Talking About Suicide

Talking with Cory Cobern


Cory Cobern is in the middle of making himself over. The father of two is soon to become a social worker and runs one of the very few support groups for suicide attempt survivors in the U.S. It’s encouraging to hear that his openness about his own experience didn’t keep him from working for a crisis hotline. The director welcomed him and got him to create and lead the support group.

There seems to be a common fear that people in such groups will compare methods and then employ them. Cory isn’t seeing that. In fact, he says, they turn each other off the idea with the fear of failing and being worse off than they were before. One person has liver problems. One has a reconstructed face. “Everyone pretty much says, ‘Why would I want to attempt again when everyone here has failed?'” he says. “It’s kind of a twisted way of thinking, but wow, here’s eight people who tried an average of four times, and none succeeded. They laugh about it now: ‘We tried so many times and still couldn’t end it? There must be a reason.'”

Now he’s wondering how to further crack the public silence around suicide. He recently fought for and got a front-page story about his group in a local newspaper, but he says he hasn’t heard one response.

“Everyone needs someone to talk to and not be judged like, ‘Wow, you’re weird,'” Cory says. “Because if you ask me, there are a lot of things out there that are a lot weirder.”

Who are you?

I’m going to be 43. I’ve been married for about 18 years, with two children. I worked in the computer industry for about 15 years, decided that was enough, and now I’m a senior at George Mason, majoring in social work. I have two brothers. I don’t know what else.

What’s your background in this area?

I have schizoaffective disorder. I was diagnosed with that when I was 30, when my mother died. I had some issues, major depression issues, and I went to a counselor. They diagnosed me, and my wife and I denied it and recently accepted it. The next year, my father died, and things continued to go downhill. We moved from California to northern Virginia in 2003 when our youngest son was born. And things were OK the next couple of years. I got out of my depression, everything. Then in about 2006, I started having issues with voices and suicidal thoughts, and after a couple of attempts, which were my first, I decided, “OK, maybe I have schizoaffective disorder,” and I started medication. I had more attempts until 2008. By that time, I was no longer able to work, things were too bad with medication. At that point, I was on a ton of medication, I think overmedicated. And I lost my job. And actually, it turned out to be a good thing. I spent the next nine months or so doing nothing. When I was at work, I couldn’t focus. I lost my job, stayed at home, things got worse and worse. And when I lost my job, I lost my benefits. I got on my wife’s benefits. I got a new doctor. I went through three or four doctors and they had said, “You’re on so much medication that we won’t take you.” I went to see her and she said, “I’m cutting your medication in half.”

Now I’ve been seeing the same psychiatrist for four years. I’m on a tenth of what I was on before. During this process I was at home, and she said, “You need to get out of the house.” I said, “OK, what do I need to do?” So actually, I signed up for my first online class at Northern Virginia Community College. I had hated school, was never a student, but looking back now, a lot of it was voices. I couldn’t focus. So I took my first class, passed it, and liked it. I started looking at other things I could do. I found the helpline, sent in a resume, was looking to volunteer. Then I got a call from the helpline asking if I wanted to come in for orientation. I went in and became part of the staff about six months after that. They had an opening and asked if I was interested. I said yes.

As I continued to do that, I was taking more and more classes. I had things to focus on. And so I started increasing my load of school, and in 2010 I got an associate’s degree. I am still with the helpline. I find that now, even if I have a bad day, I can get on the helpline and the bad day goes away. I can put everything of mine away and focus on others. So I continued to go to school, and my wife and I talked. I had always wanted to be a social worker, a therapist. In my yearbook, everyone knew. We said, “OK, let’s do that.” I started classes, slowly, and last semester I took 15 units, this semester 18 units.

My mindset has totally changed. Everything is clearer for me. I couldn’t build anything before. Now I can do whatever needs to be done. So I had, total, five hospitalizations. I have two children, one has Asperger’s, and the youngest has bipolar. It’s all been a wakeup call, a reminder of what’s out there, what others go through.

How old are your children?

12 and 9.

How did the attempt survivors’ support group come about?

It branched off the helpline. When I started, I was upfront. I really knew nothing about the helpline. I went in, went through training. My boss, Vicki, was very easy to talk to. Almost from day one she said, “I always wanted this group.” For the next seven or eight months, we talked about it. I started doing more and more. After about eight months in, she said, “So, what you think?” I said it was a great idea. We put together some ideas and launched the group in December 2010. And it’s been going ever since.

It’s hard to get anyone to really publicize it. Most people come from word of mouth. I’d love for it to increase, but I’m not sure how to reach people. It’s such a sensitive subject. The only things that are publicized are completed suicides or the family members, the survivors. This the only group of its type in Virginia, Maryland, D.C., the tri-state area. There are groups out there, a 12-step group based out of Memphis. But otherwise, this has been a big learning experience for me. All the materials, I come up with myself. I scour the Web. There’s very little out there. It redirects you to other things, like family members. There’s just very little out there for attempters.

Why did Vicki want to do the group, and why did she come to you?

She’s run a group for survivors for about 17 years, and she always wanted to run one for attempt survivors but thought she was not appropriate for it. She knew I was a previous attempter. She said, “You can relate to them, you have a common thread with them.” We weren’t sure how it would go over. And she’d never had anyone at the helpline who, if they had been an attempter, had informed her.

What made you comfortable in mentioning your experience in the first place?

I just felt that going to this type of work, I had to be open about it and not hide that I had a mental illness or that I had attempted. Nobody asked. I just felt it was something they needed to know in case things didn’t work out. Nothing personal, but if this makes things worse, I was not going to stay around. Once again, Vicki was so easy to talk to. A very easy person to talk to for two or three hours straight. She always seemed open and accepting.

How did you get the group rolling?

Good question. The first meeting we had was in December. I had five people show up. We had sent out a notice announcing the group. I sent a letter out to basically every therapist in Prince William County informing them of the group. I never heard back from any of them, but seeing as on the first day we had five people, they heard it from somewhere. I sent letters to hospitals in the area. That’s basically it. Also to the local papers and to The Washington Post. It’s not something I ever really delved into, where they heard about it. I know one person heard from her therapist. Another came to a teleconference for suicide survivors, actually two people. Others heard from word of mouth. What we have is, anyone who wants to come to the group, at an undisclosed location, they call the helpline and leave their information. I call back and do a phone interview to make sure they are actual attempters, make sure they are OK for the group. I don’t turn anyone away, but I don’t want anyone else there.

How did it go the first time?

The first time actually went very well. I kind of explained what I thought the purpose of the group was. I actually told my story, which kind of loosened everyone else up. I rarely tell my story. We have enough people to tell now, so I don’t have to. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, and no one seemed quite sure what to expect, so I said, “OK.” I told my story, and three others told their stories. The other two waited for a while to tell, but that was kind of the icebreaker.

What have you learned, and what has surprised you, in getting people talking?

I have a good core of people who have been there since day one or three months afterwards, and for the most part I start with, “How’s everyone?” _ a quick wellness check. I can rely on them to get others talking. If not, I know most of my group members now that I can say, “OK, what’s going on with you?” They may pause for a minute or two, or pass, but within 10 minutes they’re ready to talk. And this being an attempters’ group, there is no taboo subject, because anything can lead someone to another attempt. It can be a family problem, they got a bill, drugs, alcohol, family, work. We talk about everything, because it all affects.

What guidelines do you have?

I don’t have any. We have paper guidelines, but if somebody wants to talk about something, I’m open to it. I don’t want anyone to go home and say, “This was on my mind.” I always tell them, “I’m never going to leave you more upset than when you came in.”

Is there any kind of safety net for when the group isn’t in session?

I don’t really have a safety net outside observation and listening to everyone. Should I have people sign a safety contract? I’ve gone back and forth. I’m just a facilitator. I gave everyone the helpline number, and I gave all my cellphone number. I’m kind of still playing it by ear and winging it, because it’s worked. I have people say, “I’m upset,” then after an hour or hour and a half say, “I feel better.” I try to enforce that they talk to people, family,. And the core group members, they’re not shy. If they’re feeling bad, they spit it out.

How many people do you have now?

Four come regularly. Up to six people max. To be honest, if I ever get 12 people regularly, I’ll close the group and start another. That’s my max number.

Did you come in thinking you knew everything because you’re an attempt survivor?

I thought I knew a lot of it because of the helpline more so than my story. I deal with so many people who are suicidal on the helpline that it really opened my eyes to see the larger picture beyond myself. It’s really a blessing. When I went in, I had no idea what to expect, going in blind. None of the stories have really surprised me. Maybe dismay at hearing how they tried, how many times. I thought I tried a lot with five, but that’s very little compared to some of them. Or the severity of their attempts, or the lasting consequences. I have someone with liver problems because they tried to overdose on pills. I have another who says, “I’m here for a reason, because I didn’t succeed.”

Do you get into them wishing they hadn’t attempted?

I don’t recall hearing from anyone who wished they hadn’t, because it’s part of who they are now. The biggest wish I heard is that they hadn’t tried it that way. I think everyone who continues to come to the group is, well, let me step back. When we started, a number of people were thinking suicide was an option. Now, either they’re lying to my face, but they say suicide is not an option at this point. My last one, she’s still not entirely taken it off the table, Her future was always in the next two or three months, but now it’s, “Well, maybe if my husband dies, that’s the only option.” It’s no longer, “Well, maybe next month I should try.”

And everyone pretty much knows now, everyone pretty much says, “Why would I want to attempt again when everyone here has failed?” It’s kind of a twisted way of thinking, but wow, here’s eight people who tried an average of four times, and none succeeded. They laugh about it now: “We tried so many times and still couldn’t end it? There must be a reason.”

What’s the reason? Have you found it?

Some people say God. I don’t know. They say, “Wow, you tried 300 pills and you’re still here? You tried a shotgun, and you’re still here? You ran into an electric pole going 120 miles an hour, and you’re still here?” I’ve heard people who said, “I took 20 pills and thought it would do me, and you took 300?” They look at each other and go, “Wow.” Like me, I couldn’t do pain. A lot of people say that. That’s not really an option. They kind of turn each other off.

When the issue of attempt survivor support groups comes up, people mention the fear of comparing methods and getting better at it.

My group is fear of failing: “Wow, we tried this many times and didn’t succeed.” The fear of failing and the fear of failing and being much worse off: liver problems, being brain dead and being on a machine. It’s interesting to see how they progress, how we’ve all progressed over it, from the first day or so. How the mindsets have changed, how they’ve changed each other. We listen to each other, respect each other. One of my guys, he was in prison, he just says, “What’s bugging you?” Most of my people are very refined. He’s an ex-con. The nicest guy, but he’s not going to pussyfoot around. He’s gonna ask.

So how will you get others to join the group? You sent me the newspaper article …

I was hoping. I haven’t heard anything since that article. I haven’t heard from a single person. It’s very daunting. I fought to get this article done, and they obliged me, and nothing came of it. One thing I’m hoping is, starting in September, I’ll be doing clinicals at a mental hospital. I will be working with suicide attempters. I hope to increase the numbers. I don’t know. I was very gung-ho when the group started. I was going to the local community college, literally 10 minutes away. Now I’m going to George Mason, a minimum of 45 minutes away. I’ve got clinicals, internships. I don’t have time to go to the library and put up a flier. I don’t have time to do that anymore. It’s very frustrating because I don’t know how to grow it. I would love to get involved with local hospitals and have them refer.

The reporter who did the article said the police scanner mentions seven or eight suicide attempts a week. Well, how do I reach those people? I thought the article would help, especially considering it made the front page. I think it’s gonna take a lot more. I think it will take actually going to hospitals, meeting with somebody. I think it will take someone higher up in hospitals or the police department to say, “Tell them about this.” There’s gotta be a way. I’ve talked to different attempters’ groups like in California, and no one can give me ideas on how to grow the group.

At least you know a common situation.

Right. It’s a very taboo subject, and people are very afraid to talk about it.

What makes you so comfortable with being outspoken?

One thing, I’ve been there and seen the worst. My wife, kids, brothers went through all of that with me. My psychiatrist enabled me to become the person I am with her support and correct medication. Vicki was supportive since day one. Working the helpline has opened my eyes in so many ways. And I always wanted to be a social worker. If you can’t advocate for yourself, who can you advocate for? My convictions run deep: In order to truly help someone, you have to help yourself. I’d be a crummy social worker if I had attempted suicide and only tell someone, “Oh, you don’t want to do that.” I think that’s the big thing. I have no problem being honest and open.

Should therapists talk about own experiences?

In my opinion, I think a lot of people go into this type of field because they have had these issues, regardless of it being domestic violence, sexual abuse, suicide. Maybe not to them but to family or friends, growing up. I think it influences a lot, more than they’re willing to admit. I’ve had a lot of people say, “Wow, you used your first AND last name in the paper!” I’m OK with it.

What’s it going to take to get more people to mention their first and last name, or to mention this at all?

Lots more exposure. It happens. There’s nothing wrong with somebody who just happened to try to take their own life. They shouldn’t be an outcast, a pariah just because they attempted. There’s so much confusion, they don’t understand: “Why would they do that?” Well, they really don’t know what’s going on in their lives, their mind, just like we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors. I just think a lot of it is that people are confused and scared by it, because I think seven out of every 10 people have thought about it, whether very seriously or just wishing to end it all. I think a lot have thought about it in passing, and it scares them.

Because they don’t want the thought to become more serious.

Right. Or they don’t want to be embarrassed or ashamed or something. That’s only my opinion.

What else would you like to say?

I guess the biggest thing is, we’re trying to help ourselves out of this. I understand, I’ve been there. When you’re in the deepest, darkest hole, it’s hard to get out and see any sunlight. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Every one of my group members can attest to that. No matter how bad it is, it can get better. Everyone needs someone to talk to and not be judged like, “Wow, you’re weird.” Because if you ask me, there are a lot of things out there that are a lot weirder. I’d take a suicidal person any day other than a homicidal person, you know.

Who else are you?

My wife, Jayne, we started dating when I was in high school, and we’ve been together ever since. I have two boys. Literally, if I’m not in school or at work, I’m doing family time with my wife and kids. There is not a whole lot else. I have a half-brother and full brother, both in California. Unfortunately, I don’t get to see them that much.

I think a lot of this progressed with both my parents. My mother with pancreatic cancer, then my father with pancreatic cancer. My mother died on Oct. 15, 2000, which happened to be my father’s birthday. My father died a year and five days later. They’d been divorced 12 years. 12 years? Longer than that. Anyway. My mother despised the man. I have no doubt she died on that day for a reason. And her last days were a morphine-induced coma. I have no doubt she managed to save herself for that day. I also have no doubt my father never stopped loving my mother. They made me who I am today. Their deaths were so close together. When my mother was diagnosed, she was told she had months to live, and she lived three years. My stepfather took care of her, but during the week, I’d be there. Otherwise my older brother would be there. And I was there when she died. That really devastated me. My father a year later fell and broke his leg, and we took him to the emergency room. After being there nine hours, we knew there was a problem. Two weeks later, he was gone. So cancer, yeah, really opened my eyes. Even though it devastated me, it also helped me become who I am today.

This probably is not a fair question, but would you ever consider suicide again?

I would never, ever consider suicide again. Never. Ever. No ifs ands or buts. The only suicide I would consider is no life support, no extraordinary measures.

Is there any one thing that brought you to “No, never”?

I think it’s the combination of realizing I have mental illness, my wife’s support, the helpline, and now everything I’ve learned in social work classes. Now I know the statistic that every suicide is said to affect 60 people. You know, whether it’s your next-door neighbor or whatnot, but wow. Also, you know, it’s more likely that if someone you know commits suicide then it’s more likely that you commit. My youngest will be 9 next month, and he’s been hospitalized three times for suicidal ideation. I could not be a role model for that. Because if I took what I consider now the easy way out, then: “Well, Dad did it. I can do it.” Does that make sense?

Those are why I would never. I see people with terminal illness. When I started with the helpline, one question was who believes in it, to what degree. Then, it was, “Sure, yes.” Now it is, “No.” It will get better. It really will. I have a frequent caller, calling more than a year now. When she started, she had cancer and wanted to end it. The doctors were, “It’s terminal.” A year later, she’s cancer-free. It just goes to show, you never know. And if you take that quick, easy _ not necessarily easy _ that quick jump, you don’t know what you’re missing, your entire life could change.

I guess you could say the same thing about me. Now I say never. Could that change the next year? I guess. I don’t see it changing. I know I put my family and friends and everyone through hell, being hospitalized and everything. I can’t see doing it again.