Every year in America, 40,000 people take their own lives; suicide remains the tenth leading cause of death in this country, and the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24. There is nothing glamorous about suicide, and no one knows that quite so well as those who survive an attempt. As National Suicide Prevention Week comes to a close, we decided to find out what life is like after getting a second chance.
VICE called up some young men and women who have survived suicide attempts. Melanie* is a 24-year-old Masters student originally from Buffalo, who went on to find herself in the polyamory community and through work with a suicide hotline. Shenika is a 26-year-old from Cleveland who finds joy through Weird Al Yankovic. I also spoke to Sam, a 27-year old from Virginia, who credits his dog with saving his life and hopes to open a rescue farm. There’s Terry, a 20-year-old former foster child who hopes to one day foster children themselves, and Sara, a 20-year-old living in Monterey Bay who found a reason to live in dance.
* Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.
VICE: Tell me about your history with depression.
Melanie: When I was as young as nine or ten, I remember feeling like I was in the wrong time period, the wrong place, in the wrong family, but didn’t know how to get to what I wanted to be. I didn’t think of suicide as an option until I was about 12 and my friend attempted. It was weirdly empowering as I realized I had the ability to take myself out. The big things that happened up until that point were I was dating a physically abusive guy at my high school, and I had completely uprooted my life. We switched schools, switched houses. I moved from an easy swim team to a really competitive one, it was just really overwhelming. That was when I was 15.
Tell me about the attempt.
It was a Sunday night and I wanted to get out of school. I talked to my mom and she was like, “No,” so I was like, “Fine, fuck you.” I went and got a bunch of pills from my Dad’s medicine cabinet. I ended up taking 40 Tylenol and 20 muscle relaxers. And then I passed out an hour later. My parents came up and asked me if I wanted dinner, and I said, “No, I took a bunch of pills.” If I hadn’t said that, I don’t think they would have known anything is wrong. I think I left a note buried on my computer. I really just wrote it because I thought that’s what you do when you commit suicide, but I didn’t have anything to say.
What happened after that?
I was hospitalized for about a week and half. I was unconscious for about three days. There was the psych eval and then you have to stay in the hospital for 72 hours after. Then about a week of therapy. I remember even though I didn’t play the game anymore… of life, I also did not fit in with these kids that were in the psych ward with me. I remember thinking, “Whoa, I have my shit together way more than these people. I need to get out of here.”
What was it like afterwards?
I think there was a lot of denial. That was until I was in college, where I would retreat back to depression and being a victim and use it as a crutch. Then I realized that I was using this as a way of getting out of a lot of adult experiences. It was keeping me from moving forward and getting the things that I really wanted. That’s when I really made a conscious effort to become a complete person.
You seem to be in a really good place now. What’s your favorite part about being alive?
Coming into [my poly identity] and working at Trevor both came from when I was in therapy and looking back at where I had gone astray. With the poly thing, it was like, Whoa, there’s a word for all these things that I’m feeling? There are other people who want to do this too and are totally fine with it? I think that’s probably been the most exciting thing. Working at Trevor, that kind of intimacy, talking to someone when they have their guard down, you can’t really get that in a normal conversation. It’s a kind of bond that I haven’t really found anywhere else in this world.
And what are you studying?
I’m a Masters candidate studying epidemiology and biostatistics, to look at psychiatric epidemiology and how sexuality modifies that. [I’m studying] the distribution and determinants of psychiatric disorders in different sexual and gender identities.
When did you first feel suicidal?
Shenika: My entire life has been kind of eventful, so I’m realizing that it was a build-up of things… 2013 was probably my worst year thus far. I had family troubles, I had lost friends, I had found out that my daughter may have needed a major surgery, and I was discovering that the career I had spent the better part of my life preparing for was not for me. But my breaking point was early last year during a change in my relationship. After about five or six months of being heartlessly broken up with, I was at my wit’s end. I no longer wanted to live this life; anything seemed better than what I was going through.
Was there an attempt?
One day [my fiancé] dropped me off after picking up my car from out of the shop, and left to go be with the woman he had decided to leave me for. I got in my car with no clue what to do. I had been leaving my daughter at her grandparents’ house since she went to school around the corner from them, and I was in terrible shape during those months and didn’t want her to see me like that. I just drove. I remember thinking that if I just crashed, this would all be over. So on March 6th of 2014, I drove my car up to a speed of 85 MPH in a 30 MPH zone on a street riddled with potholes. By some miracle, I didn’t crash.
How did you survive?
Once I had realized what I had done and what could have happened, I drove myself to the nearest emergency room and told the staff that I felt like I might harm to myself. After hours of being hysterical and having a psychiatrist come in and talk to me, I agreed to go into a voluntary mood disorder clinic for a minimum of five days. It was during that time that I learned about depression, and was diagnosed with manic depression.
What has been your favorite accomplishment since the attempt?
Leaving school and changing my course of action for my career. The accomplishment is not giving a damn. And finally doing something that is making me happy. The most gratifying thing about being at home and starting my own business is the fact that I can get in my truck, turn my music up loud with the windows down, and creep people out with my faces and horrible singing. It’s total freedom that I enjoy the most. Driving to wherever I want when I want with my music. One particular time, I drove through the projects with Weird Al blasting, and gave the person in the car next to me direct eye contact while nodding my head. They sped off shaking their heads. It’s incredible what something so seemingly stupid can do for your happiness.
How long ago were you going through depression?
Sam: Oh, I still go through it. It’s a daily struggle. Some days I wake up and the very first thought through my head is: “Put a bullet in your head.” I’m as used to it as I’m going to get, if that makes sense. It’s not about one thing. If you took everything that stresses me out: student loans, [unemployment], past heartbreak, all this stuff. It’s been going on since middle school.
When did you attempt suicide?
It was in high school. Ninth or tenth [grade], I think. I tried to hang myself in my closet.
How’d you survive?
I used my belt and the belt broke. Before it broke, I remember, because I passed out. I was trying to get it loose, I was trying to undo it. And the belt broke.
So you decided you didn’t want to go through with it?
It was more like a panic response. Nothing really consciously went through my head of, “Oh I don’t want to do this anymore.” It was more, “Oh fuck, I’m dying.”
Now, over a decade later, you’re here. What about life do you most enjoy?
Well, I’m a nerd. I love video games, I love movies. Those are my form of escapism. Before it was drugs, [but] now that part of my life is done. I play with my dog. My dog is my life. My dog Harris saves my life on a daily basis. Honestly, in the last four or five years since I had him, when I’ve had those [suicidal] thoughts, nothing compares to, “I couldn’t do that to my dog.”
What’s your ultimate dream?
To own my own farm. I want to do a rescue farm for dogs.
When did you first feel suicidal?
Terry: I first felt suicidal when I was 17 years old, I did attempt to commit suicide when I was 18 on October 15th 2013, I bought three packs of paracetamol from the shops and took them all at once. It happened while I was at work, I kept throwing up, so I was rushed to hospital. I was given tablets to make me sick, I was constantly throwing up what felt like my stomach lining. I had to stay in hospital overnight and throughout the night blood tests were being taken.
What makes you the happiest to be alive?
My friends that I have around, that I know I can go to when I’m feeling low, they are able to bring my mood back up. Also, recently getting into contact with my dad and my little brothers that I hadn’t even met yet, [since] I was fostered. I hadn’t seem them in over nine years. My dream is to become a foster carer and look after children that I was once in the same boat as, show them love and care, so that they don’t go through life not knowing what it’s like to be cared about. Unfortunately, we don’t have many caring foster people; most usually do it for the money. My dream is also to just be happy, and have a family of my own that will unconditionally love me. My favorite memory is spending Christmas 2013 with my partner and his parents after the suicide attempt. I hadn’t had a proper Christmas for as long as I can remember!
Tell me about your history with suicide.
Sara: I was a freshman in high school when I attempted to take my life. My dad was an alcoholic, and a drug abuser, who was very abusive, physically, emotionally, mentally—very abusive. So I had to live with that until I was 12, when my mom divorced him, but the damage was already done. I also had an eating disorder. My freshman year I was like 85 pounds. I just felt like there was nothing left.
When was the attempt?
I would get these breakdowns to the point where I couldn’t breathe. I remember writing in my diary, but I couldn’t remember what I was writing, and then I decided that I couldn’t do it anymore. My brother was home. I went into the bathroom and grabbed ibuprofen. I just started taking them. I think I took 60 and then I went and sat in my room and started getting sleepy, but I was thirsty, so I went into my kitchen to grab a glass of water and that’s the last thing I remember. I woke up in the hospital and my brother was sitting next to me.
What eventually made life worth living for you?
I was a dancer before [the attempt and resulting hospitalization], but not a very serious dancer. Then I came back and I went into the dance studio, and my dance teacher sat me down and said, “I think you need to do more dance.” So I just started dancing every single day. It saved my life. Because I wasn’t good at expressing my feelings verbally, but I could express how I was feeling through dance. I just started dancing, and teaching. It was mostly contemporary, but I did everything.
Is dance still a part of your life now?
Yes, right now I am the captain of my university’s dance team. I just finished a year teaching dance at this place called Dance Fusion, it’s for kids who can’t really afford dance [classes]. So we teach them dance for free or on really low rates.