Talking About Suicide

Talking with Sue Martin

 June 3, 2013

“I loaded the rifle and shot, at nothing in particular, out across the lake. Then I went back up to the lakehouse.”

A young Sue Martin then turned the gun on herself. Many years later, after blinding herself in her attempt, she finally decided to tell her story. She posted the chapters on her blog, Out of the Whirlpool, and now is turning them into a book. She also has begun telling her story to conferences and support groups with an exuberance that comes from the effort of learning a whole new way to live.

“You think, ‘Suicidal depression, blindness on top of that, holy crap, how can it get any worse?'” she says. “But really and truly, the fact that I had to start all over again and learn absolutely everything once I couldn’t see, that’s what pulled me out of the depression.”

Here, Sue talks about coming out about this issue in polite Southern society, extracting no-harm promises from suicidal friends and the stunning number of people who tell her they’ve attempted as well. “There still seems to be a lot of fear of being honest,” she says. “And that’s what I would like to see changed.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

Well, I grew up in Alabama in a suburb of Birmingham. I had really an unremarkable, I guess, childhood. I mean, it was great. I grew up with horses, my father was a surgeon, and you know, I think it’s hard to describe the sort of ambiance or atmosphere in which I grew up, but there was very much an emphasis on everything being positive, everything being happy and optimistic. And I just accepted that and sort of did it, and I was very happy in childhood. In our family, we had a lot of no-talk subjects, and sort of broadly falling into that category was, you know, talking about a situation that we felt was unfair or negative. And I never even saw my parents have a serious disagreement. When I married Jim, the first time we had an argument, I thought, “Divorce!”

I went through high school and college. I went to the University of the South. And I breezed through college. The work was easy for me. Sewanee is such a wonderful school if you love the outdoors. I majored in English but took a lot of forestry and botany classes. I was on the whitewater kayak and canoe team. And everything came easily to me, academics, sports, it was wonderful.

I did the June bride thing, getting married three weeks after graduating. The man I married had been two years ahead of me, but we actually met in England after he graduated. We did not know each other. And you know, when the wedding was over, when all the dust settled, I sort of had to get to know this man I had married. It was just very difficult. It was, I think, the first time I’m aware of being truly unhappy. The marriage, I don’t think that marriage really had a chance. I didn’t realize how important some things are to me and how utterly uninterested my first husband was in things like nature, outdoor sports, literature.

There was a lot of good stuff. We were married two years. And I think possibly the best part of those two years was, I started as an exercise rider for a couple who were joint masters of a fox hunt, and eventually they invited me to hunt with them. I had grown up in pony club. My parents gave me a pony when I was 7, and then I graduated to horses when I was 12. Fox hunting was the gold standard.

I think I have to go back a little bit. I became bulimic when I was 18, which is much later than most people. And bulimia overshadowed everything. It was like I had this cognitive dissonance in college. I really was having fun, thriving, but overlaying it was always the substance abuse of bulimia. And of course with this substance abuse comes secrecy and control. And by the time I got married, I was still enthralled with my eating disorder, not willing to recognize a problem, and certainly not ready to ask for help. So, for all sorts of reasons, the marriage ended and I moved back to Birmingham.

I got a job in the insurance industry, and one really good thing that happened was, a man who was a family friend, his parents and mine had been friends forever, he found out that I was coming back and had had gotten divorced, and he almost immediately contacted me, and we dated for about a year. It was just wonderful. Coming away from the end of a marriage, this man just helped me so much with my self-concept and helped me not feel like a failure. That relationship ended after about a year. And over the next year, I think, I sank further and further into depression while outwardly pretending life was rosy, because that’s how life was supposed to be.

And in June of that year, I cracked a rib, and for six weeks or a month I couldn’t do anything except just get by. I couldn’t do any of my dopamine-producing activities, like swimming or running, anything. I think that started the real descent. And over the next few months I found myself thinking that nothing was important, nothing mattered. Everything seemed like I was outside of myself watching events happen, going through the motions. And I think that all-absorbing deep depression, you just don’t care, you don’t want to be around anybody, surrounded by walls you build up yourself, and it’s impossible to think of trying to break down the walls or climb over them. To me, suicidal depression is a feeling of complete isolation and alienation.

In those last few weeks before I shot myself, I tried to find things that I could do that would give me those feelings of mastery, because I had no feelings of competence within myself, and the only place, the only way I could have feelings of competence and feel life was worth living was by doing stuff, not by being. And the less I cared, the more alienated I felt, the more powerless I felt, the deeper I sank into the depression.

And finally, since I’ve been telling my story to the world, more than one person has asked me, “Did you think about your family?” And I don’t know what others would answer, but I did think about my family. There were guns in our house, but I would not try to kill myself with a gun in my family’s house. I just couldn’t bear the thought of them dealing with the aftermath. But eventually I remembered another gun at a lake house. I drove to it, about an hour away from home, and that’s where I shot myself.

I probably just told you a lot more than what you asked!

That’s fine, some people answer my first question with their entire story.

I read several of the interviews. And the one thing that strikes me that I think is different for me is that once the seed was planted, that I would go public with this story, I never looked back. I think it was when I finally dealt with the bulimia. That was when I started learning to tell the truth. And that was a long time ago. My attempt was 30 years ago, and 30 years is a long time! But I think at the point where I knew someday I would tell my story, a lot of things had to happen before that point. And writing this book, well, what pulled me out of the depression was the fact I had to learn to do absolutely everything all over again. Because while the bullet didn’t kill me, it did cause my blindness.
You think, “Suicidal depression, blindness on top of that, holy crap, how can it get any worse?” But really and truly, the fact that I had to start all over again and learn absolutely everything once I couldn’t see, that’s what pulled me out of the depression. It was a huge, huge struggle at first. I had two rehab professionals who worked with me. And the rehab teacher taught me skills for everyday living. The orientation and mobility instructor taught me how to use a long cane. The first rehab teaching lesson was learning braille. At the end of the first lesson, I was reading three-letter words in braille. I was like, “This is really cool!” But when she left, I was like, “This is really cool? You’re 26!” But something in me said, “Never mind, just feel the accomplishment.”
I just threw myself into the rehab program. And I had only been blind for a year and four months when I started grad school. My masters is in blind rehab, and that’s where I met my husband. Once I started moving forward again, each little step forward took me further away from feelings of worthlessness and loneliness and alienation and took me toward being a whole person again.
About five years ago or so, I wrote the story of my own rehab process. I had all kinds of motivations. I love to write, and having been on both sides of the desk of rehab as a client and a teacher, rehab is something I know very well. I sort of challenged myself to write it in such a way that it was humorous, you know, I wanted to accurately portray the techniques you use when you can’t see. I wanted to capture the progression over that first year after I became blind, capture the progression from basically having nothing, starting over, to the point where I could say, “OK, I’m ready to live life again, and I’m going to choose this profession of blind rehab.”
Anyway, I wrote that, but it wasn’t easy yet to write about my suicide attempt. I put it aside. Then a year and a half ago, someone I didn’t know, who lived in England, committed suicide. And I do know a lot of people who knew her, and the people who knew my story started coming to me and saying, “What could we have done? Did I miss something? The tone of an e-mail, a tweet, a Facebook post?” It was at that point I decided I was ready to write about the whole thing.
What I’m trying to do, I think, is be demystify this whole suicidal depression and suicide attempt. And by “demystify,” I mean try to put it out there as clearly as I can what it feels like. And then what it takes to get back on your feet. And I am gonna publish this book, but even if I don’t publish a single word, writing this book has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. It really has. It’s been incredible.
In terms of … ?

People keep saying, “Oh, it must have been so cathartic,” but that’s not the strongest emotion I have around the writing of this book. The strongest emotion I have is that yeah, I’ve been through a lot of adversity, but right now, right here, I’m living my life with joy and free of guilt. And every single day I can’t wait to see what the day holds. Of course, you know, at one time I never wanted to get out of bed again. And it is possible to look back, nod my head at that suicidal depression and say, “Yup, I was there, but look where I am now.”

Has it come back at all?
Yes. On two occasions. One occasion was what brought me to the point of admitting that I had an eating disorder and seeking treatment. And the other time was around an addiction to prescription narcotics. In the first case, with bulimia, I sort of had to get dragged kicking and screaming into rehab. But with narcotics, I was much more willing. I recognized that the best way to deal with a problem of substance abuse is to get treatment and to enter into it fully, no holding anything back. And that treatment was phenomenal. I spent three weeks at the Brattleboro Retreat, just incredible.
Both happened since your attempt?
What were your friends’ responses to your book?
Probably the most notable was a friend, someone who knew the woman in England who, I think because of my openness with him, he took the initiative and went to this person’s family and said, “Can you tell me anything else?” That apparently led to a resolution for him. There really wasn’t anything he could have done. In hindsight, you can read just about anything into anything, and I think sometimes just to have the light of day shine on words or actions and put them into perspective, you can say, “No, I don’t think that my friend ever communicated to me anything that would have enabled me to change what happened.”
And you know, having grown up in polite society in the South, where even to this day there are people who refer to the Civil War as the “late unpleasantness,” there are just things not talked about in polite society. And it seemed only after I finished the book … once I made my mind up to write this book, it was gonna get done. I never entertained not finishing it. And once it was finished, and once I started telling people, I had a number of advance readers in this area, and people who’ve known me all my life, that’s when I started thinking, “Oh my, you’re not supposed to talk about this!” But I think it’s essential. You’ve got to be able to look negativity in the face. I don’t know about suicide rates in different parts of the country, but if you can’t talk about it, you can’t stop it.
What was your family’s response?
My parents are both deceased. My brother started talking about it, he said, “I don’t know if I can read this book.” And I understood. There’s, you know, he lived through it, it has to be painful for him. But I sent him the bound manuscript anyway. And I think in the first day he got through the first four chapters, which are the story of the suicide attempt, realizing that I was gonna be blind and coming home from the hospital. He immediately sent me a text and said, “I’ve read the first four chapters. It was difficult for me to read them, but it had to be brutal for you to write them.” Even though he had such reluctance, for reasons that I understand, once he had the book in his hands he started reading. The response from friends has been phenomenal. My two best friends from childhood, one in Birmingham, one in Atlanta, both of them have just had very high praise, not just for the book but for the telling of the story.
And the polite society?
Yes. I’ve had no “How can you do this to your family, how dare you tell this?” I had none of that at all. I was really gratified at the responses.
You also do public speaking?
Yes. So far, one of the two largest groups was the northeast regional professional organization of blind rehab professionals. And at the end, they kept having to bring chairs to the room. At the end, people said things like, “Every single person in this profession needs to hear this story.” That was last November. Then, in January, I spoke at the southeast regional guide dog conference. And that was such an amazing experience. I got so emotional at the end of it. And I was a little chagrined that I got so choked up. But on the other hand, this is a story that, if I can ever tell this story without emotion, I will have to find another story to tell!
And then in July, I’m the luncheon speaker at an international consumer group for people with blindness and visual impairment. And then in December at an international mobility conference. Again, a blindness profession group.
And I hope that I can tell my story to … Well, I work for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The suicide rate of active duty members and vets is just horrifying to me. And the VA is doing so much to address the problem, but it’s such a tough thing to address. I really do hope that there’s something I can do to help the VA in those efforts. I don’t know what that would be, but I’m standing here ready.
I’ve started small. I recently spoke to a group, a support group of veterans dealing with all kinds of problems, depression, anger management, PTSD. I told them the story that I tell at the beginning of my book, when a man asked me to help him with his horse that had developed the habit of galloping out of control when jumping fences. And I told the story of the hunt and how I broke the horse of the habit, and I had those feelings again of mastery, of being really good at something. At the end of the hunt when I dismounted, when my feet hit the ground, it was like I was instantly back in that tiny world where nothing mattered. I wasn’t good at anything. The group really latched on to that, when my feet hit the ground. For the rest of that session, they related their own versions, their own experiences. And it was like “My feet hit the ground” became a metaphor for the group.
It’s interesting that your attempt is just part of the story.
Yes. The cool thing is, it’s just part of the story, not THE story. The same thing with blind rehab. It’s part of the story, not the big story. To me, the big story is that 30 years ago, I didn’t think life was worth living, and today I can’t wait to get out of bed and see what I can get into. So, yeah. It’s been easy for me to get into the blindness rehab professionals and blind consumers, that’s been easy for me to get into. Just because of my own blindness and being a professional in this field. I don’t know, even though I have had plenty of therapy, I certainly have worked with my share of mental health professionals, I don’t know who to approach, you know. or what organization to approach. And I think it’s probably because I’ve been dealing with blindness forever. But this being honest about having attempted suicide is a relatively new thing for me, and so I’m kind of learning the organizations, the people. And that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited when you offered this interview. Because really and truly, the blindness, rehab, the hiking, all the time and fun my husband and I have had, the national parks, all of it weaves the tapestry, goes into the weaving of the tapestry, but the tapestry as a whole is, “Look where I was and, boy, I sure like where I am!” If that makes any sense. But you hit the nail on the head.
The big question people have, going back to the question your friends asked, is how do we tell in advance that someone is suicidal?
I don’t know that I have any real answer to that question, apart from … Every once in a while, whether it’s a certain time each day, a certain day each week, slow down. And really be with family and friends. Life is so fast-paced. And we’re faced with all of those distractions, e-mail,  Twitter, conference calls. It’s the people in our lives who are the most precious. And I think all too often, I’ve certainly done it myself. I get to where I feel like, “Oh, I’ve got to answer that right now, got to finish this project!” My husband and I, whenever we get that mutual feeling, “Let’s just slow down and just be,” we go jump in the hot tub. I don’t know, we have the most incredible conversations in that situation. Or even just sitting in our rocking chairs on the front porch and listening to the stream at the bottom of the hill.
I think that family and friends, we just need to stay open, to stay aware and to stay observant. It’s such a “me” society, my documents, my computer. But take time to really look family and friends in the eye and think about what you see there. And then talk about what you see there. And just because I’m blind doesn’t mean I can’t pick up on the pain you might see in a loved one’s eyes. Because there are so many ways that unhappiness, that depression, get communicated. And take the time to observe, to ask, to feel. And trust. Trust your instincts. Think about what your family member or your friend is communicating. And I think sometimes what is not being communicated is just as important. I was a teacher for 20 years, and I’ve learned how to tease out what wasn’t being said. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all. But it’s something I feel very deeply.
Are there any terms or tone of voice that put you on alert?
Yeah. I think silence, a long silence. Not being interested in things they’ve always been interested in. A lethargy, not wanting to do or go places that have always been a source of satisfaction or beauty. And sometimes I think those changes can be gradual. In my case, they were pretty dramatic. In my case, I covered it up because life was supposed to be good, you know.
I don’t know what could have been said to me or done differently to have prevented me from shooting myself. But I do know when I came face to face with bulimia, I had promised my therapist I would talk to him before I did anything to harm myself. That promise is a really, really important promise for someone who is depressed to make. It doesn’t have to be made to a professional. Over the years, I have extracted that promise from three people. And they are all fine. And you’d think that talking someone back from the edge, from attempting suicide … Well, the first time I did it, I spent two hours on the phone talking about and getting the other person to tell me, just to talk about what had led to thoughts of suicide. And I mean, it was head to head, it was intense, it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. And when I hung up the phone, I thought, “Are you crazy?”
To yourself or to them?
It’s such an enormous responsibility. But I knew I could do it. I kept my phone on at all times, had Skype open. And he’s fine, just wonderful. So if you see anything like not wanting to do things that used to be important, giving away treasured objects, lethargy, first get the person talking, maybe get them to a therapist, and get that promise.
Is there any concern that mentioning suicide might be taken as a suggestion?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think it could go the other way. If you say, “Are you feeling suicidal?” in some cases, it might be enough to, as they say in the South, snatch somebody bald-headed. In my experience, getting to that doesn’t happen instantly. If someone calls it out, names it, in some cases it might be enough to make them say, “Ew, you’re right! I need help!”
Is this advice any different when it comes to teenagers?
I don’t know, I haven’t been a teen in a very long time, and I don’t have children! I do think that teenagers are faced with problems and situations and hormones that adults are not faced with, and bullying is something very distressing to me. And certainly physical bullying is horrible, but it’s the subtle bullying that’s just as insidious and so horrible. As a teen, you’re not sure, you want to fit in the crowd, you know? So I don’t know. One of the very first groups I told my story to, we lived in Maine at the time, and it was right after I admitted about having been bulimic, and it was after I got treatment for that, when I started learning to tell the truth. The very first group I told my story to was a group at a high school. It was a very small group of students and a bunch of faculty. And the students were something like peer advisers. There had been a rash of suicides in teens on the coast of Maine, and this group of concerned young men and women came together and said, “Let’s try to do something.” I so admired their courage to step forward. And you could have heard a pin drop, these students were so eager to get some understanding and strategies for recognizing depression in their fellow students and trying to address it before it resulted in someone killing themselves. And I don’t know what schools are like these days, but something like that is a good thing to consider.
In terms of more openness about this experience, what would you like to see different?
The reactions I personally have had have been completely positive. Nobody has said, “Don’t talk about that.” And yet, on websites and blogs and places that talk about and are by and for people who have attempted suicide, there still seems to be a lot of fear of being honest. And that’s what I would like to see changed. I don’t think anybody should have to be afraid of repercussions from their employer. And I think that suicidal depression and attempts are a lot more common than maybe what statistics say because, as I’ve told my story over the years, I am stunned by the number of people who say, “I have attempted suicide” or have friends or family members who have attempted. And just my telling the truth has brought just the most amazing people into my life. I am sure so many more are out there, but how do we find each other if there’s so much stigma still attached?
What else would you like to share?
I think I probably said it all! But as soon as we hang up, I’ll think of something. You know, I guess the bottom line to me is, there’s always hope. No matter how horrible life seems, there’s always hope. But there’s only hope as long as you stay alive. And you have to stay alive. I don’t care if it’s minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day. Stay alive. Because that’s the only chance you have for things to get better. Reach out, stay alive and ask for help.
Why do we have to go to such a length to learn this lesson?
I don’t know. (Laughs.)
Who else are you?
I’m just an ordinary person. Just utterly ordinary. I really am. You know, I’ve faced some pretty major adversities. But you know, I love being married, my job, my dog, I love smelling the flowers. The thing is, had I not gone through what I’ve been through, I’m not sure I would wake up every morning with a smile on my face. I have absolutely no regrets about anything that I’ve done or been through because I’m just very comfortable in my skin, very happy just to live an ordinary life.

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