Cumberland Times-News

Local News

September 7, 2013

Suicide counselor has firsthand knowledge of struggle

Bullet just missed his heart and spine when he shot himself

CUMBERLAND  —  Jim Atkisson understands what it’s like to pull the trigger of a gun and instantly regret it. On a cold winter night in January 1986, Atkisson, then 16, walked into the woods armed with a rifle and a plan to commit suicide.

“I maimed myself, I disfigured myself. These are things that I never thought that when I pulled the trigger that I would actually regret it and I would fight for my life,” said Atkisson, who is a psychiatric rehabilitation program counselor with Committed to Change.

Fortunately, Atkisson missed his left heart wall by a quarter of an inch and his spine by less but lives with the physical pain every day.

“They rolled me on my right side during surgery and literally cut me right in half,” said Atkisson. “I have this bullet hole in my chest. There is shrapnel still in my body from it because the bullet was too close to my spine for them to remove.”

A week after the attempted suicide, Atkisson walked away from the hospital 20 pounds thinner, but his journey didn’t end there. Atkisson still had to contend with the mental and social anguish.

“That one moment was over in a blink of an eye and the consequences have lasted me all of my life. It’s just not worth it,” said Atkisson.

People have told the Cumberland area resident to lie about his suicide attempt.

“They told me it would have been better if my legs had been cut off or burned in fire than to have scars from suicide be-cause people could see scars from an accident and be more forgiving,” said Atkisson.

Instead of thinking of the consequences, Atkisson became consumed with planning his suicide.

“My suicide plan began on a summer afternoon and ended on a winter night,” said Atkisson.

For Atkisson there was a series of five steps in his suicide plan and a month before he shot himself he reached what he calls a resolution phase.

“That is the point when a person has resigned themselves that they are going to be dead and they are at peace with everything,” said At-kisson.

Prior to his suicide attempt, Atkisson did what he calls the dry runs.

“I would run up to the point of death — I would want to dip my toe in it and back away without the consequences. I started being reckless,” said Atkisson. “I remember telling people I wasn’t going to graduate high school. I remember the very moment when I surrendered my life to suicide. In my mind I was like this is how I’m going to die — I’m going to kill myself.”

Atkisson’s suicide attempt stopped him from fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a police officer and from joining the Army.

It brought him to the brink of death but from it he gained a new lease on life as a s urvivor, a suicide prevention advocate, a motivational speaker and an author.

“I went from suicide to life,” said Atkisson. “Soon as that bullet hit, I made another conscious decision where I decided I wanted to live. I went from a 16-year-old curled into a fetal position to a husband and the dad I am today.”

Just as there were five steps for Atkisson’s suicide plan, there are five major life choices that he used to rescue himself from suicide. His life choices were his faith, seeking psychiatric help, a fervor for life, serving others and his vow to never attempt suicide again.

 At 28, Atkisson found himself homeless and wrought with dark thoughts.

“I remember thinking I could be dead for a week and nobody will know I’m gone,” said Atkisson. “I enforced my vow by finding a reason to live.”

At that point in his life, Atkisson’s love of coffee got him through the dark days.  

“I thought if I am dead tomorrow I can’t have another cup of coffee,” said Atkisson. “Even though the rest of my life was crap, a cup of coffee got me through.”  

Atkisson’s tip for those contemplating suicide is to make the same five life choices he made.

 “I urge people who are contemplating suicide to go live their life — don’t die. You are better off dying climbing Mount Everest, chasing your dream, living out your life, than dying at the base of the mountain surrendering your life to a monster that doesn’t care about your life,” said Atkisson. “If you can achieve those five things ... the thoughts of suicide become less and less because your life is so full.”

Atkisson stressed the importance of serving others, noting that it is therapeutic for the pain.

 “By serving others we are no longer focusing on our pain inside of us, we are focusing outward,” said Atkisson. “Instead of dying inwardly, I’m going to pour my life out serving others. ”

Atkisson’s desire to become a motivational speaker was ignited after he shared his story for the first time, five months after the attempted suicide, at a youth camp.

“I was able to get them help and it was very rewarding for me,” said Atkisson. “It hit an emotional nerve with them. I was their hero and I don’t know why.”

At times his story has been met with criticism and negative reactions.

 “I felt like an animal because people were laughing at me and calling me names. I didn’t feel like a little boy any more — I felt like a reanimated monster,” said Atkisson. “The fact that I could help people brought a level of humanity back into my life.”

Within 18 months of Atkisson’s attempted suicide both a vice principal at his high school and a student who was in his math class shot and killed themselves. Neither one knew about Atkisson’s suicide attempt.

“My whole school thought it was a hunting accident,” said Atkisson. “There was things about dying that I was unaware of until I actually experienced it. If they had known what I had known ... once the bullet hits that it can’t come back.”

Atkisson wrote several books to share his story. He started with a fictional book under a pen name.

“I was going to let this pen name guy get all the flak that I had been getting all my life,” said Atkisson.

People who read the book asked if the story was true and told Atkisson that he needed to share his story.

“I wrote this story in my autobiography and as I was writing I was like, I can really do some good in life. I know a lot about suicide  — I was in the lion’s pit with it,” said Atkisson.

Atkisson has been featured on several radio stations and recently had an hour-long TV interview in Illinois with Three Angels Broadcasting Network, a Christian TV and radio network. The interview will air in the fall on Dish Network.

Atkisson is available to speak to civic organizations or schools and can be reached via his website at www.fromsuicidetolife.com.  

Contact Elaine Blaisdell at eblaisdell@times-news.com.

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