By Bob Shaw — Pioneer Press —
The first time Chantal Bjorklund tried to kill herself, she was in seventh grade.
One month later, she tried again.
When she was 31, she tried again.
Today, at 34, the Newport woman is a living testimonial for suicide prevention. She speaks at meetings and conferences and works to prevent others from killing themselves.
She says that she owes her life to Canvas Health, an Oakdale-based nonprofit that offers suicide-prevention and other programs.
Listeners find her story revealing. Bjorklund challenges many myths about suicide — including that families are a suicidal person’s best source of support and that suicidal feelings can be cured.
After years of hiding her urges, she is blunt about them today.
“I want to remove myself from the world without hurting anyone. If I could do that, I would,” she said after a recent speech in Edina.
But with her new coping skills and weekly counseling, she says she relishes life.
“I am not ‘happy-oh-so-happy-celebration.’ But I am more content now,” she said. “I can’t imagine wanting to die.”
In 1991, Bjorklund moved from Sauk Rapids, Minn., to Hastings.
She left a school where she was a “big fish in a small pond” for a school where she felt ignored and picked on.
She had low self-esteem and was overweight, problems that dog her to this day.
She was depressed. “It is like being in the deepest dark hole of doom,” Bjorklund said. “Unless you have been there, it’s not something you can understand.”
The 12-year-old girl quietly reached a decision. “I was carrying around that burden that I did not want to live,” she said.
She took 10 Advil pills. She recovered on her own and kept the episode secret.
A month later, she took 200.
A sister found her in the bathroom, and she was rushed to a hospital. After the medical crisis passed, she was moved to a psychiatric ward.
That’s when the consequences of her act began to boil around her. “After two days, I was begging to go home. I was apologizing,” she said.
She was dreaming of home as an inviting place to rest and recover. “I anticipated going home to open arms, to people who would be grateful to see me.”
That didn’t happen.
“The family was absolutely devastated and angry,” Bjorklund said.
“They said, ‘This will hurt us. You can’t do this to us.’ ”
Her family members, she said, were focused on their own pain. They didn’t understand that suicide victims are in such pain that they can’t see pain in others.
Some of them accused her of cowardice.
“I heard people say this is a chicken—t way out of life. They said it was selfish,” Bjorklund said.
“It scared them to not understand. They were worried about setting me off. So I started isolating myself.”
She began “self-medicating” with alcohol when she was 18.
Extreme mood swings plagued her. “It means you can’t cope with normal things. The highs are too high, and the lows are too low.”
As the years passed, she carried a secret — she still yearned for death.
The third suicide attempt came three years ago, in a bar. “I basically tried to drink myself into oblivion,” she said.
“There was no more hiding it. The beast inside was erupting,” she said.
This time, she called a suicide-prevention hotline. Soon, she was at the Oakdale clinic of Canvas Health.
Immediately, she experienced something foreign to her. “From the moment I walked in, I said, ‘What is that feeling?’ ” she recalled.
“Oh. That is hope.”
She began a series of sessions and interviews. “No one was judging me, and no one was looking down. I could say whatever was on my mind and tell the truth with no repercussions.
“I would leave there feeling lighter. I could stand up straight.”
The advice she gives her audiences in her presentations is unequivocal.
“Do not rely on your family. They can’t separate the person from the condition.
“They can’t be objective. They care about you too much.”
She has not been “cured” of her suicidal thoughts, the way someone can get over a cold.
But she has developed ways to cope. One involves a four-second breathing cycle to deal with stress. “Another is doing the opposite of whatever you are feeling. If you feel like shutting the blinds and getting off the phone, then you need to do the opposite.”
She sees a counselor weekly for “maintenance sessions.”
Bjorklund still has bad days, she said, but they seem different now.
“I am not necessarily where I want to be. But I know I am never going back there.”