Talking About Suicide

Talking with Andrew O’Brien

 April 22, 2013
This is the one interview so far where I felt that the person wasn’t opening up to me. It was good to hear, then, that Andrew O’Brien had already opened up to someone else in recent days and told his full story. It made the front page of his local newspaper, which is linked below.
Andrew is the first recent military veteran on this site, and he explains here the wariness that people like himself feel around those _ therapists, for example _ who say they understand but have no lived experience of war. There are parallels with the preference some attempt survivors have for peer support instead of treatment from someone who’s never been there.
Andrew also shares his approach to fellow veterans as he starts to take his public speaking project around the country. “The biggest thing about giving advice is, they’re not going to take it,” he says. “The biggest thing is not to feel alone. I felt I was the crazy one out of everybody.”
Who are you? Please introduce yourself.
Andrew O’Brien. I’m 24 years old, going on 25. I started this project and will be doing a lot of traveling here soon. I’m trying to quit my day job and make this my day job.
How did you get to this point?
It had to do with my brother. He’s my core. My help through everything.
How did you get to be talking to me?
The main thing that got me to this point was trauma, the things I saw in Iraq. I sat there, tried to push them down, ignore them for the longest time. That ended up not working out for me.
When were you there?
2008 to 2009.
How long did trying to push it down work?
It never really worked. I didn’t attempt until a year after returning. I had tried to get help from a psychologist, but they thought I was being overdramatic. They didn’t believe me. Then my sergeant pulled me out of formation and told my whole company about my mental issues.
And then?
And then I stopped talking to anyone about it. I tried to self-medicate with alcohol. And everything went downhill from there.
When was this?
All this stuff was toward the beginning of 2010.
Why did you get that response?
I have no idea. I wish I had known.
Then what?
It all kind of bottled up. I kept trying to ignore it. I was trying to fight the battle in my mind by myself. There was no one to help. It all led to a morning where me and a friend were driving back to my place and we got in an argument. I was already hanging by a thread, and I finally snapped. I was done.
Was it the topic that did it, or the fight itself?
It was just the little push I needed. Just having an argument.
Then what happened?
I got home, went to my kitchen and found four bottles of pills the psychiatrist had given me at the beginning of 2010 and took them all. Anti-depressants and sleeping meds, maybe some Ibuprofin. I swallowed them all. And then I went across my house and put holes in all the walls. It was a rampage. The next thing I know, I blacked out.
Were you there alone?
I was alone. I think I went outside. The next thing I knew, I woke up in the hospital. My neighbor had ended up calling 911.
How did you feel when you woke up?
I was definitely very groggy. I knew I had tried to take my own life, but I didn’t know where I was. As soon as my mind came back, I was happy to be alive.
Were you by yourself?
My roommate had stayed up all night at the hospital.
At the time, you were still in the military?
Yeah. They put me in a mental hospital for 72 hours, and I had to talk to all kinds of counselors, everything. That was the last time I ever spoke to a psychologist. I’ve never spoken to anyone since.
Why not?
Because I don’t trust them. I still don’t.
What do you do to help yourself?
I’ve learned how to handle it on my own, with my my brother. He’s been my counselor. He’s a veteran, too. He went to Afghanistan.
Older or younger?
What does he do to help?
I’ll just talk to him about it, and he lets me break down.
How often does it still happen?
It doesn’t happen very often anymore.
How did you get into this project?
A couple weeks after my attempt, I went to a chaplain and told him, “Hey I want to give a suicide brief.” I felt that since I had done it, maybe hearing it from me would make it more of a reality. But they wouldn’t allow me to do it. After that, I wanted to talk to people, but no one really listened. Then this year, when the suicide numbers came out, that’s when I realized that people were ready to start listening. At first, I wrote the book, then I decided I was going to go around and speak. Words on paper are not enough. So far, it’s led to good things. I have had vets contact me and say I saved their lives.
Are you still in the military?
I’m a civilian. I have a full-time job. I work for a medical supply company.
When did your book come out?
How was your first speaking event?
It worked pretty well. I was nervous at first. They say it’s easier when you’re passionate about what you’re talking about. My passion took over. I went through my story, went through what I was thinking in that moment. What led up to it was not being able to talk about it, being made out to be weak. I gave them advice on everything that went wrong with me.
What kind of questions do people ask you?
One of the biggest was how to get vets to, like, leave the house and meet other people. I said to be sneaky about it. If they go to the store, tell another vet where they will be, what time, and then start a conversation with him
Has that worked?
It does. It’s worked twice so far.
Are they isolating themselves?
Yeah, they don’t trust anyone else but the people they went to war with. I’m trying to get them out of that.
Have you spoken one on one with them?
Yesterday, a mother asked me to meet her son. We got to talking. The biggest thing I’m doing is, they get comfortable with me. The biggest thing when come back is, you feel kind of crazy and everyone else seems fine. They open up real quickly when they hear the choices I made.
Do you give advice? Or is it best just opening them up?
It’s just opening them up. The biggest thing about giving advice is, they’re not going to take it. The biggest thing is not to feel alone. I felt I was the crazy one out of everybody.
How easy is it to reach out, with so many coming home?
There are so many organizations now, veterans organizations that get guys together. I always tell families to get ahold of those directors.
What’s your plan now?
I’ve already been on the media quite a bit. The Austin School of Film has taken me in, and they’re doing a documentary. Also, I will interview family members and have them on the documentary, the things they’ve been through. It’s kind of a how-to for PTSD. It lets people know they’re not alone. So now we’re going after corporate sponsors, and we have a campaign on Indiegogo.
People still aren’t comfortable talking about their attempts?
You’d be amazed. I’ve had about 10 vets tell me they’ve made that choice, took pills, held a gun to their head. I’m just the first one who goes around and publicly speaks about it.
How would you change the support system?
I think they should focus on peer support. If you put a vet in an office with a person with a piece of paper on the wall saying they understand, they’re not going to trust them. I think having veterans speak to other veterans is the best way to lower the suicide numbers.
Do you think there are enough people with good enough experience to help others?
Maybe they didn’t have to attempt, they just handled it differently. A lot of people talk about PTSD. You don’t have to try suicide.
It’s not like they have to have an attempt.
No, just someone who has had a deployment.
How long will this be an issue?
Until the government starts listening, it will be an issue. I have nothing against the government, it doubled mental health funding for the VA, but nothing will change until we start listening to veterans. Ask people who are actually doing it, not just those who have a degree.
Aren’t a lot people working at the VA vets?
Not as far as psychologists.
Any tough questions that people ask you?
Alcohol. That’s the biggest one. That’s just a hard thing to get going over. That, I’m still trying to figure out. How to give advice on it. It had to be my own decision to stop drinking, I mean as self-medication. So I don’t know how to give advice to people on how to stop someone else from drinking.
How did you stop yourself?
I just came to the realization one day, waking up at 4 in morning on the beach drunk, not knowing where I was.
In Hawaii?
Where are you now?
Austin, Texas.
It that where your family is?
It’s just where I relocated.
Did you know there’s an American Association of Suicidology conference coming up in Austin?
I knew about it. You have to be a doctor. These people don’t listen to what I have to say. Vets and families, that’s who I’m trying to get my message through to. As far as boards of doctors, I’ve had no one listen to my story
Who have you approached?
The VA would not let me speak because I’m not a doctor. Bases don’t got back to me. Suicide prevention programs, I contacted lots of suicide prevention people on the Internet. No one wants to listen. So no luck there.
Do you get questions about yourself that you’re not comfortable answering?
I just spoke to a reporter about myself, and it will be on the front page of the newspaper next Sunday. I’m not comfortable talking about all of it.
The American-Statesman?
Yeah. I spoke to him for about four hours, just about me and what I’m doing.
Are there things you didn’t tell him because you’re not ready?
Nah. I told him everything.
How to make this an easier subject to talk about?
That’s a hard one. Most people recover from it. I’m not embarrassed anymore. Me, I own it. I don’t want to say I don’t regret it, but it led me to many things in my life now.
You don’t bring it up casually, right?
Nah. People look down on it, “Why would you take your own life?” They see it as a weakness. I don’t see it as a weakness, but that’s because I went through it.
How do you reply to that comment?
I don’t have to answer that because everyone knows. When they ask stuff like that, I just tell them I was at a point in my life where I wanted to give up. I don’t feel like I have to sit there and explain it to them.
Have you ever gotten close to that point again?
Does your brother?
No, he hasn’t. He drank a lot.
So you’re kind of supporting him, too?
We went through it together.
What else would you like people to know?
No matter whether you’re a vet or a civilian, people need to feel like they’re not alone. We don’t need to make people feel crazy for making that choice or for thinking about doing it. Support them, don’t judge them. Because you never know truly what has happened to them. You don’t know their life story.
Have you heard from anyone from that day when you were called out of formation?
I had one person contact me. He said, “I don’t know what happened to you!” He definitely was speaking down to me about the whole thing. He wasn’t supportive of what I’m doing, because he didn’t know my whole story. And no one knows until Sunday. That’s the first time everyone will know the whole story.
What made you decide to tell your whole story to the paper?
He just really seemed to care, was really into the piece. Every other reporter is just a 30-minute kind of talk. He just spent hours with me.
You got to meet in person.
I like to ask this at the end: Who else are you?
I don’t think there is a rest of me. Ever since I started this, there’s no other part of me. When I’m at work, all I’m thinking about is this. When I’m at home. I just tell people I don’t have a personal life anymore. I don’t go out with friends. I focus on this full time, all the time. It sounds, like, depressing, but really, it’s not. It’s my life, what I was here for. I was given a second chance. This is exactly what I was given a second chance for.
What if you don’t make the change you want?
I’ve thought about that. When I attempted suicide, it’s not like I just took a couple pills. It was real. They called my family because they were worried I wouldn’t make it through the night. Ever since then, I’ve become a lot stronger person. I’m not gonna crash. Maybe not as many people hear it, but no matter what, I’ve made a difference. I’d like to make a difference in the whole world, but if I can get through to a few people, I feel like I’ve done what I’m meant to do.

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