"I survived a suicide attempt."
I interviewed Megan Alldredge in Morehead, KY on October 14, 2015. She was 24 at the time, and a student of Equine Science at Morehead State University.
My dad [died by] suicide back in 2007.
It was March 22. It was just a somewhat normal day. Wake up. Have breakfast. Go to school. And then, notice that people were starting to act weird. Normally, I’m bullied every day of school. Thrown into lockers, having fistfights, that sort of thing. That day, people just started coming up to me. Hugging me. Telling me how sorry they were. Saying that they wouldn’t wish that on their worst enemies.
I didn’t know what they were talking about. I thought everybody was completely nuts. But it turned out that my mother had called the school, saying that my father had [died by] suicide at 3 AM that day. She didn’t tell me, personally. She had my best friend from church come to my house with her father and the children’s church pastor and tell me face-to-face.
Ever since that day, my world turned completely around. I turned my back on everybody. I didn’t want to do anything. Didn’t want to socialize or anything. I just wanted to give up. I wanted to die. That’s when the self-injury and the suicide attempts started. It was just when I started high school.
As soon as I got into high school, I started getting bullied all over again. I was already numb enough from my dad’s suicide that I didn’t care anymore. I’d think, “Go ahead, bully me. Go ahead, send me further into the ground than I already am.”
I started writing suicide notes. I started drawing different ways of killing myself. I started talking a certain way that even my friends in school started getting worried about me. I tried slitting my wrist, slitting my ankles... any way to just get the pain out. I know now that it’s not healthy to do that, but back then, I didn’t know what was happening. Nobody would talk to me; nobody would explain to me what I was feeling. They just said, “You’re suicidal. You either stop what you’re doing right now, or you go to a mental institution.”
So I hid what I was doing, but I kept doing it. I would wear long sleeves and long pants to school even though it was seventy, eighty degrees out. I would stop associating with my friends. I would just back off from everybody. Act out in class; pick fights. Then I got into the music program at my high school, and that really helped a lot, just to get to graduation. Music is a good way to express yourself, especially when you’re feeling lost and depressed and all of that. I was in marching band for all four years of my high school.
Des: What did you play?
Megan: I played clarinet, tenor sax, bari sax, a lot of the pit instruments… I got switched to pit because, my sophomore year, I had a knee injury that ended my marching, so I helped the band further by being in the pit for the remainder of the four years. That was really cool. I learned a lot about the different instruments.
To be quite honest, a lot of my band friends pushed me harder than anybody else in the school to get better, to start looking at things from a different perspective, and to fight to live. I use that a lot, especially during Christmas and Thanksgiving and all of the family holidays, because now I don’t have a dad to do stuff with.
We used to do all kinds of things. We used to shoot bows. We used to bowl. Basketball, walk the dogs, go to the park. Anything a normal father and daughter would do, I guess. He was my world, and I still can’t imagine my life without him. But I’m living life without him. And not a day goes by that I don’t regret starting to cut and trying to end my life. Not only is it unfair to me, it’s also unfair to my mom and my grandparents. Whoever I have left. It would be unfair that I, too, go away permanently. I’d just be spreading the pain to other people.
Now that I’m in college, I still struggle with cutting and I still struggle with self-injury, but the spacing between each one is getting longer as time goes by.
Last Sunday I spread my dad’s ashes. That was a big move for me, because I held onto that for eight and a half years. When I spread those ashes, it was like a huge weight came off of my chest.
Des: Did you take him somewhere good?
Megan: Oh, yeah. I took him up to Eagle Lake. He can overlook the lake. He can see the deer. He can go pretend that he’s fishing. He can see the sunset. He can see the geese landing on the lake. He can also look over campus and know that I’m okay.
Des: Tell me about your feelings about your mom not telling you, and what happened after with your mom. Does she communicate about it? Were they together?
Megan: No. My mom and dad divorced after I turned nine, so he moved away and I got stuck with her. But I really wanted to be with my dad, because he actually wanted to do stuff with me, whereas she would rather work.
Des: What did you think about her not telling you?
Megan: Quite frankly, I was pissed. I just couldn’t believe that she didn’t have the courage or the audacity to tell me herself. She had to call three other people just to tell me. She had to drag my best friend into this, and I did not like that whatsoever.
But then again, who wants to hear that their father has [died by] suicide? I would much rather hear from someone who loves me than someone who doesn't, so I’m actually glad that my best friend told me.
Des: Does your mom talk about it at all? I’m getting a sense that you guys aren’t super close.
Megan: No. We’ve never been close. She doesn’t talk about it at all. When I try to bring it up, she just shoots me down: “Shut up, or get out.” I’m living with my grandparents now.
Des: Do they talk about it?
Megan: Yeah. They talk about it. They bring up good memories.
Des: His parents?
Megan: No, my mom’s parents. His parents live in Texas. Well, my grandmother lives in Texas. My grandfather passed away a year before my dad did, so I’m guessing that’s what pushed him over the edge. But I don’t know. There was no note, there was no indication, there was nothing. Just, like, poof.
Des: Are you angry at him?
Megan: I was for most of the time, but as the years have gone on, the anger current dissipated. Just pure depression set in. I’d think, “Yeah, I’m angry that you left me, but I’m sad that you’re not here now. ‘Cause you’re not here to see my graduation. You’re not here to see me go off to college. You’re not here to see me ride horses almost every week. You’re not here to see me use what you’ve taught,” and it’s frustrating.
Des: Why’d you wait so long to spread his ashes? What made you decide to do it when you did?
Megan: I felt like that was the time. It was time to let go and it was time to move on. Yeah, I’ll miss him forever, but I can’t keep holding onto to the past. If you keep holding onto the past, you can’t move forward in your life, and you can’t help others who’ve been in your situation.
Des: Do you still have suicidal thoughts?
Megan: Sometimes. Mostly, it happens around the holidays. For instance, Halloween is coming up, and that’s one of Dad’s favorite holidays. He would pull all kinds of pranks on teenagers. But it’s getting better.
Des: How do I ask this question? Cutting versus suicidal thoughts—what do those different kinds of thoughts look like for you?
Megan: For me, cutting is just a quick release. Suicidal thoughts are, “I actually don’t want to be here anymore and I’m thinking about ending it.” But I don’t want to go that far as to actually doing it, so I immediately start contacting my friends on campus. I immediately go to my roommate and be like, “Hey, you need to keep every sharp object away from me right now.”
When I was a freshman, I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I would just go and cut, but now that I’m a super senior, I’ve grown a lot since being here. Not only have I gotten so used to not picking up a knife or not picking up a razor with the intention to harm, I’m now using those tools for what they’re meant to do.
Des: How did you learn to do all that?
Megan: Mostly through my friends’ stubbornness. And repetition. A lot of repetition. For instance, my third year here, I had the best roommate of all time. She knew my backstory, she knew how I was, and every time that I got a suicidal thought, she would give me this look like, “Don’t you do it. Don’t you even think about it, don’t even look over there.” And every time I don’t do it or I don’t even look at it or I don’t even think about it, she rewards me. Kind of like what you would do for a dog or a horse. Positive reinforcement.
Des: Sugar cube.
Megan: Exactly. Only for me, it was Pizza Rolls. Or Twizzlers.
Des: Whatever works. So, you said you still struggle with cutting. I do too. It’s been ten years since I “quit.” How do you feel about that when the thoughts come back up, and you kind of make the decision, “Hey, I’m gonna try to stop this now?”
Megan: If I’m suicidal and I really want to cut, that’s when I’ll go to my friends. But if I’m cutting just to relieve stress or whatever… I try my best not to do it, but sometimes, I end up doing it. I don’t know. It’s really difficult to explain.
Des: How do you try not to? What do you do?
Megan: I personally hide—let’s say, my keys—because that’s what I like to use a lot of the time. I hide my keys wherever I can’t get to them, or I sneak them onto my roommate’s side of the bed, ‘cause I’m not allowed to be over there. So I just sneak them somewhere and I’ll go for a walk. Sometimes, fresh air helps. Or listening to music, something like that. Whatever can stop the mind from going on that track.
Des: Do you do the same when you’re having suicidal thoughts?
Megan: Not really. Suicidal thoughts tend to be more serious than just wanting to cut, so I have to take a more serious route on that. I have to contact the first person I can think of and let them know what’s going on. They’ll ask, “Do you need somebody in the room? Do you need somebody to talk to? Do you need a counselor? Do you need to call the police? What do we need to do?”
I’m like, “Right now, severity about an eight, which is like, ‘Come get me. No police, no counselor.’” If it’s a nine, it goes to a counselor thing, and if it’s a ten, it goes to a police thing. And you know you’re in deep trouble.
Des: Have made use of the services on campus?
Megan: Yeah. We have a twenty-four hour counseling service. Someone is always on call, no matter what. If you need to get ahold of them, you can either get ahold of the police and they’ll get ahold of the person on call for you while staying with you, make sure you don’t do anything.
Des: Do you feel safe using those programs?
Megan: Yeah. Just being with people of authority gives that kind of calm. Usually, I don’t like being near police, but when I’m in that much depression, or just wanting to end it all, I look for comfort in authority figures, whether it be the police, the RAs, the student directors, or whoever is available at the time.
Des: So, you’ve had good experiences, which is awesome. How many times have you attempted? If you know.
Megan: Roughly seven or eight total.
Des: Over the course of eight and a half years, I’m guessing. What kind of advice would you give someone who’s there, in the place you’ve been?
Megan: I would say, “Fight. I know you don’t want to be here, but please fight. There is somebody who cares about you. I care about you, even though I don’t know you.”
Someone completely random came up to me and said I’ve gotta keep fighting.
I’ll even help you, personally. If you need that. If you want that. I’ll help you. I’ll walk you through it, ‘cause life is too precious to throw away. For every person who dies of suicide, you’re leaving at least ten, fifteen people scarred for life because you couldn’t see your worth. You might not see it now, but down the road, you will. You can look down the road and see that you came very far. You came from a dark place, and now you’re in a better place.
Des: Do you see your worth?
Megan: Yeah. I do.
Des: What is it?
Megan: I’ve helped so many people just by telling my story. I’ve not only helped people, but I’ve helped animals. I’ve helped horses get over their fears, and I’ve helped horses learn that people aren’t that scary. Yeah, they might do stupid stuff, but they’re not that scary.
Des: I want to come back to the horses, but tell me the story about the stranger. What was happening?
Megan: I was getting bullied in the middle of my high school gym. It was a bunch of guys. They were picking on me because I was overweight and the new kid. She literally jumped in the middle of the fight and started backing them off. Once the guys had left me alone and the teacher broke up the fight, she literally sat with me the whole entire time that I had a nervous breakdown.
She told me, “You have to fight. You have to fight back. I don’t know your whole story, but I’m gonna help you survive this.” We’ve been best friends ever since. At least until we graduated, and then we kind of drifted apart because I went to college. But she’s doing really well.
Des: College will do that to you. Tell me about the horses. Why equine therapy, and how’d you get into it?
Megan: I’ve loved horses since I was little. Every time I’m around them, I feel so much happier. I feel so much like, “This is where I need to be. This is what I need to start doing.” I’ve done a little bit of research on equine therapy, and I’ve seen so much.
I’ve seen the proof of it, because my brother has Asperger’s. He came up to visit me at school one time, and I took him out to the farm and showed him the horses. I showed him Diamond, an Appaloosa mare. She loved him, and he loved her. I could see from the minute he saw her, his eyes just lit up and he was a happier, calmer person than he would normally be. He would be so zigzagged around that he couldn’t focus on anything, but when he was with Diamond, he was perfectly calm. He was able to focus, [and] talk normally.
People with emotional scarring or emotional issues tend to open up more to animals than to people, because they know that animals don’t judge you, whereas people can be pretty cruel. I know I can help more people through that than just offering regular counseling. There’s only so much that counseling can do.
Des: PTSD. Do you have it from your grief over the loss of your dad?
Megan: It’s been officially diagnosed as PTSD from a counselor that I went to over summer. And it is from my dad. They confirmed it because, before my dad’s suicide, there was no problem with me besides being bullied in school.
I used to be happy. I used to play music all the time. I used to sing all the time. Draw. Run around like a horse-crazy lunatic.Ride my bike everywhere. Just a normal fifteen year old.
Des: How does the PTSD manifest itself?
Megan: I get really depressed really quickly. Even if we’re in a happy situation, I’ll just suddenly feel all depressed and moody. Or I just start doing scratching motions on my wrist or whatever. I get really uncomfortable with people. I get angry. I start spouting stuff that sometimes doesn’t make sense to other people. It’s a lot of things combined, but the biggest thing is the severe depression. Once I’m in that, it’s very hard for me to get back out of it.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Megan: No. I will not consider suicide, not in the near future. There’s just too much to be done.
Des: I am really fascinated by how well your friends seem to be machines about helping you. Where the hell did they get these skills? Most people don’t know how to help someone in crisis.
Megan: Well, a lot of my friends have similar backgrounds, or they know someone [who has struggled]. Especially my roommate. My current roommate knew a friend in high school that actually [died by] suicide, so she doesn’t want to lose another friend like that. She’s literally pushing me to do better and better. But she’s also comforting, and she knows when to back off and give me space. ‘Cause eventually, if you keep pushing me, I’m gonna push right back.
I also joined, not a religious group, but a cultural group. It’s called PAN—Pagan Alternative Non Denominational Practices, I guess you could say. They were really welcoming. They also had experiences with that. They know different ways to bring calmness and serenity into my life. Whether it be through spells or incantations, rituals, whatever. So far, it’s worked.
Des: Say more about faith. Where are you? How important is that to you? Do you feel like it helps? Or not? Go down any of those paths.
Megan: I have a fickle faith. I’m not all in, but I’m not all out, either. It just depends. Like, in all honesty, I hate Christianity. I hate Christianity, and yet I’m a Christian myself.
Des: Yeah, I was just gonna say, where does this fickle faith lie?
Megan: I hate how we say, “Don’t judge,” but we do it anyway. We say, “Don’t bash other people’s [faith],” but we do it anyway. I can’t stand hypocrisy. So, yeah. I’m gonna worship God in my own way, because I’m still with God. But don’t tell me, “You’ve gotta do this, this, this, and this.” No. That’s not how I work. What you do doesn’t work for me. I have to find some other way. So, no. I don’t pray every day. I don’t talk to God every day. No. He knows what I’m thinking.
Des: Yeah, do you really need to talk to him?
Des: Is suicide a sin?
Megan: I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard people call it a sin. I’ve heard people just call it being pushed too far without a lending hand. But for me, it’s more of an escape—like, a permanent escape. I don’t think it’s right, but I guess you can call it a sin.
Des: No, I want to know how you feel.
Megan: I just don’t think it’s right. But I don’t want to call it a sin, because I don’t want to condemn them. If you feel like you’re being pushed too far, you should either push back or take a leap of faith and ask someone for help. It might be a blind jump, but don’t go into the void.
Des: But it sounds like you’re strong in a way that people don’t know how to be. You know? Being able to push your pride away and your fear away to ask for help.
Megan: It takes a lot. It takes a lot of courage, but it also takes a lot of, as you say, faith. If you don’t at least trust yourself to get help, there’s got to be somebody out there that you trust…There’s got to be at least one person that you can think of who cares about you.
Des: We’re in a Southern state. Obviously, I have to ask you about guns and suicide.
Megan: I personally do not like guns, because my dad [died by] suicide with a revolver.
Des: Gun control is not going to be a thing in this country.
Des: How can we continue with guns—especially in the South—and reduce the amount of suicides?
Megan: I think we should do more of a mental background as well as a criminal background. If people have guns in their houses, they should at least have one or more gun safes with only one set of keys. That way, people aren’t more likely to just go and grab a gun and do something.
Des: Like how you hide your keys.
Des: Means restriction. When you get into mental health evaluations, though, what if they did that and you decided one day that you wanted to get a gun? Just hypothetically. I imagine you’re not going to get one.
Megan: Yeah. No.
Des: Because now you have this PTSD diagnosis.
Megan: Yeah. I mean, if they were to do a mental evaluation, I guess I could fib a little and say I don’t have any problems. But then again, I could say I don’t have a therapist, or any kind of medical records.
Des: Yeah. That’s a tough one for me. I want nothing to do with guns.
Megan: I hate guns. With a passion.
Des: I worry that trying to pair guns with mental health, the way we do, could really be damaging to our rights as people who deal with mental health issues.
Megan: Yeah. But then again, we’re also trying to keep the community safe.
Des: Right. We’re not doing a very good job of that.
Megan: No, not really. But then again, we don’t wanna take peoples’ rights away, like the right to bear arms.
Megan: Which would be totally unfair to those people.
Des: I mean, I’m fine with not having that right, I just don’t think it’s a thing that will happen.
Why did you decide to tell your story?
Megan: Mostly, because I know there’s someone out there with similar stories, or similar problems. Maybe my story can help them. Maybe it can convince them to seek help or seek a friend. It’s not to boost my ego, or anything. I don’t have an ego to boost, anyway. But mostly, it’s just to help other people. Pay it forward, I guess you could say.
Des: What does it mean to be an attempt survivor, especially after a loss? How does that feel?
Megan: In all honesty, it makes me feel like a failure, because I wanted to [die by] suicide after my dad [died by] suicide. I’m not thinking of the consequences that’ll go with that action. It just makes me seem like a selfish person.
It’s really hard a lot of the time just to fight that feeling—the urge to want to die, to want to completely end it, to want to join my dad.
Yeah, my dad is the world to me, but so are my friends. So are my grandparents. There’s more to life than just one person. Not that I’m saying one person doesn’t matter. Everybody matters. You have to look at the bigger picture.
Des: You know that’s normal, right? To feel suicidal after you lose someone?
Megan: Yeah.Now I know that. After like four years of not knowing it.
Des: You’ve gotta know this. Totally normal. It’s just terrifying. Normal and terrifying.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Misha Kessler is a young professional living in Washington, D.C. I photographed him at the American Association of Suicidology's (AAS) annual conference in Los Angeles on April 11, 2014 and interviewed him later via telephone. He was 23 years old at the time.
I'm gay, and growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, wasn't always the easiest.
I came out at a very young age and immediately went back in the closet when my coming out did not go well. For about four years through high school, I was pretty much pretending to be straight, or convincing myself I was straight. That was the basis for a very pervasive and very strong self-hatred that told me that I needed to do everything I could to be the best person [I could]—to prove to myself and to prove to my family, that being gay wasn't a total inadequacy and that I wasn't flawed inherently. That started a perfection complex that just started enveloping everything I did and everything I was.
My high school was a very supportive environment. It was a Jesuit school, and Jesuits are basically very liberal Catholics, so they were very supportive. They were very open and they invited me to be open about being gay. The administration was extremely helpful. It didn't necessarily negate my fellow students being completely homophobic, but it was certainly helpful to be able to be myself, to be encouraged to know myself for who I was.
I left high school and I went to college at George Washington University in D.C., and that's where things started to go more downhill. Of course, it was just the standard adapting to a college environment and the stress of classes and not having the support that my high school had once given me, that the religion had once given me. I slowly became less emotionally healthy as I went through my years of college.
I slowly became less emotionally healthy as I went through my years of college.
The first semester of my freshman year, I got mono and swine flu at the same time. I had to drop out of school and go back home, and I lost the entire semester's worth of credits. That itself wasn't that bad. I went home and I got better and everything was okay. The problem was coming back to school and trying to make up the credits that I had lost and planning out how I could do that. It got down to the point that, with my perfection complex, I literally had these Excel documents and planned on every single course I was gonna take for every semester. I decided I could never go home for summers again because I would have to stay and take summer courses. That was the plan.
That summer in between freshman and sophomore year, I stayed at my university and started working for them 'cause that would get me free housing, and then tried to take two or three classes over that summer. It ended up that the work that I was doing was, to put it simply, just very toxic. It was manual labor in D.C., in the D.C. summer heat, and I had a very toxic boss. So, the compounding isolation of all my friends being at their respective homes, me being in D.C. with only a couple friends or a couple people I could go out with, working at a workplace that just was not healthy, with a toxic boss. Most of my fellow staff members that I was with were all frat brothers from the same frat, so they were all like a family to each other, and then I was kind of just the odd one out. That really compounded the isolation. On top of that, I started working upwards of 60-70 hours a week in the D.C. summer heat and I literally ended up dropping out of classes for the summer, so I didn't even end up getting credit.
Long story short, that was when things started getting really bad. That was when things started going downhill. That's when the emotional instability started really gripping me. My problem was this: I would get really depressed and I would isolate and I'd think that I had zero friends and that no one wanted to be my friend 'cause I was the awkward one and I was... whatever it was. I would slowly start to come out of that and then, as I was coming out of it, I would convince myself that this time I'm gonna be positive, this time I'm not gonna let myself slip back into that deep, dark hole. This time, I'm gonna use my willpower and I'm gonna keep myself positive, I'm gonna keep myself happy. Then, inevitably, something would happen, whether or not it was just some kind of trigger in my environment or actual isolation. During the weekends I didn't have anyone to go out with, so pretty much every weekend I would fall back into that hole. Then I'd just get so upset with myself. Essentially, I just ended up losing hope over time because I would become so convinced and so devout about staying positive, but inevitably it would go negative again.
It was just because I didn't understand that this was just not in my willpower. It's something that I didn't control, and that was very damaging. It was very, very damaging because, literally, every single time I would just lose so much more hope. It seemed like the more and more that happened, the deeper the hole got. There was nothing I could do whatsoever and I was completely powerless over this and that, no matter what, I would stay in these holes. That slowly started to take hold, and that was when the suicidality started to come to grips.
I never really thought about this much, but looking back into high school, there were even times where—I was still dealing with my sexuality and coming out and being outed in high school by one of my friends—I hope this isn't too much details, but I'd be driving my car, and there was this one neighborhood in Cincinnati that has really windy roads and trees and deep valleys where there are creeks and everything. There would be times where I would be driving along going to a friend's house and I'd be like, 'You know what? It would be so easy to just pull the steering wheel and everyone would think I just went off the road, that I just lost control of the car.'
There were moments like that back in high school, but nothing more active than that. It was just a thought that that was a possibility. I never acted on it until my sophomore year of college. That was when it started becoming a bigger reality that the easiest option when going to school in the middle of D.C. is heights—jumping from a high place. That was my perception at the time. There were about two occasions where I definitely went up to the roof of a parking garage and just kind of sat there for a while thinking to myself that I'd do it, and never did. Never actually climbed up. Never did anything like that until there was a particularly bad week where I had a panic attack that was actually induced by therapy. Kind of ironic.
When I started to look closer and deeper into this emotional instability, I spoke to my parents. I wanted to get therapy and go see a psychiatrist and consider medication. My parents were super uncomfortable with it and basically said that if I wanted to do that, I would have to go home so they could look over me as I was doing that, as I was taking the medication. Obviously that was the last thing I wanted. I was already feeling pretty damn isolated at college. The last thing I wanted was actually leaving the few friends I thought I had and the few comfortable environments I had. So I ended up going to these therapists who weren't fully certified. They were students who were getting their clinical degrees, and it was a super cheap therapy session. It was like ten dollars per session. Obviously they were in training and they would video record you and then they would use that video to talk about it and learn from it and then they would delete the video. It was highly confidential.
I ended up going to that, and the one problem with that is that because, they were students, so they didn't have any kind of emergency contact options—just none at all. My therapist, she was incredible. We made so much progress in the first couple months that I was seeing her, but there was one session where she insisted that I talk about certain issues that bubbled up in the back of my head that I had thought weren't issues, but clearly they were. That therapy session started off an entire week of terrible nightmares and insomnia, and I literally could not sleep. It got to a point that I was so scared to sleep because my nightmares were so vivid and so powerful, and that was what set off the panic attack. There was just one day after about a week straight [where I had a panic attack]. I tried to contact my therapist multiple times, but there was some weird situation. It was a long weekend, so they weren't checking their voicemail inboxes. She just didn't get to hear my voicemail until it got to the point that I had a pure panic attack one night.
So, I went back to my room. It was a single dorm. I opened my window and blared music. I was on the sixth floor and prepared to jump... I actually climbed out of the window and sat there for a while. I don't really know the amount of time I sat there, but it felt like it was an eternity. I really don't even know what encouraged me to do it, but I ended up looking back into my room, and there was a full length mirror on the closet door directly behind me. I climbed back in the window and I got super fucking angry and punched out the mirror. Certainly, it was absolutely symbolic of me seeing myself in this mirror and thinking I just want to punch the shit out of it. I was so mad at myself, I wanted to punch myself and completely shattered the mirror, cut up my knuckles... There's more details there that I've never really told anyone, or told maybe three people in my life, but there were certain things that happened after I punched the mirror that really calmed me down, made me reconsider what the factors were that were leading up to that. It made me realize just how much I hated myself when I literally punched out a mirror like two or three times, cut up all my knuckles. It was a very powerful realization to realize that this is pure self-hatred, this is something I don't necessarily I have control over, purely focused on my own inadequacy. I perceived myself to be so inadequate that I just could not stand myself. That was finally the time that I realized I needed to be more drastic about my recovery, to actually take it seriously.
I called up one of my good friends and said, "Hey, I need to go to a hospital," and she walked me there.
I went in and checked myself into the college university hospital, and that was where I started my recovery, ultimately. The psych ward was a really interesting experience. It was nothing like I would have expected. I was terrified. It was super late when I finally got checked in and they stripped me down, so I didn't have any of my clothes on. I didn't have anything, you know? They just totally stripped me down and they put me in those hospital gowns or whatever, those really uncomfortable clothes. [I remember] getting in there and finally getting to go to sleep and then waking up the next morning and just being absolutely terrified that the other people in the psych ward would somehow be dangerous, psychotic criminals, that they were probably gonna hurt me or they were gonna be—you know, this must be something like a prison, right? I just remember being terrified. I finally just sucked it up and went out to get breakfast. There were other people there and, of course, I was so nervous that I wasn't talking. There was one table and they invited me up to the table and started talking to me.
"So you're new here?"
"Yeah, just got in last night."
They ended up being some of the nicest people I've ever met who were dealing with the exact same things that I was dealing with. That was what just blew my mind, too. It was obviously such a internalized or self-stigmatizing thought about mental illness. [It was like], 'Yeah, I attempted suicide, but clearly I'm not as crazy as these other people who would be in a psych ward. They must be more crazy than me.'
I had the realization that it was self-stigmatizing and I was able to calm myself down and really take a look at what I was thinking about myself and my mental illness. It was from there that I really started to recover. I got referred to an actual therapist and I started taking the medication for the first time. I'm actually still taking that medication. I'm down to half a dose now. It's been four and a half years now.
Des: Tell me about your thoughts about suicide and the LGBTQ community. Do you think that it really affects us more than anyone else? Do you think there is a way that we can approach the community differently than we do everyone else?
Misha: I absolutely think we're at a higher risk. LGBTQ folk obviously have a tendency to create their own families who are made up of their good friends... We absolutely are one of the few communities that have minimal to absolutely no familial support. Of course, that's changing. That is getting better, but there are so many people in our community that are absolutely out of familial support or, even worse, were abused by their family systems. Just that fact alone, the fact that you can't go to your own home as a child and feel like you can be yourself and you're constantly hiding who you are—and you're not even experiencing a relationship. In many cases, no one experiences relationships until they're much older than the standard age for straight people to experience them.
Ever since you’re young, you know something is different about you.
I'm reading this book right now called, The Velvet Rage. I don't know if you've heard of it, but it's a great book. The author specifically states it is for gay men even though he recognizes that it could be applied to other people, but he was a psychologist who focused on gay men. The entire book is about this rage that grows up and gets pent up inside of gay men because, from the day they can first remember or they can first form thoughts and they realize that they are somehow different, they're told that they are different and that that difference is not accepted in the community. The point in the book is that, at such a young age, you might not think of it as, 'I am gay. I do not like women, but that is not a good thing,' but you still get the sense. Ever since you are young, you know that something is different about you.
He talks about how this runs into all of these different problems that we are facing as a community, but then also how the converse of that is that it creates—like in my situation—it creates this perfection paradox within people that they think that they have to be the perfect icon. In the book, he talks about how that generally results in gay men being the icons of the fashion industry and always having perfect taste and having great wit and humor and always looking good and being clean kept. For me, the fact is—at least in the gay community—if I could speak about my experiences, it 100% is a relation between feelings of inadequacy. Then that will result in self-hatred, in the more extreme cases.
[In terms of] actual marketing technique that we can use, my focus has generally been the nonprofit services, like the Trevor Lifeline, the National Center for the Prevention of Youth Suicide—that's within AAS, actually. My [question is], how do you provide the services that are clearly missing? We are still having so many of these suicides... There are a lot of services being provided right now, but there's clearly still a gap somewhere. These kids are still falling through somewhere, somehow, and how do we address that?
There are a lot of organizations right now, and it's the hot topic in funding right now, which is a good thing. Suicide prevention is becoming a hot topic. LGBT youth has become a hot topic. It has been for, I guess, since the Trevor Project [started 17] years ago. These things are all good and it needs to happen, but where are we still falling short? I have no idea. That's too big of a question for me to even consider.
Des: Let's talk about the attempt survivor community and why our advocacy is important.
Misha: In my opinion, my big focus is literally the community that we give each other. I know that a lot of our focus is on advocacy, but I can't help but feel like if I had somehow come across these resources and these communities of people who had experienced suicidal ideations like I had and who had been to the edge of a cliff and stepped back, I feel like it would have been so much easier.
Maybe that's just wishful thinking but I just cannot express how much it would have helped me if I had just had someone who could say, "I've experienced this too and it's okay. We can talk about it. It's not something you need to be scared of. It's not something you need to withdraw from. Let's talk about how crazy we can be sometimes," because that really helps. [It's better] than sitting there and being wrapped up in the things that you are facing and thinking to yourself, 'Oh my god, I'm crazy. Everyone must hate me. Everyone must know that I'm crazy.'
It becomes more isolating and more hopeless and more burdensome to you than to actually explicitly have someone say,"Yes, I've experienced this too and I know that you're going through a lot, but you're just being fucking crazy right now. I'm here for you. I'm your friend." I think that would have helped so much, but I think the social complications of what I was going through caused it to [get worse] so much faster...
I do think that if I can tell someone about my experiences—if I can tell someone about how deep and dark my life was, and how I'm still dealing with it sometimes, but at least I am healthier, I am recovering, I am a strong community member and I'm enjoying and thriving in my life—I think that can be a very strong message. Now, looking beyond that, looking beyond our own community, I think that's also one of the biggest perception challenges we're gonna be facing right now. In American society, anyone who has suicidal ideations or a history, pretty much gets written off.
I know [our resilience] is a very obvious thing to us, but I think it's so easy for people to say, "Oh, well they've been suicidal. We can't trust them with any kind of intense job. We can't do anything that might trigger them."
It concerns me when a community can be so stigmatizing of someone's suicidal ideations that they actually further isolate that person who has a suicidal past...
Des: People think that disclosure of your story is damaging and can be triggering and dangerous, but tell me why it's not.
Misha: You know what? The one thing that really does piss me off is when someone, somehow, thinks that just because I'm talking about suicide, I must be putting the idea in someone else's mind. That's just not true. It's just not. If the person is thinking about suicide, they were already thinking about it. It's nothing that you did [in bringing] it up. If they're not thinking about suicide, someone else talking about their suicidal experience is not gonna make them start thinking about it. I know that's a heavy generalization to make, but it just annoys me when people somehow want to discourage people from talking about suicidal experiences because they're worried it might make more people think about suicidal experiences...
I think that talking about this is absolutely vital because these people are going to be experiencing it whether or not you talk about it. If you talk about it, at least we can give them hope or we can give them some outlet to be open about what they're experiencing, and therefore give the slight possibility that recovery is possible, that they can come out of these deep, dark holes, and that they can be open about who they are and not be scared to seek help.
One of the most damning things about my experiences was probably the fact that I was terrified that my university was gonna put some big black mark on my record because I had a suicide attempt, and that I would never get hired where I wanted to go. I wanted to work for the Foreign Service for a long time. I was terrified that if I went and got psychological help, they would write me off for good. I would never be able to get a job with the Foreign Service, because who the fuck would want a crazy? That is the most damaging perception because it was one of the biggest things that prevented me from fully seeking help, from seeking adequate help, and then it ended up resulting in an actual suicide attempt and a hospitalization to actually make me get better. I wish that could have been avoided...
Pure stigma was the one thing that really prevented me [from getting the help I needed]... I don't want to make guesswork seem like a reality or seem like truth, but the fact is, if there was one person who had said to me, "It is okay to go seek help. It's not gonna go on your record," or if my university had advertised in any way that I could go to the university counseling center or I could go to the hospital and it wouldn't be a huge thing on my record, it would have been so much easier to actually seek adequate treatment and to get started on my path to recovery.
I read a story about a student at GW, my alma mater, who checked himself into the hospital in 2005 and ended up getting kicked out of the university, removed from his housing and not allowed to finish his degree. Of course, there ended up being this massive lawsuit around it, but GW literally kicked out a kid. It's called forced withdrawal policy. They basically threatened him before he even got of the hospital. He checked himself in because his roommates weren't gonna be home that weekend, he was a little bit worried that he was gonna be too isolated, so he figured, 'Why not go to the hospital and be safe?' He goes to the hospital. Before he even gets out of the hospital two days later, he was already sent one letter saying he was not allowed to go back to his housing and another letter saying that he was gonna have to go before a judicial review committee. For seeking help, he had to go before a judicial board.
So, as someone who is experiencing suicidal ideation yourself, you read that, and the last thing you're gonna do is go seek help because, even though the life that you are currently in might be the cause of this ideation and the cause of that stress, there is still so much more fear for what could be—the fear of the most negative possibility will always outweigh the possibility of changing the status quo and actually seeking help and getting better.
When you have policies at a university that literally has shown that students will get kicked out, that if they check themselves into a hospital, they're really gonna go before a judicial review committee that says, "Okay, here are the options: either you leave right now of your own accord, or we send you through the entire judicial review process and we expel you and you have this massive black spot on your record," [how will people who hear about it react]? They worry that it's a liability to keep a suicidal person on their campus or in their dorm, but by the same token, you are literally telling multiple other suicidal people that they can't come forward, that they can't seek help, and that is infuriating.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Misha: No, not at all. Not at all, for many reasons... Since my suicide attempt, I had about two more occasions—from the attempt four and a half years ago—in which I didn't get close to a suicide attempt, but I certainly started down the mental path. I started thinking to myself, 'Oh my god, it would be so much easier if this just all went away.' The interesting thing is that, I think, because of the work that I created for myself in this field, the fact that I have dedicated my life to preventing suicide, it's almost like, when I think those thoughts, or the few times that I have, I can immediately recognize them for what they're worth.
The most recent time, I think, was 100% was the result of losing my brother [due to a complication with his epilepsy]. I think that put me back a couple steps. If you can look at recovery in a linear way—which I know you can't—but I am tempted to look at recovery in a linear way, and I feel like after losing my brother, it blew me back some steps. That was actually the first time in a while that I had experienced anything where I was just like, 'This is just so overwhelming. This is just so much. I really don't care to deal with it.' I was able to recognize it in that moment. I stopped myself and I was like, 'Okay, that wasn't active. That wasn't suicidal ideation with agency or with intent, but that's certainly a dangerous way to be thinking right now...'
I feel like, at the very least, the last thing I could do would be to die by suicide because it's almost like I would be– I know this isn't necessarily the healthiest perception, but– it's like I would be going back on my word. It's like I would be giving up.
Suicide, right now, is not an option to me. It may be, but I've just been able to intellectualize everything. I have been able to look at this from such a research space or intellectualized or philosophical place, but right now it's just—it will never happen. And you know what? I shouldn't say that. I can't let myself speak in that generalization because, for all I know, I could have another week long, two-week long session of insomnia and paranoia and a massive panic attack. It becomes too easy for me to, in that place—if I'm having a true panic attack where I cannot see beyond my own four walls, and I can't perceive anything besides that, cannot intellectualize, I cannot make it logical, it is purely emotional—there is always [the option]. But I feel like, even at my worst emotional extent, I feel like my intellectual and my logical will kick in, and it's probably because of my work in suicide prevention. It's because I have been able to be so open about it, because I have been so vocal and, at least in my own community, I've been able to become a person who is known for suicide prevention. I feel like, at the very least, the last thing I could do would be to die by suicide because it's almost like I would be—I know this isn't necessarily the healthiest perception, but—it's like I would be going back on my word. It's like I would be giving up. I would be betraying the people who know me and who have seen my work.
In April 2014, for the first time in their 47 year history, the American Association of Suicidology created an organizational division for attempt survivors and others with lived experience of suicidal thoughts and actions. At the conference that week, Misha, Samantha Nadler, Craig Miller, and myself each shared our stories for a panel entitled, "Can You Hear Me Now? New Voices of Suicide Attempt Survivors." This was lauded as a groundbreaking event in the field. The following Monday, the New York Times published an article about the new division at AAS. Watch the video of our presentation below.
You can also see more of Misha's story in an episode of the Mental Health Channel's series The Common Good, below: