Life and art, part one: Talking with Mic Eales

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

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

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

Who are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does your wife think?

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

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

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

What have been some of the reactions to your work?

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

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

They deal with mental health issues?

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

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

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

What did you hear from people at the exhibition?

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

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

In Australia?

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

And how about coming to the U.S.?

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

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

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

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

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

How do you feel?

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

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

Was she angry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who else should I talk with?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Talking with David Granirer

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

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

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

Who are you?

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

And where are you?

Vancouver.

How did you get to this point?

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

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

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

But you weren’t diagnosed yet, right?

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

Are you still on it?

Yes.

How has your group gone?

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

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

Is any subject taboo?

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

Is it easy to find humor in a suicide attempt?

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

For example?

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have your own joke about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you had any memorably bad responses to your shows?

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

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

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

Among the students, what moments stand out for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where else do you want to go with this?

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

What’s your favorite memory from this work?

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

Who else are you?

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

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

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

Talking with Kevin Sheffield

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

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

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

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

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

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

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

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

What was the worst episode for you?

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

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

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

How did it work out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you get the idea for engineering school?

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

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

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

What supports do you have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would you like to create to help yourself?

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

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

You could travel around and follow these concerts.

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

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

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

Sure, and how old will you be on Monday?

I’ll be 35.

Talking with Michael Woods

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

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.