This week’s post is about finding connections between two groups of survivors: attempt survivors and people who have lost someone to suicide. Some of us are both.
This fall, I was asked by the editor of Surviving Suicide, a fellow project for the American Association of Suicidology, to write a message for its readers. You can find it here. But in Massachusetts, author and public speaker Craig A. Miller is far ahead on collaborating with loss survivors for suicide awareness work. In the video above, he speaks to a local suicide prevention walk. And below, Craig explains how he came to find common ground between these sometimes very different worlds:
The suicide prevention/awareness community is made up of many voices. There are survivors, broken by the loss of a loved one and determined to save others from experiencing the same kind of pain. There are mental health professionals, driven by what they have seen and desperate to understand how to stop it. There are lawmakers, first responders, policy makers and some who just want to help.
But one voice that had been lacking in the community is the attempt survivor.
In July 2012, I self-published a book titled “This is How it Feels: A memoir of attempting suicide and finding life.” I wrote about my attempt and the events that led to it. But more important, I wrote about hope, finding meaning in our past and uncovering the beauty that is disguised in our pain. I had no idea that it would have such a profound effect on people. Immediate feedback was overwhelmingly positive and deeply sincere. But for all the issues I’ve overcome, self-doubt is the one I still struggle with. I continually dismissed the praise and told myself that people were just being nice because they felt bad for me.
It wasn’t until a few months after the book’s release that what I had accomplished finally settled in. It came after reading an article in a local newspaper where a person wrote, “This book saved my grandson’s life.” I thought about that statement for days. Could what I have to say really have value? Could my message actually help? If it can, then I have to do everything possible to get it to the people who need to hear it.
I scanned the internet for suicide prevention organizations that recommend books to their members. I found several and sent an email to one explaining my situation. I asked if they would review my book. Their response was very polite, but it ended with, “I’m sorry, our book committee only reviews books about survivors of suicide.”
I remember the confusion as I read that. Maybe they didn’t fully read my email. Maybe I wasn’t clear. I am a survivor of suicide; I attempted suicide and survived. I immediately wrote back, “I apologize; I may have misinformed you. I am a survivor of suicide. My book is a memoir about surviving a suicide attempt.”
They responded, “The term ‘survivors of suicide’ refers to family members who have lost someone to suicide. Attempt survivors of suicide are a different group and, at the moment, our committee does not work on reviewing books for attempt survivors.”
Part of me was embarrassed; my experiences with the mental health field had only ever been from the side of the patient. Maybe I should have educated myself more. Part of me was confused; I had always thought of suffering, sadness and hurt as feelings that tied people together. There are two different groups? Two different sides? And they are treated separately? But more than anything, I was hurt and angry.
In sharing my story, I had put my entire life on the line. I took a risk that would affect my entire family as well. I exposed my darkest secrets with pure intentions so that others might benefit. But because I was of a “different group,” that message was being excluded.
Perhaps it’s because attempt survivors are thought of as unstable. Maybe some people are concerned about the message we might share and how it could be perceived. Maybe we represent the cause of so much pain that loss survivors have endured.
Whatever the reason, I was determined to get my message out. I spent the next several months getting as involved as possible in the suicide prevention community. I joined my state’s coalition. I accepted every invitation to speak. I took the time to get to know each person I met. I gave interviews and attended trainings. All the while, I tried to understand the fundamental differences between “us” and “them.” Why are we different groups?
After more than a year of involvement, what I have found is that on the surface it may appear as though we are two different groups. But instead of seeing our differences, I have seen our similarities. We both know what it’s like to experience incredible pain and sadness. We both have determination to find a better way. We both beg to know that we are not alone, and we both call for more to be done. I believe there are many others who see this as well. And the suicide prevention community has begun to open the doors for the attempt survivor involvement. We are being sought out to share our insight and stories of hope. This new AAS attempt survivor site has helped break ground on a new road where we can use our voice.
In April, I was asked to speak at the Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Conference. With seven excellent and informative workshops scheduled in the same time slot, my workshop drew one-third of the conference attendees. I don’t believe this had anything to do with me or my presentation. I think what drew so many people was their desire to hear the voice of an attempt survivor.
After the conference, I was approached by a woman who told me she had lost her daughter to suicide. She put her arms around me with tears in her eyes and said, “Thank you. Thank you for everything you are doing.”
I can’t begin to explain what that level of acceptance felt like. But I take little credit for what I am doing. The fact is, though it is difficult at times, all I’ve done is share my story and, more important, share the lessons I’ve learned from my experiences.
The people who choose to listen are the ones doing the real work. They are the ones letting their walls down and opening themselves to hear the voices of suicide prevention and awareness from all angles.
I believe we are on the cusp of eliminating the two-group scenario. The suicide prevention community, where loss survivors are more visible than attempt survivors, has been responsible for developing incredible programs and training over the years. They have led the march and championed the birth of a community. And they are opening the door for us to come inside. They are recognizing the need for our insight and understanding, our lived experience and the hope we can represent.
And most important, they are seeing that our voice has value.
As attempt survivors, I believe there are a few critical steps we need to take before getting involved with suicide prevention and awareness, especially if we intend to share our stories.
Are you prepared? There is nothing more important than your own wellness. Although the suicide prevention/awareness community encourages wellness, this is a community driven by emotion. It is a passionate network of people, each with a story and a reason to do what they do. It’s best to test the waters by participating in local events such as suicide prevention walks or fundraisers. Get a feel for the community and be sure it is something you believe is right for you.
What is your message? If you choose to speak out or share your story, it is critical to ask yourself these questions: What is my message? Will what I say have value to others? Whether you write or speak, having an opportunity to be heard means having an opportunity to help. Be sure to use your time wisely. It’s a good feeling to share your story and get it off your chest, but it’s a much better feeling to leave your audience with a message of value.
Educate yourself. Prior to sharing our stories, there are a few fundamentals to learn, such as proper terminology and safe messaging. I contacted the Samaritans in my area and asked to meet with someone before I gave my first talk. I reviewed my entire presentation with them and incorporated their feedback.
Look for ways to help. Search for suicide prevention organizations in your area. If nothing comes up, start with national or regional groups and ask for the contact information of local leaders. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s site has a great list to start with.
You can also contact your state’s suicide prevention program.
Get training. Early on, I attended an ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) training seminar. Not only was the training valuable, but I was also able to network with some wonderful people. A Google search will help you find one in your area.
Define your priorities. Getting involved means taking on responsibility. You must always remember that your greatest priority is you. Stay focused on your wellness. Take time for yourself when you need it. It’s very easy to take on this incredible weight and find yourself emotionally burdened. Know your support structure. Use it when you need it. And always remember that sometimes the best way we can help is by taking care of ourselves.