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.