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‘Suddenly, people were talking’

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Before handing today’s post over to contributor Judy James, we’d like to mention two changes that you should see this week, as well as an outside word of encouragement. First, the blog will have a new appearance for easier reading. And that will make it possible for you to post comments and for us to moderate them.

That call for comments is part of the feedback we’ve heard so far, and here’s another: “After 10+ years working in this field, and in particular calling for greater recognition of the survivor voice, this blog from AAS represents for me the most significant development in Suicidology that I’ve witnessed,” suicidologist and attempt survivor David Webb wrote last week on the Mad in America site. “The AAS is very influential globally, so if we can make a success of this blog, it is likely that other organisations around the world might follow.”

And now, Judy. We met her last year at an event in Canada, and she quickly stood out as an attempt survivor who’s ready for a more public discussion. She’s 54, lives in Toronto and works with a supportive housing organization. She’ll take it from here:

Thank you for undertaking this exciting new venture in giving us a voice. Thanks to the AAS for supporting this endeavour.

As readers can tell from the spelling in the previous sentence, I am not from the U.S.A. Indeed, I am from Canada, but that only means that sometimes, serendipitously, people connect. I had the fortuitous opportunity to meet (blog editor Cara Anna) last autumn at the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention’s annual conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Those of us from the attempter camp tend to find each other at such events, and it was a pleasure to meet someone with her curiosity and reportage around the questions that relate to those of us who have attempted to kill ourselves and lived — some of us to tell the tale.

I look forward to future posts here to see where our thoughts and experiences run parallel, intersect and diverge. Here are some of my thoughts around the issues posed so far:

Where are we? Physically, suicide attempters are all over the planet, but cultural taboos, stigma and discrimination more often than not keep us universally isolated in shame, guilt, and fear. I know this was true for me. As I get older, however, I have realized that living in those states was almost as bad as the depression and circumstances that led me to make my attempts in the first place. That’s why, as an attempt survivor, I was at greater risk to continue that downward spiral.

At some point, I made a decision not just to exist, but grab the issue and wrestle with it from a positive perspective: question the issue itself, learn in whatever way I can, speak out against stigma and discrimination. Most of all, live a good life, the greatest revenge in the face of detractors.

I personally believe that in Canada there was a marked change in attitudes around suicide since the fall of 2011. At that time, a number of high-profile athletes in particular came out about a number of mental health issues, including suicide. Lines were drawn, and there was lively conversation across the country and abroad. Media provided fora, and there was strong crossover into youth and LGBTQ communities, specifically, and then into the mainstream. Suddenly, people were talking. Now’s our chance to contribute to the conversation instead of simply being its object.

So why do we have to hide? Interesting question. As I already wrote, I don’t anymore; I’ve been very publicly out for at least 10 years. I have lost relationships with friends and family over my attempts and their beliefs, everything from outright denial of a problem before and after my attempts to currently saying I’m at risk for speaking out.

These are their issues, not mine. I believe those attitudes have more to deal with how they believe they will be perceived than about who I am. I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that openness trumps anonymity. Enough studies have shown that sharing our stories helps in personal recovery. It helps confront isolation and stigma, and it illustrates we are resilient and intelligent and can overcome the odds and move forward with our lives. It also shows that we, too, are questioning about the issues, the same way people question other complex health issues. In my situation, true friends have undertaken the voyage with me; otherwise I’ve made new ones.

This blog has mentioned us finding our identity. That’s hard to do when there is such a problem with figuring out who’s a survivor and who isn’t and the fear — or experience — of walking into the wrong camp, especially if that camp may harbour resentment and fear toward you. Who can blame us for feeling confused when we say we are survivors and folks who have lost a loved one tell us we aren’t, but they are, survivors? Should we speak up and demand the lexicon be changed? And is the word “survivor” the only one that needs changing? I can do a whole rant on words like “commit,” “failed,” “successful” and the word “suicide” itself. Some advocates have been asking for these changes for many years.

The criminalization of mental health and/or suicide history is a hot-button issue within the communities who live with it here. I personally live with the fear that I could, at any time, be legally stopped at the border and not be permitted to travel across because of my history, regardless of whether I have lived symptom-free for years. Does that happen for folks with a history of other illnesses? In this country, if police have ever been called to intervene with you as a result of mental health or suicide-related concerns, your information stays in their databases indefinitely. Criminals at least get a chance to wipe their records clean; we get no such pardon. That, to me has to change.

Where are we in terms of research? I don’t know. It’s taken me over 30 years to figure out my own recovery path, working through my history of attempts. I know what were the predisposing and precipitating factors, and the interventions that did and didn’t work at what stages in the 20 years I struggled with suicide. I know what keeps me going now, and it’s a pretty simple formula. Knowing all that, I still don’t know if I could find myself in a situation contemplating ending my life somewhere down the road.

Suicide is a complex issue, as individual as each person who confronts it. What I have found is we attempters need to be heard, and we need to be asked. We are the people who have the answers, if we were only asked the question, “Why?” It never fails to amaze me how professionals refuse to ask the living the questions about why we chose to try to die. It will be through initiatives like this blog that we can make a contribution to the causes of suicide prevention, intervention and postvention.

I’m looking forward to hearing more of those voices.

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