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Illinois Author Talks About How Suicide Touched Her Life

Dese’Rae L. Stage for Live Through This
Chicago author Kelley Clink attempted suicide at 16.

Amid the news of high profile celebrity taking their own lives, the Centers for Disease Control reports suicide rates have gone up across the United States.  Since 1999, Illinois has seen a 23-percent increase. 

Chicago author Kelley Clink tried to kill herself when she was 16, and several years later her younger brother, Matt, died by his own hand.

Reporter Maureen McKinney talked with Clink about the ways suicide has touched her life. Clink’s memoir, published in 2015, is called A Different Kind of Same.

Maureen McKinney: Suicide is a difficult subject. And I know some people would be reticent to talk about it. Can you tell me why you're so open about it?

Kelley Clink:

I didn't start out being open about it. I was very ashamed after I made a suicide attempt and I didn't tell anyone. I didn't talk about it with my friends. I actually went all the way into college and was dating someone and got married and I didn't even tell him about it for about 7 years. But after I lost my younger brother to suicide, I realized that not talking about it with, him not talking about it in our family, not talking about it with my friends and my community, was actually dangerous.

My brother was someone who didn't speak about his mental health at all, and did not reach out. I think that was one of the main contributors to his suicide so I felt like it became very important for me to change that.

McKinney: I wonder, was the recent news of celebrity suicides troubling for you?

I talk about suicide a lot and write about suicide a lot. I would say I'm way more comfortable with it than most people, and what I found to be surprising for me with the recent news about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain was that they were where they were in their lives. They were middle-aged. They had children. They had families, had successful careers. I didn't realize that actually middle age is the highest risk for  suicide.  So it was difficult for me to read about that because I had sort of been thinking that my highest risk age that I had already passed it. I thought “oh, I'm out of adolescence, I'm established in my life. I'm the worst is behind me.” And then I thought “Okay. No, I really need to continue to be vigilant about my mental health.” And this is something that we as a country should probably talk about a lot more, and prevention efforts should be focused more on people in middle-age because the risk is actually greater.

I think it was a shock for a lot of people in the news came out right around then that the suicide rate in the country has been on the rise. Do you have a sense of why that might be?

Clink: I can only speak from my personal experiences. And for me, I I find that to be surprising because  I felt that, overall as a country, we've seemed like we were moving more towards an acceptance of vulnerability.

Yeah. I'm not sure what's going on, but I am definitely with everyone else in that I am glad that we're talking about it. I hope we continue to talk about it. I hope it doesn't take more loss for us to continue talking about it and to keep working toward some kind of helpful solution.

McKinney: Would it be all right for me to ask you a little bit more about your mental health history?

Clink: I think my family history has some mental illness in it. It wasn't something that was talked about so I didn't really know. I have the sense of everybody else was okay, and that when you know, I was hitting my teen years and having depression and having anxiety and thought that was just me, and then it was my brother too. and I thought well I guess was like maybe were some kind of bad combination of my parents’ genes. When I was 15 years old, my family moved across the country, and that's when I you know had my first major depression and my brother was actually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. We found out later that you know, there was a lot of depression and my mother's side of the family and some obsessive compulsive disorders and eating disorders, a little depression on my father's side of the family and  some addictions and alcoholism. I think the stuff is in most families, honestly, but it just wasn't talked about it all in our family.

McKinney: What made you decide to write about with A Different Kind of Same?

Clink: I think ever since I was a little kid books were I like a refuge for me, and I was always like a very anxious child and you know, I I was really sensitive.

I really leaned on books a lot.  And as I got older, I ended up writing. I did a lot of journaling. I wrote a lot of angsty teenage poetry and it was kind of my dream always to write a book, but then I have degrees in literature and I just [thought}. “Well, I'll be a teacher or something” and I never thought I would have anything to write about and then after my brother died, I couldn't talk about it. I didn't talk about it at for like two years. I  just kind of lived my life and pretended like everything was okay when I could, and would  just fall apart privately. And finally I had to get it out of me and writing it felt like a place where I could put everything down without fear of like judgment, I had control it control over the narrative and then it became really, therapeutic for me, and it was a way to sort of get some distance and some objectivity in my grief.

I think the the bigger decision was like to try and make it into a book that other people would read someday. That was kind of a bigger decision, and it was something I felt like I had been silent about my mental health for so long. I had been silent about my suicide attempt for so long. My brother had been silent, and it had caused him to take his own life, and I felt the best way, the easiest way, for me to break that silence was going to be to write a book.

McKinney: Can you tell me about what your message would be for someone who is considering suicide and for family of people who've died by their own hand?

Clink: I think for anyone out there who is feeling suicidal, I think my message for you would be there's nothing wrong with what you're feeling. There's nothing wrong, nothing inherently wrong, with those thoughts or those feelings. There's nothing wrong with you. I've been on both sides of this,  right? I've had those feelings and then I've been on the side with the loss  and it's just it's just devastating and I would encourage anyone out there who's feeling suicidal so, you know, please take care and get whatever help you can to try and stay because wherever you're at right now, it will pass.  Everything changes. It always changes.  I know this because I've been as lived with depression and suicidality for over 20 years. And it obviously I feel like it's gotten easier for me because I've  come out on the other side, and I just I know I know when it happens again that it's not permanent and that there are things I can do to get through the tough period.

For a family of someone's for a family who's lost someone to suicide: First I can tell you are not alone.  There are so, so very many people whose lives have been touched by suicide. So please don't be afraid to talk about your loss. Don't be afraid to ask friends and family for help. Don't be afraid to tell people what you need. Don't be afraid to tell people if you don't know what you need. There's no wrong way to grieve. You might be really angry. That's totally fine. Everything is fine. Everything is allowed.

And it will get better. That's the thing that I can promise you. You can recover from this kind of loss and it takes a lot of time, but it's possible, and there's a community here for you. 

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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