Josh Rivedal is a performance artist and entrepreneur. He was 30 years old when I interviewed him in New York, NY, on May 2, 2014.
I've been an actor since I was 19. That was the center of my world until I was about 25.
I grew up in this very religious home. My dad was a very gruff character and not really a nice guy. This ties in because I lost my dad to suicide in 2009. He lost his dad in 1966 and it was not something we ever talked about. [He told my mom never to tell me and my siblings, but she told us when we were teenagers.] There was that stigma… and it was always like, "Oh, that's possibly a way out.” That's why I'm a huge advocate for people talking to their kids about their uncle with bipolar disorder or whoever. If you know your family history, you know kind of how to deal with it.
Anyway, I was doing this acting thing and I started really peaking as an actor. I was getting lots of callbacks for Broadway shows, doing the musicals and stuff. Right around that time, my parents broke up. My dad, being really religious, not having a lot of coping skills, and being sort of unrelenting, took a turn for the worse. He got really depressed and didn't take care of himself. He took his life, and that threw me for a loop.
I wrote this one-man show that was sort of based on my relationship with him. I put it up in 2010, right after he died. Most of the piece is really, really funny. It doesn't take a dark turn until I'm at his casket at the very end of the piece, and I'm like, "I'm never going to do that. I'm never going to take my life." It's a little bit of an indictment, because I didn't understand what he was going through. It's a weird thing to lose somebody. You miss them, but you're relieved at the same time—I always felt pretty guilty about that. Nevertheless, I'm at the end of the show and I'm like, "I'll never do that again.”
Six months later, I was about ready to take my life. I was definitely on a ledge, ready to go. The catalyst was that my mom had taken me, my brother, and my sister to court after my dad died. I didn't have a relationship with her. She essentially sued us and we ended up settling, but she lied to me a bunch. That was rough; that broke my heart. Obviously I had lost my dad—then, my girlfriend of six years decided it was time to go. She found a new guy almost immediately. I was closer to her family than my own. Instead of drinking and drugging and using that to avoid, I was working and working to avoid, and wasn't dealing with my problems.
In January 2011, I had nothing to do. No work, no nothing. Now I had all this time to think about what I was going through. Everything came and hit me like a ton of bricks. I went through some clinical depression. I didn't know that's what it was at the time. My thoughts took a downward spiral pretty fast. I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I needed help and I didn't know where to go.
You know, it's kind of wild—you call the person who you least want to speak to. I called my mom, because I didn't know where else to go. I was like a baby, you know? She'd been cool when I was a kid. I told her that I was suicidal. At first, she tried to throw some religion at me, and I wasn't having it. Then she changed tactics and helped save my life. It's the juxtaposition of how someone can totally betray you and save your life at the same time. We're cool now.
After that, I had to recover. I mean, there was no way I could have lived the life I lived before and stay in the world as is. I had to refine and make some changes. Eventually I got into some therapy and I was like, "I'm quitting show business. I'm done. It's the root of my problems." But that's just depression talking.
Coming out of a four week retirement, I was missing it. I was like, "You know what? I'm going to take the show that I have with my dad and I'm going to flip it. I'm going to talk about my story: my suicidal experience, my depression, and my dad. [I'm going to] talk to people about how they can get help, and give them some hope.”
I look like a regular person, you know? I've had interviews with people and they're like, "Well, you don't look like [you've had these experiences]."
I'm like, "Yeah, but there's no respect to a person's [appearance]. It can affect anybody, any time, anywhere.”
I had to develop coping skills. I had to develop therapy and safety nets and some faith in my own way, not the way it looked when I was a kid. I had to deepen my friendships. I had to pay more attention to other people than myself, in a certain way. I had to be in service of others to make my life work again.
I get to do that using creativity, which makes it all work and makes it all make sense in my head and in my life.
Des: Tell me more about what led up to your attempt.
Josh: I was having these dreams about my father. They were super vivid, real, and eerie, like he was like communicating with me. I thought I was going crazy. I was losing a lot of sleep and that was fraying my mind a bit. A lot of people who lose somebody have dreams about them. I didn't have that information because I wasn't opening up. I was isolating, even when I was with people. I wasn’t open, I wasn't honest.
I had some days off from work. I didn't leave my apartment. Fill in the blanks, but I didn't leave my room. After three or four days, I wasn't eating. I wanted to eat, but I couldn't. I couldn't really sleep, I was in a lot of physical pain. Some of that was due to malnutrition, and some was due to it being an emotional thing. It was really hard to think. There were not literal voices, but metaphorical voices, telling me I wasn't worth it. All the negative things that anyone has ever said to themselves, they were piling on me at a mile a minute.
On the fourth day, it was like, "I can't feel like this anymore." I was looking at myself in the mirror, and I thought, "Man, what happened to you? You're not the person I used to know. I don't even know if you're a person anymore…"
I don't know if it was Providence, if it was my conscience, if it was me—I don't know what it was. I don't aim to know. I just know it was there and it said, "Go back inside and ask for help." I was debating with whatever this thing was, but it was like, "I can't do this anymore. There's no reason to. No, go back inside and ask for help. People love you. They care about you. They want to help you." I didn't believe it, but I was like, "There's a chance that this is true."
I sat on the floor next to my radiator and just cried and cried. Then I was debating about where to go. How do I get help, you know? I didn't think I could talk to my friends because, again, I wasn't being honest and open. I had these invisible scripts in my head. The truth was they would have helped me, but I didn't see it in that moment.
I don't know how, but it started coming to me. I was talking to God, but I was talking out loud, so it was partly to me and partly to God… whatever It or He or She is. When you say things out loud, it helps make them true. When it's in your head, it's not quite as real. When you write it down, or say it to somebody else, it's even more real, because you have to make a commitment. It's a very human thing, a survival thing. I was saying, "Please help me connect to positive people, positive thoughts, positive experiences." I was saying that over and over again for about an hour. I couldn't think. That was the only thing that could ease whatever negative things were inside my head and put that on hold for a little while.
Finally, I knew who I was going to call. I was on the fence about it—I knew I was in a bad spot with my mom. I didn't know if she was going to help me out. But she knew what my dad was going through at the end, even though nobody predicted his suicide. I knew she kind of saw that and she also knew my thoughts. I was also thinking unhealthy thoughts about the girl that had broken up with me—it was like I had lost my self-worth. I knew [my mom] would have something to say because my dad had been tying his self-worth into her.
We didn't actually touch on that in the call, but she just kind of helped me think things through. She listened to what I had to say. She threw some religious stuff at me, and when she found out that wasn't going to work, she was like, "Your life is important to me. I love you. Are there any reasons why you might want to live? You need to get some professional help. There's nothing in the house to hurt yourself?" Stuff like that.
After I got off the phone with her, I sat down and wrote out these three reasons to live. The first one was like, "I'm going to feel guilty because I can't let my brother and sister lose their father and their brother like this." The second one: there's probably a lot of adventures. I really wanted to go to Antarctica, Hawaii, and Machu Picchu for the longest time. The third one was, like, a family, a soulmate, a happily ever after.
I thought, "You know, I could achieve some of these things."
I took the piece of paper, folded it eight times, and put it in my wallet. I kept it in my wallet for almost a whole year. At the beginning, I had to pull it out all the time. I had to repeat that three-part mantra, "Please help me to connect to positive people, [positive thoughts, positive experiences].” I had to say that over and over again and look at the sheet of paper, until it got to be less and less that I had to look at it.
There were a lot of other things I had to put on top of that: reaching out to friends, forcing myself out of the house to be with people that were good to my life, and making the decision to help other people and talk about my story.
That was sort of the lead up, the wind up, and the wind down. To feel like me again, or to feel like some semblance of me—because I exist differently in the world than I did at that time—took about nine months. I was still functioning through all that, but it took me that long to feel like, "Alright, I haven't thought about this in awhile." It took awhile. Everybody has a different process and stuff, but that was mine.
Des: Do you think that having that family history made you more willing to consider it?
Josh: Yes, because I don’t think it would have been an option. It would never have been a coping method, you know? Not that that's a coping method you want to see, but it wouldn't have been an option. I don't know that [my family] would have said, "Talk to your friends. Talk to your family," or whatever, but there would have been some other door available. Not the one that was right in front of my face with my [dad’s death] a year and a half before.
At the same time, regardless of your family history, the beautiful thing is that you make choices and you can set up safety nets. I'm not a slave to my heritage, my nature, or my nurture. I can get help and I can make choices. I can do that. Maybe there’s a little bit of a predisposition on one end or the other, but doesn't mean I have to do it.
Des: How was it presented when you were told about your grandfather?
Josh: When my dad told us how he died, he always said that he died of shrapnel from the war, because he was in World War II. He got shot. I didn't even find out that he got shot down over in Hamburg, Germany in 1941. He was a gunnery pilot. I imagine he was dealing with some kind of post-traumatic stress. Don't know if that was the disorder.
He lived for 25 years, but how's this guy going to die of shrapnel 25 years after the war? I didn't put those pieces of the puzzle together until I was about 12 or 13. It was never something that was really talked about, either. My mom told us in secret and she was like, "You can't let your dad know. He's going to be very upset. [Your grandfather] took his life." That was that. There wasn't a whole lot of, "This is what you do [in this situation]..." It was just like, "This is matter of fact. This is what happened. Now go off and play."
[When my father died], at first, my mom didn't want us to tell anybody because they're very religious. I don't think we actually made an official decision, but it was sort of like, "If anyone asks you how he died, kind of avoid the subject."
We had his memorial service a couple days after. At one point, I acquiesced to that request—some guy asked me how he died at the memorial service. I was really upset, because I didn't want to lie about that. The guy was like, "Did he die of a heart attack? I've never heard of anyone dying so soon." Oh, really? Dude. Pull up some Google. There are lots of reasons why people die instantly.
Finally I said, "Yeah, he died of a heart attack," and I had to walk away. After that, I went out to a restaurant with some friends who had been very supportive. We talked about it. I told them that he took his life and they were cool about it. They were like, "It's nothing you did. That's your dad, that's what happened, and it's very sad."
Des: What is it like to live through the loss of someone else, and then be a survivor of an attempt?
Josh: To lose somebody is a strange sensation, because everybody has a different experience. When it was my dad, I wanted to tell everybody about it. I wrote a damn play about it. But there were all these other things I was going through. I was really, really sad, and really shaken up by it in the beginning. Then I sort of got desensitized to it. I was sad and happy, which is totally a burden in itself: to be relieved, sort of a little bit worried about other family members, and worried about yourself…
On the other hand, being someone with lived experience wasn't something I talked about immediately. Even my mom didn't know how far I was. I just said I was thinking about it. I never said what I was about to do. She didn't even know until a couple months before my book came out. I didn't talk about it at first because I was afraid: "What are people going to think about me? What are they going to say?" And they're like, "Are you okay?"
Even now, when I talk about it at book events and stuff, they're like, "Oh, we're glad you're here." It's not, "We're glad you're here [doing this]." It's a patronizing, "We're glad you're here."
I'm like, "No, fuck that. I'm high-functioning. I'm doing really well. Yes, I'm glad that you're glad I'm here, but don't give me that tone.”
I think it's something people don't know how to respond to. At their very base, I think they want to help with whatever they're saying, but at the same time they're ill equipped.
Des: Talk more about the language people use and what they could say instead.
Josh: I think "committed suicide" criminalizes it and discourages help-seeking behavior. If people say stuff like "died by suicide…" or things like that, it leaves it very objective and not judging the person.
I don't like to hear the word "crazy" anymore. Even when it's an adjective like, "Ah, that's so crazy!" I'm like, "Get a thesaurus out." Let’s figure out how to use the language, because otherwise it marginalizes what people are doing. I think "crazy" is this overused word like "awesome," or "that's so cool.” I know we're becoming this obnoxiously PC environment, and I feel that. But, in the span of regular conversation, if we can just pay attention... A lot of people don't say "retarded" anymore, because that's sort of been pulled out to some success.
There's a lot of different things you can say in the moment, but sometimes when people are talking, it's good to just listen. [Don’t] feel like you have to get in there and fix it. It's okay to sit there and be, and let somebody know that they have a shoulder to be next to. That's more for someone in crisis or going through some problems. But, if I'm at a book thing or a play and I tell somebody about it, “I'm glad you're here,” is all it has to be. It doesn't have to be some sympathetic look or puppy dog eyes.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Josh: Definitely not. There's only fighting, working hard, and living in the struggle. Living in the good times, too. Savoring even small things—knowing that this is an amazing moment I wouldn't have had if I took the other step. Suicide's definitely not an option. It's not on the list.
Des: Tell me more about what a suicidal person looks like.
Josh: A suicidal person looks like your grandma, your mom, your dad, your boyfriend. It looks like anybody you've ever seen.
If you've got traditional signs and symptoms, it's probably somebody who looks sad, somebody who looks hopeless, [if you can pinpoint that]. It's hard to say. It looks so different on everybody. People are incredible at hiding their emotions. If you know somebody and their behavior is different, or they stop showing up to certain things, get off the social media.. Give them a knock on their door. If you can't be there yourself, do what you can to find someone who can. It's face-to-face interaction that's so important. We're cohabitive creatures and we need to be around other people—some of us more than others.
Des: Talk about the options that people have and how to make informed choices.
Josh: I've never taken medication, [but I don’t think there’s] necessarily anything wrong with medication, as long as it's doled out in an objective way and that's not the only piece of the plan to get you well. There are tons of options in place.
First and foremost, you’ve got to talk to somebody. Talk therapy, clergy, mentor, somebody who's trained as a counselor. Preferably a therapist, but not everyone has health insurance or a sliding scale. There are lots of supportive clergy, supportive mentors and things like that. There's write-in help—like if you're a college student, you can write in to Go Ask Alice, things like that.
I talk to people a lot who say, "Well, I had a bad experience with therapy so I'm never going back." If you had a heart disease and had a bad experience with your first heart doctor, you wouldn't give up and say, "I've had a bad experience with my heart doctor. I'm not going to ever see a heart doctor again." No, you got to get well. You're going to go find a heart doctor even if it takes you six tries. Please do the same thing with therapy. Please do the same thing if you find an unsupportive clergy person. If you find a bad therapist, keep looking. There are people out there who are trained, equipped, smart, and trustworthy.
Treating somebody's mental wellness [should be treated] holistically. Maybe medicine is a piece of the component, if that's right for you. But there are other things like seeing people, getting out there, and talking to people. You got to eat better. Stop eating the fast food and figure out how to get some fruits and vegetables in, because what you put in your body you get out. If you got to, do brain exercises. There’s yoga, acupuncture, and light therapy for people with seasonal affective disorder. Creativity is huge. Coming out of my depression, I was writing in a journal. It was sort of aimed at other people, but it was never meant for anyone to see. It helped me make sense of things. Creativity is so huge. If you got to make a macaroni necklace or choreograph a tap dancing routine, the repetitive process of creativity is a wonderful, tremendous, and supportive thing.
Another big thing is finding someone or something in the world who can rely on you on some level. Finding something outside of yourself to take care of can be a little bit difficult, but it doesn't have to be huge. You don't have to aim for world peace. It can be like making a garden, stuff like that. There are a lot of options in well-being, and it's not something that happens overnight. For most people, this is not a short process. Now, it's not as difficult to go out there and make friends with people. It's not a difficulty to talk out loud, to "pray," or eat right and exercise, but I still got to do that stuff to stay fresh.
I'm always in recovery, but to feel a bit normal after 9 months and not to have thoughts again is probably relatively short. I don't know what the frame of reference is, but it feels like it's short. Don't judge your process against somebody else's either, because your process is your process and your recovery is your recovery. So, take the time you need. Don't rush it.
Des: What else would you say directly to a person who was reading your story?
Josh: People care, they love you, and they want to support you. There's somebody and something in this world that is better because you're around. I know it might be hard to see, but it's there. Explore and look for that. You're important and you matter. If you could stick around for that, you'd be helping tremendously.
Just because you've been in one place at one point doesn't mean you can't make an incredible life for yourself and help other people. Everybody's important and everybody matters. Just because you don't see it right now doesn't mean it's not true.
When you're in that moment, to hear somebody say that is like, "Ah, you're full of it. You don't understand." I don't understand completely, because I'm not the person who's reading this, but I never thought I'd be where I am right now.
I’ve got all these fun, interesting things happening, but it would never have happened without other people. Even if you feel like an idiot walking into a room and you're like, "Nobody cares. Nobody likes me," go out, take that first step, and somebody will smile back. Even if that's all you have, it's a spark. It's something. Take that spark into the next day. If that's all that you got, hold onto it, because it will grow.
It's not always for us to know who we affect in any moment. You are a very important piece of the fabric of this world. The tapestry that this world is would not be as beautiful and as functional without your beautiful piece. That's kind of how I feel about that.
If you're hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can't feel it—and you are worth your life.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you don't like talking on the phone, you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, or check out Lifeline Crisis Chat. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Thanks also to Jake Filton for providing the transcription to Josh's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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