Talking with Shane Niemeyer

“I wanted to change everything in my life, and I had the opportunity to do just that. And in prison, you have all the time in the world.”

Shane Niemeyer has publicity support from the well-known publisher of his new book, but this interview came from his own initiative. He went looking for ways to reach the people who understand where he’s been. He started by Googling “suicide blogs” and came up here.

Here, he talks about how he came, at what he thought was his last moment, to see how he and friends in high school had been “ignorant and callous little pricks” for thinking a young classmate who killed herself was weak. He also talks about how he reshaped his life after his attempt years later. As a top Ironman athlete, he has quite a bit to say about goals and determination.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

Who I am now is, I do a lot of coaching for people who are traveling, a lot of working professionals, so I will write their workouts. I coach athletes and currently triathletes as well. I spend a lot of time doing exercise-related activity and work.

And how did you come be talking to me?

I’ve been given this opportunity to write a book, and my story got some press. Where I came from, the reason why people are interested, is because I guess it appeals to people as it’s kind of a redemption story. There was a time in my life where I felt I was in a state of desperation. And I tried to, had been in and out of jail, in and out of institutions as an adolescent, psych units. I didn’t think I could pull myself together or regain control over the direction of my life. I was really hopeless and tried to hang myself in prison, and the cord snapped, and I broke at least one of my feet and separated a couple of vertebrae. I was put on suicide watch of the jail, in Idaho.

The reason why I reached out to you is because, when I go around speaking a lot, that moment in time, that crisis imprinted me in a way that every time I read a story of someone who commits suicide or attempts or is in a state of crisis, I strongly identify with that person to this day. It’s been 10 years. It’s such an emotional experience that I don’t know if I can do anything to help anyone, but I can try.

How did you start to get back on your feet?

I think certainly it was a very unique set of circumstances. There was, one, I am very, very fortunate and grateful I came through intact. It’s one a lot of people don’t come through. If people do come through that, it changes them somehow. It changed me in the most fundamental way. The kinds of moments turned into minutes, turned into hours, what before was a crisis situation where I didn’t see any other way, no way for me to regain control of life or be able to turn around, after I jumped and found myself still alive, feelings of despair slowly were replaced with feelings of gratitude and hope. I was in jail, the beginning of what was to be a 14-month prison sentence.

I think having gone through that, I was able to change my perspective and see there was only an upside. Having nothing and having no hope was a place to have only an upside and nothing to lose instead. It was a shift in perspective. I kind of had this sense, this desperation, I wanted to change everything in my life, and I had the opportunity to do just that. And in prison, you have all the time in the world.

I embarked on this process of changing myself, trying to heal myself emotionally. Part of that for me was to heal myself and build myself up physically as well. I would take care of my body much better than I had before. All of that emerged out of that crisis.

How did the people around you respond?

The act, it stigmatized me in the beginning. I think some people’s knee-jerk reaction is negative, right? And, by the way, I remember when I was in high school, and this story would embody the reaction I got from some inmates. When I was in high school, there was a student, Mary Beth, who hung herself. Me and my friends, we were ignorant and callous little pricks, really. We said things that were so ignorant. That she was weak and should have been stronger, that it was a form of natural selection and only the strong can hack it. I didn’t think about that incident until the moment before I jumped off that ledge, and I thought how wrong we were, that in fact she had a misplaced high degree of resolve, that she was sad like me and didn’t see a way out.

I think a lot of initial response from inmates was the response that I was weak. Or crazy. And so, over time I kind of, as days turned into weeks and I started implementing this process where I spent each day sitting on my bunk, journaling, and I read almost a book a day so I could add new ideas and thought into this closed system, to add to my frame of reference. I began to have quiet moments, meditating, but not overtly, right, in the lotus position. I just made sure I had quiet moments, paid attention to my emotional state.

One thing that definitely resonated with the inmates was that I worked out. As weeks turned into months, I was working out a few hours a day. Eventually, other inmates who wanted something different for themselves started to gravitate to me and start working out, picking up the books I read. Elaine Hatfield at the University of Hawaii talked about that, “emotional contagion.” In the beginning, people were skeptical, cynical of my suicide attempt. Later they would come around, ask what I was doing, why did I read so much, how do you work out, why I spent so much time journaling. This kind of shift over time, the way they viewed me, you know what I mean? Because prison is an environment that is negative, right, you’re surrounded by the highest density of societal rejects in one spot, and they’re often cynical and negative and often kind of victims. A lot of times they view themselves as victims of society and circumstance. So it’s kind of a tough environment to plot a course. It was an interesting time for sure, but for me at the time, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

How were you able to maintain that focus once you came out?

When I got released, I was terrified. I had been a failure for so long. Probably a lot of people who end up dying by suicide, a lot of them have substance abuse issues or what we term mental health issues. That’s all I had known the better part of my adult life, until I was almost 30. I was very scared I would fall back into these old patterns of behavior. Also, I took comfort in the fact I had spent 14 months cultivating these habits I could rely on. I was very fit, I had been journaling and reading every day for over a year. So I knew I would have a good chance if I could continue that process. Also, I was out on parole, and there was oversight. My time was occupied by meetings with the parole officer, AA and NA meetings, 90 in 90 days, something like that. I couldn’t drive legally, so I had to ride this bike everywhere.

And I had this plan, which took 14 months to develop. My plan was, I was going to be humble, I was going to do whatever it took to bootstrap myself. With a college degree, I began washing dishes, with three jobs, but I knew it was temporary. My old defense attorney, Brett Fox, let me sleep on his couch until I got back on my feet.

I knew I needed to be in an occupation where in some way I was in servitude for other people. I became a personal trainer, and now I’m a strength and conditioning coach. I washed dishes, then was waiting tables, and all the time I was harassing this gym I wanted to be part of. Eventually, since I was broke, they traded custodial work for a membership, Then I became a trainer, then the top-producing trainer in eight gyms in the area. I advanced my education and became an expert in the field of strength and conditioning.

I moved toward this sense of ideal for myself. Even talking about it now feels sort of surreal. It was about, for me, having humble beginnings and realistic expectations and also being very persistent toward a vision for myself. I was just very lucky. At one point of my life, I was just surrounded by junkies and rejects and people going nowhere. Then after prison, I was surrounded by people who were mentors, pillars of the community, and I received a leg up and helping hand almost at every turn. My experience is not what a lot of inmates had: “You’ll ever get a job, people will look down on you.” That was never my experience because it was never my attitude. But at the beginning, I was terrified.

How did the book, the national exposure, happen?

So part of my story was really wanting to swing the pendulum the other way. On the continuum of addiction and compulsiveness, I was at the extreme end. I was homeless, using needles multiple times a day, drinking a fifth of alcohol, smoking as many cigarettes as I could afford. I was a train wreck. It occurred to me that if I could kind of transform that energy or redirect it, I could swing the pendulum the other way.

I found this article about Ironman, an ultradistance triathlon. When I read it in prison, I was very impressionable in that medical unit. I embarked on this. Part of my process was, I wanted to achieve something great for myself. I began training for the Ironman. For me, the training kind of stuck. I ground it out, became a pretty good athlete.

One of my clients wrote a letter to NBC. I had qualified for the Ironman world championships; they took the top 2 percent. My first year out there, I got a call from NBC and did an interview, and it actually aired. And then AP followed with an article, then a few agents contacted me and asked me to write a book. And here I sit today, all these years later, in a very unique position. I’m very fortunate.

With that platform comes the responsibility to kind of, I don’t know, testify to the fact that life is what we make of it. It works both ways. It can be miserable. Largely my misery was of my own devising. I was also able to swing that the other way. And now I’m in a situation in my life where, in a very real and tangible way, I am very grateful. It’s hard for me to fathom that my life is almost exactly the way I would want it. So that’s kind of how my story gained some traction, this kind of coincidence. It kind of took a life of its own.

So, for other people, we live in a country where there’s a sea of discontent. There are millions on anti-depressants, and many are overweight or obese. Dozens of people a day commit suicide. And so there’s a lot of discontent out there. And I think probably from my observation, if I had to pull the lens back and examine, a lot of times we would find there’s a lack of sense of fulfillment. A lot of times, that lack can be the result of … At times, people are in a position where they don’t, can’t imagine, or don’t have a concept, they’re so focused on discontent instead of focusing on what an ideal, what a personal ideal would look life. In prison, for instance, it would be hard for me to get at a fellow inmate, to get them to articulate, “If you could do anything, if you could draw a line in the sand right now and, within reason, create a life you’d want, what would it look like?” And I think lot of people have a tough time answering that question. I believe we perform better when we have objectives.

There’s a gap between who I was and who I wanted to be. But seeing that for what it was gave me, there was ways I could close that gap and pay attention to my thoughts. Our thoughts manifest themselves as behavior. And there are patterns to our thoughts. The average human being has thousands of thoughts a day. What’s the quality of those thoughts? You can change them. I think reading a good book, or examining your own thoughts through journaling and seeing them for what they are, which allows you to mold or shape your thoughts, and paying attention to your emotional or spiritual side, whether seeing a therapist or medicating. Often this is really corrupted in people for whatever reason, whether they suffered from abuse or found themselves in circumstances that were not desirable.

For me particularly, who we are as thinking beings and feeling beings, we are embodied in this biological organism, right? A physical body. I really believe, and a lot of research proves it out, our mental state is parallel to our physical state. If you’re overweight, I believe, whether or not you’re aware of it, you can’t really be happy or can’t function at an optimal level unless you’re getting some movement.

For me, exercise became very important because it was a constructive outlet for all the anxiety, the shame, the guilt I had acquired over the years. It was a way to process them in a hands-on way. It became very therapeutic for me. The production of all these hormones, enzymes, you hear about dopamine, serotonin, all these agents that produce well-being. At the end of exercise, no matter what it is, at the beginning you didn’t have anything, but after those exercises you had something, And for me, that was critical in getting moving in the right direction in my life.

If you’re close with your family, what do they think of all this?

My family has supported me wholeheartedly since prison, and before, though they needed to cut me loose when things got really bad. The whole book thing created some turmoil in my family, but we will get past that. Obviously, they are relieved that I have arrived at this point in my life where I seem to be thriving.

How long has it been again?

I got out of prison in late 2004. And so it’s really been, I tried to commit suicide in late 2003, I suppose it was. It’s been a while now. And as time goes on, it seems so far away. But I will always be able to recall that event in a way that it still feels very close to me in some ways. You know what I mean?

Do the feelings ever come back, and what do you do?

My feelings, or urges, they’re only feelings I have come back when I speak about it or when I hear about it, right? I read the number of veterans who commit suicide each day, and it infuriates me, it makes me very sad. Because I can identify with how they are, how they feel. It makes me sad because I wasn’t there in some way. I couldn’t impart to them that if you can make it through these moments, things can be so great, life can be so great in a way they can’t imagine in that moment, right? I wish I had a stick that I could tap them on the shoulder, inject them with what I have now.

Certainly I don’t have urges because my life is fucking good right now, and it has been for a long time. But it’s not always that way. That’s how I feel, I guess, I just feel so bad when I hear about that because I can identify with that crisis in a real way.

The other side is, I wish I could have some impact somehow.

Don’t you, by telling your story?

I hope so, I hope so. I hope so. It’s my hope and now my responsibility. And I don’t know, maybe it sounds lame, it sounds lame coming out of my mouth. But yeah, it’s my responsibility. It has been my experience.

How do you change the general population’s thinking and conversation around this issue?

What needs to change, and I think it is changing, is … is the sense, obviously, of educating people. The easy, knee-jerk reaction, people who respond that way are ignorant, they truly are. There are, there just exists stupid assholes in the world. And then there are just people who are ignorant. For any variety of reasons, people place judgment on one another.

But I think with the kind of prevalence of depression in this country, which I equate to just kind of unhappiness. With Irving Kirsch’s research out of Harvard, where for mild to moderate cases of depression, a placebo was as effective as medication. Psych meds help people, right, certainly there’s a place for them, but a lot of times I think they’re overused.

There’s this discontent that probably lends itself to more people being empathetic. So many people are unhappy in this country, and they’re examining sources of that discontent, how people become so unhappy or desperate that they see no other option, they don’t think they can regain control over the course of their lives. I don’t know what the answer is. But I do think sometimes that a lot of people have experienced at least a severe bout of unhappiness or what we call depression, but there are a lot of ignorant people who will say callous or idiotic things because they don’t know or don’t have understanding. But I think that’s a small … My gut feeling is, that’s a pretty small percentage of people.

I think more and more people understand it, could at least see how someone could end up in such a bad spot, that it’s not too far a stretch from their own experiences. That’s my personal belief. And the rest is just lack of education and empathy. I guess that wasn’t a very useful comment.

The last question I like to ask is, who else are you?

I guess people should know that I’m a coach, an athlete, that I like to read, and that I really am surrounded by people that I adore in every way. That I have been a lucky person, become a very lucky person, but in a lot of ways created that luck. There’s times I had to step back and pat myself on the back. That life is good now, I suppose. That, yeah. I’m athlete. I’m a coach, a friend. Maybe in some ways I’ve been able to become a mentor to people in positions of influence themselves. Yeah, I’m a lot of things.

But mostly, yeah, I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out. I guess I remain a dreamer, right, and remain a person always reaching for something. For me, that has been one of the most important things, reaching and developing and trying to evolve as a person, I guess.

What is the next something you’re reaching for?

Well, I guess a TED talk or a big talk would be one thing. And obviously, potentially one day, another book. And athletically, to crack the top 50 at the world championships would be a good goal. And eventually to become a good father and husband.

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