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AAS16: Disclosure Through Storytelling {3/31/16}

Kelley Clink

The American Association of Suicidology Conference is this week, and I have the honor of speaking on a panel about suicide attempt disclosure and storytelling. My fellow panelists are Dese'Rae L. Stage and Amelia Lehto. CHECK OUT WHAT THEY DO. They are amazing women.

I'm posting my portion of the panel here, so that folks who can't attend can read, and so that folks who did attend can check out links to the resources I mentioned. Please feel free to comment! Would love to keep this conversation going, as I think it's really important. 

Okay, panel starts…..HERE:

I first wrote about my suicide attempt ten years after it happened. I pedaled it as a short story for a fiction-writing workshop, but the only things I fictionalized were names. Page by page I laid it all out there, this thing that I’d never talked about with anyone. The emergency room, the juvenile psychiatric ward, the nurses, the doctors, the family visit. On the night of my workshop, my heart pounded and my stomach churned. What would the other students say? Were the details too real? Would they know it was true?

The star of the workshop was a brunette with glasses and Bernadette Peters curls. Her stories were poetic. They had structure. Plot. She obviously had some kind of creative writing experience. I had none. I simultaneously loathed her and ached to be her friend.

When it was her turn to give feedback on my story, she flipped through the pages and wrinkled her eyebrows. She sighed through her nose. She cracked her gum. “I mean, the writing is pretty good, but the main character isn’t believable as a human being.”

Isn’t believable as a human being. I was both crushed and exalted. My secret was safe! But I was a shitty writer! I joined a different workshop, a nonfiction workshop, and never looked back. It was time. If I was going to tell my story, I was going to have to tell it as me.  

*

I was sixteen when I attempted suicide. From the moment it happened, my attempt felt like a shameful secret—one I needed to keep hidden if I wanted to live a “normal” life. I didn’t talk about it. Not with my parents. Not with my friends. Not even with my therapist. They all knew, of course. I’d been hospitalized. I’d missed a week of school. But after being discharged, I only spoke of “looking forward.” I told everyone it had been a mistake, and that was that.

Frankly, I think we were all relieved.

It’s really hard to talk about suicide. I think everyone here knows that.

So, I never intended to tell my story. I went off to college and polished my proverbial clean slate. I was going to become an environmental engineer, or a lawyer, or an archeologist. I was going to travel the world. I was going to be tough and brave and kick ass. I was never going to breakdown again.

And it kind of worked, for a while.

It wasn’t perfect—not at all. I still struggled to manage my depression. But I kept up my ass-kicking, life-by-the-balls façade for years. About seven years. Right up until my younger brother killed himself.

My brother had first tried to take his own life in high school, just like me. He’d rebounded with an overachieving, ass-kicking attitude, just like me. He’d buried the truth about his fears and feelings, terrified that he was irreparably broken and unworthy of love, just like me.

But I still couldn’t talk about it. Silence is a habit. It carves deep grooves into which, after years, your voice disappears. I couldn’t talk about it but I needed to do something, because I was terrified that if I didn’t, I’d end up just like my brother.

So I started to write.

*

{healing}

When people find out that I’ve written a book, and they find out what my book is about, they often ask me if the process was “cathartic.” I tell them that doesn’t begin to describe it. Writing saved my life. The page was a safe place for all the feelings, fears, and memories I wasn’t ready to share, both about my brother and myself. I had complete control over what went on there, who got to read it, and when. Dr. Art Markman (University of Texas) says that “the mind is most settled when there is coherence to our thoughts.” Research by Dr. James Pennebaker, also of UT, suggests that writing can provide that coherence.

It can, however, be overwhelming. Writing about a traumatic event, even one that happened decades ago, is bound to trigger some complicated emotions. Some research suggests that writing about trauma is most beneficial when it focuses on meaning and understanding, rather than simply reliving the detail of the event. I strongly suggest working with a mental health professional as part of your process. A mental health professional should be able to help you frame your experience in a way that encourages healing. 

I didn’t do this as much as I could have. I had a therapist, and I talked a lot with him about how hard it was to write, but I mostly kept the specifics of my work to myself. I bumbled through on my own, finding my own healing as I wrote. It was very, very difficult, and very, very painful. It took years, ultimately, for me to get the perspective I needed to make sense of my experience.

 

{advocacy}

Once I finally had that perspective, it completely transformed the way I saw my attempt, my depression, and myself. It brought me, finally, to a place of self-compassion and forgiveness. It freed me.

But I didn’t know if my story would help anyone else. I wanted it to, but I never imagined myself as an advocate. I didn’t even really know what advocacy was. I had a vague idea that it was a group of important people who knew things about legislation. I don’t know anything about legislation. My story isn’t glamorous or exciting. My story is like everyone else’s story—which, it turns out, is exactly what makes it important.

I discovered this when I wrote an article for Woman’s Day about being a loss survivor. Except I mentioned my own attempt in the article, and they mistook that as license to change my title to:

Ten Things I Want My Son to Know Because I Once Attempted Suicide

It was a great move, marketing wise. The Internet had all kinds of opinions about my right to be a mother. I posted a follow up piece on my Huffington Post blog that defended my decision to be honest with my son. But I was still stuck on the Woman’s Day title. Despite the fact that I’d written about my suicide attempt years earlier, and had since published a book that included it, I felt “outed.” I’d never thought of myself as an attempt survivor—or maybe it’s just that I hadn’t thought surviving my attempt was important. Not as important as the fact that my brother didn’t survive his. But the majority of the comments on my article and blog came from other parents who were attempt or loss survivors, who had experienced depression or other types of mood disorders, and who were struggling with how to share their background with their families. Thousands of people suddenly knew that they were not alone, and I realized my story mattered. Just telling it had made a difference.

It was the first time I realized the impact my story could have on others. It was also the first time I realized that I wasn’t alone.

 

{safe messaging}

When I started writing, I wasn’t involved with survivor communities at all—loss or attempt. I knew nothing about safe messaging. Anything I learned I picked up by random chance from reporting guidelines, common sense, and reading loss narratives.

I’ve learned from experience that the first step in safe messaging is to tell your story in a way that is safe for you. It’s extremely important to wait until you are ready. Being ready doesn’t mean it will be easy—it means that you feel comfortable revisiting your experience, and that you have the appropriate support network in place to cope with whatever feelings arise during the writing process.

The second step in safe messaging is to forget everything you know about safe messaging. That probably sounds counter intuitive. Hear me out.

If you are thinking about safe messaging while you begin to write, you’re going to censor yourself. You’re going to worry about every detail you add. You’re going to delete and revise, and eventually quit. Censorship is the enemy of creativity. Just getting words on the page is hard enough without worrying about what’s going to happen in the heads of people who might read them. Write for yourself first. Write for yourself second. Write for yourself fifteenth. Write for the world a hundred and ninety fourth.

What I’m saying is that safe messaging is the second to last thing you worry about. Proofreading is the last.

This, of course, assumes that you want to share your story, which you absolutely don’t have to do. I spent nearly a decade writing my book, and I can honestly say that if it had never gotten published, and no one ever read it, it would still be worth it. The act of writing it was that transformative. But if your intent is to share your writing, and you’ve reached the point at which a piece is going to be published or read by friends and family, then the Suicide Prevention Resource Center has a list of guidelines that can help you.

 

{friends, family, and strangers}

So, I mentioned sharing your writing with friends and family. If you’re anything like me, this idea is way more terrifying than sharing your work with total strangers. And, in fact, I participated in writing workshops for years before I showed my parents or husband anything I’d written. In some cases, your writing may be the first place that friends and family find out what you really experienced. At the time I showed my husband the first draft of my memoir, we’d been married seven years. When he got to the chapter about my time in the hospital, he was shocked. I’d never told him about it.

I’m extremely lucky that my family was supportive of me sharing my story. Not everyone has that experience. Some people may be angry that you’ve chosen to tell the truth. Some may be scared. Some may try and tell you that you got the story wrong. Be prepared for people to have all kinds of reactions, and lean on your support network when you need to. Take other people’s feelings into consideration, but remember, at the end of the day the story is yours to tell as you see fit. 

{I do want to note here that once you tell your story publicly, it no longer belongs just to you. If you publish your work, you will face criticism. Some of it will be directed at your writing, and some of it will be directed at you. The good news is that the longer you work with your story, the easier it is to separate yourself from it. You aren’t your story—your story is just something that happened to you. And other people’s opinions of it don’t matter a fraction as much as your own.}

 

{how to get started}

If my rambling hasn’t turned you off, and writing still sounds like something you want to do, I’m going to share some tips for beginning. I adapted this from an essay I wrote for Writer’s Digest called “Seven Tips for Writing about Trauma.”

1. Free Writing

Writing by hand, in a journal, was the most comfortable place for me to start. There’s less pressure when writing by hand, and less temptation to edit. I’ve found that the most helpful practice in journaling is free writing. Free writing is when you set a timer and write non-stop, making no changes. If you spell something wrong, keep going. If you can’t think of what to write, you write, “I can’t think of what to write.” You keep writing that sentence until you think of something else to write. If you’re having trouble getting started, you can use writing prompts. One of my favorites is from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away. Start with the phrase “I remember…” Write for ten minutes. If you get stuck, just keep going back to the phrase. Then, do ten minutes that starts with “I don’t remember.”

2. Small Goals

Using a timer and keeping your goals small is really helpful. I started by writing just 15 minutes a day. I still use a timer, over a decade later. It makes the whole thing feel more manageable.

3. Be Patient and Gentle With Yourself

The work you are doing is hard. It’s not always going to feel good. It may take you a long time to complete. Be kind to yourself along the way. Treat yourself to long walks, naps, warm baths, bad TV, and good cookies.

4. Reach Out to Your Support Network

When I began writing, I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, so my husband, parents, and close friends didn’t know why I was suddenly more sensitive. After telling my loved ones about my project, I received the space and support I needed to deal with the difficult emotions that came up during the writing process.

5. Walk Away When You Need To

There were times during the writing of my memoir when my emotions became overwhelming. When that happened, I took a break—either by working on another part of the book or taking a few days off from writing completely.

6.  Read       

Other books that have helped me over the years are The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Abigail Thomas also has a small book of writing prompts called Two Pages. But it’s important to read about more than writing. Read books that inspire you. Some of my favorite memoirs are The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominque Bauby; Wild by Cheryl Strayed; Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas; and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

7. Find Your Tribe

Whether you connect with other survivors, take a class at a local college, or join a writing group full of people who have nothing in common, it’s imperative to find a community. Writing is lonely. Life is lonely. Get yourself some people.

 

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