Talking About Suicide

Talking with David Lilley


I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but I like talking with these people. Everyone has a personality that comes through, even when my set of questions are so narrow. David Lilley came across as having a salt-and-pepper personality, if that makes sense. I was a bit worried at the start, mostly because I wondered what he would say, as someone who works in suicide prevention, to a question about the right-to-die movement. As it turned out, he jumped in and answered before I had a chance to finish the question. Once again, I learned not to assume people’s point of view beforehand.

One thing lacking for me was not having anyone to talk to about it, to understand what I was going though. And I didn’t have depression. I had bipolar disorder with psychotic features. I wanted to avoid putting my family through yet another psychiatric hospitalization. I felt I was disgracing them in some way, they would be ashamed of me. I didn’t want to put them through the stress. That was one of the reasons. Another one was, I turned for help and nobody helped me.

What happened?

I went to my psychiatrist and said I was at the end of my rope. He said, “Just keep taking this medication, and you’ll be OK.” I was not OK. At work, I had just been written up for a disciplinary action for a patient safety issue. There was just a lot of stress going on. It was 1996. There had also been a lot of flooding in the area, with no power, no phone. I had a lot of stress and nowhere to turn.

Was there one thing that set you off, made you decide, “OK, this is it”?

I could feeling myself having another manic episode. My thoughts were racing. I picked up on that. I didn’t want to hear the voices again.

I saw part of the video you made for suicide prevention, you telling what happened.

There were many more details. That was more of a highlight, for suicide prevention.

If I were to tell my own story, I don’t know exactly how I would tell it. It would depend on the setting. If I was meeting a peer client and they were having suicidal thoughts, I wouldn’t go into detail about how I did it. I would wait and listen to them, tell them I understand they’re in distress. I think I’d try to stay away from the actual details. If someone was having suicidal thoughts, that might be a trigger.

I don’t remember, did you have more than attempt?

I had one attempt. I was working away from home. I wasn’t seeing my family on a daily basis. I was not interacting with my children, my wife. I was living with my sister. She didn’t really seem to understand what stress I was going through working away from my family. The job itself was stressful. That, coupled with the ’96 flood in this area. Things were a mess around here. I think all that stress spurred my mania, got my thoughts racing.

I think the one thing I do point out when I do talk about it is, a lot of people think suicide is always a result of depression. It’s not. It’s more like giving up, you know. Another thing I would share is, God saved me for a reason. I believe that reason is to help others. I’m very, very lucky. It was very, very close to becoming a permanent solution to a temporary problem. My faith is very important for me. The way God led me through that is very important.

I’d probably stay away from telling them the number of pills that I took, or that I had my gun with me. The only time I talk about it is to prevent someone from getting into that situation. Like I’m doing now.

When the state police got to me, I had almost passed out.

It was like a spiral I couldn’t get out of. The thoughts kept increasing, kept increasing, kept increasing. It was almost time for my children to come home from school. I grabbed the pills, the gun, and ran out of the house. I was afraid my 11-year-old daughter would find me with my brains splattered in the basement. At the end of the day I just ran, though the back garden and into the woods. It was very instantaneous, on a thought that I had dwelled upon most of the day.

Did you really think it would work?

It may seem very risky to someone who doesn’t have a mental illness, but to others it seems a very viable and rational way to end suffering. Whether end-of-life suffering, whether midlife depression. Once I started dwelling on it, it became more and more rational.

You didn’t consider the risks? Liver failure, etc.?

No. That was entirely blocked out. I wanted this to stop, I wanted this to stop, I wanted this to stop. I didn’t want my wife to see this, my kids to come home to this. I think you’ll find this in anyone you interview. In some way, whatever they are going through, they want it to stop. And sometimes when you dwell on it long enough, you become irrational, you don’t see other solutions to the problem.

So there’s no use in including the risks in the message of suicide prevention?

I think before you tell them, you have to listen very thoroughly to what they are going through. Many, many, many times it’s a cry for help, and the only way to help is by listening and finding what they want help with.
If I was on the phone with you right now and if you were suicidal, I would feel very, very sad the rest of my life if I didn’t do something to help you.
Sometimes telling someone, “Have you thought about your family, have you thought about the risks,” there’s a point, but first, listen. Find out what’s stressing them. If they’re sitting there with an open bottle of pills and a gun in their hand, obviously call 911 right away. Because they have the means or the plan.

The average person, when they hear someone say, “I want to kill myself,” they panic. You want to be compassionate in that instance. Let them vent. Usually they break down and cry.

You do this in person or on the phone?

In person. Not every day.

Can you really help them? Can you fix them?

Yeah, you can. You can get them in touch with someone, with a professional, the suicide prevention Lifeline. You can get a family member on the scene. You might not be able to get in there and fix them, but you can sort of guide them.

You mentioned getting them in touch with a professional, but you said that when you spoke to your psychiatrist, it didn’t work.

In my case, it wasn’t helpful. The professional wasn’t helpful. The professionals who treated me after my attempt were very, very, very helpful. Including the state police who followed my tracks in the snow, the helicopter pilot who reassured me at 4 in the morning on the way to emergency dialysis, the ICU nurse who noticed my lithium level going through the roof, very helpful. Even though in my case, with the first professional, it fell on deaf ears. It’s one thing you never, ever, ever make light of, when someone says, “I want to kill myself,” or even, “I wish it all would stop.” You never, never, never want to take that lightly.

What’s the best approach to get a professional therapist or psychiatrist to focus?

I really don’t know. It would depend on the situation. Possibly get a referral to someone else. Or maybe get a family member who is a more compassionate listener. Or call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
I went through years and years and years of trying this medication, it wouldn’t work, that medication, it wouldn’t work … “When is this gonna stop?” I don’t know. There’s different ways to approach it.

How was your body after your attempt?

I had very slight kidney damage. The emergency dialysis worked.

How are you doing now?

I’m doing very well right now. I was on disability quite a few years. That’s another story in itself. I’ve switched doctors, changed medications. It’s been the same for about 11 years. The symptoms are very well in remission. I can’t take lithium anymore. I’m not going to tell you the name of the drug because I don’t advertise for drug companies. I’m able to work full-time, help other people. I completed college for an associate’s degree.

In some strange way, did the experience help you?

Absolutely. It’s not only helped me, it’s helped others. It’s given me an opportunity to speak at suicide prevention events in Pennsylvania. It helped me get the word out in several ways. The first key is being compassionate.

How many times have you spoken out about this?

There was a conference in State College, I was a panel speaker. I spoke in the rotunda at Harrisburg for adult suicide and older adult suicide prevention awareness day. I gave a short 20-minute presentation as an older adult. Sometimes I feel 20, sometimes I feel 200. I’m also doing a public service video for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

It was hard for my children to understand. It took them to get older to understand. I’ve been able to convey to them, “Look, I tried this. Nothing is that bad that you can’t get help for it.” It’s given me communication with my children that most parents don’t have. “Nothing is that bad it can’t be fixed. Call me.” That’s how it’s helped me. I have two children, a son and daughter. It wasn’t the easiest thing because of their age. I had to wait until they could fully understand. My daughter was 11, my son was 9. You don’t sit down and talk about suicide at that age.

It’s been 16 years now and I’ve been doing quite well.

How old are you?

59. There’s an age thing there. Their mother and I had gone through a divorce in 2000.

They were part of the video. It’s given me an experience that I think helps them, helps others as well.

Is it getting easier to talk about this?

(He apologizes, saying he is listening to a football game at the same time and something exciting had happened.) It depends on the individual. Some still shy away from the s-word. I don’t. In order to be a certified peer specialist, I have to publicly say I have a serious mental disorder. Some can’t even do that. I don’t have a problem speaking about it openly. I don’t go around boasting about it, throwing it out there, but when someone is in distress, I tell them I tried to take my life in ’96, and I listen to them. It’s not a big speech. There were 200 people at the conference I spoke at. For me, it’s not a big issue.

I read your blog, read why you’re doing this. People need to stop shying away from the s-word. The s-word shouldn’t throw you into panic. We can’t make this a taboo issue. If someone mentions it, we need to take it very seriously.

Is it healthier to speak out? Or to pretend it didn’t happen?

It’s never healthy to pretend something didn’t happen. God’s using me to help other people. My son lost the leader of his band just a couple of years ago. He got into trouble, got intoxicated, went home and shot himself. He didn’t have a place to go for help. You don’t have a place to go for help if everyone’s keeping it quiet, shoving it under the rug. I sat with my son and his friends and talked about it. If you need to cry, cry.

The number of veterans committing suicide is a growing issue …

The suicide rate for military personnel is higher than it’s ever been. The VA is trying to do stuff with that. I don’t know what we can do in the private sector. Sgt. Brandi has a book out, hold on … It addresses suicide for veterans. I don’t advertise much. Here it is. The title is “The Warrior’s Guide to Insanity, Traumatic Stress and Life.” He gave a very interesting talk. These guys are flying home, within eight hours they are back home. They still have one foot on the battlefield, shooting anything that comes near one of their comrades. One foot in civilization, and one foot still on the battlefield. They can’t cope with it. Some can. It’s very, very difficult. I don’t know what happens in the military when people experience war, some of the atrocities. I do know I just spoke with a man in the doctor’s office, his son used to play little league for me, he took his life. He said, “Davey wasn’t the same after the war.” He shot himself.

So if you’re trying to reach the military, I highly recommend Brandi’s book. He has initiatives to help veterans, to give them time at a military base to adjust.

If strong military types are facing this, isn’t this the time for others to break the silence?

I agree with that. Even before I did the public service video for the Lifeline, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper about the Lifeline. If you call and press 1, you will be connected to to someone who specifically works with veterans. I have a bumper sticker on my truck. I have magnets, I have keychains. It  takes the strength of a warrior to call for help, I think it says.
It seems like a whole heck of a lot of people are not caring about our soldiers with PTSD.

Do people ever get angry with you?

My employer encourages me. My employer also tells me, “David, sometimes you’re too blunt. You get more with honey than with vinegar. In the same respect, I’m not afraid to ruffle some feathers.”

There’s a movement called right-to-die …

You don’t have to ask me that question. I asked my therapist. He has helped me so much. I asked him if he would want to be a part of the video project. He said “No, I have different thoughts on people ending their own life.” Do people have the right to die? If they want to, they do. If they have a terminal illness and get medication, they have the choice not to take it. I’m not saying euthanasia is correct when you’re suffering, I had a cousin on dialysis. He had been on it for years and years and years. It was starting to become ineffective. Look, why do we have hospice? He said, “No more dialysis.” We took him to hospice. He died peacefully. Aren’t there directives for do not resuscitate?

I’m not saying when people are in distress they should end their own life, you know. I guess I should say in some instances it’s OK, in others it isn’t. Maybe if toward the end-of-life stage, diagnosed terminal, it might be OK. But if you’re 35 and your wife left you and you have two kids, no.

Now, what’s your question?

That was pretty much my question.

And in some cases it might be a family decision. My daughter works in a nursing home. A lot of her patients don’t leave alive. A lot of families don’t come to visit them. Do they have the right to say, “I don’t want life support?” Absolutely. My mother had a DNR.

What have I not asked you that you expected me to ask?

I don’t know. I didn’t read the interviews, just skimmed. I said, “I’m going to go into this open.” That way you’re getting my opinion, not someone else’s.

Who else are you?

I’m very involved in my church. I play guitar in my spare time, when I have it. I do a little hunting and fishing. I love to spend time with my family. If my son wasn’t working today, I’d be at his house watching football.

I just finished 12 straight days off of work. They teach us that we need to take of ourselves. I’m very fortunate to have the job I do, to have down time.

I’m very involved in prison ministry. It’s very rewarding.

What drew you to that?

Someone just called me one day and asked me to do it. I hemmed and hawed, decided to give it a try. Once you do it, you sort of get hooked, OK? When you see hardened criminals crying in front of each other because God loves them just does something inside you.

What was this football game you were just listening to?

I was listening to the Patriots and Broncos. I’ll get the score later. Tim Tebow has been taking heat for a few weeks. It’s the big game of the week.

The only thing I want to add is, as a mental health advocate I really appreciate you doing this. We can’t shy away from the word suicide when we hear it.