“I Am A Survivor of Suicide” by Kurt Cunningham

I tried to end my life one night after having a wonderful fun-filled evening with friends. It was in November 2012; I had a plan in place for months. Not one person had any idea what I was planning to do.
After a series of life-changing events that began in 2009 and included the closing of my once-successful business of nine years and culminated with the death of my mother in August 2012, life just seemed unbearable to me. My finances were a mess. My health wasn’t great. And I couldn’t make a romantic relationship last more than a few months.
Life just sucked! So I thought about every option I could end my life and finally decided on a plan that I could carry through with that wasn’t violent, or that wouldn’t bring harm to innocent bystanders. I remember coming home and getting everything in place to follow through with my plan. I’m sure you’re wondering what my plan was, but I would never want to put any ideas in someone’s head that was considering harming themselves. Once I was finished, I remember taking out the trash, grabbing my cat, and laying on my couch with the cat on my chest, unable to stop crying until I fell asleep.
Of course with the recent suicide of Robin Williams, countless articles have been written, news stories have flooded television for days, and now the news media are onto the next sensational story. So I wanted to share my experience and acknowledge that I am a survivor of a suicide. That sounds … I don’t know, kind of dramatic to me.
But there is something about creating a plan, going through with it, and the result is not what I had anticipated that IS very dramatic.
How are you supposed to feel when you wake up from a medically induced coma to see your friends and family at your bedside waiting for you to wake up?
My first thought was not DAMN it didn’t work. I don’t remember what my first thoughts were. I know I was pretty delirious for a while because I thought I was at some lady’s home, and she was taking care of me while she decorated a Christmas tree. That lady was a nurse in my private ICU hospital room, the “tree” she was decorating was my IV drip rack. There were so many bags on that thing they looked like ornaments to me. It was if strands of tinsel were flowing into my arms, I’ve done my fair share of drugs in my life but I’ve never mainlined Christmas. I had contracted pneumonia; there was a fear of liver and kidney failure. To say I was in bad shape would be an understatement.
It was a lengthy hospital stay; I was under 24-hour watch, which meant a nurse sat next to my bed 24 hours a day. After about a week I was transferred to the “West Wing,” and believe me it was nothing as plush as the West Wing of the White House. The West Wing of UCSD Hillcrest is the psychiatric ward of the hospital. It’s like taking a step back in time. I believe it was a portion of the original space of the hospital when it was first built. It was very stark, sterile with plastic furniture and doors that locked us in. It felt like a prison to me; I was on permanent lockdown, and there was nothing I could do about it. You don’t get to sign yourself out of Psychiatric ward like you can in a regular hospital; you are there until some stranger says you are back to “normal” whatever the hell that is.
I was told by staff members that I would have a particularly difficult time there because I was the only “highly functional” patient in the ward.
They weren’t kidding. This was no resort-type facility we often hear about celebrities going to because of “exhaustion,” but this support was an important part of the journey to recovery. I needed to be safe. I sat alone. I tried to read. I would sometimes talk with the nurses when they weren’t busy.
I didn’t belong here! I’m nothing like these people! Didn’t they know who I am? Get my friend who was also my city councilman on the phone. Call my friends who are city commissioners! Placing me here was obviously a mistake. I was coming unglued! The lunatics had taken over the asylum, and I was going down with them.
I begged to be let out; at one point a doctor gave me some false hope that I might be released over the weekend. Unfortunately, it was a Thanksgiving holiday weekend and the ward was being run by the “B list” doctors.Their idea of therapy included coloring in coloring books and making flowers out of colored paper. Finally, the following Monday the A list doctors came back on duty and saw that my mood was deteriorating because of my surroundings. I have a wonderful group of close friends who were visiting the hospital every day, bringing me some of my favorite food, keeping me focused on what my plans were for when I got out of the hospital. The nurses and the doctors were very impressed by the amount of people that would come visit me. I think I broke the record for the amount of visitors in one day. Hell, I even had a drag queen in full gown, and crown visit me on Thanksgiving Day. It was like a dadgum parade in there. But it also showed the doctors I had a great support team waiting for me when I was released. The ongoing visits reminded me that I had a team of support, that I was not alone in the world.
Luckily that support system was willing to do anything they could to help me get reacquainted with life and back on my feet.
So let me fast forward a bit to my recovery. Follow-up appointments with all the doctors, weekly “talk” therapy and new medications helped me with my recovery. Staying close to home for a bit, getting out of the house was important but being seen wasn’t that important to me. I guess in a way I was embarrassed and ashamed of what I had done. Good thing I didn’t leave a “fu*k you and fu*k you too” letter for anyone to find, because then I would have to face those people again.
Looking back, I realize that shame and embarrassment were embedded in my mind. A learned behavior. YES, trying to end your life is an awful thing. I do not recommend it to anyone. But the stigma that was put on me like a scarlet letter made it very difficult to move forward in certain situations; but that was one of the many obstacles I have overcome. Friendships were the No. 1 thing that had changed in my life.
People’s attitudes about depression and suicide, just mental illness in general, often come with a stigma. Even when people try to have conversations about depression, their competency or understanding about the issue is archaic or maybe they were just repeating things they heard somewhere and took it as fact.
So class is now in session.
Lesson No. 1: Depression is real
Depression, clinical, diagnosed depression is not the same thing as having a bad day because your car got scratched, or you lost your lucky pair of underwear. The word “depressed” is used in a very loose and at times offensive manner. It trivializes what a truly depressed person is dealing with in their life.
It’s hard to blame the people that aren’t familiar with depression or other mental health issues. Our culture has taught us to dismiss these people as being victims and weak. I tend to be a little passive aggressive when I see someone post on social media “I’m so depressed” My response is always the same. “Oh, I’m sorry, how long have you been suffering from depression?” No one has ever answered that question when I ask.
Lesson No. 2 Suicide is a lot of things, but selfish isn’t one of them
Suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. The black hole that is clinical depression is all-consuming.
People who say that suicide is selfish always reference the survivors. They say it’s selfish to leave friends and family and loved ones behind.
What they don’t know is that those loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. They do think about the survivors, probably up until the very last moment in many cases. But the dark cloud of depression that follows you everywhere them leaves you feeling like there is no alternative. As the only way to get out of the crappy situation you think you are in is to end it all. And that is a devastating thought to endure.
Until you’ve stared down that level of depression, until you’ve lost your body, heart, mind and soul to a sea of emptiness and darkness … you don’t get to make those judgments. You might not understand it, and you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but making those judgments and spreading that kind of negativity won’t help the next person. In fact, it will only hurt them and others.
Lesson No. 3: Myth that once a nut case, always a nut case
NOT true. You have to look at depression for exactly what it is, an illness. Let’s compare it to diabetes. There is no cure for diabetes, but it is a manageable illness. There are many ways people with mental illness can live regular lives just like everyone else. Of course, there are different levels of the illness and it might take a lot of work for one person versus very little for another.
For me, the best plan has been medication and talk therapy. Medication isn’t a magic pill that works the first time you take it. You may have to try different pills or different combinations, and it takes a short time for those meds to kick in. You would be surprised at how many people you know or are familiar with that live with mental illness. Remember approximately 1 in 4 people suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder; take a look around, it could it be you, your best friend, your partner, your parent. Don’t be so quick to judge, but do ask questions. Approach them in a caring, concerned and loving manner.
Lesson No. 4: No blame, no shame, just be kind
The worst things to say to someone with a mental illness:
Snap out of it.
There are a lot of people worse off than you.
You have so many things to be thankful for, how can you be depressed?
You’d feel better if you got off all those pills.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
Go out and have some fun.
I know how you feel.
So you’re depressed, aren’t you always?
This too shall pass.
You make the choice to have a bad day, just decide to have a good day.
So change the words up a little bit, you would never say things like:
Hey, diabetic, snap out of it.
Hey, epileptic, I know how you feel.
Hey, paraplegic, so you can’t use your legs, isn’t that always the case?
You get the idea. No one would think those things are OK to say, and just because you can’t SEE my illness doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
By saying these things, the mentally ill person in front of you is already probably feeling very bad about themselves, and you have chosen to go and make it worse.
Instead of those ugly things listed above, try saying things like this instead:
I love you.
What can I do to help?
This must be very hard for you.
I am there for you, and I will always be there for you.
You are amazing and strong, and you can get through this.
Have you seen your doctor/therapist?
You never have to apologize for feeling this way.
I’m not scared of you.
It has taken me a lot of work to get to where I am now. I have also discovered a new found passion for working in the mental health field. On July 24th of this year I completed a course, and I am now certified in Mental Health First Aid. No, I am not a doctor, but I now have the tools and resources to help someone through a crisis to the next step and help stabilize a dangerous situation. I am learning more about the field through volunteering, organizing suicide prevention classes, and attending any and every class or lecture I possibly can.
I recently applied for a job in the mental health field; I’m still waiting to hear back from the organization. If I don’t get hired for this job, I won’t let it get me down. I’ll keep pushing on. There are too many people out there that are in life challenging situations that are being ignored by society. I can no longer stand by and let them suffer.
To go from a place of wanting to end my life to now being considered for a job helping others is a testament to every single person suffering from mental illness. Suicide is not the answer. There is hope! You can overcome your situation; you are important and what you have to offer can help someone at a time when they really need someone who understands.
Love yourself enough to ignore what others may think of you seeking out professional help, You would be amazed at how much just talking to someone about your problems can help. Don’t keep your emotions bottled up inside until the bottles bursts. As the late, great Whitney Houston said in the movie “Sparkle.” “Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?”
If you think you need help, please contact a medical or mental health professional. There are crisis lines in place to help you when professional help is not readily available to you.
Access and Crisis Line
(800) 479-3339 or (888) 724-7240
Trevor Project Lifeline
Trevor Text: Text the word “Trevor” to 202-304-1200.
The Trevor Project provides a 24-hour hotline that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning young people (LGBTQ) ages 13-24.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
(800) 237-TALK
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Parents….It’s time YOU had THE Talk!

Jennifer Barber, MPH, President, teenNow California

In my career I have worked with thousands of families, parents and their children from the age of nine and up. I’ve also been in the teen pregnancy prevention field for over 15 years. It has been my observation that the parents are typically the ones who need “THE talk”. What I mean is, they may need convincing as to why it’s important and necessary to begin talking early and often with their children about sexuality and growing up. It’s not “fun” to think of your precious angel as a sexual being. The idea in fact may make you want to throw up a bit your mouth. How do we get past these uncomfortable feelings and thoughts? How do we talk about sex and growing up without your own face turning red and escaping your child’s rolling eyes?

The truth is….by practicing. It’s the only way. Parents and care givers are important people in a child’s life and it’s good to look for and create teachable moments. Start with asking more questions and listening more than you talk. The next time you are watching television with your child and see something “sexy” let’s say, ask your child what they think about that scene or commercial. It’s also good to reflect on how you have reacted in the past when your child asked you an uncomfortable question. Did you lie, minimize, or avoid the conversation all together? Did you purposely miss an opportunity to discuss something important? Be honest and ask yourself how you would like to be in these situations moving forward.

When I was about 5 years old or so I asked my oldest sister where babies came from. She was unsure what to tell me or what mom would want me to know at five years old, so she told me that was something I could learn about when I was a little older. Apparently I wasn’t happy with her answer. Later that day, my sister asked me a question. “Jenny, where is my hair brush?” and my sassy reply went like this, “maybe I’ll tell you when you’re a little older.” Clearly I was ready for some information that an adult wasn’t ready or able to share with me. I think many children feel this way. I think many adults feel like my sister did. When it comes to sexuality adults tend to over complicate things and are unequipped of how to speak simply about sex. What’s great is if you didn’t give enough information to a child you will surely get a follow up question. Then you can give a little more info. I feel it’s important to praise and encourage questions, if you want to keep the door of communication open. The quickest way to shut it is by over reacting or accusing when a question is asked. Instead be quizative and say something like, “that’s a great question sweetie…what do you know about that or think that means?” This helps you gage how much to say as well. For example, “Mom what’s a condom?”, “That’s an interesting question sweetheart, tell me what you know so far” versus “Where did you hear that word, I told you not to play with those boys down the street.” Tone and body language are also very important here. You need your poker face.

At this moment your mind might be going crazy wondering where this question came from, does this mean my child is thinking about sex or worse, having it! Calm down! Breathe, and respond instead of react. This may take a moment, hence the poker face, and when you’re ready praise the question and ask a follow up one with a calm, open tone of voice and posture. Watch your eyes and facial expressions. If the timing is not good to talk, say you’re in a grocery store when this question comes up, it’s always okay to deflect the talk for later and say something like, “That’s a great question, ask me again when we get to the car”. This also buys you a little time to brew up your conversation.

Just remember things will always be as big of a deal as you choose to make them. Act as though the question is like any other question like “what is for dinner” and you will surely keep talkin’ through the years!

2014 Award Nominations


Awards will be presented at the TeenNow/Fresno Regional Foundation on November 4th, 2014.

AWARD CATEGORY Check award category for nomination. One form per nomination.
Please feel free to duplicate the form for additional nominations.

VERA CASEY AWARD– Awarded to a TeenNow California member who has, through his or her work,
made a significant impact on improving the quality of life for pregnant and
parenting teens and youth at risk of too early childbearing. Vera Casey was
a pioneer in the development of services for teen parents and their babies
in California.

DAVID S. CRAWFORD MEMBER OF THE YEAR –  This award was added in 1987 to honor TeenNow California members making an
outstanding contribution to the organization.

BEATRICE GORE AWARD -Awarded to person (not required to be a TeenNow California member) who has made an outstanding contribution to the field of adolescent pregnancy and parenting. In 1991, this award was named to honor Beatrice Gore, the pioneering spirit that resulted in the establishment of the Pregnant Minors Program in 1968. The Pregnant Minors program for the first time allowed school districts to obtain state funds for developing special classes to serve pregnant minors.

LEGISLATOR OF THE YEAR – The award recognizes a federal or state legislator or policymaker who has
provided valuable leadership in support of public policy affecting adolescent pregnancy and parenting issues.

DOUG KIRBY AWARD – TeenNow is proud to introduce a new award dedicated to the memory of Doug
Kirby. His research was groundbreaking. Most importantly, he was a man who were fortunate enough to spend time with him. This award will be given to a person who had made a significant impact in the fields of teen pregnancy
prevention, adolescent reproductive health, and youth development.

Nomination information:  

Mailing Address
Telephone_ Fax

DIRECTIONS: In one typed double-spaced page or less describe the
experiences, accomplishments, and contributions which qualify the nominee
for the award category. Send nomination form and narrative to: TeenNow
California, 3468 Citrus St., Ste. F, Lemon Grove, CA 91945, fax
619-741-9643, tnca@teennowcalifornia.org.

Nomination submitted by:

Your Name
Mailing Address
Telephone_ Fax

SELECTION PROCESS: The Awards Committee, consisting of professionals with an
expertise in the field of teen pregnancy prevention and intervention, will
rate the nominees based upon award criteria. The top candidate in each award
category will be recommended to the TeenNow California Board of Directors
for approval. If there are no outstanding candidates for a particular award
category, that award will not be presented that year.

October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month

October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month – a good time for families, schools, and communities to take stock of current efforts to reduce and prevent bullying. In recognition of the efforts to improve school climate and reduce rates of bullying nationwide, the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention (FPBP) have released a variety of resources to inform youth, those who work with youth, members of the media, parents, and schools. These resources and more may be found at Stopbullying.gov. With all of these new resources and attention, it’s a great time to consider how you can help raise awareness about bullying and take action to stop it.

Tell us what you are going to do by engaging on Facebook and Twitter using #StopBullying365.