Two years back, a friend got in touch with me via email to ask if I would feel comfortable sharing my personal stories of battling depression with an artist out of New York. Since I spend most nights over-sharing my darkest secrets in the medium of stand-up comedy, talking about such things in the daytime didn’t seem like such an issue. On the way to the shoot, I pictured in my head what other suicide attempt survivors might look like, and immediately imagined a room of Hot Topic employees in dark clothing with pale skin. That’s when I first realized the uphill battle that suicide attempt survivors — myself among them — have in this country. But even I pictured the most horrific stereotype imaginable. When I got to the shoot, there was a girl much younger than me, and a dude who fought in World War II, and a few people of different ethnicities. If I was a member of the group, and yet so far off on my assumptions, I knew there was a lot of work to be done here.
Since participating in the project, called Live Through This, I’ve become friends with the artist behind it. Dese’Rae L. Stage, a survivor herself, has traveled the country taking down people’s experiences and photographs for the Live Through This project — which now totals more than 135 participants in 20 U.S. cities. She’s also become an outspoken activist for survivor representation, and now appears on panels and speaking engagements around the country. She’s become one of the loudest voices for a public discussion of secret darknesses, and even manages a private Facebook community where survivors and those in distress can help each other.
The result is a collection of portraits and stories of suicide attempt survivors, as told by those survivors. As defined on the project site:
“Suicide” is a dirty word in this country. It’s a sin. It’s taboo. It’s selfish. It’s not an easy topic to discuss and because we, as a culture, don’t know how to approach it, it’s easily swept under a rug. The problem is that suicide is a pervasive public health issue (the 10th leading cause of death in the US). And of course: we’re afraid of death. But avoiding it and pretending it doesn’t exist is nothing more than willfully perpetuating ignorance.
The project’s implicit message: Depression and suicidal thoughts are universal, suicide attempt survivors look just like you, and silence can kill. Traditionally most suicide attempt stories have been shared anonymously, which is why including the first and last names of participants helps erode the shame around discussing depression.
I spoke with Dese’Rae over the phone to ask what America can be doing better.
What’s your background in?
I majored in psychology and entered a Ph.D. program where I wanted to study self-harm, but when I got to the program they said, “Um, we don’t want you to pursue this kind of research.” Which is weird, because I wrote an entrance essay explaining what I wanted to study and they accepted me. So I left the Ph.D. program and moved to New York to pursue the end goal of bringing suicide into public discussion.
Did you have any professional background in photography?
I got into it just after my own suicide attempt. I was in Tennessee and became a real documentarian of my own life and experiences. It wasn’t an interest so much as something I began passively. I wasn’t paying attention to it until I moved to NYC and started shooting shows, which got me a big record label job. For Brooklyn Vegan and Pitchfork and all of those blogs. Then one day, three years later, I finally considered myself a photographer.
This actually had a natural progression into interviewing musicians — including some of my favorites like Amanda Palmer and Tori Amos — and then I asked why I was spending all of my time hanging backstage instead of doing “good” based on my prior goals in life. How do you get back into therapy and do “good” work? And this idea made sense. It used all of my skills in pursuit of a great project. Suicide survivors have been anonymous, and this takes that away.
Were you putting anything out into the world about your own attempt yet?
Not publicly. I had a pile of 20 journals filled with angsty whining from 18 onward. I like some online communities, but those are tricky too. It wasn’t until I got older and more advocate-y that I really got into this. Around the same time I got vocal about gay marriage, I learned how to be vocal about this too. The Village Voice covered my wedding because several gay couples got married at the same time, and then when I subsequently got divorced I wrote a piece for Cosmo. Documenting my life for “good” became second nature.
Where’d the idea for Live Through This come from?
I’ve lost so many people to suicide, so it pulls me back even when I try to keep it dormant. I didn’t have a word to describe my own experience. Am I a suicide survivor, and where are the people like me? No one wants to be open about that. Not only was it cloaked in silence, it was cloaked in silence because there was no language for it! I was Googling “suicide survivor” and I was finding what I now call “loss survivors,” which is a delineation of people who have survived the loss of another. You have “attempt survivors,” which is a catch-all for people with suicidal thoughts. Noticing that lack of language and how all references or interviews were in silhouette — that’s dehumanizing.
Someone dies by suicide every 48 seconds. What does that mean to me? What does that mean to you? How do we identify with that and take something positive from that? It’s shameful. Still, it took a year to figure out what to do with this. Let’s pursue that idea of shame and get rid of it.
Validation and knowing you’re not alone is important — and it helps loss survivors understand where the person they loved was when they died. The project is also now helping behavioral health researchers and so many people in the mental and psychical health care worlds, because I’m basically handing them a giant library of free, accessible research in a field that no one else is touching. They’re using the project for training in behavior health facilities, I just found out. I did a Webinar this week. I didn’t expect this to ever catch on in that way.
Who were the first people you spoke to?
I originally sought out celebrities because I had all these PR contacts, and those are the only people whose suicide attempts are ever talked about openly. I made a list. Elton John and Tim Gunn were too busy, Owen Wilson would never, Patty Duke said yes but fell off the face of the planet. Vanilla Ice said he wanted $10k to do the project and I said no. Ethically I think that’s weird. And if I paid someone $10k … it wouldn’t be fucking Vanilla Ice. That was the end of chasing celebrities.
There’s also research that stories like this about the general public actually change attitudes in a more powerful way than celebrity stories. So my next move, because I didn’t know what to do, I did a Craigslist post. That kept getting flagged for the word “suicide” because in the past Craigslist has been a way for people to find suicide partners. Yeah. That’s a problem. But some of the first people came through that, and then once I got started, some friends would come forward and offer to be a part of it. In 2013, I did a Kickstarter and that raised money and a huge list of people around the country who wanted to be a part of it. I never had to look for people again. I got AP coverage and then the press kept coming. The New York Times did an article right after I met you. There’s a steady flow of people coming in. Which is good, because bugging people into telling their story would be dangerous.
Press recognition has led to you talking at conferences, which is new.
I spoke at UT Austin and then MIT. These were very high bars and I am not a public speaker. I hated it and I sucked at it. So why did I say okay? I don’t know. But people kept inviting me. I went to the American Conference of Suicidology and put in a submission about attempt survivors, and it was the first year the organization recognized attempt survivors — essentially validating our experiences. That’s was a huge change to be a part of creating. Me and three other people did a panel and it packed the room — at a conference. People were screaming. Apparently, it was groundbreaking in the field? Again, just word-of-mouth spreading me around the suicide prevention community.
What are the meaningful changes you’re pushing for?
I see that every day. If one person feels better for reading a story or one person feels better for sharing a story? That’s all I need. I have no grandiose designs on what I can make happen. It surpassed my ambitions simply by existing. Now, it’s about engaging with the professional community consistently to prove that we have agency and that we aren’t scary.
Do you see good representations in pop culture?
The Skeleton Twins. That was funny and real and relatable. Media guidelines say don’t show graphic depictions of suicide violence, and I’ve started to question those guidelines. But to what end? That’s a super painful film too, but that’s valuable. I also really liked Cake. Those are the two best recent ones. Birdman made me want to punch people. Not so great. That was the reason I started keeping the log, just to show how entertainment media shows it. I went to the movies with my wife, and about 15 minutes in I knew where this was headed and almost shouted, “Can I please just have a day off?”
What’s next for the project?
I had a book idea because everyone said I should publish one, and after a lot of thought I think that the people who need this already have access to it. This became less of an art project and more of a tool. The emails I get are people saying “Holy shit, I found this when I needed this.” How the hell would a coffee table book help that person? Then a writer friend said “Hey, dummy, maybe you should do a memoir.” So now maybe that’s in the mix. Suicide has stalked me my entire life and maybe that is worth exploring.
Suicide prevention conferences are very much preaching to the choir, so speaking there is weird, especially since old-school professors are like, “You people are just patients; get out of here.” Seventy percent of people in the medical world think they can manage a suicidal person, but research says the number actually prepared to handle them is less than 10%. That’s not great. I’d rather be talking at tech or gaming conferences, where there are more people who need to be heard and know that they matter.
When is your next story going to be collected?
I did one today. Last year, I went to a college and thought a few kids would show up — 500 people showed up. This girl came up to me afterwards and I was worried about her because she wouldn’t answer my questions, so I asked her to email me. I saw cuts on her arm and knew she wasn’t okay. She emailed me that night and we talked for a while, then I didn’t hear from her for a year. Until this morning. She showed up and told me that she was ready to share her story.
Do you have a favorite story?
Yours is one of my favorites because I kept shouting “What the fuck?” I love yours for that reason.
Krista Andrews was an early one because I found out the she grew up less than a mile from me in Miami and I didn’t meet her until she cut my hair in New York. Our stories had so many parallels. I’d originally thought I should never tell my story, but then I left from seeing her and I just sobbed on a subway and knew I needed to tell my story. And without that I would never have this career.
It’s my favorite example of how simply sharing your story can change someone. She changed me, and I like to think that’s helped me change a lot of other people. And what we get from that is a community. Or we connect to other communities. That’s where I got the idea to start the communal Facebook group where people can help each other. Now there are friendships and people are dating and lives are saved? That’s not my work. That’s community. That’s what happens when you pull the anonymity away.