Lilly Glass Akoto is a mental health clinician and suicide prevention advocate. She was 43 when I interviewed her in Portland, OR, on August 2, 2014.
I think it started very young. I was adopted at the age of eight months into a Caucasian family. I am biracial. I grew up in a small town as one of maybe three people who looked like me. All throughout my schooling, it was always clear that I was very different. At a very young age, I developed insecurities and depression.
A lot of people have a story about some big, tragic incident that happened and made their lives traumatic, and mine was that I couldn't figure out why I existed or what it meant to be a human being. I couldn't figure out why we were here on earth. At a very young age, I started thinking about those things. I certainly didn't know who to tell because I didn't think other kids my age were thinking about that.
My depression started very, very early. I told no one. I suffered with it for a very long time, up until college. I started small, in terms of cutting on myself. I started that at the beginning of junior high.
I made my first attempt when I was in high school. I thought that somehow pills and a beer were going to do it. It didn't. Obviously, I got sick. It was very annoying and I had a headache the next day. I was still cutting on myself at that time, as well.
I think the tricky thing about my life has been that, even though I struggle with pervasive depression and thought about killing myself pretty much every day for a very long time, on the outside, I was very successful. I was a top athlete. I did very well in sports. I did okay enough in school. I was intelligent enough that way. My parents never suspected a thing. They had no idea. A few school counselors sometimes got a glimpse of it and would show their concern, but I was really good at saying, "Oh, no. Everything's fine," and they would back off and go about their way.
College was my second attempt. I tried to hang myself. College was challenging but, again, I played sports, I looked good on the outside, I could talk a really good talk. Barely anyone knew what was going on inside my brain and inside my heart.
College is the time you explore, figure out who you are, and all that good stuff. In college, I found my birth mother and I went to go visit her. That was eye opening. In retrospect, I would never have done that at that age. I was very ill-prepared.
I had honestly thought that Oprah Winfrey could be my mom, like really had fantasized about that. I really convinced myself that Oprah Winfrey could be my mom. One time she had this advertisement like, "I've got a secret. I've got a secret," and I was so excited. I'm like, "I know the secret. She's going to say that she gave her baby up for adoption." Then the show came on and she said, "I tried cocaine," and I was so annoyed.
I found my birth mother and went to meet her. She was no Oprah. She pulled up in her disgusting, dirty car, wearing her disgusting, I-am-poor-as-heck clothes, her hair was a mess. And she's black, right? We figured out that I had a black mom and a white dad, but I hadn't grown up around black people, so here I am, meeting this black woman and black family for the first time. I was young. I was nineteen or twenty when I met her physically. I went for two weeks to a stranger's home who I'd never met before. That's why I say, in retrospect, I never would have done that. It was really challenging.
I journaled about the whole entire experience. It was really hard for me to write the words because I was disgusted. I was embarrassed to meet this woman and see how she was living. She was living in her home, smoking and drinking and still doing all those things at the time I met her.
I met my half-sister. She's just a year younger than me. I have a kid sister who's nineteen years younger than I am. Like I said, I stayed there for two weeks. I think the nice thing about it was I found out that I had always been thought about. I had always been talked about. Everyone knew who I was, so anybody close enough to where she lived came out to see me, this daughter she had always talked about. That made me feel a little bit better, like maybe there was a little bit of a reason why I'm here.
I met with her, I spent time with her, got to know her and my siblings a little bit, but I couldn't wait to get out of there. I was very happy to leave from there at that time. I came back home and we kept up a talking relationship.
Then college graduation came around. I was in a place where I wanted to go explore. Meeting my birth mother was helpful in trying to figure out who I am, so I thought, "I'll just go to Africa. I'll go to where there's lots of black people and try to see who I am."
I also thought, because I was still very depressed, "I could have an accident here and nobody would know the difference. Nobody would have to know that I ended my life."
I ended up going to Ghana. That was the one place that accepted my application for a volunteer experience. Within the first week, I met a man and fell madly in love with him. Five weeks later, we were married in Ghana. We're still married today. We just reached twenty-one years.
During the time I was in Ghana, I got word from my mom that I'd been accepted to Portland State University. I couldn't stay longer in Ghana. I had to leave in September because I had to get to school.
It was very traumatic for me to return to the United States after being in Ghana for so long and having married this man. It was a hard transition back. I came to upstate New York and then flew out to Portland, not knowing anybody or having a place to stay. None of those things were in place. I sort of landed at the doorstep of the Ondine Building and said, "Can I stay here until my dorm opens up?" and they said, "Yeah." I had just enough money to get me through.
As soon as school opened, I wasn't feeling so hot. I went to the health department and discovered I was pregnant. I don't even know how to explain that moment in my life. I was so conflicted about being depressed while having a husband I loved and then finding out I was pregnant. I knew that I was giving life to somebody, yet I still did not want to live myself.
I think that's one of the things that really motivates me in this field: I don't know how to explain it, but I understand it. If someone says those words to me, I can say to them generally, "I do get it. I get the feeling." I might not have words either, but I get it, and I think that makes a big difference.
Anyway, I found out I was pregnant, muddled through school, and still sort of went up and down in terms of my depression. There were moments that were great and moments that were not so great. My husband arrived three weeks after our first-born. I had three weeks by myself with this little tiny baby in a little room at PSU in the Ondine Building.
Within two weeks [of my husband’s arrival], we had our first huge fight. The man that I married was smoking cigarettes and drinking. He was a fun guy and out there dancing. The man that came over had quit smoking and drinking cold turkey. He told me to find a church and started sending me all this scripture. It was hard to try to figure out, "What does this all mean and how does this all work? This is a different man than the man that I married." We got in our first fight and we've had many, many fights since then.
For most of our marriage, while I struggled with my depression, every fight meant, "He hates me. He's going to divorce me. He's going to leave me." All of those things would drive that depression. There were many fights where, afterward, I thought I was going to end my life because clearly he would be better off without me.
After that, up until age thirty-six, I had two more attempts. There were lots of struggles and lots of doubting myself. I grew up painfully shy. I never really made friends. I was not good at that because I thought most people hated me before I even met them.
Again, that duality of being super successful. I had everything going for me. I always kept my jobs. I was good at all that stuff. I had another child. It's just always a duality, I think. This idea that you're married, you have two children, you're successful, and all that stuff… yet, on the inside, you're a complete mess, you feel worthless, and you have no sense of who you are, other than through that lens of, "You suck as a human being." It’s really hard to hold those two things all the time. It's exhausting.
2007 was the turning point in my life. I had my last suicide attempt right after an argument with my husband. I’d spent a month working on a surprise birthday party for him and the husband of a girlfriend of mine. We worked together and I spent a lot of money on it. I worked so hard on this secret. I tried to invite his friends who I didn't really have access to. He was so embarrassed by me and afraid of what I would do in terms of harming his relationships with people. I, apparently, was really good at sabotaging friendships.
I worked on all that, spent a lot of money, and was so excited about it. The party happened. He was definitely surprised and so was the friend's husband. The day after, I said, "So, what did you think?" and all of a sudden he was like, "Whatever." That crushed me. I don't know what else we said, because all I remember is me asking him that small, simple question and his response of, "Whatever." He didn’t really show any excitement about what had just happened. He left the house and I don't know where he went. I can't remember. We probably argued about wherever he was going.
Our little one was downstairs. Our older son, who was thirteen at the time, was upstairs. It was nighttime. They were both in bed. I got a bathrobe tie and went up to our stairs. I was beside myself already. I was pretty loud, running back and forth in the house. I had the noose around my neck. I was one step away from letting go. I had never gotten quite that close before in any of my previous suicide attempts.
My son came down, came out of his room, and started to come down the steps. He screamed a bloodcurdling, "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" That was enough to make me quickly take it off. I was crying and frantic. I went into the room and I was rocking near my bed.
My husband came home and I b-lined out the door. As I was going out, I said, "I just tried to kill myself. You better go talk to your son." Into the car I went, in my bare feet, without my license, to drive around Portland. Portland has a triangle, so you go on 205, you can meet I-5, and then I-84. I drove in this circle-triangle type thing. By the time I got home, my husband was waiting for me.
I didn't find out until later that he called my parents to talk with them to try to figure out, "What do I do?" He was beside himself and he was extremely worried. I spoke with my parents later the next day.
I’d had a woman's card in my purse, a therapist who does what's called EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. I had it in my wallet for almost a year. I called her and started with her. Within six weeks, my life was completely different and changed. That whole experience was the turning point. This was the big turning point of my life because, had my son not come down the stairs, I don't know that I'd be sitting here talking to you.
The EMDR experience with that therapist—who I stuck with for two years—literally changed my life. I can tell this whole story to you and know that you believe what I'm saying to you. I tell this story to other people in my [current] life and they're like, "What are you talking about?" They cannot understand any of that because they don't see that person at all. There are barely any remnants of that person. I'm outspoken, I'm loud, I'm courageous, I'll interrupt fights if I see them on the street, I don't hold back.
I'm so grateful because the EMDR worked phenomenally well for me, beyond what it normally does for people. I was exceptionally responsive to it. Literally, we had six sessions, and that was it. After those six sessions, I opened up a private practice and moved on with my life.
The first year or so of being depression-free was kind of challenging. When crap would happen, I was like, "Um, I don't have my vice." My vice was to think about killing myself. My vice was knowing that I had that option. My vice was feeling bad about myself. That was really helpful at that time, but now life was smacking me in the face and I didn't have the vice. It was different. I stuck with my therapist for two years so that, when things would hit the fan, I could talk it out. I was fine and we'd move on, but it was really hard.
The first time we had the EMDR session, I walked out thinking, "How does that work? I'm not clear. I need to figure out how this works. What is it doing?" By the second time, I was like, "I don't give a shit. I feel better. I don't care."
I remember, one time, going into her office and I said, "I think I'm manic."
She goes, "What's going on?"
I said, "Well, I'm doing this, this, and this."
She said, "Lilly, have you ever just been happy?"
I was like, "Oh! This is what this feels like?" That's all it was. It was just genuine happiness.
I remember another experience after the six sessions going, "Is this for real if I try to test it out? Can I get depressed?" I was unclear because no depression was happening, so I was trying to be depressed. I was like, "Okay, this is useless. You're not depressed. Enjoy that. If you do get depressed again, you'll know what it is because you're very familiar with all the symptoms, so just enjoy not being depressed."
I got to a place in my life where I understood on a very simple but profound level that we're on this earth and then we're not. It became that simple for me. We human beings are so good about stressing about things. We're so good at getting into arguments and trying to have our own way when, in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter. We're here, so as long as we're here on the earth, let’s do what we can to make it a better place because one day we're just not going to be here.
I really got to that place and there were old things that I went and forgave people for. I settled some old things and really, in my current life, feel very free. There's nothing hidden, nothing secret, nothing unresolved except the 2007 experience of my last attempt, because it was never talked about. I've never sat down with my husband and with my son and had a conversation and come to something that felt like a resolution or a release.
Des: Why haven't you had that conversation?
Lilly: I've attempted to have the conversation one-on-one with my son. I used to say things like, "You saved my life."
At one point, he said, "I don't ever want to hear that again."
I said, "Okay," so I never said it again.
I spent a lot of years thinking he was going to end his life. At one time he admitted he was depressed, and I struggled with that. I've attempted to talk to my son and, basically, he doesn't want to talk about it.
My husband's a whole different issue. I don't know how to talk to him about it because there's a piece where he felt blamed. Rightfully so, because I blamed him—it happened right after an argument with him. I don't know. I haven't made as many attempts to try to talk to him about it.
Des: How do those experiences tie into the work you do with suicide? What do your husband and your son think?
Lilly: Well, I don't know. [My husband] knows I'm on the suicide bereavement support line. He knows that I've been going to these meetings [for] this suicide attempt survivor task force. He knows all of this.
During the American Association of Suicidology conference, I texted him all the time. I texted him even about you. I said, "Oh, I've met this woman and I might be able to give her my story." I communicated with him about so many things at that conference. For the first time, his responses were not negative. They were supportive. I thanked him for his support when I got home because I think that was probably the first positive experience we've had about the work I do.
It's hard for him. Death is very, very hard for my husband. At one point, I was working at Juvenile Justice with gang kids. I started watching the news more. The kids were killing each other. I'd see my kids flash up on the screen because they were either dead or going to jail for killing somebody. He’d always wanted me to talk to him about my work, so I did.
He said, "I don't want to hear that."
I was like, "Okay, but this is the work I'm doing. What's happening at my work is that these kids are dying."
I discovered at that time, it's not that he didn't want to hear about my work, he couldn't handle hearing about death. He's very sensitive to it. I think it's because his dad died when he was eleven. He also watched somebody drown. Things like that. These things have traumatized him. Death is a tough topic to be able to talk about with my husband because it's too sensitive for him.
I think it also is complicated because, for so much of our marriage, I was depressed and suicidal. The best thing my husband ever did for me, in terms of my healing journey, was say, "I'm not going to save you anymore. I'm done." He wasn't saying, "I don't love you," he was saying, "Every time you cry wolf, I can't be here for you. You have to go get professional help."
I think my son secretly appreciates what I'm doing. I think he gets it, even though he's only twenty.
I think my husband, way behind the scenes, actually gets it. I think he understands it's my life right now. He supports me and the work that I do, but he supports me from afar. Like arguing less when I go to a conference, or understanding that I'm doing this for a greater good, and not just going to a conference to be away from the family, if that makes sense.
Des: What about your younger son? Does he know about the attempts?
Lilly: I don't know that he knows. I take that back. I think he does know. I've always been told that young children perceive much more than we ever realize they perceive. I think that he had been asleep the entire time, but he may have understood the conversations that followed within the house afterward.
He was very young [when it happened]—only six or seven. Then he went through a couple of years of periodically getting in fights with his older brother and then saying, "I'm going to leave the house! I'm going to kill myself!" It was a really heartbreaking time having my younger son say that he's going to kill himself, slam the door, and walk out. On some level, I feel like he's got to know, but I didn't talk to him about my experience because I always thought that he had been asleep during the whole thing.
I have had conversations with him about my depression, in general. He and I have a close relationship. We talk about things. He's had friends who have tried to end their lives, and we talk about what that means. He is, in a healthy way, aware of some of these dynamics, but I don't think I've ever spoken to him directly about my experience.
Des: What's your goal in your work with suicide attempt survivors?
Lilly: One goal is to get, not just one group in the Portland metro area, but a system, a model of how you do this work.
The Dougy Center is a center for grieving children and their families. You come in, the kids go to group, and the adults go upstairs to their group, so you have this dual thing going on. That’s what’s really stuck in my brain about trying to do suicide attempt survivor support. You have folks who are struggling, but what about the people that are trying to care for and love these people? You have to pay attention to both groups, otherwise it’s not going to work. Otherwise, you help somebody for an hour or two and then they go right back to an environment that doesn’t understand and treats them like garbage. That’s not going to work.
Plus, some of the calls I’m getting on the suicide bereavement line are, “My daughter just tried to kill herself. What do I do?” Both parties need to helped.
I’m trying to develop a way where suicide attempt survivors and people who struggle with suicidal ideation can get help at the same time the other folks are getting the help, so they can support together. Then you have a phenomenally better chance of these folks healing and getting better, [while their caregivers] are feeling like they’re not responsible every single second for trying to keep these people from killing themselves.
Those are the two goals that I have right now. Another is to work work with the state of Oregon for the Zero Suicide initiative.
I think, in general, my goal is to become more visible as someone who works with suicide. I do hope to go back to school, get a Ph.D. in that area. It's idealistic and I get it, but since I don't have anything else to do here on this earth, it will be what I do.
I want to eradicate suicide. You can live your life any way you want to. I do get that there are certain circumstances where people want to end their lives. I am conflicted about physician-assisted dying and things like that, but at the same time, I don't think that suicide needs to be an option. I know too many circumstances of people that did kill themselves who could have gotten help.
Des: What is the difference between terminal physical pain and terminal mental pain? Why can one group choose to end it with all of their people around and the other can't?
Lilly: I guess, if I’m being honest, I don't believe in terminal emotional pain. I believe there's a way to heal from emotional pain, whereas if you've got broken, physical, permanent things in your body, you can't do anything about that. I feel like I guess I don't agree that emotional pain can be terminal.
Des: Would you have said the same thing in 2007?
Lilly: Oh, no. Of course not.
Des: What would you have said to that question in 2007?
Lilly: I would have said, "Oh, there's no difference." I don't know how many times I felt that. I thought, “This is relentless. It's never going to end. I'm stuck with this for life." I really, genuinely thought that.
I think the ability for healing is there. When you look at the literature about people who struggle with really tough medical issues, it’s very clear there is a difference between the group who meets it with a positive attitude and says, “I’m going to give this all I’ve got,” and the group who says, “Oh, I’m doomed for life. It sucks and there’s nothing I can do.” Research has proved over and over again that the positive group does phenomenally better. Some people from this group will heal, and some will even go on to beat the issue. Granted, there are people in the [positive] group who die anyway, but nine times out of ten, they do phenomenally better.
I think that also lends itself to me feeling now in my life like I have a lot of hope and belief in the ability for emotions and brains to heal.
Des: When we talk about suicide as a society, what are we doing wrong and how can we change it?
Lilly: Media is still using the word "committed," which means they don't get that it's not a crime. They're not educating themselves. I think, unfortunately, some people who try to talk with us about it are still getting it wrong. I think there's much more education and understanding that needs to happen before you tackle an issue, so education is one thing.
I think fear is another, which I guess leads right back to education and understanding. It's like, saying the word "suicide," your fear is what? That you're going to cause somebody to kill themselves? That myth is still extremely strong, I've discovered. There are lots of myths about it and people struggle with that. There are lots of people who have never thought about killing themselves ever in their lives. The very thought that somebody else does scares them.
I think what people are doing wrong is talking about it without having all the facts, without dispelling all the myths first, without being educated. At one of the conferences I went to, there was an "ask anything" section with these Ph.D-ers who thought they were top notch and everything. I listened to the questions, and heard their responses, and I wanted to go up and strangle them.
You are not an authority on this. If you're going to talk about it as an expert, it might be helpful to get information from the real experts like us. You know what I mean? I think we do ourselves a disservice when we have people as representatives, but even those people don't have that lived experience. They're talking from a very clinical or very scientific kind of a space versus just a human space.
Des: Can you be an expert if you don't have letters behind your name?
Lilly: Oh, sure! I think so.
Des: I keep going back to this statistic that April Foreman and Bill Schmitz have been referencing: “10% of mental health professionals in the United States are competent to manage a suicidal crisis, but 70% of them think that they're competent.” We've been talking about peer support, so I'm trying to process how I feel about this. Am I qualified to be an expert? Does it matter?
Lilly: Do we need an expert? Do we even need that word?
When I think about lived experience, I also change and say "lived expertise," because I think there's a difference, right? You can have lived experience, but that doesn't mean you have lived expertise.
I don't care about the letters after your name and all that B.S. I believe really, really strongly that those with lived experience can speak about it or help somebody, with a catch. If I tried to kill myself yesterday and I'm trying to help somebody out the next day, that's not smart. Somebody needs to pay attention to that. Someone needs to be able to assess the readiness of somebody to be doing the work. That, I believe in very strongly.
Could I be doing what I'm doing today, seven years ago? No. Could I have done it even a year after my event? I don't think so. I don't think I was ready yet. Even those two years after I started EMDR and I was very vocal about its benefits, that wasn't the time for me to be doing this. Now's the time for me to be doing this. Why? Because I'm very clear. I know what I want to be doing. I'm okay exposing myself in this way. I'm in the right place.
It's not because I have letters after my name or any of those things. For me, somebody has to be expert [on themselves] enough to do those assessments, if that makes sense. You can't just be somebody with lived experience and then go out there and do stuff. You can be a person with lived experience who talks enough about it, does their own self-assessment, and checks out how they're doing with somebody else, so that they have a good sense of where they are. Then they can do the work.
Des: Is suicide still an option?
Lilly: What do you mean by that?
Des: Is it still an option for you?
Lilly: For me, personally? No.
Des: I know it's not an option, but tell me more.
Lilly: Alright, I take it back. Yes, it's an option, but is it an option that I will ever choose? No. Will it be my story in life that someday I will die by suicide? No.
First, I can't explain what the EMDR did, but literally my brain won't go there. It doesn't go there. Have I been depressed since the EMDR? Yeah. I've had my moments. Have I thought about suicide since the EMDR? Yeah, but it's literally been a flash and it's gone. I can't explain how my brain won't go there. It just won't and it doesn't.
More than anything, I don't see any reason to. I don't feel like a piece of crap. I don't feel worthless. I don't feel like there isn't anything I can’t accomplish in this life. I also don't feel the opposite. I don't feel like I'm anything special. I don't feel like I'm some big person. I don't feel any of those things.
I'm extremely simple. I'm here on this earth. I'm not going to die with money. I'm not going to die with a house. I'm not going to die with any material things. When I die, I die, so while I'm here, I'm giving all that I got. Yeah, I still fight with my husband. I'm still broke. I'm still struggling as a mom. Some days I get it right and some days I get it wrong. I'm human. I still make mistakes, but it's not the end of the world. There's nothing in my soul that says, "I need to end my life."
Des: I'm glad I asked. Do you feel like there's anything we missed?
Lilly: I don't think so. I wasn't sure what I was going to say today. I just trusted that I would say what I need to say.
Des: I think you did.
Lilly: I think so.
A big part of my life now is being a Christian. I no longer see my therapist. When trouble happens now, I go to my faith in God. My saving grace is my faith. It’s why I do the work I do. The faith-based system was the worst in terms of support during my many years of depression. I know there are many people who believe in God and struggle with suicide and feelings of worthlessness. I’m one person who is not afraid to say that I’m a Christian, or that I have lived experience, or both at the same time. That opens the door to a population that, even with all the work we’re doing, may not feel like they can access us. I’m trying to make something of this to help other people. That keeps me going.
I guess I needed to say that because that’s a huge part of who I am.
Des: There's an extra level of shame if you are feeling this way and you have a strong faith-based belief system.
Lilly: Not only that, but the message to me within my church was, "Just pray it away!"
If prayer alone was going to work, I should have been healed a long time ago. A long, long time ago. But I thank God for giving me my therapist and placing that card in my purse for a year, because when I needed it, I had it. My life is completely different from what it was. That's my testimony.
If you're hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can't feel it—and you are worth your life.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you don't like talking on the phone, you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, or check out Lifeline Crisis Chat. If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world. If you are being sexually abused, call the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network's (RAINN) Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.
Lilly's story is sponsored by a grant from the hope & grace fund, a project of New Venture Fund in partnership with global women’s skincare brand, philosophy, inc. Thanks also to Jake Filton for providing the transcription to Lilly's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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