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‘My life is better than I ever dreamed’

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This week’s post is by Sue Martin, whose story illustrates two ideas we ought to run with. First, there’s no need to confine our stories to the world of mental health or suicide prevention. Sue’s an author and an emerging public speaker, and so far her audiences have been blind rehabilitation professionals who see her attempt as just one part of her life experience. The response, she says, has been wonderful.

Second, dismissing someone’s story of recovery just because they mention how they tried to kill themself really risks missing the point. As you’ll see, Sue mentions up front what she did because it’s crucial to everything that follows.

On that note, here are links to the stories of three others who have come back from attempts or suicidal thinking and tell their stories in powerful ways. Clay Russell spoke last week on Southern California Public Radio about his story, which has had hundreds of thousands of readers. Comedian Rob Delaney has written about his experience. And cartoonist Allie Brosh has illustrated her own.

We’re coming out no matter what, even with humor, and it’s a good thing.

And now, here’s Sue:

Everyone who has ever attempted suicide has a unique story. Amidst the diversity of reasons for choosing to take one’s life, however, there seem to be some common threads: losing a job, a relationship gone bad, substance abuse, lack of self-confidence. Broadly overstated and simplified, the reasons usually center around feelings of failure. That’s my list, at least.

Feeling I had no options at the age of 26, I put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger. I regained consciousness eight hours later. I was alive. But it was dark, all dark. I was blind. How do you begin to put life back together after that? The depression was still there. Now I had blindness to deal with, too. For weeks, the strongest emotions I felt were regret and remorse. And, yes, guilt.

Then I entered an intensive program of blind rehabilitation. In my new reality, I had to learn how to do absolutely everything all over again. First, a rehabilitation teacher came to see me. After our first lesson, I could read three-letter words in braille. How cool was that? I had truly accomplished something. And I then remembered my sighted life. I could visualize flying over fences mounted on a huge thoroughbred when fox hunting. I could feel the pride of mastery as, strapped into my kayak, I maneuvered the most difficult whitewater rivers in the Southeast.

Yet now, in reading three-letter words in braille, I felt like I had truly accomplished something. Something real. I let myself feel the accomplishment. I dove into braille and all of the other skills my rehab teacher taught me. As I learned skill after skill, my competence grew. And, as my competence grew, so did my confidence.

Just as quickly, I adopted my orientation and mobility, or O&M, lessons. From the very first lesson, I was enthralled. I was in love with the idea of walking independently again. I learned to use a long white cane. I learned to be systematic about absolutely everything. I learned to read traffic and cross streets, and it wasn’t long before I faced my first drop-off lesson. My O&M instructor took me to an unknown location, dropped me off and gave me information only on my targeted destination. I had to figure out where I was, how to get to the correct bus stop and how to get to a specific restaurant in a specific mall.

And I did it! I employed everything I had learned and I did it.

A year after I pulled the trigger, I raised my head and looked around. My life with blindness wasn’t so bad after all. The challenge and demands of learning new skills had pulled me out of the depression.

In those early days, or rather, in those early years, everyone danced around the fact of my suicide attempt with the grace of an elephant on roller skates. I was never told to lie about my suicide attempt or the cause of my blindness. It was simply tacitly communicated to me that I was never to speak about it. I did tell a few people, first a psychiatrist and later a psychologist. But to the rest of the world, I dared not speak the truth. How could I? People close to me had implanted the idea that there was something shameful about having tried to kill myself.

So I marched lock-step with the wishes of those around me. Life went on. I attended graduate school, earning a master’s degree in blind rehab from Western Michigan University. I met Jim Martin. I felt loads of potential with this man, but before exploring that potential, I figured I’d better tell him my “dirty secret.” When I finished my story, he simply said, “Oh, okay.” I was stunned.

Jim and I married. We had several wonderful years together until I ran up against bulimia. I had been bulimic for years and, in the way of substance abuse, it eventually got out of control. Bulimia consumed me. It brought me slap up against the wall. I felt trapped. I felt helpless. I was afraid.

Once again, I found myself thinking that life was not worth living. The only thing that prevented me from taking action was a promise I had made to my psychologist. He made me promise that if I ever wanted to harm myself, I’d talk to him before taking any action. That saved my life.

When we sat down and he asked me to tell him why I was suicidal, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t tell him my secret. Bulimia and I had been the best of friends for 13 years. If I told him the truth, it would be all over. There would be no going back. But I had to do it.

When I finally told him the truth, he checked me into the psych unit of the local hospital. I stayed there for five days, and in those five days, I learned to tell the truth. I learned to tell the truth about my eating disorder and about the fact that I had attempted suicide with a gun and that it was the cause of my blindness.

I was shocked. People didn’t start running for the hills. The other patients, the mental health workers, the doctors, the nurses, all of them accepted me, even after I had told them my dirty secrets. That experience planted the seed. I knew I would, someday, tell my story.

The time for telling my story to the world came a year and a half ago. Not knowing if people would want to hear my story, not sure of my skill with the written word, I began with a blog. I told the story of my suicide attempt and then the story of my own process of blind rehabilitation. The blog took off, and I knew I was on to something. I kept writing. People kept reading.

I use a screen reader called JAWS for Windows made by a company in Florida, Freedom Scientific, to access my computer. JAWS reads information on the screen to me via a speech synthesizer. It echos back my keystrokes as I type. It gives me access to all things electronic. Last year, the company interviewed me concerning my blog, my upcoming book and how their product fit into my efforts.

I was startled when the interviewer asked if I had gotten any negative feedback on going public with the story of my suicide attempt. On the contrary. I’ve had nothing but positive feedback and thanks from people all over the world.

I’ve written a book, which will be published this summer. The title of the book is “Out of the Whirlpool: A Memoir of Remorse and Reconciliation.”

Right here, right now, my life is better than I ever dreamed it could be. I wrote this book because I want people who have ever been suicidally depressed — people who have stepped up to the line and have stepped away, and people who have crossed the line and actually attempted to end their lives — to know that there is life after depression. No matter how terrible things seem, it is possible to come out of depression, to build a life full of beauty, a life worth living.

There is always hope. In order to have hope, there must be life. You have to stay alive. Even if you have to stay alive minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, you have to stay alive. You can rebuild life, but only if you stay alive.

Advance readers have called the book a “triumph.” They have called me “remarkable, courageous and funny.” I agree with the bit about the book being a triumph. And, yes, there’s humor and courage. I’m not so sure about me being remarkable, though. I see myself as an ordinary person who has faced some extraordinary challenges. Somehow, I found what it took to get through the adversities and stand before the world, a whole person.

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7 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Wonderful story. It truly has made me rethink things. I hope to one day come out of the darkness to shine in the light after reading this.

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  2. Thank you Beverly for asking these questions. At the beginning of my post I list some of the events that lead me to that desperate act. There’s more in the story of my suicide attempt on my web page. http://outofthewhirlpool.com/lifestory-chapters/preface-into-the-whirlpool/. (That preface has been expanded and now comprises the first three chapters of the book.) I write, in part, “When I was growing up, we had all sorts of, no talk, subjects. One of the subjects about which we were never to speak concerned anything negative. I think my parents, and in particular, my mother were trying to create a positive atmosphere in which to raise their children. A laudable goal, perhaps, but one that had a devastating effect on me. Whenever I spoke about anything negative, someone with whom I was angry or a situation that I thought unfair, I was made to think that I shouldn’t be talking about such things. I came away with the idea that negativity shouldn’t exist. Life should be wonderful and good, I should always be happy, and nothing bad should ever happen. It was no surprise then, that I felt I could talk to no one about my feelings. It just wasn’t allowed.”

    I had heavy expectations placed on me for as long as I can remember. In my youth I didn’t think much about these expectations, I just did, thought, and projected what was expected of me. As I grew into adulthood of course, life became more complicated. I was completely unprepared to deal with adversity. I began to feel like a failure because there was struggle and negativity in my life that I could not control.

    And, speaking of control, my mother exerted an enormous amount of control over me when I was young. The expectations concerned everything from what I wore to what I said and did. I was expected to be a perfect young lady but sometimes I didn’t quite know how to do that. When I stumbled or did something wrong I met with disapproval and questions of “why, why didn’t you do (fill in the blank) the way you were expected to?”

    There are loads of theories about why women become bulimic. One theory is that, by controlling food, we grab on to something we can control in a life in which we feel out of control. I believe there is truth in this theory. I was bulimic for thirteen years and it almost brought me to the edge of the whirlpool again.

    The other area in which my mother exerted an inordinate amount of control was in my love life. I dated a man in college for two years and we were very happy together. For whatever reason, my parents disapproved of this young man and steered me towards another man of whom they approved. It was more than ‘steering.’ It was, in fact, more of an ultimatum. And I lost the man I loved and married a man I did not love. I craved approval. I did what was expected of me.

    In that chapter I also tell the story of my parents taking my brother and me to a hospital picnic. I was maybe five or six years old. In the depths of my depression, when I felt that I had failed at everything, I kept going back to that picnic in my mind. I dwelt on it. I compared myself and what I had made of my life until that time to my parents lives. And I came up lacking. I was inadequate. I had failed.

    I did not see how I could ever get out of the depths of the depression that culminated in my suicide attempt. You may care to read an interview I did recently which is posted on the Talking about Suicide web page, http://talkingaboutsuicide.com/2013/06/03/talking-with-sue-martin/. In that interview I portray the rapid spiral into depression. One thing feeds off another, each thought and feeling dragging me deeper into despair.

    I do not have any medical condition, diagnosed or undiagnosed, that contributed to my depression. It was a matter of circumstances, events, thoughts, feelings.

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  3. Hello Susan, and thanks for a wonderfully moving post.

    There have been points in my life when I have gone through the dark, gripping clutches of depression. It grabbed hold of me and led me through the barren corridors of a world that I wanted no part of, but was smack dab in the middle of none the less.

    Circumstances that arose in my life twisted and turned my heart, soul, and mind into a pretzel that captured my will and ran circles around any hope of escape. I was at the point where I was driving around the roads in my state, picking a cliff to drive off of, a large road side rock to slam into, or a river to plunge my truck into. my fate seemed close at hand, and there seemed no way out of it.

    I had much influence from alcohol and drugs, which didn’t allow me normal preparations for the inner turmoil I was going through. I couldn’t think my way away from how I felt, and my world started spinning out of control.

    That’s when I handed it all over to my faith, and dove head first into support programs. I went through a dual diagnosis facility, but still when I came out of the thirty day program, I realized that I had all the tools I needed to meet the challenges head on, but I couldn’t figure out how to open the damn tool box. This all started to change though, as soon as I again realized that I needed to let go of all the things that I couldn’t control, ask for help, and start to try and control the one thing that would and could make the biggest difference. That one thing was me. Once I started to take hold of my life, and my life alone, things started to change. All of the other spinning, out of control things that I was trying to grab hold and manipulate were suddenly set to the side, and I started to take one step at a time into my future, and mine alone.

    The support was there, the inspiration was there, the plain and simple truths were all there, but it was up to me to let go of all the things that drove me down deep into the hole and grab the rope and start pulling myself out of the hole. It was six miles down, so it would be six miles back up, but I learned so much in those six miles that when I reached the top, I was able to start living my life for me.

    My vision loss in 2010, again drove me down into that hole. Not as far this time, but I still had to regroup my life and figure out what goals I could set and reach. Once again, I had to place one foot in front of the other and live “my” life. There were so many things that were out of my control, and realizing them was the first big step that led me into the next great chapter of my life.

    Thank you so much for your continued inspiration. Your strength and determination is there for all to see. It’s become the corner stone of your life, and I admire you so for that.

    Taking control of my life was the easiest thing, and also one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. It’s what should come natural to us all, but it’s also so easily overlooked in the cluttered up chaos that we are surrounded with every day.

    I am living my life, and although it is so much different than it was just a few short years ago, it is opening up my eyes and heart to a strange, new, wonderful place that I hope and pray I am able to keep on discovering.

    Deon Lyons

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  4. Sue,

    This post, like your book, is a truly courageous and liberating journey. I have a diagnosis of Bipolar II which is severely complicated by PTSD. I struggle much more with depression than mania, and all of my manic episodes have been triggered by trauma of one kind or another. You and your Jim Martin have been a wonderful support in my life for over 12 years now. You convinced me to take the job in Maine and taught me how to explore the wonderful outdoors of that beautiful state. You also had the courage and fortitude to return to Alabama and that culture of “don’t talk, don’t tell”. I now know that when the time comes I too will be able to return to Alabama to care for my mother.

    I am totally blind and have been since age eight. I was born visually impaired and never had enough sight to read print or see faces, but I do remember colors. My blindness to me is a piece of cake. Yes, it is inconvenient at times, especially when trying to deal with transportation, but it is something I’ve always lived with. Depression hit me like a ton of bricks when I was 20-years-old and a junior at the University of Alabama. My family and I had no idea how to cope with my depression. They were mainly absent while I struggled through the worse semester of my life. I ultimately dropped out of school that semester. Unknown to me, my aunt was struggling with her own bout of depression. She worked at the university in the printing department. The University of Alabama was slowly adding braille room number signs to their many buildings. I proof read these signs for my aunt, and in turn she made sure that the buildings in which most of my classes took place were the first to get the new signage. She was part of my support team during that semester. I was the only totally blind student attending the university at the time. The rug was jerked from under me and my recovery when my aunt committed suicide in June of 1996.
    My family’s attitude was to sweep all problems under the carpet and pretend that they didn’t exist. They were blind to the fact that this way of life could kill. It did kill my aunt, and it nearly killed me. They love my aunt and me, but they had no idea how to help and even had difficulty admitting that the depression existed. Some family members even questioned my aunt’s suicide because they couldn’t admit that depression can and does kill too many wonderful and loving people who have been sucked into a whirlpool. I ran away from Alabama in September of 1997. This distance allowed me to learn how to cope with my depression. Today I am much stronger than I was 18 years ago. I am happily married to another Jim Martin and have a wonderful Seeing Eye Dog named Soldier, even though we are opposed to war. We just want to see our soldiers all come home safely, and have the mental health care to keep them from committing suicide or struggling alone with PTSD. Sue was matron of honor in my wedding to my Jim Martin, and yes we have a Martin squared picture to prove it. .

    Sue and Jim Martin provided me with an opportunity to feel totally at peace for the first time after that deep depression struck me in my early 20’s. I was 26 when they taught me how to hike with my Seeing Eye Dog, Ozzie Bear. Thank you for sharing your story which gives me strength to share my own.

    Your sister at heart,
    April Martin

    Reply

    • Fabulous commentary April. I went back and read your guest blog post called, The Gift of Peace. I hadn’t read it for a while and I’m sitting here with a tear in my eye. I hope you keep writing. I hope you keep an open mind and an open heart. You’re one special friend. Here’s the link to April’s guest blog post on my website. Well worth the read! http://outofthewhirlpool.com/2012/07/the-gift-of-peace/

      Reply

  5. Thank you, Sue, for your incredible story and for sharing your life experience. I salute your courage and will to live. I know someone who tried to commit suicide and ended up blind as a result and even after the event they’ve retained their sense of humor getting through the stigma of botched suicide attempt. Incredible!!! It’s been a while since I have seen this person but I know or pray that they will not lose their sense of humor or comedic abilities anytime soon as I believe it is a driving force behind their will to live. I hope to have your drive and determination one day. You both are an inspiration.

    Reply

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