Misha Kessler is a young professional living in Washington, D.C. I photographed him at the American Association of Suicidology's (AAS) annual conference in Los Angeles on April 11, 2014 and interviewed him later via telephone. He was 23 years old at the time.
I'm gay, and growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio wasn't always the easiest. I came out at a very young age and immediately went back in the closet when my coming out did not go well. For about four years through high school, I was pretty much pretending to be straight, or convincing myself I was straight. That was the basis for a very pervasive and very strong self-hatred that told me that I needed to do everything I could to be the best person [I could]—to prove to myself, and to prove to my family, that being gay wasn't a total inadequacy and that I wasn't flawed inherently. That started a perfection complex that just started enveloping everything I did and everything I was.
My high school was a very supportive environment. It was a Jesuit school, and Jesuits are basically very liberal Catholics, so they were very supportive. They were very open and they invited me to be open about being gay. The administration was extremely helpful. It didn't necessarily negate my fellow students being completely homophobic, but it was certainly helpful to be able to be myself, to be encouraged to know myself for who I was.
I left high school and I went to college at George Washington University in D.C., and that's where things started to go more downhill. Of course, it was just the standard adapting to a college environment and the stress of classes and not having the support that my high school had once given me, that the religion had once given me. I slowly became less emotionally healthy as I went through my years of college.
The first semester of my freshman year, I got mono and swine flu at the same time. I had to drop out of school and go back home, and I lost the entire semester's worth of credits. That itself wasn't that bad. I went home and I got better and everything was okay. The problem was coming back to school and trying to make up the credits that I had lost and planning out how I could do that. It got down to the point that, with my perfection complex, I literally had these Excel documents and planned on every single course I was gonna take for every semester. I decided I could never go home for summers again because I would have to stay and take summer courses. That was the plan.
That summer in between freshman and sophomore year, I stayed at my university and started working for them 'cause that would get me free housing, and then tried to take two or three classes over that summer. It ended up that the work that I was doing was, to put it simply, just very toxic. It was manual labor in D.C., in the D.C. summer heat, and I had a very toxic boss. So, the compounding isolation of all my friends being at their respective homes, me being in D.C. with only a couple friends or a couple people I could go out with, working at a workplace that just was not healthy, with a toxic boss. Most of my fellow staff members that I was with were all frat brothers from the same frat, so they were all like a family to each other, and then I was kind of just the odd one out. That really compounded the isolation. On top of that, I started working upwards of 60-70 hours a week in the D.C. summer heat and I literally ended up dropping out of classes for the summer, so I didn't even end up getting credit.
Long story short, that was when things started getting really bad. That was when things started going downhill. That's when the emotional instability started really gripping me. My problem was this: I would get really depressed and I would isolate and I'd think that I had zero friends and that no one wanted to be my friend 'cause I was the awkward one and I was... whatever it was. I would slowly start to come out of that and then, as I was coming out of it, I would convince myself that this time I'm gonna be positive, this time I'm not gonna let myself slip back into that deep, dark hole. This time, I'm gonna use my willpower and I'm gonna keep myself positive, I'm gonna keep myself happy. Then, inevitably, something would happen, whether or not it was just some kind of trigger in my environment or actual isolation. During the weekends I didn't have anyone to go out with, so pretty much every weekend I would fall back into that hole. Then I'd just get so upset with myself. Essentially, I just ended up losing hope over time because I would become so convinced and so devout about staying positive, but inevitably it would go negative again.
It was just because I didn't understand that this was just not in my willpower. It's something that I didn't control, and that was very damaging. It was very, very damaging because, literally, every single time I would just lose so much more hope. It seemed like the more and more that happened, the deeper the hole got. There was nothing I could do whatsoever and I was completely powerless over this and that, no matter what, I would stay in these holes. That slowly started to take hold, and that was when the suicidality started to come to grips.
I never really thought about this much, but looking back into high school, there were even times where—I was still dealing with my sexuality and coming out and being outed in high school by one of my friends—I hope this isn't too much details, but I'd be driving my car, and there was this one neighborhood in Cincinnati that has really windy roads and trees and deep valleys where there are creeks and everything. There would be times where I would be driving along going to a friend's house and I'd be like, 'You know what? It would be so easy to just pull the steering wheel and everyone would think I just went off the road, that I just lost control of the car.'
There were moments like that back in high school, but nothing more active than that. It was just a thought that that was a possibility. I never acted on it until my sophomore year of college. That was when it started becoming a bigger reality that the easiest option when going to school in the middle of D.C. is heights—jumping from a high place. That was my perception at the time. There were about two occasions where I definitely went up to the roof of a parking garage and just kind of sat there for a while thinking to myself that I'd do it, and never did. Never actually climbed up. Never did anything like that until there was a particularly bad week where I had a panic attack that was actually induced by therapy. Kind of ironic.
When I started to look closer and deeper into this emotional instability, I spoke to my parents. I wanted to get therapy and go see a psychiatrist and consider medication. My parents were super uncomfortable with it and basically said that if I wanted to do that, I would have to go home so they could look over me as I was doing that, as I was taking the medication. Obviously that was the last thing I wanted. I was already feeling pretty damn isolated at college. The last thing I wanted was actually leaving the few friends I thought I had and the few comfortable environments I had. So I ended up going to these therapists who weren't fully certified. They were students who were getting their clinical degrees, and it was a super cheap therapy session. It was like ten dollars per session. Obviously they were in training and they would video record you and then they would use that video to talk about it and learn from it and then they would delete the video. It was highly confidential.
I ended up going to that, and the one problem with that is that because, they were students, so they didn't have any kind of emergency contact options—just none at all. My therapist, she was incredible. We made so much progress in the first couple months that I was seeing her, but there was one session where she insisted that I talk about certain issues that bubbled up in the back of my head that I had thought weren't issues, but clearly they were. That therapy session started off an entire week of terrible nightmares and insomnia, and I literally could not sleep. It got to a point that I was so scared to sleep because my nightmares were so vivid and so powerful, and that was what set off the panic attack. There was just one day after about a week straight [where I had a panic attack]. I tried to contact my therapist multiple times, but there was some weird situation. It was a long weekend, so they weren't checking their voicemail inboxes. She just didn't get to hear my voicemail until it got to the point that I had a pure panic attack one night.
So, I went back to my room. It was a single dorm. I opened my window and blared music. I was on the sixth floor and prepared to jump... I actually climbed out of the window and sat there for a while. I don't really know the amount of time I sat there, but it felt like it was an eternity. I really don't even know what encouraged me to do it, but I ended up looking back into my room, and there was a full length mirror on the closet door directly behind me. I climbed back in the window and I got super fucking angry and punched out the mirror. Certainly, it was absolutely symbolic of me seeing myself in this mirror and thinking I just want to punch the shit out of it. I was so mad at myself, I wanted to punch myself and completely shattered the mirror, cut up my knuckles... There's more details there that I've never really told anyone, or told maybe three people in my life, but there were certain things that happened after I punched the mirror that really calmed me down, made me reconsider what the factors were that were leading up to that. It made me realize just how much I hated myself when I literally punched out a mirror like two or three times, cut up all my knuckles. It was a very powerful realization to realize that this is pure self-hatred, this is something I don't necessarily I have control over, purely focused on my own inadequacy. I perceived myself to be so inadequate that I just could not stand myself. That was finally the time that I realized I needed to be more drastic about my recovery, to actually take it seriously.
I called up one of my good friends and said, "Hey, I need to go to a hospital," and she walked me there.
I went in and checked myself into the college university hospital, and that was where I started my recovery, ultimately. The psych ward was a really interesting experience. It was nothing like I would have expected. I was terrified. It was super late when I finally got checked in and they stripped me down, so I didn't have any of my clothes on. I didn't have anything, you know? They just totally stripped me down and they put me in those hospital gowns or whatever, those really uncomfortable clothes. [I remember] getting in there and finally getting to go to sleep and then waking up the next morning and just being absolutely terrified that the other people in the psych ward would somehow be dangerous, psychotic criminals, that they were probably gonna hurt me or they were gonna be—you know, this must be something like a prison, right? I just remember being terrified. I finally just sucked it up and went out to get breakfast. There were other people there and, of course, I was so nervous that I wasn't talking. There was one table and they invited me up to the table and started talking to me.
"So you're new here?"
"Yeah, just got in last night."
They ended up being some of the nicest people I've ever met who were dealing with the exact same things that I was dealing with. That was what just blew my mind, too. It was obviously such a internalized or self-stigmatizing thought about mental illness. [It was like], 'Yeah, I attempted suicide, but clearly I'm not as crazy as these other people who would be in a psych ward. They must be more crazy than me.'
I had the realization that it was self-stigmatizing and I was able to calm myself down and really take a look at what I was thinking about myself and my mental illness. It was from there that I really started to recover. I got referred to an actual therapist and I started taking the medication for the first time. I'm actually still taking that medication. I'm down to half a dose now. It's been four and a half years now.
Des: Tell me about your thoughts about suicide and the LGBTQ community. Do you think that it really affects us more than anyone else? Do you think there is a way that we can approach the community differently than we do everyone else?
Misha: I absolutely think we're at a higher risk. LGBTQ folk obviously have a tendency to create their own families who are made up of their good friends... We absolutely are one of the few communities that have minimal to absolutely no familial support. Of course, that's changing. That is getting better, but there are so many people in our community that are absolutely out of familial support or, even worse, were abused by their family systems. Just that fact alone, the fact that you can't go to your own home as a child and feel like you can be yourself and you're constantly hiding who you are—and you're not even experiencing a relationship. In many cases, no one experiences relationships until they're much older than the standard age for straight people to experience them.
I'm reading this book right now called, The Velvet Rage. I don't know if you've heard of it, but it's a great book. The author specifically states it is for gay men even though he recognizes that it could be applied to other people, but he was a psychologist who focused on gay men. The entire book is about this rage that grows up and gets pent up inside of gay men because, from the day they can first remember or they can first form thoughts and they realize that they are somehow different, they're told that they are different and that that difference is not accepted in the community. The point in the book is that, at such a young age, you might not think of it as, 'I am gay. I do not like women, but that is not a good thing,' but you still get the sense. Ever since you are young, you know that something is different about you.
He talks about how this runs into all of these different problems that we are facing as a community, but then also how the converse of that is that it creates—like in my situation—it creates this perfection paradox within people that they think that they have to be the perfect icon. In the book, he talks about how that generally results in gay men being the icons of the fashion industry and always having perfect taste and having great wit and humor and always looking good and being clean kept. For me, the fact is—at least in the gay community—if I could speak about my experiences, it 100% is a relation between feelings of inadequacy. Then that will result in self-hatred, in the more extreme cases.
[In terms of] actual marketing technique that we can use, my focus has generally been the nonprofit services, like the Trevor Lifeline, the National Center for the Prevention of Youth Suicide—that's within AAS, actually. My [question is], how do you provide the services that are clearly missing? We are still having so many of these suicides... There are a lot of services being provided right now, but there's clearly still a gap somewhere. These kids are still falling through somewhere, somehow, and how do we address that?
There are a lot of organizations right now, and it's the hot topic in funding right now, which is a good thing. Suicide prevention is becoming a hot topic. LGBT youth has become a hot topic. It has been for, I guess, since the Trevor Project [started 17] years ago. These things are all good and it needs to happen, but where are we still falling short? I have no idea. That's too big of a question for me to even consider.
Des: Let's talk about the attempt survivor community and why our advocacy is important.
Misha: In my opinion, my big focus is literally the community that we give each other. I know that a lot of our focus is on advocacy, but I can't help but feel like if I had somehow come across these resources and these communities of people who had experienced suicidal ideations like I had and who had been to the edge of a cliff and stepped back, I feel like it would have been so much easier.
Maybe that's just wishful thinking but I just cannot express how much it would have helped me if I had just had someone who could say, "I've experienced this too and it's okay. We can talk about it. It's not something you need to be scared of. It's not something you need to withdraw from. Let's talk about how crazy we can be sometimes," because that really helps. [It's better] than sitting there and being wrapped up in the things that you are facing and thinking to yourself, 'Oh my god, I'm crazy. Everyone must hate me. Everyone must know that I'm crazy.'
It becomes more isolating and more hopeless and more burdensome to you than to actually explicitly have someone say,"Yes, I've experienced this too and I know that you're going through a lot, but you're just being fucking crazy right now. I'm here for you. I'm your friend." I think that would have helped so much, but I think the social complications of what I was going through caused it to [get worse] so much faster...
I do think that if I can tell someone about my experiences—if I can tell someone about how deep and dark my life was, and how I'm still dealing with it sometimes, but at least I am healthier, I am recovering, I am a strong community member and I'm enjoying and thriving in my life—I think that can be a very strong message. Now, looking beyond that, looking beyond our own community, I think that's also one of the biggest perception challenges we're gonna be facing right now. In American society, anyone who has suicidal ideations or a history, pretty much gets written off.
I know [our resilience] is a very obvious thing to us, but I think it's so easy for people to say, "Oh, well they've been suicidal. We can't trust them with any kind of intense job. We can't do anything that might trigger them."
It concerns me when a community can be so stigmatizing of someone's suicidal ideations that they actually further isolate that person who has a suicidal past...
Des: People think that disclosure of your story is damaging and can be triggering and dangerous, but tell me why it's not.
Misha: You know what? The one thing that really does piss me off is when someone, somehow, thinks that just because I'm talking about suicide, I must be putting the idea in someone else's mind. That's just not true. It's just not. If the person is thinking about suicide, they were already thinking about it. It's nothing that you did [in bringing] it up. If they're not thinking about suicide, someone else talking about their suicidal experience is not gonna make them start thinking about it. I know that's a heavy generalization to make, but it just annoys me when people somehow want to discourage people from talking about suicidal experiences because they're worried it might make more people think about suicidal experiences...
I think that talking about this is absolutely vital because these people are going to be experiencing it whether or not you talk about it. If you talk about it, at least we can give them hope or we can give them some outlet to be open about what they're experiencing, and therefore give the slight possibility that recovery is possible, that they can come out of these deep, dark holes, and that they can be open about who they are and not be scared to seek help.
One of the most damning things about my experiences was probably the fact that I was terrified that my university was gonna put some big black mark on my record because I had a suicide attempt, and that I would never get hired where I wanted to go. I wanted to work for the Foreign Service for a long time. I was terrified that if I went and got psychological help, they would write me off for good. I would never be able to get a job with the Foreign Service, because who the fuck would want a crazy? That is the most damaging perception because it was one of the biggest things that prevented me from fully seeking help, from seeking adequate help, and then it ended up resulting in an actual suicide attempt and a hospitalization to actually make me get better. I wish that could have been avoided...
Pure stigma was the one thing that really prevented me [from getting the help I needed]... I don't want to make guesswork seem like a reality or seem like truth, but the fact is, if there was one person who had said to me, "It is okay to go seek help. It's not gonna go on your record," or if my university had advertised in any way that I could go to the university counseling center or I could go to the hospital and it wouldn't be a huge thing on my record, it would have been so much easier to actually seek adequate treatment and to get started on my path to recovery.
I read a story about a student at GW, my alma mater, who checked himself into the hospital in 2005 and ended up getting kicked out of the university, removed from his housing and not allowed to finish his degree. Of course, there ended up being this massive lawsuit around it, but GW literally kicked out a kid. It's called forced withdrawal policy. They basically threatened him before he even got of the hospital. He checked himself in because his roommates weren't gonna be home that weekend, he was a little bit worried that he was gonna be too isolated, so he figured, 'Why not go to the hospital and be safe?' He goes to the hospital. Before he even gets out of the hospital two days later, he was already sent one letter saying he was not allowed to go back to his housing and another letter saying that he was gonna have to go before a judicial review committee. For seeking help, he had to go before a judicial board.
So, as someone who is experiencing suicidal ideation yourself, you read that, and the last thing you're gonna do is go seek help because, even though the life that you are currently in might be the cause of this ideation and the cause of that stress, there is still so much more fear for what could be—the fear of the most negative possibility will always outweigh the possibility of changing the status quo and actually seeking help and getting better.
When you have policies at a university that literally has shown that students will get kicked out, that if they check themselves into a hospital, they're really gonna go before a judicial review committee that says, "Okay, here are the options: either you leave right now of your own accord, or we send you through the entire judicial review process and we expel you and you have this massive black spot on your record," [how will people who hear about it react]? They worry that it's a liability to keep a suicidal person on their campus or in their dorm, but by the same token, you are literally telling multiple other suicidal people that they can't come forward, that they can't seek help, and that is infuriating.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Misha: No, not at all. Not at all, for many reasons... Since my suicide attempt, I had about two more occasions—from the attempt four and a half years ago—in which I didn't get close to a suicide attempt, but I certainly started down the mental path. I started thinking to myself, 'Oh my god, it would be so much easier if this just all went away.' The interesting thing is that, I think, because of the work that I created for myself in this field, the fact that I have dedicated my life to preventing suicide, it's almost like, when I think those thoughts, or the few times that I have, I can immediately recognize them for what they're worth.
The most recent time, I think, was 100% was the result of losing my brother [due to a complication with his epilepsy]. I think that put me back a couple steps. If you can look at recovery in a linear way—which I know you can't—but I am tempted to look at recovery in a linear way, and I feel like after losing my brother, it blew me back some steps. That was actually the first time in a while that I had experienced anything where I was just like, 'This is just so overwhelming. This is just so much. I really don't care to deal with it.' I was able to recognize it in that moment. I stopped myself and I was like, 'Okay, that wasn't active. That wasn't suicidal ideation with agency or with intent, but that's certainly a dangerous way to be thinking right now...'
Suicide, right now, is not an option to me. It may be, but I've just been able to intellectualize everything. I have been able to look at this from such a research space or intellectualized or philosophical place, but right now it's just—it will never happen. And you know what? I shouldn't say that. I can't let myself speak in that generalization because, for all I know, I could have another week long, two week long session of insomnia and paranoia and a massive panic attack. It becomes too easy for me to, in that place—if I'm having a true panic attack where I cannot see beyond my own four walls, and I can't perceive anything besides that, cannot intellectualize, I cannot make it logical, it is purely emotional—there is always [the option]. But I feel like, even at my worst emotional extent, I feel like my intellectual and my logical will kick in, and it's probably because of my work in suicide prevention. It's because I have been able to be so open about it, because I have been so vocal and, at least in my own community, I've been able to become a person who is known for suicide prevention. I feel like, at the very least, the last thing I could do would be to die by suicide because it's almost like I would be—I know this isn't necessarily the healthiest perception, but—it's like I would be going back on my word. It's like I would be giving up. I would be betraying the people who know me and who have seen my work.
In April 2014, for the first time in their 47 year history, the American Association of Suicidology created an organizational division for attempt survivors and others with lived experience of suicidal thoughts and actions. At the conference that week, Misha, Samantha Nadler, Craig Miller, and myself each shared our stories for a panel entitled, "Can You Hear Me Now? New Voices of Suicide Attempt Survivors." This was lauded as a groundbreaking event in the field. The following Monday, the New York Times published an article about the new division at AAS. Watch the video of our presentation below.
You can also see more of Misha's story in an episode of the Mental Health Channel's series The Common Good, below:
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you don't like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
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