Josh Sweeney is a 25 year old server and volunteer in Orlando, Florida. He has lived through abuse, addiction, self-injury, and multiple suicide attempts. I interviewed him in San Francisco on 4/16/2013. I'm publishing his interview here in more of a traditional format, though it has been edited for readability and bits have been cut out here and there. Parts of his story may be triggering to some, so please read with caution.
My story kind of starts when I was 14. Before that [I don't remember much], and then that’s when [my mother lost custody]. I lived with my [her] in Florida—Winter Haven, Florida—horrible place, don’t ever visit... I guess I didn’t notice that she was a very abusive, crazy person.
An incident happened where we were in North Carolina with my father one summer visiting, and she had called and said how she never wanted me... That was kind of the final thing for my dad, so we drove down to Florida without her knowing, broke into her house and—being the 14-year-old stupid kid—I grabbed ten toys and that was it, stupid trinkets, and then we started off to North Carolina.
I think that’s when, all of a sudden, my whole world shifted. That’s when I realized, “Oh snap,” everything I knew wasn’t real. I thought everyone’s family beat each other. I thought that your sister always was hateful and just the same to you. I just assumed that was what they called sibling rivalry. When I went up there, I had no friends, no nothing, and I started high school... I had blond hair with brown facial hair. My labret was pierced and I wore all black and that was not normal there, so that was very crazy and hard, and that’s when I started [attempting]…
[My dad] had never had me before, so, you finally get your kid and then he’s crazy. He didn’t know what to do with it, and since he’s been great, [he] put me in therapy. That was horrible.
"Well, how’s that black cloud over your head?"
"Didn’t nobody say anything about a black cloud. I don’t know where you’re getting this."
I hated therapy. I actually worked through it pretty much through information I found online, talking to people online. Had a whole bunch of peer support, and that’s pretty much it. Finally brought me through. I still suffer from the days when you get the thoughts, and I’ve obviously—I’ve done it many times since... I obviously get sick. I still don’t end up in the hospital, but I’ll be sick as hell, not being able to get out of bed or anything, and everyone just thought I was sick. They didn’t think anything of it, so no one ever has actually—I’ve never actually told anyone that that’s what it was...
So now, I'm doing this whole touring of the country because I haven’t been diagnosed yet, but I am going through early heart failure. They say [it's] because of the drugs and the constant anxiety, the constant being bashed my entire life. Now, finally, my heart’s giving out...
I feel it’s almost ironic that, after years of attempts and nothing ever happening, now once I’m okay and doing better, now it’s actually coming back to finish the job, I guess...
Des: When was your last suicide attempt?
Josh: Was I 19? No, I think it was 21, so that’d be about four years ago. No, I was 22, so it was about three years ago.
I was doing really bad on the drugs. It was the worst time. I wouldn’t do it around anyone. I still worked and everything, and I would go upstairs where no one could see it and then my friends knew I was doing it, would bang on the door, open it up, and they’d see me and everyone just left me, straight up.
I called my family and I asked for help and it was just, "You did this to yourself, you always push yourself away, blah, blah, blah."
Then I was accused of things, like sleeping with my brother-in-law and things like that. It was really bad things like that. We’re past it now, but at the time it was not what I needed... So, I hit rock bottom. Everyone basically deserted me...
After that, I cleaned myself up by myself and I think everyone kind of knows that, you know, we’re all friends again, we’re all family again. I think everyone knows that will never be forgiven, that that was me reaching out and that’s what I got, so [we've] never been close again.
Des: Do you have a support system now?
Josh: Not really. I kind of just go by myself.
My friend I’m here [in San Francisco] with, Shannon, she’s been very good about it, but she kind of just listens. She’s who I call. I’ve had a few cocaine incidents where someone brought it around me or something and then I’ll just go in a spiral where I taste it, I feel it, I just want it so much and I’ll call her.
Since I was 14, [I've had] penpals—one in Spain and one in New Zealand. [The one from Spain] actually…we just met last year for the first time, after ten years. Took her to [a theme park] and everything. But those two—we all three went through things... We just bonded and when one of us had a problem, we talked to the other. A lot of people don’t understand it. I’ll always talk about them and they’re like, "How do you know they’re real?"
I was like, "Because those people know more about me than anyone in this world."
We’re pretty much like the closest, farthest friends. It’s pretty amazing. That’s pretty much all I've got, though. The other ones… one of the main ones of my friends who ditched me before, he tries now. He always tries and he just knows I’ll never… he always calls and sees how I’m doing, but I don’t say anything.
Des: Now that you have this health issue, would you say that suicide is still an option for you?
Josh: I don’t think people realize, ‘cause I’m very positive about it now, I don’t think they realize how much it is a thought every day of the pain and the not being able to eat, too scared to even have sex ‘cause I’ll have a heart attack. Just being 25 and having all these dreams and it just being taken away from you. You know, after all this. I’ve struggled since I was born... and then you find out all this. I don’t think people get it.
They don’t understand. If it was back then an option and I took it, what do you think it is now? It’s my own will, though. I’m in school now. I am starting my own organization. I’m following volunteering work... I’m not gonna stop that. I’m not gonna end.
There’s that and then there’s nighttime when I’m in my room alone and just like, "I’m so tired." When are you gonna say that to someone? You don’t want to hear that. I just always tell everyone that I’ll be okay.
Like, "It’s okay. The doctors are gonna figure it out."
Even if they do, what? I’m gonna not be able to do much for the rest of my life. I know that stuff is high tech nowadays. I could walk out of there and be fine, but I could also die right then. So it’s like, years of torture and then the possibility of not making it. It’s definitely an option every day.
Des: How do you stay positive? How do you make it not an option on any given day?
Josh: I always say that I don’t see the passion in the world today that I can give to the organization I want to start. There’s not enough people with that, so I’m going to do that before I go...
There’s working. I actually changed my schedule. I work every night so I can volunteer every day with all these kids that, you know, it’s their last wish. These kids know what’s happening and they’re just having their time of their lives...They’re little kids and they can accept it and they can find the beauty in life before it happens... When I started [volunteering], I didn’t know [about my health condition]... I have such a deeper connection with these children now because of what I’m going through, because I know what that’s like. Obviously I can’t understand [what it's like] for a little kid, but you have to find the good. You have to find that happiness, or you can just lie over and just let it happen.
The first month, I basically didn’t do anything. I was ready to quit my jobs and everything. I was just done. But now I push that aside, and there is the whole, 'Oh, I’ve lived through all this, now I got this,’ and there is the whole ‘Oh, I’ve lived through all this, fuck that, I’m not gonna stop now.’
Des: When did you stop cutting yourself?
Josh: I want to say three years ago. Yeah, I think it was about three and a half years ago. That was probably the hardest thing, ‘cause I still get the urge so bad, and a lot of people never understand it.
I’m like, "You get the urge to smoke, you get the urge to drink."
It’s just another addiction. It never goes away. I don’t keep any razorblades in my house. I don’t keep anything sharp because I don’t know what it is. I know it’s crazy, ‘cause if I got cut right now, I’d be like, "Holy jeez," but when you’re in that sense and mood, it’s like ecstasy. I don’t understand it.
Des: I’ve never heard it expressed that way... What made you decide to stop?
Josh: I was starting to work more. I could hide it more. I mean, I could hide it before, but I was working towards more volunteer work and I started to find what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a high school guidance counselor and I wanted to help people with this problem.
In my mind, it was like, 'You have to stop it first.' I think that’s really what pulled me through the most. What pulls me through every day is the fact that I want to help other people. My goals have obviously changed since I was 20, ‘cause I didn’t know shit about life, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it was that finally pushed me to do what it was I [needed to do] get this fixed so that I can help others. I tried numerous times and then I started doing it again. And then I finally made it, and I haven’t stopped, and I think the more time you have [away from] it is the best. After a year, you’re like, "Oh, well, shit, now I’ve gone a whole year. I don’t want to mess that up..." You never heal from that, though.
Des: Cutting is still one of those things that people don’t really talk about. They do more now, but it’s usually [concerning] teenage girls. Tell me about what that's like? I’ve definitely talked to a couple of men doing this and I’m realizing that it’s much more prevalent than [we think].
Josh: I don’t think guys ever want to talk about it. I don’t know if it’s the whole sex thing, or what it is, but... because I’m a guy I’m supposed to be different and I’m not supposed to give in to cutting myself. I did have a few friends that did it, but they were more secretive... I really don’t think you hear much of it in guys, but I don’t know why. I’m sure there are plenty that do.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.