SEMBACH, Germany – David Woods Bartley, storyteller and mental health advocate, shared his journey from mental “hellness” to mental wellness with U.S. Army NATO Soldiers during Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
Bartley said his journey started on Aug. 31, 2011.
“That was the day I was going to kill myself,” said Bartley. “That's the day that I call the monster convinced me of two sets of things.
“On the first hand, that I was worthless. I was useless. I was stupid. I was pitiful. I was grotesque. I was ugly. I was an embarrassment and a burden. Nobody said these things to me, and yet I believed those to be true, and if that wasn't enough, the straw that broke my spiritual, my mental and psychological back was on that day what I believed to be true was, if I killed myself, well, there's no way I could be selfish, because everybody would be better off without me.”
Bartley told the Soldiers that his journey started on Aug. 31, 2011, but his story started long before that.
Bartley’s father committed suicide when Bartley was seven years old. His older brother enlisted in the Army and raised him like a father. Bartley’s story might have started on that day.
Or maybe his story started the first time he thought that life was more difficult to live than to die.
“Please know I did not have a death wish,” said Bartley. “Now that may seem contrary. The three-headed monster is depression. It's trauma. It's suicidal ideation. That was this thing that was convincing me of all these lies that I took as true.
“So how can you say, if you admit you had suicidal ideations, that you didn't have a death wish?
“What I'd say is they're not the same thing. There was a chasm between a death wish and a suicidal ideation. I desperately wanted to live.
“The majority of the people … don't want to die, but what happens is, in that moment when a person is making sure the noose is going to hold tight, when they have calculated that I have to take enough of this to wash down with that, they're there for the sole reason that life has become more difficult to live than it is to die.”
Or maybe his story really started when he was 11-years old, and a youth organization leader repeatedly sexually assaulted him.
But his journey of survival started on Aug. 31, 2011, when convinced that everyone would be better off without him, Bartley drove to the Foresthill Bridge that spans the American River at a height of 730 feet.
He had left a note carefully placed in his vehicle to be easily found. It read:
To my beloved Deanna, my family, and friends,
I've decided that the time has come for me to go. I am choosing to end my life, so I can be free of the pain in my heart and soul, the betrayal of my mind and the depth of self-hatred that I feel most every moment of every day.
I have become the burden I wish I never would and a drag on those around me.
I'm a damaged shell and just a little boy, not yet close to what a man should be.
Everyone, yes, everyone I know will be much better off without me.
I am so incredibly sorry.
Bartley told the story of how a sheriff’s deputy found him standing 730 feet over the river thinking about how much he would miss his wife and the life they created together running an animal rescue shelter, A Chance for Bliss, in California.
“The sheriff's deputy approached me from the left-hand side and did the thing that is the foundation of this new set of beliefs for me,” said Bartley. “He created a connection.
“Connection is not just this broad conceptual thing. It is tangible. It is actual. We all know this to be true because when we connect with another person, we are seen, we feel heard, and we feel valued.
“Connection creates hope. Hope is a weapon. It's not just this cute cuddly thing. It is tenacious. It is the single greatest form of ordnance against this monster called suicide because hope saves lives, because in the moment … it can rob the monster of oxygen,” he said.
Bartley told the Soldiers of a series of scientific tests from the 1950s involving drowning rats. Rats placed in a bucket of water would drown in minutes, but rats that had previously been rescued from the bucket would continue to swim for days based on the hope they would be rescued again.
He said he believes the way the Army teaches suicide prevention; indicators of potential suicide behavior, intervention strategies, and services and resources available for people with suicidal ideations, is not as effective as what he came to realize on that day, Aug. 11, 2011.
“Making someone feel valued is the foundation of great leadership,” said Bartley and explained that more importantly making someone feel valued is the Army’s greatest tactic for combatting suicide.
Bartley said when he talks to people about suicide, he likes to describe four things he calls “the why, the feeling, the cause and the healing.”
He said asking why is a waste of time.
“A lot of people kill themselves, and what I like to say with all due respect, we have no idea why. We think we do,” he said. “Kay Redfield Jamison is an extraordinary researcher and has had her own suffering with bipolar (disorder). Here's what she says.
“Each way to suicide is its own: intensely private, unknowable and terrible. Suicide will seem to its perpetrator the last and best of bad possibilities and any attempt by the living to chart this final terrain of life can only be a sketch, maddeningly incomplete.
“We're asking the wrong question,” said Bartley. “If I had time, I would have every one of you take a piece of paper and write the question Why? on it, put a big X through it, and put it in a shredder.
“It is a totally useless question because every why requires justification. We're not going to ever answer the question. What we need to do is determine the foundation that caused somebody to kill themselves.”
Bartley said that why requires a logical answer, and people don’t commit suicide for logical reasons.
“People don't kill themselves because of what they think. What pulls the trigger finger back towards a person is a feeling. It's emotions. People kill themselves because of how they feel not because of what they think.”
Bartley said the starting point for suicidal ideations. The cause is likely some sort of trauma which he describes as “severe lasting emotional shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience.”
But the solution, the healing, is not based on the why or the feeling. It’s based on hope. And hope is based on connectedness. And connectedness Bartley said comes from being “seen, heard and valued.”
A search of the internet turns up thousands of self-help pages on improving social connectedness and developing a culture of connection in organizations.
During his presentation, Bartley discussed how he makes connections in his everyday life and how the sheriff’s deputy made a connection on that Aug. 31, 2011, day that literally talked Bartley off the ledge.
“I’m a freak about names,” said Bartley.
Bartley said he uses people names to make connections, and he has an acronym PARA he uses as a memory aid to talk about how he uses people’s names to make connections.
PARA stands for pause, ask, repeat, associate. During his presentation Bartley spoke about people he has connected with recently, Amanda, Steven not Stephen, Sarah, Mikael, and the importance of using people’s names to make a connection.
“When you see somebody with a name tag at the DFAC (Dining Facility) or the commissary,” said Bartley, “when a server comes up and they say ‘Hi, what can I get for you?’ you say wait, what's your name, because when you don't call them by their name, they're basically a thing.”
Bartley describes that as the pause and the ask. Then you repeat the name.
“Hi, Amanda. My name's David. You're new here.”
The associate part of PARA can be as simple as recognizing that someone is new, asking the spelling of the name, or asking where the name comes from.
Bartley talked about a senior officer he met in Alaska named Jody. Jody was not happy about his name growing up until when he was older his father told him he was named for his father’s friend who died fighting in Vietnam.
Bartley said that people suffering from depression, people considering suicide as their best option normally cannot create connectedness with those around them. But those around them are able to create connectedness by making them feel seen, heard and valued.
“Feeling seen, heard and valued creates connectedness,” said Bartley. “Connectedness creates hope,” and hope is the greatest tactic for combatting suicide.
And that, said Bartley, is exactly what happened on Aug. 11, 2001, as Bartley leaned over the rail of the bridge with almost half his weight over the rail. This is what the sheriff’s deputy said to create connectedness and give Bartley hope.
“I’m so sorry you’re in this situation. I get a sense you’re suffering.”
“Would you please tell me, because I would imagine you're feeling depressed, would you please tell me what does it feel like when you're depressed?”
“Wow, man. Thank you for sharing that. It had to be tough. When you feel like that, what's it like on your very, very worst days?”
“Gosh, I was just thinking. That's your worst day. Hey man, well, what's it like on your best day?”
“Wow, that'd be amazing. Wow, thank you. Thanks for sharing. That makes me feel good.”
“Hey, have you ever thought, well, what do you want the rest of your life to be like?”
With that question, Bartley said he felt seen, heard, and valued, and he shifted his weight back to the safe side of the bridge.
Earlier in the presentation Bartley asked the Soldiers in the crowd how many had lost someone to suicide. He also asked how many had seen the indicators of potential suicide behavior.
He said people with suicidal ideations are very good at hiding the indicators. He said the Army should be more focused on creating connections rather than recognizing the indicators of potential suicide behavior as the key to preventing suicide.
“Making the connection opens a door,” said Bartley, “because we’re not going to see the signs.
“This last quote puts this whole thing together so much more beautifully than I can,” said Bartley. “Drew Ramsey is a psychiatrist who specializes in suicide. Forget everything I said. Please take these words because it applies to every single one of us every single day. Here's what he says.
“Someone you see today is thinking about killing themselves. Your smile, your question, your love, you know what, it could save them. You know how I know? They told me it did.”
To see Bartley’s one-hour executive presentation go to the U.S. Army NATO YouTube page at www.youtube.com/watch?v=zf_9JWhsWr4 or click below.