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 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 sensationalistic story. So I wanted to share my experience and acknowledge that I am a survivor of suicide. That sounds…I don’t know…kind of dramatic.
But there is something about creating a plan, going through with it, and the result not being what’s 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 can’t even 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 that they looked like ornaments. It was if strands of tinsel were flowing into my arms. I’ve done a 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 every hour, every 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 and I was on permanent lockdown, there was nothing I could do about it. You don’t get to sign yourself out of a psychiatric ward like you can after a typical stay 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 that 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 don’t belong here. I’m nothing like these people! Don’t you know who I am? Get my friend who is also my City Councilman on the phone. Call my friends who are City Commissioners. Placing me here is 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 & 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 but getting out of the house for a bit was important to me, but being seen wasn’t. I guess in a way I was embarrassed and ashamed of what I had done. Good thing I didn’t leave a “fuck you and fuck 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 was something that was a way of feeling that was imbedded 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. That stigma was one of the many obstacles I have overcome. Friendships were the #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’re just repeating things heard somewhere that they take as fact.
So, class is now in session.
Lesson 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 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 leaves you feeling like there is no alternative, that the only way to get out of the crappy situation you think you are in is to end it all. 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 – deeper.
Lesson 3: Once a nutcase, always a nutcase is a myth.
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 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 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.
Think about it. If you changed the words up a little bit, you would never even think to 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 okay 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:
• 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 24 of this year, I completed a course and 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 and I’m 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 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 professional help. You will be amazed at how much just talking to someone about your problems can help. Don’t keep your emotions bottled up inside until the bottle 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 as soon as possible. If professional help is not readily available, there are crisis lines and countless other resources that can assist.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
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.
San Diego LGBT Community Center
3909 Centre Street (Hillcrest)
San Diego, CA 92103
Behavioral Health Services: (619) 692-2077 x208 (on-duty counselor, business hours)
Heidorn Lifeline: (858) 212-LIFE (after-hours or emergency crisis intervention & suicide prevention)
San Diego County Access and Crisis Line
(800) 479-3339 or (888) 724-7240
The County of San Diego’s 24-hour prevention/intervention hotline
Trevor Project Lifeline
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.
Trevor Text: Text the word “Trevor” to (202) 304-1200. Standard text messaging rates apply.
My name is Kurt Cunningham, I was born into a mostly happy upper middle class family in Orange County, CA. Had a great relationship with my family, got on good a school seemed to have it all. Then my dad accidently shot himself. My life changed forever. In my early twenties I moved to San Diego. Thankfully my mom and friends were still in my corner. I’d be come a well-known activist and performer, a well-liked business owner, but I’d still had not recovered from my fathers death. I’d hide the depression with alcohol drugs, Then the economy crashed, I lost my business, my mom got cancer and died and since I’d never had a long-term relationship I thought I had nothing to live for. I attempted to end my life two years ago and through dumb luck and a built up tolerance level to drugs and alcohol, I lived. Once I realized I was faced with starting to live life all over again. I “regrouped” and found my passion for helping others that maybe facing a similar situation that I had. I spend my days volunteering and searching for that perfect job in the Mental Health field.