This week’s post is by Bart Andrews, a psychologist and the vice president of clinical operations at Behavioral Health Response. He was inspired by the recently released report “The Way Forward” to tell his story. He also wrote his own intro: “He believes that while not every provider with this experience will reach a point where he or she can safely tell their story, it is crucial that more providers speak up to reduce the tremendous prejudice and discrimination that WE have created around mental illness and suicide:”
I am an alcoholic. I am an addict. I am a suicide attempt survivor. Three declarative sentences comprising 14 words. They weigh heavily on me but not as heavily as they did before I wrote them.
It has taken me 16 years to openly disclose these facts. And I am much more than these statements. My life is rich, diverse and rewarding. These 14 words are just a few of the ones I use to define myself, but they are very important. They have consequences that, once the words are spoken, I have no control over.
I was an adventurous and reckless adolescent and young adult. I thrived on risk taking, pushing limits and challenging authority. I developed a fondness for alcohol and other mood-altering chemicals, and that fondness turned into dependency. I entered treatment for the first time before my 21st birthday. I experienced a partial recovery. My life got much better, but many of my, mmmm, peccadillos stayed with me. When I started drinking again at the age of 24, I went full throttle down a path that would almost kill me.
Note that I did not say a path that would almost lead me to killing myself. I believe suicide is something that happens to someone, just like other types of death happen. Maybe a subtle distinction, but I think it important enough to repeat: SUICIDE HAPPENS TO PEOPLE.
My trigger for my return to alcohol was not a bad thing, it was a good thing. I had been accepted to a doctoral psychology program and finally believed I was on a solid path to success. Only with the relief of achievement did I feel safe enough to resume drinking. I did not view myself as an alcoholic. I knew I was a problem drinker but firmly believed this was not a disease but a function of my environment and that with hard-won maturity, wisdom and success, I could drink like everybody else. I know some of you are laughing at this, and I think it’s funny, too. Well, at least now I can laugh about it.
Prior to entering graduate school, I was not ashamed or embarrassed about my struggles with drugs and alcohol. I was open about my struggle, my treatment, my past and my recovery. I did not hesitate to tell anyone and everyone willing to listen about my past behavior. I even did a presentation in my undergraduate speech and debate class and told a group of strangers intimate details about my addiction. I was not nervous and did not fear any consequences.
That changed when I entered graduate school. I heard the whispered stories: the female student who had suffered “breakdowns” following a divorce and never made it back to the program; the male student experiencing his first psychotic break who was not allowed to continue his training; the alcoholic discovered drinking at work who was removed, never to return. I was indoctrinated indirectly into an “us vs. them” mentality. This was not a formal indoctrination; it was not coercive or even planned. But it was insidious and prevalent. It was in my professional training that my self-prejudice and discrimination was honed into an instrument of destruction.
This is not an indictment of my training program, which was an amazing experience. It is an indictment of the field as a whole. We have created a world of those who provide services and those who receive services, and the twain shall never meet.
It also explains, to a large extent, why it took me so long to disclose. Following my second episode of treatment, I was told by a professional supervisor that I was not hireable until I had been sober a year. When I objected, a comparison was made between my coming forward voluntarily about my disease and a psychologist who had been sleeping with his clients. I had a hard time with this. Would a provider coming forward about his cancer diagnosis and treatment be compared to a psychologist committing one of the most egregious ethical violations possible?
As these seeds were planted, a tree of secrecy and mistrust grew inside me. Along with this came shame, self-doubt and fear. Oh my, yes, lots and lots of fear. I made a decision then and there that I would never tell anyone about my experiences unless I had no other reasonable choice. That also meant that when I did attempt suicide, I avoided mental health professionals as if my life depended on it. I was fortunate to survive. I was fortunate to have A.A. and peers who understood the prejudice and discrimination. I was fortunate that they coached me on rigorous honesty and self-preservation. Do not lie, but do not tell anyone anything that can harm you if you do not have to. This is often the life of an addict and a suicide attempt survivor: TELL NO ONE.
It took me three years in my current professional setting before I openly told another professional that I was an alcoholic, and I would have never dreamed of admitting to addiction to something other than alcohol. At almost six years in recovery, I applied for licensure to find that the board required me to disclose if I had been chemically addicted or suffered a mental illness requiring treatment in the last five years. I was relieved at being able to check this box “no” but was seething inside at the question. Interestingly enough, I did not see myself as a suicide attempt survivor. Had I attempted suicide? Yes! Did I think about it, talk about it or acknowledge it? Never.
It was not until almost 13 years after my attempt that I started to identify myself as an attempt survivor. I was at a meeting of the board of directors of the National Association of Crisis Organization Directors, and one of my fellow directors disclosed her past struggle with thoughts of suicide. She just said it. Out loud. To others. Who could hear her. She did it without shame or fear of rejection. I love her for that. There and then, in a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, I said to myself, “Me, too. Me, too.”
It was the beginning of my path to tell the world my story, but the path was long and winding. Each year I would get closer to telling my story, and each year I would get farther away. There were so many opportunities where it was appropriate, but the words stuck in my mouth, suicide being the peanut butter of self-disclosure.
That changed in July at the SAMHSA offices in Maryland. While meeting with an amazing group of experts and advocates, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. DeQuincy Lezine. He shared some of his own experience and talked about “The Way Forward.” He talked about the importance of providers being willing to share their stores of mental illness and suicidal thinking. He talked about the peer movement and its growing vitality but emphasized that a true way forward needs providers willing to share their own experience. It was then and there that I decided to tell my story.
I was working on a presentation for a statewide conference and would be introducing “The Way Forward.” I wanted to talk about the importance of honoring “lived experience,” and I was going to honor that by sharing a bit of my own. But I was scared. I was afraid it could affect me professionally. I was afraid it could negatively impact my agency. I took my fears to Behavioral Health Response’sCEO and my boss, Pat Coleman. I told her about my attempt history and my past. I told her about “The Way Forward.” I told her I wanted to come forward with my story. I also told her that I did not want to harm our agency and the good work we do.
I will never forget Pat’s warm smile and the words that came out of her mouth: “You cannot hurt BHR with your story. It only makes us stronger. You need to tell your story.” And I did.