Talking with Craig A. Miller

I came across Craig A. Miller because he did what no one does on the “I Attempted Suicide” section of The Experience Project website: He posted under his real name. Before his attempt at age 20, he fought a strong obsessive-compulsive disorder that had him, among other things, collecting the scraps of paper he found and writing poetry on them. Since his attempt, he has taken control of his life and recently self-published the book “This is How it Feels: A Memoir of Attempting Suicide and Finding Life.”

The response has been good. Here, Craig talks about finding the balance between safe messaging around suicide and the need to speak directly to connect with people. As a friend told him, “If we were 16 again, what would we want to hear to get better? If you were talking to yourself at 16, what do you think it would take for you to really listen?”

Craig also talks about pulling himself back from living on disability as a young adult, his first-date confessions to the woman who would become his wife and what he hopes his two young children will think then they get old enough to read about his past. “I hope when they turn and become teenagers and think Dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I hope they’ll read this and see he does,” he says. “I hope they’ll be proud of what I overcame.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

In general, I’m just an average guy who has had a lot of unfortunate events in my life. Sadly, that’s not very uncommon. But I always had the notion there’s something more, maybe these unfortunate events are gonna add up to something for me. It’s where I focused my hope, to get through the things I did. It sounds kind of silly, but it’s at the core of who I am. It’s at the essence of what got me from my first memories to now. I’m 36, and what’s always remained within me is that hope. There is a purpose. There is a reason. You go through life events to learn, to build something in ourselves, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

Writing was always there for me since I was a teenager, when I first developed mental illness. I guess mental illness, like suicide, is one of those words you can say and silence a crowd. I developed obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. I was about 15 when I was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The doctors at the time determined OCD took up about 95 percent of my waking hours. But a lot of the symptoms were so intense that instead of being physical, like touching things and washing my hands, what you’d expect OCD to do, a lot of it was in my mind. I would have obsessive thoughts, and what made it so difficult was the fear that stemmed off of it, irrational, uncontrollable, extremely real fear. And it wasn’t like I was afraid of any one particular thing or even afraid of everything. It was just the pure raw emotion of fear. It’s the only way to describe it. It’s like waking up after a nightmare. You just sit there, kind of freaked out with nothing to pinpoint how you feel. And that’s what I lived with all the time. So when I say “mental illness,” to me, it was really focused on fear. I was constantly talking myself out of collapsing. And it just led to my writing, which was really the only thing I could do that was off-limits to my OCD. It’s how I poured out all my pain. I’d sit and write as often as possible.

One compulsion was to pick up scrap papers I found on the ground. So I started writing poems on them, whenever, wherever. In writing, I found a way to express myself, balance all those issues. When I was a teenager, from the time I was probably 14 until the time of my very real suicide attempt at 20, I spent every day talking myself out of suicide. The way I did it was by writing out my thoughts, examining who I was, why things happened, why I felt the way I did. Not as in “Why me?” but philosophically, “Why?” It’s what helped hold me together. It’s the essence of who I still am.

After my suicide attempt, it took me some years to get level and grounded. I would not suggest it to anyone, but I did my recovering without much help from anyone and anything. I gave the doctors and medications my best shot, but in the end I realized I was the only person who was gonna help me. I spent a few years struggling with that concept, believing that at some level there was more to my life experiences than suffering and that I had to find the answers within me for myself. In the end I overcame it. I went through a very rough period, but I did it. And my symptoms sort of dissipated. I think because I stopped giving them power.

Like I said, writing was something that was always with me. But it wasn’t until about two years ago when I had the opportunity to write an entire book. I wanted to write about my life. I knew I had learned a lot. And there was no bigger story in my life than my death. So I told my story through my suicide attempt. I think anybody who is coming forward with a suicide attempt story, I think it’s only fair to the reader, or the listener, that you tell the entire story, not just “Things were tough for me, and I couldn’t do it anymore.” People need to understand why someone would do such a thing. I think you have a responsibility to tell everything, or at least what you feel comfortable with. So I told everything I felt comfortable with. Stories of molestation, I talked about my parents, all kinds of people I knew growing up. I made sure to give them all anonymity as much as I could. But more than anything, I talked about myself. It was a huge hurdle to overcome, putting myself out there like that. People are gonna be able to read this, and there’s no coming back from that. Everyone will know I attempted suicide, and everyone will know why.

So I think if you add up the life I started with and the desire to find purpose in it all, and then finding the courage to tell my whole story, that’s really who I am overall.

You mentioned getting over your OCD and anxiety, not giving it power. What does that mean?

Part of the biggest struggle I had was, I let it own me. I think anyone with any type of mental illness, from self-doubt to schizophrenia, and anything in between, when it starts to consume you, you kind of know it in a lot of cases, and you feel like there’s nothing you can do about it. When you see it coming, and you feel it coming, it becomes your focus and it’s easy for it to become embedded in you. Now you find yourself having a mental illness, a chemical imbalance, you can barely even understand your own thoughts anymore. When you combine that with a history of tragedy, neglect and a bad upbringing and a lack of self confidence and self esteem, it becomes very easy to succumb to it completely, to say, “Wow, I’m messed up. I don’t have the strength to make this better.” I battled with that constantly.

But someone said to me once, and I thought it was awesome, “Love is something we’re born with. Fear is something we learn along the way.” We are born with happiness. We are born with love and self-esteem and self-worth, all these tools to help us be a strong human being. It’s only through the actions of others, or even ourselves, that those start to dissipate. When that happens, what you’re left with is emptiness _  the self-doubt, the lack of love, the lack of trust, the lack of self-confidence and strength. And once I reached that point where I really thought I was at the bottom, completely consumed, to the point that I didn’t want to wake up tomorrow, and I attempted suicide and was fortunate enough to survive, I found myself at the lowest point in my life.

I looked at that and realized, “I have nothing right now. I am empty, in terms of my soul, my will, my spirit. I grew up with pretty much nothing but negativity, enough that it caused serious issues. I’m 20 years old. I just tried to kill myself, and I have nothing right now.” Instead of looking at it as a “Poor me” scenario, as I had for the 20 years prior, I thought, “If I stop feeling bad for myself, stop making up reasons for it, like my parents didn’t do a good job, I was molested…etc.” I began to see the rest of my life as an opportunity. I thought, “You know what, if I’m going to live, then I’m going to live. There’s nothing to stop me.” So when I looked at the darkness and wondered how to get on with life, I looked at it as an opportunity to build myself into the person I wanted to be for the first time in my life: “I’m pretty fortunate to be at zero. I can start my life over, in a true sense, and I can begin healing. In a way that I now have control over it.”

That’s how I moved forward. I tried to figure out how to build myself for the first time as the person I wanted to be. I took little pieces of advice from each person I met and kept focus on it. I would stay focused on the positive of each experience I had throughout the course of a day. If I did something well, I would make sure I told myself that. Even if the only thing I did well was get through the day without a breakdown. I made myself acknowledge how strong I was for doing that. I stopped giving control of life to my illnesses and I gave control to myself. You know, I’m not going to wake up doubting myself anymore.

Up until my suicide attempt, I was on Social Security disability, collecting food stamps. I had nothing. I had a few clothes and a notebook. I looked in the paper and got a job. I called Social Security and told them I didn’t want to be on disability. I was 21 years old. Everyone around me was so scared that I was gonna relapse, go back: “Why put yourself through that kind of pressure?” Social Security said, “We’ll keep paying you for six months just in case it doesn’t work out. And if at the end you’re still working, we’ll stop payment.” So everyone around me, although encouraging on the surface, was really like, “Are you sure you want to do this?” But I knew myself. I knew in my heart I was ready to move on. I was gonna go forward, become who I wanted to become, take with me the good parts I learned along the way.

It wasn’t easy. I was living with my dad and his girlfriend, I had been renting a room from them, and even being on Social Security I would give them a portion of my check. I looked at my whole life and said, “This is not how I’m gonna live.” I got a job, started out in a company as what people would call a gofer, and within about two years ended up leading my own group, because I was so determined. I took that focus I had before on my illness and just turned it around and said, “If I could be so passionate about falling apart, why can’t I be so passionate about coming back together?” Within about six months of surviving my suicide attempt, I moved out of my dad’s house, got my own apartment and moved on from there. That was 16 years ago. Today, I’m happy. I’m married. I have two children. And I think I’ve overcoming enough that I’m OK to start talking about it and giving back. I’ve done my healing.

I read the first few chapters online at Amazon and looked through your blog and didn’t realize you have a wife and kids.

At the end of the book, in the author’s note, I put in that I was married and had two kids. The book is written about everything that happened before I was 20 years old, and I didn’t know my wife then. It’s told from a past tense perspective. But in terms of the present tense, my website and blog postings, I wanted to leave some of my family out of it. It’s a lot to come forward and say, “I attempted suicide, and this is why.” When I fill in the “This is why” part, it’s like a scratch in the record and a silence in the room. But I didn’t hold back anything. I thought it was important to be honest. So when people read it, they can see things similar to where they’re coming from. But I didn’t want to bring my wife and kids into it.

Do they know?

My wife, yeah. I have a 3-year-old and a five-month-old, so they won’t know for a while. But my wife, right from the first night we met. It must have been a hell of a conversation when we met. I knew she was the one. I just told her everything, my whole story in about two hours: “This is who I am, where I’ve been, where I am now, what I want to do with life. What do you think?”

What did she say?

She said, “Let’s meet again and get married.” So we got married. We’ve been together eight years, almost. And she’s 100 percent supportive of me. But I think it’s important to me at this stage of the story, this stage of my writing, that I stay focused on the earlier parts of my life. My first book was about my past, all the darkness that went with it. It wouldn’t be appropriate to include them in that yet. As I move forward with other books about how I got from there to here, it’s more appropriate to have them in the story. But it was very important up front to talk just about me. This is how it feels. It was really about me, and I had to put myself out there.

You also put your parents out there. How do they feel? Do they know?

My father, he called me up after he read it. Let me start by saying there’s a lot of stuff in the book even they didn’t know. They divorced when I was 2. So my mother didn’t know what life was like with my father, whom I didn’t see often. And my father didn’t know what life was like when I lived with my mother and stepfather. Neither one of them knew I was molested, either, or how bad school was for me. Kids at school knew I was molested, and that’s why I was bullied and picked on. But no one who should have known knew. I put out the book in July. My father read it, and he called and said, “Promise me one thing.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Never stop writing.” It meant a lot to me. He then took a breath and said, “I’m sorry.” My mother moved away to Florida about 10 years ago. I haven’t really spoken with her since. I did send her an email about the book. I know she read it. I don’t know what her response is. I didn’t ask. I just left it as it was.

Molestation, and kids at school knew? What are you comfortable saying about that?

There was this guy in the neighborhood who was mentally disabled. He was a lot older. I was about 6, and he was somewhere in his 20s. He started molesting me probably when I was 6 years old. It mostly happened beneath the crawl space under my mother’s house. He always tried it with other kids in the neighborhood; they were just stronger people than I was. I didn’t have the strength mentally or physically to fight it, I guess. So other kids knew. They didn’t actually see anything happen, but at that age, I don’t think you need to see anything for rumors to fly. I was really bullied pretty bad at times. But it just never got out. None of the teachers knew, my parents didn’t know, my brothers didn’t know. It was really weird.

You couldn’t tell anybody?

I could’ve. My mother was a very angry person, and I had a really bad relationship with my stepfather. I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me. There was no trust. In a way, I blamed myself for everything that was happening, too. I was also afraid of what my mother would do. I was afraid of how my brothers would look at me. I was afraid of telling my father, another big angry guy. In a sense, I really felt bad for the guy who was doing it to me. He was mentally challenged and had the personality and the brain capacity of a 9-year-old kid. I just kept thinking, “It’s not his fault, not his fault.” There was another neighbor, an older guy, probably in his 60s, and I think he was molesting the guy who was doing it to me. So I think the same thing was happening to him, and he was just doing it to me. I just never felt strong enough or big enough to tell anybody. I felt such compassion for him. Believe it or not, I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. I thought he just didn’t know what he was doing. There’s so much when I look back on that experience, everything I went through. In my teenage years, when I looked at it and hated him, I was very angry with all of it. For me though, it boils down to an incredible lesson in compassion.

You have two young kids. What happens when they grow up and can read this?

Hopefully they’ll be proud. I hope when they turn and become teenagers and think Dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I hope they’ll read this and see he does. I hope they’ll be proud of what I overcame. The book was written to help people, to help see life in a different way and the struggles we go through. And to help people who’ve never been there to understand what it’s like to be there, to attempt suicide. I wanted it to serve two purposes. The people who feel like there’s no hope, I hope they read it and say, “This guy has lived similar things, or at least he knows what it feels like on this level, this is how he overcame it.” I hope they are left with the same hope that got me through it. I think the book so far is accomplishing that. And then for the people who don’t understand what it’s like to suffer like that. … I had a high school teacher, and I was in a homeroom class before school started. He was really upset, withdrawn. The class dismissed. He said, “Miller, hang on.” He came over to me. He was a big guy. He was actually a football coach there. His eyes started filling up, and he said, “I heard on the radio this morning that some teenage kid committed suicide, and I thought it was you.” He started crying. He looked at me and shook his head and said, “I don’t understand, I don’t understand it at all.” I remember the sincerity in his eyes. In my mind, while writing the book, I knew I had to write to people who want to understand but don’t. People who have a loved one who has attempted suicide and don’t get what it’s like. So it was important to me to write with those people in mind too. The title was intended for that. But it’s also a very positive book. I aimed at keeping the book hopeful, while staying truthful and honest about how bad life really is sometimes.

What kind of responses have you had?

When I first finished it, I sent it to a book doctor, someone who looks at a book and says, “Yeah, it will work” or “No, it’s junk.” The guy wrote me back a four-page letter about why he couldn’t make it better. He said, “Don’t let this go, don’t stuff this under your bed. Try to find an agent and you will get published. Don’t give up. Keep going and do not doubt yourself. You have a great book here.” So I did what he told me not to do. I put the book under my bed and I said, “You know what, he was just feeling sorry for me. The book’s not that good.” A few months later I went to another editor, who was more money than I could afford, and there was like a nine-month waiting period. What she wrote back to me I completely disagreed with. She was basically like, “Everything you did here is wrong, and you need to change it all.” I said, “I know I’m not that wrong! I’m just gonna do it, put it out there.” I pretty much dismissed everything she said, and I sent out about two dozen queries to literary agents. Which, looking back, I probably didn’t write the query too well. I presented the book as a memoir about a suicide attempt rather than a story meant to help, you know. I think it scared off a lot of people. I got a few encouraging letters back, but mostly generic, “thanks but no thanks.” Then I had a conversation with another writer, and he told me, “Stop looking for agents. The whole publishing world is changing. Self-publish. Do it your way. The only thing that matters is the readers.” I had everything ready so I said, “You know what, I’m just gonna do it.” I self-published, did a Facebook post to about 100 people and let it go.

The feedback was absolutely overwhelming, way more than I expected. It started going word of mouth. It’s been out for about five months. And I haven’t done any advertising. I put stuff up on The Experience Project, a website, that’s all. I got an e-mail from a woman a while back who wrote she believes the book saved a teenage girl’s life, which was overwhelming to me. And another one I saw on a newspaper’s website. A friend forwarded a link to an article about suicide, and people were writing about my book in the comments section. And someone wrote they were researching books about suicide, found mine, gave it to their grandson, who was suicidal, and he came to his grandmother, crying and said he wanted to live and needed help. She wrote, “This book saved my grandson’s life.” That’s when it really kicked in, “OK, I have a responsibility now. If it is helping people, I’d better be doing this the right way.” I know with suicide prevention, there’s what’s called safe messaging. You have to be really careful. I didn’t have any of that in mind when I wrote the book. I wrote it as pure and clean as I could write it. When I started getting feedback that it’s changing lives, I said, “God, I hope I’ve done this right.” So I’ve asked for help from the suicide coalition to review it, let me know if anything sways from the guidelines of safe messaging. So far, no one’s thrown up any red flags. I keep going back to what that person said, “Pay attention to the readers.” I’ve gotten dozens of e-mails from people whom I’ve never met from different states, so heartfelt and sincere, so overwhelming to read. Strangers telling me that the book helped them, it’s changed their outlook on life, and that I need to keep writing. I can’t describe what that feels like.

The book isn’t out for free online, but can you buy and read it online?

On Amazon’s website, prime members can read it for free until the end of January. You can also buy a printed book from Amazon or download the Kindle version. It’s not in bookstores yet. I didn’t print 2,000 of them that are sitting in a warehouse somewhere. But I think if it were on a shelf, people would pick it up. I’m still working with the coalition. Once I get a thumbs up, I’m going to move forward with getting into stores.

If they said, “You need to be less explicit, you need to tone it down,” would you?

I keep referring back to the person who said, “Pay attention to the readers.” So far, I’ve gotten zero negative feedback. I would have to really weigh it. I’ve gone through pretty much everything I’ve written, poems, songs, even my photography. If you look at it from the perspective of being suicidal _ and I know what it feels like _ almost anything can be interpreted as too much. It really has to be very carefully crafted in order to not be taken the wrong way. I back that up 100 percent, but what I think is equally as important is honestly. If I were to speak to a group where members are struggling, I think it’s just as important for them to know I’ve been there. And yes, those thoughts of suicide are very, very real. In a sense, you have very little control over them. I think it’s important to acknowledge the darkness that goes with the light. You can’t just jump in and say, “There’s hope, let’s move forward.” For me, you have to identify with the darkness before you can truly see the light. I have a friend I wrote about in the book. And he’s a big character in it. And we were talking about whether I should talk about certain things when speaking to groups, and he said to me, “If we were 16 again, what would we want to hear to get better? If you were talking to yourself at 16, what do you think it would take for you to really listen?”

I think how I need to do it is to discuss my story in its raw truth, be myself and let people see the whole picture. It’s not just a suicide attempt that I survived, it’s life that I survived. I think that’s how I need to do it. I think there’s more credibility in that. It’s important to acknowledge the dark. If people reviewing the book see potential triggers, I hope they realize why they are there. The book shows the darkness, but it brings the light back into it, and ties it all together. You need both sides. I hope I get the chance to do that in speaking engagements as well.

Are you speaking?

I’ve been asked to. January will be my first one. It’s at a book store. There’s a school that is considering using the book in study. They like the book not just for its message but mostly for its literary value. I may have an opportunity to meet with students for an author Q & A afterward too. It would be irresponsible of me to speak with a younger audience about the book’s subject matter, though. I need to learn more about safe messaging, what to say, what not to say, then make it my own and move forward.

I prepared a few questions, but I’m going to ask them in pretty random order here. When I was looking at your work online, I also came across a post on another blog in July by a Craig Miller who wrote about the five best ways to die. Was that you?

Wow. It was not me. When I first put the book on Amazon, there’s a section on the book’s page that shows “people who viewed this book also viewed this,” and there was a book like, “How to kill yourself.” It kind of pissed me off. You’re at the mercy of Amazon algorithms. That’s why I put the middle initial  in my name, Craig A. Miller. No, I didn’t write that.

Is there a sense of pride in the experience somehow?

Attempting suicide?

Yes.

When I look at it, what I did, that I was fortunate enough to survive, I don’t feel any pride that I attempted suicide. I feel sad that it took me getting to that point to really turn around. I spent a lot of years talking myself out of it, trying to keep hope. I was always on that edge of, “Either my life is going to turn out really good or really bad.” It makes me sad for myself and for my family that attempting suicide was sort of what it took for me to step off that line. There’s no pride in the fact that I attempted suicide. But I do feel pride in the fact that I was able to move on and be able to learn from everything in my life, not just the suicide attempt, and be able to do something about it. I think the pride comes along the way in the healing process, of looking at everything, knowing that I survived the upbringing, the mental illness, sadness and hopelessness. I’m not necessarily surviving the suicide attempt but surviving all the things in my life. The healing process became the pride. Don’t get me wrong. I still wrestle with self-doubt quite often, but …

Not to that extent?

Not to that extent. In a healthy way. The self-doubt I have is almost like a tool. I don’t go into anything thinking I have it covered. The doubt makes me stay on my toes. In a way, I never let my guard down. I say I can do this, but it’s a healthy balance of pride and doubt. I don’t think it stops me from doing anything. It makes me do the things I do better.

Is there any way for people to avoid getting to that point in their life, a suicide attempt, to make changes?

Everyone has a different breaking point, a different bottom. I would hope that the message in the book and the work that people like me and you are doing to try and raise awareness, I would hope that our message could be received further upstream, people could start seeing things in a new way before things get so bad that they can’t see at all. That’s my intent. What I hope to do. Give that hope before it gets too bad for them. I think that’s what all of us as attempt survivors can bring. We’ve been there, gotten through it, especially attempt survivors who’ve done their healing. I think it’s our responsibility, in a sense, to give back.

Does society make that easy, talking openly about suicide?

I think at this point, it’s not very easy. It’s becoming more and more known. And “popular,” I guess, is a bad word, but the awareness of suicide is being presented by a lot more groups than in the past, especially since I was in high school. It’s primarily driven from the survivors’ standpoint, those left behind. I think it could use more attempt survivors. But there’s that side, where there’s a lot of fear that an attempt survivor could be seen as glamorizing the process. I can understand that. I think it needs to be done the right way. But a very, very strong message can be created by suicide attempt survivors. As equally as a survivor who has been left behind.

Has anyone said you’re glamorizing suicide?

No, knock on wood, no. But you can go into almost anything with that state of mind. You can look at artists, song lyrics, books and look at it in that sense if you wanted to. I was definitely nervous about that. I have this belief that helped me all along the way, getting it out of me. I had to get that negative stuff out of me. A lot of stuff was negative. Not in a driving way as in, “Go do this,” but a lot of dark emotions I expressed. I try to do the same with my photography. If I’m feeling blissful, I take photos of the sun and flowers. If I’m feeling depressed and it’s a gray day, raining for a week, I go take black-and-white’s of the fog. Some say it’s too sad and encourages depression, some say it’s beautiful. I think expressing oneself is extremely important in balancing emotions. Expressing appropriately

What would be inappropriate?

Well, some stuff out there is unreal. You look at some of the death metal bands and gore websites, all blood and guts, there are some pretty dark things on the internet. I don’t think people need to go that far. I think there is a lot of art that’s aimed at getting a reaction rather than trying to purge and express. There is a line where it sort of loses taste.

Did you use to like them?

Not necessarily.

Ideally, is there some way suicide should be discussed?

I don’t know, I think it’s just bringing it more mainstream. I would assume. It’s almost like a lot of things that were taboo years ago. I may be speaking out of line, but I would say gay and lesbian issues years ago were sort of buried and not talked about. Then you have the media and social media and channels like MTV that helped make it more acceptable. It’s gotten to a point where tolerance has gone way up. It can be openly discussed where years ago it couldn’t. You see people talking more openly. I think it’s gotten a lot more to the point where it may be more acceptable, which I applaud. But I would think that in the same respect something like suicide _ being one of those room-silencing words that make people just clam up and not know what to say _ I think if more awareness is brought to it, more understanding, people would get better about talking about it. Just like it was and is being done with gay and lesbian issues. It’s no longer this taboo thing. At least not everywhere.

But with homosexuality, they can say there’s a lot that’s good in it to be proud of. With suicide, there’s not a lot of great stuff around it. Or am I wrong?

Right, how do you find the good side of it? I think we need more awareness around it. People need to meet further upstream and get involved before it happens. But also I think it’s important, and I’m not sure if this gets me into trouble, but it’s important that we acknowledge that thinking about suicide, while it’s not OK, quote unquote, it’s part of who we are and it’s how dark it gets sometimes. If a person has stood on the edge of suicide, they’re not a bad person for thinking that way. They’re very hurt and very sick. And things can be done to help them. They shouldn’t be ashamed they thought of it, or cried themselves to sleep because they didn’t want to wake up the next morning. But it’s entered a lot of people’s minds, and there’s help for it. I think that’s where a lot of the room silence comes from, a stigma, a horrible thing, “You should be ashamed for even thinking about it.” A lot of people who’ve never really been there don’t understand.

What are you going to do next?

I’m going to try to speak. The response I’ve gotten from this book is overwhelming. I feel a responsibility to keep pushing it. I want to make sure I do it in the right way. Then I want to write more books. “This is How it Feels” speaks more about how I got through my struggles and how I see life moving forward. The biggest question I get from readers is, “How did you do it? How did you get to the person you are now?” A lot people that know me now had no idea I had this kind of history. And that, I think, is what my next book should be about. How did I heal? What did I do? I think I owe the readers that book.

Who else are you?

Well, I’m the typical answer. A dad, a husband, a coworker. I’m just a regular guy. But I have a passion for things. Whatever it is I’m doing, I have to give 100 percent. That comes from my past. I have to make this life worth it. I have to find what success means to me. I don’t let up on that. That’s an every day, every night thing for me. I’m constantly thinking of what I can do to better myself, to find what success means to me. To move to that next level. I don’t stop thinking about stuff like that. And that sort of bleeds into everything, whether it be photography, poetry, writing, I give 100 percent of myself. I have to. It’s like I have to make everything worth it. To me. Not to everyone else, just to me.

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Talking with Davey Davis

Are women more open about their suicide experiences? I don’t know, but finally we add a male voice to this young blog. I met Davey Davis in New York just after he moved here from overseas. His recent travels have taken him through the West Bank, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Now he’s exploring the world’s greatest city _ that’s my opinion _ and updating his blog, dadarobotnik.com.

Tell me about yourself.
I’m 24. And I suppose I’ve thought of myself in terms of titles all my life, and the title that seems to fit the most is generalist. I guess I’ve always been interested in being competent with various creative output, I would say, whether writing or journalism or filmmaking, producing art events, creating community. Art as a venue to improve people’s understanding of things, to help people have a good time. Actually, change that to “let people have a good time.” I’ve got sort of a social justice streak that makes me resistant to the idea of say, charity. I’m more into the area of equality and finding solutions that help repair unfairnesses in the collective social past.On a more normal note, I like bicycles and travel and making things.

Why did you agree to talk with me?

Well, so as far as I understand it, the project is about delving into the idea of suicide through people’s stories. And I have a suicide attempt in my past, and thought it would be an interesting topic because it’s not something I’ve really thought about since I was 16. I mean, I’ve thought about it. We all think about it. It’s a funny talisman that we keep with us and pops up occasionally in moments of reflection and introspection. But I suppose for me, it’s just another aspect of my life story, another point of development or trial or challenge. So I thought it would be interesting to see what would come out of talking.

How would you go about talking about it?

There are so many facets. Everything from the rote, “Here’s what happened, here are my motivations, here I am now.” All the way to the more overarching social implications, political, you could even say, of, you know, what in this life is worth living for in general. Kind of nihilist or existentialist stuff. So I don’t know. I suppose it’s a question of on what level you want to engage in the subject.

I’ll start simple. What happened?

Well, I was 16 and I was one of these cocky, well-cared for, creative young middle-class boys. And though I was demographically normal in about every respect, I always thought of myself as exceptional. I thought that I could read faster and write better and entertain more easily, I could achieve physical feats and flirt with girls better than anyone else around. I can chalk that one up to being a product of American meritocracy, probably. But underneath my self-confidence was the resistance to the idea of working hard for anything. Because if I could be so good at things and do them effortlessly, so much the better. I was an anti-authoritarian kid. I had blue hair when I was in 8th grade. I would alternate between playing Dungeons and Dragons in the hallway with what I guess you’d call nerds and going out with the cute student body president, 8th grade achiever types that were both desirable and interesting. But I suppose as a result of my upbringing or my reading or something, I was born with a deep kind of profound knowledge that all was not well with the world and that human beings had a lot of work to do to make this planet better. So I guess this “The whole world is a dystopia” complex and what I’ll call the “Golden boy” complex butted heads with each other. When I was 16 and things started to catch up with me, I began to lose the adolescent perspective that you know everything, and it didn’t sit well with me. People were getting better in classes like biology and chemistry where hard work paid off, and I felt my territory was being encroached upon. But the actual suicide predictably sort of starts with a girl. And a car crash. And a fall.

I had driven motorcycles all through my youth and was just being trusted with a large one that was sort of a gift-slash-vehicle to create bonding experiences with my father, who was an avid motorcyclist. And I kept crashing the damn thing. And I didn’t like that because I was supposed to be good at everything. I had this girlfriend when I was 16 who was completely incompatible with me, she was into Top 40 music and Abercrombie clothes and makeup. And I was into Rage Against the Machine, environmental club and finding my clothes at secondhand shops. But still, when she broke up with me, it contributed again to that whole, “Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be the best” complex. So I guess I had this underlying psychological edge that I was hiding, that I was more of a failure than I wanted to be. And then I was really impulsive. At this point, it was April 15, 2004, I want to say, maybe 2003? And I was 16 and I ran an errand for my mom, take some taxes to the accountant on tax day. I totaled her car on the way back, crashing on the freeway. And that was the final straw for me.

In that sort of adrenaline-fueled shock or stress after crashing the car, I called my mom from this place of almost Zen-like, what’s that word, complacency? Zen-like, satisfaction? There’s a word hidden there. Peace. Tranquility. My mom was stressed and upset. And on the way home I impulsively looked up at a passing building and said to myself, “I can climb that, I can jump off that, I think I’m going to jump off that. So I went home, had a good night with my parents, laughed and ate pizza, and chatted with them about nothing, the three of us lying on their bed. And I hid my plan like I hid everything else that was bothering me. An alarm woke me up at 1 a.m. and I walked a couple blocks to the building in my favorite outfit. And I did it.

I climbed it hand over hand over the balconies. It was one of these middle-age to retiree level places with nice balconies overlooking the city. To get to the third floor, I had to scale some architectural features kind of like a climbing wall. Hand over hand until the 10th story. And about that point there was an architectural feature that created an overhang that I couldn’t get past. So I turned around, called 911, said there’s been a suicide at such and such address, and as paramedics tried to get more info from me, I hung up the phone and I jumped.

I remember the air rushing by me and all that tilting forward. I remember yelling or screaming, and then I woke up in the emergency room.

It was 5 a.m. and my mom was looking down at me on the bed. And I was indescribably happy to be alive. I had a neck brace on, and I thought I had crashed my motorcycle again and I was wearing my helmet. So there’s the story, the play by play.

What happens next is harder to talk about, harder to create a narrative out of. Because it’s all the messy interpersonal relationships between you and the people you care about most that end up adapting, expanding, and complicating around this one irrevocable incident. I’m definitely who I am as a result of that decision. And though at this point I can luckily say that none of my relationships have changed for the worse in the long run, what happened when was 16 _ what I mean to say is, what I did when I was 16 _ made me grow up a lot in the years until I was 20. And we can definitely try to get our heads around that if you like.

Yeah.

Well, because at the root of all this, who I am, is a creative person with tons of energy who has abounding fascination with life. And sure I’m an atheist or an agnostic, so that fascination is a bit flip or fatalistic in the sense that meaning is what we make it and all that. But I can’t help but think how much enjoyment I’ve gotten out of the last 8 years is largely due to the fact that the consequences of me being impulsive when I was 16 could have utterly obliterated the chance for all that.

Because I’ve done so many crazy and lovely and fun and empowering and just lucky things since then. And I’m profoundly grateful for it. I talked psychologically constantly with my family. My stepdad is a psychologist. One of the things is, he wanted me never to dupe him again. And I think largely that made me want never to dupe anyone again. I became ridiculously earnest. And I think one of the casualties of the whole experience was some part of my sense of humor. Because I can’t bring myself to be not completely honest about how I feel anymore.

Maybe I should be a psychologist.

There’s lots of places to go from here, lots of ways to think about this, this thing. You know, if you’re a person of faith or a person who looks for logic, you could obsess over the whole question of why some people get to survive and are dealt a second card and other people don’t have any cards to begin with. And I find it more than a little bit grating that as a lucky, loved, well-adjusted, privileged, middle-class white dude from America, I was given a second shot, and even as recently in the last month, I’ve met people whose life situations will never have one degree of the luck that I have. But I don’t let that weigh me down unduly. I just try to kick ass with the time I’ve got and do good work.

One thing that I remember you writing about on the blog is this interest in the moment or the action or the method. And what people would do differently or whether people would abstain from trying to kill themselves at all, if they knew how hard and messy the act was. I don’t think of the act as hard or messy. I think of the fallout and the drama and the hearts you break as infinitely more troubling than an emergency room visit. Even if that visit results in being horribly maimed or mentally handicapped. But that’s probably, again, because of the incredible luck of my personal circumstance. Because I got away unscathed in the physical department. I have a reconstructed knuckle on my right hand and a scabby scar on my scalp that ensures that I probably can’t moonlight as a skinhead. But personally I don’t think that stories like this would be a deterrent for somebody who’s come to the conclusion that they need to off themselves. I can go on about my love of life and my pure joy at having survived, which is genuine, but I still hold that there are greater systemic forces that can put people out to the point that they’re in a psychological place to kill themselves. And it’s those root causes, those unfortunate attributes of developed society that I’m interested in working to improve.

Because I’m still a radical, I guess. I still look out at the world and say, “Hey, this is kind of fucked up.” And I don’t know if, when an adolescent approached me and said, “This world is cold, dark place,” if on the whole I would necessarily disagree with them. But in the face of that, it means that we as a collective species have a lot of good work to do. And since I jumped off that building, I’ve learned the value of good hard work.

And I’m willing to rise to the challenge in my own small way.

(Shrugs.)

What if the adolescent says they want to kill themself?

The whole idea of apathy is quite scary to me. And if somebody doesn’t care to the point of being self-destructive from that lack of caring, then realistically I’ve probably reached them a little too late. I would probably choose a tactic that is realistic for their environment and work on empowering them in that respect. So for me, that defense mechanism was always to travel. If I ever felt apathetic or lost, I would throw myself into a whole new set of circumstances and meaning would come from that.
You just moved here.

I did. I just moved to New York. I’ve been here all of 12 days. I can already see this living thing blossoming because of all the connections and friends and potential discovered here. And that’s very much part of the nature of who I am, but that’s because I’ve done the hard work to figure out what gives me satisfaction, what gives me meaning. And maybe our theoretical adolescent would derive the same satisfaction by understanding, say, the inner workings of a clock, or learning to run faster than everyone else. Or by owning a dog, whatever. But we’re not gonna find that out unless we give it a shot. And the agnostic in me knows that something’s better than nothing. Even if it’s a challenge.

(He asks to switch to recording this talk instead of taking typed notes, because he’s speaking in a more formal way.)

I’m curious about the portrayals, the idea that it’s being romanticized, dramaticized. Should there be a different way of treating it from that way that’s out there?

Well, yeah. That’s one of the problems I see with the whole focus on the event. Why did you do it, what did you do, how was it like, and actually in therapy, after the fact, there were a lot of kids telling those kind of bravado-laden stories, and mine is one of them. It’s sensational, it’s unlikely, and it’s a believe it or not, a “Oh, he survived, he shouldn’t have” type of story, and that’s, that’s not useful, you know? Like that. That’s only useful in a literary sense. And as a literary person, I used the fact that I had this pivotal experience in my life to construct my life narrative. But that’s not worth the potential risk of being completely destroyed by what you do to yourself. Because you can’t, not everyone bounces back. I don’t know if most people don’t, but certainly within the first year afterward, there’s a lot of risk that A) what you did to yourself could completely dismember or destroy you, physically or otherwise, and B) that you’ll try it again. You know?

So I think the best thing the media could do could probably be to talk about why people were compelled to do the things that they did and what changed in their mindset afterwards. What changed from them not seeing a life worth living to seeing a life worth living. I think that’d be a big part of it.

Why do some people wake up relieved and other wake up really pissed off?

It’s a huge question and it’s a deeper question because the question is, essentially, have you lived your life cumulatively to the point that you’re alive now, to have created a context in which you find it worth living, you know? If you haven’t, if you’ve decided internally and externally that your life sucks, and you try to kill yourself and then you wake up, your situation’s worse, usually. So, like, nothing’s gotten better from overdosing and screwing up your internal organs or electrocuting yourself and dismembering half your face, or things like that. Things have gotten worse. So it makes perfect sense that people would try again, and the deeper question underneath that is, how do we work on changing the system in society from a way that doesn’t collectively isolate and disempower people. I’ve got my own personal ideas about that, but I’m not an expert.

I’m wondering if it’s the impulsive ones who wake up and are relieved, and if the ones who really thought it out are the ones who wake up with a not so happy outlook.

I think that really hits into something. The impulsivity factor in my own personal case played a huge role because I wasn’t a lifer, depression person. I wasn’t a person with a chronic chemical imbalance that made this as real a condition as anything else. For me, it was a series of things that I dealt with badly in my adolescence and then chose what essentially was an easy way out, or that was the kind of narrative I had in my head at the time. And then, I got lucky enough again that I was able to realize my mistake and learn from it, which I shouldn’t have been able to do. And I was able to build off of that experience instead of having that experience be part of what made life worse. Which I think is really rare. I almost feel bad about telling my story because for me, a person who is easily inspired, it was inspiring in a sense that, like, it gave me a new bid on life. But it wouldn’t be if one in a million things had gone wrong. If I had clipped a piece of structure on the way down and dashed my face open, or broken my neck, or if my mother and I had a worse relationship beforehand and we could have been estranged for life, if my stepdad, you know, had taken it personally that I didn’t confide in him as a psychologist and became depressed himself, any number of things could have happened differently that could have made everything worse, and I don’t want to be obliquely responsible for people being like, “Oh, I just want to test myself, you know.”

That’s a heck of a test. And you just mentioned travel. Why isn’t that the impulse, to go travel and start fresh instead of killing yourself?

Well, part of it’s high school. Like, literally, high school and the connotations around that expression, you create a world, you create a box that you are so trapped in based on whatever your lived surroundings are, that the world seems too far away. High school is the best example because you’re there for four years and you care about the things that don’t matter. You care about like, what girl X, X and X care about your hair, you care about this assignment for a class that might be formative and educational but is really an abstract series of tasks. You know? And it’s hard to get out of that. And I’m very privileged, and it’s a been big priority of mine to travel. I’ve always saved up money, I’ve always had the ability to save up money, so that I can, you know, hop on my bike and go somewhere for a month and not have to worry about paying rent. Not have to worry about feeding myself or have to worry about occasionally getting a hostel or  a train ticket or whatever. A lot of people never have that privilege. And maybe because of the socioeconomic bracket that I’m  in, that sometimes I think about suicide as a privileged issue. Because I don’t know a lot of Palestinian refugees who have tried to kill themselves, I don’t know a lot of Haitians who have tried to kill themselves. I don’t know a lot of really disadvantaged people of color in the United States who have tried to kill themseves. Or, when I worked in homeless communities in Salt Lake, homeless people, that blew my mind. I was 18, I had seen my own potential to give up, and I was meeting people who had every right to give up considering their external circumstances, and they wouldn’t. They had the will to live. And it was a sustaining will to live. So that’s an interesting question in and of itself, like, what are the social parameters that will create an environment that people will kill themselves? And there are studies that say that you, know, that countries like Sweden and Japan have the least level of satisfaction on, like, a social communication level, so people feel isolated and alone. And like, living in occupation in the West Bank is really rough, but the whole system is built around the nuclear family, the whole system is built around a communal atmosphere, so you know the neighbors, you know the children, you know the grandparents, you have a whole support network you can turn to, and everyone cares about you. I mean, literally cares a lot about you in the way that we don’t have in a lot of western developed countries.

Where did we start, where did we end? (Laughs.)

Part of it is all this postmodern situation where you’re given all these options to choose and sometimes you don’t choose any of them and you end up feeling, like, adrift. But the opportunities that go along with that are so much more than being strapped into indentured servitude by your uncle who owns a shoe shop because that’s the only job that you can get, working there until you’re 30 or drafted into some kind of military situation, which is a scenario which is found all over the place.

Why does suicide have to come as a surprise? Some in assisted suicide plan it out … is there any kind of continuum between these two scenarios?

I think there definitely should be. I think that part of what you’re talking about, the difficulty we have to talk about this in an open manner, whether it’s for somebody young who by all accounts by societal standards shouldn’t be allowed to kill themselves, versus somebody old who may be able to make a case for, on a personal case-by-case basis, indicates an overall societal problem with the concept of death. And the concept of people taking control of their own death. And part of that is like the great white lie of developed society, which is like, your life matters. Like, you are important to the great entity that is late 21st century capitalism, you know, which is a case that may or may not have legitimacy to it. We’re two out of 8 million in this city. We’re two out of 7 billion on this planet. In five years, there’s gonna be another billion in some crazy amount of time., So individuals don’t really matter. But we don’t want to let them know it. And as a result, we get focused on preservation. And medical preservation is really interesting. Because it manifests itself in elderly people who are prolonged indefinitely, even when their lives are not resembling what they would want, ever, they’re living it out in a state of medical imprisonment for  a long time, and maybe they don’t even have the mental abilities to enjoy that state of consciousness or existence. All the way to providing medical aid to war-torn areas of the world but not looking at anything else in terms of civic, social, restructuring, trying to create a different economic relationship to those areas so we don’t continue trying to perpetuate the cycle of inequality. We don’t do that kind of work nearly as effectively as we, like, hand out malaria pills. Or whatever. And that’s problematic, too. So I think for me, as a radical, one of those solutions is to talk more plainly about what the state of affairs is. And maybe step away from this American notion of merit and find different values on which to center society. Because the value of individual merit and manifest destiny, you will take over the world, you will change the world, will matter if only you try hard enough, is not the only standard by which to live. In the Middle East, for example, the measure of success is not monetarily directly, it’s whether you have cultivated a good standing in society and are stable enough to support a family, a wife or a husband and build a loving unit around which you can grow. And I think focusing on cultivating relationships is much better than cultivating, like, status or success or material wealth. So let’s work on that. Like, teaching young people more coherent ways to love and live and share with other human beings around them. That’s not an inarticulable goal. It’s about changing values, It’s about not having as much television that perpetuates the idea that you are what you buy. Or you need to get a  good job in order to be respected by your peers. And not glorify broken relationships all the time, like pop culture is always talking about people being sad because their heart was broken by whomever, or hip-hop’s all about hustling or bitches or whatever, that’s just bad values.

I want to jump in with kind of a blunt and unfair question.

Cool.

You tried to kill yourself. Are you crazy? Somewhere in there do you have some kind of mental illness?

Well, I did, and I mean there was definitely something wrong with me in the sense that I don’t fit in well with the collective normalcy to the point that I did try to kill myself. But the world that I’ve created for myself, with a series of peers and interesting endeavors and projects and aspirations, all of my own kind of value system, works really well for me. And I think it would continue to for as long as I feel like living, which is probably until I’m cut down by some crazy cancer in my 70s or 80s.

Why did would you want to talk about this since you’ve moved beyond it?

So why would I want to revisit it? It’s interesting. I believe in transparency in my life. I don’t think there was anything wrong with what I did, and I’m not going to keep it a secret. And I think that discussing it can be a platform for some of the things I’m really interested in, like that kind of cumulative building of social values. So it works into the kind of advocacy that I’m into, but it’s also like an honest story. And when journalists are interested in honest stories, I’m willing to tell them.

How do you get other people to talk about it? Should more people be speaking up about this normally?

Yeah, well, I think part of it is relative self-confidence, getting people to be more OK with themselves and not feel like something they have to try to hide to preserve this façade of sanity. And part of it is to give them enough processing and distance so they can. Like for me, I’ve been really lucky in the sense that I’ve had eight years to process and think and move on. Somebody who had this happen last year might not be willing to put it out yet, and it’s totally fine. It’s totally justified, I think. And part of it is just finding language that doesn’t allow it to be stigmatized. Finding language means you can bring it up in casual conversation. Like, last night I was walking with a friend in the film industry, who sort of broke to me in a careful way that she had had bouts of chronic depression her entire life, that she battled chronic depression. And she said it in that kind of careful, apologetic, “I don’t really want to burden you, I don’t know you that well, but this is a reality in my life.” And without getting into details, I said, “I understand, when I was 16, I  had a similar set of challenges and it taught me a lot, so I kind of know where you’re coming from.” And we went from there. And she’s not my like soul mate, not somebody that I really have a deep relationship with, but we were both willing to talk about it. And if that just happens in various spaces in the social sphere, I think things get better.

Also, I don’t think depression and suicidal tendencies are as rare as people think they are. I think pretty much everyone I know has had a serious moment of like, “Is my life worth it?” Maybe not seriously considering killing themselves, but a kind of serious existential crisis of some kind or another.

How do you bring that up in conversation?

I think it’s the context. We have people right now down there in Zuccatti Park protesting that just generally the system needs to be changed. I think there’s a big connection between, I feel viscerally that there’s something wrong with my place in society and a systemic thing needs to be changed in X, X and X way, and it’s bridging the gaps, making the personal political, and vice versa. Instead of being like, I feel like society a lot of times is like, “Oh, you’re an activist, you obviously have a gamut of emotional issues that you’re externalizing.” Have you ever heard that kind of narrative before? It happens a lot with this idea that, like, people who are not emotionally sound devote themselves to causes rather than dealing with their own problems, which is a fair assessment in some situations I’m sure. But I think the more important thing is to say, look, human discontentment is a reality, but there’s a threshold beyond which it can’t be pushed, and if people can articulate the ways in which they are damaged or traumatized, then we can find ways to work on it together. What I was saying, realizing social values and stuff like that. So I think you just bring it up when you can, how you can, whether a political thing or a point of conversation.

What about the idea of coming “out” with this, as in homosexuality?

It’s an interesting question. I suppose I should preface my answer by saying that when I say the word “political” I’m not particularly thinking of men and women in suits with professional careers in politics. I’m thinking more in terms of how people are involved civically in improving the larger social sphere in what they care about. I think almost everything is political if you speak about it and if you are an advocate for things. But I think it’s an interesting question in terms of like the political realm, because we have a notion that our politicians have to represent some aspect of perfection, they need to toe the line, so to speak, which, as we’ve seen in like every scandal case ever, is not a sustainable model and is a ridiculous set of values to impose on somebody. So part of it is like relaxing about this whole, you know, do no wrong, body beautiful culture we engender though our standards. So I could envision it happening in sort of a coming-out kind of way. I think it’s a little bit different than issues like illegal alien status or queer identity in that … Actually, scratch that. I haven’t quite figured that out yet.

Some people see it as an ethnicity, talk in terms of madness, claiming an identity.

Interesting. I hadn’t really thought about that. I had to sort of stop that sentence mid-thought because I hadn’t quite thought about the parallels between what could be considered a mental illness or mental state and a physical state like being a sexual minority, you know, which is something you have equal or little control over. And that you can equally be judged for. Yeah, I think that is really interesting, There’s a lot of judgment.

What else would you like to say?

I suppose just, like, the clarity of the fact that there are so many different ways to live and pasts to have. And that being really, like, wary of aspects of elements of your past which are reality is something in general that I would want people to move away from. Because there’s no harm in the infirmities that we’ve had or the difficulties that we’ve had or the challenges we’ve had.

We’ve been sitting next to a nurse in her snazzy purple scrubs. What do you think she was thinking of this conversation?

She might have been embarrassed by the rudimentary level of discourse I’m able to participate in because I’m not a professional. But I imagine that she was too busy studying anatomy or something to really give a shit.

Who’s really an expert in this?

That’s really a good question, and that’s what I was just thinking about. It’s not a question of who’s qualified to talk about things, it’s a question of how many approaches there are to any given thing, any given issue. And I’d say that nurses and therapists and psychologist will bring a certain approach, but there’s also the way normal people talk about it, the way people unaffiliated professionally with the issue of suicide, what their conversations are like, and the idea that I’m beginning to articulate of connecting the dots of personal dissatisfaction and societal dissatisfaction. Part of it is learning to be more articulate. That’s where the writers, the journalists, the speakers of the world come in, just parsing this thing a little bit more normally and parsing this thing not from a point of view of psychological analysis but from a more layman perspective.

Did you say a more lame one?

Layman. Yeah. “This perspective’s lame.”