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Suicide Anonymous: Recovery From Addiction to Death

A fledgling program modeled on AA helps people who have a compulsion to kill themselves.

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By May Wilkerson

04/12/12

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"A bridge back to life" is a metaphor often applied to Alcoholics Anonymous. But perhaps no one could find more truth in this phrase than a suicide addict. "Suicide Anonymous" is a 12-step group for people who are hard-wired to crave death, in the same way that an alcoholic or drug addict is hard-wired to drink or use. Modeled on AA, the group emphasizes personal responsibility, mutual support and belief in a "higher power" to help members recover from an addiction to self-destruction. The SA community is small; there are currently just five regular meetings in the US, in Philadelphia and Memphis—where the program was founded in 1996. SA founder Kenneth Tullis, 68, attempted suicide seven times. He credits extensive 12-step work and therapy for his own recovery. A psychiatrist and addiction specialist, Tullis explains that suicide addicts are "hooked" on the high they get from contemplating suicide, just as alcoholics are addicted to the relief they get from drinking. "If the '12 Steps' work for everything else," Tullis says, "why not for preventing suicide?"

Phil, a member of Philly's Westhampton group, thanks SA for saving his life. "I wanted to rid the world of me," he says of the time when he slit his wrists and swallowed a mouthful of pills. "I would never have attempted it if I'd had SA." Janet, a 54-yr-old artist and mime, thinks the groups provide a vital place for sufferers like her to open up about a widely-stigmatized subject. "People don't want to talk about suicide," she says. But in SA meetings, "We have no secrets." Perhaps the most stirring tribute comes from Eric, a 52-year-old man who has a terminal illness. The program "helps me keep going," he says. "Even on my deathbed, I want to live."

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