(Editor's note: San Diego LGBT activist Kurt Cunningham tells his deeply personal story in hopes of helping others during National Suicide Prevention Month. You can also read his blog HERE. And for the record, this article was vetted by a local therapist before it was edited for publication.)
SAN DIEGO, California -- I tried to end my life one night after having a wonderful fun-filled evening with friends. It was in November 2012; I had a plan in place for months. Not one person had any idea what I was planning to do.
After a series of life-changing events that began in 2009 and included the closing of my once-successful business of nine years and culminated with the death of my mother in August 2012, life just seemed unbearable to me. My finances were a mess. My health wasn't great. And I couldn't make a romantic relationship last more than a few months.
Life just sucked! So I thought about every option I could end my life and finally decided on a plan that I could carry through with that wasn't violent, or that wouldn't bring harm to innocent bystanders. I remember coming home and getting everything in place to follow through with my plan. I'm sure you're wondering what my plan was, but I would never want to put any ideas in someone's head that was considering harming themselves. Once I was finished, I remember taking out the trash, grabbing my cat, and laying on my couch with the cat on my chest, unable to stop crying until I fell asleep.
Of course with the recent suicide of Robin Williams, countless articles have been written, news stories have flooded television for days, and now the news media are onto the next sensational story. So I wanted to share my experience and acknowledge that I am a survivor of a suicide. That sounds ... I don't know, kind of dramatic to me.
But there is something about creating a plan, going through with it, and the result is not what I had anticipated that IS very dramatic.
WAKING UP, UNEXPECTEDLY
How are you supposed to feel when you wake up from a medically induced coma to see your friends and family at your bedside waiting for you to wake up?
My first thought was not DAMN it didn't work. I don't remember what my first thoughts were. I know I was pretty delirious for a while because I thought I was at some lady's home, and she was taking care of me while she decorated a Christmas tree. That lady was a nurse in my private ICU hospital room, the "tree" she was decorating was my IV drip rack. There were so many bags on that thing they looked like ornaments to me. It was if strands of tinsel were flowing into my arms, I’ve done my fair share of drugs in my life but I’ve never mainlined Christmas. I had contracted pneumonia; there was a fear of liver and kidney failure. To say I was in bad shape would be an understatement.
It was a lengthy hospital stay; I was under 24-hour watch, which meant a nurse sat next to my bed 24 hours a day. After about a week I was transferred to the "West Wing," and believe me it was nothing as plush as the West Wing of the White House. The West Wing of UCSD Hillcrest is the psychiatric ward of the hospital. It's like taking a step back in time. I believe it was a portion of the original space of the hospital when it was first built. It was very stark, sterile with plastic furniture and doors that locked us in. It felt like a prison to me; I was on permanent lockdown, and there was nothing I could do about it. You don't get to sign yourself out of Psychiatric ward like you can in a regular hospital; you are there until some stranger says you are back to "normal" whatever the hell that is.
I was told by staff members that I would have a particularly difficult time there because I was the only "highly functional" patient in the ward.
They were’nt kidding. This was no resort-type facility we often hear about celebrities going to because of “exhaustion,” but this support was an important part of the journey to recovery. I needed to be safe. I sat alone. I tried to read. I would sometimes talk with the nurses when they weren't busy.
I didn't belong here! I'm nothing like these people! Didn't they know who I am? Get my friend who was also my city councilman on the phone. Call my friends who are city commissioners! Placing me here was obviously a mistake. I was coming unglued! The lunatics had taken over the asylum, and I was going down with them.
I begged to be let out; at one point a doctor gave me some false hope that I might be released over the weekend. Unfortunately, it was a Thanksgiving holiday weekend and the ward was being run by the "B list" doctors.Their idea of therapy included coloring in coloring books and making flowers out of colored paper. Finally, the following Monday the A list doctors came back on duty and saw that my mood was deteriorating because of my surroundings. I have a wonderful group of close friends who were visiting the hospital every day, bringing me some of my favorite food, keeping me focused on what my plans were for when I got out of the hospital. The nurses and the doctors were very impressed by the amount of people that would come visit me. I think I broke the record for the amount of visitors in one day. Hell, I even had a drag queen in full gown, and crown visit me on Thanksgiving Day. It was like a dadgum parade in there. But it also showed the doctors I had a great support team waiting for me when I was released. The ongoing visits reminded me that I had a team of support, that I was not alone in the world.
Luckily that support system was willing to do anything they could to help me get reacquainted with life and back on my feet.
So let me fast forward a bit to my recovery. Follow-up appointments with all the doctors, weekly "talk" therapy and new medications helped me with my recovery. Staying close to home for a bit, getting out of the house was important but being seen wasn't that important to me. I guess in a way I was embarrassed and ashamed of what I had done. Good thing I didn't leave a "fu*k you and fu*k you too" letter for anyone to find, because then I would have to face those people again.
Looking back, I realize that shame and embarrassment were embedded in my mind. A learned behavior. YES, trying to end your life is an awful thing. I do not recommend it to anyone. But the stigma that was put on me like a scarlet letter made it very difficult to move forward in certain situations; but that was one of the many obstacles I have overcome. Friendships were the No. 1 thing that had changed in my life.
People's attitudes about depression and suicide, just mental illness in general, often come with a stigma. Even when people try to have conversations about depression, their competency or understanding about the issue is archaic or maybe they were just repeating things they heard somewhere and took it as fact.
WHAT I LEARNED
So class is now in session.
Lesson No. 1: Depression is real
Depression, clinical, diagnosed depression is not the same thing as having a bad day because your car got scratched, or you lost your lucky pair of underwear. The word "depressed" is used in a very loose and at times offensive manner. It trivializes what a truly depressed person is dealing with in their life.
It's hard to blame the people that aren't familiar with depression or other mental health issues. Our culture has taught us to dismiss these people as being victims and weak. I tend to be a little passive aggressive when I see someone post on social media "I'm so depressed" My response is always the same. "Oh, I'm sorry, how long have you been suffering from depression?" No one has ever answered that question when I ask.
Lesson No. 2 Suicide is a lot of things, but selfish isn't one of them
Suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. The black hole that is clinical depression is all-consuming.
People who say that suicide is selfish always reference the survivors. They say it's selfish to leave friends and family and loved ones behind.
What they don't know is that those loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. They do think about the survivors, probably up until the very last moment in many cases. But the dark cloud of depression that follows you everywhere them leaves you feeling like there is no alternative. As the only way to get out of the crappy situation you think you are in is to end it all. And that is a devastating thought to endure.
Until you've stared down that level of depression, until you've lost your body, heart, mind and soul to a sea of emptiness and darkness ... you don't get to make those judgments. You might not understand it, and you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but making those judgments and spreading that kind of negativity won't help the next person. In fact, it will only hurt them and others.
Lesson No. 3: Myth that once a nut case, always a nut case
NOT true. You have to look at depression for exactly what it is, an illness. Let's compare it to diabetes. There is no cure for diabetes, but it is a manageable illness. There are many ways people with mental illness can live regular lives just like everyone else. Of course, there are different levels of the illness and it might take a lot of work for one person versus very little for another.
For me, the best plan has been medication and talk therapy. Medication isn't a magic pill that works the first time you take it. You may have to try different pills or different combinations, and it takes a short time for those meds to kick in. You would be surprised at how many people you know or are familiar with that live with mental illness. Remember approximately 1 in 4 people suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder; take a look around, it could it be you, your best friend, your partner, your parent. Don't be so quick to judge, but do ask questions. Approach them in a caring, concerned and loving manner.
Lesson No. 4: No blame, no shame, just be kind
The worst things to say to someone with a mental illness:
Snap out of it.
There are a lot of people worse off than you.
You have so many things to be thankful for, how can you be depressed?
You'd feel better if you got off all those pills.
What doesn't kill us makes us stronger.
Go out and have some fun.
I know how you feel.
So you're depressed, aren't you always?
This too shall pass.
You make the choice to have a bad day, just decide to have a good day.
So change the words up a little bit, you would never say things like:
Hey, diabetic, snap out of it.
Hey, epileptic, I know how you feel.
Hey, paraplegic, so you can't use your legs, isn't that always the case?
You get the idea. No one would think those things are OK to say, and just because you can't SEE my illness doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
By saying these things, the mentally ill person in front of you is already probably feeling very bad about themselves, and you have chosen to go and make it worse.
Instead of those ugly things listed above, try saying things like this instead:
I love you.
What can I do to help?
This must be very hard for you.
I am there for you, and I will always be there for you.
You are amazing and strong, and you can get through this.
Have you seen your doctor/therapist?
You never have to apologize for feeling this way.
I'm not scared of you.
HOW IT HAS CHANGED MY LIFE
It has taken me a lot of work to get to where I am now. I have also discovered a new found passion for working in the mental health field. On July 24th of this year I completed a course, and I am now certified in Mental Health First Aid. No, I am not a doctor, but I now have the tools and resources to help someone through a crisis to the next step and help stabilize a dangerous situation. I am learning more about the field through volunteering, organizing suicide prevention classes, and attending any and every class or lecture I possibly can.
I recently applied for a job in the mental health field; I'm still waiting to hear back from the organization. If I don't get hired for this job, I won't let it get me down. I'll keep pushing on. There are too many people out there that are in life challenging situations that are being ignored by society. I can no longer stand by and let them suffer.
To go from a place of wanting to end my life to now being considered for a job helping others is a testament to every single person suffering from mental illness. Suicide is not the answer. There is hope! You can overcome your situation; you are important and what you have to offer can help someone at a time when they really need someone who understands.
Love yourself enough to ignore what others may think of you seeking out professional help, You would be amazed at how much just talking to someone about your problems can help. Don't keep your emotions bottled up inside until the bottles bursts. As the late, great Whitney Houston said in the movie “Sparkle.” "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?"
If you think you need help, please contact a medical or mental health professional. There are crisis lines in place to help you when professional help is not readily available to you.
Access and Crisis Line
(800) 479-3339 or (888) 724-7240
24-Hour San Diego County Suicide Hotline
If you have a behavioral-health emergency, call 911.
For access to services or the Crisis Line, call 888-724-7240.
Trevor Project Lifeline
Trevor Text: Text the word "Trevor" to 202-304-1200.
The Trevor Project provides a 24-hour hotline that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning young people (LGBTQ) ages 13-24.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The San Diego LGBT Community Center, 3909 Centre St. San Diego, CA 92103
Behavioral Health Services: (619) 692-2077 x208 (not accessible 24 hours per day)