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Suicide Survivor Works to Eradicate Stigma of Silence Preventing Indian Youth From Getting Help

A question-and-answer with suicide survivor Arnold Thomas.

Suicide may still be a hush-hush topic for many Indian people, but it’s not for Arnold Thomas, Shoshone-Paiute. And Thomas, who tried to commit suicide in 1988, when he was 18—and miraculously survived—has plenty to say about it. In fact, that is what he has done for most of the past decade. Under the banner of his Salt Lake City–based firm, White Buffalo Knife Consulting, he has traveled to dozens of tribal communities in the United States and Canada to speak about his attempted suicide. During the first half of the 2000s, he was telling his inspirational story to some 20,000 to 30,000 people every year, hoping to encourage more open communication of a problem that touches too many Indian youths.

Thomas, 41, was recently ordained the first chaplain from the Native faith traditions with the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, and he is a chaplain for the Veterans Health Administration. While he does not deliver his suicide-prevention talk as often as he used to, he is still eager to speak about his experience—what drove him to the point of suicide, how he survived, the healing process and how he emerged from it all with a soaring spirituality and a renewed love of life.

Tell me about your suicide attempt—how did you do it?

I used a .30-30 hunting rifle. I put it under my chin and pulled the trigger.

What brought you to that point?

Not understanding that the pain will go away, that pain of losing my father. Not understanding that other people would understand how I am feeling.

My father committed suicide when I was 16. I was the oldest of three kids, the only son, so we spent a lot of time together. So when he died, it was like the foundation that I had was ripped away. I really did not understand how to deal with those intense emotions and the stigma that comes with suicide—you’re not supposed to talk about what happened. Sometimes a person—especially a teenager—doesn’t have the words for those emotions, those thoughts. So I turned to drugs and alcohol to drown my sorrows.

How did you react when you became conscious?

After I pulled the trigger, I blacked out, became conscious, blacked out again. I shattered my whole face—my eyeballs, all the bones in my nose, my cheekbones, my upper and lower jaw. With every breath I was taking, I was gasping, bleeding to death. I knew that the bullet had not killed me, but I knew I was going to die. Some 40 to 50 minutes later, paramedics arrived.

I woke up in the ICU. I could hear people, but I could not see them. I could hear my mother at the foot of the bed crying. There was this doctor placing a notepad on my chest. He was explaining to me where I was, what they had done in surgery. There was a wire brace around my face, screws in my jaw holding that wire brace together, tubes in what had been my nose and my nostrils, a tracheotomy tube in my neck, and I was hooked up to a respirator to keep me alive. My face was the size of a basketball.

How did this change you spiritually?

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I spent two years not being able to speak. I had to eat food through a gastric tube and breath through a tube in my neck. The physical pain is one thing, the countless surgeries—there have been a lot of bone-graft surgeries, skin-graft surgeries since 1988 to slowly rebuild my face. I had to teach myself how to speak, so people could understand me. I don’t have any lips, so I have to make an extra effort when I do speak.

Spiritually, I really came to appreciate life. It has been a hard lesson. I had to forgive myself. I had to forgive my father. I had to ask my mother to forgive me for how I hurt her. More than 20 years later, I am still asking for forgiveness from people who know me. I had to go back and forgive, way back, however long it was, when the first people came here, some of what happened in history.

I wanted to be able to forgive and let go, so I could be okay with those memories and they wouldn’t have power over me—to be okay with myself. And I have come to the understanding that I have a purpose.

Did you ever contemplate suicide again?

Oh, yeah. I went through intense feelings of anger and guilt, shame. One night I got so frustrated after my first surgery—they had taken my fibula out, below my knee, 12 inches of it, put it in my lower jaw, made me a nose. They took muscle out of my right forearm. When I went back home, I was so frustrated that I packed my bags in the middle of the night, grabbed my mother’s car keys, went out to the car and started it up. My mother came running out, and she was crying. She said, “What are you doing?”

One of my aunts hooked me up with Services to the Blind in Nevada, but because they had no training schools in Nevada, I picked Utah. I went because I was still young and I wanted to learn. I did not want to sit at home doing nothing. The director of that program said there are only two things [blind people] can’t do without help from others: You can’t read any printed material, and you can’t draw. He said anything else you want to do in life, you can. That gave me hope.

What is the lesson from your story that everyone should learn?

To be thankful for what you have, not focus on what you don’t have. Oftentimes, we really don’t realize what we have. When I speak, I tell people, “When you go home, whomever you live with, give them a hug and say, ‘Thank you for what you are teaching me.’?” People teach us good behavior and bad behavior. It’s up to us what we are going to do with that.

I have also been talking about love. When I work with Indian people, I say, “All right. Everybody say love.” More often than not, you can barely hear them. The love I am talking about is compassionate, kind, loving, and it’s gentle and caring.

Our ancestors knew that Mother Earth loved them. They knew because the grass grows, as do the fruit trees, the vegetables, the corn, squash, beans, the deer and elk, cows and chickens. I tell them, “Mother Earth loves us. She can say no, but she is giving.” All indigenous people had an understanding of this relationship to natural elements, natural law. A lot of our young people are yearning for traditional tribal teachings of how to be, how to live.

You’ve said suicide is not the “way” of Native people. Why not?

Because all the Native ceremonies and teachings are about caring for one another, being thankful for what you have, praying.