He chose life

Craig A. Miller attempted suicide, then learned how to live.

Suicide has been a thought in Craig A. Miller’s mind ever since he was 8 years old. His whole life he has wrestled with the thought of taking his own life, because of the trauma and darkness that he experienced as a child.

When Miller was 8, he was molested by a mentally challenged man who lived in his neighborhood. He was bullied endlessly, and endured a shattered life at home.

But now, Miller is not bound by those experiences. He instead uses his past as a curriculum to teach himself and others how to live rich and meaningful lives.

At the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven, Miller told his story of finding his way out of the darkness of mental illness and suicide, and into the light. He’s written a new book, “This Is How It Feels: A Memoir — Attempting Suicide and Finding Life,” that gives a deeper look into his experiences.

“I’m going to share my story with you, but this isn’t meant to be about me. I use my story as a platform to share the things I have learned from the traumatic experiences I’ve had in my life,” Miller began.

He asked the audience to stay with him throughout his story, “even during the dark stuff.”

“But I promise you, I will do the best I can to take us all out of the dark at the end, and leave you with a sense of hope and understanding,” he added.

Miller said that one of the most extraordinary things about the human experience is “our ability to see life.”

“But even more beautiful is our ability to choose how we see life,” Miller continued. “Regardless of any situation we go through, no matter how beautiful or dark or angry it might be, we have the opportunity to choose how that will affect us.”

At 8 years old, Miller had no adult role models to look up to and to learn from. He encountered an older, mentally challenged man that lived in his neighborhood. “He tried to do it with other kids, but was able to get to me easier,” Miller said.

For years, Miller was abused in the crawlspace of his own home by the man. “I could hear my parents’ footsteps going back and forth as all these dark things were happening to me in my own house,” Miller said.

One of Miller’s chores after he got home from school was to wash the dishes in the sink. He looked down at the dishes through the running water, and picked up a large chef’s knife. He said he fantasized about what it would feel like to run the blade along his skin and end his pain.

“But as powerful as that was, there was something inside my heart saying, ‘Hold on, Craig, it’s going to be all right, just stay with me.’”

Those events have never left Miller’s mind, but he doesn’t let them control him. Instead, Miller uses those experiences as fodder for writing, and teaching others who are dealing with suicide how to trust that life can get better, no matter how dire the situation.

Through his experiences, Miller is able to connect with people who have also experienced trauma, and tries to impart to them the lessons he learned: “I was scared to death of life, but through my experiences I have learned compassion and empathy.”

For Miller, overcoming such a dark period in his life has given him immense pride in the path he has taken. “I would not change one thing in my life. I am very, very proud of who I am. I am my own hero, because now it isn’t just the bad I see. I have learned to apply balance to my life,” Miller said.

Miller’s life lacked a basis of trust when he was young. His mother, father, and stepfather were alcoholics, and his mother had extreme undiagnosed mental health issues. “She would take one glass at a time from the kitchen cabinet and smash it on the floor,” Miller said of his mother.

For Miller, his birth father was “an oasis, like a desert island that is so far out of reach.” His father was a Vietnam War veteran whose life was consumed by his time in the military. He was an alcoholic with post-traumatic stress disorder, who was “filled with empty promises,” Miller said.

Every day after his parents were divorced, when Miller was in middle school, his father would promise to spend time with him at the end of the school day. After waiting for hours for his father to arrive at his house, Miller would call the bar where he knew he was drinking and ask to talk to him. “Something came up, let’s plan on tomorrow, OK?” his father would say over the phone.

“It would be like three to six months before he fulfilled that promise of seeing me,” Miller said.

After years of abuse and neglect, Miller began to develop extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder.

He would walk down the sidewalk, avoiding cracks and bumps and trying to stay perfectly in the center. If he strayed from the center of the walkway, or accidentally landed on a crack, he anticipated a miserable day filled with angst and negativity. “If I move a little bit left or a little bit right, I am going to throw off everything, and something horrible is going to happen,” Miller said. “I knew that didn’t make sense, but man, I couldn’t stop it.”

These daily rituals he performed took up 95 percent of his waking hours.

At age 20, all the trauma and negativity in his life consumed him entirely, and while sitting on a bed in a room he rented in his father’s girlfriend’s house, Miller ingested sleeping pills and attempted to end his own life.

He came to in the intensive care unit, where he spent three days recovering.

His estranged brother sat next to him in the hospital room, thinking of what to say. “Me and my brother were very different, and we weren’t very close, so it was uncomfortable,” Miller said. “But I could tell he was thinking about what to say.”

Finally, Miller’s brother asked him, “What’s it going to take for you to stay?”

At first, Miller didn’t know the answer to that question, but after considering it for a while, he knew that all he wanted was to experience life, instead of hiding from it.

“I just wanted to be OK, to wake up in the morning and not be scared of the day. I was tired of feeling pain for no reason,” Miller said.

From that day on, Miller made a promise to himself: He would devote all his energy to a word that he says is largely underused — recovery.

“I never once considered myself as being in recovery. It was always that there was something wrong with me, or that I was broken,” Miller said.

After experiencing the overwhelming fear he had as a child, Miller said, “There is nothing left to be afraid of.” Now Miller looks at life, not through a lens of suicide and rejection, but through one of hope.

After choosing not to die, he learned that life is so much more than just getting through the day.

He learned to look at the positives in life, instead of focusing on only the negatives. “That is one thing I had throughout my life, but my suicidal thoughts overwhelmed it every time. But now all I have is hope, and I am not afraid to live every day,” Miller said.

For years, Miller said he was giving himself a “crash course” on his own psyche: “I talked myself out of suicide, out of dying — is it even possible for you to know yourself better than that?”

After his suicide attempt, Miller understood that no matter how hard life gets, it is always worth it to choose life.

Now Miller is happily married, with two children, and says that although “the option” of suicide is always with him, he wants to live.

“For me, mental illness was a powerful path to self-discovery,” Miller said.

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