Viewpoint, An interview with Rob Conrad broadcast by Magic 96.5, Birmingham, Alabama on July 20, 2014
Rob Conrad interviews Sue Martin
You’re listening to Viewpoint Alabama, a public affairs program from the Alabama Radio Network
RC: Welcome to Viewpoint. My name is Rob Conrad and our special guest today is Sue Martin. A unique story to tell and a lot of people will be encouraged by it Sue because a lot of people are dealing with depression. And you were, what, 28 or 29 when you were very depressed, is that right?
SM: I was actually 26.
RC: Oh, okay 26. Tell us about your life then. Why were you so depressed? What was happening?
SM: Well I had an absolutely fabulous childhood, up through high school and college. And then I got out into the real world. And, I wasn’t prepared for the reality of marriage and employment. Coming off of the exhilaration of graduating from college and getting married 3 weeks later, and it was kind of a rude awakening. The real world was a rude awakening to me, and I just don’t think I was prepared.
RC: Did you have support? Did you have your parents, siblings, friends? What was your support system like at that time?
SM: Yes, I had great family support but when I got married I moved away from Birmingham so that distance was a little bit difficult. That marriage ended after 2 years and I moved back to Birmingham and I got a job in business. And that also ended after two years. So I moved back in with my parents, you know, when I was 26. Those things are tough breaks. But certainly not enough, from where I sit now, to make me not want to be alive anymore.
RC: But you got to that point. Did you seek out counseling or any type of help when you were depressed and thought about taking your life?
SM: My parents insisted that I see a professional. And, I think that the problem I had was really being honest with the therapist. Growing up, I think that my parents tried to create a positive atmosphere to raise my brother and me. And they did. It was just a wonderful, wonderful upbringing. But it was kind of not okay to talk about negative stuff. A situation maybe that I thought had been unfair or someone that I was maybe angry with. In fact, I didn’t really learn to deal with anger until I was in my 30s. So, although I saw a professional, I was not able to be completely honest with him. I think if I had, if I had revealed, I know if I had revealed the depth of my depression and my despair, I would have gotten help.
RC: So you kept it within. You didn’t reveal it to anybody it sounds like.
RC: So, out of what transpired you have written this book, Out of the Whirlpool. That title comes from what you thought you were in. You felt like you were in a Whirlpool of depression?
SM: Yes, I did. And I had built up walls, gradually I just walled everybody off from my life. First, my friends, then my family. And the isolation, I thought I was the only one who had ever felt so terrible. This was in 1982 and at the time, people just weren’t talking about depression and suicidal feelings. It’s better now and one of the things that I’m trying to do is through publishing this book, and my public speaking, is remove the shame and stigma that are still associated with suicide and depression.
RC: I know for a fact that there are a lot of people who deal with depression. I mean, seriously, just think of all of the people who are taking medication to help with that. Everyone listening, I bet you $100 that everybody listening knows someone closely who may be battling depression. Don’t you agree that it’s seriously widespread?
SM: Yes, I agree.
RC: So you’re saying that back in ’82 there was a shame and stigma about coming out and talking about it?
RC: So you felt trapped and then, what led you to the point where you said I just don’t want to live anymore. How did you get to that point? Because sometimes, when I hear about someone who has taken their life, I say to myself, what could be going on that’s so bad you would do that?
SM: The pain and the isolation, and the feelings of failure are what were behind it. And, I remember, envisioning being down in a whirlpool, and looking up at what would have been the surface of the water, and just thinking, I can’t climb up there. I just don’t have the energy. It’s too much work. It’s too hard. And I think, I think other people who have been suicidal will recognize this. It feels, you’re not thinking, I want my life to end. You’re thinking, I want the pain to end.
RC: I see. So you tried to take your life with a gun. And that attempt was unsuccessful which led to your blindness, if I’m correct.
RC: And how did you get from that point, [laughter] to where you are now. Because a lot of people would say, my problems are compounded now.
SM: Yes, they were. Just because I shot myself, that didn’t mean that I was magically no longer depressed. I was still depressed. But now I had to deal with blindness on top of it. And, when you talk about a book that’s about suicidal depression and new blindness, you think, oh gosh, that’s going to be depressing.
SM: But the book is far, far from depressing. It’s a very triumphant book. What happened is When I regained consciousness, and realized what had happened, when I had human contact again, when I was back with friends and family, I committed to myself that I wanted to live, that I would do whatever it took to put my life back together. And, it wasn’t easy, I mean, there were times when learning the skills of blindness, learning braille, learning to use a long cane, honestly I just had to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Because, especially at first, every step was a struggle. But I knew that every step was taking me closer to being a whole person again. The emotional adjustment was way more difficult than learning the skills. What began my emotional climb out of the whirlpool ironically, was the challenge of learning to live with blindness. I needed the challenge.
RC: So the challenge actually helped you climb out of the whirlpool.
SM: It did. It did.
RC: Wow, that’s an amazing thing!
If you just tuned in, we’re talking to Sue Martin. Her book is Out of the Whirlpool. And, if I’m hearing this right, you were depressed, you tried to commit suicide, and you realized, now I’m blind, but that challenge lifted you, helped lift you out of the depression.
SM: Yes, and it wasn’t something that I was aware of as it was happening. But, the challenge of learning new skills, the thrill of learning that I could travel with my cane, from point A to point B, and I could get where I wanted to be, and I could get there safely, the realization that I was learning skills to live with blindness, That new learning, the success of actually learning skills that would allow me to live life as a person who is blind, that’s what helped start me down the road to emotional soundness.
RC: Now, before we talk about what you’re doing now, I want you to address anyone who might be depressed, might have entertained a thought of suicide, What do you say to them. I know you speak to a group called AWARE, I know you address people who might be in this situation. What would you want them to know?
SM: There is always hope. No matter how terrible your circumstances seem, there is always hope. But in order for there to be hope, there has to be life. You have to stay alive. Stay alive and ask for help.
RC: Now, let’s talk about the next step. We’ve talked about the cane and all of these new things you had to learn. It must be, you know, sometimes I’ll say to myself, If I couldn’t see, how could I find things. How could I do any of the daily tasks that we take for granted? But, you’ve got a guide dog and I want everyone to know that the building we work in, here, at the radio station, I see you out with a guide dog, taking breaks and taking the dog out, and I marvel at that. And I want to know how you were introduced to Kismet and how that whole thing came to be. How is life with a guide dog?
SM: [Laughter] Kismet is my fourth dog from The Seeing Eye school in Morristown, New Jersey. She’s eleven years old. She’s still working well. I actually, when I was a student in graduate school at Western Michigan University my professor let me walk with his dog. We were at a hotel in Chicago on a field trip and I was sold. [Laughter] All I did was walk to the end of the hall and back but I was like, I want a dog! [Laughter]
RC: So they’re an amazing help to you?
SM: Yes, and the really cool thing outdoor activities, hiking, kayaking, cross country skiing, all of these outdoor recreational activities were always a part of my life. And of course, when I became blind I thought, [sound of sorta finality.]
RC: That’s it huh?
SM: Yeah, so much for that! [Laughter] And, I gotta tell you, The Seeing Eye does not train its dogs to hike mountain trails. But I’ve done it with every single one of my dogs. And it is just phenomenal. It’s so much fun.
RC: I’ll tell everyone the story I told you a few minutes ago. When we had our huge winter storm and we were stuck at the radio station, I was walking down to a restaurant at the bottom of the hill to get food for everybody here, and I saw you and Kismet going down the hill in the terrible rough icy terrain and I was blown away that the two of you could do it! [Laughter]
SM: I know. When I left the building everybody was like, no, no, you can’t do it, you can’t do it. We’re watching people with 20/20 vision fall on the ice!
RC: Did you have any trouble?
SM: You know, it was amazing. Kismet was like, when we were going down the driveway, she was like, Can we go back now? Can we turn around?
RC: It was icy to her paws.
SM: And when I finally convinced her, No, we’re going to do this. I actually had to kneel down, and hold her on each side of her face, I need for you to do your job.
SM: When I started down, when I made it to the sidewalk, a man who was down there said, if you go to your left the terrain is a little rougher, it’s not as slick and you’ll have a better chance. So I thanked him and did what he suggested and got to where you turn to the right and then it was amazing. There were so many people out there. And offers just started coming left and right. You know, ma’am, if you back up a little bit and go to your right you’ll have an easier time. Another man went up into the woods broke off a branch of wood and brought it to me for a staff.
SM: Yeah. It was amazing.
RC: That’s great. We just have a couple of minutes left. I want you to tell us about AWARE. Is there a website? A way that someone can get in touch with AWARE if they feel they need help? What is the main thing that AWARE could do for one of our listeners?
SM: AWARE is a grass roots group of people. It started in Mountain Brook in response to depression and suicide of some residents of Mountain Brook. It’s now spread to Homewood and Vestavia. We have a closed Facebook page. You can contact me on Facebook, Sue Wiygul Martin, Wiygul is W i y g u l. I’m the only one there. You can contact me on Facebook and I’ll add you to the group.
SM: The purpose of AWARE is that we lose not one more to suicide. And that people know that they don’t have to struggle with mental health issues in isolation.
RC: Sue, we’re out of time. It’s been a wonderful experience talking with you. Congratulations on the book.
SM: Thanks Rob.
RC: Thank you.