PITTSFIELD — The greatest challenges Craig Miller had in addressing his suicidal thoughts and mental health were two-fold: a) no one really asked him about what he was going through and b) no one offered him positive reinforcement for trying to go through what he was.
On Thursday afternoon, Miller stood before an attentive audience at Berkshire Community College and gave a talk called "Live, Learn, Grow," based on the experiences he details in his book, "This is How it Feels: A Memoir of Attempting Suicide and Finding Life."
BCC licensed mental health counselor Lisa Mattila said state and regional statistics on rates of suicide completions and attempts made Miller a relevant and valuable guest on campus.
She said that in 2013 there were 23 suicide reported in rural Berkshire County compared to zero homicides, "which demonstrates that suicide is a public health issue." According to a 2013 American College Health Association report, 31 percent of the 123,078 students surveyed across more than 100 institutions stated that they felt so depressed that it was difficult to function. And as more college continue to serve returning military veterans, they also have to be aware that veterans are 50 percent more at risk of suicide than their non-military peers.
Said Mattila, "College-age students still remain vulnerable and we need to continue to educate our faculty, staff and students about reaching out to students as we know early intervention works."
The people in Miller's life, however, weren't so aware. To say that Miller, 39, a native of the Boston area, came from the school of hard knocks is an understatement.
By the time he was 8 years old, he realized he had an absentee biological father and a mother who had an undiagnosed mental health condition where she could "flip the switch" between doting on him one minute and breaking dishes the next. He said he felt he couldn't trust his stepfather and the one adult in his neighborhood he thought was his friend, wound up sexually molesting him repeatedly. Miller — who also exhibited behaviors which were later diagnosed as symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder — came across as a victim to his peers, who compounded the boy's troubles by beating him up and taunting him.
"I didn't trust in anyone around me," he told the audience before him, "and I felt like my mind was breaking."
While the then 8-year-old avoided taking any action with the kitchen knife he saw among his dish cleaning pile one night, he realized then that he'd been contemplating escaping his obstacles by taking his own life.
Those thoughts finally came to light to his mother and brother, and to clinical experts, by the time Miller was 15. Various pills were given to him to manage the symptoms, but the root issues of the young man's past continued to haunt him, in addition to newfound pangs of being a teenager. He was devastated by being dumped by his first true girlfriend shortly after his diagnoses.
"I felt like no one around me can help me," Miller explained. "Everyone told me what was wrong with me, but nobody ever told me what was right with me. Like, no one said you're a pretty strong guy, you made it this far."
Miller also shared an anecdote about how while most doctors he encountered tended to give him a quick and dirty diagnosis, he did see one doctor who seemed to want to relate and explain to Miller why and how his illnesses were affecting him.
"He was the first guy who just opened up and talked with me," said Miller, wishing that he had met more health professionals who addressed him more personally like that. "Relationships don't start from a one-sided relationship," he said.
Miller said during emergency room visits and longer-term care, he often heard the question, "Do you want to die?"
"But no one every asked me, "Do you want to live?""
Miller gave into his negative projections of himself and, at age 20, he said he "filled himself up with pills and went to sleep."
"I woke up three days later in the Intensive Care Unit," he said, noting that in addition to now being filled with tubes and IVs, his arms and legs were strapped to the bed. "I was fighting everyone who came in to help me."
Miller's brother during a hospital visit asked him a question, "What's it going to take to make you want to stay?"
Eventually, said Miller, "His question became my question," and the young man began to rethink and re-frame his perspective of his health condition and his own passions and life goals. Being at his worst, he realized he could only move forward to strive for his best.
Once afraid of change and letting go of the only things he knew — the abuse and hardships of the past — Miller said he began to look in the lessons learned from his experiences. Being bullied gave him a watchdog instinct. His parents taught him "what not to do" with his own children, he said.
While Miller said he still has suicidal thoughts, they aren't as frequent, and he now has better ways to cope, including "a great wife," two little kids, a job, and passions in writing, photography and also sharing his story of survival.
"I have to believe in something greater than me," said Miller. "So many people believe life's not getting better, but they need to look at people like me. There are tons of people coming forward now with stories of their own."
Suicide prevention resources
In case of an emergency, dial 911 or go to your nearest medical center.
Berkshire Crisis Team: 413-499-0412
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)
Samaritans Statewide: 617-247-0220
Text a crisis counselor: 741-741
Trevor Help Line for LGBTQ support: 1-866-488-7386
Veterans Crisis Line (Call or Text): 1-800-273-8255 and press "1," or text 838-255
Visit your local campus or neighborhood counseling center or check out these online resources:
afsp.org/local-chapters/find-your-local-chapter/afsp-western-massachusetts or 413-387-3770
westernmassrlc.org/pittsfield or 413-236-5888