A Suicide Therapist’s Secret Past

My depression was a dark presence that first came when I was 12 years old and revisited often. Finally, at the age of 26, I started taking an antidepressant, and that helped tremendously. Then I started losing hair, an uncommon side effect, so I stopped. My new therapist in Austin, a psychiatrist, wanted me to try a different antidepressant. But my mind already had tricked me into thinking nothing could possibly help, and even if it could, I did not deserve it.

No one knew. On the outside, I functioned well. With my quirky sense of humor, I often made others laugh. I excelled in my classes on counseling and psychopathology. My curiosity and sensitivity drove me to understand as much as I could about the mind, about people’s pain, about how to help others even while I could not help myself.

For months I lived like this, vibrant and sociable in the day, alone and miserable in my head at night. One night, I could not bear it anymore. I knew that the anguish I experienced was limitless. There was, it seemed to me at the time, only one way to extinguish it.

In the quiet of my boxcar house, I wrote a letter to my parents. I apologized for the pain that I brought into their lives, and I assured them that they truly would be better off without me. I felt certain that some months of intense heartbreak would be better than the decades of pain, uncertainty and fear that my continuing existence would inflict on them.

Then I wrote another note with a thick marker: “DO NOT GO INTO MY ROOM. To spare yourself, call 911. I’m so sorry!” Because there was no door to close, I ran packing tape across the doorway and I stuck the note to the tape at eye level, impossible to miss when two friends who had keys to my place would come looking for me.

I write about this now, more than 20 years later, from my office at the University of Denver. As a tenured associate professor in the graduate school of social work, I teach courses on psychotherapy and mental health assessment. A mile down the road, I have a psychotherapy practice. In my research, teaching and clinical practice, I specialize in suicide risk assessment and intervention, making me what is rather clumsily called a “clinical suicidologist.” The website I created and maintain, SpeakingOfSuicide.com, has had 1.5 million visitors in the last three years.

I am passionate about suicide prevention because I know, both from my own experiences and from those of others, how darkness can convince a person that light will never come again. But my passion angers some visitors to my website. They send me emails or post comments condemning my inability to understand the suicidal mind.

One reader wrote, “Please get off your superior ‘I am a happy person’ high horse. For the most part you were born that way.” Another wrote, “Yes, you might have…

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