Talking with Jim Atkisson

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

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

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

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

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

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

What happened?

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

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

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

How were you rescued?

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

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

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

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

What were the reactions to what you did?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you start putting yourself out there?

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

But you’ve tried?

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

Where are you again?

In Maryland.

Did you say gun safety is a motivation?

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

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

How has your family taken this?

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

Why did they make you touch the tree?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has that ever been a thought for you again?

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

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

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

The stigma, has it gotten better over the years?

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

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

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

You mean, people willing to talk about it?

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

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

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

The suicide prevention messaging, is it working?

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

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

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

What would you like to see changed?

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

What more would you like to do?

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

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

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

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

Who else are you?

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

How old are your kids?

9, 7 and 6.

Will you ever tell them what happened?

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

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

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Talking with Brandi Care Hicks

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

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

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

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything to add?

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

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

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