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A Candid Discussion About Suicide and Hope

May 8, 2018
by Darren Fraser , Emmetsburg News

Ryan Nesbit volunteers about 40 hours a week for the American Federation of Suicide Prevention. As Nesbit says, aside from detasseling corn each July, volunteering is his full-time albeit, nonpaying job. Nesbit's involvement in suicide counseling and prevention is born out of tragedy.

"My best friend died by suicide when we were 15. His mother and I found the body," says Nesbit. The next 15 years were bad. "A lot of anger and guilt," he says. No one knew what he was experiencing. He questioned if he was in some way responsible.

But he pulled out. He has a great life, with a family. Nesbit's message to people, particularly young people: there are 100 options; suicide is not one of them.

When Nesbit speaks to students, he shares his story he does not discuss finding his friend's body with younger students. His experience with suicidal ideation resonates with students. Nesbit says finding common ground is the key. He says, "I tell them I'm still here. Life is good. Life is worth it."

He has nothing but disdain for social media. "It's the end of our society," he says. He feels there is too much negativity and too much wasted time. "Five percent is positive; the rest is bad," he says.

Despite feeling optimistic about the students he speaks to, Nesbit is not optimistic about teenagers' state of mental health. "They are too stressed. Racing between sports and other extracurricular activities and coupled with grueling college-level classes, Nesbit says teenagers are being denied the right to be teenagers. "Pressure, pressure, pressure," he says.

When asked what can and should be done, Nesbit is unapologetically critical of the state's involvement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Iowa's suicide rate is higher than the national average. "Suicides will increase until the state sends more help," he says.

Nesbit has 12 different speeches he gives, depending on the audience. But his message never varies: suicide is never an option.

Michelle Theesfeld is a licensed therapist in Emmetsburg. When she speaks at "Caring for the Inner You" this today, her message will be simple: hope.

In November 2015, Theesfeld's older brother died from suicide. "I could either wallow in my feelings or get involved," she says.

Theesfeld has been involved in counseling since 2002. She channeled the anguish she felt over her brother's death into a positive. She has learned that listening is key when dealing with someone in the throes of suicidal ideation. This is the message she imparts to high school students when she speaks at schools. It is also the message she has embedded in her Talk Saves Lives program.

"We don't listen enough," she says. "How do we listen? What are we hearing? It's not about trying to fix someone or giving answers. It's about listening." Theesfeld says we have to listen to what is important to the speaker and not what is important to the listener.

In her experience, Theesfeld says people with suicidal ideation develop tunnel vision. "They can't see the positive in their lives," she says. They become overwhelmed; in their myopic worldview, life becomes a series of failures. She says it is imperative when a person reaches this stage this includes her youngest clientele they must get help. "Otherwise, life is piling on," she adds.

Theesfeld is not as critical of social media as is Nesbit, but she does feel it provides a forum for bullying. The cloak of anonymity makes it easy to spew hatred. To that end, Theesfeld says she has seen an increase in suicidal ideation in younger kids though she does not say social media is solely to blame.

For Teresa Alesch, 2011 was an annus horribilis.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy; her father was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; she completed chemotherapy only to learn she had two tumors in her ovaries one the size of a grape fruit; the subsequent hysterectomy rocketed Alesch into early menopause and took away any chance she could bear more children (the family has two).

Her uncle, Joe Kliegl, died in April 2012 this marked the tipping point for Alesch. The desperation festered for two years. In 2014, she says, "I got to that edge and thought, 'I can't take this anymore.'" Fogged by the residual effects of chemotherapy and the upheaval of hormones due to the hysterectomy, Alesch could not find clarity. She says she experienced flashes of suicidal ideation. "I wished I could fall through the earth or just not wake up," says Alesch. Over time, these flashes became more frequent. She says he had to do something because she was not helping herself or her family.

She felt like a failure. Despite her stellar career as an educator and her devotion to her family, Alesch could not shake the inner voices telling her she was not doing enough. It was not simply enough to be; she had to be more. She notes she was not experiencing auditory hallucinations; rather, the phenomenon resembled incessant negativity from some disembodied judge.

She overdosed on prescription pain medication. What pulled her out was a symbol a cardinal. Alesch details this in her book. She says she rid her body of the drugs and called her boss. After a few hours with administrators at the school, Alesch took time off. She headed to Sioux Falls, to the behavioral health center. She had planned checking in but when she learned the program was medication-based, she said no. "I want you to get to the core and fix me," she says she informed the staff.

The center put Alesch in touch with a counselor. After a few sessions with the counselor, Alesch realized she had stopped writing after her uncle died. Prior, Alesch blogged frequently about school and other topics; her uncle read and commented on her blogs. Alesch realized she equated writing with the pain she felt about her uncle's death. This marked a second tipping point.

The family was at home watching the "Avengers" movie. Alesch says for some reason, she identified with Scarlett Johansson's character, Black Widow. "She could become invisible, which is how I always associated myself. I had a mask on," she says. Those around her saw Alesch as kind of a hero. "They didn't know what was going on," she says. That night, a book came to her.

She spent that evening writing. Over the next two weeks, she wrote three-quarters of a book. Not the book she published but a work of fiction. This revelation of the healing powers of writing put Alesch on the path to writing "Broken to Brave."

She enrolled in an author's program. She says she entered fully intent on finishing the fiction book; instead, she emerged with "Broken to Brave."

Alesch chose the brave motif of her book because she always thought it ironic when others would tell how brave she was. "You don't know what you're talking about," she says she thought. In the book, Alesch uses the metaphor of a prison to describe how she felt. She also says the true bravery she displayed is when she found the courage to admit she was broken. "It was going to take bravery to take that mask off and let people see who I really am," she adds.

When Alesch speaks this today, she will tell her story. She makes no illusions about being an expert on suicide prevention. What she does know about is unhealthy thinking and about how devastating that can be, particularly to a young person. She will take people along on her journey and impart the wisdom she acquired; namely, people must live in the moment and in order to do that, they have to be free of their past. They have to be free of their worries of the future and simply live in the here and now.




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