Talking About Suicide

Talking with Trish Lane

 November 2, 2011

I’m happy that you guys continue to agree to talk. I spoke with Trish Lane, who is a clinical psychologist and animal lover. Her three dogs kept us company in the background of our phone conversation. She has appeared in the video “Voices of Suicide,” which featured interviews with people who tried to kill themselves but hurt themselves terribly instead. We began the interview by saying, almost simultaneously, “Fire away,” followed by a “Look what we just said” moment.

Trish: Mine was a shotgun. That’s pretty atypical of women.

The reality is, most people don’t succeed in killing themselves, and the majority of them are relieved to wake up. I was 20, and I had this fantasy of, “No more pain, people will miss me, they’ll be sorry.” Yes, but life goes on.

I’m a 46-year-old clinical psychologist. I recently moved to New Hampshire. I’m married to a woman who is a veterinarian. You’ll hear my dogs barking in the background. We’ve been together I guess 14 years. I’d be in trouble for not knowing that.

Most of my work is with trauma and suicide. I tried to veer away from it initially because I was too close. I feel I have a unique experience in knowing how it feels to want to die and knowing how to get through it. Often I find other professionals say some of the clichés like, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” And yet the person in front of them is in so much pain that they want to take their life. They need to be heard, not fixed.

I can go ahead and talk about my experience. I was 20. I was dealing with coming out (with my sexuality), having been raised by very conservative parents. I couldn’t have had more liberal views from them if I tried. I was a sophomore at Florida State University. I had always been a good student. That’s where I got my traction. Any self-esteem I had at the time really came from school.

I had a close friend I had known since grade school. She shot herself in the head, under the chin, when we were 19. And died. You know, that’s where the gun comes in. I was living in Florida, and you couldn’t buy a handgun under 25. I don’t like guns. I didn’t know about them.

My sexuality was a huge part of the attempt. That, and I was adopted at birth. There was a chronic sense of, “Who am I? Where did I come from?” A sense of searching. I found my birth mother when I was 26. At 20, the main thing was feeling that I’d been given away. I was a pretty bright, sensitive kid who grew up pretty fast. My parents divorced when I was 13, and my father remarried when I was 14. He was the primary caregiver. The sexuality issue, the chronic sense of being alone on the planet, and at 13 my body’s changing, my peer group is changing and my family’s changing _ which is generally the only thing that tends to be stable at that age, and it was giving way. I felt very betrayed by him. I ended up living temporarily with my adoptive mother for a couple of years.

The years prior to my attempt were very tumultuous, lonely. I know now I was clinically depressed. My father was an engineer by trade, raised not to be emotional. There was just not any place for feelings.

After my friend killed herself, I fantasized a lot about killing myself: “If this doesn’t go right, I’ll kill myself. If I don’t pass this, or get into this program …” Since Renee had been successful, I didn’t really have a sense that it would fail.

The attempt was April 25, 1985. I was living at the sorority house, at FSU. It was all a search for family. A lot of those young girls were into dating, boys, finding their future life partner, and I was struggling with being attracted to them and not the boys. At the time, I would have been horrified at the thought.

Sometime in mid-April, I went to a pawn shop to attempt to buy a gun. I don’t know if you remember Ted Bundy, he had killed sorority girls at FSU. So it was very easy for me to go in and buy a gun. I said I wanted to feel safe. They told me I couldn’t buy a handgun unless I was 21, but I could buy a shotgun. They were not in the least bit curious. But I’ve always been so convincing. They showed me how to load it, shoot it. I carried it in my car for about a week, barely covered with clothes in the backseat, kind of hoping someone would see it and say, “What the hell are you doing?” The day before the attempt, a friend did see it. I told her what I told the pawn shop. She said, “I don’t like this.” But once I make my mind up, good luck. She later told me she had a lot of anger at me, and rightfully so.

Then I went to a park in Tallahassee, listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” which is about as depressing as you can get. Pretty macabre. “The Best of Bread.” Another one. I was just really feeding the depression, that fantasy that ending it all would be so easy, so quick.

I first put the gun to my head but couldn’t get myself to pull the trigger. I put it to my chest. To my head, with the safety on. This happened for about an hour. I was ambivalent! I thought I was just getting my courage up.

I finally shot myself in the abdomen. I was sitting in my car. I struggled with whether I could do it. Almost accidentally on purpose, it went off.

Almost accidentally on purpose?

I wanted it to, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to back out, be a loser, I couldn’t even kill myself right. It was like I had backed myself into a corner that I couldn’t see any way out of.

Somehow or other, I managed to put the car in gear and roll backwards. A couple came running over. I am not a religious person, but the guy started praying. He had his girlfriend hold my feet. I was writhing in pain. And then I can’t remember much else. The pain was unbelievable. I’m glad the mind can’t remember pain like that.

The guy ran to get help. A jogger was in the park, and he was told that a girl had been shot. He had been in Vietnam, and he put his shirt on my abdomen until the EMS arrived. They say he saved my life.

I remember being in the hospital, the staff treating me like a mental case: How stupid could you be, so selfish. People were adding insult to injury. I was in the hospital for quite some time. I had to have a colostomy. Do you know what that is? They take the bowels out and you basically go in a bag. At 20, that was a pretty horrifying thing to entertain. I ended up very fortunate, only having it three or four months before it was reversed. I had lots of damage to my large intestines, my small intestines. I had terrible scars. Once the scar healed, I couldn’t stand up straight. I had subsequent surgeries to reverse the colostomy and to revise the scar. I was in and out of hospitals for the next two years treating the injuries.

Fortunately, the only permanent damage has been the scars. I carried a lot of shame around for a long time about the scar. People would ask, and I would joke and say it was a shark bite or make up some other preposterous story .

And that was that. My dad and stepmother came to the hospital. She and I did not have a good relationship. She tried to have my dad have me institutionalized. Fortunately, one of the nurses told my father, “If you do that, you will lose her for good.”

I went to live with my father and stepmother. She literally put the pain medication next to my bedside table. They had given me a lot of pain medication because we lived out of state. I don’t know if she was being passive-aggressive, like, “Go ahead and finish the job” or it was completely innocent, but she left huge bottles of pain medicine next to my bed. I got so angry that I decided to get well. I told my father that I was going back to FSU. I put myself through school and went from there to get my masters, my doctorate. I didn’t go back to live with them. They’re nice people, but they really suck at being parents.

I have done incredibly well with dear, dear friends and a life partner. I found a mentor, the mom I never had. I created a family of choice.

You never considered the gunshot not working?

No. Because Renee was successful, I had this fantasy that I would succeed.

There was an article in Reader’s Digest some years later, by an emergency room nurse. She basically said you can try to jump and end up a vegetable, shoot yourself in the head and end up with a deformed face …

(She takes a quick break to greet the pizza deliveryman.)

… she basically went through, you can take a lot of pills and have your organs fail … She went through all the major ideas people have and outlined what repeatedly happened when it didn’t succeed. Or she proposed you can live on to find happiness in the letter you get next week, the career that draws you to it, the person you meet next year. Basically, you can make it worse by attempting suicide or you can go on and live your life.

After I read that, I no longer allowed myself to fantasize about suicide as an option. I then knew, based on my experience, based on what she said, that the likelihood is it won’t work and will simply cause more pain. Then I worked in an ER a number of years and saw it myself.

Were you the person counseling people who had tried to kill themselves?

Yes, often. I would do the assessment.

Wasn’t it a difficult job for you?

I used my experience to connect with them. But before working with that population, I did my own therapy. I had good psychologists who helped me figure out what were my issues and what were someone else’s.

Was there anything special you told them? Did you let them know about your experience?

Unless I got to know them over time, I didn’t disclose it. But I did use it to really hear them. Some people are so busy talking them out of how they feel that they don’t say, “You’re in such pain. Tell me about that.” Once people are heard and know they are heard, they can generally begin to get to another perspective. But the more we tell them they “don’t want to do that,” the more entrenched they become.

My job is to help people not make a decision in crisis.

The ER nurse closed the article by inviting people to stick around. She took all the romance out of it. You poop all over, and if you blow your brains out … who do you think is gonna clean it up? She made it real.

For me, I heard people. A perfect example is, a young woman came in, said she was pregnant, said she couldn’t be pregnant, said suicide was the only option. I asked, “I know you want to kill yourself, but if you weren’t going to kill yourself, what would you do?” Eventually she came around, saying maybe she would consider adoption, maybe she could call the father. Because I validated her pain, said, “I hear you,” she was able to go ahead and generate options. At the end of the hour, she was able to find an option for not killing herself. I heard her. I didn’t try to talk her out of it from the get-go.

Are you familiar with crisis lines? Do they take that approach? Should they?

I think most of them are well-intentioned. The problem is, most are not well-informed. People are alone and scared and want to hear another person on the planet, sometimes that’s enough. But it only works for a small subset of the population. Plenty of people don’t call. We need more education on the front end. We need to learn as little kids how to cope and how to express our feelings.

We need more education about treating depression. We’re doing a better job about telling people what depression is but not what to do about it. If someone is clinically depressed but doesn’t want to take medication, I suggest that’s like being nearsighted and not wearing glasses. If you’re severely depressed you can’t “try to feel better” any more than you can try harder to see if you need glasses. And the stigma about seeking therapy is still very much a part of the culture. That also needs to change. I believe in a combination of medication and therapy. It’s really the only way to go.

Are you funded by any drug companies?

No. I’m a psychologist, not a psychiatrist. For a depressed person, medication can give an individual the energy and focus to make the changes. Medication alone is not the answer. Nothing changes if nothing changes. Sometimes medication alone only gives you the energy to kill yourself. But you would see no change in the world or in seeing yourself in the world without doing the work. That’s where therapy comes in.

Didn’t you just get a pizza?

I’m eating while you’re writing.

The Reader’s Digest approach, would it work if it were used more?

I get a lot of grief for saying this. Death is not a bad thing, and I do not feel I have a right ultimately to tell someone how to live their life or that they have to choose life. What I do feel is that people shouldn’t make that decision in crisis, and that living life means making decisions with as much information as possible. I believe that the majority of suicide attempts are made in crisis _ and that there is much we can do to educate and prevent people from choosing that option.

There’s this romance, seeing ourselves at our funeral, believing people will be sorry, that somehow we’ll be relieved from pain and have a sense of that relief. That’s not real.

I met a woman who tried to kill herself eight times, including setting herself on fire. I do not think I have the right to tell her to stay in this life if she feels so tortured by it. And this was after a lot of treatment. I think there are a few people, very few, for whom that’s their path.

How should the message of outreach be changed?

There needs to be a lot more education and awareness. I wish more coping skills were taught even in grade schools. It amazes me how little coping skills people have to ask for what they need, much less recognize it. On TV, they solve a crisis in 30 minutes. I feel children are presented with the TV view of life. They should get back to basics. If you’re angry, how to recognize it and what to do. If you’re sad, how to recognize it and what to do. I think people get to the point where they’re so overwhelmed that suicide is so much more palatable than the life they’re living. I met a 19-year-old who had started using drugs when he was 12. He said he thought it would be like being in a cartoon, the “psychedelic version of life where faces melt and you have cool visions.” But that’s the romanticized view of drugs _ forever chasing the relief. The reality is that like suicide attempts, reaching for drugs for relief causes more pain and agony. Neither are the solution.

Who is the most at risk?

Everyone is at risk, but there are groups that as a whole are more vulnerable than other_ gays and lesbians, native Americans, the elderly, to name a few. Many still believe it is still okay to discriminate against gays and lesbians. We need to tackle these tough issues. For example, now there’s more being publicized about bullying. But we have to move beyond trite armchair psychology. It is not enough to identify the problem. People know it’s a problem. People need to know what to do about the problem and do it.

That blunt message of Reader’s Digest, should that be out there more?

I think if someone was coming to you for the first time for therapy, you shouldn’t be that blunt. But you can weave into the conversation the reality of suicide and how the vast majority of people do not succeed; rather, they make their lives more difficult. But as I said before, that message is not shared until the person has had a chance to be heard. Many people, especially adolescents, feel that they are “different,” or that their solution will be different, so it’s important to be caring, not daring, when discussing that most people fail in their suicide attempt(s). Of course, I would not let someone leave my office dead-set on hurting or killing themselves. However, I read that article at a time when suicide was still an option, and realized a point of view that I had never considered. Another important aspect of reading the article was to be educated without having my own pain dismissed.

There’s this romanticized version of suicide, all the pain can be over. Of course that’s attractive. Why wouldn’t it be? But you may cause major damage to your organs, you may never walk again, you may never see again, you may never hear again.

I’d rather focus on how to live a meaningful life.

What do you think of media portrayals of suicide, in films, news reporting, etc.?

The point of view that’s mostly out there is, people are killing themselves in droves. They report the number of suicides, that it’s a dilemma. But they don’t really point to, “And here’s what we need to do to help those people.” They just give statistics. So it points to the feeling, “They did it, why can’t I?” If the media helped get out there again with a compassionate voice that, “Yes, people are hurting, but the vast majority don’t end up succeeding. So let’s talk about how to get you some meaning in your life.

Let’s start talking about what solutions are out there.” It’s very depressing, you know, to see what’s currently out there. That there are so many people hurting.

Anything else you want to put out there?

I think educating the family too. We’re a culture where we want quick fixes. Educating them that, “Look, she needs support.” Try to teach families to communicate as well. We’re just not talking with each other anymore. I’ve worked in places and we’re sending e-mails to each other in offices that are right next to one another. When people say they are so lonely and suicidal, it’s not a far reach for me to see how they got that way. I’m currently working with a man in private practice who describes his family’s disconnect. He said he wanted to take all three of his family’s iPhones _ the two kids and the wife _ and throw them in the ocean. They couldn’t be more separate if they were in different countries.

I think we should stop and be present. I think people don’t know how to do that.

Aside from this experience, who are you otherwise?

I am a _ gosh, that is such a small part of my experience now. It seems so far removed from who I am now. I’ve traveled all over the world, met a lot of amazing people, helped people, found the love of my life, I love animals, found other ways of connecting. I set up a nonprofit for animals, my spouse and I do what we can to promote animal rights without getting too radical. I like to hike and be outdoors. We just returned from a trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I have such an appreciation for life now.

But I have had to learn how to do that. I used to set myself up to fail. I’ve learned how to set myself up to succeed. For example, if I called my stepmother and told her I was feeling bad, she’d say, “Why are you calling me and aren’t telling your father?” When I was younger, and depressed, I would call her or others who I sought affection from but weren’t available, kept looking for them to love me. I thought if I made good grades, a good job, if I made more money, earned my doctorate … when I have that, I’ll be OK. But when I attained those things, I still wasn’t OK, I was even more lonely. People thought I had it all. I’ll never have it all but I am okay now, and it’s not because of status, money or anything external. I’ve learned how to love myself and have love in my life. Now I call people who do care about me and would be on the next plane. I had no idea how to do that before.

Is there anything else you’re still working on?

Of course, I’m still a work in progress. We all are. When your goals are met, you look at creating new goals.

I don’t ever want to be a one-note person. I tried to kill myself, I am a Lane, I’m a psychologist, a teacher, I am gay … I don’t want any one aspect of my experience to overshadow the others. All of them are true.