Talking with Denise Kodi

In the coming days, Denise Kodi will mark 20 years since her suicide attempt. As difficult as the experience was, it became a turning point: “I had nothing left to lose, and I would try to live how I wanted to live.”

She went on to travel, teach, write and help others, even going back to the hospital where she had spent time after her attempt and volunteering. While researching a new memoir, she recently returned to her attempt and went exploring for what had changed in the mental health world since then.

Denise has noticed that the nervousness around speaking out largely continues, and she finds it wrong. “I think that’s the same, you know, as years ago when if a gay person says they’re gay, anyone they touch may be gay, too. Like there’s a vibe that someone can pick up,” she says. “I think that’s ignorance. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

OK. I’m a writer, I live in Denver, and I write mostly creative nonfiction because I find it more compelling than something I can make up. So. I’m sort of drawn to, you know, misfits, people who feel they don’t fit in, because I feel that way. I work with immigrants, refugees, teaching English, helping them navigate their way here in America. And I’m a sucker for rescue dogs, pathetic ones in the shelter who give you that look.

How did you come to be talking to me?

It’s been almost 20 years since my attempt. In May, it will be 20 years. And I know April and May are the actual months when suicide peaks, and I’ve lost some friends to suicide. And I’m really fascinated by the fact there’s such a stigma around it, and I came across your site and a couple others where people are sharing stories, and I think it’s so important. When I attempted, nobody was talking about it. I would venture to ask people, “Have you ever thought about it?” And people would say, “Oh, never!” And they would go into a big spiel about rainbows and God and create an extreme isolation where nobody talks about it.

Was it the anniversary that got you thinking about this?

I was working on a book. I wrote one memoir about growing up in this weird evangelical family with demons, curses, all that stuff. I was trying to do research for a second book about mental health and my experience. I was kind of doing research into the current situation and how things have changed.

What struck you about any changes?

Well, it’s good. On the one hand, there are more … When I was 25, you know, to gain access to resources, you would have had to go to the library and ask somebody, and now you can do research online privately. So there are more resources. At the same time, the numbers are still rising, and children as young as 10 are attempting suicide, and there’s still a huge stigma. While there’s been progress, there’s still a taboo, you know.

How do we go about changing that?

I think it’s similar to coming out, you know, more and more people coming out and talking about it, and talking about emotions. In our society, we label things as good or bad, you know. Certain emotions are OK to have, certain feelings are OK, and others are bad and we don’t want to talk about them. Also, there’s certain myths that are put forth. For example, you probably heard this about journalists: Writers are always gonna kill themselves. They always put the same people, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, but they don’t talk about the others who managed to rebuild their lives and do OK. And also, we don’t talk about the people who thought about suicide and attempted and rebuilt their lives from there. They only put forward horror stories, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People think, “I must be alone, and this is the only way out.”

How have you rebuilt your life?

It was a hard road. Because the time that I attempted suicide, I was going through, I had some PTSD happening, and I didn’t really understand it. There were resources for therapy, but I didn’t have money for that. And so it was really hard, and I was not taking care of myself because I had grown up in a violent home and didn’t know how to take care of myself, in terms of who to let into my life. I was in a very unhealthy relationship but didn’t realize I had the choice and power to say, “No, I didn’t want this.” I thought I had to go with it, because that’s how I was raised.

I think I started, I had nothing to lose at that point because I was already at the lowest point in my life, and so I started kind of exercising my rights and realizing I didn’t have to put up with certain things and also to … I was always the crazy one in my family, and instead of living out that prophecy, I tried to live out what I wanted for myself. Does that make sense?

How did you figure out what you wanted?

Just little things. I had dropped out of college because I had felt like a failure. I had really wanted to finish, so I went back and fought all those feelings of failure and “I deserve to be punished.” I just stuck with it and gradually realized that I wasn’t. I kind of showed myself. And good friendships. Once I let go of the ones that were not best for me, I found some really good ones. But it was very hard.

Was there any treatment you found helpful?

Not at that time, no, unfortunately. And this is, like, during the ’90s, when the mental health system had a lot of things to work out. Because they … earlier, I had been misdiagnosed as bipolar, which I wasn’t, so they simply said, “Well, something’s wrong, you have a chemical imbalance.” I thought it was not accurate because I thought it was from things I had experienced in childhood. At the time, that was all just coming to a head then, you know, the childhood abuse and rape and so forth, and they were really focusing on medication. And I didn’t feel that was gonna work for me.

Also, I didn’t have the money. And that’s the other thing I think should change, and maybe it has: more affordable access to treatment. Though there were some support groups that had a minimal fee. I did find those helpful.

Did you tell people, and what were their reactions?

I did tell some people, and the reaction at that time was concern and fear, like they didn’t really want to hear about it. Even now, a lot of people don’t. They’re curious, I think, you know, because I think people struggle with their own feelings if they’re honest about it, but they don’t want to hear about it.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s the silence and taboo around it.

What made you decide to put your story out there?

I think people need to know they’re not alone. I had a writer friend who died by suicide about a year ago, and the reaction in the community was really varied. Some people were compassionate toward him, some were angry with him. And I think that was just ridiculous to be angry. We still treat it like a crime and they’re criminals, when they’re just people who are hurting. I think the more we acknowledge that, the better for everyone. I think some 30,000 people a year in America die by suicide, and if the stories can help prevent even one or two or thousands of those, we need to speak up.

Have you started speaking up elsewhere?

Yeah, it depends on the person. Some people acknowledge they thought or attempted. I have a friend who lost a brother to suicide, and she was very open to hearing about it. So it kind of varies. And I’ve written about it. I wrote a short kind of creative nonfiction piece. Actually, it won an award. And people, it did resonate with people, so that was really good to know.

Is it online?

It was published in The Progenitor, which I think is available through Arapahoe Community College. In their archives. It would be 2009, I think.

From a look at your website, you seem to have an unusual bio. How have you made your way through life? You were a corn-dog dipper, for example? Didn’t you have a pretty conservative upbringing?

Yeah. After my attempt, it was so scary because I was hallucinating from the pills for days, even after getting home from intensive care, and it was so terrifying. And that was when I realized that, like I said, I had nothing left to lose, and I would try to live how I wanted to live. I wanted to travel and teach, study and do all these things. So all that happened after that. It never would have happened if I had died. It all came as a result of facing that darkness. Does that make sense? But I don’t think I had … it’s a shame that it had to come to that extreme, you know? That’s what I think is sad about it.

Does any experience stand out, and what did you learn from it?

Yeah. I think meeting people from all walks of life, different cultures, and learning that we all have more in common than things that are different. And oh, and then the hospital where I was in the ICU, I went back to that hospital years later and volunteered to talk to other patients, for various reasons. And just finding out that life can be very hard, and everyone’s really a hero for what they go through. And just being able to see that other side. If someone’s in the hospital because that’s the only way to deal with what’s going on, just trying to get through life. Some stories are sad, some are heroic, you know? Everyone is just, we’re all, I think, brave soldiers, you know? It’s inspiring to hear other people’s stories.

Some people still think that telling our stories is not a good thing. Do you agree?

Why, because we might encourage people? No. I think that’s the same, you know, as years ago when if a gay person says they’re gay, anyone they touch may be gay, too. Like there’s a vibe that someone can pick up. I think that’s ignorance. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite. The things that are kept in the dark just grow. If you push it in the ground, it will overtake you in the end.

What steps would you like to see to break down this silence?

What you’re doing is terrific. And I think just seeing more and more people come out. And I think the media, unfortunately, does more harm than good when it comes to this. They have the tendency to sensationalize and report the horror. They don’t go to the other side, don’t want to hear the success stories, to hear from people who might have some wisdom about their own experiences. We should open it up and allow people to come out about it. And I think a lot of times, the person is blamed as something wrong with them, and we need to look at what’s wrong with society, a particular culture contributing to this.

Maybe this is a completely separate topic, but do you have any point of view on “death with dignity,” assisted suicide?

I don’t know because … Freud died by assisted suicide, which I didn’t even know. I never knew that until recently, that he had been diagnosed with cancer, I forget what type, and 16 years later he had a doctor friend of his give him morphine. So that’s how he died. So I think there’s a whole stigma around death, too, because there’s this idea that anyone who dies somehow loses. “She lost a battle to cancer.” I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Our fear of death limits our perception of it, if that makes sense.

Where does religion come in, if at all?

Yeah, I sort of abandoned all that. But it did play a part, and I think it plays a part in a lot of people’s lives who were raised in a religious household. You get kind of a contradictory message that god loves the world so much that he gave his only son, but also that suicide will send you straight to hell. A loving god and a vengeful god, and then everyone’s born a sinner. So there’s all these very degrading beliefs in some religions, like you can’t win for losing, sometimes, in some of them. It can be very crushing. Also, you have the whole, in some fundamental Baptists, where I spent a good portion of my life, depression is from the devil. You’re supposed to, if you’re right with god, you’re just going to be happy and flipping cartwheels everywhere. The myth is put forward, and people who struggle and have depression and think it’s all coming from the devil, that’s just horrible.

Some people have mentioned Christian counseling. Was that ever available in your world?

When I was a teen, I had to see the pastor, and one of the biggest obstacles in that sort of mindset is, you’re not supposed to look back on anything that happened to you, because looking back was a sin. Lot’s wife turned to salt because she looked back. If something happens to you, you’re not supposed to look back or deal with it because it’s a sin. It creates lot of problems because if you don’t deal with it, it overtakes you.

Do you still have thoughts about this, and what do you do?

Yeah, I still from time to time struggle with depression. And taking care of myself, like exercise, helps. Writing. Talking. I have a great partner and good friends.

Are you able to talk to them about this, even?

Yes.

What else would you like to put out there?

I don’t know, I think I’ve addressed it. The primary thing is talking about it. There’s a lot of blaming the person who has the thoughts and the feelings, instead of acknowledging this is something that affects nearly everybody. You know, the thoughts, anyway. I think it’s kind of like maybe Carl Jung’s theory on the shadow self, where all these repressed and unexpressed attitudes go and can grow big. I think once you can bring them into the light, healing can begin.

For people who say, “I don’t know what to say if someone is suicidal,” what do you suggest?

Listen. Ask questions. Maybe someone hasn’t thought about suicide, but I’m sure they’ve had moments when they were feeling really low and things were not going well in their lives and they have felt alone. If you have ever felt alone, you know how that person feels and can be a source of comfort. Just listen to them.

Who else are you?

Who else am I? Well, I actually, you now, a lot of what I wrote is funny. A lot of humor. Which is, I’m glad for. And I’m someone who loves to travel and meet other people. People tell me I have a wicked sense of humor, which is great, because I like making people laugh. I’m an animal lover, someone who enjoys adventures and challenges and being in the company of good friends.

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Talking with Jack Park

Like a growing number of young attempt survivors, Jack Park came out on social media, amplified by Facebook. His response to a pair of suicides among his University of Pennsylvania classmates inspired him to talk openly about his own experience. His post, and students’ responses, quickly turned into national news.

Now he spends quite a bit of time meeting with other students, old and new friends, over coffee to talk about personal struggles. “I don’t even like coffee,” the South Korean-born Park says. “But when people talk, they usually talk over coffee in Western culture.” He makes it work.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Jack Park, and I’m from Seoul, Korea, but I came to the States for an undergraduate education. I applied to the University of Pennsylvania as an early decision applicant and, fortunately, I was one of the students who got in, and now it’s my third year in Philadelphia. I am majoring in Urban Studies and minoring in Consumer Psychology, a mix of marketing and psychology. And, um, what else should I say about myself? Oh, I go to a campus church called GCC, Grace Covenant Church. I look forward to Sundays because going to church is fun and relaxing, and I learn a lot about life in church because, you know, they talk about the Bible. People usually look for answers when reading the Bible. I got a lot of my personal questions answered when I looked into the Bible intensively. That’s the spiritual side of me. I also like to nap, like, a lot.

I’m from Korea, and I think South Korea is equally, if not more than, depressed than America. There’s this river called the Han River, and there are lots of bridges that connect the south and the north of Seoul. One bridge is nicknamed the “Suicide Bridge.” Try Googling “suicide bridge Korea.” Now it’s being rebranded as a “Bridge of Life” to prevent suicides.

My country is mainly results-oriented, basically a strong “do or die” kind of mentality. Intense, highly motivated people. That’s good for some part, because Korea used to be in complete ashes after World War II. Our peninsula was, and still is, divided. The war destroyed everything in the nation. But in a couple decades, we were able to improve the economy with a hard-working, much-driven mentality producing Hyundai Elantras and Samsung Galaxies. The Korean society values success, like all societies. But success is closely defined as “hard-working, being stressed and busy.” It tells you you’re doing something.

Because I fortunately got accepted into an “East Coast elite institution,” I set some standards for myself unconsciously. Basically, the University of Pennsylvania is a group of very competitive, intellectual young people, like many other institutions. It doesn’t mean that Penn kids are a bunch of assholes, some are, but definitely not all students. They have high standards for themselves. They have to get certain “prestigious” internships, or want a 4.0 GPA to get into that law school, med school, dental school, grad school, onwards. I’m easily influenced by my surroundings, and everybody seemed like they knew what they were doing with their lives.

I, on the other hand, wandered around clueless for a long time. The early 20s is a confusing time for anybody, right? I didn’t even know what major I was going to declare, what to do during summer, I hadn’t found a job yet either. Lots of confusion. Then on the side, on the media there was lots of horrible news every day: rape and murder, planes crashing, shootings, you name it, all kinds of evil. I tried to think it through myself: I’m in this safe university bubble, protected from these dangers of other parts of society, but what did I do to deserve it, why do others have to suffer while I stay in my college life?

The University of Pennsylvania is located right next to a low-income neighborhood called West Philadelphia. The gentrification process is sometimes called “Penntrification.” I see homelessness, a side of structural poverty, every day while walking to class. That just didn’t seem fair at all. So these thoughts were happening every moment, as a growing train of thoughts, “Why is the world so unfair? And why do I and others have to be stressed all the time?” Then winter break happened, my freshman year, and I
went back to Korea to see my family. And I thought things were going to be a little better because I was off school.

But when I got back to Korea, the same things were happening in Korea as well. There always has been human greed and folly everywhere: rape, murder, suicide, poverty, corruption, homelessness, everything. The same damn thing. It got me thinking, “The world sucks. Why am I even contributing to this world?” Say I bought, like, a pair of UNIQLO jeans. To make that, a child laborer from a third world nation probably had to work unhealthy hours to make it for a cheap price. I’m ignorant enough of those global issues so I just buy the pants off the shelves. That was my sense of negativity all the time, for like a couple of months. Then I went back to Penn. Slowly, I didn’t want to contribute to this world anymore.

I saw absolutely no purpose in living. “What if I make a lot of money when I graduate? I’m just taking someone else’s money and profiting off another’s loss and misery in this zero-sum economy.”

I started to feel lonely all the time because of a depressive disorder, and even if I was with a group of friends, I felt as if no one was really, truly understanding me. And I started to eat by myself, then I started to not meet any people, then I started not to go to classes, because I thought everyone was judging me all the time. I couldn’t even pick clothes out of the closet because I thought people would look at me funny.

Suicidal thoughts slowly triggered, and they wouldn’t leave. All sorts of very dangerous thoughts occurred. Eventually, over time they took over me, and the suicidal side of me told me what to do. I started to try out some of the thoughts. I honestly think I was going to die that one day, but a true miracle happened for me. I started to resuscitate again all of a sudden. I started to live again. If not for that, I wouldn’t be talking to you on this interview.

Recently, a school television station interviewed me talking about how I was able to recover from depression slowly and start to love again. Please give it a viewing if you want to see me talking about my story here.

My depressive episode seemed as if it was never going to end, but it started to fade out after about three months. I can never thank my parents, friends, family and God enough. I started to go outside, eat outside, meet my friends, started to go to a bar. And then I’m pretty sure I had a manic episode after that. I’m pretty sure I also had bipolar tendencies. I was doing insane, abnormal stuff for a good two months. I was fitting into every single characteristic of a manic episode defined by the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I was spending lots of money, feeling extra sexual arousal, meeting many women, drinking and smoking like crazy, wanting to start businesses all the time, risk-seeking, talking fast, thinking fast, being mean to my friends, saying arrogant stuff. My personality, essentially, changed.

Over time, I started to say to myself, “Wow, I’m going crazy again, but the other way. Maybe I should do something about this.” I started researching on the computer, and I talked to my therapist. She gave me some mood stabilizers. I tried to talk at a normal pace and calm my life down. Then after some weeks the therapist said, “I think you can go back to school now. You’re OK.” I said, “Jesus, thank you.”

I’ve been doing normal college student things since my return: going to some classes, skipping some classes, handing in assignments, doing some extracurricular activities. Then in Penn, as many know, this past winter was a very depressing winter. Three known cases of student suicides were reported at Penn.

I saw the clear problem and wanted to so something about it. I know how horrible that struggle is, and I didn’t want anyone to go through the same stuff. I started to pray, because I pray for answers as a Christian: “What should I do, God?” I prayed for around two weeks. Then something just kind of felt like I should share my story with other people. I saw the TED Talk, too, the guy from New York who jumped off the bridge and lived. I’m looking at it: “Oh my gosh, so powerful. That’s awesome. Should I try doing the same? No, that’s too much for me.” And then, after that moment, the TED video moment, I kind of, well, read the Bible.

In Mark 5:19, it’s basically about a person with a “demon” who goes to Jesus, and Jesus cures that person. I thought that was like me, with the demon being mental illnesses. He tried to follow Jesus around, but Jesus told him, “No, go back, tell your family and friends what I did to you.” It’s telling Christians to share their testimonies, share the love, you know. So I was like, hmm, the Bible may be … telling me to share my story.

Nobody knew this. My parents knew, but my own little brother in high school didn’t, my dear girlfriend didn’t. How could I tell this to anyone? Like in a dinner conversation, “Oh, by the way, two years ago I tried to kill myself.” What? Beside my parents and my therapy counselor, nobody knew. It was like a dark chapter of my past, and I was trying to forget about it.

But now my path was chosen. I’ll share this story in an impactful way. How should I do this? I thought writing it down would be a good start. I drafted a blog post for three days. I tried to make it as least suicidal and most emotion- and thought-provoking as possible. And I had some good writer friends thankfully edit it for me. Some friends wanted to post it on a mental health Tumblr blog, and I was like, “Please do!”

The blog was up, and then I started to share it a lot on Facebook, because almost all college students Facebook. There are around 10,000 undergrads, and I estimated approximately people have around 100 friends on Facebook. So I thought if I asked around 100 friends to share it on their Facebook wall, then the information will start to spread like wildfire. So the Penn undergraduate body will be exposed to my darkest secret, and they will know that sharing personal weakness is actually somewhat acceptable.

And they will, like, talk it out, talk about mental health with each other, you know. For around five hours, I Facebooked religiously, responding to every notification as they appeared. Around 100 friends thankfully shared on their wall.

After that, there was a lot of school media and then USA Today, and then The Huffington Post. And then Philadelphia magazine. There’s also this magazine called the Ivy League Christian Observer, and they wanted to share my story because it’s very hopeful and spiritual. So I shared my story with them as well. Meanwhile, I’m meeting, like, a lot of old and new friends over coffee about personal struggles. I don’t even like coffee. But when people talk, they usually talk over coffee in Western culture. So I chose the theme of coffee. Yeah.

Lots of people have been sharing their stories to me: “Oh. I’m depressed, too.” “Oh, you’re bipolar? Oh, me too!” I realized it’s a relatively common condition. Nowadays I’m trying to catch up on my schoolwork. I’m very behind, like, a lot.

Have all the reactions been good?

I think so? No one has directly said bad things to my face. But I heard some rumors. There will always be haters, whatever you do. By chance, I became somewhat of a public figure on campus. A few people recognize me in campus buildings and stuff. Some people got jealous. They would say something like, “Oh did you make all this up to become famous?” No, why the hell would I make this up. Some stuff like that, but that’s a real minority of responses. The majority responses were like, “Thank you for what you’re doing. Maybe we should have coffee together. I tried to harm myself a few years ago, too, but now I’m doing better.”

Do you think it’s easier for younger people to come out?

I’m not sure, because I’m not a very representative sample with a small sample size of one. I think it’s hard for anybody, college students, working professionals, or anybody really. This is not a common topic to talk about anywhere, but these days it’s been a hot topic in Penn because it’s been very visible. It appeared in the newspaper. But unfortunately, I think the buzz will die out over time. The Penn community might even forget about Madison, Elvis and Alice slowly.

What should the school do to stop the stress?

They should be a little bit more serious about allocating resources to mental health issues. Penn has a lot of money. The amount of money is not a big problem here, allocation is. They are not really doing enough to support the students in regards to mental health. These three students unfortunately passed away. There’s something Penn can do. There’s something students can do. Something parents and professors can do. It’s not just Penn’s fault, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a not important issue to address more directly.

What do your parents think about all of this?

Oh my God. I told my parents and they were like, “Are you sure about this?” In Korea, I have to serve in the military sometime, because all able-bodied Korean males must. If you have a past history of mental disorders, you get placed in a “specialized unit” and they pay extra attention to you. It’s horrible.

And firms don’t usually hire people with mental disorder backgrounds. My real name is not Jack Park; it’s my small attempt to avoid getting called out in Korea for the official records. The point is, they were very doubtful at first. Then I explained to them what I was going to do, that I prayed a lot about this, and I think God is telling me to do this, the Bible says share your testimony. My parents are Christian, too. So if that’s God’s will, we’ll support you, they said.

What if a fourth student suicide occurs at Penn this year, despite your efforts?

I’m trying my best, but at the end, we can’t really completely change everybody’s lives. We are humans with limitations. Did you watch the Disney movie “Frozen”? There’s that song “Let it Go.” I let go of my insecurities and unrealistic expectations for myself. I just do my best, and at the end it’s up to a higher being, I believe. I learned to become much more humble in my approach. I’m not a savior like Jesus Christ. I’m not going to actually change lives, I’m just here to share my story of hope and love and what I’ve been experiencing.

Is there anything about society’s response to suicidal thinking that you would most like to change, and how?

When people hear that someone had suicidal thoughts, one of the common natural responses is to avoid that person altogether, since they don’t want to be involved in the situation. It may be explained by the bystander effect combined with the diffusion of responsibility: Somebody should be doing something for them, but not me. My faculty advisor and professors at the University of Pennsylvania were all concerned about my condition back few years ago, but none of them really actively reached out to me personally. It is not because they are cold-hearted or apathetic, but because they thought they were not certified or qualified enough to deal with depression without a degree or a license.

That should change. I don’t have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, but that does not mean that I can’t stop by and listen to my friends about their hardships, spend quality time with them, and pray for them.

Nobody is ready for suicide prevention. There are some prevention experts, but they absolutely cannot do the job alone. We all have friends and colleagues who might be depressed at this very moment, or at least be having a bad day. Around one in 10 Americans is depressed, so if you have more than 10 friends, you likely have somebody who you can reach out to check on. And they will appreciate it. It might, not to sound too dramatic,  even save some lives if we start to spread more love around every day. Please, please don’t ignore people who seem down or suicidal, they need your attention most at the moment.

As you said, you can’t really bring up this topic at a dinner party. But what can be done to make suicidal thinking something we can talk about more openly?

I don’t think people should always bring depression, mental illnesses, or suicides into dinner conversations. It might even cause increased thoughts of suicides. That would be almost similar to bringing up other grim topics of society, such as rape or murder, at a dinner party. What we could do better is to destigmatize mental health issues, since many people don’t really believe it’s a real condition.

People may tell you to simply “man up” or to “try harder” or to “be happy” when you tell them that you are depressed. For my darkest times, I did not have any capability to just “man up,” since my mind went through some sudden changes that disabled me to think positively at all for more than three months.

And depressive disorders are, tragically, too common. Around 120 million people worldwide suffer from some form of depression. I believe that is a vulnerable population worth investing our efforts into. When we get a cold, we don’t hesitate to visit a CVS to grab some medicine for fever. When we get chronically depressed, however, we hesitate and even feel ashamed admitting that we might be depressed and don’t seek for help. This negative stigma against mental health is not helpful at all. When there is an issue, we need to address it directly, and hiding it under fake smiles will only grow the problem further. For reasons I can’t still fully understand, I had a long depressive episode in my early college days that nearly ruined and perhaps even ended my life.

The struggle is real. Please believe me.

It’s not an easy disease to defeat, since it’s a plague of the mind, and the brain is one incredibly complicated system to deal with. Fortunately I had my loving parents, friends, and God taking care of me and seeking help for me.

Talk about this. Get support about this. Don’t ever give up about this. Pray about this. To add to the conversation, I share my email account to listen to your story _ yes, you reading this _ and tell you mine if you want to hear my case of recovery. We can perhaps be friends too after a few emails back and forth. I’m not that awkward in real life, I promise. You can find me at: jackpark778 (at) gmail.

Who else are you?

I’m working as an intern in a social impact consulting firm. I like studying marketing because I think it could be an easy fix for many problems. I used to intern for a cool Philadelphia laundry company.

I like Korean food (in Korea, it’s just called food), and I like traveling. I love seeing new cultures. I like to sing, I don’t know, this feels like filling out a dating site biography. And I think church can do a lot of good stuff for people, because you know, church and the Bible are often misunderstood. If you look beyond the misunderstandings, I think the Bible can do even more good than now.

Talking with Latosha Taylor

This is a story about how a speech has helped to change the course of Latosha Taylor’s life. She spoke to me from Arkansas, where she is acutely aware that her state is far behind in thinking about mental health.

“Recovery from mental illness, those words just spoke to me,” she said, recalling that pivotal day in the audience. “I had never heard that. I had always been made the problem, diagnosed with this and that. None made sense to me.”

She is now part of establishing her state’s first peer-run organization and making connections to others across the country. It’s a very different existence from her daily routine as a mom who works in a local deli during school hours, feeling at times like an “oddball,” but one with quite a future.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Latosha Roseanne Taylor, which should be Wright, but that’s another story. First of all, I’m a mother. That’s my number one priority. I am also a wife to probably the best man ever. I am an advocate against pretty much any injustice in life, which has also caused me just as much trouble as good. I am a person who has survived and experienced some of the deepest and most painful sorrows imaginable. I am a person who is walking my own path of recovery and from the traumas that I’ve experienced in my lifetime. I would like to say that I am a person of lived experience through many emotional walks of life, a person that is still learning how to live in this world and see it as the beautiful and spiritual place that my heart is showing me it to be. I am a person starting to thrive in this world because I am learning to take value in the experiences of my life to help others, so that they may travel an easier and more knowledgeable path through life than I did. This question of “Who am I?” could probably be better understood through my story:

I’m a survivor of sexual trauma. I’ve survived sexual trauma from the age of 4 to 12, and then I was first hospitalized when I was 14, and in that period of my life I was going through extreme emotional abuse from my mother’s boyfriend, so that was a really good foundation for a lot of chaos. Acting out behavior, that kind of thing.

I was in therapy for the first time at 9 years old because of sexual trauma. So that’s the start of my experience in the mental health system. At about 8 years old, I had my first suicide attempt. I haven’t talked about it so much. Who talks about those types of things? I’ve never talked about it. And then, so, my parents found me hanging from a tree and saved my life. At 14, I went to the hospital and it was a vacation, a vacation away from my family, that’s what it was like for me. My first diagnosis was depression. They put me on antidepressants and forced me to have a birth control shot, and they discharged me three weeks later because my mother’s insurance ran out.

Aftercare was the local mental health community. I started having reactions to meds, blacking out, not remembering things. I was self-harming at the time. I blacked out at the school, I don’t remember anything, but I woke up in chains and shackles at the county detention center. I remember on the way to the hospital that time, my parents were screaming what did I do, and I just felt so, “What’s wrong with me?” That day, you know, they put me in a hallway, under fluorescent lights, in scrub pajamas, and I’m crying, a couple days before my 15th birthday, thinking, “What did I do? I’m a problem for my family.” Not knowing what’s going on. The nurse didn’t comfort me, she came and stuck a shot in my butt and knocked me out. That’s the care I was given. So I got diagnosed with PTSD that time, I was there three and a half weeks, and I felt disvalued. I was under care and monitoring the whole time. I had a male nurse who was taking care of me, taking me out back trying to tell me inappropriate things. Those are the things I went through.

I got out, went back to the same family dynamics that were not healthy for me before. I was out three and a half months. Then I got in trouble on the school bus one day. I was so scared when my dad was coming home that I tried to take my life again. They pumped my stomach. I was in the hospital overnight. And apparently I had been drugged, they found PCP in my bloodstream. I went back to the same hospital.

But I always have this spirit of fighting. I knew it was not a mental disorder. In my head, I never felt crazy. I knew it was the things going on around me. My mother had had her own sexual trauma as a child, and when it happened to me, she didn’t know how to handle it. There was no unconditional love. I would never hear “I love you.” I’m just telling you random things. My dad would tell me every day I would never amount to anything.

I guess another attention-seeking behavior, at 13 I started having sex. I guess that was the way I thought I would always be loved. After the third time in the hospital, I managed to stay out a while and met my first husband. At that time, I was too young and I thought the natural thing to do was get married, have a family. About three years into the marriage, I had a child. About two months, after my son was born, my aunt died in a car accident. I didn’t know how to handle it. I started shutting down. They diagnosed it as postpartum depression. I told my husband that he and my child were my problem and didn’t want them anymore. I had started an affair. My husband took my baby and divorced me, and I was only getting supervised visits with my child. I had a year of being on drugs and wild and not paying attention to my responsibilities. I just didn’t have support around me. I got a divorce, and my mom said I got what I deserved. There was just no support.

So about a year after me and my husband divorced, maybe nine months, something like that, my husband ended up having a drug dependency issue and was unable to take care of our son properly. They opened a DHS case on my ex-husband. More mental health evaluations. During the divorce, I did check myself into the hospital, on my own. The anxiety was so bad, I was having suicidal ideation so bad, I was so scared I had nowhere else to turn. I wasn’t forced, but I did check myself in. And that was when I found my first empowerment with mental health. There was a woman there, fighting them every step of the way. When I was an adolescent, I didn’t fight. I thought that was the way it was supposed to be.

They put me on more meds. As a teen, my mother took me off all meds at some point. I don’t know if it was a bad thing or good thing. So I was never regularly on meds those teens and early 20s.

Am I telling too much details? I’m just trying to think of everything that happened. So anyway, in that hospital this lady was fighting for her rights. I had this borderline diagnosis. They court-ordered me to have all these mental health evaluations. At this time, I got pregnant with my second child. The dad didn’t want nothing to do with him. I went through a lot with DHS, being manipulated by another system, but ultimately I ended up losing custody of my first and second child. The first lives with my mother-in-law and the second lives with my parents. Within four months I married my second husband, who would very quickly start abusing me. That’s where my self-esteem was. I felt I deserved it. Not long after that, I got pregnant with my third child. He abused me until I was six months pregnant, and then I never let him lay a hand on me again during my pregnancy, using threats of calling the police, his biggest fear since he was still on parole. When my son was born, I was living in a home with, like, 13 other people, two of them crack dealers. Just trying to survive. It truly was one of the lowest points in my life.

I ended up moving to a different town with one of my girlfriends, trying to bring my son and I out of the situation I had gotten into. My husband ended up following me into my new life I was trying to make. During this time, unknown to me, I ended up pregnant with my daughter, and and about four weeks in, my husband beat me for the last time. I called the police and had him sent back to prison. That’s probably one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. Because of this, I lost what little support I had from his family and thankfully, my sister allowed my youngest son and I to move in with her in yet a different town.

During this time, I started to rebuild a new life and started taking steps forward and through a series of momentous decisions. I lost custody of my two youngest children after my daughter was born. Within four months, I got them back though. In that process, the court ordered another mental health evaluation. And this time, I was given an opportunity and took full advantage of starting my recovery process. For me, it was recovery beginning from substance abuse. Ultimately, I found a doctor and a therapist who were on my side, who listened to me, who never made me feel less than, never made me feel like a victim of a system. I ended up with a diagnosis of bipolar. But I still don’t think I really took my recovery as I should have. I continued to just survive.

In early 2010, I felt I was on the verge of another breakdown. My doctor had prescribed me Xanax, and I started abusing Xanax to the point I was living in an altered reality daily, and I resorted to buying them off the street to feed my habit. At some point, my loved ones started pointing out my obvious problem and encouraged me to seek help. When I tried to quit and get off the medication on my own, I started having hallucinations of hearing and seeing things, like the shadows had come alive. It was one of the scariest moments in my life, not only because of the state I was in, but also because my two children were in the other room and I had the fear that I wasn’t gonna come out of that night alive and they would wake up alone.

I checked into another hospital the next morning. This time in the hospital, I felt my rights completely were taken away. Here I come in feeling like I was crazy, and I know I was looking a little wild, not in my right mind. I was not “there” for the first day or so. When I finally came around to being there, they wouldn’t give me my clothes back, let me fix my hair properly, or give me my makeup. I know it sounds like a small thing, but it was so important to me. I like to get up and put my makeup on. It makes me feel like a human being. I felt like I wasn’t doing my maintenance. They told me I didn’t have the right to do this or that. I said, “I voluntarily checked myself in here!” So I had to fight for my rights. We had a compromise, and I got what I wanted.

Then when they were discharging me, they tried to give me a prescription to Klonopin, and I refused to take that. I mean, I came in the hospital voluntarily trying to get safely off of Xanax and deal with my abuse issue, and they wanted me to take Klonopin in its place. That didn’t make any sense to me. I did at this time start taking Lithium Carbonate, but only after doing my research, and I took this drug religiously for two years, which seemed to help stabilize me. For the record, though, I no longer take any meds.

After getting out of the hospital, I found myself being unable to go back to my highly stressful job at the private nursing home I had worked at for a few years. I took this opportunity, with the support of my then-fiance, to enroll in college and pursue my education. During the few months process of all of this, I was on Facebook, and I came across a post about this speech to be given at Arkansas Tech University, which was in my hometown, about 45 minutes away. So I challenged myself to step outside my box, and I drove the 45 minutes to participate in this seminar. The words that caught my eye were “empowerment and recovery from mental illness.” From my time in the hospital, I already felt empowered. But recovery from mental illness, those words just spoke to me. I had never heard that. I had always been made the problem, diagnosed with this and that. None made sense to me.

Dan Fisher did something different. He was telling something about the heart and head connecting, and it resonated with me something deep. I was like, “This is something I’ve been looking for my whole life!” I just sat in that speech, every sense awakening moment by moment as he spoke. At some point, he invited folks to sign a piece of paper if they were interested in doing advocacy work in our state. So I did, honestly just expecting a pamphlet in the mail. But he called me within an hour. He spoke to me with such respect that no one in my entire life had. When he said, “Hey, I’m setting up this group in your state,” I was all about it. I drove and met him, and it changed my life. That was March of 2010.

Since then, I’ve been a part of building the only peer-run nonprofit organization in my state. Through this process, I have come to learn of this great movement directed by people like me. People with similar lived experience as mine. People that wanted to be heard and that want to change how the mental health system treated people. Because of this door being opened to me, I have had so many positive life-altering experiences and connections that have allowed me to be a strong voice in my state. I think for me, where I’m at now in recovery is a lot of personal growth. I do a lot of organizational stuff. A lot is personal learning about myself, listening to my body, what it needs and doesn’t need. I have the right people around me for once. I get strength and encouragement from them. A lot of these dynamics are important to me in my recovery.

During this time of magical growth, I managed to graduate with an associate’s degree, the very first goal that I had set and accomplished as an adult. Then I decided that for me, as part of my recovery, about a year and a half ago me and my doctor decided to transfer off medication. I’ve been med-free for about a year and a half. It’s not an easy road. I do have mood swings. But like I said, people around me push me forward. I call it a spiritual journey, such an awakening for me. I’ve learned so much for my family, having some understanding. And on my angry days, I have the support I need.

But what’s happened with me in the last couple years, my suicidal ideations did return. A lot of it was that my husband was on the road a lot in the last year. I have to be careful taking on a lot of stress. Over the summer, I had two friends die by suicide. For me, where already I was in my dark place, that kind of glorified suicide for me. I started having ideation. I was in a really dark spot at that moment because I felt no place to turn to. In September 2013, I was in a really dark spot. I had an angel come to me, that’s pretty much what happened. I started taking myself out of it again. I started sharing my thoughts with my husband. It felt safe to do, and the more I started talking about it, the more I felt better. I felt normal being able to talk about it.

A lot of times, I’m feeling like the oddball. I look around me, so many people are affected by this, but no one in my community talks about it. No one wants to. I live in the Bible Belt, first of all. And Arkansas is backwards in mental health. There’s so much stigma attached to it. I went to a Coming out of the Darkness speech, and the guy who came and spoke with us, only a handful of people from the community come. He was the only one talking about it. It makes me sad to see that. We need more safe and open places to talk about suicide. And the stigma that follows a person, let’s not mention the shame of that. I hate the feeling of being trapped, unable to do or say something about it. So I’m very passionate about it. It needs to be talked about. I know the more I talk about my experiences, the better I feel.

This is where I’m at. I do maintenance. I do tai chi in the morning. I take the kids to school, and the fact that I’m able to do that is amazing, especially after the dark hole I just climbed out of. I’m starting to branch out in my community, finding my voice.

What kind of response do you get from people when you speak up?

Let’s just say I have a hard time making friends. I think it comes from where I’ve been at recently. I hate to use “depression” to describe myself. I just say a really dark hole. When I get to that point, it takes me a while to climb back out. I’m still in that climb, some days good, some days bad. I work at a deli during the day, just to get out during school hours, but when I get to the deli I have a hard time talking to people about daily stuff, a hard time making friends. Today, I told people I was going to the Tools for Change conference, and people just look at me. They just want to talk about what they talk about. People just clam up.

How is your peer organization doing?

Right now, all we are is a board of directors. We’re just starting to write for our first grants. We’ve went through a lot of growth and trainings in the last few years. We are starting to get some traction in our state as a legitimate voice as we look to change policy for the future of mental/behavioral health care in our state. We are staying connected nationally and are excited about bringing in folks to help us educate the state on what peer-supported services are and look like.

How big is your board?

Right now, we have eight. Our organization is doing a lot compared to where we started. Also, we’re starting to bridge with other stakeholders in our state, like the DBHS and other mental health affiliates. We are currently working with the DBHS to develop a peer support model that is Medicaid-billable so that we may have paid peer support specialists in our state. Something we’ve never had before.

How was the Alternatives conference?

I’ve been going since 2010. It’s the most life-altering experience. For me, every year, I go one way and come back a different way. I’m a changed person each time. I can be myself there. The bits and pieces I try to hide from the rest of the world, I don’t feel I have to hide there. And gosh, I’ve made so many lifelong friends and connections. I’ve learned so much to bring back to our state.

How was the attempt survivor caucus?

It was basically a safe place to talk about suicide. No inhibitions. I remember going, and actually I was running late, and I had waited all to day to go to this caucus. For some reason, Leah is a part of that for me. I met her in 2012, and in 2013 I made a point to be able to talk to her. And I’ve read a lot of what she’s done. I had went to a workshop she was in earlier that day, and I wanted to continue the conversation. I went up there and was late coming in. That was my first time ever of talking about my suicide attempts.

How many people were there?

It was about 20, 25 people. I just felt at home. My soul talked to other people. And that’s how the whole Alternatives is.

You’ve changed a lot. How is your family taking all of this?

My husband is my rock. When he came into my life, I was a hot mess. I had just lost my children. He saw something in my heart. He let me love myself. As I went through changes, I couldn’t have asked for a more patient man. We’ve been together almost six years, and married a year. He came in and loved me, the most unconditional love I’ve ever had. We’ve had rocky patches, and some has to do with me acting out. The traumas in my life have caused me some issues as an adult, but we work through them. He’s been great. My children, the two younger ones, it’s been great to be able to raise them because they’re a constant reminder that they love me for me. It’s been a great help. As far as the rest of my extended family, I’m just now opening up to them. My parents are not supportive whatsoever. I think they’re proud of me, but they’re stuck in their own little world.

Like the people at deli?

A lot of times, they don’t want to hear because they don’t want to bring it up again. It reminds them of their failure, I guess. There’s a lot of pain and history still there. And that’s the reason why I should have removed myself from them a very long time ago, which I did, I moved away from my hometown for five years. And it was good, too. I’ve since moved back to my hometown to be closer to my older children. It’s been more emotional. Family dynamics. The best I can do is maintain my own household and support and love them for who they are. I have come to my own reasoning and understanding about them. My folks are who they are, and I love them regardless.

What is the mental health system like there, and what would you like to change?

First of all, there are no alternatives. There’s not much education. There’s really nothing. What people do generally, and I can say from experience, you go to the ER, and they send you to a social worker who puts you in the hospital. Whether you put yourself there or they do, it’s the same thing. You go to see a therapist, they send you to a psychologist, you get diagnosed, put on meds. It’s a cycle. There’s no alternatives in our state whatsoever. None. I would like to see the mental health system rebuilt from the ground up.

What’s your plan for changing this?

First of all, our voices. Like what you’re doing today. Our stories need to be told. I would like to see the mental health community be trained in new alternatives as opposed to more traditional services. I would like to see communities of support that is not co-opted by our traditional mental health system. There’s lots of things I’d like to see. My plan for changing this is to utilize my voice in the continuing education of myself, so I can in turn educate fellow community members, leaders, and policy makers on how to build more inclusive communities that encourage a better quality of life for everyone.

Who else are you?

My greatest story in life is being a mom. I’m all mom. That’s my greatest joy. I love challenging myself to be a better mom. I know it sounds crazy. From my experiences as a child, I want to give better to my own children. That’s why I do a lot of work on myself. Being a mom is the best thing for me. To be able to grow myself and teach my children how to grow. I’m completely a soccer mom, basketball, baseball, I do them all. So my greatest value right now, everything I do is for my kids.