Are women more open about their suicide experiences? I don’t know, but finally we add a male voice to this young blog. I met Davey Davis in New York just after he moved here from overseas. His recent travels have taken him through the West Bank, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Now he’s exploring the world’s greatest city _ that’s my opinion _ and updating his blog, dadarobotnik.com.
Why did you agree to talk with me?
Well, so as far as I understand it, the project is about delving into the idea of suicide through people’s stories. And I have a suicide attempt in my past, and thought it would be an interesting topic because it’s not something I’ve really thought about since I was 16. I mean, I’ve thought about it. We all think about it. It’s a funny talisman that we keep with us and pops up occasionally in moments of reflection and introspection. But I suppose for me, it’s just another aspect of my life story, another point of development or trial or challenge. So I thought it would be interesting to see what would come out of talking.
How would you go about talking about it?
There are so many facets. Everything from the rote, “Here’s what happened, here are my motivations, here I am now.” All the way to the more overarching social implications, political, you could even say, of, you know, what in this life is worth living for in general. Kind of nihilist or existentialist stuff. So I don’t know. I suppose it’s a question of on what level you want to engage in the subject.
I’ll start simple. What happened?
Well, I was 16 and I was one of these cocky, well-cared for, creative young middle-class boys. And though I was demographically normal in about every respect, I always thought of myself as exceptional. I thought that I could read faster and write better and entertain more easily, I could achieve physical feats and flirt with girls better than anyone else around. I can chalk that one up to being a product of American meritocracy, probably. But underneath my self-confidence was the resistance to the idea of working hard for anything. Because if I could be so good at things and do them effortlessly, so much the better. I was an anti-authoritarian kid. I had blue hair when I was in 8th grade. I would alternate between playing Dungeons and Dragons in the hallway with what I guess you’d call nerds and going out with the cute student body president, 8th grade achiever types that were both desirable and interesting. But I suppose as a result of my upbringing or my reading or something, I was born with a deep kind of profound knowledge that all was not well with the world and that human beings had a lot of work to do to make this planet better. So I guess this “The whole world is a dystopia” complex and what I’ll call the “Golden boy” complex butted heads with each other. When I was 16 and things started to catch up with me, I began to lose the adolescent perspective that you know everything, and it didn’t sit well with me. People were getting better in classes like biology and chemistry where hard work paid off, and I felt my territory was being encroached upon. But the actual suicide predictably sort of starts with a girl. And a car crash. And a fall.
I had driven motorcycles all through my youth and was just being trusted with a large one that was sort of a gift-slash-vehicle to create bonding experiences with my father, who was an avid motorcyclist. And I kept crashing the damn thing. And I didn’t like that because I was supposed to be good at everything. I had this girlfriend when I was 16 who was completely incompatible with me, she was into Top 40 music and Abercrombie clothes and makeup. And I was into Rage Against the Machine, environmental club and finding my clothes at secondhand shops. But still, when she broke up with me, it contributed again to that whole, “Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be the best” complex. So I guess I had this underlying psychological edge that I was hiding, that I was more of a failure than I wanted to be. And then I was really impulsive. At this point, it was April 15, 2004, I want to say, maybe 2003? And I was 16 and I ran an errand for my mom, take some taxes to the accountant on tax day. I totaled her car on the way back, crashing on the freeway. And that was the final straw for me.
In that sort of adrenaline-fueled shock or stress after crashing the car, I called my mom from this place of almost Zen-like, what’s that word, complacency? Zen-like, satisfaction? There’s a word hidden there. Peace. Tranquility. My mom was stressed and upset. And on the way home I impulsively looked up at a passing building and said to myself, “I can climb that, I can jump off that, I think I’m going to jump off that. So I went home, had a good night with my parents, laughed and ate pizza, and chatted with them about nothing, the three of us lying on their bed. And I hid my plan like I hid everything else that was bothering me. An alarm woke me up at 1 a.m. and I walked a couple blocks to the building in my favorite outfit. And I did it.
I climbed it hand over hand over the balconies. It was one of these middle-age to retiree level places with nice balconies overlooking the city. To get to the third floor, I had to scale some architectural features kind of like a climbing wall. Hand over hand until the 10th story. And about that point there was an architectural feature that created an overhang that I couldn’t get past. So I turned around, called 911, said there’s been a suicide at such and such address, and as paramedics tried to get more info from me, I hung up the phone and I jumped.
I remember the air rushing by me and all that tilting forward. I remember yelling or screaming, and then I woke up in the emergency room.
It was 5 a.m. and my mom was looking down at me on the bed. And I was indescribably happy to be alive. I had a neck brace on, and I thought I had crashed my motorcycle again and I was wearing my helmet. So there’s the story, the play by play.
What happens next is harder to talk about, harder to create a narrative out of. Because it’s all the messy interpersonal relationships between you and the people you care about most that end up adapting, expanding, and complicating around this one irrevocable incident. I’m definitely who I am as a result of that decision. And though at this point I can luckily say that none of my relationships have changed for the worse in the long run, what happened when was 16 _ what I mean to say is, what I did when I was 16 _ made me grow up a lot in the years until I was 20. And we can definitely try to get our heads around that if you like.
Well, because at the root of all this, who I am, is a creative person with tons of energy who has abounding fascination with life. And sure I’m an atheist or an agnostic, so that fascination is a bit flip or fatalistic in the sense that meaning is what we make it and all that. But I can’t help but think how much enjoyment I’ve gotten out of the last 8 years is largely due to the fact that the consequences of me being impulsive when I was 16 could have utterly obliterated the chance for all that.
Because I’ve done so many crazy and lovely and fun and empowering and just lucky things since then. And I’m profoundly grateful for it. I talked psychologically constantly with my family. My stepdad is a psychologist. One of the things is, he wanted me never to dupe him again. And I think largely that made me want never to dupe anyone again. I became ridiculously earnest. And I think one of the casualties of the whole experience was some part of my sense of humor. Because I can’t bring myself to be not completely honest about how I feel anymore.
Maybe I should be a psychologist.
There’s lots of places to go from here, lots of ways to think about this, this thing. You know, if you’re a person of faith or a person who looks for logic, you could obsess over the whole question of why some people get to survive and are dealt a second card and other people don’t have any cards to begin with. And I find it more than a little bit grating that as a lucky, loved, well-adjusted, privileged, middle-class white dude from America, I was given a second shot, and even as recently in the last month, I’ve met people whose life situations will never have one degree of the luck that I have. But I don’t let that weigh me down unduly. I just try to kick ass with the time I’ve got and do good work.
One thing that I remember you writing about on the blog is this interest in the moment or the action or the method. And what people would do differently or whether people would abstain from trying to kill themselves at all, if they knew how hard and messy the act was. I don’t think of the act as hard or messy. I think of the fallout and the drama and the hearts you break as infinitely more troubling than an emergency room visit. Even if that visit results in being horribly maimed or mentally handicapped. But that’s probably, again, because of the incredible luck of my personal circumstance. Because I got away unscathed in the physical department. I have a reconstructed knuckle on my right hand and a scabby scar on my scalp that ensures that I probably can’t moonlight as a skinhead. But personally I don’t think that stories like this would be a deterrent for somebody who’s come to the conclusion that they need to off themselves. I can go on about my love of life and my pure joy at having survived, which is genuine, but I still hold that there are greater systemic forces that can put people out to the point that they’re in a psychological place to kill themselves. And it’s those root causes, those unfortunate attributes of developed society that I’m interested in working to improve.
Because I’m still a radical, I guess. I still look out at the world and say, “Hey, this is kind of fucked up.” And I don’t know if, when an adolescent approached me and said, “This world is cold, dark place,” if on the whole I would necessarily disagree with them. But in the face of that, it means that we as a collective species have a lot of good work to do. And since I jumped off that building, I’ve learned the value of good hard work.
And I’m willing to rise to the challenge in my own small way.
What if the adolescent says they want to kill themself?
I did. I just moved to New York. I’ve been here all of 12 days. I can already see this living thing blossoming because of all the connections and friends and potential discovered here. And that’s very much part of the nature of who I am, but that’s because I’ve done the hard work to figure out what gives me satisfaction, what gives me meaning. And maybe our theoretical adolescent would derive the same satisfaction by understanding, say, the inner workings of a clock, or learning to run faster than everyone else. Or by owning a dog, whatever. But we’re not gonna find that out unless we give it a shot. And the agnostic in me knows that something’s better than nothing. Even if it’s a challenge.
(He asks to switch to recording this talk instead of taking typed notes, because he’s speaking in a more formal way.)
I’m curious about the portrayals, the idea that it’s being romanticized, dramaticized. Should there be a different way of treating it from that way that’s out there?
Well, yeah. That’s one of the problems I see with the whole focus on the event. Why did you do it, what did you do, how was it like, and actually in therapy, after the fact, there were a lot of kids telling those kind of bravado-laden stories, and mine is one of them. It’s sensational, it’s unlikely, and it’s a believe it or not, a “Oh, he survived, he shouldn’t have” type of story, and that’s, that’s not useful, you know? Like that. That’s only useful in a literary sense. And as a literary person, I used the fact that I had this pivotal experience in my life to construct my life narrative. But that’s not worth the potential risk of being completely destroyed by what you do to yourself. Because you can’t, not everyone bounces back. I don’t know if most people don’t, but certainly within the first year afterward, there’s a lot of risk that A) what you did to yourself could completely dismember or destroy you, physically or otherwise, and B) that you’ll try it again. You know?
So I think the best thing the media could do could probably be to talk about why people were compelled to do the things that they did and what changed in their mindset afterwards. What changed from them not seeing a life worth living to seeing a life worth living. I think that’d be a big part of it.
Why do some people wake up relieved and other wake up really pissed off?
It’s a huge question and it’s a deeper question because the question is, essentially, have you lived your life cumulatively to the point that you’re alive now, to have created a context in which you find it worth living, you know? If you haven’t, if you’ve decided internally and externally that your life sucks, and you try to kill yourself and then you wake up, your situation’s worse, usually. So, like, nothing’s gotten better from overdosing and screwing up your internal organs or electrocuting yourself and dismembering half your face, or things like that. Things have gotten worse. So it makes perfect sense that people would try again, and the deeper question underneath that is, how do we work on changing the system in society from a way that doesn’t collectively isolate and disempower people. I’ve got my own personal ideas about that, but I’m not an expert.
I’m wondering if it’s the impulsive ones who wake up and are relieved, and if the ones who really thought it out are the ones who wake up with a not so happy outlook.
I think that really hits into something. The impulsivity factor in my own personal case played a huge role because I wasn’t a lifer, depression person. I wasn’t a person with a chronic chemical imbalance that made this as real a condition as anything else. For me, it was a series of things that I dealt with badly in my adolescence and then chose what essentially was an easy way out, or that was the kind of narrative I had in my head at the time. And then, I got lucky enough again that I was able to realize my mistake and learn from it, which I shouldn’t have been able to do. And I was able to build off of that experience instead of having that experience be part of what made life worse. Which I think is really rare. I almost feel bad about telling my story because for me, a person who is easily inspired, it was inspiring in a sense that, like, it gave me a new bid on life. But it wouldn’t be if one in a million things had gone wrong. If I had clipped a piece of structure on the way down and dashed my face open, or broken my neck, or if my mother and I had a worse relationship beforehand and we could have been estranged for life, if my stepdad, you know, had taken it personally that I didn’t confide in him as a psychologist and became depressed himself, any number of things could have happened differently that could have made everything worse, and I don’t want to be obliquely responsible for people being like, “Oh, I just want to test myself, you know.”
That’s a heck of a test. And you just mentioned travel. Why isn’t that the impulse, to go travel and start fresh instead of killing yourself?
Well, part of it’s high school. Like, literally, high school and the connotations around that expression, you create a world, you create a box that you are so trapped in based on whatever your lived surroundings are, that the world seems too far away. High school is the best example because you’re there for four years and you care about the things that don’t matter. You care about like, what girl X, X and X care about your hair, you care about this assignment for a class that might be formative and educational but is really an abstract series of tasks. You know? And it’s hard to get out of that. And I’m very privileged, and it’s a been big priority of mine to travel. I’ve always saved up money, I’ve always had the ability to save up money, so that I can, you know, hop on my bike and go somewhere for a month and not have to worry about paying rent. Not have to worry about feeding myself or have to worry about occasionally getting a hostel or a train ticket or whatever. A lot of people never have that privilege. And maybe because of the socioeconomic bracket that I’m in, that sometimes I think about suicide as a privileged issue. Because I don’t know a lot of Palestinian refugees who have tried to kill themselves, I don’t know a lot of Haitians who have tried to kill themselves. I don’t know a lot of really disadvantaged people of color in the United States who have tried to kill themseves. Or, when I worked in homeless communities in Salt Lake, homeless people, that blew my mind. I was 18, I had seen my own potential to give up, and I was meeting people who had every right to give up considering their external circumstances, and they wouldn’t. They had the will to live. And it was a sustaining will to live. So that’s an interesting question in and of itself, like, what are the social parameters that will create an environment that people will kill themselves? And there are studies that say that you, know, that countries like Sweden and Japan have the least level of satisfaction on, like, a social communication level, so people feel isolated and alone. And like, living in occupation in the West Bank is really rough, but the whole system is built around the nuclear family, the whole system is built around a communal atmosphere, so you know the neighbors, you know the children, you know the grandparents, you have a whole support network you can turn to, and everyone cares about you. I mean, literally cares a lot about you in the way that we don’t have in a lot of western developed countries.
Where did we start, where did we end? (Laughs.)
Part of it is all this postmodern situation where you’re given all these options to choose and sometimes you don’t choose any of them and you end up feeling, like, adrift. But the opportunities that go along with that are so much more than being strapped into indentured servitude by your uncle who owns a shoe shop because that’s the only job that you can get, working there until you’re 30 or drafted into some kind of military situation, which is a scenario which is found all over the place.
Why does suicide have to come as a surprise? Some in assisted suicide plan it out … is there any kind of continuum between these two scenarios?
I think there definitely should be. I think that part of what you’re talking about, the difficulty we have to talk about this in an open manner, whether it’s for somebody young who by all accounts by societal standards shouldn’t be allowed to kill themselves, versus somebody old who may be able to make a case for, on a personal case-by-case basis, indicates an overall societal problem with the concept of death. And the concept of people taking control of their own death. And part of that is like the great white lie of developed society, which is like, your life matters. Like, you are important to the great entity that is late 21st century capitalism, you know, which is a case that may or may not have legitimacy to it. We’re two out of 8 million in this city. We’re two out of 7 billion on this planet. In five years, there’s gonna be another billion in some crazy amount of time., So individuals don’t really matter. But we don’t want to let them know it. And as a result, we get focused on preservation. And medical preservation is really interesting. Because it manifests itself in elderly people who are prolonged indefinitely, even when their lives are not resembling what they would want, ever, they’re living it out in a state of medical imprisonment for a long time, and maybe they don’t even have the mental abilities to enjoy that state of consciousness or existence. All the way to providing medical aid to war-torn areas of the world but not looking at anything else in terms of civic, social, restructuring, trying to create a different economic relationship to those areas so we don’t continue trying to perpetuate the cycle of inequality. We don’t do that kind of work nearly as effectively as we, like, hand out malaria pills. Or whatever. And that’s problematic, too. So I think for me, as a radical, one of those solutions is to talk more plainly about what the state of affairs is. And maybe step away from this American notion of merit and find different values on which to center society. Because the value of individual merit and manifest destiny, you will take over the world, you will change the world, will matter if only you try hard enough, is not the only standard by which to live. In the Middle East, for example, the measure of success is not monetarily directly, it’s whether you have cultivated a good standing in society and are stable enough to support a family, a wife or a husband and build a loving unit around which you can grow. And I think focusing on cultivating relationships is much better than cultivating, like, status or success or material wealth. So let’s work on that. Like, teaching young people more coherent ways to love and live and share with other human beings around them. That’s not an inarticulable goal. It’s about changing values, It’s about not having as much television that perpetuates the idea that you are what you buy. Or you need to get a good job in order to be respected by your peers. And not glorify broken relationships all the time, like pop culture is always talking about people being sad because their heart was broken by whomever, or hip-hop’s all about hustling or bitches or whatever, that’s just bad values.
I want to jump in with kind of a blunt and unfair question.
You tried to kill yourself. Are you crazy? Somewhere in there do you have some kind of mental illness?
Well, I did, and I mean there was definitely something wrong with me in the sense that I don’t fit in well with the collective normalcy to the point that I did try to kill myself. But the world that I’ve created for myself, with a series of peers and interesting endeavors and projects and aspirations, all of my own kind of value system, works really well for me. And I think it would continue to for as long as I feel like living, which is probably until I’m cut down by some crazy cancer in my 70s or 80s.
Why did would you want to talk about this since you’ve moved beyond it?
So why would I want to revisit it? It’s interesting. I believe in transparency in my life. I don’t think there was anything wrong with what I did, and I’m not going to keep it a secret. And I think that discussing it can be a platform for some of the things I’m really interested in, like that kind of cumulative building of social values. So it works into the kind of advocacy that I’m into, but it’s also like an honest story. And when journalists are interested in honest stories, I’m willing to tell them.
How do you get other people to talk about it? Should more people be speaking up about this normally?
Yeah, well, I think part of it is relative self-confidence, getting people to be more OK with themselves and not feel like something they have to try to hide to preserve this façade of sanity. And part of it is to give them enough processing and distance so they can. Like for me, I’ve been really lucky in the sense that I’ve had eight years to process and think and move on. Somebody who had this happen last year might not be willing to put it out yet, and it’s totally fine. It’s totally justified, I think. And part of it is just finding language that doesn’t allow it to be stigmatized. Finding language means you can bring it up in casual conversation. Like, last night I was walking with a friend in the film industry, who sort of broke to me in a careful way that she had had bouts of chronic depression her entire life, that she battled chronic depression. And she said it in that kind of careful, apologetic, “I don’t really want to burden you, I don’t know you that well, but this is a reality in my life.” And without getting into details, I said, “I understand, when I was 16, I had a similar set of challenges and it taught me a lot, so I kind of know where you’re coming from.” And we went from there. And she’s not my like soul mate, not somebody that I really have a deep relationship with, but we were both willing to talk about it. And if that just happens in various spaces in the social sphere, I think things get better.
Also, I don’t think depression and suicidal tendencies are as rare as people think they are. I think pretty much everyone I know has had a serious moment of like, “Is my life worth it?” Maybe not seriously considering killing themselves, but a kind of serious existential crisis of some kind or another.
How do you bring that up in conversation?
I think it’s the context. We have people right now down there in Zuccatti Park protesting that just generally the system needs to be changed. I think there’s a big connection between, I feel viscerally that there’s something wrong with my place in society and a systemic thing needs to be changed in X, X and X way, and it’s bridging the gaps, making the personal political, and vice versa. Instead of being like, I feel like society a lot of times is like, “Oh, you’re an activist, you obviously have a gamut of emotional issues that you’re externalizing.” Have you ever heard that kind of narrative before? It happens a lot with this idea that, like, people who are not emotionally sound devote themselves to causes rather than dealing with their own problems, which is a fair assessment in some situations I’m sure. But I think the more important thing is to say, look, human discontentment is a reality, but there’s a threshold beyond which it can’t be pushed, and if people can articulate the ways in which they are damaged or traumatized, then we can find ways to work on it together. What I was saying, realizing social values and stuff like that. So I think you just bring it up when you can, how you can, whether a political thing or a point of conversation.
What about the idea of coming “out” with this, as in homosexuality?
It’s an interesting question. I suppose I should preface my answer by saying that when I say the word “political” I’m not particularly thinking of men and women in suits with professional careers in politics. I’m thinking more in terms of how people are involved civically in improving the larger social sphere in what they care about. I think almost everything is political if you speak about it and if you are an advocate for things. But I think it’s an interesting question in terms of like the political realm, because we have a notion that our politicians have to represent some aspect of perfection, they need to toe the line, so to speak, which, as we’ve seen in like every scandal case ever, is not a sustainable model and is a ridiculous set of values to impose on somebody. So part of it is like relaxing about this whole, you know, do no wrong, body beautiful culture we engender though our standards. So I could envision it happening in sort of a coming-out kind of way. I think it’s a little bit different than issues like illegal alien status or queer identity in that … Actually, scratch that. I haven’t quite figured that out yet.
Some people see it as an ethnicity, talk in terms of madness, claiming an identity.
Interesting. I hadn’t really thought about that. I had to sort of stop that sentence mid-thought because I hadn’t quite thought about the parallels between what could be considered a mental illness or mental state and a physical state like being a sexual minority, you know, which is something you have equal or little control over. And that you can equally be judged for. Yeah, I think that is really interesting, There’s a lot of judgment.
What else would you like to say?
I suppose just, like, the clarity of the fact that there are so many different ways to live and pasts to have. And that being really, like, wary of aspects of elements of your past which are reality is something in general that I would want people to move away from. Because there’s no harm in the infirmities that we’ve had or the difficulties that we’ve had or the challenges we’ve had.
We’ve been sitting next to a nurse in her snazzy purple scrubs. What do you think she was thinking of this conversation?
She might have been embarrassed by the rudimentary level of discourse I’m able to participate in because I’m not a professional. But I imagine that she was too busy studying anatomy or something to really give a shit.
Who’s really an expert in this?
That’s really a good question, and that’s what I was just thinking about. It’s not a question of who’s qualified to talk about things, it’s a question of how many approaches there are to any given thing, any given issue. And I’d say that nurses and therapists and psychologist will bring a certain approach, but there’s also the way normal people talk about it, the way people unaffiliated professionally with the issue of suicide, what their conversations are like, and the idea that I’m beginning to articulate of connecting the dots of personal dissatisfaction and societal dissatisfaction. Part of it is learning to be more articulate. That’s where the writers, the journalists, the speakers of the world come in, just parsing this thing a little bit more normally and parsing this thing not from a point of view of psychological analysis but from a more layman perspective.
Did you say a more lame one?
Layman. Yeah. “This perspective’s lame.”