Though his story is difficult for many people to hear, Kevin Amundson thinks it’s important to get it out in the open. When he was just 20 years old and suffering from undiagnosed depression, the New Prague man attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Miraculously, Amundson, 24, survived, and as he struggled to heal both mentally and physically from his injuries, he felt a strong determination building within: to help others understand and treat depression, and to discourage as many people as possible from ending their lives.
“The way that I see it is if my story can help even one person out there from going through it and attempting to do what I did, it will be worth it for me to share my story,” Amundson said. “My friends and family experienced so much pain while I was recovering and they still do to this day. I can only imagine the kind of pain that would be there if I would’ve died. I don’t want that pain for anybody. If I can help even one person then everything will be worth it.”
Amundson figures that the more people who hear his story the better. So when his family learned that CaringBridge, the Minnesota-based social-networking site that helps people chart challenging health journeys, was looking for stories to highlight for their national “How We Heal” campaign, they stepped forward and offered to share their experience.
Amundson and his family were selected out of hundreds of submissions, said CaringBridge CEO Liwanag Ojala. His message was that powerful.
“Kevin’s journey of healing was different from any other story we heard. We were struck by the strength of his relationship with his family, how open he was about the struggle that he’s been through and his determination to help others in any way he can. We knew that he had the potential to make a difference in the lives of others, and it was clear he was determined to do that.”
For Amundson, that determination to use his experience to save lives became clear as he fought to recover from his own injuries.
“Before I was even out of the hospital,” he said, “I decided I wanted to talk about my story.”
Impulsive action after long depression
For Amundson, the decision to take his own life came quickly. He’d been quietly suffering for some time, but never understood that the feelings of hopelessness he was experiencing were actually undiagnosed depression.
“I went though high school health class, middle school health class,” Amundson said. “I learned all about depression. But I never thought of myself as being depressed. I just thought that was they way I was.”
Then, as after he graduated high school and entered the workforce, it started to feel like his troubles were piling up.
One day at work he heard that his then-girlfriend had cheated on him. Amundson said that that realization, combined with other life stresses, pushed him over the edge.
“It was definitely one of the lowest points of my life for sure,” he said. “On the drive home from work, I decided I didn’t want to fight it anymore. I wanted it to end.”
Amundson decided he would kill himself that very afternoon. “I was terrified, but at the same time I was in such pain because of the major depression that I didn’t see a different way out,” he said. “I drove home, grabbed a rifle, then drove to the pier and called 911. I told them where I was and what I was about to do. I didn’t want some 12-year-old to come out there with his grandma and find me.”
Amundson’s decision to alert police is was what saved his life. Sitting on the dock at his favorite lake, he shot himself through the bottom of his jaw, but the bullet somehow entered his brain without killing him. The local sheriff’s office sent a helicopter to Amundson’s location. When officers arrived, they found him on the dock, bleeding heavily, but still conscious and speaking.
Everything — from Amundson’s decision to kill himself to his rescue — happened at lightning speed. “From the time I decided to do it to when I did it was about an hour,” he said. The helicopter was in the air and headed to his location before he’d even hung up the phone.
Long road to health
Eventually, doctors made the decision to bring Amundson out of his medically induced coma. His family was told that his condition when he woke up would likely determine his prospects for recovery.
“When they took me off the drugs, my parents said, ‘It is up to him whether he wants to wake up or not,’ ” Amundson said. He did want to wake up, and from then on he was singularly focused on healing.
“I spent a month in the ICU, then another month hopping from hospital to hospital,” he said. “It was a tough time, but I was focused on getting better.”
While Amundson was in the hospital, his family set up a CaringBridge site to keep loved ones aware of his condition. As the weeks added up, the number of people checking in on him and his family grew.
“We are huge Minnesota Wild fans,” Amundson said. “One of the Wild’s slogans is ‘We’re a team of 18,000.’ So my dad made a big deal about it when my story on CaringBridge hit 18,000 views. He told me that I now have as many fans as the Minnesota Wild.”
To say that healing from his injuries wasn’t easy in an understatement. No one thought that Amundson would ever get to where he is today.
“When I woke up, they said, ‘Don’t expect to have the use of the right side of your body again,’” Amundson recalled. “I did have a lot of trouble with my right foot and right leg at first, but I proved the doctors wrong.”
Four years later, Amundson has recovered full use of his right side. He works as an assistant warehouse manager at Alliance Outdoor Group and drives his beloved pickup truck.
Though 90 percent of the bullet remains in his brain, Amundson said, “I can drive and do all normal human functions fine now. I have a little bit of cognitive problems. If I have to really concentrate on something, I might get a headache. I also don’t have a sense of smell anymore.”
But those are minor concerns considering how debilitating his injuries could have been.
“The doctors were amazed,” Amundson said. “If you saw me on the street you wouldn’t think anything out of the ordinary. I can communicate normally. I can act normally. I’m a normal 24-year-old. I just happen have a bullet in my brain.”
A normal 24-year-old who now has deeper understanding of his own mental health. He had never made connections between his family mental health history and his own.
“My dad has been on antidepressants since he was in high school,” Amundson said. “I always knew that, but it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. I didn’t realize that there was a history of major depression in my family, never made the connections to how I was feeling.”
Since his suicide attempt, Amundson has been taking the antidepressant Prozac. It helps lift the depression that had once felt so much a part of his personality that he didn’t even realize it existed.
Amundson’s lingering memory problems can make it difficult to keep up with this important medication. “I was hospitalized once because I was forgetting to take about every other dose,” he said. “Now I have an alarm set on my phone to make sure I won’t forget.”
Man on a mission
Being open about his depression has been tough for Amundson, but he’s determined to keep fighting — and talking.
“The area I come from is a bunch of small towns,” he said. “We’re all country people. When I tell people my story, they are usually sympathetic toward me. But then one out of every 150 to 200 people I talk to, will say something like, ‘You should just try again.’ I know that they are in the minority, and I have very little patience for people that are like that. I think that telling the truth about what happened and who I am will make it easier for others.”
Ojala said that she sees Amundson’s determination to talk about his own depression and suicide attempt as heroic.
“The bravery that it takes to be open about his health journey is impressive,” she said. Documenting a personal struggle with mental illness is brave, she added, “because, unlike most of the health journeys that are documented on our site, like premature birth or chronic illness or cancer, there isn’t a protocol for how to talk about what’s happening, how to help people in that situation. Kevin is out there trying to show us how.”
Many physical illnesses are accompanied by mental illness, Ojala said. And mental illness alone can be just as devastating as any physical illness.
“If you have a friend or family member who gets cancer, we all know how to behave,” Ojala said. “But when someone is suffering from mental illness or addiction, the community doesn’t often know how to react. Kevin’s story and his family’s honesty about it may help change that.”
Lately Amundson has begun speaking to larger groups about his experience.
“I talked to my sister’s class in high school about my attempt and how I survived,” he said. “Afterward, I had several kids come up and want to talk to me about their own depression. I’m still in contact with a bunch of them on Facebook. When they are having a hard time, they contact me and I remind them that they are here for a reason, that there are people who love them and they need to stay alive.”
Ojala said that she believes that those kinds of quiet acts demonstrate that Amundson’s recovery and his outreach are interconnected.
“We love that Kevin has a desire to use his story to help others,” she said. “He has the desire to share insights, not just for people who are considering suicide, but also for the people who love them. I think he is acting out of a true, pure spirit of, ‘How can I be helpful to other people?’ It is a central part of his healing journey.”