Beyond Columbine - A Conversation With Sue Klebold
The mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold speaks freely
Posted Mar 14, 2016
If you're looking for reassurance that your hostile, sullen, "leave me the f--- alone teenager" could never turn into Dylan Klebold, you won't find it here. - Mark Goulston
Like many, I watched Diane Sawyer, Dr. Oz and listened to Terry Gross' Fresh Airinterview and read a number of written interviews with Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold and author of, A Mother's Reckoning -- Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. And I read her book cover to cover.
Unlike many other interviewers I am also a psychiatrist with a specialty in trauma, suicide and violence prevention and have trained FBI and police hostage negotiators. I am also a specialist in listening.
When I set out to interview Sue, my goal was to help her feel completely safe and talk freely without the anticipatory anxiety of when I would ask the inevitable, "How could you not see the warning signs?" or other questions that would put her on the spot.
That's because it felt to me that she had so much more she wanted and needed to say if only she felt safe and free to do. It was also because of how in spite of a certain caution she demonstrated in interviews, Sue very deeply loved Dylan and still does. Not for the monstrous thing he did, but for the child inside him that got lost.
To give her that chance, I told her that I would share what I wrote up with her before I published it, that I would send her the audio file of our 90 minute interview and that I would mainly be asking her three questions and try to facilitate her saying what she needed and wanted to say.
The three questions were:
- Tell me about Dylan
- As you think of the past say what comes to your mind when you think, "If only..."
- As you think of the future and about lessening school shootings, murder/suicides and just plain suicides say what comes to your mind when you think, "What if..."
The interview took on a life of its own.
"Tell Me About Dylan" -- His Childhood
Dr. G: Sue, tell me about Dylan, and just speak freely from wherever you want to speak.
Sue: When I think about Dylan, and remembering him, of course I remember him as a young child the most. He was a precocious, darling, lovable child. He was very bright. I have all kinds of stories in my head of all the things that he did, how quickly he learned. He was especially good at math. And of course I had been a teacher, so I just really got a kick out of him as a youngster. My favorite story about Dylan, the thing I remember the most was when he was, he was still wearing a diaper at night, wearing four diapers at night actually, so he'd walk like he just got off a horse. But he was so young... he was... you know... he was still... he wasn't... I don't think he was 3 yet, maybe he was 3 or about 3, but he was fascinated with numbers, and he loved figuring things out.
He had these plastic magnets, and he... he knew what the numbers were, he knew the quantities they represented, and he had in that set a plus sign and a minus sign and an equals sign and he asked me what they meant and I just showed him. I got pinto beans on the floor and I showed him that plus meant, "You take this pile of 2 and you take this pile of 3 and you put them together and then you count them again." And he got that so quickly and then, minutes later, he was making equations on the refrigerator, you know, 4 + 5 = 9, and he'd get it right. He'd not only set up the equation correctly, but he would get the answers right. And he was young. I think he was about 3 when he did that. And that was just the way he was.
He learned so quickly and everything he did seemed to come easily to him. And that's one of the reasons, I think, that when he became a teen, and the world wasn't quite so easy for him, I think he just wasn't able to handle the challenges of having to work at things or having things not feel right to him. He was the kind of kid who loved to take care of things himself, he was a "me do it" kid, he wanted to learn how to do laundry and how to cook and just how to take care of himself, he loved being self-reliant.
But his need to be self-reliant, I think, also contributed to his death because I think it was just loathsome to him to have to think about getting help from somebody. That's because he wanted to be able to handle everything himself. And unfortunately, we were so used to his handling things himself, and so dependent on his doing things right and doing things well, that when he really did begin to unravel, I don't think we had any idea of what was happening to him. We couldn't even conceive of the kind of pain that he was in (becoming emotional) and didn't think to look for it.
Dr. G: Sue, say more about the self-reliance. It's almost like you felt, "Well, Dylan seems self-sufficient and pretty self-contained" and so you thought he was the easy child.
Sue: Yes, he was. I think there were so many things about Dylan that... he was shy, he was somebody that would get very uncomfortable if he was in the limelight. He didn't like to be... he was very hard on himself. If he lost at a game or if we were playing a family game or something, he would really lose his temper. And I think these are all characteristics that made his teen years much more painful for him.
If he had been in a situation, for example, where he was bullied or humiliated, I think Dylan would have felt something like that more deeply than other kids who were more easy-going and more able to just let these things roll off their backs. But he was somebody who always seemed to have a pretty high standard for himself. He had a great deal of focus. His attention span was remarkable. He could sit down, literally, as a youngster, for hours if he was playing with something... Legos, puzzles, he loved to just work at learning.
I remember him as a young child... again, probably 2 or 3 years old... if you gave him a puzzle to do, he wouldn't just do a puzzle, he would take all the puzzles he had and dump them into like a little mountain and solve all the puzzles at the same time, because he loved to be challenged. And he learned things so quickly, it was like... I don't remember teaching him anything. It just seemed that whatever he got exposed to, he got it. I don't even remember potty training him. It just seems like I must've shown him what to do at some point, but I don't even remember teaching him so many things. He learned to read... he was in an all-day kindergarten program and had gone into school a year early. So he'd gone into kindergarten at the age of 4. And by the end of kindergarten, at the age of 4, he was readingCharlotte's Web silently to himself, and Stuart Little.
Remarkable child... just a remarkable child. And well-behaved. He was not somebody who was a handful. He did have a... when he was 2 to 3, he did have a little temper tantrum phase, but it disappeared rather quickly, once he realized that he had control over that. And the incident that I remember was, he was getting ready to have a fit and he was looking around the room for an area rug to throw himself on because he didn't want to get hurt, so the thing is, he connected to the fact that he was in control, you know, he adapted very well to taking that role to control how he behaved. I don't know what to say, just keep asking me anything you want to ask me. I'm rambling...
Dr. G: No, no, you're not rambling.
Sue: When he got to be an adolescent, and he got out of the gifted program, junior high started. He was really excruciatingly painfully shy. I remember him being so uncomfortable. I remember once dropping him off in front of school and he didn't see me, I was trying to pick him up and I yelled out his name... out the window... and as soon as he got in the car he said, "Mom, don't ever say my name in front of everybody."
That's just who he was. He didn't really have the ability to laugh at himself or to lighten up. He took things very seriously. But he was also playful, and liked to do things with the family, and he liked different kinds of foods. We'd go out for dinner and he always wanted to try the most unusual things to eat. And he loved baseball and he had a good sense of humor, and he was always sending goofy emails to his dad, or sound files that would startle him when he turned on the computer.
Some of his friends said, "Dylan was like a brother to me." He was bonded to his friends. So I didn't see anything that indicated to me that he was in danger or that he was a threat to anyone else.
Dr. G: Let me tell you what I'm hearing, Sue, and tell me if I'm correct... What I'm hearing you say is Dylan had a joy of wonder.
Dr. G: And he was passionately curious, and you actually admired Dylan.
Dr. G: And what makes it really even more painful is that you so admired what was special about him.
Dr. G: And you felt you could appreciate Dylan in ways that other people couldn't, and you even looked up to Dylan for those qualities. He had this deep curiosity and was driven to make sense of things.
Dr. G: And then when he entered adolescence, it didn't make sense to him.
Sue: Yes, I think you're probably right about that.
Dr. G: And probably, when things didn't make sense to him, he felt out of control. And he probably took it more personally because he was someone who probably prided himself on being able to make sense out of things and be in control.
Sue: I think that's very true. I think that's absolutely true.
Dr. G: Another question, he was 6'4". Was he taller than most of the other kids?
Sue: All the way through school he was a year younger than everybody in his class and was always if not the tallest, probably the second tallest, but yes, he was taller than everybody and younger than everybody.
Dr. G: Ok, because I've seen people over the years who were tall, and since I'm not, I remember telling them it must be great to be tall, and some of the tall people would say, "It's awful!"
Sue: Yes, I'm one of those tall people.
Dr. G: Was it awful because you were always the tallest in the school pictures, you were trying to hide your height, you couldn't, you'd stick out, and if you were shy, it was even more painful and you didn't ever want a picture taken with other people because you were uncomfortable in your own skin?
Dr. G: And plus, if you're tall, you're not allowed to get angry because people will think you're big and so you have all this stuff going on in your head and... and you think that was true with him?
Sue: You know, I never thought of it before (probably because Sue was a girl), but it probably was true of him. Yes, I think that probably makes sense. The other thing... he wanted to be invisible, I mean, when he went to junior high... and he'd been in the gifted program... and he was just sort of slacking off, and they had asked him, "Do you want to go to the high school for algebra?" And he was just terrified of that. He said, "No, no, no, I don't want to do that!" So we said ok well, hang out here in junior high and take geometry, take other classes, and he just didn't want to be the focus of attention. He was just very uncomfortable with that.
Dr. G: Do you think there was a point where he almost hated being smarter than other people because it wasn't helping him to be happier?
Sue: Well, I think that's true. I mean, one of the things he told us when he was in junior high, when we were saying, "What's going on? You did such a great job in elementary school, why don't you want to keep it up?" We were encouraging him to try to stay with the smart people and he said, "It's not cool to be smart." He didn't want to be identified as someone who was different or singled out, and by the end of his 6th grade year when he was still in the gifted program, he was beginning to feel very self-conscious about being in that classroom, like he was some kind of a freak.
Dr. G: I've worked with inner city schools and I can see that the kids who aren't smart, can really take it out on the smart kids. So I'm wondering if any of that was at play because I remember in parts of your book where you said as you looked into the culture there that there seemed to be a lot of bullying going on, and so the fact that he's younger and taller... that had to have been a lot to manage.
Sue: Right, and I can't say that there was a culture of being not smart, because it was a very high-achieving school in a sort of wealthy neighborhood and these were college-bound kids and so I think it would be almost arrogant of me to say there was a culture that was not smart.
But I think there was certainly a culture of conservatism and I think Dylan enjoyed being different. He did say to us when we asked him, "Are you sure you want this coat? (the trench coat he started wearing)," "I like the way I look, I like who I am." I think he really didn't want to be one of those other people that were just wearing the white baseball hats and everybody was so perfect. So I related to that because I felt the same way when I was in high school.
Dr. G: Yes, and so instead of just maybe being a relatively good sport that you might have been in high school and just sort of sucked it in, it sounded like he responded, "Well, I'm just going to have my own identity and I'm going to get this coat and I'm going to be myself."
Sue: Well, I thought that was very healthy.
Dr. G: Yes.
Sue: I thought that was admirable, I didn't... again... I didn't think anything negative about it. My only concern was that he looked silly because he'd wear a baseball hat with his hair sticking out. It looked like a clown wig and he'd have this long coat and he was so tall and he wore glasses and I thought, for somebody who's self-conscious, you sure aren't blending in. But I also thought, this is my boy, this is what he wants to do, I thought, I didn't see anything wrong with that. In fact, I applauded him for it because this school was an upper middle class white school and I was glad to see he was trying to make a statement and be himself and be different.
Dr. G: So far in telling me about Dylan, where we've gotten to is this gifted child, kind of gawky, shy, and refusing to sort of hunker in and wanted to make a statement.
Dr. G: So tell me more about Dylan. I've seen a lot of your interviews and read them, but I want you to just feel free to say whatever you feel like saying.
Sue: Well, let's get to his teen years when he got in trouble.
Sue: Because I think that was really a critical time that was really a life and death... a window into a life and death situation that I feel that I missed. And he got in trouble with Eric and they stole something one night, they stole some electronic equipment from a parked van, and it was parked on a country road in the dark. It wasn't like, in a mall or any public place, it was isolated.
They were arrested and it was an expensive piece of equipment so it would get a felony and then they were, um, whatever it is the words are, I don't know, not arraigned, but I don't know what those terms are.
Anyway, they ended up in a diversion program. Now at that time, Dylan was showing signs. He had gotten in trouble at school. First, he'd gotten in trouble for breaking into... he hacked, he and his friends hacked into the school's locker combinations, but I truly believe, and there's nothing to contradict this, I think Dylan was doing it because he wanted to see if he could, because he was one of the computer geeks at the school. He was one of the ones who helped the teachers, and helped with the computer labs... that was his role. And when he got into those locker combinations, I don't think he had any intent to use them in any way to harm anyone. I think he tested one locker to see if they'd actually found a current list.
It was one of his friends that used the information to get into a locker and leave a threatening note to the boyfriend of a girl he liked, and so stupid boy stuff.
The school didn't quite know the best way to handle this and told us that they would treat it as if someone were bringing a weapon to school and therefore suspended him.
I do remember saying to Dylan personally that I thought that was an overreaction, but I said I don't see any way we can get around it without making things worse and so I guess you're going to have to do the suspension, and are you ok? But I think at that time in Dylan's life, he was beginning to show that he was fraying, I mean, these are the incidents... we look back and we see writings where he was talking about feeling suicidal, from even the previous year.
From my perspective, I was just trying to get him through this, make him feel supported, have some kind of a parental response, so we limited some of his access to things by way of a consequence, but tried to make him feel that we were on his side. And then that's when I said, "Dylan, you're scaring me. Do you think you need to see a counselor?"
And I told the diversion people, "This has never happened, I've never had a kid get in trouble like this. Do you think he needs counseling?"
And they turned to Dylan and said, "I don't know, Dylan, do you think you need counseling?" And he said, "No, I don't think I do," and that's when he said, "I will prove to you that I don't need counseling. I'll prove it to you."
And he did. He got everything back on track, he got his schoolwork back in order and he applied to all these colleges. But I think all this work to look normal and act normal, I really think it was taking a toll on him and I think he was just working very hard to appear normal.
Dr. G: Do you think Dylan felt alone during that time?
Sue: I think he felt completely alone. I think he felt frightened and frustrated because he couldn't, no matter what he did, he tried, he was struggling in his head to behave right, do the right things, he was full of self-judgment, self-loathing and I don't think anybody understood him. I don't think he really understood what was going on himself.
Dr. G: Say more about his not feeling understood.
Sue: Um... I don't know, my thought is that I just didn't listen enough. I mean, I think my guilt comes from talking to fill the spaces and not being quiet enough to just listen to what he was experiencing. And I think we expected a lot of him and we were very proud of him, and we were very proud of the fact that at least one of our kids was willing to go to college because the other one did not, and I think that put pressure on him. And so I think he picked that up, and when he didn't feel motivated or wasn't getting good grades or whatever happened, he just turned that around on himself, I think he just beat himself up with anything that he thought was our perception of him not meeting our expectations.
Dr. G: And what about anger he felt towards the world?
Sue: Anything that we ever heard him experience any anger about were things that had happened to him in school. He felt the environment was very unfair. That the jocks and the high-priority kids, in any incident, would not get punished, but that the people around them would get blamed for things. He did talk a lot about that in the school, how the school was unfair, really perceived it to be unfair. And he talked about... he thought kids were picking on him or bullying him. That one time where he scratched the locker, and afterwards he perceived that these freshman were pushing him around.
Dr. G: Do you think Dylan might have been feeling hurt, pain and fear over and over again, plus injustice and that there didn't seem to be any relief from it? And if so, do you think Dylan was suicidal before he was homicidal, because he just wanted the pain to end?
Sue: Yes, I think that is very true. That's my understanding of what Dylan was experiencing. I really think that's true. And some of this stuff, like in his journal, we read after his death, he had also fantasized about this girl that he had a crush on, and she literally didn't even know him. She didn't know he existed. But he did some writing, some letters to her that he didn't send, talking about... implying that they would die together, there would be some sort of a double suicide... it wasn't real clear exactly what he was talking about, but he had this huge fantasy that if he could find love, everything would be fine.
And one of the experts I talked to said, if he just had a girlfriend, he probably would have been ok and would've gotten past this. But love was so important to him and he would long for this girl, and he fantasized about their being happy together, and state of bliss. And the other thing that I'm sure you remember from the book is that... how much Dylan's writings are about love and longing and hurt and talking about the state of wanting to be with someone who understands him and someone who loves him... that he had this love-fantasy relationship with.
It contrasted so deeply with Eric's writings, which just looked like madness and anybody who looked at them couldn't help but think this was a very sick person. So that's part of this too, I mean, as a mom, I'm wondering... I always wonder what I could've said. The only thing I keep coming back to is listening and asking him something so he didn't perceive that he was alone. And that's what I keep beating myself up about.
Dr. G: I'm sure that you do keep beating yourself up about that but somehow I'm guessing that Dylan wouldn't blame you. You know, it's interesting what you say about the sexual thing... a friend of mine is an expert in anti-terrorism and he said that a high percentage of Americans who go over to ISIS are young men who have never held the hand of a girl.
Sue: Oh. (tearful) How touching and how very true.
Dr. G: So speak to what you're feeling and remembering right now?
Sue: Oh dear, I guess it started when you said that he wouldn't blame me. Because I have this great sense of... that I let him down and that my own ignorance... because of my own ignorance... that he slipped through my fingers and I allowed him to die. And I've always had a great sense of wanting to apologize to him, but I know you're right, that if he were here, he'd say, "Mom, it wasn't your fault."
Dr. G: Do you have trouble believing that?
Sue: I try, but it's very hard to believe it (becoming emotional).
Dr. G: Do you think Columbine was kind of a negative watershed event and that people before it didn't think angry or sullen teenagers would become violent?
Sue: Right. And I tried to, of course, explain that when people attacked me viciously and I'd try to defend myself. You know, how could you not know there were guns in your house? How could you not know this? And it's hard to apologize for what you don't know. I mean, I never even thought to look for those things. We never had guns in our house. Never thought my son would own one. Why should I be looking for them? It's like, do you have purple mushrooms in your house? Well, of course not.
Dr. G: A lot of parents don't believe awful things will happen to them. Was that true for you?
Sue: It wasn't supposed to happen to me or mine (tearful). I never... there was nothing in my life... well that's why I wanted to write a book, to say to people, "Be alert, be aware, because just because you love somebody and you think they're wonderful, that doesn't mean they're not struggling."
Dr. G: So I guess we've covered some of the 'if only's," but now use the "if only" prompt and just go with it and see where it takes us.
"If Only..." plus "What if..."
Sue: Where it takes me now is, after all these years of exploration and activism, I go back to all kinds of "if only's."
If only I had known how to ask questions differently and listen differently would be right at the top of my list.
If only the school system had been more sensitive to my son's needs and not tried to plug it in to a punishment for behavior that might have been indicative that he needed help.
If only they had a better handle on a toxic school culture.
If only they had had procedures in place when they saw Dylan's violent paper to examine whether or not he was troubled, or whether this was just something that he wrote.
If only when he'd had his doctor's appointment for a sore throat a couple of months before this happened.
If only the doctor had done a psychological screening of somehow to say hey, you've got some serious issues going on here besides throat.
If only when he was in diversion... the whole diversion program was different.
If only knowing that a kid who'd never gotten in trouble was suddenly in trouble and what a difficult, humiliating thing that was for him inside...
If only they had been alert to the fact that he was at an elevated suicide risk and known how to advise me how to handle that, and how to help him.
I don't know... I mean, it just goes on... it's like these little circles. It starts out with my communications with him and it expands to all the systems in which he came in contact, the school system and the diversion program, the medical system...
Dr. G: Do you think that sometimes, people don't have the words to express themselves or the questions to get people to express themselves?
Sue: Right. Because words, they don't always work. They work sometimes. But even when people are asked if they're feeling suicidal, they're lying, and... sometimes, not always... so we just have to do a much better job of helping people who need it because they have some lethal condition, and nobody's seeing it, nobody's helping, and they're helpless and they're trapped and they don't have the tools, they don't have the skills, they don't have the words to help themselves.
Dr. G: Is that why you wrote the book and why you feel... I don't know if you've said this in your interviews, you may have, that you didn't have a choice. You had to write the book.
Sue: I felt that way. And this is what was so difficult because many people did not want me to write this book. But I've thought, "I have to write this book. If I couldn't write this book, I'd have no reason to go on. I have to write this book." So yes, it was very important for me to write this book. It was such a compulsion, there was nothing short of death that would've stopped me from writing this book.
Dr. G: So some people didn't want you to write this book?
Sue: To people who didn't want me to write this book, this book is always the elephant in the living room, and at times some people perceive me to be crazy to want to do it. But as I said, it was something I couldn't not do. It was like breathing, I couldn't... and I thought often about just dropping the whole idea and I couldn't. I mean, I wake up in the morning and I'm... I was... year after year, writing... talking to people... I was writing this book in my head. So yes, it's an absolute compulsion.
Dr. G: Is there any other reason for writing this book?
Sue: Yes, there's another reason. I know that there is the likelihood of there being another shooting. What I kept thinking is... for anyone who loves a child, if they have another issue, such as Dylan had, I want them to know that they can get some help.
I want people to know they can get help with their anxiety disorder as I have or that a child who is depressed can get help.
It's as much a love letter to people I know, people that I know who are in my world as it is to prevent school shootings in the world, it's to anybody who's suffering. Anyone that we know, all of our loved ones. For you, for me, for our kids and grandkids.
It's like, let us stop saying this about assuming that this was all about a parent who didn't care or parents who were inept, and let's really get down to what these issues are. And part of it was face saving and part of it was an opportunity to tell my story like The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner... I've got to talk about this because I never really had the chance to talk about it and I had this bursting out of me like some kind of an alien. I just wanted to talk about this and I needed to talk about it.
So yeah, there were many reasons why I wrote the book, many, and they changed over time.
Dr. G: Say more about the need to talk about it again and again especially for people who believe talking doesn't do anything.
Sue: I believe, with any kind of difficult situation in my life, any kind of trauma, any kind of... even an inconvenience, for me, when something I experience is painful, when I am thinking about what happened, I am feeling bad about what happened, I feel that I'm suffering because of what happened, it helps deaden the pain to talk about it and to talk about it again, and then to talk about it again, until it no longer hurts.
To me, telling a story is a process of desensitization. It lowers the pain level until finally, you've heard this story enough, you've experienced enough, talked about it enough that it ceases to hurt so much and, so yes, telling this story, to me, is an important part of healing from trauma and loss.
Being able to talk about it, being able to tell those stories about your loved ones over and over again. And I really didn't have much of a chance. Yes, I had a therapist and I had close friends, but it was different because it was such a huge event that the whole world knew about, and somehow, I wanted to communicate with the whole world to say, this may be what you perceive, but this is actually what happened.'
And I just felt a need, plus, I'm a creative person, I'm an artist, I like to write and I have the privilege of being able to tell a story that no one has heard before. And part of it is just my own artistic inclination of needing and wanting to tell a story, to make it be alive, to create something.
Dr. G: A lot of deeply traumatized people have trouble feeling happiness or joy and say they have gotten past the trauma but not over it. What do you think?
Sue: Well, there's one difference and that is, believe it or not, I'm a joyful person. I have a tremendous amount of gratitude. I love my life. I feel that everything that's happened to me, in a bizarre way, has been a gift. So I don't feel like I have some kind of complicated grief, that I never returned to joy. I feel that I've passed through a mirror and I'm living in a world very different from the one I knew before.
But I feel so surrounded by love and gratitude and joy most of the time, that part of me wants to share that with others, and that's one reason why I try to work with other survivors of murder-suicide loss and to talk about it... there is a kind of enlightenment, and you will get to a place where, in some odd way, you've been given a chance to experience something that only one in millions gets to experience, and because of that, you have a deeper, a broader understanding of something that nobody else will ever experience, and in its own peculiar way, that's a gift in itself.
Dr. G: Have you been able to find or form a group of parents of murder-suicides?
Sue: I have met quite a few of them. We don't have a support group, but, for example, when there are shootings, very often somebody will know somebody who will connect them to me and I am always happy to speak with survivors of murder-suicide loss if they would like someone to speak with.
I don't reach out to them because I understand how exposed you feel and how you don't want people to touch you or to find you or to glom on you, so I don't reach out to them. But I have made myself available and I have spoken with quite a few, several parents of shooters. It is my goal to try to educate people everywhere I go.
Dr. G: Right.
Sue: So if I reveal who I am, I know that this is a teaching opportunity for them to see the mother of a killer and see that the mother of a killer is very much like themselves. And one of the things I always try to do, immediately, is to make them feel comfortable with me, and that is the kind of thing I do. I reach out to people or I smile or I go "Yes, I know, it's hard to believe" and... I want them to be comfortable with me, so that is something that I relate to.
Dr. G: Have you ever thought that one of the elephants in the room is whoever is talking to you wants you to reassure them that their angry kid isn't your kid.
Sue: Boy, isn't that the truth. Yes.
Dr. G: And inside, they're saying, "You know, I've got a teenager that says leave me the f--- alone and slams the door," and so they're looking for anything they can hear from you that can reassure them that their moody teenager's not going to turn into Dylan.
Dr. G: And do you think they're also looking for evidence that there's something screwed up about you so they can say, you know, I'm not that parent.
Sue: Of course. Yes. It makes them feel much safer to think those things and that's one of the reasons this seething hatred and judgment sticks in homes and imprints for so long, because people can't let go. They just have to believe that I'm very different and that makes them feel safer and they just need that and they can't get past that.
Dr. G: So looking forward without editing what you're saying, just say, "what if we could do x?" and how that would lessen murder/suicides.
Sue: Right. I agree. I believe that brain health is the most important medical frontier, and it's not just behavioral issues, it's dementia, it's all the things that are taking a huge toll on society and we must put our resources and our best minds into this because it's important to all of us.
Dr. G: Are you concerned that people will mainly want to hear the details of your story and then lose interest when you make your recommendations about what to do to fix it?
Sue: Yes, I don't know what I can do about it.
Dr. G: You seem to have remarkable perseverance and your mission is so important to you, hopefully you'll be able to keep people's interest in this.
Going forward, can you say more about the frustration families have about reaching out for help with the current mental health system?
Sue: You know, that's really where all my "if only's" or "what if's" are for the future. It's just, we have GOT to do a better job with screening, diagnosis, treatment, follow-up, after care when you leave hospitalization. You know, a release from the hospital after a psychiatric hospitalization is probably at higher risk than if they'd never gone in at all. We really have a broken system and there are so many things... here's where there are things that I wish would happen and we can't even make this happen in our own state.
I think that suicide prevention education and awareness should be part of every curriculum where you work with people. It should part of educators' curricula, people in health care should have that. I know in our own state, we were trying to get this law to try to require counselors and psychiatrists to have at least a certain amount of suicide prevention training and we can't even get that passed here even though we're in the top 10 on the suicide rates.
And it's because of the system that we have here, it's very autonomous, and the professionals don't want to be told what they should be learning, so these are the kind of things that concern me, that we have to start... we have to get better things in place and make sure that people are more aware of these problems, and that once they're aware, they have something to do other than call the hotline. You know, there's got to be more than that.
Dr. G: Do you think people are too overwhelmed to do more than they're already doing?
Sue: I'm sure that's true, but not doing more can mean literally the difference between life and death and sometimes many deaths.
Dr. G: What is now one of the hardest things about this horrendous tragedy for you?
Sue: Well, one of the hardest things for me about all of this is how traumatic it is for me to be... to accidentally read what people say about me. That's one of the hardest things, where people hate me and judge me and call me a bitch. I would think by now, 17 years later, I could become desensitized to that, but I'm always speaking to that hidden critic, always sensing that whatever I say... it's like a Rubik's cube.... I have to look at, well, somebody who hates me will look at it this way or this way or this way.
Dr. G: So it must be difficult to let your guard down.
Sue: So yes, I'm certainly guarded and careful and to what extent I'm holding back or trying to protect myself, it's very much there. I can't imagine living without it.
Dr. G: Thank you Sue for taking the time and for being so open and even for letting your guard down a little for this conversation. Any final thoughts?
Sue: If you're a parent reading this, I have one request. If you have a moody child, of any age, or maybe early teens or older, I would like you to go to that child and say, "What is something that nobody in the world understands about you that causes you fear, pain or anger?'" And then, whenever they say whatever they say, let them finish and then say to them, "Tell me more." And then just listen. Don't rush in to give them advice when what they need is comfort.
Also realize that if you think your child is in a dark place and even if they push back, you don't need their permission to find out where they are and do everything you can to get them out. Do it for them, do it for yourselves, do it for me, because I only wish I had.
Dr. G: Let's hope this saves some lives.
Sue: That's what this is all about, isn't it?
Dr. G: Take good care Sue.
Sue: Thank you. I'll do my best.