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?
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.