For Veterans Day today, here is our interview with Army veteran Ted Spencer about his experience as part of a pioneering support group for suicide attempt survivors. A founding member of this site, researcher Stephen O’Connor, helped us connect.
Suicide in the military and among veterans is a huge issue. A growing number of people who’ve survived attempts or suicidal thinking are talking about it openly, as this recent series in The Huffington Post shows so well.
As they do, they’re giving the public a vivid idea of what works _ and doesn’t _ in looking for help. “I just wanted to get my emotions off my chest,” veteran and journalist Thomas James Brennan wrote for The New York Times website this month. After describing how his search for support led to a stay in a psychiatric ward, he added, “I had wasted three days _ three days that convinced me I would never ask for help from someone new ever again.”
Stigma remains around asking for help, as this article for the Huffington Post series points out. “In the military, we value strength, mental toughness, elitism and self-sufficiency, but the culture of mental health is deficiency-oriented and values emotional vulnerability, which contradicts the core identity of many service members and veterans,” writes Craig Bryan with the National Center for Veterans Studies.
Some of you might argue that that core identity goes far beyond the military and applies to any high-achieving, competitive environment.
As Ted says in our interview, a lot of people are watching his support group at the Veterans Administration hospital in Louisville to see how veterans can open up and help each other, and whether the program should be replicated at other VA hospitals around the country. Ted hopes so. “I know this program works, because I lived it, I breathed it, I come out on the other side pretty good,” he says.
He begins here by talking about his experience in the military:
I was 17 when I joined. One night during basic training, I got up to use the restroom, and a guy choked me and raped me. And I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t report it for 31 years. I kept it inside, and it literally ate at me. The other issue was a few months later, at my permanent duty station. I saw a kid get run over by a personnel carrier. I was the first person to get to him. And when it backed over him, his head exploded in my face. People were telling me to get back, but I was playing it strong, trying to act: “I can take this.” Then I looked down and was just covered with … whatever. So that’s my two main stressors. I came from a really, really bad family upbringing, both physical and mental, so I carried a lot around. That’s just the baseline story. So I can go on about how I got into the group.
I injured my back at work, and they wouldn’t pay me worker’s comp. I was really depressed. I finally got nerve enough to go to my sister’s, and she called the VA and said I needed to be seen right now. Which, I give the Louisville VA credit, they got me in immediately to talk to someone. During that conversation, it was the first time I told anybody about the rape. That led me into a couple different therapies. The great thing the Louisville VA does, if you do have an attempt, they come to the psych ward and initiate the procedure to get you involved in their suicide prevention group. That’s how I was introduced to the group.
And, on the record, it’s a magical thing that happens in that group. My first day, everybody wanted to let me know they’d all been through the same kind of thing, they all had suicide attempts, and how much they cared about me living. It just, the way they run the group, they pretty much put it in our hands, and that made it so real to me. And the likelihood of suicide for me started dropping at that moment. I knew people cared about me. And I started caring about them after hearing their stories. I’ve been in the group since then. If every VA across the country adopted a program like this, it would be a great thing. They’re on to something. The worry was, if you get a bunch of suicidal people together, they’ll compare ways to kill themselves. But it’s so to the other extreme. We get in and talk about issues happening now that are making us suicidal or might lead up to thinking about suicide, and we try to help whoever has the main issue of the day. They get the most attention. I could keep going on how wonderful it is. It led to me volunteering as a helper for suicide prevention. That led to the peer support training. I got that, got certified in that. We went out to Fort Knox a couple times, told our stories. They seemed really to accept it, to not look at us like, “Stigma.” Yeah, I attempted, or I thought about it. In that group, the stigma is completely gone, because everyone has either thought about or attempted to kill themselves. It forms a bond, it really does.
How does the group go? Walk me through it.
It’s once a week, Tuesdays at 1:30 til 2:30. You pretty much walk in and sit down, and they pass a piece of paper around, and you put your name and Social Security number on it. Once everybody is signed in, the group starts. Barb or Lori, usually Barb, asks us to introduce ourselves. A typical intro is, “My name is Ted Spencer, I’m an Army veteran, and I’m here because I attempted suicide.” You say how you’re doing that day. And Barb asks, she has a blue chip and a white chip, she asks me if I want some time, which is a blue chip. If I say no, and someone picks up on something they seen in me, they get me a white chip, which means they’re concerned and want to know a bit more. That works out because you eliminate a lot of losing time talking to get right to the point of who needs time today. And once you get the blue chips, they tell what they got on their mind willingly. And then when there’s white chips, once that person is picked and starts telling what’s going on, people can raise their hand, give advice, you know, just try to help. And we go through each person until we’re finished, and the group ends.
Is an hour enough time?
We have a half-hour cushion time before we have to get out of the room. Quite often we go over, as a matter of fact. I wish they would go ahead and make it an hour and half, myself.
How many people come?
It varies from week to week. I’d say 10 to 12, sometimes less.
Are there any guidelines?
It’s open. They do have some rules. One person speaks at a time. You can raise your hand if you want to make input. They ask if you have a cellphone, turn it to vibrate. If you get a call, take it outside the room. Third and most important, what’s said in the group stays in the group.
If we get into a situation where we’re getting way off course, Barb or Lori steps in and says, “Let’s change the subject, bring it back.” So they do keep control over that aspect. If anybody comes to the group and is noticeably on drugs or alcohol, they ask them to step out and consult them outside the room. Which we’ve had happen.
Is there room for feedback?
Once the group starts, they pretty much turn it over to us. One of the first things they told me was, “This is you all’s group, we’re just here to kind of keep it on track.” They try to let us resolve stuff among ourselves as much as possible. They do have input, too. They raise their hands and can give thoughts on a subject.
Lori and Barb are …?
Lori has a doctorate. Barb’s an LCSW. She was married to a military man in earlier years.
I got comfortable with Barb in particular because she’s the one who come to see me in the psych ward. She mentioned the suicide prevention group, and I think they require you to come to a certain number of groups after you get out. I chose to stay, and it was the best move I ever made in my life. It saved my life.
What have you learned?
I do a lot of mindfulness. That was real key in the breakthrough for me. See, I also see a separate therapist, and her and I do a lot of work. I’m not bragging, but I’ve done a lot of work to get where I am in my recovery. One of the main things I use to work for me is what they call mindfulness. I try to stay as grounded as I can in the moment. If I start drifting, thinking about this stuff, I go into a relaxed state and think of something else. If the thought comes to me, put it on a leaf and let it go downstream. It’s probably the biggest breakthrough for me.
The other thing, you start getting to know these people in the group, and you don’t want to let them down. You don’t want to cause them the pain of hearing you committed suicide. You’re so intertwined in that group so thick that I guarantee you that we think about others in the group, the promises we made to them, and to families and therapists and counselors. It got so that I made so many promises, and I’m so thickheaded that once I made my promises … I would have the thoughts, I would want to act on them, but I couldn’t. Before I got over the hump, I would say I was stuck. I really didn’t want to live, but I really didn’t want to let all these people down. It was tough going. You just keep going to your therapy sessions, going to your groups, get as much out of them as possible and think of ways to live.
Do they encourage you to know each other outside the group?
They pass a piece of paper, and if you want to give your name and number and a time of day that they can call, you and everybody gets a copy of that. I got all of them in my phone, so if I do start to feel bad or think bad, I’ll pick up the phone and call one of them. They leave that up to us. They’re not involved. It was actually a group member’s idea.
You’ve called, and people call you?
Are you guys the big test for other VAs across the country?
Honestly, I think the Louisville VA is the first to have such a group. I could be wrong. That’s why I’m so passionate about getting the word out. I hope others start this at other VAs. I know this program works, because I lived it, I breathed it, I come out on the other side pretty good. I still have my problems, but I’m not … I was so bad that suicide was the answer. I woke up mad that I didn’t die when I overdosed.
Would you have talked about your feelings before your attempt?
I didn’t want to live. I didn’t want help. I didn’t see help as a possibility.
What about crisis lines, therapists, etc.?
I didn’t know they existed until I got into the group. One of the things I do now as a volunteer is spread that stuff. We take it out to Fort Knox and pass out cards. We got a group of guys to go to VFW posts, anywhere we can think of. They’re very proactive.
Is it s tough sell?
If you’re working with veterans, they usually take the card. Occasionally, you give a card and you know they need that card at that time. Some of them even cry. You check, make sure they’re safe right now, try to stick with them until they make the call. If things are bad enough, you stay with them until they get help. Or take them to get help.
How was your peer training?
It gave me insight into ways to ask questions. And how not to ask questions. Plus, once you go through this process, wherever you come out in recovery, you know, there’s always people in different stages of their recovery. Now I can look back and identify those stages. We just kind of tell them, “You made a great move coming here, please come back,” encouraging them to come back and be a part of the group and be accepted and find some help, because it’s out there.
Who else are you?
I’m 54. I have three children. Two are mine, one is a stepchild I raised since he was 2. My son, Gary, is 30, and my daughter, Danielle, is 22. I’ve had four back surgeries, so I’m really limited to what I do physically. I bought me a nice camera, I have a Canon p4i, I’m kind of into photography, piddling around, not professional by any means.
I still do a lot of isolation, and I don’t know what I have to do to get over that. I don’t really go places unless I really need to, or someone wants me to. Short of going to the hospital, I’m in my apartment. I’m not real comfortable in public. I have a lot of anger issues, relating to the rape, mostly. I’ve had to deal with that part of my life. One of my ways to attempt to commit suicide was to go into bars and pick a fight and hope someone would draw a knife or gun and have someone do it for me. But no one ever pulled a gun or knife. I’ve been in more fights than I can remember.
I have a Yorkie I got when I moved into this apartment and first got my benefits. He’s my baby, spoiled rotten. My ex-wife comes over occasionally, and we get along great. I told her about the rape, and she understands better how I did things, treated her. It wasn’t right, I know, but I had a lot of anger and took it out on her. Now she sees I’m really trying to save my life. She wants to be a bigger part of my life, which is great. We get along great. She’s the one who makes me get out of the house when I isolate too much. I have a poor relationship with my son. Jeremy, my stepson, we had problems all along because of overbearing grandparents, I might say. When I married her and took him on, they never acted like I was his father. It just caused problems in his life and mine. He’s a recovering heroin addict. He’s clean right now. My daughter I hardly ever see unless she needs money. She doesn’t call anymore, or text. That’s about it.
Some of the closest people to you are group members.
Yeah. I don’t hang out with old friends anymore. My main socialization is at the VA hospital. It’s where I see people, interact by far the most. And that’s helped along with the recovery, trying to help other people. You become so passionate about this subject, you don’t want to see another person kill themselves. It makes it real easy to volunteer.
Has the group ever lost anyone?
We lost one, and she was there a little bit before I came. I met her through a different organization. Her name was Katie. Everybody took it hard. It was an eye-opener how a suicide does affect people in the group. I saw them just break down when they talked about Katie. They broke down completely.
How did you help each other through it?
There were a lot of phone calls back and forth. We talked about it that day, and the ones who took it the hardest, Barb and Lori worked with them individually. They made sure everyone was OK and safe, at least giving their word they’d be safe before they ended the group that day. “Is everybody going to be OK?”
What more do you need? And what more do you need to work on?
Myself personally? I need to work on isolating, and I need to work on guilt associated with the rape. I always say to myself, “There should have been something I could have done to prevent it,” but in reality, there wasn’t. But that doesn’t take the shame and guilt away. And then, one of the big problems when Brian died, it happened so close to me, I had two choices. It happened in split seconds. I could have grabbed him and pulled him away from the tracks and got his limbs run over, or I could have run and got the driver to stop. Yeah, he might have lost his legs, but I could have saved his life. And the nightmares. I suffer from recurring nightmares from both subjects.
And you can talk about all of this with the group?
I’ve discussed all of this with the group.
Do you feel like you’re finding your way out of something?
That’s what I’m hoping. To hold something like that 31 years and bring it out … You know, I’m not ashamed of it. I’m ashamed it happened, but I’m not ashamed to tell the story, because I’m sure there’s a lot more like me but who don’t have the courage to tell it happened.
Are you public speaking?
I’m not personally. I have been to Fort Knox and told stories to, I believe it was, 3,600 troops. They were split in two groups. We had two groups telling our stories. Then we flip-flopped.
How was that for you?
You know, if I’m working on this subject, it’s like I have beacons on. I focus on what I’m doing at the time. I had a rough time telling my story. It was the first time I told it in public, but I got it out. My whole thing was, don’t wait 31 years. Don’t let your life slip away 31 years. Get help immediately. And I even said, “You know, with whatever you’re going through, it doesn’t have to be a rape or seeing somebody run over. Just don’t wait 31 years to get help.” See, both of these events happened when I was 17 years old. I joined the military 23 days after I turned 17. Both events happened in six months. When Brian got run over, they didn’t even offer us any help. They all knew him. It was my second day in my permanent duty station.
I was going to ask if the military has changed in those 31 years.
Yes, night and day. I got out in ’79. I started going to the VA in ’79. And what it was like then to now, you couldn’t even imagine it. They had one primary care area for the whole hospital, and you literally could go at 8 in the morning and sit until 4 in the afternoon before being seen. It’s so much more professional nowadays.
How did the Louisville VA get chosen for the group project?
From what I understand, it’s the first one started. Barb had worked in the civilian sector, in Kentucky suicide prevention. I think she probably brought a lot of that with her. But I’m really not sure. I guess as the group evolved, and they saw the outcome, they started saying, “Hey, this really works!” I think it’s just now getting out there. A lot of people are looking at the Louisville VA suicide prevention group right now.
Is there anything you’d change about it?
Nope. Nope. Wouldn’t change a thing.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I think I said it all. Right now, I’m safe. And right now, it means a lot to the group. It means in the group that you’re not going to hurt yourself. I’m still a work in progress. I still have the thoughts, still have the nightmares.
But you do know how to talk about it.
I do. And I’m not afraid to talk about it anymore. Here’s the thing. When we get there, we think we’re the first to ever go through this, and then you go in and hear stories that are so similar to yours. It sinks in: “Hey, you aren’t the only one.”