I survived a suicide attempt.
When I was in high school, I was the perfect little king of the nerds.
Youth in Government, Speech and Debate, Dungeons & Dragons. We had Trivial Pursuit clubs. I hung out with this really high-achieving, sweet group of kids. All of us were focused on getting straight As, getting into college, and being doctors and lawyers. At the same time, there was this other part of my life where I’d always been in love with fantasy and science fiction. I loved escapism.
I wanted to be a popular kid. I wanted to be one of the kids that was on the edge, but I was afraid.
I grew up in a really interesting family. My mom was a psychiatric nurse, and my dad was a car salesman. My dad would tell us lots of stories about his life and growing up, and my dad is a wonderful man, but he was a bit of a wild man. He would tell me stories about what high school was like for him. He was always on the edge—and here I was, this kind of dorky kid. I wanted to be a popular kid. I wanted to be one of the kids that was on the edge, but I was afraid. It really wasn’t much of a conflict—or I didn’t think it was.
One day, in advanced biology class, this kid rolled a ball of aluminum foil covered Lebanese hash over to me in the middle of class. He’s like, “Check this out. It’s hash.”
I’m like, “What?” I just opened it up, and I smelled it. I’d never seen anything like it. I didn’t even really know what it was. I didn’t understand it. This is how geeky I was. The first thing I did was go to the library and look up “hash” in the encyclopedia.
Literally this switch flipped in my life. I went from being a straight A student to being a kid that was, within a month, out of control, like balls to the walls. All I did was party, and partying really wasn’t enough. I wanted to be at the source of everything. That was the end of my sophomore year.
By the beginning of my junior year, I could care less about high school at all. Not at all. Skipping school and working and literally just partying non-stop. I had connected with a group of kids that I loved and adored, but we were the kids that, if other people knew what we were doing, they would have crapped their pants. We were way out there. I learned how to live that life by the age of seventeen.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I had found a balance of doing just enough with family and school to get by, while maintaining this separate life I had. I kind of lived a double existence.
I went away to college at the University of Missouri–Columbia and felt completely miserable. In high school, I did whatever I wanted to do. I had a car. I had no curfews. I came and went as I pleased. I had complete and utter freedom. I lived in the basement. My mom worked overnights, my dad worked long hours, and they tried the best they could. There was no way for them, without having me locked up, to control me. I had free reign. I could do whatever I wanted.
I moved into the dorms with my best friend, and there were rules. My life became like a prison. I was kind of lost in life, and I was living in a place I didn’t like—in corridor dorms. We would get in trouble constantly. Things that were normal everyday activity for me were illegal things that drove the dorm authorities absolutely crazy. My grades were okay. They weren’t great. I was miserable there. At one point, because of the number of infractions we had on the dorms, the police were in and out, and they were just worked up.
Finally, I made the decision to go back home, which devastated my mom because she never got to go [to college]. Her dream had always been to go away to college and be out of town. Here I was—I had the opportunity—and I was coming home voluntarily. I actually had so many infractions that I accepted an infraction that wasn’t even mine because I knew I wasn’t coming back. I was officially kicked out of the dorms.
I came home for Christmas break and wasn’t going back. My mom and dad were clearly really disappointed and upset about it. On Christmas Eve, I wrecked my mom’s car on the way to my girlfriend’s for Christmas. Just totaled her car. [My parents] were so worked up at me. They were pissed so, as punishment, they took away my car privileges. I had to take the bus to the University of Missouri–St. Louis, which was an hour, sometimes an hour-and-a-half, bus ride each way to get to school. It was a commuter campus that was very sterile and not very personal. I was just really kind of drifting.
I don’t remember what the weather was like. When I look back on that period of time, I remember it being rainy and cloudy all the time. Was it really rainy and cloudy all the time? I don’t know. But that period of time—it always seems like it was rainy and cloudy.
That spring, my mom’s baby brother suicided. At the time, it devastated my family and my mom. The family fell apart. Her side of the family literally tore into this blame situation, where everybody blamed each other for Mike’s death.
The last time I saw my uncle Mike was at Christmas, and he was really agitated and upset. He worked with my grandpa at a union paper-packing plant. He wasn’t getting along with the people he worked with, and didn’t want to work there anymore, but my grandpa didn’t want him to leave the job.
At Christmas, they were getting into a fight about it, and I was empathizing with my uncle Mike. I was like, “Yeah, I know when you work someplace where you don’t like the people and the people don’t like you… that would be miserable. You’re there every day, you’re unhappy, and it sounds horrible.”
He was placated by that for a little bit, but the fight grew and grew until he stormed out of the house on Christmas Day. That’s the last time I saw him alive.
We got the phone call, and my mom just burst into… tears isn’t the right word. It was hysterical screaming and sobbing. I had to take the phone.
One of the things that really stands out about Mike’s death was how I minimized it. [I said], “Hey, if people want to kill themselves, they’re going to kill themselves. He took the easy way out. He was selfish.” All the clichés that you hear people say. I was also particularly upset at how upset people were over his death, like, “Why are you upset? This is what he wanted. He did this to himself. It was his choice.” I was callous. I was immature. I was angry—not at him in particular—but angry that people were so upset about this loss.
After that, I fell into a path in my life where I ended up involved with life choices and situations I had no business being involved in. It was a really exciting thing to be involved in. It was an interesting time in my life; it was also an incredibly dangerous time. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about that, but there was a point when I realized I needed to get out. By that point, I was very much addicted to cocaine and alcohol. I was using extremely large and expensive amounts of cocaine. I was able to stop, but when I would drink, I would use again. I knew how bad this was, and I recognized that I needed to change my life. I would go through the effort to stop, and I would… then something would happen, I’d go out with friends, and I’d end up drinking.
Each time I drank, the episodes got crazier and crazier. Finally, one day, I never called into work. I was working full-time, but I’d been up all night, and it was like the fourth time in a row over the space of a month where the exact same thing had happened. [I kept telling myself], “I’m going to stop. I’m not going to do this anymore.” The same thing kept repeating itself, and it got crazier and crazier.
I called a really close friend who said, “You need help. You’re not able to do this on your own.”
I realized I wasn’t able to change, even though I wanted to change. I told my mom and dad the truth about everything going on in my life. They knew, but they hadn’t wanted to see it. They got me help.
I went through drug and alcohol treatment, and it was really interesting. They wanted me to go inpatient treatment, which was the big deal in ’88-’89. Everybody went inpatient.
I’m like, “No, I’ve got a full-time job that I really like.” I loved my job. I was a landscaper—I worked outside, I cut grass, I trimmed. I was out on the truck in the sun all day, and I loved that job.
They agreed to let me do intensive outpatient and I went to my boss, who was not anybody you would ever expect to be understanding about this. I said, “Look, I really want to keep my job, but I’m getting drug and alcohol treatment, and I got to be back for treatment at like five-thirty. I can’t be on the truck till eight or nine o’clock every night. I understand if you can’t do that.”
He made special accommodations for me. They would come back, no matter where they were, so I could go to treatment.
I did intensive outpatient treatment, and I got better. I also got really depressed. I had been a daily marijuana smoker since I was sixteen years old and I had quit. My depression got really bad. I went and talked to the counselor about it.
They asked me questions, then said, “Well, you’re not really that depressed, so I think we just keep doing what we’re doing.”
I was like, “Oh, okay.”
I started smoking pot again, and instantly my depression went away. So, in that part of my recovery, I quit drinking and doing cocaine. I was still a daily pot smoker and actually really happy.
I re-enrolled in the university, and the first class I fell in love with was Introduction to Psychology. I learned so much. I had been kind of purposeless in my life, and suddenly I found something I absolutely loved and also got a good grade in. I had not been getting good grades in a long time, and the class really wasn’t that hard. You just needed to read the material and actually pay attention. It was the first A I had as an undergraduate.
I was hooked, so I decided to be a clinical psychologist. I didn’t really understand a lot about treatment or behavioral health, and the class was Psychology so, of course, I’d become a psychologist. That became my goal, and that four years of undergraduate was an amazing time in my life. I got very involved in school. I got a job, found a social group on campus, and had a home there. I had good friends, and my life was going really well.
The first time I tried to get into a psychology program, I didn’t make it. Clinical Psychology doctoral programs are really hard to get into. My grades for the first couple years of undergraduate had been so bad that, even though I was getting straight As by the time I took the GRE, I didn’t do very well. I retook the GRE, got involved in more research projects, and busted my ass. I also started to recognize I might not get in. I started working on a computer science program so I would have options. I had different things. The second time I applied, I got accepted for graduate school, in a PhD program with a full scholarship and an assistantship. It was really, really cool.
Now, the problem was that, for four years, I hadn’t been drinking or drugging—other than marijuana—because I was afraid of failure. When I got accepted to this program, I felt like I had overcome it. I had made it. Obviously a little premature, as nobody ever truly makes it, but a lot of the fear of failure that I had pent up in my life just went right out of me. I had gotten something I really wanted. I had learned how to study. I had learned how to achieve, and I started drinking again. My future wife, Stephanie, gave up her job to follow me to Carbondale, Illinois.
There were a couple of things that I learned in the psychology program. In a graduate department with counseling, research, and clinical psychologists, I expected that there would be a lot of people like me—people who had been through this crazy life, had overcome these obstacles, and were very open about their recovery.
That turned out not to be the case at all.
In fact, they were very bright, high-achieving folks, but people were not particularly forthcoming about their problems. I definitely felt a little out of sorts there. I did connect with a small group of folks, and we had an absolute blast, but the drinking… I was drinking every day.
My graduate experience was a combination of the most wonderful things ever. I loved it. I was good at it. I got good grades. I had great opportunities. I worked at the VA. My drinking continued to escalate until it became something that was bigger than I could imagine. I didn’t really notice because everybody around me was drinking, and all of us drank all the time.
I [didn’t notice it] until Stephanie and I moved away for my doctoral internship, and I had to move away from all of my friends. I ended up in a great setting, but they worked us really, really hard, and I was completely isolated from my support network. We were the primary clinicians for a group of clients, and the demands on us to meet the needs of this client base were really intense.
There were two other interns, and they were a little bit older than I was. They were definitely more emotionally mature. They had a better sense of themselves and set boundaries with the program and I didn’t. I was seeing clients over lunch. I was staying until eight and nine o’clock at night to see folks. I jumped on every assessment opportunity, which meant all this extra paperwork, and I was working on Saturdays. I was going in early to see people, to meet their schedule. I was seeing people at lunch so they could be seen. I was staying late to see people.
I was falling behind in my paperwork, and we submitted paperwork for Medicaid. As a graduate student I hadn’t been involved in anything like that, so it was the first time my work was connected to official insurance reimbursement and all that. Every three months, they do an audit of paperwork, and the word “audit” petrified me, terrified me. I was behind in some of my paperwork. I got really anxious about it.
My anxiety over it was completely disproportionate to what it was. There was no real threat there.
My anxiety over it was completely disproportionate to what it was. There was no real threat there. The worst that would happen is that some of the paperwork needed to be cleaned up, or maybe some of the sessions wouldn’t get billed. It wasn’t the end of the world, but in my mind, it became this huge thing.
My anxiety was through the roof. My drinking was through the roof. Working long hours, drinking a lot. I started to have really severe panic attacks. I’d wake up panicky. The stress at work was really high, and I didn’t have my friends around. Going into work was so hard because my anxiety was so bad. At times, the anxiety was so intense, it felt like I was going to rip out of my skin. I couldn’t sleep. I was not sleeping well at all. I was waking up in these cold sweats, waking up with panic attacks.
One day when I was at work, a session cleared out. A client canceled, and during that hour, I had this almost out-of-body experience. My anxiety was so intense, and my heart was pounding. Everything seemed unreal and bizarre and crazy. That’s when I was like, “I need to see somebody.”
Saw the doctor. Put me on sleep medication and put me on Paxil. It would get better. It always got better when I got home. When I got home, my heart rate would drop. The sweating would stop. The nausea would stop. The shakiness would stop.
I was like, “God, this work. I don’t know if I can do this. My work anxiety is going to kill me.”
So, I’m telling my mom about this, and we were talking a lot at the time. I was describing all my symptoms, and she said, “God, Bart, if I didn’t know better, I would think you were going through alcohol withdrawal.”
And it clicked. It all clicked. I was going into withdrawal. That’s what was happening every day. I would stop drinking, try to sleep. I would wake up with these horrendous shakes and panicky symptoms, and I would fight through it, go to work, and then I would come home. I would drink, and the symptoms would go away.
I tried to detox myself with the sleeping medication and came really, really close. Really close. I was down to two drinks. My sleep was regulating. The Paxil was working, but I ran out of sleep medication.
I went in to see the doctor, and he was like, “Oh, no, no, no. We’re not playing this game. The sleep medication was short-term. Do you drink alcohol?”
“I drink occasionally, but I don’t drink a lot,” I lied.
“Well, that’s really interesting. Here’s your bloodwork. Your liver enzymes are off the chart. I don’t typically see this sort of liver activity unless I’m working with somebody who is sixty years old and has been drinking every day of their life. It’s really bad. So you want to tell me what’s really going on?”
And I did. I did.
He sent me to a psychologist, and… this poor psychologist. As I dumped my current situation and my life on him, you could just see in his eyes he had no frigging idea what to do. He literally had no idea what to do with me. He’s like, “I’m really worried that you’re not going to make it like this,” which was a bit of an understatement because I was working sixty to seventy hours a week, drinking god-knows-how-much alcohol, and then, every day, I would go into withdrawal. It was just this vicious cycle, and it finally broke.
In that period of time, I probably threatened suicide three or four times. Always when I was inebriated, always when I was at my wits’ end. Scared my wife to death, scared my mom to death. Finally, it got so bad, my mom and dad came down. Stephanie, my wife, was so scared. They’re like, “You can’t do this anymore. You’re not going to make it.”
I was so afraid. I had worked so hard to become a psychologist that I didn’t want to go back into treatment. I didn’t want to have to disclose what was going on with me. I thought I was going to lose everything.
My mom was like, “If you end up dead, none of this makes any difference,” but it was so important to me, becoming a psychologist. It’d become this thing in my mind that, even if it killed me, I was going to do it, which was how irrational I was at the time.
They brought me back to the psychology clinic, and this time, I was seeing the head of the clinic. He’s like, “You got to go to the hospital.”
I’m like, “Why?”
He’s like, “You’re in alcohol withdrawal. You’ve got to be detoxed. You can’t even stop drinking because your body is going into withdrawal.”
I didn’t really want to go, and I was given the choice of voluntarily or involuntarily. I chose to go voluntarily because that seemed to be the better choice. They admitted me into the hospital, which, if you’ve never done that, it has that feeling of being put behind locked bars. [You are unable] to leave and you’re supposed to be there for help, but it feels like prison. I was scared to death.
They evaluated me, and the withdrawal symptoms were starting. I was like, “Am I going to get medication for the withdrawal symptoms?”
“No, you’re not having enough withdrawal symptoms. You’re not in bad enough shape yet.”
“Oh okay. I guess that makes sense,” I said. It doesn’t, to me, in any way shape or form now, right? But at the time, it was like, “Well, they’re doctors and nurses. Clearly, they know what they’re doing. They need me to be sicker before they help me. I get it.”
I can remember my mom, my dad, and Stephanie leaving. I could hear them talking as they left, but they weren’t in the wing anymore. I could hear them in the parking lot, like they were right there. I was hallucinating, and then the DTs and the vomiting hit. My body’s shaking, I’m tremorous. I can’t quite make it to the toilet, and I lose control. I’m retching everywhere. I mean, my body’s completely out of control.
I’m like, “I wonder if I’m sick enough yet.” I stumble out into the hallway, barely able to stand, and I tell the nurse, “I just threw up. I think it’s time to start the medicine.”
She goes, “Oh yeah, it probably is.” She hands me towels, and she says, “After you clean up after yourself, we’ll give you the medicine.”
So, in full-blown withdrawal—shaking, crying, and hallucinating—I have to clean up my own vomit before they’ll give me medicine.
They give me the medicine and it helps right away. The next morning, though, I’m already back and my hands are shaking.
The psychiatrist comes in and you can tell he’s a little freaked out. My blood pressure’s skyrocketing. He actually tells me, “I’ve never seen withdrawal this bad in somebody this young.” He said, “It’s a little unusual. I’m a little nervous.”
They put me on Valium PRN. You take it as often as you feel that you need it. They added some more medications, and I did exactly what I was told. I was a model patient. Whatever they said, I did it, because I wanted to get out of there. I don’t deal with confinement well at all. I’m a little claustrophobic-y, and I’ve always had a tremendous amount of freedom. Being behind the locked doors was unbearable for me, but I made friends there and I connected with people there.
On the second day there, I’d probably been on Valium for about thirty-six hours. I took a Valium and it knocked me on my ass. All of a sudden, I could even barely keep my eyes open.
They’re like, “Oh, you’re detoxing.”
I said, “I’m done. I don’t want any more of that medication. I’m finished with it.”
They were really upset about that. Who am I make decisions on what medications? First, they don’t want to give it to me. Now I’m done with it, and they want to force me to take it. I had to sign a form saying [I was refusing the medication].
They’re like, “Well, it may take you longer to get out of here.”
How supportive and collaborative is that? But I did okay. The withdrawal symptoms were gone.
When I got out of the hospital, my wife picked me up, and first thing, I just started bawling. I was just sobbing in the car. It was traumatic. It was super traumatic for her too, but I didn’t even recognize that at the time.
I met with the psychologist again, and he’s like, “Well, you need to tell work what’s going on.” This was the old theory. Maybe it still exists.
I’m like, “Well, what should I tell them?”
He’s like, “Oh, tell them everything,” which it turns out it is the worst advice to ever give somebody in recovery. I could have said very little, and it would have been fine.
I go in and tell my boss—the head of the program—everything. Oh my god, it scared the crap out of him. I’ll never forget. He’s like, “Well, I really need to ask you about suicide.” He’s like, “I want to be clear: I’m not worried about you, but if you did kill yourself, it would have such an impact on your patients. I’ve seen that before and I can’t have that happen again.”
I said, “Well, of course. Absolutely not. That’s not an issue you need to worry about, because clearly, everything you’re telling me is that you definitely don’t want to hear a “yes” answer.”
I was able to start seeing patients again. I started seeing patients almost two days after being out of the hospital, which I was excited to do.
[My boss] was like, “Well, you are going to start seeing folks again, but you need to know, you’re not going to be hirable for at least a year or more after you leave here.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “Well, you’re an alcoholic. You need to tell every single person where you apply for a job that you’re in recovery so that they know, and probably nobody’s going to touch you for a year.”
I said, “I don’t understand. I’m going to start seeing clients here tomorrow.”
He said, “Well, yes, that’s true, but that’s because you’re under our supervision and we can keep a close eye on you.”
I said, “That’s interesting because I’ve been here for seven months, and you had no idea what was going on with me. That’s the kind of supervision you’re talking about that’s going to make sure I’m safe and everybody else is safe?”
He wouldn’t answer the question.
I pointed out to him that I came forward willingly. I had called off. I had missed some days, but not excessively. I was seeing more cases than any of the other clinicians. In fact, the other two clinicians would have to stay an additional five months to see as many patients as I was seeing.
He said, “Well, that’s true, but come to think of it, you’re a lot like a person I’ve worked with that slept with one of their clients. That’s what this is like.” He equated me being an alcoholic, depressed, and in recovery, to someone having an affair with their clients—one of the most major ethical violations that you can commit. I realized then that it was bad. He said, “Well, we need to tell your department about it. They’ll probably have to vote on whether you get to continue in the program or not.”
Imagine if you had cancer and you were told you can’t work for a year. If you had cancer and your situation was being equated to committing an ethical violation, or if you had cancer and your program was going to vote on whether you continued with your education or not.
I was so angry. I was so pissed. I was going to AA, but didn’t believe in it at all. I was going to intensive outpatient and I just needed to stay sober. I did stay sober. I stayed sober for three months.
In the meantime, they enacted a new policy that mandated that, if you were suffering from an alcohol or mental illness that could impact your work, you needed to disclose it immediately or you could be fired.
I said, “This seems to be targeted at me.”
“Oh no, no, we’d been working on this for a while,” they said. “It has nothing to do with you.”
I’m like, “This is the most discriminatory policy I’ve ever seen. Are you sure this is even legal?”
They said, “Oh, yeah, it is.”
I had to sign the policy.
I’d just been through severe DTs and alcohol withdrawals, but in my mind, I wasn’t an alcoholic. I had never said I was an alcoholic. I’d never admitted to it.
It’s no shock that, though I’d quit drinking, I’d relapsed. I wasn’t buying into AA. Treatment was alright, but there was a point where, after three months, I was like, “Well, if I can stop for three months, I’m not an alcoholic.” Now, keep in mind, I’d just been through severe DTs and alcohol withdrawals, but in my mind, I wasn’t an alcoholic. I had never said I was an alcoholic. I’d never admitted to it.
I relapsed four times. Each relapse got crazier and longer. In the midst of the fourth relapse, Stephanie had to drive me to St. Louis for a job interview. My mom and Stephanie were like, “There’s no way that you can go to this job interview. You are fucking crazy.”
I’m like, “Oh no, I’m going,” so they drove me. On the way up to St. Louis, I was actively hallucinating. I thought Stephanie was the devil, and I tried to baptize her with holy Mountain Dew while we were doing 70 miles an hour down the highway, with a puppy. This all seems quite rational, doesn’t it?
When we get to my mom’s and I’m showering and dressing, she’s like, “You can’t go to this interview.”
I’m like, “I’m going to the interview.” Went to the interview. I got hired on the spot.
After the interview, I decided to celebrate, and I went to this yuppie bar. I’d been drinking for four days straight. I’m pounding pints of lager and shots of tequila, and I met this person who worked at a watch shop. I saw all these fancy watches, all these Rolexes, and I [got her to show me how to tell a fake Rolex from a real one]. I started going around and playing this game, [telling people], “That’s not a real Rolex,” and then I’d be able to prove it.
Well, I finally did this with a former lineman from the St. Louis Rams, and here’s the funny part about the story: his Rolex was real, and I knew it was real, but I told him it was fake. Everybody was like, “Fake Rolex! Fake Rolex!” Well, he was really unhappy about this, and he wanted to kill me. He clearly saw that I was insane because this guy was like 6’8”—huge—and I charged him, full blast. People pulled us apart, and there was yelling and screaming.
I’m quickly kicked out of the bar, which I was fine with. What I was upset about was that he was not also kicked out, because he did try to hit me. I staged a protest in the bar parking lot over the inequity of the decision to exclude me from the premises, but not the rich ex-football player, which freaked the bartender and the manager out.
They said, “We’re calling the police.”
There are varying accounts about what happened at that point, but enough said, I got in the car and I drove off. The police were called, but I escaped. Even though I got away, I couldn’t stop driving fast. I was driving way too fast. Out of control. I finally wrecked my car and went to a gas station to call for a tow truck.
Meanwhile, the police were looking for me. They found me, and I was arrested.
At that point, I turned into “Super Attorney” because I understood my rights very well. I proceeded to be the biggest jerk on the planet. It was completely out of my control. I was in handcuffs and fingerprinted. They weren’t going to let me leave.
They let me try to get ahold of an attorney. Couldn’t get ahold of one. Called my mom. My mom said, “I’ll come and I’ll bail him out right now.” They wouldn’t let me leave. Tried everything to get them to let me go. I needed to get out of that jail really, really bad.
I had been nothing but unkind to them, and some of the officers had been very kind and gracious to me. Some had not, but some of the officers had been unbelievably amazing to me. I was in the full throes of alcoholic insanity at that point, so, finally, they wouldn’t let me leave, and they left me in the jail cell.
I said, “That’s it. If I can’t get out of here, I don’t want to live.”
I tried to kill myself. They caught it on video. They intervened. It was interesting because, in that moment, for me, I had been running from myself for fourteen years, probably longer. By being locked up and unable to get out in that state, I couldn’t escape from myself anymore. I had to face where I was, and I couldn’t take it. The one thing I’d been able to do for fourteen years was run. I’d always gotten away. Every single jam I’d ever been in, I had gotten out. Finally, I couldn’t get out, and that was it. When I couldn’t run anymore, in that moment, I lost the will to live. That was it. It’d been building for a long time, but it was there right in front of me.
So, they intervened. They said, “Okay, we need your shirt. We need your shoes. We need your socks. We need your belt.” I turned it all over. Then they took it one step further. “We want your pants,” they said.
I said, “No, you’re not taking my pants.”
“We want your pants. We got to take your pants.”
I’m like, “You can put me back in cuffs, but you’re not taking my pants.”
I didn’t understand at the time, but it was about dignity. I was not going to get naked in front of these guys. It was not going to happen. But they’d been waiting for this. Several of them had been waiting for me to refuse. The captain came at me full bore, and he was going to take my pants from me, but he didn’t understand where I was at. When he came close to me, I grabbed him by his bulletproof vest, lifted him up, and tossed him across the jail cell. He went flying. His feet left the ground. His colleagues were so stunned at this that they literally stopped to watch him, like a home run going out of the ballpark, as he sailed through the air.
I looked around. The jail cell door was open. I’m like, “I am fucking out of here,” and I bolted. I ran. I got through two doors. I finally got to a door that didn’t have a handle, which was, I think now, quite metaphorical. I’m pulling on this door. I’m banging. I’m slamming my body. The only thing I can think about is escape. I want out. I want out now. I got to get out of here. I was frenzied with it. An animal.
Finally, they catch up to me. They try to get me under control, but in that moment—I had no self-defense training, no formal fighting training—I was unstoppable. They could not hold me down. They couldn’t grasp me. They would try to pile on top of me, and I would get out. I would push them away, and be back at the door, back at the door.
They were getting more and more frustrated, so finally they made the decision to mace me. They said, “Mace him!” Well, one of the little secrets is: don’t tell somebody that you’re about to mace them. It gives them a chance to prepare. I closed my eyes and I held my breath. We’re in a small area. They flood this little area with mace, and all of a sudden, I just launch forward, out of this orange mist, at the door again.
Then I hear, “Officers down.” They maced each other. They completely disabled themselves. It’s funny, but it was horrible.
Now I’m at the door, and I’m banging on it. They do an all points. Every officer is called in. More and more officers start flooding in from different doors. I don’t know how many officers. I think they eventually got to eight to ten officers. It took that many to physically get me under control. They would start piling on top of me, and I’d get out. They piled more on top of me. I’d get out. The third time, they must have gotten six or eight folks in the pile, and I was just physically exhausted. Whatever it was I had that was allowing me to continue to stay free was done.
They hogtied me. They dragged me into a place, and at that point, I was begging to go to the hospital. My eyes were burning. Tears were pouring down my face.
The officers were very upset with me. They chose, now that I was completely under control, to give me their very direct feedback regarding my conduct. I started chanting, “Thank you, mother. May I have another?” [This] infuriated them even further. It kept getting worse and worse until I looked at one of the officers in the eye and saw the disgust and the disdain that he had. It was only when I saw that that I could see my own disgust and disdain with myself. I just collapsed and started bawling.
They dragged me back in the cell. I don’t know what happened. I lose some time there, because everything else I remember very clearly. The next thing I remember is that I’m on the phone with my mom, and I’m not hogtied anymore. My mom thinks I babbled at them incessantly until they decided they would rather have me free than to listen to me continue to talk. They just couldn’t take my ongoing verbiage. By this time, this had been going on for hours, about two in the morning.
She’s like, “Bart, I’m afraid they’re going to kill you.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re not leaving. They’ve made it clear. They’re not going to let you leave tonight. It’s not safe for them to let you leave tonight. You’re not going anywhere. You can’t get out,” she said, because I was still hell bent on getting out of that jail cell.
I put the phone down, went to the bars, and I said, “I’m tired and I’m cold. Can I have a blanket?” They brought me what they called “the suicide blanket”—this pink, thin, paper blanket. I wrapped myself in my “suicide blanket,” and I fell asleep.
When I woke up, light was streaming into the jail cell—which is really interesting because I’ve been back in that jail cell to help other people in the exact same situation that I was in, and there’s no windows in that jail cell. But sunlight is streaming in so bright, I can barely see. I’m woken up to the banging of a night stick on the jail cell door. I wake up and I just have pants on and this blanket. For a minute, I have no idea where I’m at or what’s going on, and then the entire night floods into me like a download. It wasn’t there and then all of a sudden, everything—every detail, every minute, every second—all flashes into my brain at the same time. I’m like, “Oh my god, I have no idea how all that happened.” It’s like I can remember it all, but it all seems surreal.
I hear, “Mr. Andrews.” I shuffle up to the door, look out, and there’s a team of officers in SWAT gear… for little ol’ me.
There’s a lieutenant. He says, “Mr. Andrews, are we going to have any problems with you this morning?”
I said, “No, sir, you’re not.”
He said, “That’s really good because we’ve had quite a few problems with you.”
There was this long, pregnant pause, and I said, “I’m really sorry. I’m an alcoholic.”
He smiles at me—this genuine, warm smile. He goes, “We know. We already know.”
That was it. It was the first time I’d said I was an alcoholic.
He said, “You’re getting out. Your mom and your dad are out there. You can have your clothes back.”
And I walked out. I walked out with my mom and dad into the sunlight, to their car, and there were several things I made some decisions about:
One, I was never going to drink again, and I knew it. It wasn’t even like, “I don’t want to drink again.” It was, “I’m never going to drink again,” and I knew it.
Two, I was scared shitless. I was somebody that never had a lot of fear in their life, but for the first time, I was scared of something. You know what I was scared of? Me. Frightened of me.
Third, I made a decision: I’m telling nobody about this. Nobody. There’s only a few people that know this story. I ain’t telling it to anybody. I’m certainly not going to tell my department about it. I’m not going to tell my placement about it. I’m not going to tell anybody about this unless I absolutely have to.
I started going to AA two and three times a day. I learned things like, “Keep your mouth shut. Don’t tell anybody about your illness or what you’ve been through unless you absolutely have no choice. If you have no choice, tell them as little as possible, because people are going to fuck with you if they know about it. If they know you have this illness, if they know that you’ve attempted suicide, it isn’t going to be good for you.” They were wise. They understood. I kept my head down for years.
I identified myself as an alcoholic right from the beginning, but it took me thirteen years. I didn’t even think about the suicide attempt. My mom talks about my alcoholism and that night all the time. She never, ever talks about the suicide attempt. She knows about it. They told her about it. It never comes up, and I never thought about it.
I never thought about myself as a suicide attempt survivor until I was at a group meeting.
I never thought about myself as a suicide attempt survivor until I was at a group meeting. I’m on a board for National Association of Crisis Directors, and one of the other board members said, “Well, I’ve attempted suicide. I think about suicide all the time.” She said it in this way where it was really okay to talk about it, and she wasn’t ashamed of it.
Inside, I was saying, “Me too. That’s me, too.” But I couldn’t say it yet. It took me three more years to finally tell the story in anything like a public setting.
Des: Why is it important for people in mental health or behavioral health to tell their stories?
Bart: For me, it’s important because I think there’s a lot of us. We’re really afraid to tell our stories because we’re afraid we’re going to lose our jobs. People are going to take our degrees away. They’re going to take our licenses away. They’re going to think I’m not a good therapist. What that means is that we don’t talk about it. And if we view other providers this way, what does it say about the people that we treat if we have this view of providers as being “damaged goods” or “wounded?”
[Those are terms] I hear in the attempt survivor community that I abhor. I’m going to say it for the record: I’m not wounded. I’m not damaged goods. If you want to be wounded and be damaged goods, by all means, take that label on and wear it proud if you want to. I am not wounded. No more than anybody else. I am not damaged goods, and I felt that way about myself for a long time.
I realized people who are therapists and psychiatrists who have survived cancer aren’t ashamed to talk about their cancer. Nobody’s ashamed to talk about their diabetes, right? Nobody’s ashamed to talk about their heart conditions, and here we, as providers, are supposed to believe that there is no difference between a mental illness and a medical illness, but we’re afraid to talk about our struggles—with suicide, depression, being in the hospital, and our crappy experiences with other providers and other treatment systems. If we’re afraid to talk about it, we’re really admitting that it is different, aren’t we? I’m tired of that.
It’s time for us to recognize that we have been treating persons with mental illness, persons with substance abuse problems—people like me—as second class citizens. We say we want parity. We say we want everybody treated equally, but how do we treat each other with that condition? Providers are afraid to come forward because they are afraid they’re going to be rejected and judged, or lose their license. There are punitive measures. When I applied for licensure, they asked, “Have you had, in the last five years, a problem with drugs and alcohol or mental illness that impacted your ability to function?” Now for me, fortunately, I could check the box “no” because it had been more than five years. But that’s none of their business. They don’t ask about cancer, right?
We need to change the culture, and the culture means that providers need to come forward and say, “Hey, I’ve been there. I’ve been through that. This is what my experience was like, I’m still a good provider, and I’m still good at what I do. Although there’s no doubt that you’re going to look at me differently or feel differently about me after you know this, you also need to know that part of that is prejudice and discrimination. Part of that prejudice and discrimination is also how we treat the people that we’re treating, and we need to own that. Part of owning that is being able to come forward and be accepted as a provider that’s in recovery.”
Des: How else do we change the culture, in a larger sense?
Bart: A big part of the way we need to change the culture is the language that we use.
I wish I could get rid of the word “client.” I hate it. You heard it at NatCon—Linda Rosenberg used the word “customer,” which I think is a much better word. It’s empowering, it implies they have choice, and it implies that we need our customers as much as they need us. I think that’s a huge culture shift that needs to take place.
Providers often have this misguided sense of, “I’m the expert, and you need me.” You know what? If you’re a provider, you need your customer just as much. You can’t do what you do or be in business if they don’t come to you. We need a customer mindset.
We need to change the language. We need to quit labeling people, and we need to quit using certain words. For instance, I’ll tell you we need to quit using the word “stigma.” I hate the word “stigma.” I loathe it. Stigma allows people to continue to be prejudicial and discriminatory, but they don’t get labeled as such because we’re not talking about the discrimination, the prejudice. We’re talking about the stigma, which is attached to persons with mental illness. We stain them with this word when, in fact, we need to be talking about the people who are being prejudicial and discriminatory towards them. We need to drop words like “manipulative” and “gamey” and “resistant” and “non-compliant.”
Our good word for persons with mental illnesses is “compliant.” That’s our good word. If you wanted to describe anybody in your life with a positive word, would you ever use the word “compliant?” Like, “I really like her. She’s really compliant?” Nobody uses that word in a flattering or positive way, but that’s the good word we use for the people we’re treating. That’s ridiculous. That needs to change.
We need to develop a positive language. We need to stop being experts about the people we’re treating, and instead be experts about how we develop relationships to maximize the expertise of the people we’re treating so they can help themselves. That’s what needs to change. Those are cultural changes.
I’m working on a presentation that’s about some easy rules for culture change. One, don’t say anything about the person you’re treating that you wouldn’t say to them directly. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it about them when they’re not there. Two, if you wouldn’t be able to say it to their face, don’t put it in their chart. That’s easy. Those are easy steps. Don’t say something about somebody or write something about them that you wouldn’t be able to have an open conversation with them about. That’d be a huge culture change. Quit blaming the person you’re serving for them not getting better. It’s not their fault. Persons that are struggling with mental illnesses can’t fail treatment. Providers can fail. Systems can fail. Cultures can fail, but people who are ill don’t fail by being ill. It doesn’t work that way. Those are big culture changes.
Des: There’s a big anti-psychiatric survivors movement, a trauma-informed movement. A lot of people don’t believe in mental illness. Talk about that.
Bart: Well, it’s a tough one. I think that one of the things the alleged experts are struggling with is that they have failed to account for the fact that the people they’re treating are experts in themselves. The people we’re trying to help should have a say and be a part of the discovery process of learning how to better help them. That means giving up control and power, and it also means acknowledging that maybe we haven’t been doing the best we can. I think that’s really, really hard; it’s a big step.
I think it’s happening, but it still ties into the prejudice and discrimination. There’s still this sense that, “If I’m a psychiatrist or I’m a PhD researcher on suicide or depression, I know more about it than someone who’s depressed.” To a certain extent, that may be true in terms of the content and the literature, but you don’t know more about what’s going to help them or work for them if you don’t make them a part of that process.
One of the things that’s happening slowly is that… persons with lived experience are starting to speak their mind. We’re starting to organize and we’re starting to call the system out on things that are being done without our input. It’s going to create conflict, and when there’s conflict, people get uncomfortable. When they’re uncomfortable, they push back. That’s a natural part of the process so, I think, as the attempt survivor and the person with lived experience movements get stronger, there will be push back, because it’s scary.
Keep in mind that what we’re doing is threatening. Providers themselves are people, and they haven’t been trained to deal with their own emotional content around working with people at risk of suicide, or working with people with severe depression and anxiety. They’ve learned how to cope in this really clinical way, and one of the things we’re trying to do is take that away from them. It’s going to be hard for them because they’re people too, they feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to care for us, and they’ve been trained in a certain model of how to care for us. I think acknowledging that some of that’s going to be there is part of the process.
For folks who say there is no mental illness… I struggle with that. I guess, if they’re consistent that there’s no cancer and there’s no viruses, I guess I’d call them at least philosophically sound. I think one of the challenges that we have is, again, around language. We don’t have good words for brain illnesses. We call them behavioral illnesses, and when we call it behavioral, we then assume that the person has control over it. There’s a lot of judgment, and it’s really about [this idea that] people should just be able to snap out of it or change their behavior. That’s going to be a harder battle—for people to recognize that brain illnesses or emotional illnesses are things that happen to people, not something they choose. That’s a culture change that has to happen. It’s very important.
People who don’t believe in mental illness are entitled to their belief. They’ve got research that supports it’s not there. I’ll look at that research, but I think that’s when science does come into play. There’s really good evidence that, in fact, there are things that happen between the brain-mind-body-behavior connection, where things aren’t the way they should be. I think we’ve got ample evidence for that.
Des: I got my ass chewed out by someone who told me I focus too much on the medical model.
Bart: I’m not a big fan of the DSM. The biggest thing I hate is that they have a whole group of categories called “personality disorders.” We’re not just saying that you’re a person and you have an illness; we’re saying your entire person is fucked up. I think it’s the most insulting thing ever. It’s horrible, right?
But there are people who say, “Oh, we’ve made it too easy to give depression. We’ve made it too easy to give grief,” right? All those things. I say the exact opposite. It’s not easy enough to give a diagnosis. I want more diagnoses, not less. I’ll tell you why. You may disagree with this.
If I sprain my ankle, I don’t think twice about going to the doctor, and the doctor will give me a diagnosis for my sprain. So what? I’m not my ankle. I’m not my diagnosis. In fact, us making this special barrier about diagnoses makes them these extra special things. Diagnoses are just a way of describing what the person is going through so that we can then have a common language to talk about how we treat it. I say more diagnoses, not less. Diagnosis in terms of behavioral, emotional illnesses should be something that’s so routine and standard that nobody even thinks twice about what their diagnosis was, because it’s no longer about the diagnosis. It’s about a language we have to talk about what’s going on with you so we can treat you. Nobody gets worked up about the fact that they got diagnosed with edema… There’s how many medical diagnoses? There’s so many more because we can diagnose at a much more minute, routine level.
So, I think it’s the exact opposite. We need more diagnosis so the prejudice, the discrimination, the shame around the diagnoses are no longer an issue. Nobody’s ashamed about having a sprained ankle. If you suffer a trauma, an emotional trauma, and it hurts, there’s no shame in that. If we have the right words to describe it so you can get treatment for it, what’s the shame in that?
I think we’ve got the cart before the horse, but I’m a little radical on that notion.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Bart: I knew you were going to ask that question. I think for those of us who have been touched by suicide, it’s always there. I think there’s a certain point in your lived experience where it’s a guest that’s always present in your life. It’s something that’s always there. Would I ever attempt again? I don’t think so but, of course, I never thought I was going to attempt the first time. So how good am I a judge of that?
What’s very different is that I’m okay with who I am. Being more balanced and centered, I can look at things a little more clearly. I think that thoughts of escape are a natural response to pain. When people feel pain, they want the pain to end. When the pain is an emotional pain and it’s not clear how you’re going to end it, escapist thoughts are, I think, a natural, very natural human response. One of my new mantras that I absolutely love is, “Life is pain.” That, in fact, when I’m feeling pain, it connects me more to life. That really is what life is. You can’t have a pain-free life. Recovery doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be in pain. Recovery means that there’s a meaning to the pain, or you have a context for the pain.
So, for me, suicide’s always going to be a part of my life.
So, for me, suicide’s always going to be a part of my life. It’s something that’s always there, and—it’s interesting—one of my primary jobs is suicide prevention and intervention. I don’t go through a day without suicide being something that’s running through my mind from a lot of different angles. That’s really interesting when you think about it. I kind of enjoy that. I’ve come to accept that suicide’s a natural part of my life. I think it’s a part of natural human existence, and it’d be awfully nice if we could talk about it like that, you know?
Des: That’s a very Hindu way of looking at things.
Bart: Yeah, it was actually on Twitter, where one of the mindfulness guys talked about how life is pain. Suffering occurs when you don’t face the pain, [when you] turn away from it and carry the pain with you. Suffering is refusing to acknowledge the pain and trying to get away from it, in which case, it follows you anyway, but it’s behind you on your back instead of something in front of you that you can face. I thought that difference between pain and suffering was really cool.
Des: What would you want to tell someone reading your story?
Bart: It’s okay to be you. It may suck sometimes when you feel really bad or you have thoughts of suicide, but there’s people you can talk to about it. Being able to talk about it with people that you trust is a key part of recovery, and it’s really important that you know that there’s help out there. Although it may not feel like it, there’s always hope, even when you don’t see it right in front of you. It’s always there. My hope is that people who read this see that my life got really jacked up, that I had lost hope, and I’m grateful to have a second chance.
Thanks also to Alison Rutledge for providing the transcription to Bart’s interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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