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‘We are not prepared to intervene’


This week’s post is by Jim Atkisson, who has told more of his story here. He believes that anyone who attempts suicide in the violent way he did had the same thought in the split second afterward, whether or not they survive: “Oh god, what have I done?”

(Please note that there may be a delay in moderating any comments, as the editor of this site is out of the country through mid-October.)

I grew up in an abusive home and felt invisible to the world. I was 16 years old. Suicide seemed to offer the best solution to my problem, but how? I went to the library and looked at books on death and suicide. I weighed the options and what resources I had to work with. I considered using a gun, but I was afraid of the violence. I contemplated jumping from some rocks on a mountain near my home, but I was afraid I would survive the fall. I considered pills, but I was afraid they wouldn’t work, and I didn’t have access to any. So, in the end I planned on using a gun.

I had access to them, and we lived in a rural community, so I planned on isolating myself in the woods, away from any help just in case I survived.

As soon as the gun went off, I knew I had made a mistake. I hadn’t known I would regret pulling the trigger in an instant. I missed my heart by an inch and my spine by less than an inch. The surgeon thought it prudent to not operate so close and risk paralyzing me, so I carry that fragment with me to this day.

For months before that day, I thought I had wanted to die, but when the gun went off, I wanted anything but death.

That was 27 years ago. I am thankful I survived.

When you look at suicide’s toll here in the United States, the numbers are staggering.  Currently it’s the 10th leading cause of death. Why is it when suicide is discussed, we have to fight the urge to whisper or glance around to see if anyone may be listening in?  We encourage people to learn CPR and rescue breathing, manage airway obstructions and check for lumps as a part of early detection. Companies, churches and organizations invest in automatic external defibrillators, just in case there’s an emergency and someone’s life depends on a rapid and effective medical intervention. The thinking is, it’s better to have the resources and never need them, as opposed to the other scenario: Someone collapses and we freeze, unable to reach the stricken life in time.

When it comes to suicide prevention, we are not prepared to intervene like we are when it comes to other medical emergencies. Every 13.7 minutes, we are losing someone.

I exhibited many of the classic symptoms of someone planning suicide, but they were missed. Many times, the person has left behind a trail of clues to their intent.

But it seems our suicide prevention plan is trying to figure out “We could have done this” or “We should have done that” for the deceased. By then, it’s much too late.

We must be more proactive.

Granted, strides are being made. But where I live, for example, not one public health announcement is posted in a prominent place.

How hard is it to reach people in time? Apparently, it’s hard. Could it be we’re afraid? We are afraid of what we don’t understand, and suicide is something the general public doesn’t understand. Honestly, it shouldn’t matter if we don’t understand something before we get involved and lend a hand to someone in pain and distress. Compassion, understanding, love and concern for the well-being of others should trump things like stigma, fear and shame.

There’s hope. There’s hope we can turn the corner and drive this monster away from our communities. I think the solution will come from people like me. We are suicide attempt survivors. We didn’t study suicide in a clinical environment and go on to present the findings to peers or in a scholarly paper. We simply woke up alive. We want to speak out and reach others. We understand the value of life and the need for action.

It’s also time to see suicide prevention and awareness bulletins posted in prominent places. Public notices would educate people on what to do or how to help each other.  Public notices would make the conversation around suicide less taboo and more open to discussion. Discussion leads to knowledge, and knowledge is power.

I think it would be fitting if history recorded this time in American history and mentioned our suicide epidemic. Maybe it would note where the solution came from. People like us. We will not surrender our lives to suicide again. We’ll rush to the aid of others. We can stand alongside those who are struggling for their lives. We know the burden on their shoulders, and we can carry some of it for them.

13 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. I am 20 years old and living with burdens of my own. I attempted suicide this summer when I thought everyone was asleep. I took an entire bottle of benedrill and drank a bottle of liquor. My friend, though, was still awake and saw me laying down incoherent. He called the ambulance and saved me. I had to be in the hospital for four days I think. And once I realized I was saved I was angry. I didnt want to be, everyone I know acts like I’m better because I’m alive but I still feel the same and no one cares to help.


    • if you die then you will never get the chance to see if things get better. I think about dying everyday. I have a child though and I know it would hurt him so much if I took my own life. I get angry because that doesn’t make me want to live more it just makes me unable to do the deed. I pray that there will be a better day. things are changing everyday and the thing that made you depressed at 10 doesn’t bother you today.


  2. Dear Jim, thanks so much for this wonderful post. I would like to make some comments because I was very moved by your observations and your story. It is wonderful that you survived, but as you know depending on which source you look at about 90% of suicide attempts with a firearm are successful, making it by far the most lethal method. In all of the discussions now about gun control laws, the fact that about twice as many people die by firearm suicide than firearm homicide is rarely mentioned. There are data that limiting gun availability results in a reduction of successful suicides, even when substitution of another method is taken into account. I think the voice of people who care about these things needs to be heard in the debate about make guns less available. We also need to support the organizations that are doing wonderful work to educate the public about suicide prevention, like AAS of course and also one with which I am involved, the JED Foundation, named after a young man who killed himself while a college student about a decade ago. Jack


  3. Thank you for sharing and speaking out. What amazing courage and so blessed to be have given a second chance and make a difference to your life and others.
    I have suffered depression so understand the need to remove the stigma of mental illnesses and I agree we are the ones that need to do it. Well spoken.


  4. I love your post.

    I work in a doctor’s office at the reception desk, and I place mental health *memes* or other *out there* pieces (I hate doing this) to help de-stigmatize mental health/illnesses on my reception desk window. I feel the others around me just don’t “get it,” but since I lost my son to suicide, I feel I need to post these reminders and maybe some suffering patient will feel less of an outcast.


  5. Thank You all for your input and encouraging words, after 25 plus years living with the lasting effects of suicide burned into my memory and body, encouraging words were rarely spoken to me. When I first went public with my story a year and a half ago, I was thrilled to find, “Suicide Survivor Support Groups”, I felt like a bull in a china shop. Folks would get up and share about the loss of a loved one, share their anguish, trails and receive support. I got up, shared my story, under the impression this group was for suicide survivors….they were some instances, angry with me for not being more sensitive to the, “survivors” in the group. How could I come share a story about surviving suicide among other “suicide survivors”? It has taken a year of trial and error to understand, many of those groups….are not for us. We are not ultimately welcomed and this is beyond frustrating.

    I am weary of hearing those that have never sat with a bottle of pills, stood on a ledge, tied a rope, or held a gun in their hands try and “save” those of us down in the pit with the monster. I appreciate what they are doing but they are gravely missing the mark. Why? IMHO, they don’t speak the language of suicide, really. They have sanitized terms for suicide but they have never been in the mud and ice with the beast like I was or countless others.

    I know what happens when people pick up guns, load them, place the gun on their body, and pull the trigger. For me, it was a matter of depressing the trigger with my thumb. I really thought I wanted to die and I thought I was ready for it. However, there is no substitute for experience and what came at me from the end of the gun continues to leave me breathless, terrified and climbing out of my skin. I remember when they were changing the gauze over the bullet hole next to my heart, I screamed when I saw the hole. No, there are no adequate sanitized words that capture what suicide is really like and this is why “survivors” and “clinicians” are missing the line between life and death for thousands of people. I wish…I wish I knew about the moment of regret, when life and death collide. It was too late for regret….once that gun goes off, you can not come back from it. You can not come back from the moment you let go of the ledge or consume a toxic brew of pills….

    I fully believe, the answer to the epidemic rests at the feet of those that survived the ordeal of suicide from the business end of it….we know and we can articulate what its like to our friends that are likewise suffering under the burden of suicide. We can demonstrate compassion, hope, love and faith to them. For whom much is forgiven, much is loved…. for those of us given our life back just a breath away from the grave, we love and value life and living and grieve for our friends lost from suicide. We are friends and fellow travelers, joined by experience. Thank You again for taking the time to read my story,

    In Life,
    Jim Atkisson


  6. I want to die so badly. My husband and I had been fighting for years, we have three young children. After a while I couldn’t take it anymore, I had a breakdown, and a subsequent manic episode. My husband filed a restraining order against me and won, kicked me out of our house. I didn’t know it was in place and I showed up at our lovely home one night last march to get my medicines, and was there for less than 10 minutes. after I left he called the police and I was arrested. after a life of serving the needy, dedicating my life to my children and my career, my religion and the spiritual well being of the kids at our church (I taught sunday school for years). The mania and the restraining order ostracized my from my community, and my friend that I thought I had deserted me. I lost my well paying job. My finances feel into the toilet. My husband has brainwashed the kids and now the kids hate me too. My mania was successfully treated and I am stable. I live in a hell hole. I have no money. I will never get my job back. I have the restraining order. My husband won’t talk to me, and the divorce should be final any day now. He is getting everything. The house, the kids, half of my retirement. My car broke down. This has been going on for 8 months. each day there is more bad news. every single day. I am going to have to file for bankruptcy and I don’t have a clue as to how to prepare for that. I have no friends. My own mother wont let me live with her. So, in conclusion, I am treated by a leper by my own family and society in general, I don’t have my kids or their once undying love, I have no friends at all, I can’t sleep, the creditors are after me each and everyday. I have no money. I will likely be homeless eventually. I have no car. My former career has shunned me. There is not one single area in my life that can be fixed. I pray to God daily for death, but its not coming. I used to be so grateful, giving, appreciative, hopeful, thankful, determined, successful and I prayed every day, several times a day. The crap that keeps coming that is relentless has chipped away at that strong foundation and has left me without a crumb of that left. There is nothing left to live for. Nothing. Not a single person understands how awful my life is. People always tell me it will get better but each and every day it gets worse. I am not joking. Every frigging day. I want to die. I want to die. I want to die. I never would do anything stupid, but I pray for death daily. God has even turned his back on me. Just like everyone else.


    • Nadine, I don’t know what to say or how to respond to your post, but I just want you to know I read it all the way through and that I feel for you.


      • Dear Nadine,

        First, I am sorry for your trials and suffering and I mean that with the highest sincerity.

        Why, is the question, asked of me most in life.

        “Why” would you shoot yourself practically to death? My mother left me when I was 4. No birthday cards, no phone calls, no visits on weekends or over the summer….gone. My father remarried when I was 5 and I never assimilated into the new home. I was slowly being starved of a nurturing relationship.

        When I was 10, my father developed a rage and turned the rage on me. I was hit, isolated, called names, threatened with serious bodily harm, medically neglected (left to suffer severe asthma attacks, passed out from one of them) I’ve had plates of food dumped on me and power tools swung at my head. I lived in constant fear and my only safety, was at school.

        I say this to answer, “why?” This is the input to the equation… “Why”+ “Suicide/Death” = experience. My “why” is to never degrade or marginalize any of my friends personal “why” aspects of the equation. However, the only variable are things like the “why”, “how long it takes to advance to death” and method chosen to open death’s doorway.

        People have had a tendency to focus on the child abuse in my story and though it was bad, it could not compare to the monster I set loose into my life. For many months I also, like you, thought I wanted to die. I had terrible anxiety attacks at 15, looked like a scarecrow, felt hopeless about my future etc… When I loaded the rifle and pointed it at my heart and pulled the trigger….at no time did I embrace death. I realized my life, had been stollen from me by a thought and by my reasons, “why”. With a slug in my chest and my “why’s” still very much a part of my life, I wanted to live…..”why” What had changed?

        My experience, turned my perspective. Indeed, life sucked! Never the less, I found one glimmer of hope, one reason to live, screw everything else, I want to live. If I were dead, I could never enjoy again my reason to live. I fought that fierce battle to stay alive and that battle, at times has haunted my memories.

        Fast forward to 1998. I was 28 years old…. I had just failed out of college, my ex-wife had left me for another man the year before, I couldn’t keep a job, everyone in my life was screaming at me, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU!!!” I suffered horrific flashbacks from childhood, suffered clinical depression and finally….. I was left homeless. One night while sleeping in a parking lot, I felt a tremendous urge, to shoot myself to death again. I knew how to do it, I wasn’t fearful of it, I knew what to expect. No one knew where I was, I had no money other than some change. I had no insurance and I was in a new town with simply no where to go.

        Next to me on the console ( I was living in my car) was a cup of coffee. I really, really like coffee. I thought, “If I’m dead….I can’t enjoy a cup of coffee another day.” I thought, “That’s a good enough reason to hold out for another day” I treated myself to a better cup of coffee the next day. It bought me another day. The rest of my life was burning around me. Just like in the woods when I had to crawl inch by inch with a bullet next to my spine and bleeding heavily, unable to breahte…. I fought for one inch at a time. Life had collapsed to life by the hour…. i could only manage one minute, to one hour, to one day, to one week, to one month finally, life leveled out.

        Within two years of being homeless, I was back on my feet. Scary, yes…. but nothing about you has changed. The only thing has changed is your cirucmstances and cirucmstances are like the weather…. you have not changed, you are still the giving, kind soul you have always been. Find one reason today to live for tomorrow it need not be anything grandiose, a cup of coffee isn’t earth shattering but it was a measure of hope and the suicide monster is fearful of hope.

        God Bless

    • Find a reason to live the next second, minute, hour. Whether it be simple as a bar of chocolate or a TV show. Focus on that vision, immerse in it. Never give up, the time you is when you lose.


    • Nadine

      You now have a total stranger that is reaching out to you and wants to listen. You have one better thing in your life now then you had before. Its one step, one hand reaching out to you. Talk to me please. I’m not going to fix everything in your life, but I’m here, I’m listening. Will you? Please try.



  7. Nadine…change ur perspective. Im an attempter….I kmow all about misery. Ok….way I see it…ur free! No house or kids to worry about…now is the time to focus on you. Tears and be miserable wont bring the kids back. Dont worry…u will see them again one day. Focus on finding another job…I dont want to hear “I cant”. Move to another city if u have to. U have nothing to lose..after all. Start fixing urself up…lose a couple pounds..get out and enjoy life. Ur pain solves nothing and its what they want. Dont give it too them.


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