’m not sure if this gets me into trouble, but it’s important that we acknowledge that thinking about suicide, while it’s not OK, quote unquote, it’s part of who we are and it’s how dark it gets sometimes. If a person has stood on the edge of suicide, they’re not a bad person for thinking that way. They’re very hurt and very sick. And things can be done to help them. They shouldn’t be ashamed they thought of it, or cried themselves to sleep because they didn’t want to wake up the next morning. But it’s entered a lot of people’s minds, and there’s help for it. I think that’s where a lot of the room silence comes from, a stigma, a horrible thing, “You should be ashamed for even thinking about it.” A lot of people who’ve never really been there don’t understand.

What are you going to do next?

I’m going to try to speak. The response I’ve gotten from this book is overwhelming. I feel a responsibility to keep pushing it. I want to make sure I do it in the right way. Then I want to write more books. “This is How it Feels” speaks more about how I got through my struggles and how I see life moving forward. The biggest question I get from readers is, “How did you do it? How did you get to the person you are now?” A lot people that know me now had no idea I had this kind of history. And that, I think, is what my next book should be about. How did I heal? What did I do? I think I owe the readers that book.

Who else are you?

Well, I’m the typical answer. A dad, a husband, a coworker. I’m just a regular guy. But I have a passion for things. Whatever it is I’m doing, I have to give 100 percent. That comes from my past. I have to make this life worth it. I have to find what success means to me. I don’t let up on that. That’s an every day, every night thing for me. I’m constantly thinking of what I can do to better myself, to find what success means to me. To move to that next level. I don’t stop thinking about stuff like that. And that sort of bleeds into everything, whether it be photography, poetry, writing, I give 100 percent of myself. I have to. It’s like I have to make everything worth it. To me. Not to everyone else, just to me.

Talking with Tom Greensides

Tom Greensides is yet another of the outspoken Canadians who make me wonder what’s going on up there above the border. We spoke this week, and he gave me a good introduction to the surgery called deep brain stimulation, which is the first treatment that has managed to keep his depression at bay.

It wasn’t the easiest procedure, but he pursued it tenaciously, even after being turned down by doctors. “The most uncomfortable part was when they drilled holes in my skull,” Tom says. “It’s like having a tooth drilled. I don’t think you’re as old as I am. When I was young, dentists drilled your teeth and it just about shook you out of the chair.”

Here, he talks about his friends’ teasing about the treatment, his new attitude toward mental health and the modest but important role a coffee shop called Tim Horton’s has played in his everyday motivation.

Who are you?

I’m 66 years old. I was diagnosed with depression when I was in my 50s. Up till then, I had managed to do whatever to get by, but it was later in life that it really hit me. One day, I ended up at the doctor’s office because all I could do was cry. I used to be an eastern Canada sales manager for plant nutrients, and you can’t make sales calls with tears running down your face. The doctor said “depression.” It was the first time I had heard that word applied to me, and I’ve been battling it ever since.

Prior to having the DBS surgery, I needed to supply a list of my medications. I was shocked when I went to the drug store to get it, and it was 35 pages long. I had tried just about everything. I tried two courses of ECT for a total of 29 treatments. Most things worked for me in the beginning, but shortly, three months, whatever, I was back in a mess again. And then in 2005, I started really seriously thinking about suicide. I started a note in January 2005 to my family about what I was going to do and trying to make sure they understood it wasn’t their fault. Finally, the 24th of May, I walked away from home early in the morning and took an overdose that ended up leaving me unconscious under a tree for 30 hours. When I came to, I crawled to an area where I was found. That led to the hospital, where I started to get real help.

I really believe the only thing one leaves in life is their family, and I’ve always been very
protective. I wanted to make that investment in my family and convinced myself that, by taking myself out of their lives, they would all be better off. During my hospitalization, the doctor pointed out to me that the worst thing I could ever have done was commit suicide; my family would never, ever recover from it. I had thought it through, and I figured suicide would be like any other death. We’re all going to die, so I thought they’d have a funeral, and a week later they’d all go back to work. They’d miss me for a while, then go on back to their lives. It was my new psychiatrist who convinced me that this was absolutely not true. They would not recover. I made a commitment with him that, if I ever felt suicidal again, I’d go to the hospital and get help.That did happen twice in the next year or two, but I started learning ways to deal with it myself and not to do it.

I learned to do things like go for a walk. A big effort for me. Depression wants to make one
spend a lot of time in bed. And many times, I’ve been laying down, thinking, “This can’t go on, I’ve had enough,” and getting up either to do something about ending it, or doing something to not end it. On those occasions, I generally put on my walking shoes and walk for a couple miles. In Canada we have donut shops called Tim Horton’s. Where I live now is halfway between two Tim Horton’s, so I can walk about 45 minutes, have a coffee and go home. And each time I get back, all of a sudden “ending it all” is not important anymore. I had to learn tricks like that, doing things even though I didn’t want to. I learned how to take the first step. And once I put my boots on, I might as well step outside. Once outside, I might as well start walking to the corner. And so on. I’ve learned to take life in very small steps right now and not worry about the big picture. This approach helped me to survive until I got the DBS implant.

This September, I took a job driving a school bus. I love the interaction with the young people. I love having to get up in the morning to do something. And without the DBS, I would never have been able to do that. So I consider myself a pretty fortunate person. We live in what is called the Niagara region, and apparently I’m the only person in the region with a DBS implant.

How do you know?

Just by talking with my doctors. It’s still rather experimental. I think one big reason I received the surgery was, maybe, because of my age. They had no experience with people as old as I am.

Tell me how you came across DBS and decided to pursue it.

I looked for answers, and whatever I saw online or in the news, I followed up on. There was a treatment, I think vagus nerve stimulation. It was only available in the U.S.A. and was incredibly expensive. I rejected it. Finally, I found out about DBS, and it looked good. I talked to my psychiatrist, and he at first advised against having it, then we both studied it. He said, “You know, you need to go for it.” He realized how bad things were for me, just struggling to stay alive. So I just kept going for a walk, a little bit at a time, pushing for it. The surgery is done in Toronto. The head of the department was speaking one day to local health care professionals. I showed up at the meeting uninvited, and at the end I talked to him. He agreed to meet with me and started the assessment. I was turned down, but I kept pushing until I finally got it. A matter of being your own advocate.

When did you get it done?

Sept 14, 2011.

How does it work?

I have had two electrodes implanted in section 25 of my brain. Those are hooked up to a
pacemaker-type device implanted in my chest. There’s a battery in it, not unlike a heart
pacemaker, called a neurostimulator. It can be set at a variety of settings. Mine is set at eight volts. They increase the settings as required. I had the last increase about three weeks ago. I’m sort of a medical miracle. I have had skin cancer since 1982, and the last bout was this summer. I needed radiation on the back of my head, and no one is sure what happened, but it knocked me into a bout of depression. They increased the voltage, and it worked very well. I went in three weeks ago tomorrow, and the doctor checked it all out and said, “Its working,” and I said, “I can’t go on like this.” He increased it a full volt. My wife was with me; I think she didn’t trust me to go alone any place. When we walked out of the hospital and within 15 minutes, I remember the exact spot outside the hospital, I said to my wife, “Something’s changed. I feel different.” It happens that quickly. I guess the take-home message for me is, there are a lot of people, including me, who wonder what causes depression: “What did I do to cause depression? Did I eat the wrong foods, work too hard, whatever, whatever, whatever.” I guess what’s been really helpful is to understand that if they can stick two electrodes in my brain and relieve the depression, it’s likely that I didn’t cause it. It’s a chemical imbalance, or whatever. It has nothing to do with anything I did in the past. My wife always wonders to herself whether she did something to cause it or can do something to cure it. And after that, obviously, the answer is no. It’s been a huge relief for me. I love to work hard. I regularly get up at 5 a.m. and, when I was employed, I used to start at 5 a.m. to go do things while other people were still sleeping, and I just loved it. A lot of people said, “You overdid it.” I did a lot of volunteer work, and I loved that, too. “Overdoing it” had nothing to do with it.

What caused it?

I had a grandfather who suffered from depression. It was likely a genetic connection. It missed my mother’s generation, but two of my cousins suffer from depression, making three of us in this generation. So I guess if anything causes it, it’s being born in the wrong family. And I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have a choice.

What have people noticed about you? What changes?

People can’t believe the huge difference in me. We went to a dinner party with a number of
people a few weeks ago, and jokingly one of them said, “We’re going to take the battery out of your device because you’re enjoying things too much.” My wife really, really notices the difference. And when it wasn’t working after my radiation treatments, she could tell.

How has all of this been for her?

It’s been extremely difficult in two respects. One, it’s adjusting your life to someone who has depression, who doesn’t have any fun, doesn’t want to go anyplace, everything’s a struggle. Then all of a sudden he wants to do things, go places. So there have been two big adjustments for her.

You mentioned that your family is your only legacy. But when you look back at your
thinking at the time, that they would hold your funeral and then move on, does that
thinking make sense now?

No, it’s absolutely incorrect thinking. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work. One thing I did recently was speak at a suicide awareness walk in St. Catharines. It is definitely one of the most difficult things I have done. I spoke as a survivor of suicide, and I was speaking to the victims left behind by suicide. It was unbelievable. There were about 300 people there. How much pain and agony was in that room!

And yet I understand that suicide has nothing to do with dying. In my opinion, it only has to do with trying to relieve the mental pain, the anguish, the anxiety. Most people who are so down and in such a position that they want to commit suicide can’t really appreciate what the full impact will be on the ones they leave behind.

Do you think the people in that room can understand that point of view?

Some did. That was my purpose in speaking, to provide them with some relief. To tell them
that the person who committed suicide hadn’t done it to get even or hurt anyone, it was just because they just couldn’t live with the mental pain any longer. And it’s so hard to explain that to somebody who hasn’t been there. I’m not super religious or whatever, but I am a Christian. In religion, they talk about doing the right things to get everlasting life. One thing that terrified me was to get stuck with everlasting life. And I’ve not told anybody that. That’s one thing you’ve got out of me.

You thought that all your life?

No, just since I was depressed. But I understand listening to the minister speak, and the first thing that pops into my mind is, “Why the hell would I want that?”

If your younger self could meet your older self now, would it understand?

Not at all. I would not have been good at it. I’m almost embarrassed at how I handled people, before my illness, who were suffering from mental illness. If I walked down the street and saw someone talking to themself or whatever, I would try to avoid them. And if today I saw them, I’d walk up and say, “Good morning” or whatever. I’ve learned so much. It’s too bad I had to be so old to learn.

You said the many treatments you’ve tried didn’t last long, beyond a few months. Are you worried about the DBS lasting?

I worry about that on a daily basis. Now, the success rate of DBS is over 80 percent with people like me. And my doctor in Toronto tells me, “Don’t give up, we know it will work.” And those electrodes have four positions they can select, and a variety of voltages from five to about 10 and a half, so there are many variations. He said, “If it doesn’t work, we just haven’t found the right combination.”

What about the possible downsides, the cost, the pain, etc?

I have no idea about cost because it was covered under the government health plan. It’s not an issue in Ontario. The pain is like having serious dental work. You have no feeling in your brain, so the only issue was the halo that held me in place. They froze various portions of my skull, and I won’t say it was painful, but the most uncomfortable part was when they drilled holes in my skull. It’s like having a tooth drilled. I don’t think you’re as old as I am. When I was young, dentists drilled your teeth and it just about shook you out of the chair. The nurse knew it would be troublesome, so she held my hand, helped me get through it. The pain wasn’t bad at all. And when they stick things in your brain, you don’t feel it.

You were awake the whole time?

You have to be. To establish where section 25 is, they have a laptop showing me different
kinds of pictures. They had devices in my brain measuring the impulses from what I saw on the laptop. The surgery started at about 9 a.m., and around 9:30 they started probing in my brain. Finally at about 1 o’clock, they said, “I think we can insert the electrodes.” Now, I expect I was anesthetized somewhat. But certainly I couldn’t speak and had to do things like move my hand to say “Yes” or “No,” because the devices in my brain, when I tried to speak, created static on the machines behind me. Oh, it’s sort of like space-age science fiction. It’s really hard for a fellow like me, who was educated before computers were even invented, to understand what was happening.

And yet you were really tenacious to get it.

Yes.

And your family was OK with it?

Yes. My family’s been involved ever since the suicide attempt. I’ve kept my family fully apprised of what I was doing. The day of my surgery, my son actually booked off work, and he took me to the hospital and stayed with my wife for the day until I was back in the hospital room at night.

What about right after your attempt? Were you so open? Some people, including myself for a while, keep it so secret and quiet.

Before I was sick, I used to do a lot of volunteer work, president of the local chamber of
commerce, president of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, all sorts of things like that. All involved public speaking. After my suicide attempt, my counselor at the hospital said it would be really good if I joined the CMHA speakers bureau. I said, “OK,” but I didn’t do anything about it. The next time she said, “Did you do anything?” “No.” Finally, after three tries, I called CMHA and ended up going up there. And for me, it was one of the best things I ever did for my own therapy; publicly speaking about it and being honest. I don’t know how many times I’ve spoken. It’s been well over 100 times. I’ve never had a bad reaction. To me, that shows the acceptance of people if you can explain your story. And that’s been really, really good for me.

Were there any worries about facing the same people that you had spoken to before in your earlier roles?

I never thought about it for some reason. I’m from a small community called Grimsby, and two years ago, they had an event called Lunch and Learn. I was asked to speak, and they did a poster up that said “Tom Greensides,” and I’m well-known enough in the community that people knew me. And they packed the room. And it didn’t bother me at all. Because, I guess, you can’t hide it.

So the only way, for me, is to deal with it, be up front, talk about it, and I guess the benefit of speaking to a group is they’re committed and listen and you can tell your story. And you know, we have some people we know who suffer from mental illness. We had a mother and young daughter at our house for coffee a couple weeks ago, and they were very reluctant to admit they suffer. My wife and I encourage them not to be reluctant. It’s certainly not going to change overnight. The young person is in her early 20s and longs to continue her education. We are helping her to get involved in our local university which has a good record of working with people with mental illness, letting them set their own pace.

How about the questions people ask you? Anything striking?

I had to have surgery once for something totally unrelated. At the hospital in Hamilton, the doctor I had for the pre-op noticed all the antidepressant medications I was taking. He said, “All you need to do is throw all of these away and take vitamin E.” And I’ve heard that from a few people. Not when I’ve spoken, but I’ve had a handful of people tell me. But I find the hardest to deal with is health care professionals who are not involved with mental illness.

Why?

I don’t know. I don’t know. At the mental health department here in St. Catharines, the first
objective of the new executive director is to train the rest of the staff in mental illness. And I’d agree it’s a big, big need. But no, I’ve never had a question when I spoke that I wouldn’t answer. You know, I guess if you tell your story, people are very sensitive to what you’re dealing with. But to do that, you have to be honest with your story.

Why would someone be dishonest?

You gloss over, minimize, whatever, I don’t know. Because it’s not an issue for me. And you know Wendy, and Wendy certainly is very honest.

What’s up with Canada? People seem more accepting up there than in the U.S.

I don’t have enough experience to really comment. But a lot of people like Wendy and so on have been working to try and elevate people’s understanding of mental illness. And again, I have enough trouble keeping up with everything in Canada.

What more can be done about the stigma around suicide?

I think we need to keep doing what we’re doing and do more of it. It’s not a sprint, it’s a journey. The lady I mentioned earlier, she has an awful time with her mother who keeps telling her to just fix it: “So you’re feeling bad, just carry on.” I’ve been there. You can’t do that. So not everybody up here is understanding. But I think we’re working at it. We certainly haven’t done the job completely.

How about the media, public discourse, should that change and how?

I’ve found the media here very supportive of mental illness. I sent you articles from The St.
Catharines Standard. They did a whole week’s worth on mental illness, major whole-page
articles. I guess I wouldn’t be at all critical of the media here.

I’m also thinking about movies, TV, books, portrayals, etc.

I think they’ve become more sensitive about it, but I don’t think the deal’s all done, either.

I want to go back to the question about the time just after your attempt and how open you were. You talked about speaking publicly, but what about speaking with your family? Did you ever keep it quiet at first?

No. I couldn’t keep it quiet. “Where’s Dad?” “He’s in the hospital.” “Which one? Where in the hospital? Why is he in the psychiatric ward?” You know, you couldn’t hide it, and my wife was very honest with them. She explained it exactly. And they came, and we talked and visited and so on. I don’t know how you’d keep something like that quiet. And if you think you’re keeping it quiet, you’re likely only fooling yourself and not anyone around you.

I tend to think that a lot of mental health professionals are drawn to the field because of their own experience, but they don’t dare mention it.

My psychiatrist congratulates me on my speaking. He says, “I have all these letters after my name, but I don’t begin to understand mental illness like you do. And you have such a valuable part to play because you’ve been there.” Maybe I’m being really lucky, being encouraged by a professional.

I like to end with the question, Who else are you?

A grandfather, a father. But I’ve always had a strong motivation to be involved. And now, I
guess, I’ve become almost supersensitive about the issues around mental illness. And I work as a volunteer trying to improve the quality of life for people who struggle with mental issues, personality issues or whatever. I guess we all go in this world only once, and very few of us are allowed to be perfect when we do that. So we need to be sensitive to people’s flaws and not judge them because of that. I volunteer on a crisis line, and I find it tremendously rewarding to talk to someone struggling for whatever reason and try to bring a bit of comfort to their life. I guess I have changed a lot because of it.

With the crisis line, did your personal experience matter, or did you even bring it up?

Not at all. They consider that an advantage because I can work from a point of understanding, because some volunteers have not been where I’ve been.

How do you protect yourself from getting too overwhelmed or too involved or such?

It’s not an issue yet, but it’s something I’m watching. And at the crisis line, there are professionals there, and those professionals monitor people like me, to make sure that it doesn’t become overwhelming, They’re prepared to help us, so there’s a bit of a backup there as well.

Talking with Arnold Thomas

Arnold Thomas may have been the most ornery of the people I’ve spoken with for this blog, but that’s in a good way. He properly punishes you for asking a yes-or-no question by giving the one-word answer and stopping there. Over the phone, I could practically hear him smiling. We spoke last month.

I came across him in a recent article in Indian Country Today about his work in Native American ceremonies and with military veterans. The article says that two years after his father killed himself, Arnold put a hunting rifle under his chin and pulled the trigger. It left him blind. For the first two years of his recovery, he was unable to speak. One night after his first surgery, he says in the article, “I was so frustrated that I packed my bags in the middle of the night, grabbed my mother’s car keys, went out to the car and started it up. My mother came running out, and she was crying. She said, ‘What are you doing?'”

He has since become an incredibly busy public speaker. He draws on his experience to connect with the veterans who continue to come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Trauma is where you lost your innocence,” he says. “And there’s different ways that people lose their innocence.”

Please introduce yourself. Who are you?

The quick response is, I could send you all this information by e-mail.

But I like to ask questions! And make you talk.

Well, that ain’t no fun! Oh geez, I have all kinds of hats. Son, grandson, great-grandson, you know, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, brother, uncle … I’m Shoshone and Paiute and part Irish. Last October there was an ordination that was performed, and I was ordained as a holy one by my elders and ceremonial leaders out here in the West.

What does that mean?

As it was explained to me by one of my elders, it’s that as an individual, we live a certain standard of spiritual life that is in accordance with spiritual and natural laws. And he states that everyone is holy. And sacred. I’m also the first-ever chaplain of Native American faith tradition as far as I know in the world right now.

Military chaplain, or overall?

Overall. There are chaplains, and there are chaplains who are Native American, but none that have claimed to be from the Native American faith tradition.

What do you do?

As a chaplain? Well, I conduct various traditional Native American ceremonies for the veterans medical center in Salt Lake City. I conduct a traditional sweat lodge ceremony, traditional pipe ceremony, as well as other ceremonies for veterans and family members of veterans.

I came to you because of your suicide work. Are the ceremonies related to that?

The other thing I am is, I am the business owner of a motivational consulting firm and offer various presentations throughout the world addressing the issue of suicide. So yes to your question regarding how does my work with the veterans population intertwine with the topic of suicide. Because of my own suicide attempt and losing family and friends to suicide, all the experiences have brought me to this point where I am able to help individuals who have experienced traumatic experiences.

How did you get into this work?

Well, it chose me. Yeah. I began volunteering, speaking with youth in a juvenile detention center in Salt Lake City, and after graduate school I created my own proposal and was able to get some funding to create a web page and complete an autobiographical video and my first CD and brochures and marketed myself, and that’s where it began. And it’s taken me, from that first conference, to countless communities and throughout the world.

How many years has it been?

’99. 1899!

That’s a decent amount of time. Have you noticed attitudes changing about it, in talking about it?

Yes.

How so?

Well, like the one article I sent you from Indian Country Today, I don’t want to say it’s a prime example of making efforts to eliminate the stigma that surrounds suicide. I think the manner in which I have presented this issue and topic over the years has allowed individuals to want to discuss the various experiences that cause them trauma and want to discuss some of the loss that they experienced because of suicide. And I think because I’ve been able to speak about this issue, it’s allowed others to be comfortable and OK about talking about their losses and their own depression and grief.

When you first started, how you feel and how did people respond?

I was scared as hell. Really nervous. Actually, the individual who encouraged me was a motivational speaker and he went gold at, I think, one of the Olympics for freestyle ski jumping. Yeah. And so he took me under his wing when I first began and he coached me along. It was pretty nerve-wracking.

What was his best advice, the most useful?

He just said, “Tell your story. And be OK with it.” That was back in the early ’90s.

How did people respond?

I had a captive audience, because a lot of these youth were locked up for petty crimes they had committed. And I think more than anything, you know, to me over the years it’s a story of resilience. As people, we all get down and we all fall down, and the beauty of it is, we have the ability to bounce back. And I’d like to think that, I’m an optimist, I like to believe that everyone has that ability, when they do fall down that they can bounce back. But unfortunately, for different reasons, not everyone does.

There is a chief, he’s passed away, he was a chief of chiefs for the Six Nations Confederacy. He said, “You choose your path in life, and when you choose your path in life, the creator will give you your mission on that path.”

But why this path?

Why this path? The same reason why you choose your path. I’ve heard elders speak at traditional tribal elder gatherings. They say you chose your family, you chose to be here in this time in history, we continue to choose. Sometimes when we’re children, there are experiences that happen to us and we have no control over but when we are adults have that ability to choose. I know some people who aren’t able to because of their bipolar or whatever, some different mental illnesses. And so we have the ability to choose where we are now. The way I look at it is, we have the ability to choose how we want to work with what’s happened in our past, how to deal with those experiences to make it a little better today and into the future. So we’re looking at that statement, we choose our path. When I say creator, I don’t mean God but the one who created everything back to the beginning. The creator will surround us with the people we need to be surrounded with to reach our full potential as a spiritual being and give us the tools we need.

Do you have the right people and the right tools now?

I believe I’ve always had them. I guess the way I look at it is, all my experiences helped cultivate me into the spiritual being I am today. I believe I have everything I need to make my life how it is.

I read that it took a long time for you to be able to speak. And I’m wondering how you got that back.

(Pause.) So, who do you think is going to win the presidential debate tonight? … As a Native American, I guess the way I look at it is, our spiritual faith tradition, it’s not religious, you know, and you look at the indigenous people, their spiritual lifeways are governed by natural and spiritual laws. And in religions, there are beliefs that men created, and you look at the first part of the Bible that says man has dominion over everything. And for the indigenous people of North America, it’s like that understanding that man has ultimate power has caused great devastation to our earth and our lands. That mentality has raped and almost destroyed our spiritual belief set that originated from the mother earth.

How would that lead to suicide?

OK, so how does that lead to suicide? Well, how has that impacted the indigenous people of North America? It goes right back into that doctrine of discovery, that, number one, you’re not people if you do not believe in a Christian god, therefore you’re like the rabbit and the deer, so we’re going to control you, we’re gonna kill you. So to the point where the language was stripped from tribal people, and our tribal languages connect us with the natural elements and natural laws and spiritual laws and intertwines us with everything in life that we know. And so when your language is stripped from you, and you’re forced to speak another language and believe in a foreign god, it’s a pretty difficult task. And we’ve seen how it has devastated people’s minds and culture as a whole.

Do you remember why you were so quick to jump to what you thought was the solution, meaning suicide?

It goes back into that mentality, that belief that suicide is a valid solution. And it goes back many generations, back to my great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers and what occurred with them, you know, during the wars with the calvary and the military. And how eventually they were forced to give up and then forced into concentration camps and forced to give up their language, their traditions and ceremonies and way of life. So when an individual is down and depressed, sometimes what other options do you have? So what indigenous spiritual ways of life teach us is, life is a gift, life is precious, be thankful for what you have. So when all that was taken away from my forefathers over time, it had an impact on who they were. And so there’s still suppression, oppression that still occurs towards indigenous people in the world, and so for me, being young, you know, there was some of that rage in there, there was some of that unresolved grief that was passed down from generation to generation.

The last person I talked with for this said a lot of suicide comes from injustice.

One of my uncles explained, we are people of memory. And you really look at that understanding of genetic composition, all the genes that comprise who we are, so there’s different aspects of who we are that need to be healed, going back many years. And here we are, we’re given the opportunity to process through this information and memories from our bloodlines, and so we’re given this opportunity to process through it and to heal.

… So who do you think is gonna win the presidential race?

Let me ask about the veterans. Do you have to talk to them a different way, take a different approach?

I’m dealing with my traditions. I’ve made it clear that I’m not conducting a Christian spiritual service, made it clear and they’re aware this is a traditional ceremony I conduct, and I’m going to maintain it in the way it was passed down to me. A lot of veterans are aware, a lot of Native American veterans, a lot of black veterans, of various populations that attend the sweat lodge, the ceremonies I conduct. And they’re aware of the history. And I mentioned earlier that all the experiences I’ve been through, and my people, everything we’ve been through, for myself I’ve been able to process through these different experiences and make my effort to heal, to forgive, number one, myself and number two, my father and number three, my grandfather, all the way going back to what happened between the calvary and my tribal people. And going back to forgiving some of the first peoples who came to this land. Yes, they had good intentions, but my belief is they went about it in the wrong way in that they tried to force the people into believing in their way. And so I had to go back and forgive. So I wouldn’t be walking around angry.

You know, what you said is what some people say about Iraq and Afghanistan …

Yeah, I’m slowly working my way up to it. You get the picture. And some of the combat vets I speak with, they don’t agree with what they did over there.

Is that what messed them up, or what they think messed them up?

To me, war is not a common experience. I look at that as trauma, you know, and what’s trauma, they call it PTSD, it was explained to me this way. Trauma is where you lost your innocence. And there’s different ways that people lose their innocence. Take a soldier. You go into war and are shot at. That’s not what you do on a daily basis. Get shot at, people die. At what point do you stop enjoying life? So that’s the understanding, the loss of innocence. One of the teachings is, we must enjoy life. And we must give thanks for what we have. My elders told me, if you’re not enjoying life, you’re not thankful. You’re out of balance. Something’s going on. They went on to explain that, what’s going on, so you go back to that trauma, where was innocence lost. And you go back and look at that, what experiences were there, did you have that space to express your emotions and thoughts, did you have that chance to forgive and let go. Not forgetting that experience but letting yourself be OK with that so it doesn’t have power over you and paralyze you. Sometimes the memories are triggered by different dates during the year.  We gather the memories through various experiences, and they can be triggered at different times of the year. Also, the memories can surface up in our dreams. So he says all people have the ability to reason unless you’re grieving. So, what is it you’re grieving? Then once we begin to address those issues of loss, our understanding that life is beautiful, is a gift, you know, where did that stop? Work with it and heal.

The people you work with, do they ever get angry with you?

Yeah.

Why?

What has been told to me and the way I look at it is, a veteran is a warrior. And who’s a warrior? A warrior is the one that carries the bag of bones of his or her ancestors on his back. The bones represent the traditions, the language, the ceremonies, the people’s way of a spiritual life. The warrior is standing up for the community. And what the community’s beliefs are. And to me, you know, looking at that warrior, these soldiers, when they enter the military they’re signing their life away. And they’re trained to think and react, and there’s an emotional aspect that’s taken out from who they are. And what I noticed working with veterans and soldiers is that some of them enter the military to avoid being placed in correctional facilities, some joined because their family’s in poverty, and others joined because of military family loyalty. And so oftentimes there’s unresolved emotional issues that some veterans carry with them from pre-military experiences that haven’t been dealt with. So with the combat veterans, in addition to those premilitary experiences or trauma, now they have combat trauma added to that. And so oftentimes some of the veterans get upset with me because of some of their own issues rise to the surface and they don’t want to deal with it.

But then what do you do? What happens?

What do I do? I listen to them. And just like you, ask questions. And listen more. And if I’m working with a veteran who’s not from my faith tradition, I’m sensitive to their religious spiritual beleifs, and if it’s a veteran that is seeking guidance from me as a chaplain from my faith tradition, I’ll offer prayers and use certain ceremonial instruments and items and herbs to help them with the healing process.

On NPR, they aired an eight or nine-minute piece on the work I do with veterans.

(He asks why I attempted, and I tell him about it.)

The training I’ve been through as a spiritual leader, some people call me the medicine man. My education background in psychology, the chaplaincy, all that training just makes we want to go deep. I’m always looking at processing through why, how come. I don’t spend my whole day doing that because I’m constantly working with people like yourself, people in the community, people outside the state, and for me, it makes me process through and find words where certain thoughts and emotions are because people want answers, right? So oftentimes I want to talk about the importance of water and all the different teachings that come from water and do that for a whole hour, and I have related it to the sanctity of life. As I told one of my mentors, I’m tired of talking about suicide! That’s all they want me to do, is tell my story!

Not to be pompous, but as a professional, I’ve been doing this since 1999. When I was at the height, I was speaking six times a day in a city in different schools. So I’ve been on TV, on radio, some really remote regions of the world. They say, “We’ve got 30,000 listeners” and I’m like, “OK.” At a certain point in the year I’ll talk to some of my mentors, and I am reminded it’s not about me,  there’s a lot of messages in there. It’s about bouncing back. It’s about resilience. They want to hear that. They want to have hope, have faith.

You saw me on the web page, I’ve been through a lot of surgeries to reconstruct my face. It was a long time, a year and a half, where I was not able to communicate so people could understand me. I had to use a notepad. A frustrating time. 18 or 19 years old and having to deal with the guilt, the shame of a failed suicide attempt, that we don’t talk about as people. The grief, losing the eyesight, also dealing with the loss, you know, of being unable to speak. So. A very trying time. To be honest, back then I didn’t foresee myself ever being able to speak again. But with patience and … Patience is a word I have now, but then the emotional anguish was excruciating. And you’ve been there. And there’s nothing to do to make it better. Waiting it out. And especially when you’re not able to talk to anybody about it. So, with patience and prayers from family and friends and music, I love music, and I’ll make an effort to figure out what my life was gonna be. Somewhere in there some hope, some faith came forth. I moved to the city and began attending the school for the blind.

The counselor I initially saw at the blind center, he’s now the director of the whole state, he said, “I’m letting you know there’s only two things you can’t do. You will not be able to drive independently or read printed material independently.” There’s other ways to accomplish those tasks. But he said anything else you want to do in life is possible.

You must have believed him.

Well hell, what else can you do when you’re blind and depressed?

You make a good point. You talk about this over and over. Tell me about the rest of you. Who else are you?

(Pause.) Sorry, my dogs are barking. I love music, so I’m a musician. I have 30 CDs out …

30?

Three! So far. My life, when I’m not conducting ceremonies, which is very rare, I attend other ceremonies. I enjoy attending ceremonies and activities. I enjoy movies, being out on the land, in the mountains, I enjoy going out and gathering the roots that we use for ceremonies. I enjoy being on the road a lot. I get to learn a lot of historical information about sites, land, information about different cities. Yeah. So I enjoy history.

I don’t know how you could live in New York! At least it’s home.

Anything to add?

No, nothing right now. From the first time I began speaking about my experience, it’s really evolved into a presentation when I do speak. It’s really evolved into something I never thought it would. I attribute that to one’s willingness to work on themselves and be open. And not allowing pain to move you to the next place in life. Too often we allow pain to be the motivator to move us to the next place in life. But to allow enlightenment to move us to that next place in life. The reason why I say that is, when I do a presentation, oftentimes individuals, I guess, had no idea how to take the presentation because they think that all suicide prevention presentations are depressing and have that heaviness to them, you know. And I’ve done enough research and traveling and working with people that when I do work with people, it’s more grounded in spirituality, entertained with humor. Everything I speak of is all connected together. The presentations often are about life.

Talking with Janice Sorensen

I was happy to find another support for group for suicide attempt survivors, this time in Massachusetts. I came across the Alternatives to Suicide Peer Support Groups while looking over the schedule of the recent Alternatives conference, a national gathering of mental health peer support workers. So maybe the idea will grow.

Janice Sorensen was one of the presenters. Here, she talks about her own experience, her artistic response to her mother’s multiple attempts and how a diverse community has made the support groups work. “We want to find the balance between giving people a space to touch that despair and share what it is like to be in it, without making it a horror circus for someone who may be there for the first time or who may be feeling vulnerable themselves,” she says.

We spoke shortly before a massive storm hit the East Coast last week, and the posting of our conversation has been a little delayed.

Who are you?

I’m Janice Sorensen. I’m actually navigating that question at this very moment. I recently left the job I was at for a number of years, with the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community. I didn’t realize until I left what a huge part of my identity that job was. Which I think is, or can be, true for a lot of people, identifying with the work they do. Let’s see, what else. I am an artist and take any opportunity to transcribe whatever it is I’m processing in my life onto canvas or wood or glass or paper. Right now, I have a body of work called “Palimpsests in Paint.” And what I’m doing is purchasing previously painted canvases _ in other words, other people’s paintings _ at tag sales and thrift shops, and I am painting over them, allowing some of the original painting to come through. I use these underpaintings to inform my palate and the direction I take with each piece. It’s based on the, you know, the original sheepskin, what do you call it, parchment, that some of the ancient and the illuminated manuscripts were written on. The material became more valuable than the content of the document, so people would decide which documents were less important and would use those and either erase them or just write directly on top of them. So what I’m doing is a little uncomfortable for me. It’s actually very uncomfortable for me when I consider the idea of someone ever knowing that I painted over their image. I spent a lot of time thinking about whether to credit the “underartist” because I do leave some of the image coming through, but I think I am chicken-shitting my way through that one, and at this point, I’m not doing it. I would be mortified if someone ever knew I had painted over his or her piece. So there’s the discomfort that I’m doing something that feels, in some strange way, “wrong.” But it’s kind of a safe way to struggle with a dialectic. It’s not really a great sin. And there’s something bizarre about declaring, you know, what appears to be a mass-produced image of, like, an Italian canal gondola scene, or a muddy _ to my eye _ overworked still life, there’s something interesting in having a bit of power to say, “I declare you unworthy. You’re gone. You are more valuable to me as workable canvas.” I’m sort of embarrassed to say those words, but again, it’s a way to flirt with that kind of dialectic in a place with no stakes. No one’s ever gonna know.

Unless you get famous.

Yeah, that’s true. So yeah, that’s what I’m working on right now in addition to doing suicide prevention work and other consulting work in the field of mental health recovery.

Where should I go with the questions? The support group group or how you got here?

You decide.

Tell me how you got to this point.

OK. I was raised in a household with a woman who had multiple suicide attempts during my childhood, my mother. She attempted maybe six or seven times. And it had a huge impact on me, needless to say. It’s what I thought you did. I thought it was just what people did. When I had a bad day in home ec in sixth grade, I came home and took a bottle of aspirin. That’s what I did. It seemed like a perfectly normal thing to have done. And growing up with my mom also set me up to think on my feet, which I’m actually glad about. I was, with a certain frequency, having to make life-and-death decisions on my mother’s behalf. So, when I was 18, I had my first real serious suicide attempt and was very fortunate that the night watchman _ I had parked my car in a business district where I was sure there would be no passing cars at that hour, the wee hours of that morning _ the watchman saw the brake light of my car go on because I had passed out and slid down in the seat, and he called the police. The officer who was supposed to be on the other side of town was visiting his girlfriend minutes away. And my life was spared. One interesting aspect of the attempt was, at the time, I was a fundamental, evangelical, born-again Christian, and, frankly, I was thrilled I was going to see God. I sang myself to sleep, which certainly feels problematic to me now.

Now that I have kids, I have fully and completely declared that suicide is not an option. And certainly I’m grateful for that commitment once the despair has passed. I’m also very aware of the fact that my life moves in cycles. And when I was younger and things were horrible, I didn’t know that the way life works is that things get better. They may get worse again, but then they do get better again too. It took a number of years before I realized the pattern. Now I know when I’m in the absolute lowest place that I will be happy again. For a long time, it was my mantra that “It always gets better.” And, yet, there are times that I am absolutely livid, furious that suicide is not an option for me. I just want to explode in my anger that I made this commitment. But I, you know, stick with it and always find that yes, life is rich and wonderful and, like others have expressed in the history of your blog and in life in general, the lows can make normal seem rich and certainly make great seem stupendous.

Where are you now?

Where am I living?

I mean the ups and downs.

Good question. I was really sad today, being in this community. I was the Franklin County coordinator of the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community, like the hub of activity, the “activity director” practically, the person setting up movie night and presentations, the person people called when they’re in a place of crisis. And like I said, I function really well in those circumstances. I call this thing my super power. People ask, “What do you mean your super power?” Someone might diagnose you as bipolar,but  I call those qualities your “super powers.” You just need to learn how to harness and ride them. A friend recently told me I was an empath. I kind of know this, but its nice to be affirmed. So in my role as coordinator, I was really surrounded by a lot of people, coordinating things, doing the nitty-gritty, creating incredible programming, but since I left that position, there’s been a level of loneliness. I’m really trying to examine who I am, what’s my role, and do people like me, do people want to be with me.

I’m really aware of the fact that often people think everyone else is out having fun, has lots of great friends, when in fact so many people are experiencing loneliness. So I try to move past my feelings of loneliness and be the one to call other people. But it definitely has come up for me lately. Tonight, I wanted to go to an event, and I made 15 calls and sent six texts before hearing from anybody. Finally, one response. Before I got that, I wanted to start sobbing. You know, like I said, I’m in a bit of a raw state, trying to figure out what I’m doing. I have a big, beautiful house, a fantastic partner and two amazing children, 17 and 21, and we currently have an exchange student who’s just a wonderful fit for our family living with us. We have goats and chickens, I’m able to do my art, volunteering my ass off, and able to make money on the side with AirBnB, so my life is good. I’m aware of that. I know the art of appreciation for me is a good skill, to compare and contrast. When things feel hard for me, sometimes I create the picture in my mind of the people who are at this moment huddled in burned-out buildings with children and bombs going off, and they are wet and cold. And I use that to keep an awareness of what is going on in the world and also to contrast, help me appreciate the richness and beauty of my own life.

Why did you leave the job?

I guess I’m going to say that there wasn’t quite the funding for me to get the kind of support I needed to do the job well. There’s just not the funding. It was great work and hard work, and I guess it felt like time to hand off the baton.

So you’ve left the support group, too?

No, I do consulting work with a few organizations still, including facilitating the Alternatives to Suicide Peer Support Group. And I’m available to  give facilitator trainings to peer support groups. I do graphic design for them. I’m also working with the National Empowerment Center doing eCPR trainings, emotional CPR. It’s a more holistic version of Mental Health First Aid. And I am scheduled to do a training with Shery Mead’s Intentional Peer Support to learn their facilitation. I am really excited about that one. I love their product. They have really thought through beautifully what they do.

How did you come to do this support group?

We started as a grassroots organization, the Recovery Learning Community. We are all people who have had every shape, size, color and experience with the system. And what became really obvious to us is that if you are in a clinical setting with any number of agencies, and you tell your provider you’re feeling suicidal, you can expect any number of things to occur. The session may end right there, and you may be passed along to a supervisor. You may be hospitalized against your will. You may be medicated against your will. You may find the police at your door when you get home. People think that this is “mandated reporting.” They say, “We have to, by law, report that you are a harm to yourself.” This is absolutely not true. Mandated reporting is required in cases where a child or an elderly or disabled person is being abused. What people are calling “mandated reporting” is actually an agency’s policy, in order to cover their butts, in order to be cautious with regard to lawsuit. A lot of agencies have policies that require that if someone mentions they’re suicidal, the person who works with them must report it. This is not a state mandate, it’s an agency mandate.

So, at the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community we realized that if I’m feeling suicidal, and I tell you about it and the session ends, I promise I will never tell you again. So, the one thing that I may need, which is to talk about it, I won’t do. So we decided to start the Alternatives to Suicide Peer Support Groups, so people could have a safe place to talk about their thoughts and feelings of suicidality. It’s a gathering where people can come when they’re feeling great or experiencing despair. We’ve realized with the groups that suicide does not discriminate. We’ve had elderly, young, gay, straight, people of color, male, female, transgender, and so often I wish I were, you know, able to record some of the amazing conversations that go on in that space. We have a group in Greenfield, Massachusetts, we have one in Northampton and one in Springfield.

How long have they been going on?

In 2008 was when we received our first funding through the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention. And in 2010 is when the Greenfield group started, which is the one I’m involved in. One of the main parameters of our group is that we want people to be able to say what’s happening to them, but we ask that they not paint a picture. So that means someone can say they’ve really been thinking about killing themselves, but we don’t really want to hear that someone purchased rope. We don’t want to hear someone’s story about the blood. We want to find the balance between giving people a space to touch that despair and share what it is like to be in it, without making it a horror circus for someone who may be there for the first time or who may be feeling vulnerable themselves.

Was that a decision at the start, or was it something you learned along the way?

For the group I started, I think it was something right from the beginning. I know it’s a clear directive with the group I’m working with. I’m pretty sure from the beginning. We’re pretty appreciative and sensitive of lending trauma-informed care and support. The awareness that the likelihood of someone having experienced trauma is pretty high. We don’t want to get sloppy and send someone into a terrible place because they came to the group to get support. It’s an interesting balance, and we feel we’ve navigated it pretty gracefully. And as often as someone may be sharing despair, as often we’re engaged in belly laughter. It’s a really rich time together.

People don’t expect there would be laughter, I think.

There’s no directive that we have to talk about suicide. Sometimes that kind of laughter that comes from being in a place of tension just happens. But sometimes we just talk about funny stupid stuff. We also share resources. There’s no directive we must talk about despair or of feeling suicidal, but we really try to hold the space open for that.

(I mention the fears people have expressed about support groups sharing methods and triggering each other.)

There’s also that myth that if you ask somebody about suicide, you’re giving them the idea. And you know, I believe in my heart of hearts that not to be true. Talking about it is paramount. I mean, anyone who’s done the QPR training, the Q stands for “question.” Don’t be afraid to ask someone. You’re not giving them the idea. You’re letting them you know see them.

So the group is sort of the next step.

Yeah.

What are the risks, and have you lost anyone?

No, we haven’t. What people often wonder is, have you had somebody there that you know is in a state of despair, and the group is over, then what happens? One of the main things of the group is, I’m the facilitator, but I’m not in charge. I could not possibly hold that for everyone. I could not possibly be in charge of everyone being alive. When the group starts, a community member takes out the group agreements and posts them. We’ve had people walk in and not know who the facilitator was. Everyone takes ownership. There have been times when everyone was having a hard time. At closing circle time, people say, “Hey, you want a cup of coffee?” It’s real relationships. It’s people being truly connected to one another.

What was the reaction at the Alternatives conference?

Very positive. Really good response. I’m not sure what else to say. I’m very happy with how it went. Good people, good questions. It makes so much sense to people, especially those who are familiar with the movement of people with similar experiences helping one another. Actually, I don’t want to say helping one another. Instead of being helped, which is kind of patronizing, it’s really supporting another person to see themselves. I feel like we reflect people to themselves, in a way. I don’t know how to say that more elegantly. I feel I’m there to really see the person, let them know they’re seen, reflect back what I see as their super powers. And everybody has them. Or to just listen, which really comes before anything else.

It’s funny, another person I interviewed this week talked about people working with their issues as superheroes.

It’s good way to describe what other people are calling the peer work, or un-diagnosing. Not only am I just describing rather than diagnosing, I’m looking at the bright side of it. I feel like everything has its positive and negative. If you’re the kind of person who is incredibly gregarious, or who’s very, very in the present moment, you may be late a lot, but the upside is, if you’re with me, you’re with me. Everything has its bright and difficult side. It’s the dialectic. And rather than have to navigate through the diagnoses I was given … I’ve been diagnosed as bipolar, schizophrenic with paranoid tendencies and clinically depressed, if I recall correctly. And that can be debilitating. I understand for some people it’s helpful to know what going on. But for me, to cloak myself in something like that, that’s not my Supergirl cape, that doesn’t help me get airspace between me and the Earth. It acts more like cement boots. Or kryptonite.

I wonder what nervous therapists think of these support groups …

They are often in the stronghold of their agency policy. And that’s just that.

I can imagine them thinking, “If these people just found the right therapist …”

Well, here in Western Mass, we have a lot of enlightened people in every aspect of life. I hate to be so arrogant or blithe about it, but we really have a lot of great therapists who do great work and who do promote our groups. You know, the bottom line is, it always comes down to the dollar, doesn’t it? If we’re available to people, it lessens other people’s and agencies’ burdens. And I think before too long, the numbers are going to show themselves. I don’t know how people can track it well, but I think we are keeping people out of the hospital, and that’s where the huge expenses lie.

How can this idea of support groups be grown?

I’m trying to let as many people know as possible, through presenting at conferences and my involvement with the local and statewide coalitions for suicide prevention. I also have a little performance piece I’ve developed, and it’s my hope that it becomes a platform for dialogue. It’s called “My Mom’s Favorite.” And it’s about my relationship to my mother’s relationship to suicide. It’s a little tricky because the piece does paint pictures, so it’s another place in my life where I’m struggling with the dialectic of wanting to share my story, create art from my own experience and act sensitively. What I am doing is to forewarn people to the intensity, make them aware ahead of time that there are some difficult parts, so people are not blindsided. And people can self-select. I’ve performed it this past year at the Massachusetts annual conference for suicide prevention and had a wonderful response. And I received funding from the Pioneer Valley Coalition for Suicide Prevention, so I’ll be performing it in January at All Souls Unitarian Church in Greenfield.

Is your performance online?

I have one very sloppy recording of it. A friend did make a short film about me that’s an edited portion of my piece, but I only have it on DVD. But I do have my written transcript. I’d be happy to send it to you.

Yes, what is it about?

It’s about how I and my brother navigated a number of my mother’s suicide attempts, and there’s some humor in it, which I think helps lighten it a bit. But I’m still struggling whether it’s fair to have some of the detail that’s in there.

What does your mother think of it? Is she still alive?

No way _ my mother is alive _ but I would never show it to her. The preface to the piece gives a sense of why I would not bother: “Just after my daughter was born, my mother asked me, ‘Honey, what do you think you’ll do different with Della from how I raised you?’ As I looked into her mouse brown eyes, the strange innocence of her inquiry threw me and for a moment, I was unable to answer, place myself in time or even breathe; our life together was flashing in my brain. I knew I had to come up with an answer for her, but would it be my answer or the one she needed to hear? It was a tough decision, rooted in a past where so many of my choices revolved around her. For instance …”

My mother is in pretty strong denial. I let my siblings read it this past year, and it affected them in different ways. My sister, it really threw her into somewhat of a tumult, working out some of the things she hadn’t quite yet explored or even looked at.

You talked a bit about your own experience, from your attempts to your deciding that suicide is not an option. How did you climb out, from one end to the other?

Well, having children was huge. That just was, like, so obvious, “You cannot pull this shit. You cannot fool around with this stuff.” And partly because, as I watched my mother over the years, I learned what doesn’t work. So if I attempt my life, it’s gonna be completed. I know what doesn’t work. As I said, it was a total fluke that my serious attempt didn’t work, because I went to great lengths. I wasn’t going to be found. It was not a cry for help. It was me wanting to be sure I was gonna see God before I’d see another day. And at times now, what I recognize is, if I’m feeling suicidal, what I know is that I feel that bad. So I need to deal with it. And sometimes that kind of thing, like in your interview with Wendy, that the weight of the blanket is too much. I’ve had that thing where it took every ounce of strength to pull the blanket off of me. Now, one of the things I know I can do, that feels like a freebie, is go running. It’s not a freebie, it’s really hard to do when I feel like crap, but the adrenaline _ no, not the adrenaline _

Endorphins.

Yeah, endorphins. So that’s one of the things I know to do, to act on myself like those discs the EMTs put the gel on and put on your heart to get it _ Kachunk! _ running. Running does it to me. Like I said, lately I’ve been feeling alone at times. And running with my dogs does it a lot.

You mentioned once being a born-again Christian. Why did you migrate away from that, and did it have any part of your putting away suicide as an option?

I am pretty aware now of the fact that this is my big moment. If you look at all of history and all of life lived here on earth, this is my onionskin paper-thin moment. I don’t believe in reincarnation, I don’t believe in heaven, so this is it. It would be a crime to the universe to cut it short. It is not something I could ever get back.This is my big moment.

You also brought up the excellent point about affordability. How many people do you think try to handle their suicidality themselves because they can’t afford to do otherwise?

When I was talking about money, I was really talking about the money in the mental health system. I was talking about the fact that we, the Alternatives to Suicide Peer Support Groups, I believe, are keeping people out of the hospital. That is hugely cost effective, which people like to know about. The thing is, we really try to keep paperwork to a minimum. It is counter to who we are, so it is not something that is easily proven.

One thing I worry about is the number of people who end up seriously harmed because they think, “Well, maybe this will work.” Is it just me? Would warning people that it’s far more difficult than they think keep them from even going there?

I don’t think it is a good idea. That becomes a tricky topic, because what you end up saying is, “If you are going to do it, you better do it right”? I actually suffered some brain damage, I believe, from my carbon monoxide poisoning. I’ll take it. Certainly, it doesn’t compare to some of the horrible results one’s mind can conjure for an uncompleted attempt, but I am glad to be alive. And, as I said, I was certain that I would be able to end my life because I had been witness to my mother’s attempts all growing up.

Sometimes I wonder whether I’m only talking with the high-functioning, well-situated attempt survivors and am missing everyone else. Does that make sense? Is there a class of attempt survivors who would not be able to benefit, or even get to, support groups like yours?

We are a down-to-earth group. We are fortunate to have people from all walks of life. We vary in education, race, sexual orientation, gender and socioeconomic backgrounds. But I am sure there are people who are steeped in isolation who are not able to ferret out the information and resources. That, I think is the greater problem, more so than funds. But maybe it always comes down to funds, because you need money to get the word out and do the creative outreach.

What else have I not asked?

I don’t know, it’s pretty complete.

How to get more people talking about this subject?

By being unrelenting in our perseverance. We just have to keep our door open, like a restaurant, have the food there just in case. We have to be here for when the one person who happens to be feeling vulnerable shows up. Here’s something important: Our group is not a closed group. We worked at whether it should be closed or open. But you know, the frequency with which spots opened up was pretty rare, and unless you were feeling suicidal at that exact moment, it makes it pretty hard to meet the needs of people who are in crisis. So we have an open group. There ends up being sort of a core group that acts as a nest, so when someone new joins, there’s already a climate created. People are able to hold the space for someone new. The other thing I guess I want to say is, with my performance piece, part of the point of it is to become a forum for discussion of suicide prevention. My main purpose is to really show the trajectory of what goes on in the group, a trajectory toward optimism and positiveness. That’s not to say people can’t come in with their despair, but there are enough people who hold the space that the trajectory seems to be kind of toward hope. Which, I hate using that word, but the trajectory is toward something better.

Why do you hate the word “hope”?

Oh, just some people I know say, “If I hear the word ‘hope’ one more time, I’m gonna scream!” But really, there’s not another word to substitute for hope. It’s the bird with wings, right?

Right. You’re in Massachusetts. I have to ask, since you’re about to vote on assisted suicide, where does that come in?

It’s very tricky. For most things in life, I have this springboard toward “I know what I think about that.” With assisted suicide, I’m taking in information. My instinct is toward “I would want that to be an option for myself if I was in drastic and chronic pain and unable to move or was dying of cancer and had before me the given of extreme and excruciating pain. I would want that to be an option for me.” For now, I’m exploring, not saying I’m for or against it. I’m thinking about it, and definitely I will have decided by Nov. 6. I know my instinct is toward yes, it’s something people should be allowed to do. And I know there are moments when things seem untraversable. But I’m assuming that physician-assisted suicide has all sorts of time frames, no spontaneous decisions to it. But friends I respect worry it could play out in a really terrible way for people who are disabled, so I’m trying to read up. I’m assuming, maybe I’m wrong, but I’m assuming that it couldn’t be just a spontaneous decision. I assume it would be tremendously well thought out and reasoned. Like I said, I’m uncertain.

Your attempt, was it well thought out and reasoned?

It is interesting you ask because at the time, I really thought it was. But it was, like, over 72 hours. Or a week or whatever. So yes and mostly, no.

Your kids, do they even know about all of this?

Yes. Hmm. Yeah, I think they’re both very proud of the work I do, but … You know, I didn’t suddenly one day, like, lay it on them. I’m pretty open with my kids about my life and my story. When my kids were little, they would ask, “Oh, what’s that picture from?” “Oh, that’s when Mama was in drug rehab, blah blah.” Or “Oh, that picture was when Mama was in the institution, before you were born.” There was no moment when this heavy thing fell. I think I did a good job of normalizing the process of my life and thereby doing my little part to help end the stigma. Lot’s of people have had hard moments in their lives. I know my kids are proud of the work I do. But we don’t really talk about it much. Not for any real reason. Just busy. The Alternatives conference was in Portland, and I hoped my daughter could make my presentation, since she’s at Reed, but she had class. But if she didn’t have class, I’m certain she would have tried to make it. But that’s really not the bulk of who I am.

Thank you for leading into my last question: Who else are you?

It’s a pretty long list, just like anybody’s. I’m a writer, an artist, a poet, a gardener, I am _ what am I? Michael, what am I? _ My husband said, “A writer.” Tristan, our exchange student, says, “Creative.” A dog lover. Yeah. a lot of things. I am a person who feels deeply, for sure. And I like that, but it also can be hard. But I would never trade it for not feeling deeply.

Talking with Alicia Raimundo

So let’s talk about the idea of attempt survivors as superheros. Alicia Raimundo stood up at the end of this month’s national conference of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention and told a little of her story. We spoke this week, and she’s all for openness on the topic. And some playfulness as well. “Part of me wants to make people feel uncomfortable around me because I’m challenging their beliefs,” she says. “I’m not the media representation of the mentally ill.”

Here she talks about speaking up for a younger generation of attempt survivors, what effect it has on her dating life and how dealing with suicidal thinking shouldn’t be seen as all that different and scary. “If you take a normal person and put them in a suicidal situation, their coping mechanisms in that extreme emotional situation, they would fail too,” she says. “Just like we celebrate cancer survivors for beating cancer, we should celebrate people for beating schizophrenia or bipolar.”

Where would you start your story?

I think I would start by explaining that one of the first things you learn to do is cry, to get attention, to take the pain away, to help you get through something. And as you get older, you put Band-Aids on cuts, call the doctor. But no one tells you how to deal with pain you can’t see. No one tells you how to even start that conversation. To the point that I didn’t even realize I was sick until I was 12, 13. I thought everyone walked around extremely nervous and miserable. I struggled to find the right things to say in grades 7 and 8, and I realized this was a problem not common and unique to me. My classmates were a lot better getting people to talk and like them. That’s when it hit its hard point. And so I tried reaching out to a couple of people but didn’t know how to articulate it. One final reachout was to a teacher helping teach my grade 8 class. At this time, I was kind of known as a problem kid, the one who would not talk to anybody. That sometimes can come off as egotistical. I thought everybody was rejecting me, so I preemptively rejected others. She wasn’t too happy about me asking for help. When I went to meet her, I overheard her say, “I have to go meet this crazy girl,” and I kind of shut down: “I’m not gonna get better.” Everybody misunderstood: “She’s just acting out.” When she amplified that, I kind of just, you know, decided, “This is it. I’m done with this, being miserable every day, waiting for my mom’s car to come and to cry in the car. I’m done.” I made a plan to take my own life. It didn’t succeed, thankfully. At this point, I felt this struggling, like waiting for the next chance for it to come. It’s like just getting enough air to breathe and most days not getting that much.

One time life changed was when I was trying to get treatment on my own. I came across this woman in a treatment center. I was young, a teenager, and I looked like I didn’t care about anything. The woman says, “From one crazy person to another, you’ll need this,” and she gave me a necklace with the word “hope” on it. The ironic part of the story is, the woman was also a client, suffering from a manic stage, and her daughter came up to me seconds later: “I’m sorry, can I have that back?” To me, it was the idea that we can have small things to hope for. For me, it was watching my sister graduate from high school, which happened two years ago. The hope to see things. After that initial hope, my living was not so hard anymore. There are days where I don’t have a good day with it, but I’m a lot stronger. I don’t wish mental illness on anyone, but it’s a blessing in disguise because I had to know myself a lot better than others. I had to know what worked and what didn’t. For me, not knowing is lethal. And so at a certain point, I started getting better and better and wanted to give back.

I got frustrated sharing my story like Spider-Man, anonymously, on blogs here and there, hiding. It was really stupid. I wanted to be like Ironman, in front of a crowd. “Fuck this.” I wanted to do this, go there, start the conversations. I’m super. And from that point on, I share that story with people. You can be that person, sharing in the open. You get this overwhelming support. There’s a stupid comment here and there, but it’s mostly support. I created this peer group who supports me through bad days. I work for a large corporation in Canada, and I was on a large TV morning show here. I took the morning off from work. When I came back, they were really interested. I said this had nothing to do with work, but they wanted to see. One person just said to the other, “If you knew she was suicidal, why did you hire her?” You hear the horror stories, you know this happens. You hear this on trains, buses, people saying, “I can’t hire this person, they have gaps in their resume.” They’re not realizing people can get better. I was hearing this negative feedback nine years after I tried to take my own life, so it was really an unjust comment. Sometimes sick people should be stepping away from work to invest in themselves. If they need to take time off to get better, do it. But me, I was treated with a ridiculous amount of bias.
I was in a meeting with the CEO and a bunch of others. I went up to him after the meeting and said “You’re really concerned about brain injury. There’s a lot of employees concerned about mental health issues.” I told him my story, and he said, “My wife has bipolar. I would not stand for this in a million years.” He put the two gentlemen in touch with HR. I urged not to fire them because they’d get more angry and take it out on others. They started putting this into HR training. One guy came to a talk of mine a few weeks ago and apologized.

It has a strong impact. I share my story and have people telling the life stories they never shared before. Like my train story. I was on suburban rail in Ontario. I’m sitting, talking to a friend about suicide prevention. A gentleman followed me off the train and I thought, “This is kind of creepy.” Then he’s talking to me and seems normal. He says, “I’ve never heard anyone talk so openly about suicide prevention.” I said, “I’m passionate about it.” He’s telling me he felt suicidal for a really long time: “I’m glad people talk openly.” I asked if he had resources. He said, “Yeah, a lot of really great people.” I remember standing outside the station and my dad’s car comes up. “It was nice talking to you.” He says, “I want to thank you.” Why? He says, “If not for you, I was going to jump in front of the train.”

So the power of these conversations, it’s so uncomfortable and scary putting yourself out there, but the good effect is amazing. You just feel this connection with people. People come up to you in tears: “I was planning on ending my life next week, but I’m going to get help.” Sometimes you have to remember the most ignorant voice in the room is sometimes the loudest, the first to say, “That doesn’t happen” or “Your statistic is wrong!” And everyone else is waiting for someone else to say, “Me too.” My dream is showing them if you’re living with mental illness, you’re more than normal. You’re so strong. You have to know that helping yourself can be a full-time job. Help people to not beat up themselves if they’re not so productive at work. The strength of wanting to help people is amazing. [At Canada’s national conference for suicide prevention] I recounted the story of the woman [doing the mental health awareness walk] on the Brooklyn Bridge. She started feeling sick and collapsed in the medical tent. I went in and her husband said, “She has to finish for our son.” Just the power of making any choice, any difference.

I think one of most important messages is, it’s just as simple as asking what you can do for that person. Or giving a list of things you’re comfortable doing. I think there’s so much that needs to happen. It’s great to see these movements, these discussions around suicide moving from every time something horrible happens to a more constant dialogue. Just sharing stories of hope and change, saying people can get better. Because people always look at me. I’m a quirky individual, and they associate that with my mental illness. I’m like, “No, the reason I have a personality is I found a way to live with my mental illness.” My quirkiness is kind of just like … People, when someone knows you’re ill, they look for aspects of your personality they don’t like and think you’re still ill. It’s kind of like doing self-confirming bias, to make it look like I’m always sick. I do have remnants, but one reason I can have a personality is I feel a lot better now. I think it’s just one of those things that strikes me as kind of funny.

At the conference, you also told a story about following a guy around because he was scared of you …

The first time I was ever asked to speak, I was at the University of Waterloo. The guy basically looked at me, and hilariously enough, it was at our campus peer educator group. He was in charge of making information about suicide. He asked in a condescending voice, “Why are you talking about suicide? I said I was suicidal. It was not the most mature thing to do. I just was like, “Yeah, I’m going to prove I’m not contagious and follow you around.” His reaction was so unreal. I just wanted to show them I could sit next to them, have conversations, be a productive member of their team. I’m not going to, you know, snap and decide that I’m going to attack them all. I don’t really understand what goes through their mind. I was just trying to prove the point, it’s not something to be scared of. Most people with mental illness are not going to hurt you. They’ll probably hurt themselves. A lot of times when people do negative things, it’s a time for a conversation: “Why do you think that’s OK?”

And I think it’s been an interesting journey. Talking to people, sometimes they don’t realize what they’re saying is really wrong. They’ve never been told that before. They’ve not been told it’s offensive. And I do that. At the same time, I will stay in situations, and part of me wants to make people feel uncomfortable around me because I’m challenging their beliefs. I’m not the media representation of the mentally ill. The media don’t do the best job of showing it. And people don’t like feeling wrong. This is just something they believed. And one thing I’ve done for a couple of friends I lost by suicide is go to their Facebook page, and when people ask, “How did this person die?” I go in a private message and tell them they died by suicide. They suffered from mental health issues and were very sick. And there’s no type of person that does that. Like you can lose a person to cancer, you can lose them to suicide.

I think the more we can have these awkward conversations with people, make people laugh … When someone reacts weirdly to me now, I say, “Don’t worry, I’m not throwing cats at you” just to lighten the mood. Sometimes suicide and mental health can be really heavy, and making people laugh, showing we can laugh and are pretty unique people ourselves, sort of starts to change the discrimination. It can help change stigma. I’ve seen minds be changed. People come around to it. Sometimes people are not exactly where I want them to be, but it’s a journey. They went up a fair bit, even if it’s not to the level everybody wants it to be at. It just shows the power. When you realize the perception they have of someone else, it’s kind of fun to have fun with them. Make them face their own discrimination. “I thought this person was cool, then she said one word, and now I think she’s crazy”? I tell people I get one of three reactions, bad reactions: Running away, telling me they don’t believe me or never leaving me alone. That’s why I always say, ask people what they want. If they tell you they’re feeling better now, just ask them what they want to share. I don’t go into certain aspects of my journey because there’s nothing positive to pull out of them. I don’t focus on the negative.

Like what parts?

I had many bad experiences with therapists and with treatment in a treatment center setting. I grew up with parents who struggle to understand how I feel. They’ve grown a lot, but sometimes they still say, “Everything will be better if you pray” or, if I stay one day alone in my house, everybody starts calling me, telling me I’m depressed. I know there’s a lot of amazing parents out there understanding or trying their best. It’s just one of those things. I tell parents, bring your kid in! One way to summarize a bad experience: The person trying to help me is trying to treat the illnesses through me, without involving me. Like my parents, and the icon of depression is behind me, and they’re trying to throw things through me to get to it. Instead of asking, “What kind of treatment do you want?” And especially since I was young, no one thought to do that. It’s like fighting the thing within them, not engaging them. I like to tell people to go to as many evidence-based practices as possible. But I also tell service providers to make the treatment fit the person, not the person fit the treatment. It’s so much easier to fight what’s hiding in the dark shadows when you ask them to turn and look at it and not throw things through them. It’s like people trying to throw meds at you because there’s no time to talk with you. The medicine works when you believe in it and when you take it on an accurate schedule. I didn’t believe in it, and I didn’t take it long enough. But nobody ever talked with me to realize that was my personal stance. For some things, you need the meds. For me, somebody should have asked me. That’s why kids come up to me, say, on 15 different medications. For side effects, etc. I’m like, “OK, at a certain point you have so much medications you don’t know what’s working anymore.” I’m not anti-medication, but I advocate health care professionals talking to their patients about how they want to get better. And talking to peer mentors, showing them how to get up the mountains. And not everyone will benefit from a psychiatrist. And so it’s one of those things that’s a good message for people. There’s many ways of getting better. If it’s working for you, great. Be careful not to give advice to other people. I’ve had a few people go off their meds the next day: “I’m going to be like you.” I’m like, “No.” Believe in your journey. And there’s not an exact science behind this yet.

And I think one thing too is, I’ve had years and months where it’s been worse and better, where it comes back but not to the same extent. I try to show people that we are mental health superheroes, fighting our own bad guys. Nobody kills the bad guy the first time they fight them. They scare them away. And every time that you seek treatment, you have more sidekicks fighting with you. Some times are bad, but I’ve learned to pull happiness from my journey. I’m helped by that. By sharing my story, I keep myself on the straight and narrow. I have to get help. I can’t be a hypocrite, right? And yeah, sometimes I do have some bad days, but I’m kind with myself, and the reason I don’t normally share is that I don’t want people to think it’s horrible every single time or that it never goes away. I’m probably one of the more happy people you’ll meet. One message I like to give is, if you’re stuck in a place where they’re trying to diagnose you but it’s not helping, just say, “I don’t care what’s wrong with me, I just want to get better. These labels don’t make me better.” People think if you know what’s wrong, you’ll feel better. That’s not always the case. You can feel a sense of doom. Not everyone fits into these little charts.

You talk a lot about superheros. What’s with that? Are you a fan?

I’m a superhero fan, but I really wanted a new way of framing it. I wanted to show people they are strong, and they need to celebrate their strength and celebrate how awesome it is they’ve come this far and not get sucked into comparing themselves with people who don’t go through this. I joke that I used to call myself a mental health superhero in training. I also talk about intentional superheros. When you know someone is part of a stigmatized group and you be a friend to them, that’s how you change people’s minds about racism, sexism. I’m just going to treat you like a normal human being. You’re putting intention behind it, becoming a kind of superhero, becoming someone who will help them through their journey. And yeah, I’m kind of a nerd, whatever. Just taking off that mask and fighting the demons without your mask on and still showing you’re strong. All humans at some time wear a mask of some sort, but being able to show “This is me, I’m suffering with this” in the same way that people say, “I can’t come out today, I’m sick.” Creating the same situation: “I can’t come out today, I don’t feel so good.” Being a superhero shows people they’re strong. You’re dealing with something so much more than the average experience. You should be celebrating that, not thinking something’s wrong with you because you can’t deal with normal life. If you take a normal person and put them in a suicidal situation, their coping mechanisms in that extreme emotional situation, they would fail too. Just like we celebrate cancer survivors for beating cancer, we should celebrate people for beating schizophrenia or bipolar.

How did you start speaking out? And what were the reactions?

When I went to university, I had control of my life for the first time. I could do things and not justify them to anyone. So I started openly telling my new friends what I had went through. When I wanted to get involved with the health community, I was so comfortable with telling friends and family that I just told my mental health mentor at the university, and she said, “We need a speaker.” I gave the speech and was nervous as all heck. I got off there and people gave me big hugs: “If you need anything, let me know.” After that, I reached out to regional suicide prevention things. I would always mention I have lived experience too. When they heard me speak, they just recommended me to be on national TV, and when they needed a speaker, they’d bring me along. It was really just people empowering me, really believing in me. I went on MTV Canada, our national breakfast TV show, and after that I decided I wanted to give back to the community. I was working in research to the front line. I was involved with TED and said I wanted to give back. I tried to nominate someone else, but they said, “Why don’t you do it?” I put in an application and got a phone call two months later: “Can you speak?”

Some people want to have this journey. I’m lucky that people believe in me. I’ve had speaking engagements where no one shows, but I always have had a standing ovation at TEDtalk. I give off positive energy, and people want positive energy, too. It was the scariest thing of my life, but I had so many people share stories with me after that. Then I became a “face of mental illness” in Canada after that, for people with lived experience and who give back. We get to be in a national campaign, meet politicians, work with Bell, which is donating a lot to mental health. It’s been soaring since last year, really. There’s a lot of benefit in putting yourself out there, not only sharing your story but being involved in the community. Some speakers, all they do is speak. Others act out the message. I want to share my story but also want to influence a good message.

The message for other people is, when you start sharing your story, you will find people supportive to you. Allow yourself to build up, and when you’re ready to jump into big things, jump. But don’t jump into big things first. Your experience, for the audience, may be triggering. You don’t have to be 45, 50 years old before your journey with this is done. And show young people we don’t have to be at the mercy of our parents, psychologists, psychiatrists. We can stand up for ourselves. Because we are the only ones knowing our experiences in our heads. If we don’t feed into the dialogue, we will not be as effective as we could be. And young people deserve the best people just like anyone else. If you don’t like your therapist, don’t be afraid to fire them. Don’t be afraid to do what you need to do to get better, as long as it will help you live in the future.

Have your parents seen you speak?

Nope. Well, a that’s a little bit of a lie. They tried to see my TEDtalk, but they don’t know tech very well, so they didn’t get a live stream. They watched the video. My dad’s Portuguese, and he doesn’t understand how he can give me everything and how I’m not super-happy. I own my own journey. My journey is me. Sometimes people say, “We want you to bring your parents,” and I say, “No, this is about me.” I’ve had journalists say, “I want to talk to your parents,” and I say, “I don’t know what they’ll be able to tell you, I was so good at hiding it.” I think one day I’ll invite my parents to talk, but the journey is mine, and I want to stand as an independent woman. I did it alone. Because I assumed that people would reject me, and I want to show if people want to do it alone, they can do it alone. I do have parents who are very supportive of whatever I want to do in life, but with this journey, I shut them out and I’ve only let them in recently. I’ll let them see me speak, but they had no idea what was going on. My journey is something that I own. People try to share their coping mechanisms, parents do that, but that tends to not work for me.

You didn’t really mention the details of your attempt earlier. Do you choose not to?

I choose not to. I say I attempted, but … There is some evidence of contagion, and I don’t want to give people the method because, “Oh, look at her, she’s getting all of this attention now, I’m going to do this half-assed attempt and get this attention too!” Also, out of respect for my family and my parents. But yeah, it’s something that I do. I briefly talk about it because at the same time it’s hard for me to go there. I was somebody who, after being suicidal, it was only a couple years after that I started cutting. Not enough to get really deep scars that friends have, but I have one on my wrist. What we basically are doing is creating external pain to distract from internal pain. I’ve done things I’m not proud of, and I want to focus on the positives. I want to know there’s a possibility of living life for you again.

Are there other possible drawbacks?

It will affect your dating life, I will tell you that right now. I’ll be honest, I’m on a dating site because I’m a busy person. And I talk about being a public speaker. I guarantee nine of 10 people say, “Let me see it,” I send it and they never speak to me again. And you know, it’s painful. Whether people don’t want to get close to a person who they think is going to take their own life … You don’t want to be with people who don’t understand you. If they’re judging you based on one talk, I probably don’t want anything to do with them anyway. And your friends, you deal with a lot of weird initial reactions. I had one say I was faking it because I didn’t go into the details of my attempt, or because I’m better now. Just one of those things where you sit down and prepare an answer to those reactions. Just having a way of having a nice, canned answer for them. “Oh, you’re faking it” or “Oh, you’re scary.” Well, I’m sorry, but if you ever want to have a conversation, I’m here to help you out. And the faking one, I understand, because people are really good at hiding it, and I was too. But it took a lot of effort to get here. This is genuinely me. I do want you to understand you can get better. The first time I got that, it was really funny. Why on earth would anyone want to fake this?

Are you making good money or something in speeches?

Sometimes I get paid when I talk about how to create a discrimination-free workplace or school or whatever. I just think any time someone says something bad, they are scared at the notion it could happen to them, too.

Has any reaction caught you off guard?

My mother. The first time she watched me on national TV, she called me. Up to that point, she had been uncomfortable. I had been bracing myself, but she actually called me in tears and said, “You are my warrior. I thought I had something wrong. I wanted to take this pain away from you but didn’t know how.” My mom was the best surprise to me. I have had weird comments or advice. One person said to get rid of depression, walk on hot coals.

You didn’t try it?

No, I didn’t try. Maybe one day. It was just one of those ones that I just kind of went, “Huh?”

What if everyone just started talking openly? Are we ready?

I don’t know if people themselves are ready. Whatever journey you want to take, be it two or 2,000 people, it’s a personal choice. It’s up to you. It should be based on what you want to do with that message. It’s not based on stigma. With some people, five people know they went through cancer, and for some, 5,000 know. I want a world where people feel OK saying, “I went through that, too.” But as a society, we’re not ready for people to say, “I’m going through that, too.” Because the resources are not enough. People seek help, but they might have to wait a year and a half. So I feel like I’m dangling a carrot sometimes. I’m scared for that “I’m going through that now, help me.” We don’t have a good system to rely on yet. There’s not enough people to help them navigate the system.

You really think there are not enough resources to deal with everyone?

In Canada, there’s a six-month waiting period for psychiatrists and stuff, they probably agree with me for that. I think what we have to deal with more is, you know, having all the organizations work together to rally behind people and help them, but sometimes they all compete for the same funding and don’t want to work together. I remember filling out an application for To Write Love on Her Arms on my campus, but they said they can’t come if we have Active Minds on campus. I’ve seen lots groups working against each other. There’s two therapy offices in the town there I used to live. One deals with family violence, the other doesn’t. If someone comes in and says they’re being beaten by their husband , they would rather send to their partner office in the next town than the one two streets over. The petty competition needs to stop.

Well, I assume that’s a lot different than in the U.S.

Well, here people pay for it with tax dollars. In the U.S., it’s more private. It’s a problem in itself. Everybody deserves to get better. One good response is the surge in online communities in sharing mental health issues. All these people are rallying to help people get treatment. One of my best friends from Philadelphia, she reached out to me on Facebook after the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention posted a story of mine. Just the power of social media, having this community that’s not there face-to-face for a hug but can rally and give a support network when you feel you don’t have one. So people stay in treatment longer or fight for themselves more. I work with Your Life Counts, and they do an e-mail service. They say, “We give you an e-mail back in an hour and give you thought-out answers, so you have one person out there who believes in you.” It’s a great thing that’s happened. It’s really creating stronger people to go out and show people that mental health is something we can talk about. And empowering them to believe in themselves.

Do you know of any support groups online?

I think this a problem. I, with a gentleman in England, started one in the summer of 2011, I believe. But because it’s really hard to get people to talk about these things, we had to close it down. But I think the things you can do is, there are a lot of online communities out there. There’s a Twitter called The Buddy Scheme. You can say, “I need somebody.” And you can message them, you can ask them to find an attempt survivor to speak with over Twitter. Those things are going to come. It sucks sometimes to have to find an attempt survivor who’s a speaker and then e-mail with them, because there should be forums out there with everybody talking to everybody else. It has to come to that. Just knowing you have that person in your corner is a good thing. I have a couple of people in my corner who are attempt survivors.

(I ask about the common fear about attempt survivors sharing information.)

It’s misguided a fair bit. I think it’s very important to have a facilitator to create positive conversations. Make sure the mentor is really stable. There is a genuine danger of someone sinking, and it will be like trying help someone drowning. If you don’t have the proper life jacket, they can pull you down with them. There are times people are straddling the line between OK and not OK and don’t need more triggers. But these groups are good, like Skills for Safer Living. Teach them skills on how to live. We need to see that more often. You know, I have about 15 friends who are suicide attempt survivors. We can get together, laugh, watch movies, we are normal people. There definitely is that fear, but there’s a one in 10 chance this happens. That “We’re not trying this at all” makes no sense to me. Because yeah, especially youth, we definitely need to talk to people who have been where we are because we have built-in BS sensors. If someone is telling us what we know isn’t true, we can lose trust so fast. You know how Judy talks about a survivors conference and not feeling welcome. You have the BS sensor. Even if I’ve been through the same disorder, my experience is very different from others. But we will see more and more people talk about what they’ve gone through. There’s always the issue of stigma. You want to start support groups, but you can’t because there’s not enough people showing up. I tried to do a youth bereaved by suicide group, but no one showed up. Because no one wanted to be part of that, you know? I think, too, the more you can educate people in a fun, light way, the better. I work with Mind Your Mind, and they work with games and celebrities. You can learn about it and have a fun time doing it. One way to break down stigma is not have a lot of super-duper heavy conversation with a lot of anger.

Some people say you can’t laugh at this topic.

If you’re able to laugh at jokes that are well-meaning … Some people say you can’t laugh at this, it’s horrible, but I bet that at some point when a person’s back is turned, they laugh at them being crazy. But laughing with us is great. We’re human, just like anybody else. And sometimes humor and light atmosphere allows to ask questions. One of my big criticisms about the mental health field is it’s so somber. Have you ever watched “The Bridge”? My god. It’s like, “This is the most depressing hour and a half of my life.” It’s all about the balance.

Is there anything else you really want to share?

The way I like to end is, if anyone’s looking at this and suffering, just know you’re worth it, worth living for, you have a beautiful mind, and the world wants to hear what you have to say, though it might not feel like it sometimes. There’s a life to live, and there are supports to help you live that way. You’re strong, and you’re fighting for yourself. Just don’t try to do it alone. Reach out and realize you are deserving of the best possible help you can find.

Who else are you?

I love photography, bad cop shows, hilariously even though they make fun of mental health. I love laughter, pulling pranks, being like, you know, the bad mom jokes, bad dad jokes. I love helping people, even if it’s not mental health. I’m a recent psychology grad from the University of Waterloo. Just quirky little me, who loves a lot of things. And I’m not defined by mental health, mental illness, but I’m looking forward to beating stigma in our lifetime. It’s actually funny, I have a therapist I see every couple of months, and that’s what she asked me: “What else are you? It’s like it’s consumed your life!” Yes, but in the best way. I have time to go out with friends, joke around, be completely like girly girls, complete idiots, jumping into shopping carts in malls and stuff. I’m still a youth, so I do things youth do.

Talking with Laura Carbonell

I didn’t expect to come across someone’s story of their suicide attempt on a blog dedicated to Latina moms, but there it was. Laura Carbonell was moved to write about her teenage attempt, one she had nearly forgotten, after a friend from high school recently reached out for help on Facebook. “It all came back,” Laura says. “I understood how she must feel. Abandoned, alone and helpless. I believe it was a call for help, but I too understand people wanting out.”

Laura offered to answer questions by e-mail:

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m 47 years old. I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania. My father, who is Spanish,
was teaching philosophy at Duquesne University, where he met my mother,
who is American. Two years after I was born, my mom decided to leave my dad
and take us with her and her new boyfriend, but my dad resisted the idea. My
mom was 22 and very irresponsible and an alcoholic. My dad took us to Spain to
start over, my sister and I. My sister is two years older. We landed in Madrid,
Spain, where we were raised by my grandmother, who was going through her own
breakup and depression.

I barely recall my mother. I never missed her, I think, but I am sure many of my
problems are rooted in the abandonment and rejection I constantly felt. At the age
of 5, I already felt like an outcast and had difficulty making friends. I already
had questions about life, what it was about and why we were here. This I felt I
couldn’t communicate to other 5- or 6-year-olds.

I had a rough time at school because, as I now know, I have ADHD and was also
very shy. By 13, I was already drinking. I drank my way out of my shyness and felt I could
relate to other people, be fun and forget my self-consciousness.

I practiced all the self-hatred possible for years. Drinking, burning my hands with
cigarettes, and I believe all of this was to control what I felt and to numb my
feeling. I just couldn’t seem to be able to be normal or carefree. Whatever that
means! However, nobody had a clue, or would have a clue, because I am a very joyful
person when I am with people. I am a Spanish teacher, and I love what I do.
Nobody would think I have had social phobia, which now I am overcoming, at long
last! Outside the class and when I was/am alone, all the demons, insecurities and
fears seem/ed to come back.

I finally went to a psychiatrist when I was 24. My family didn’t know how to
help me and my destructive nature. I went happily on my own but kept drinking.
This man suggested I go to a hospital to get sober, and I did. But I didn’t like
the place. I did know I had a drinking problem, but I just couldn’t relate to these
people at the mental institution. Plus, they had me on megadoses of Valium. I lasted a week and a half, when the program was a month. I left and tried going it
alone. This was the first time since 13 that I had nothing to drink and had to face
life without the crutches of a drink. Oh boy! All my fears, insecurities were there,
every minute. A black cloud seemed to cover everything. One day I came back
home absolutely depressed. It wasn’t planned, I just walked into my room and got
three bottles of Valium (I was in Spain, and I could get most of what I wanted) and
had them all. I was in a daze and don’t remember very well what happened. I just
have images. It seems I called a lady friend of my dad’s who had recommended
the psychiatrist, and they rushed me to the hospital, where I had the Valium pumped
out. I do recall asking the nurse if I was going to make it and she said, “We don’t
know.”

The next thing that I recall was getting up at 6 a.m. and heading to teach my classes.
I taught at companies and worked for my dad at his language school. I wanted
to get back to life. Many of my friends agree my job kept me alive. Because
that was a confident me, not the me after the classes were over. Everyone, even
my psychiatrist, was amazed I went to work the next day. And I did go back to
drinking. I couldn’t face life without my crutches.

I never talked about it with my dad, or any family member. We didn’t discuss
anything personal. I know my dad has always lived in fear that I would pull it again. But it has never been discussed.

Eventually, at 27, I quit drinking with the help of NA. This helped me in so many
ways, building confidence and finding out that I wasn’t alone. Drinking, smoking and overeating, I believe, are also smaller forms of slow suicide. This should be emphasized.

How did you decide to talk and write openly about your experience?

I had almost forgotten about it until I started writing for VOXXI and Mamiverse.
A high school friend posted on Facebook that she wanted out with her kid. Her
parents had also committed suicide years ago. We alerted Facebook and the cops, and it
seems we got her help.

Throughout the process, I got discouraged because many people who actually
lived near her were not responding. I live in San Francisco, I haven’t seen her for years, and nobody close was responding! I finally wrote to my friends, and it all came back.
I understood how she must feel. Abandoned, alone and helpless. I believe it was a
call for help, but I too understand people wanting out.

I came across the video I linked to the [Mamiverse] blog and found it so honest. I understood the guy so well. I also read and wrote about Bob Bergeron. A happy man
who killed himself. Sometimes I believe there are no clues. Our rivers run so deep.
Even having it all doesn’t mean we are doing so well.

It is true I am attracted to suicide. I find it interesting and something people should
be more open about, with discretion, of course. We don’t want to say it’s OK, but
we do have to acknowledge that it happens. What scares me the most is that, as with myself, it wasn’t planned, it seemed like the thing to do. There is depression and sadness, but clinical depression can drive you to do things without much thought.

What kinds of responses have you received to the blog?

It has come as a surprise to many, because I am a very happy-looking person. I
genuinely am. Again, only when I am alone do the demons try to pry their way in.
A student-friend of mine did thank me for my story and honesty.
Some have come to me with their own stories or other personal stories. They felt
they could confide in me, and I could understand were they were coming from.

How can more people be encouraged to speak out, or to not freak out when
someone mentions a suicide attempt or suicidal thinking? Or are there benefits to
keeping all of this quiet?

I believe that it is trickling out. Slowly it is being more talked about, as with
the bullying which has driven teens to commit suicide. I think parents should
encourage more openness with their kids, more conversations, even if they might
feel it uncomfortable. Kids need to feel comfortable about communicating their
feelings. And only parents can encourage this.

Once it has happened, I think people should reach out and get the conversation out
of the way. Once out, people can understand and forget about it and see it as an
anecdote. When people have all the information, they feel more at ease. No more
big elephant in the room kind of thing.

Ignoring it might work for some, though. I haven’t talked about it. Ever. Just now,
because I now feel strong enough to do so.

Is it easier to get past a suicide attempt if it happened earlier in life, for teens or
young adults as opposed to older people?

Yes, maybe it is easier when you are younger. Time heals most wounds, as they
say. And you learn from experience. However, adults may have a harder time.
More baggage, more fears of being accepted and seeming loony. There is too
much pressure as an adult to keep appearances.

If a person has had a suicide attempt and would like to be open about it, how
should they balance that with the possibility of negative reactions in their career,
social life, etc.?

Being an alcoholic, even a recovering alcoholic, years ago was seen as a weakness,
an embarrassment, etc. However, now people look up to some of these people and
praise their strength. There is more understanding. Same would go with suicide if it
were more openly talked about.

I now have this belief _ finally! _ that the people who can’t handle how or who you are
need not be in your life. Being you, accepting yourself, will make you stronger.
Fear of what people think will hold you back.

I often include a question about assisted suicide. Is that a completely different
issue, or should there be a different approach for people near the end of their lives who say they want control over it?

Death is a taboo, when actually it is as natural as being born. I believe people should
have a choice of how and when to die. I must say that I joke about it and always tell my family and friends to unplug me ASAP! For one, I want a dignified exit for myself and others. On the other hand, I don’t want my relatives or friends to go broke to give me a couple of more suffering-filled days!

If you wanted to add another angle or approach to suicide prevention to reach out
to attempt survivors, what would you do?

As I said before, we should get closer to people. I am a teacher,
and I get real close to my students. They tell me things they wouldn’t tell other
people. I bond because I ask personal questions. I used to think that people didn’t
want to talk about their losses, as in the death of a loved one. Now I understand
that people do, want to and need to. Same as in suicide attempts or any other real-life matters.

The problem is that I understand too well wanting to exit. Life is hard, and we live
two lives, our inner lives and outer lives. We all have our demons, and some are
harder to overcome.

Oh! And last year, when I felt depression start to come over me, I immediately
sought help. I was afraid of falling into that deep hole again. I am sincerely doing
very well, and that is why I can talk about who I am.

Who else are you?

I am a language teacher who has found a home in San Francisco. The city of outcasts, where I feel normal because they are not afraid to blurt out their most
personal stories. Because here, there is real acceptance.