Tag Archives: Suicide Prevention

How To Be Brave

100116_crowdWhen I walked off the stage after talking about my experience with suicide loss at the Kansas City Out of the Darkness Walk, a woman I’d never met approached me and said, “You are so brave!”

For 20 years, I rarely spoke about my mother’s suicide, and certainly never in public. I tried to ignore the pain and hide the shame, unwilling to forgive myself for the role I believed I played in her decision, and afraid to be labeled, or worse, pitied. I once heard someone speak about their experience, and wished I had the guts to do it myself. I couldn’t imagine being that person.

Fast forward a couple years, and I’ve written and performed a one-man show about my experience for audiences ranging from ages 13 to 83.

Like the woman at the walk, people come up to me after shows and say they admire my bravery, but I’m surprised how many people follow up by saying they wish they could write or speak about their experience, but aren’t “brave enough to put themselves out there like that.”

But they are.

It all starts with a simple concept: bravery is not something you have to be born with. It can be learned and improved upon. You get better at being brave the same way you get better at, say, golf: practice.

Now, like golf, people have different ceilings for their ability. Sometimes you put in hours of practice and win major titles, like Tiger Woods. Sometimes you put in hours of practice and break a three wood over your knee that your wife won’t let you replace because such public fits are — in her opinion — unacceptable for a man your age. The point is, the course is open to the public, and if you show keep showing up, you will start to hit those great shots that keep you coming back.

Here are a couple things that helped me get going:

Start a blog and share your posts (even if you think they suck).

Contrary to popular belief and my behavior on Facebook/Twitter, not every thought needs to be made public. But if you want to write for public consumption, the public has to come into the equation at some point.

When my first son was born, I took the opportunity to finally share my writing. I wrote four posts in the first week, but they seemed to get worse the closer I got to the share button. Finally, I held my nose and put them out there for friends and family to ridicule. But they didn’t, and neither will yours. They will actually tell you your work is better than it really is. That’s ok. In fact, it’s crucial to keep you going early on. Eventually, you need critical feedback, but you can build up those bravery muscles by sharing your crappy early work first.

Take an improv class.

If you live in an area where improv is offered, I highly recommend taking a class. Improv is daunting and difficult, so join other beginners and make fools of yourself together. Nobody gets better or braver without a safe place to fail, and there is no environment where you’ll feel safer failing harder than an improv class.

Note: I took improv to get over my stage fright enough to do standup comedy open mics. That was exactly the right order. Standup is easier in that you get to prepare your material and practice it, but much tougher in that the audience is often made up of other comics and they are not impressed. Standup comedy is a masters course in bravery, not a level 1 course.

Find a support network.

This is specific to sharing personal stories around issues like suicide, mental illness, and substance abuse. Find a group of people who can relate to what you have gone through, and continue to go through. Your story can help people if you share it, but the most important step in sharing your story is truly knowing it.

I didn’t attend a group of any kind for 19 years after my mom died. In the two years since I have, I’ve become stronger and more comfortable with everything, largely because I know I’m not alone.

There is no substitute for people to confide in and learn from. Find those people, and you’ll find yourself.

So there it is. Go write. Go talk. Get brave. I know you have it in you.

My Story

Have you ever been in a social setting and said, “I think it’s time we take this party to the next level and share our personal experiences with depression and suicide”?

Of course not. It is spoken policy in many a watering hole to stay away from conversations of politics and religion. It is an appropriately unspoken policy that mental illness and suicide are a bummer, so keep it to yourself. Sometimes the toughest battles we face are the ones we feel obligated to fight within ourselves.

Speaking about intensely personal struggles is difficult. Getting emotionally naked in front of other people is unnatural, but it’s also the most effective way to take control of your toughest battles.

I encourage everyone to share your stories throughout National Suicide Prevention Week. And continue doing so for all the weeks that follow.

I’ll start. This is my story.

July 6, 1995

When my stepmother got off the phone, her face was red and it was clear she had been crying. I asked what was wrong. She thought about speaking, but shook her head as more tears rolled down her face. She held up a hand and mustered a faint “I can’t,” while pushing open the screen door and quickly walking outside. My brother and I followed, but kept our distance.

Neither my brother nor I had ever heard my father scream like he did when he heard whatever she told him. We’d heard him yell, but this was no yell. Yells are purposeful. Screams are reactionary, and this one seemed to cause a ripple in the otherwise calm summer air. Seeing our stepmother cry was scary, but knowing the news from that phone call could elicit that sound from our father was absolutely terrifying.

To this day I don’t remember walking back into the house, but I remember sitting in the living room – my brother and I on the couch, my dad sitting on the edge of the chair next to us, leaning forward with a nervous intensity I’d never seen.

“This is the most difficult thing you’re ever going to hear,” he said, followed by a brief pause while he worked the heavy words toward his shaky lips.

“Your mom died.”

Six years earlier, my mother suffered a devastating brain injury when her car collided with a county vehicle that had run a stop sign. A month earlier she had remarried. It was a week before Christmas. She was 29 years old.

After years of physical therapy, two things were clear about my mother’s recovery: 1) she had exceeded all reasonable expectations, and 2) her own expectation proved unreasonable – to physically and emotionally reclaim her pre-accident self.

On July 6, 1995 – three days after my 13th birthday – my mother ended her life.

There is nothing easy about being 13. It’s the beginning of a long journey to the person you will become. It’s an age of searching and vulnerability. A time when the desire to fit in can cause you to let others define you. I put all my energy into blending into the background, choosing anonymity over being defined by the person who was no longer around, but very much with me.

I wanted to be overwhelmed by girls and football like most of my friends. Instead, I spent my adolescence wondering why she did it, and what, if anything, I could have done to prevent it. I pondered heavy questions: do people who kill themselves really go to hell? And if he doesn’t intend to reunite me with my mother one day, what fucking use is this God character anyway?

Many loss survivors go through the same fruitless process.

In adulthood, I’ve settled on the realization that her pain was greater than any of us, even the closest to her, could have known. While her tenacity and recovery inspired us, we didn’t have to live in the body she was left with. We didn’t have to live with a mind that came back quick and witty, paired with a mouth that never caught up. We weren’t stuck with legs that would never be as sturdy as they were in the albums containing clippings of her high school basketball excellence. She was able to drive – an important milestone in her journey to independence – but feared her shakiness could lead to an even more devastating accident, one that may include her children, setting them on a journey she had been tormented by for the better part of a decade.

In the end, I think she acted in a way she believed would set her free from the pain. That was understandable. I fear, like many who take this road, she also believed she was setting the people closest to her free from the burden she believed she had become. Twenty years later, that is as devastating as it was on July 6, 1995.

But twenty years later, I can say that out loud. And it helps.

If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.