Q&A

“Be authentic”: Q&A with JD Schramm

Posted by: Emily McManus

JD Schramm came by the TED offices this week to discuss posting his important — but very personal — TEDTalk. The TED Blog sat down with him to talk about healing. Because it all starts with talking …

If a friend of yours has survived a suicide attempt, it can be hard to know how to talk afterward. What are some things you can say to start the conversation?

My biggest piece of advice is to be authentic, to keep it real. If you are trying to interact with someone who is coming back from an attempt, the artificial or the trite, which may be comfortable for you, probably isn’t going to serve that person that’s struggling. Express love.

And it’s totally fine to acknowledge your own discomfort or uncertainty, rather than acting like it’s not there. Let it come into the room with you. Especially for people who are confused, hurt and angry, I think just owning those feelings. You’re then giving the person, the survivor, the space to also just express what’s there.

I don’t know about other people’s stories, but in my situation, until the attempt happened, there was a lot of posing, acting as if things were OK, and the attempt was so dramatic and so visible that all posing was stripped away. It was just the chance to be real.

It’s from that level of authenticity that I was able to start rebuilding. Coupled with getting help from people who know this. Get help from a counselor, pastor, therapist. [You can start with this list of resources.] I had a dream team; I had five people around me for the first year that tended to different needs in my life. I clearly had a physician, and I had a therapist, a spiritual director and more … These were not family members, these were people who were in my life for the role of helping me rebuild a portion of what was there. My family was amazing, but my family’s my family.

Because this is such an under-served field, I’m curious: How did you assemble the dream team?

I had to struggle a little bit to get it together. My sister did research for me, and helped guide [some] decisions early on. At that point, it wasn’t a choice I could figure out or I could make. Then before I left the hospital, they were very clear: I kind of had to put the team together. But it’s difficult to find resources.

I had one friend who also was a suicide survivor, and he said, “There’s one book … I think it’s out of print, but I found it useful. The author’s last name is Heckler, I think it’s called Waking Up Alive.” I couldn’t find the book itself, but I found a cassette tape of it. It was the only thing that I could find. This was in 2003, and since that time there’s more, and that’s good. Not a lot, but more than there was in 2003. But the people I worked with — they were knowledgeable, but this wasn’t an area of specialty for them. We were figuring it out as we went along.

Are there support groups for friends and family?

Well, the Suicide Walk has brought a great deal of awareness, but with almost all of these organizations and movements, their primary focus are on the people left behind. When you say “suicide survivor,” most people think of people who have lost a son, a brother, a loved one. The unique aspect of being an attempt survivor is less vocal. There’s a real taboo around it. This talk represents one more time stepping past my own discomfort with the taboo, with wondering what people will think about me. But it’s only going to get better if we take those steps.

What led you to tell your story?

Last year at TEDActive, listening to the personal stories at TEDYou, I wondered if I could do this. I wrote in my journal, “When will I tell my story?” Even when I walked onstage, I wasn’t sure if I would reveal or not. There’s a paragraph in my talk that I could have just skipped. But it felt right to let the audience know that I was John, that this was my story.