Key voice missing from suicide discussion
The first time it got that bad was in seventh grade in the 1970s. She was 11, she thinks, an anxious girl and a perfectionist and very, very smart.
No one, not even her, knew that she had depression and a budding case of bipolar disorder and that they were driving her to suicide.
“It was the last day of school and it was finally warm, and I decided as I sat in class that I was going to kill myself after school,” Kate Lynnes recalled. “I felt so relieved, like a huge weight was lifting.”
That evening, she joked and chatted with her parents at the dinner table. And then she went out to the woods behind their home and washed down a lethal amount of her father’s pain medication with vodka.
The toxic concoction forced her to vomit 20 minutes later, too soon to cause irreparable harm, too soon to cause irreparable death.
She never told her family about that night until she was in her 40s.
But it wasn’t the last time she tried to take her life. Lynnes, 62 and the senior adviser for the U.S. Air Force’s Bulk Fuels Facility Project, estimates that she has made seven suicide attempts over the years, always with pills. Always someone found her before death did, including once in the 1990s when a friend hundreds of miles away awoke with a start from an inexplicable premonition that something was wrong and called Lynnes’ parents.
“I was told that a few minutes later and I would be dead,” Lynnes said.
That she isn’t is a testament to those friends and the various treatments she has tried over the years — medications, therapies, psychiatrists, hospitalizations, even electroconvulsive therapy.
It’s also no guarantee that one day those friends and treatments will come up short.
“It’s like having a brain tumor that returns every five years and you don’t know who or what will win,” she said.
Lynnes bravely shares her experience now, as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month comes to a close, because she is concerned that discussions about suicide rarely include people who have survived suicide attempts.
“When I read stories of loved ones left behind after suicide, what is missing is input from suicide attempt survivors like myself,” she said. “Presentations with or by people with relevant lived experience can have a bigger impact on reducing negative stereotypes and stigmatizing attitudes than presentations that depend solely on sharing information.”
This, she said, is not to diminish the perspective and the pain experienced by those left behind.
“I’ve seen the heartbreak on my father’s face,” she said.
Her perspective is especially enlightening because she is also a good example of how people who struggle with depression and suicidal ideation can and do have successful careers, relationships and lives — and that people who struggle can look to all the world like happy successes. Think Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain.
Lynnes graduated with honors from Michigan Technological University with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a law degree from the University of Oregon. For more than 40 years, she has worked as an environmental consultant for private industry and government, 16 of those years in New Mexico, the last five as a highly qualified adviser at Kirtland Air Force Base.
She has friends and dogs and a nice home. Were it not for COVID-19, she’d be attending every Albuquerque Isotopes home baseball game. She likes singing “Hamilton” at the top of her lungs.
All the while, she has whiteknuckled the roller coaster of bipolar disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder — that from what she calls a horrific experience during a hospitalization.
“I’ve got a high-powered government job that I do well. I can put on a face at work,” she said. “But when I come home, sometimes I have to curl up in a fetal position and try to hang on.”
Still, she considers herself fortunate because of the friends and connections who have, as she puts it, allowed her to “let it out, get it out into the light.”
But she knows that many struggling with suicidal thoughts are not as lucky — or the people who surround them are not as sure of how to help them.
For those people, she offers some advice.
Tell your friend you care about them. Check on your friend if you have a suspicion that something is off. That call, visit or email could be the thing that breaks the suicide “spell.”
Just listen. You are not there as a therapist or to “fix” things but to be a way for your friend to release pressure.
If possible, help the friend get rid of potential suicide methods — medications and weapons, for instance.
Unless it’s a crisis, don’t do anything behind the friend’s back. Make that call for help together, drive the person to a facility or an appointment.
If the friend is hospitalized, visit. It may be hard and awkward, but imagine how much harder it is for your friend being there. Be an advocate.
Once your friend is home from the hospital, take a meal, watch a video, go for a walk together, offer to do laundry or clean up. “Do the things you would do for someone who has been sick,” she said. “Because they are.”
Know that once they are released, they are still fragile. Be their ally. Be patient. Realize that medications can take months to work, that the experience can be traumatic, that the shame of hospitalization is real.
If despite your efforts the friend dies by suicide, do not blame yourself.
She hopes none of her friends ever will.
Last April, it got that bad again. She had emails ready, care for her dogs set. At the last minute, she received word that a friend had secured her acceptance into a bipolar disorder research program in Seattle. For the next two months, she received treatment there, despite the pandemic. She is still under the care of the Seattle psychiatrist and a local therapist. For now, it is working, though Lynnes admits she is still fragile.
“It’s a struggle. It’s a daily struggle,” she said. “My birthday is a week and a half away. I never thought I would get to 60.”
In the meantime, she wants her voice to be among those heard in the discussion of suicide treatment, programs and policies.
“There should be no decision about us without us,” she said. “We’re out there. You can find people like me.”
You can listen to them, too.
Kate Lynnes, 62, has attempted suicide about seven times over the years and believes that people like her should be a part of the discussion on suicide policies and programs.