Having the discussion

After my suicide attempt last October I made a choice, and that was not to keep it a secret. Only one person – a relative – advised me not to talk publicly about my experience; it was an emphatic and emotional warning but never with a reason attached. Maybe my path wouldn’t have been the best course for everyone who tries what I tried and fails, but I know it was the right decision for myself.

I originally intended to write something for my Facebook page but was lucky to be offered space in a wildly popular forum in which to share my story. I laid out some still-raw thoughts, as well as details of what I went through in the days immediately following the Friday when I swallowed all those pills.

I was amazed to learn that several hundred thousand people read that little essay of mine. I heard from many of them. They wrote to thank me for sharing: “Maybe you didn’t know but my sister killed herself years ago, and you helped me to understand just a little better.” They wrote to say they wished the subject had been discussed so openly back when they themselves began to experience depression, Bipolar disorder or some other debilitating mental illness. I was humbled.

Over the last six months I’ve been open about my journey to understanding myself and to good health. Here and on www.mariashriver.com I’ve discussed going away to small-town France to think and write and clear my head.

Cobwebs duly swept, I’m back home now in Los Angeles and looking for a job. I’m embarking on the next chapter of my life with excitement.

A couple of nights ago Calvin and I attended a benefit for an art nonprofit. I encountered several people who knew I’d been away and several whom I hadn’t seen in a while. One of this latter group – a man I know on friendly terms from the art world – asked how I came to leave my last job, so I shared the story.

A little while later Calvin told me that that same man had said to him, “Clay shouldn’t be talking about the suicide thing. He’ll never get a job.”

First, I wish he’d had the balls to tell me his opinion directly. But more importantly, it made me think about the way I’ve engaged with my experience over the recent months.

Again, my approach wouldn’t be right for everyone but it was right for me and I don’t regret it. The many expressions of love, comfort and support that came to me since I tried to kill myself have made my trip forward much easier, and much of that wouldn’t have existed if I’d hidden the truth.

While it wasn’t my plan to become an activist – it still isn’t – it seems that by default I’ve become one little soldier in the effort to make mental illness something we can talk about without shame. I doubt that the guy at the art event would have had the same reaction if I’d told him I had a knee replaced or a heart bypass procedure.

Only yesterday a thoughtful friend sent me a link to a video of a 2011 TEDTalk and an accompanying Huffington Post essay by JD Schramm, who teaches communication at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Mr. Schramm’s talk was titled, “Break the silence for suicide attempt survivors,” and it was about his own failed attempt to end his life, as well as the value he felt in talking openly about it. “Conversations,” he said, “are a crucial…path to change.”

The stigma attached to mental illness harms people at the precise moment they need help the most. It is satisfying to be playing a part in eliminating that stigma.

Maybe my openness will complicate my job search. Maybe there are employers who would think, “Eww. That’s creepy.” But I think I’d just as soon not work for those people anyway.

And life goes on.