By Dese'Rae L. Stage
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004. I'd been misdiagnosed with depression years before, and fed a steady stream of antidepressants which did nothing but kill my sex drive and make me tired and even more depressed than when I started out. And I'd been cutting myself for nearly a decade.
I'd moved to Tennessee to be with the girl who was my first passionate love. It was one of those whirlwind romances, but it was volatile too.
We went through the textbook progression of domestic abuse. First there were the threats, then she started pushing me, then hitting me in places only visible beneath my clothes, and then it stopped mattering. No holds barred.
I'd give ultimatum after ultimatum, but I never followed through on leaving.
In late 2005, it got so bad that I bought a bottle of vodka and planned to drink myself into oblivion before I got into my car to drive myself off of whatever bridge I could find. The thing that saved me that night was that she came home before I thought she would.
The fights lessened in intensity for awhile after that. I was just about to graduate with a degree in psychology. I was waiting tables, had a full course load, and spent the entire fall applying to PhD programs. I kept myself busy, but my illness was getting worse, too. I had crappy insurance and no idea how to manage my symptoms.
The fights got worse again, and I started hitting back this time. Even though it was in self-defense, it made me feel like the scum of the earth.
So when I found out she was cheating on me, I—understandably—didn't take it well. We were clearly at some critical juncture, and I didn't know how to live with her, but I didn't think I could live without her.
We'd break up and get back together in this maddening cycle, and I'd come home and sit on the porch, crying and listening to the trains go by on the tracks behind our house. I remember writing in my journal, “I DON'T. KNOW HOW. TO DO THIS,” over and over in block letters. My heart was hurting and my mind was hurting. Everything felt freaking impossible and it seemed to me that it'd be a lot easier to die. I remember berating myself for not having the balls to lay down on those train tracks.
So I guess it was no big surprise when I did finally try to kill myself. That night, she didn't come home, even though I begged her to. But she did call the police.
I remember them pounding on the door (it sounded like gunshots) and barging into my house. I was so hysterical I couldn't answer them when they asked my name. I had the wherewithal to call my mom, who gave them my information. When they put her back on the phone with me, she told me to go willingly. She told me to get myself out of that hospital as quickly as possible, to lie if I had to. She reminded me that having mental health issues on my records could ruin my chances of getting a job.
I remember the quiet of the ambulance ride. My next memory is of lying in the hospital bed and the nurse giving me a tetanus shot. Then drawing my blood. I told her I was terrified of needles, which she disregarded. As she filled the vials with my blood, she laid them on my stomach one by one. That still seems like one of the cruelest things anyone could do in such a situation. After that, I lied my way through the psych eval, swore that I wasn't suicidal, and I was free, just like that.
Before I left the hospital that night, I promised myself one thing: I was going to find a way to stop hurting myself.
I was interested in psychology because I wanted to understand what drives people to want to die, and how to prevent it. I'd been dealing with depression and self-injury since my freshman year of high school, and I'd already lost a friend to suicide. So, suicide was a topic I cared deeply about, even before it became a shame-filled memory of my own.
The problem was that, nearly every time I brought up the possibility of studying suicide to faculty members, the door would get slammed in my face. It was almost always: "You'll need to wait for grad school for that. The topic is too sensitive for an undergrad to be taking on." It didn't make any sense to me. Suicide isn't a pretty topic, but someone's got to pay attention to it.
It's not that I got turned away by 2 or 3 professors, either. I moved a lot because I fell in love a lot, so I attended 5 undergraduate institutions and I heard the word "NO" frequently.
The exception was Dr. Dula at my alma mater, East Tennessee State. He ran the Applied Psychology Lab, and he had this long hair that went down his back, but he wore a tie every day to teach. He was different. He'd been in construction for a long time before he decided to pursue an education, and you could see that real world experience in his approach to academia. He ran his lab in such a way that anyone who was motivated enough could be doing research, and on any topic. He wasn't uptight, and he wasn't afraid of suicide.
My experience in Dr. Dula's lab shored me up. It made me think that maybe I could do the work I wanted to.
I ended up getting into a Ph.D. program back home in Miami. I knew who I wanted my advisor to be off the bat. I remember walking down the hall on the way to my first meeting with him and how nervous I was. I also remember how he shot me down. He said, "You know, maybe you should just work with some of my archival data on alcohol use in adolescents."
And that was when I knew it wouldn't work.
The nature of bipolar disorder is a constant cycle of depression and mania. You can't get out of bed for weeks or months. And then, suddenly, you can fly. You've got all these ideas. You talk too fast, you never sleep, you're invincible, and you're no stranger to drunken nights and one night stands. After my suicide attempt, I decided I would handle my mental health without medication—finding the right cocktail is more of an art than a science, and I was tired of it—but that left me vulnerable to the whims of my broken brain.
So, there was the depression. The lack of support in my program was crushing. I was still dealing with the breakup. I'd moved back to Miami for grad school, which I never really wanted to do, but I thought it would be nice to be closer to my family again. In the fall of that year, I lost one of my best friends. Maybe you can guess how.
And then there was the mania. One of the symptoms of a bipolar mania is reckless spending, and I had all this loan money just sitting in my bank account. So I bought a camera. I traveled to all the cities I'd wanted to see. and while all of this was happening, I fell in love with two things: NYC and that damn camera. I took it everywhere.
Another symptom of bipolar mania is taking risks without any consideration of the consequences. So, by spring, I gave up on the program. I decided to quit and move to New York.
I packed my car and started driving. I went to a Tori Amos concert one night a couple of months after I got here and made a friend who got me a job with a record label. Music became my life.
I started going to shows several nights a week, and I always took my camera. I really learned about photography by shooting musicians. Subjects are constantly moving and the light changes every few seconds. You never know what to expect and you learn quickly.
I did this for about three years before I started to figure out why it didn't feel fulfilling to me. I'd photographed and met most of my heroes. I had cool kid cred, but I wanted to be doing something GOOD, something that would change the world in some small way. I was raised on the philosophy that you can do anything if you set your mind to it, and New York was proving that it was possible.
I immediately returned to the thing I'd thought I would have to give up. I realized I could use my camera to achieve what I failed to achieve through science.
I did some research. I Googled "suicide survivor," and what I found was people who had lost someone they loved, not people like me, who had tried to die and lived instead. People who were confused about what happened next, who felt so much shame that they couldn't talk about what had happened to them, people who felt misunderstood and alone.
There were no resources for attempt survivors. I decided that this was where I would focus my efforts.
What I learned was that most peer support groups for what we're now calling "loss survivors" exclude attempt survivors—there's a lot of anger and confusion there. If you've never felt a true depression, or that kind of despair with the tunnel vision that tricks you into believing that the people you love would be better off without you, it's a hard thing to wrap your head around.
The professional organizations had nothing to say about attempt survivors either, which struck me as odd—if you want to learn about suicide, why not ask the people who tried to kill themselves? You can ask why over and over, but the dead won't answer you. We will.
The few times attempt survivors were asked to lend their voices to the conversation, they did so out of anonymity because of a fear of stigma and shame. Worse, clinicians didn't want attempt survivors canoodling with one another. They thought we were dangerous, and that all we wanted to talk about was the best knot for a noose, or how you should go down the road and not across the tracks.
I finally hit upon my approach: I would have attempt survivors tell me their stories and then I would make a portrait. Full names, faces, no anonymity. People, not statistics.
I wanted to show people what we look like, how we feel, and I wanted to show other attempt survivors that they're not alone. That we're here, and that we shouldn't be ashamed, and that if we speak out, maybe people will start to understand that mental illness is the same as physical illness, maybe people will understand that just because it's in your mind doesn't mean it's worth invalidating.
We have a lot of ideas about what depression or other psychiatric disorders look like, but often they're not based in truth. As I mentioned before, a lot of people don't know what it feels like or even what turns life could take to get you there. And we don't know how to talk about it because it's fucking scary.
I called my project Live Through This and I've been working on it for three and a half years now. At first, it was slow going. I didn't know how to find attempt survivors, so I started posting ads to Craigslist. Often, they would get flagged and taken down, but here and there, I'd find somebody who wanted to share their story. I built a website and started posting a portrait and a story once a week.
In February of last year, I launched a Kickstarter campaign. I wanted to travel to cities around the country and gather stories—New Yorkers are a special bunch, and I don't think we're necessarily representative of what the entire country looks like. I wanted a fair representation of the population.
The support poured in. I raised $23k. The Associated Press covered the project. I was on HuffPost Live and BBC Radio. Attempt survivors from all over the world emailed me wanting to share their stories. I haven't had to post a Craigslist ad since.
I've seen the momentum of the attempt survivor movement continue to grow over the past two years. We're popping up on task forces and starting to be considered when it comes to decisions on policymaking. What I'm seeing now is that the professionals in the field are starting to see that lived experience is worth acknowledging. The very people who were saying no to me years ago are listening now, and I don't even have letters behind my name.
One of the first interviews I did was with a friend of a friend. We both grew up in Miami, maybe a mile from one another. Went to the same elementary school, and even had some of the same teachers at different times, but we never met until we were introduced to one another in NYC. I remember listening and being struck by how her story was so similar to mine. I cried the whole way home because I knew exactly what that pain felt like.
The people I was interviewing knew I was also an attempt survivor, but I hadn't shared my own story yet. I had this idea in my head that doing so would lessen the impact of the project, somehow. But in looking back, that's exactly the point.
Someone, somewhere will find these stories, and they'll see one that parallels their own, and they'll find strength in that. Maybe they'll share their story, or be less afraid to reach out to a friend they're worried about. Maybe they won't be so scared to just talk about it.
Dese'Rae is Founder of Live Through This, a collection of portraits and stories of suicide attempt survivors, as told by those survivors. She was also recently featured in The New York Times, "Suicide Prevention Sheds a Longstanding Taboo: Talking About Attempts."