Talking with Joseph Olszewski

Joseph Olszewski, or Joey, says he lost 75 to 80 percent of his friends after they found out about his suicide attempt. But he says the attempt, in a popular Brooklyn park in the middle of the day, was like pushing the “reset” button on his life. The friends he lost? They weren’t real friends anyway, he decided. He cut down on the drugs. He got healthier.

I first met Joey at a video shoot for the Live Through This project, a series of portraits of suicide attempt survivors by New York-based photographer Dese’Rae Stage. A while later, we met for this interview in Greenpoint, a largely Polish neighborhood where his family has been for six generations. He’s preparing to graduate, move across the country and pursue a career teaching history. Here, he shares a little of his own:

Who are you?

I am Joey. 22 years old, Brooklyn native, college senior for the billionth year, feeling like I’m going to be a forever student. A history major. I’m going to be a teacher one day. Unemployed and loving it, for better or for worse. I don’t know. Pretty much me in a nutshell.

How did you find Dese’Rae, and how did it go?

I found her ad on Craigslist. She was looking for suicide survivors, looking to pay people a couple of bucks to share their story. I refused the money because she was so lovely.

Tell me about where you did the interview.

In McCarren Park, where I had tried to do the deed, not far from the tree I did it under. I took a few hundred pills, mostly Xanax. And Klonopin, it’s like an all-day Xanax. A whole bunch of Nyquil, and a whole bunch of those, what, Percocets? I joke that I took enough pills to take out a football team of Sylvia Plaths. A little morbid, but I love Sylvia Plath.

I’m guessing this happened at night.

Nope. The middle of the day. Really early afternoon, right around noon. I was real discreet about it. A couple of others were in the park. I took just one or two at a time, getting carried away, so to speak. It’s difficult to describe, not necessarily because of any emotional reason, but because of the pills, your brain is unable to make memories. After a while, it gets fuzzy in the brain. I literally don’t remember it.So you don’t remember —

No, I woke up in the hospital and could taste the charcoal they used to pump my stomach. I was in Woodhull. An awful experience. I was there a week and a half without having a doctor see me. It got complicated after that. I had just survived a real low point, gotten to this place where I had to fight for myself again. I decided if you’re not going to help me, I’m going to be as big of an asshole to you. My mom brought in like $20 worth of quarters to keep calling people. It worked out. I still have the wristband in my room.

You say Woodhull …

It’s in Bushwick or Williamsburg, or Bed-Stuy. It’s god awful. Google it. I bet they have class-action lawsuits against it. It’s not a good place to be.

How long did it take to get a lawyer?Maybe four or five days. It happened on Friday. I started talking to patients around me, absolutely lovely people, and they were all the same way, there even longer. Nothing ever got taken to court. The lawyer, everything got done much quicker after that for me. When I say my lawyer, I mean my dad’s new wife. Shhh! No, it’s OK.

When was this?

Probably about a year ago and change.

Kind of strange that you did it in the middle of the day.

I feel maybe it was some kind of psychosis. I was put on Zoloft, and it comes with this big black warning, “May cause suicidal thoughts.” I woke up and decided I was not going to do this anymore. And then I was in the park. That’s what makes it so strange to me, too. I don’t consider myself a suicide survivor; it was a side effect of this medication.

I love this inspirational type of thing, talking with friends. For me, it changed my life. I don’t do harder drugs anymore. That’s why I had so many Percocets.So that was the first time in your life that you had done anything like that?

It wasn’t that I didn’t think about it. It was a real suicide type of thing, and these are, no joke, heavy medications. I left a note and everything, that I was conscious of writing, a real weird moment of clarity: “I’m really doing this.” It said, “Be happy. I can’t.” I just felt like a zombie.

You live with your family …I live with mom and little brother. My room is separate from theirs, a small one on the second floor.

But the note —

It was in my room, and I locked the door. I never lock my door.

Did your mom know?

I turned my phone off after sending a couple of friends a text message: “I love you, I’ll see you later.” Cryptic, warm-hearted. One, Monica, texted back, something like, “Are you OK?” and I turned it off.

Your mother knew.I think she knew something was up when I stopped answering my cellphone. She’s very loving and accepting, but she’s worried about my brother and I. She’s not over the divorce with my dad and has a heavy neurotic side.

How is she now?

She was real funky about it. I have a distinct sense of humor, and everybody was like, “Joey, what the fuck happened?” I had totally changed my perspective on the subject: “Listen, I’m not going to go out like this. I sucked at everything else, even this, maybe next time I’ll get it right” is something I remember saying. People didn’t get it. So she’s really sensitive about it, doesn’t understand my humor. I get a lot of vicious jokes, but you need to be able to laugh at yourself. If you’re not able to, that’s how you wind up defeated.

Do you have treatment now?

I wouldn’t describe it as treatment in the medical sense. It’s my understanding that B vitamins help. I was diagnosed as bipolar. My moods jump around often. I’m also taking melatonin to help me sleep. I’m into meditation. I take psychedelics every so often. My friends and I do it, not like, “Let’s take ecstasy and go clubbing.” It’s just a moment of silence. The “official” term is “psychonaut.”

Should I ask whether you’re on anything at this moment?No. Caffeine. I’m maybe little hung over from last night. I went to see my girlfriend, she has an awesome apartment in Bed-Stuy.

How are you able to talk openly about this?

I’m a very open person. Part of the reason I got so depressed is, I lost a lot of faith in people. This is an exercise in me having faith in people, telling these things to a total stranger and trusting them with it. Maybe if someone is going through the same thing, maybe for a moment I can stop and touch them and make them think through choices. If you had seen me, you would not have thought I was about to kill myself. I had a little sandwich, a bottle of soda.

This way, I can exercise faith in humanity and help someone, too. It’s not something I consider now. A major point in Buddhism is, life is pain. There’s a line from a Samuel L. Jackson movie: “Life is pain. Get used to it.” If you can understand in a really complete way, you can manage it and it’s nothing. Like rain off a leaf.Did you look at the other stories on Dese’Rae’s site?

Of course. What was so powerful was the diversity of people. My politics are very radical; I romanticize diversity on that level. She caught a real sensitive and delicate part of it. That’s what touched me, what wanted to make me more open. She said she was going to go all over the world, said she had talked to a Caribbean kid, you know what I mean? I just appreciated how diverse it was. It wasn’t just like, “It’ll get better.” It’s like, “This is the reality, and nothing else matters, age, sex, creed, sexual preference.” You have people to relate to, and that can come in any form. I look forward to saying, “I have nothing in common with this person but this one thing.”

What would it take for more people to come out about this?

A lot of fear comes from embarrassment. I lost a lot of friends. Maybe 75 to 80 percent just wrote me off, just like that. At the time it kind of sucked, but I saw right through it, like, “You weren’t really my friend anyway.” It was good to really clean that out of my life. The rest had understanding but weren’t like, “You were totally right to be feeling this way.” There’s an appropriate way to go about any situation. The people left are probably the healthiest. But it’s also helped me choose friends now. I can almost tell right away what they would think, by their mannerisms and what they joke about.

You could really tell?

Sometimes. The mannerisms, the crossed arms. Someone mentions suicide like scoffing, you can just like, “You know, never mind, it’s not worth getting into.”

But aren’t those the people who might need to hear it?

Yes. But I used to be one of those people. I used to mock. There’s a moment where people can be reached, but they have to make the choice to understand. And a lot of people are really unwilling. Those 80 percent still don’t want to talk. If I show them all of this, they’ll just be like, “Great, Joey, see you later.” But if someone is ready for it, I’ll lay it out as straightforward as I can.

How can you make the public talk about it?

One person at a time. Make resources available. You can’t force anything onto people. It comes with time. There are so many bands, artists, who only got big after they died. Hopefully no one has to die in this case. But there will be a point. I want resources to be readily available.

It’s not like you can do a public service announcement —

Absolutely. Once you run a PSA, it gets politicized. It pissed me off when Obama supported gay marriage. Not that he did it, but that he did it during an election year. You bastard, you could have done it any other time. We’re talking about human rights, bro. Don’t be that guy.

Some people say there needs to be a celebrity speaking out.I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope it’s a million strong before there’s a celebrity. I want them to join the bandwagon. If any of those stories gets a few million hits, gets written about, then Brad Pitt comes out, that’s OK. But it’s up to you guys.

This is coming from a different angle, but what about the issue of assisted suicide?

As long as I can still enjoy wine, steak, tacos, as long as I can still get stoned, I guess, as long as I can still read, a long list of requirements. But if I was bleeding out on a hospital bed somewhere, maybe, but it would have to be extreme circumstances. My thinking is, “Never ever.” But it’s hypothetical in this case.

No one knows what happens after death —

Right, I have an incredible commitment to live, but … It’s all in my head. “Never ever.” But if I had hard-core terminal cancer, physical pain, and I can show you a picture, an X-ray, “Here’s the pain,” it might be a little bit healthier, even, to manage that pain in a physical way.

If people did start talking about suicide, what would the conversation be?

One of understanding and solidarity, I hope. When I told my friends, they just let me talk. It wasn’t, “What were you thinking?” They wanted to understand. They didn’t want to force themselves to be in my shoes. People who just really listen, they’re able to get it. If the conversation ended with, “I’m glad you’re still alive” or “If you think about it again, let me know,” or “Thank you for sharing with me.” You can tell.

Can you tell whether your attempt is still on their minds?

I can tell it’s still on a few people’s minds. They’re afraid of me trying again.

Nobody calls you, like, every two days —

No, but sometimes I turn my phone off for my mom, and she gets worried. But she’s got to get over that, too. I’m my own person. I’m so close to graduating school. I want to move to the West Coast.

Who are you going to be?

I want to be a high school history teacher, eventually a history professor. I love history. Some get kicks from romance novels, sci-fi. I get kicks from history. Humanity has done some mind-blowing things. I’m into radical politics, very much an anarchist. And we’re at a Starbucks right now. I still eat meat! I’m not hyper-dogmatic about the principles. I stress the humanity. I’m sure you saw the tattoo on my arm? (Takes off his button-up shirt and pushes up his T-shirt sleeve.) It perfectly summarizes my stance on it. An anarchy symbol with a heart around it. Freedom through love, and love through freedom.

What else would you like to say?

Live long and prosper.

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