Any time there’s a suicide attempt by a celebrity a flurry of media coverage ensues. There’s been plenty of coverage of the death by suicide of actor, Robin Williams. Much of it has been sensitive and responsible, much of it hasn’t. The American Association of Suicidology has media recommendations for reporting on suicide that can provide guidance for the media. While Mr. Williams’ death was tragic he was just one of over a hundred others who died by suicide that particular day. Those other deaths received little or no media attention. Yet every single one of them is just as tragic.
My own story is not at all spectacular. At the age of twenty-six I had some tough breaks. My marriage ended. I lost a job. I sustained an injury that was both painful and that prevented me from engaging in any physically challenging activities. Of course, looking back at it I see that those events were just that, tough breaks. But at the time they seemed monumental. Each event fed off the other and I found myself at an emotional rock bottom.
All of this happened over thirty years ago. At the time nobody was talking about depression. Nobody was talking about suicide. I thought I had to be the only person who had ever felt so terrible. I didn’t talk about it either. I didn’t ask for help. When the pain became too great, when it seemed that climbing out of the whirlpool of depression was just too difficult, I did the only thing I thought would end the pain. On a December day in 1982 I tried to end my life.
I did not die. But my suicide attempt resulted in blindness. Things had been bad. Now they were worse, immeasurably worse, or so I thought. What could be worse than new blindness on top of suicidal depression?
Blindness was uncharted territory. I was lucky though. Two excellent blind rehab professionals came into my life. I entered, reluctantly at first, an intense blind rehabilitation regime. Over the next twelve months I redefined myself. As I learned skill after skill, as I discovered that there were techniques which would allow me to live independently with blindness, I gradually put my life back together.
I went on to earn a master’s degree in blind rehab and worked in the field for over twenty years.
Today I’m married to Jim, my husband of twenty-nine years. I work for the Department of Veterans Affairs. I’m working Kismet, my fourth Seeing Eye dog.
Two years ago I spoke publically about my suicide attempt for the first time. I was terrified but I was also on a mission. By talking about my own experiences I hoped to let others know that there’s nothing wrong with being depressed. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not a sign of weakness. And, yes, there’s help available. You don’t have to suffer in silence. Since that first time I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve told my story. My audiences have been diverse. But there’s been one thing that’s been consistent. Every time I tell my story someone in the audience comes forward with their own story of suicidal thoughts or actions. I’m convinced that there are many more people who have shared the experience of feeling that life is not worth living than we know about. We’re among you. We’re survivors. We’ve put our lives back together and so can you.
My “coming out” has brought me in contact with a whole new group of people, others who have survived their own suicide attempts. I’ve learned so much from this amazing and dynamic group of people. We’re a widely diverse bunch of folks, professionals, students, from all walks of life. We have one thing in common. We’re talking about depression and suicide. We’re trying to erase the stigma and shame that still surrounds these mental health issues.
When I became blind I had no choice but to redefine myself. At first my self-concept was that of a damaged version of my sighted self. As I gained competence and confidence that concept began to fade. Eventually I came to see myself as a whole and complete person who happened to be blind. Going public with the story of my suicide attempt has given me the opportunity to once again redefine myself. And this definition is the greatest one of all. Yes, I’m blind. Yes, I survived a suicide attempt. But neither of these things defines me today. I’m an ordinary person. An ordinary person who has, perhaps, faced some extraordinary challenges, but ordinary all the same.
Depression doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Those of us who have survived suicidal thoughts and actions are proof. We’re among you. We’re out there just living our lives. Nor does depression have to be a death sentence. There’s help. If you’re depressed, there’s help available. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.2855. You can learn about others who have survived a suicide attempt and gone on with their lives at Live Through This, Life on the other side of a suicide attempt and What happens now? Life after suicidal thinking.
One of my favorite sites, and it’s a marvelous resource is Talking About Suicide, because it’s not a Taboo. Each interview on this site is a conversation with someone who has survived a suicide attempt. And I like that a lot. Because only if the conversation is happening can the part about asking for help come into it.
If you’re depressed, don’t stay silent. If you’re depressed, there is hope. It takes courage to admit that you’re in trouble. But asking for help can set you on the road to recovery. And those of us who have survived a suicide attempt bear witness that life can go on. Not only can life go on, life can be wonderful once again.
Sue Wiygul Martin is the author of Out of the Whirlpool, a memoir of remorse and reconciliation. She lives in Springville, Alabama.