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INTERVIEW: Judy Collins

You might not instantly recognise her, but Judy Collins has a handful of Grammys on her mantelpiece, and her cover of ‘Send in the Clowns’ spent 27 consecutive weeks at the top of the singles chart.

A woman who’s survived polio, tuberculosis and who has written at length of her years of addiction to alcohol and her feelings of depression, Judy’s now an activist for suicide prevention. Regular CALM writer Heather met this extraordinary lady to find out more…

Ask any of my friends and I’m most likely to be found in a wonderfully dark and dingy rock venue in London’s Camden Town, but today I’ve dressed in the clothes my mother would approve of, to head to the opulence of The Ritz to meet a lady whose demeanour exudes the glamour of the hotel itself. Life hasn’t always been so kind to American singer-songwriter Judy Collins, she has fought her own personal battle with alcoholism, bulimia and depression, attempted suicide herself and lost her only son to suicide, after his own battle with alcoholism. Judy’s perspective of suicide therefore is an unusual one, but one that will be familiar in parts at least to our readers.

As we continue to fight the battle to increase awareness of male mental health issues and suicide here in the UK, Judy’s observations as to what has already been achieved are very encouraging.

At the tender age of 14, Judy (now 76) attempted suicide, but was found and, once treated in hospital, this chapter of her life was never really spoken about again: “I got no help immediately because no one talked about it; there was no follow through as far as therapy or anything else, so I kind of put a lid on it and worked as hard as I could to deflect from that particular incident”.

The same reluctance to speak about suicide remained evident almost 40 years later in 1992, when Judy’s only son Clark took his own life aged 33. Today she acknowledges that things have changed: “If you go into a book store you’ll find shelf after shelf of books about suicide and that’s totally different than it was 23 years ago and that’s pretty enormous in two decades, to have such a change. People talk about it, they write about it, they go on Oprah, people talk about this openly.”

Nevertheless, the taboo Judy mentions that surrounds suicide still remains today and people find it difficult to speak to someone who has lost a family member or friend to suicide. This is something I experienced personally following the death of my friend Dave and in terms of people’s reaction, Judy says, “I had the feeling with certain friends that they really didn’t want to see me.”

Part of Judy’s own therapy and healing process was to fill those bookshop shelves with what was missing for her in 1992: “I think information is the most important thing that I have to say or to talk about, because when Clark died people didn’t talk about it much, there weren’t very many books. I like solutions. Iris Bolton’s book ‘My Son…My Son…’ is about solutions, it’s about what not to do as a survivor. What I saw when this happened to me was I had to write about it. I started writing immediately because that’s the only thing that I know. If I can write about it, it helps, so you kill two birds with one stone in a way, so it was vital for me to write about it and to speak about it publicly.”

Judy has since written two books ‘Sanity and Grace’ and ‘The Seven T’s’ about her approach to the loss of her son to suicide, and her advice to others on coping with the loss of a loved one.

Although she wrote books, it is her music for which Judy is best known and talking about the immediate aftermath of Clark’s death, Judy says, “I was shocked, I was devastated and I was completely wrecked. I was convinced I couldn’t go on and wanted to cancel all my work,” but it was through her music that Judy started to heal. “Many people find that the first time you find yourself smiling you are on the road to healing, that was true for me. Also, sitting down at the piano and beginning to write songs about Clark was the moment I knew I was healing. When I wrote ‘Wings of Angels’ I knew I was on the way to healing, and when I was able to sing it in public, I knew I could talk about my loss and try to help others recover from theirs.”

After the loss of a loved one to suicide we are left with many questions, some of which may be answered by some form of communication left behind by that person. I’ll never know the answers, as my friend left no communication, and whilst Judy’s son did leave a tape recording, she already knew the reason why he took his life, despite Clark being sober for seven years. “Well I knew something about it so I totally understood. Again, it’s the alcoholic connection because I knew and by the time he killed himself I’d been sober for a number of years, but I understood how close I had come to checking out. I knew exactly why. I mean he had a perfectly legitimate reason, but everyone who does that does, but we all have ways we can get through these legitimate reasons if we have the help, if we get help, if we have people around us who get it, who know that.”

Whether we understand why or not, we still find ourselves questioning and it is important that as survivors we too get help. Judy, like myself, found that help in unexpected places, from unexpected people: “I was already in therapy, thank God, but I added many other resources; I went to recovery groups for suicide survivors, and was able to find people who knew a great deal about suicide. Through the books I read I found Dr. Edwin Shneidman, who started the first suicide hotline in 1949 in Los Angeles. I was able to talk to him, visit him in Los Angeles, and get to know more about recovery.”

It has been written that those left behind after suicide can often be most at risk of suicidal tendencies themselves. “I was warned that the survivors of a suicide are more apt to kill themselves. Through a great deal of meditation, therapy, writing, and talking with other survivors I knew I had the most important commitment in my life, that was not to take my own life today and to take one day at a time.”

Talking is vital and Judy encourages us to do so: “Talk about your loss; do not let others determine how long you have to talk about it, get help, find a survivor’s group, go to meetings of survivors of suicide, find a good therapist who deals in suicide recovery, keep writing and talking about your loss. Go to funny movies, share with close friends as long as you need to talk about this loss. I think of and talk about my son as much as I need to or want to–he comes up often in my life, and my family and I celebrate his birthdays and other dates that we have shared. We think and talk about him, speaking of his kindness and his spirit.”

The loss of Clark was the start of a very personal campaign for Judy fuelled by her past and experience as a social activist, to raise awareness of suicide and mental health, she cites her friend Ed Schneidman who said that “many people are depressed, but not all of them kill themselves”. She believes that it is more than the depression, more than the substance abuse, more than the financial problems, whatever is causing the emotional turmoil, ultimately there is a trigger. “Y’know suicide takes a lot of thought and planning,” Judy says. She tells me that having read her sons journals, given to her by his wife after his death, she can see that when he was using alcohol or drugs he was very determined to end his own life and tried on several occasions.

Whilst Judy empathises with her son’s emotions, through getting help, writing and maintaining her sobriety for 38 years she has recovered, and her most important message for all of us is that with the right help and support, “You WILL recover.”

If you’re worried about someone, click here; if you need to talk to someone, click here; if you’ve been affected or bereaved by suicide, click here.

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