Dr. Scott Palasik is a speech-language pathologist and assistant professor in the School of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at the University of Akron. My wife is also a speech-language pathologist, and she alerted me to an article in the ASHA Leader about Scott's work surrounding stuttering, counseling, and suicide. I knew she would be attending the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association annual conference, where Scott just happened to be a part of a panel called, "Clients at Risk for Suicide: Our Experiences and Responsibilities," so I tagged along and Scott was kind enough to share his story. He was 40 years old when I interviewed him at the conference in Orlando, FL, on November 22, 2014. I'm including the edited audio of our interview below. Feel free to follow along as you read.
CONTENT WARNING: [brief] discussion of methods
The process of suicide started when I was about 8 years old, I think. These constant negative thoughts that I was a failure at life, at being me, a failure to my family and friends and not liking—well, actually, hating—how I talked. I've stuttered since I was 3 years old. That difference and not knowing another person [who stuttered] ate at me, and not talking about it [didn’t help], either.
I had speech therapy when I was 8 for about 6 months and then I quit at 9 years old.
Now, I'm all of 9 years old and I walk in the office and say, "Hey, I quit!" and walk back out, because I was just reading things slowly over and over again, and I wasn't talking about stuttering.
After ten years of having this hatred fester, the choice of taking my own life became automatic. Became natural. It's like ordering a pizza.
It’s like, "I'll have pepperoni on it. Yeah, okay, that's good."
It just made sense and I wasn't questioning it. So, at 18, I was conscious of this, "I want to die and that's the best solution for me and my family" [feeling]. I didn't think it would matter if I was gone. I think I just wanted to silence the voices of hatred towards myself and my speech.
Some people choose a gun, knife, or drugs. I used my car. I would drive home late at night and close my eyes and play chicken with cars coming, or a tree, a house, a telephone pole. I could feel the car going off the road. I could feel it. I could see the headlights through my eyelids. At the last second, every time, the last second, I would open my eyes, and I don't know why.
I don't have to know why, either. That's what I've come to: I really don't have to know why. I was lucky, and that's what I know. I was fortunate, and not everyone is that lucky.
At that same time, a good friend of mine noticed my disconnect from everything. I had stopped talking entirely.
She saw this change and got pissed at me and said, "Scott, this is bullshit. You have to talk," and I just shook my head.
She called a speech therapist right there in front of me. So I went, and I went thinking I had nothing to lose because I knew I would be dead soon. I went almost out of spite. I thought, "Okay, sure. I'll go."
I went in, and the therapist sat me down and said, "Scott, talk to me."
I said, "About what?"
She goes, "I don't care."
For one of the first times, someone just let me talk, and it could be about anything. They weren't trying to change how I was talking. That first session, we said total, a hundred words, [which] is a lot because I wasn't talking.
She walked me out and said, "I'll see you next Tuesday."
I turned to her in shock and I'm like, "What?"
She goes, "Okay, see you next Tuesday."
I didn't have anything to say 'cause I just sat there for an hour and didn't talk, and yet she wanted me back. I came back for a year and half, every Tuesday. She kept me in the room and I talked to her about stuttering, my family.
Without those two people, I wouldn't be here, and I'm conscious of that. They saved my life in every way. I owe them the air in my lungs every time I breathe.
I had a psychologist after that who asked the important questions about suicide that no one had asked me. I think people had thought of, or kinda knew, but didn't ask the questions, and she allowed me to talk about it.
Those people, along with many, many others who have supported me since then, you know, I can't pay them back. I can't. What they did is priceless, and for that I owe this story to anyone who listens to it and can take something from it, anything from it.
Since then, I've done things I never thought was possible. I talk in front of hundreds of people, and that wasn't in my plan at 18. I didn't see myself talking at all, let alone [being] a speech therapist and talking in front of hundreds of people at a time, so it's very surreal every time I teach a class or every time I play onstage, because I wasn't supposed to be here and yet I am, and I have to appreciate that.
Des: Why did you go into speech therapy?
Scott: It was really interesting. I started out in business. I got my Associate’s in it, and I started out in that major because I thought I could hide from talking. I thought if I sat in a box all day and just added things, I wouldn't have to talk to anybody.
Then, when I started getting speech therapy at 18 or 19, I thought, "If I can save one child from not having my darkness, then that's a career worth having." I thought about it and thought about it.
I was at the school one day and I saw this blind professor. I saw all of his students kind of gathering around him and laughing with him and his, kind of, entourage, and they cared so much for him. There was a guy who couldn't see them. He couldn't see physically how he was making an impact on them. but I thought, "If he can do that, if he can get beyond not seeing and live his dream of teaching, why can't I? I owe him that.” I'm not even sure who he was or what he taught, either. I just saw him randomly at school and I'll never forget him. That's how I went in it.
My first client ever in graduate school was a 5-year-old boy who had a stutter, and here I thought, "I've been waiting all this time for him. I'm going to save him.” He was a mirror of me.
I had to call his mom and set up a time, and I'm stuttering like crazy at that time.
She called my supervisor and said, "He can't see my son."
It's still hard to think about, 'cause that's what I wanted, and I cried and cried and cried. About eight weeks later I had her son in a children's group that I was helping out with randomly.
She came up to me afterwards and said, "Scott, I'm so sorry. I didn't know."
Because, when I work with kids, my speech would level out. [I’m] talking with them in a different way.
She just saw that and she goes, "I am sorry."
She asked for me in the next semester, but it just didn't happen. I give her a lot of credit as a parent to have those open eyes to see something different. I have no idea how hard it is, as a parent, to have a child who’s got any difference. I don't know. But she saw, she opened up her eyes, and that's a true credit to her character as a parent.
Des: Are you specializing in stuttering?
Scott: I did, yeah. In my Doctorate, that was my focus: stuttering and the social cognitive aspects of it, and also counseling. I do a lot of mindfulness stuff, meditation. We talk about values and all that stuff.
Des: Tell me about the research you're doing now and how you've paired stuttering with suicide.
Scott: The research I'm doing right now is about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It's called "ACT, action." We're really trying to have people live a value-based life. If you can live by those core values of being kind and honest and caring and compassionate, those things that really make you you and that drive everything that you do, then stuttering itself falls away and it's no longer this major piece that's overwhelming you. It becomes another piece of you, but you're looking at it through the lens of, "I am a kind person and I talk this way." It's getting at that willingness to accept everything about you and all of those thoughts. Like, every thought that pops up—all the good, all the muddy thoughts, and that's what we're trying to fight—people from going dark.
I'm also the co-chair of the Akron Suicide Prevention Walk. We had our first walk ever this past April. It was on my birthday, and my cousin who died by suicide shared that same birthday too. It was an honor to celebrate his life doing that walk on his birthday. Our goal—it's our first walk—had been hopefully 100 people would come and maybe raise $5,000. We had about 350 people come and we raised almost $25,000. It was the fourth largest campus walk in the whole country, and what that told us is that there's this group of people in our area who want to be around others who share their feelings, their thoughts, loss, their challenges, and that's powerful stuff. That's a credit to them for coming out and sharing that with us.
We had a whole family come of like 15 people, and they were all in pink, and they were there in the memory of their daughter who had died by suicide a month earlier at 16 years old. A month! And yet they were there in full spirit, in full gear. Then, we had a lady who had called and couldn't come because of her age. She was older and she still wanted to give, or do something. We asked her what her connection was with this. She had lost her son and her daughter at different times, which, I'm sitting there thinkin', "How are you standing?" I can't even imagine her everyday loss of her only kids who died separately by the same thing. That is powerful, and that's what we kept hearing are these stories. Allowing people a place to talk, or just come and walk and think, is an honor for us, so we're really excited about this year's walk. It'll be on April 26th.
Des: When did you decide to tell your story and become an advocate?
Scott: I've told it to a few friends, but I first mentioned it publicly here at ASHA in 2011 and I think people were stunned, 'cause if you know me now, I'm very much—I love people. That was the first time that, in public, I had said I had a darkness and I thought about killing myself, and then I said it again at a conference in California in 2012, and here again at ASHA in '13. That's when I started to really think that this is a story that I want to now tell. I hadn't sat down and thought about the entire thing before and I thought, "You know, if people take anything from it, fantastic." So that's when I first started. I’m a fiction novelist.
Scott: Yeah, and I just self-published my first book in March.
Des: You said you weren't multi-talented!
Scott: I guess I'm talented elsewhere. November is National Novel Writing Month, and so I've been doing this for... this is my third year doin' it, and this year I'm doing my memoirs. It's called the The S Card: Stuttering, Suicide, and the Stuff and People Who Saved Me. So I've been writing that since November 1st and I've got 180 pages of a first draft. I'm going to finish that and maybe release it next fall possibly and get the whole story out there, because I owe that story to every person who saved me along the way and they don't even know about it, but I do, and I need to thank them.
Des: Yeah, that's awesome. So how—you're at a conference right now. How are you getting your word count? Is 180 pages the 50,000 words, or?
Scott: I hit... Oh yeah! Yeah! Oh yeah! Yeah.
Des: You did it!
Des: Okay, good.
Scott: I might hit...
Des: You won.
Scott: I won. I know! I love that, too! I'm not going to lie, like, "I won! Got Nano.”
Scott: I hit 50,000 last Friday.
Des: Yes! Way ahead of this game here.
Scott: Yeah, and that's just how I operate. I love writing. I've been in bands, playing and singing music since I was 14 years old, so it is the air I breathe. If I don't write or play or do something creative, I get edgy and I can feel it, and that's not a good feeling, so that's just how I live. I always had that. I put my own creative energies in everything now.
I was a chef from 14 ‘til about 24, and I cook with a love. I don't measure out things 'cause it's not how I was taught, either. I did seafood and steak, and I did Italian food, and how they taught me was you have to feel the food. You have to live in it, so that's how I try and be now.
Des: I was gonna say, you can't be a baker.
Scott: I dabble in—
Des: You have to measure!
Scott: Yes. Well, I say, that's my issue. I do a lot of cheesecakes, though, so if there's a baking I enjoy, that's what it is.
Des: Cheesecakes are tough.
Scott: They are temperamental!
Des: They are. I taught myself cheesecakes this year.
Scott: Did you?!
Des: Yes. They're somethin'.
Scott: They are just so iffy sometimes, but...
Scott: It tastes fine, but it can look really bad.
Des: You can only tell if you're the one doing it, I think.
Other people are like, "Cheesecake!"
Scott: Right. They're like, "Cheesecake, it's great!"
And you're like, "Yeah, it's alright."
Des: Yeah, I bake more than I cook now but I have—Fel cooks. When we cook, we're the same way. There are no measurements. It's just whatever. But I think that's how you’re taught in Miami as well, I think. I don't know.
What was my next question going to be? I want to talk more about creative things but I gotta... Tell me more about, I guess, the special considerations that we need to think about—not considerations. I've been trying to formulate this question, and I don't have the right words. Tell me about what we need to be looking for in kids with speech disorders in regard to suicidality, suicidal thoughts.
Scott: Well, we're looking for behavioral changes. So, if they stop socializing, if they stop talking, if they start to be more secluded, if they actually say things like, "I can't talk, I just want to die," these are the signs that, I think, sometimes we hear and we just don't follow through as kids being serious. Now, clarifying that speech therapists are not psychologists. Counseling is still in our realm, but we need to have a plan, have contacts of people who can help these kids or adolescents or adults, as well, and having that plan in place in case this happens is just being prepared and that may save a person's life. Just having a plan if it ever comes up.
Des: Is it true that stuttering can't be cured?
Scott: It's true.
Des: So I’m thinking about this in terms of—I have bipolar disorder and I feel like that's the rest of my life, and that does feel hopeless. I just wonder what that feels like. Is it the same thing?
Scott: That's a great pairing, I think. Hopelessness is a really fascinating concept. And hope is, too. Hope is not a bad thing. It's not always a good thing either. It just isn't. Hopelessness is not always bad or good, either. So, what we try and think about is really reality, and management. These things are not going away.
It's how we look at them, too. It's like dyslexia. You don't cure that. You have tools and strategies and you manage it. You manage it. I've got a friend who's wonderful, has dyslexia, is now a judge.
These things don't have to be—don't have to hold back people, and there doesn't have to be a cure, really. It's just a piece of us that walks with us. We don't have to like it. Acceptance does not mean I like something, it just means I can walk alongside with it and not judge it, and that's a different process. I can walk along with stuttering now and have other thoughts with it.
Des: Do you still have suicidal thoughts at all?
Scott: I don't. The last one I had was probably in 2004 and it was a fleeting thing where I was high on a bridge and the thought of jumping off it had crossed my mind and then it scared me, to the point that I sat down away from the edge of the bridge so that I wasn't close to it, and that's where that goes now. I may have these passing thoughts and it scares me. Rather than me moving towards it, I'm moving from it and it's not—I think the thoughts are just my past coming out as a reminder of where I came from and how far I've come, and I can appreciate those cues and not have to encourage them either, at the same time.
Des: It's amazing once they stop becoming comforting and they become scary.
Scott: That's interesting! I never phrased it that way before, but that's a great summary.
Des: Yeah, it's—I feel like sitting still—having the ability to sit still has saved my life, you know. Just being like, "Alright, no I can't go do that right now."
Scott: It does, doesn't it? It's such a powerful tool. Sitting still is such a powerful, hard thing to do, yet it can change your entire existence. I do a lot of meditation and the guy that I was sitting with down south was a Buddhist monk and he was a Marine before, and so he saw everything.
He said, "Scott, the hardest thing I've ever done in my life is sit and meditate." He goes, "The hardest thing I've ever done."
I'm like, "Really? Holy shit!"
He’s seen more, and it's that seeing all of your own thoughts is very, very frightening because, “Oh my god, I'm thinking this.” Me. I'm creating this all on my own and it's also a very empowering tool. It's like I can sit here. I can sit with me. I can have these thoughts and I can survive with these thoughts every day, and that's power, and that's all internal, and that's what's so cool about it.
Des: I want to know more about your support system.
Scott: It’s vast now, and it's funny because I'm an introvert by nature choosing to live an extrovert lifestyle.
Des: I understand.
Scott: Yes, you do. And that's a real interesting paradox that I'm choosing to do. The people who support me—my mom, brother, my extended brothers who are friends of mine, and my friends, and wife and it’s—I no longer have to choose to be alone just because I don't think people care. I know they care now, and I didn't see that until the last five years or so, but I know that people want to hear me talk and say things and share, and that's a powerful support right there. Mentally, I know that and they're there for me if I need anything. And the other support that I do for me is, again, create. That's my support to get out any pain or any thoughts that do not line up with my values or, just, that's me at the core.
Des: What was the turning point? You said it was only five years ago.
Scott: My dad died and my parents were going through a divorce and I was finishing up my Doctorate and I caught myself yelling at my dad on the phone. I realized how much anger I had towards him, and that opened up my eyes to how much ego had been involved in that anger. I thought that he had to be a certain father, a certain way, and that would never be, and that was unfair of me to put that on him. I'm lucky I saw it because he died six months after that of a massive heart attack, and that turned me around at looking at my own ego and the stories that I've created over years and years and years, and the idea that there are very few facts in life and the rest of it are things that we conjure up. They're valid, absolutely, but we create the story lines that we then cling to, and that was a major turning point at that time.
Des: I want to ask you about—and this is something that hadn't occurred to me until I met you, essentially, or I've been thinking about it and I haven't been able to reconcile it, but—there's this overarching idea that suicide is a direct result of a mental illness. That's it. Go!
Scott: It's funny, because I don't see that as being true. I see that as trying to generalize across all people. I guess, if you broke it down and said that if anyone has a negative thought or is angry that they are mentally ill, well, then yeah, that fits.
Des: We're all mentally ill.
Scott: Yeah, and then, at that point, every person is mentally ill, but I just don't see it as that simple. I think we need to reserve judgment and language for people who struggle, who the control of their thoughts is just not there at all. That may be mentally ill if you cannot stop anything, if you cannot control behaviors, then that's a definite challenge. So, it's a great question. I don't know if there's a really good answer for it, except we need to look at each person and not treat us as a bunch of grapes.
Des: Yeah. I mean, I've come across so many people at this point who don't even believe in mental illness. So I've tried to just remove that language from my own vocabulary, essentially. And that's hard to do!
Scott: Take it out. Yeah.
Des: But yeah, people definitely don't look at this—I had never considered that speech disorders would be a thing that could cause that kind of crisis until I read that article. Blew my mind! And we don't talk about that. You're the one. It's just crazy.
Scott: It is. It is. But, you know, that is a great question to ask. It is and, again, there isn't a real good answer for it.
Des: Doesn't have to be. You are the answer. You're it. You're one of 'em. So what—what are you—what's the future with the advocacy. Your advocacy, specifically.
Scott: Well, I'm gonna keep doing the walk for as long as I can. I'm gonna finish my book and get that out there and keep talking to people who want to listen. I'm open about it now, and as painful as it is at times to think about what I could have missed, and that's what bothers me is all of the things I wasn't supposed to be here for and I am. That's the rub that really eats at me, and not the actual idea of death itself, but what I've seen in the past 20 plus years that I wouldn't have ever seen before. I'll keep honest. I'll keep trying to live by my values and that's really all I can do.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Scott: No. It's not, because I've lived that option, you know? It's no longer in line with the person I've finally figured out who I was. I was always a kind person. Honest person. A caring person. Always. But I didn't know it until I started to dig in, and now I know that, and suicide by—for reasons for me of anger—[is] in conflict with all of those values, so the option of anger and suicide is just not in line with me anymore, so it kinda takes away that option at the end of the day.
Des: Is there anything you think we missed that you want to say?
Scott: I don't know. We hit a lot of points. If there's one thing I could say to anybody who's thinking about suicide is to tell someone. All you have to do is say the words. You can write me. Just tell someone about it. You are not alone. There are a million—millions—of us out there who have been in that spot, that darkness. Reach out to any person. Anybody. I know it's hard, and there's love and compassion in your heart, and that's why it hurts so much.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. If you don't like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Thanks to Matt Parr for being a total badass and also for providing the transcription for Scott's interview.
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