Back in March, 2012, I settled into a Starbucks in Vancouver, Washington to reflect on my experiences at the annual American Counseling Association conference in San Francisco. Memories of Dr. Irvin Yalom’s keynote bubbled up in my mind, so that’s what ended up in my fingers, on my screen, and in my blog.
Several days later, I got an email from a “Dr. Yalom.” Seeing the name, I immediately felt anxiety and anticipation. First thoughts, “I meant to be positive. I hope I didn’t write anything offensive?”
The email was from Dr. Victor Yalom. It was nice . . . and supportive . . . and positive . . . and a big relief.
Victor is the owner/publisher/president or grand sultan of psychotherapy.net. Psychotherapy.net is a publisher of psychotherapy training and continuing education materials, mostly videos. Over the past 6 years Victor and I have struck up a collegial friendship. He is the biggest fan and proponent of our Clinical Interviewing video series (which he sells through psychotherapy.net). After viewing the Clinical Interviewing video, he has repeatedly asked Rita and I about doing a video for psychotherapy.net. Unfortunately, the timing never worked out, until this past fall, when we agreed to collaborate on a six-hour suicide assessment and intervention training video.
As they say in the film industry, everything is in the can. We’re down to final editing and other details. We filmed in Missoula and Mill Valley. Rather than working directly with imminently suicidal clients, we got volunteers to channel previous or potential suicide-related experiences. All this is just my way of introducing this sneak peek into this upcoming video.
Of course, reading isn’t the same as watching, but the next 2,000 words can give you a glimpse of one of the cases featured on the video. The client is a young Native American man and veteran. Many cultural issues emerge during the session, along with suicide ideation. Here’s the clip, along with my side “commentary” in bold:
John: Cory, I know a little bit about you, but not very much. And so maybe the best place to start is for you to tell me some things about yourself, some things about how you’ve been feeling in your life, some things about the situations that you’ve been in, and maybe help me get a sense of how I might be of help.
Cory: Yeah, I come from a small reservation in Eastern Montana, and I was kind of – it was a comfortable life growing up. I didn’t know anything different. And I remember sitting there with my family watching the war and kind of spurred us to want to help bring honor to our tribe. So, I signed up at 17.
John: Yeah, what tribe?
Cory: I’m from the Lakota Sioux tribe from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
John: Okay. Great, thank you. Sorry.
Cory: So, I left at 17, and it was kind of a big deal. We had a big honor, big gathering for me, big sendoff, and it was pretty great and feeling pretty good. Deployed when I was 18 years old over to Iraq. It was going great. I felt like I was doing something. I didn’t get to talk to my family much, maybe every three months. And I didn’t know what was going on at home. Had a fiancée when I left. Life was great. Eventually time to come home and came home. And my family’s kind of in disarray. My grandma died. I didn’t get to go to her funeral. They didn’t tell me.
Cory: So, kind of tore me up. My fiancée left me for one of my best friends, so that was the shock of my life.
John: Yeah. So, at least at this point I’m hearing that you were on kind of a high and feeling good at 17, get a big sendoff from your tribe, from your family, and you go, and you go to Iraq. And you get back, and things are a mess.
Cory: Yeah. Meth kind of hit our reservation pretty hard. And family members on meth and prison and kind of whole world changed, I guess. Eventually, I didn’t – just came back and started drinking. Not sure who I was anymore. So, that was difficult, didn’t have very many people to turn to anymore. Never had a father growing up. My mom was always raising us with a couple jobs. And eventually her and her boyfriend got into drugs, so that’s kind of pretty difficult. And I didn’t know what to do anymore. And I was kind of feeling down and just kept drinking, and I kind of don’t know what to do anymore. For us it’s a honor to serve and kind of makes us who we are.
Cory: We view it as becoming a warrior man.
Cory: And I felt like I did that, and I’d bring honor back to my culture, my tribe. Yeah, just I came home. Everything’s in disarray, and I thought I was pretty stable. Eventually – and one thing, on the reservation we don’t – or culturally we don’t talk about our feelings or emotions. So, every time we do, feel pretty shame. A lot of shame comes from it. So, it’s kind of you just deal with it.
John: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so a couple of cultural pieces. One is that sense of honor of serving, and you hooked onto that and were living that. And then another cultural thing is, it’s a little shameful to express emotions, sadness, that kind of emotion or others.
Cory: Yeah, I mean, I guess I could just describe it as shame. Like I feel guilty talking about it because we’re supposed to be men.
John: You’re warriors. You’re strong.
John: And so you keep it all –
Cory: Yeah, it’s part of who we are, death, fighting, honor, celebrating together, just part of who we are.
John: Yeah, yeah. And then as you get back, and you’re in this disarray, and the meth on your reservation is prevalent, and you start drinking, and it sounds like that could be connected with the emotional warrior. Is that one of the ways that you might cope?
Cory: I guess I just – kind of just helped me feel nothing.
COMMENTARY: Cory has covered lots of ground quickly. He has articulated his collectivist identity. Knowing about his collectivist identity early in the session is a very good thing. He has also mentioned multiple stressors and losses; these stressors and losses are traditional risk factors and load onto the various risk dimensions. These include: coming back from war, being a veteran, loss and betrayal by his girlfriend, his grandmother’s death, the disarray of his tribal community from meth, and other issues. In addition, one immediate challenge that’s coming into my mind is how to address alcohol, because it’s a suicide desensitizer, but it’s also helping him “feel nothing” which is consistent with his cultural value of not expressing his feelings. At this point I’m choosing to build a relationship with Cory before jumping in and discussing alcohol directly.
Cory: Just kind of, I guess, how I dealt with it because I couldn’t talk about stuff that happened over there, and I didn’t have no male role models in my life to kind of talk about culturally with or anything.
John: Yeah. So, I’m aware of the fact that you’ve told me, and I really appreciate it, some cultural things about you, about being a Lakota Sioux, about the reservation that you grew up on and some of the things you experienced, about the honor, about the shame, about the warrior mentality. And I’m going to do my best to track all those things. Occasionally if you think I’m just not getting it from your cultural perspective, I would love it if you would tell me, but I don’t want to put all that responsibility on you. So, I will probably every once in a while just check in to see, am I getting this right? Is that okay with you if we –
Cory: Yeah, that’s fine.
John: Yeah, because I just don’t want to misunderstand things because of my lack of the same cultural experience as yours. And so as I’m imagining it, you’re back. You’re drinking. It’s part of being numb.
John: And getting rid of those emotions. And as you talk, one question that comes to mind to me, and my guess is that this would be a dishonorable thought to have, although not an abnormal thought because it’s not unusual when people come back and life is disappointing and hard, and you’re drinking, and you’re managing those emotions, it’s just not unusual to have a thought about suicide or about killing yourself. And my guess is that would be in opposition to your culture, too, but I don’t know.
Cory: Yes and no. One way we look at is from we’ve had everything taken from us. That’s one thing you can’t take from us. Our life is ours to give to the Creator, to Wakan Tanka which is our God. So, when it’s our time, it’s kind of our choice.
Cory: The sad thing about it is, I’m feeling down, and a lot of times like as I grew up I had – I was probably nine years old. My first friend committed suicide. And it brings the community together. We have big honoring, big feast for his family, for him, and just days of celebrating. It’s kind of like bring the family back together. I had another friend do it after that because he was – couldn’t graduate high school and didn’t have nobody there, and he wanted his family to come back together, so he committed suicide, just felt like it’s going to bring his family back together. And it did for a bit, but meth came in again, so it kind of tore it apart.
John: So, I’m hearing two suicides of people that you knew well around the time that you graduated high school?
Cory: Oh, one was when I was 9, and a good friend was 16. And by the time I was 18, I probably lost maybe 7 friends from drinking and driving, drugs, stabbings. So, I guess to us, I mean, death is death, so it wasn’t really a big deal, kind of a celebration and we’ll see them again.
John: Yeah. So, for each one the family celebrates, the community celebrates –
John: – the life. And sometimes it almost sounds like somebody might choose suicide as an effort, it sounds like, to pull the family together to get everybody closer.
Cory: Yeah, I guess, too, they know people will care. Pretty big sense of hopelessness there. Not many people know where to turn.
John: Yeah. Yeah, so that’s a lot of death that you saw even by the time you graduated high school. Have you had some thoughts of suicide yourself?
Cory: Originally when I first came back, I did. I just didn’t know what to do anymore. Then I came to college, thought I was going to – wanted to do something honorable again. Again, big celebration and sent us off to college. And I get here, and things are going well at first. Then just the culture differences, like nobody understood me, didn’t know what to do. I was doing all right in classes, but I just kind of couldn’t fit in, didn’t feel like anybody understood me. I mean, they’re all pretty nice guys and gals. I could tell they were trying to, but just something I knew they didn’t.
And then now things are getting bad again. I’m trying to sleep at night. Yeah, just every time I go to sleep, I remember one time in Iraq we were sitting there, and they decided – well, I guess Al-Qaeda, they blew a whole street, whole city block, and it just – I mean, every building came down. And we were there trying to help, and you had kids with missing arms and missing eyes and moms with no legs and crying, screaming. We were trying help as best we can, and same time people shooting at us and just didn’t know what to do.
My friend’s crying. Like why the fuck are we here? Like what are we doing here? Like this isn’t what we – not what we’re here for. Yeah, I just remember a mom with no leg carrying her helpless child just in her arms, and the child was dead. I mean, just every time I go to sleep, I just remember that kid helpless laying there. And so I’m not sleeping much, a lot of drinking still. I guess I don’t know what to do anymore.
COMMENTARY: It’s not unusual for suicidal clients to present with a vast array of psychological pain. That can be overwhelming to the client and to the therapist. Cory has shared several layers of unresolved grief, traumatic war memories. The number of people whom he has known who have died by suicide is immense. Additionally, because of his cultural norms of stoicism, I’m wanting to address these parts of his experience, while not activating intense emotions. my strategy has been and will be to use reflection of content, to avoid reflecting back strong emotions like sadness or anger, to keep his collectivist perspective in mind, and to take notes in a way so that he and I can take a more intellectual and problem-solving approach to working with him on his experiences.
If you made it this far, a big congratulations. Acquiring skills to work effectively with clients who are suicidal is challenging, but dealing with the emotions that come up is probably even more difficult. The purpose of this training video (when it becomes available) is to help practitioners obtain knowledge, learn skills, and refine their awareness of the inner and interpersonal dynamics associated with suicide assessment and intervention. When I have more information on the video’s availability, I’ll let you know.