Suicide-attempt survivors go public in hope of aiding many at risk
Craig Miller was 8 when he first thought about killing himself.
His home life was in chaos. He was being sexually molested by a neighbor and bullied at school. His obsessive-compulsive disorder was undiagnosed.
By the time he was 20, he said, “I really believed life wasn’t for me.” One Friday night in 1996 he downed 250 pills and went to sleep.
Miller woke up three days later in a hospital bed. Later, his brother asked what it would take to make him want to live. Miller had no answer. “I had no reason at all to keep going.”
Today Miller, 38, has found many reasons to keep going: a loving wife, two little girls, a nice home, a good job.
He is also part of an emerging — and vocal — movement of suicide-attempt survivors who are stepping out of the shadows and speaking out about their experiences. Attempt survivors are hoping that a higher profile will help break the silence surrounding suicide, encourage those at risk to get help, and let them see that they are not alone. Studies show that people who are socially isolated are at higher risk.
“The best way to speak to a suicidal heart is with a suicidal heart,” Miller believes.
Suicide-attempt survivors say their very existence proves there is productive life and hope beyond despair. Many were heartened earlier this month when the country’s oldest suicide-prevention organization — the 46-year-old American Association of Suicidology — announced at its annual meeting the creation of a division representing suicide-attempt survivors and people who have considered suicide.
“We are essentially saying that they are welcome at the table at any discussions about suicide prevention,” said Julie Cerel, board chairwoman of the association, adding that attempt survivors have become more vocal recently and about a year ago requested a division of their own. “There is much we can learn from them. Our hope is that this is the first step in a long process of changing the way we talk about suicide.”
It was a significant symbolic and strategic step for a group that wants its perspective factored into national suicide-prevention efforts.
“It’s ironic that most of what we think we know about suicide has been learned not from those who have experienced it firsthand, but secondhand, through interviews of those who have lost loved ones through suicide, and clinicians who treated them. There is an inherent bias in that, colored by the fact that they died by suicide,” said Phil Rodgers, a vice president of LivingWorks Education, which develops suicide-prevention programs.
“There’s been a revolution,” said Terry Wise, 50, a former Boston trial attorney who lives in Wayland. She is the author of “Waking Up,” a memoir about recovering from depression following a series of hardships, including the death of her husband when she was 35 and a near-fatal suicide attempt. Now she works in the field of suicide prevention.
“Ten years ago, attempt survivors were not speaking out,” she said. “When I see people like Craig out there, it warms my heart.”
Among those who have gone public are Misha Kessler, a recent graduate of George Washington University who came out on Facebook about a suicide attempt, and JD Schramm, a Stanford University lecturer who gave a TED Talk in 2011 about his attempt. Kevin Hines of San Francisco, who survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, has gone on to a career as a charismatic motivational speaker, author, and mental health advocate.
New York journalist Cara Anna is a former China-based correspondent who, following a pair of attempts at suicide, started a blog called talkingaboutsuicide.com, which includes interviews with others who have tried to kill themselves. (She edits a second blog, attemptsurvivors.com, for the American Association of Suicidology.)
The blogs are “overwhelmingly not anonymous,” Anna said. “I’m just sick of seeing ‘All the names have been changed,’ and people photographed in silhouette. I don’t see any other health problem being framed in these terms.”
New York photographer Dese’Rae Stage started an ambitious photo project called “Live Through This” about what she calls “life on the other side of the suicide attempt,” inspired by her own experience (livethroughthis.org). It is a collection of photographs and interviews with attempt survivors across the country. In many cases, it is the first time people have shared their stories. Everyone is identified by name.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists suicide as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2010, the last year for which there are national statistics, there were 38,364 suicides in the United States. According to a 2012 CDC report, more than 1 million adults attempt suicide each year, and an estimated 2.2 million reported making suicide plans in the previous year.
Still, it is a population that is hard to get a handle on. There is no typical suicide, according to Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.
“It’s the end result of a very bad sequence of things happening and interacting,” he said. “Depression is a significant risk factor. . . . People range from those who wanted to die but may have been thwarted or rescued all the way down to people who want attention.”
“People like to say, ‘You have so much to live for, or suicide is selfish.’ It may be true, but the person in this crisis can’t feel or believe it,” said Stage. “You can’t consider the people you love, because your brain is telling you they don’t care and that it would be better off for you to be gone.”
This was the conclusion Miller reached that July night in 1996 when he filled his body with pills. It was the culmination of many assaults. “I had lived 20 years of life under the darkest cloud you can imagine,” he said.
When he was a teenager he “started to fall apart from the inside out.” He became consumed with guilt and regret and developed obsessive compulsive-disorder, including an obsession with numbers and an urge to collect paper and perform rituals. The noise in his head became deafening. He grew increasingly withdrawn.
His sole healthy obsession was writing, mainly poetry and song lyrics. “I would really just write anything,” Miller said. “It was like an escape, an oasis.”
He left home at 16 and was hospitalized five times, including one stay when he was misdiagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. After that Miller moved to his father’s girlfriend’s house; six months later he tried to kill himself.
“People ask me what changed,” Miller said. He has a boyish face and is soft-spoken, with a gentle, easy smile. “I can’t say there was a pivotal moment, but recognizing I was at my lowest point was the key I needed to get myself started. . . . I became obsessed with taking care of me.”
After recovering from the suicide attempt, he found a cabinet-making job, which turned into a supervisory position. Eleven years ago he moved to a large engineering company, where he now works as a manager. He lives near Boston with his two daughters and a wife he calls “wicked supportive.”
He still writes poetry, “most of it pretty dark, based around the things I need to get out of me,” Miller said. He no longer struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It has been 18 years since he woke up in the hospital, and he said he is focused on learning everything he can from his past to create a better future.
“I took everything positive with me and chose to leave the negative behind,” he said. That process “helped me develop compassion and empathy for other people in that situation.”
Miller has immersed himself in suicide-prevention efforts, joined the executive committee of the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention, and written a memoir, “This is How it Feels.”
It has taken him a long time to realize it, but now he believes it: “I did pretty well for myself. I’ve been through a lot, I’m still standing, and maybe I’m stronger than I thought.”