Niomi Provins is a student in Austin, TX. I photographed her on November 28, 2013 (Thanksgiving), and interviewed her later via telephone. She was 19 at the time.
I started thinking about suicide as an option at a very early age. I was about 12 when I first thought about it, and the first time I ever acted or anything like that, I was about 14... My mother had beat the living shit out of me that day and my sisters were angry with me. My grandparents wouldn’t speak to me. I didn't know where my biological father was, and my stepdad was, well, my stepdad. I really had nothing else. My family was everything to me, and I was slowly losing it. I figured nothing else would change, so I just went for it.
The second time I thought about it, like, actually thought about [attempting] suicide, I was 16—just barely 16—and I was in a bad place. I was drinking a lot, doing a lot of drugs. I was, at that point, cutting every day just for some release of anything. It seemed like I wasn't going to get better, and there was nothing else I could think of doing. I tried drinking. I tried drugs. Boys, girls, it didn't matter. I had done a lot of things in a very short period of time and my life was still the same. It just seemed like, once again, it was the only way out. I don't like being stagnant, and I was stuck.
At 17, that was the last time that I [attempted] suicide. It was at my friend's house and the switch just flipped. [We were] drinking and there were a lot of drugs going around. I was genuinely happy. I didn't understand why I had this obscene need to just stop everything that day, because I was genuinely happy. I was with people who cared about me. In the end, I think that's why. I knew that the next day when I woke up with a hangover and I was getting sick, that my life would go back to normal—my normal—and I decided that I was going to try to drink myself until I couldn't drink anymore. My friends shoved a plastic spoon down my throat to make sure I threw everything up so I would wake up the next day. That was the last time.
I figured that way would be the least painful for my family. Kids, they drink, they do drugs. If I overdosed or died of alcohol poisoning, no one would question anything.
Des: What happened after that last time, or what happened after all of the other times? Did you go to the hospital? How did you deal? What was your support system like, assuming you had one?
Niomi: I guess, each time, it goes back to my friends and my sisters. My best friend was the one who helped me dress the wounds, who gave me antibiotics that she went to the hospital for herself because I didn't want to go. I refused to go because I didn't want my family to know.
My sisters… My mother was crazy, and I knew that if I did something... it would probably push them to do the same thing, and I didn't like that thought at all. It pushed me to stay away from it for a long time.
Each time that it happened, the overwhelming feeling that my life was going nowhere took over, and I tried. I tried to do what life was already doing.
All the people I used to hang out with, they kept me busy, tried to keep me safe and away from my house. I was never at home. I was never alone because my friends made sure of that. If I was alone, they were calling me, coming over to find out if I was okay. I constantly had people around who cared about me, and I guess that made it easier. It made me feel like I had an obligation to every last one of them, that if they were so willing to spend years of their life putting up with me to make sure I'm okay, then I can stick around for a little bit longer just to make sure that they're okay.
I had to convince myself of that every day.
Des: What made you leave Michigan?
Niomi: I think it was the need for a change. I was still stuck in the same position I was in when I was 14, when I was 16. I visited my aunt and uncle before Christmas vacation, and I had convinced myself I was going back to my life, to my girlfriend at the time, my sisters, my mother, my father, everybody, because they needed me. My aunt helped me realize that I wasn't there, that there's a difference between living and existing and, at the time, I was existing for everyone there. I couldn't help them if I couldn't help myself, and I felt better here. When I had visited them, I didn't feel scared anymore, and that was so different for me. I wasn't scared that I was going to disappoint anymore. I wasn't scared of being kicked out of my home. I wasn't scared that my mother was going to go on a drunken rampage. I wasn't scared that my family would start fighting and doors would be broken down, the cops would be called. I wasn't worried about getting shot or stabbed or robbed. I finally felt safe, and that felt more important than anything in that moment—that I decided that was I moving, that I was leaving, that I wanted to get better, and unless I'm safe, I can't get better.
Des: Does all that still stand now?
Niomi: That I feel safe, that I'm happier here? Most definitely. I miss my family, I miss my friends, but I think I'm progressing.
Des: Are you still hurting yourself?
Niomi: No, I'm not. It's not like I don't think about it. It's not that the thoughts don't pop up out of the blue, when I'm in a good mood, when I'm in a bad mood. They just happen sometimes. Not only because I don't want to, but because I don't want to hurt my family. I hurt everyone else in my life when I did that.
Des: How long has it been since you hurt yourself?
Niomi: About a year and a half.
Des: What do you do when the thoughts happen?
Niomi: I just let them happen. I don't indulge them. They just happen sometimes, like a flash, and then I go about my business, because it doesn't happen when I'm working on something, when I'm concentrating on something. It just happens when I'm idle, I suppose. I guess that's what they mean when they say "idle hands are the devil's playground." They pop up and I let myself indulge the thought, but not the action. Then I remember that it's not worth it, not anymore.
Des: You've never been hospitalized?
Des: Tell me what your support system looks like now, in contrast to what it looked like before.
Niomi: Now I have an entire household of people who are devoted to the protection of everyone else in that household. When I get those feelings and they're overwhelming, I can talk about them now, instead of them being brushed under the table or hidden from everyone else to see. It's talked about. I don't feel ashamed or scared to hide my scars anymore. Everyone has told me that that's a part of me, that's a part of who I was, and it will be a part of me until I die, because that's where I came from. I have friends and family, and I don't think there's a single person I know in Texas who does not know about my history and does not support me in some way or another.
And because of the knowledge that they possess about it—about my past, about what I've done—I think it makes it easier to talk about, instead of the usual, "Don't do it, we care about you." They ask why I feel like that, or why I want to, and it gives me a chance to answer them, when no one else did that before. I guess it's a lot like my old support group, aesthetically, but it works different because now they genuinely care unselfishly.
Des: What do you mean by that?
Niomi: There isn't a single person in Michigan, whether it be friend or family, that I didn't support in some way or another. Even my best friend. When we would talk about it, for the short periods of time that we did talk about it, her response was always, "I need you. You can't leave. I need you."
Des: And now?
Niomi: And now, it's not a need anymore. It's a want. They want me to be around. They don't need me to be around, but they want me to be around.
I suppose the words are very skewed in my head, because "need" is a demand and "want" is a request. I know that. But at the time of my angsty teenage rebellions, nobody could demand me to do anything unless I cared about them, and then the same thing that got me stuck there is the same thing that I [was] letting keep me there: the demands of others, the expectations that others put on me. Here, there are no expectations of me to be perfect, like everyone in Michigan assumed I was, and assumed that I strived for. And I did. I tried to be perfect. Obviously couldn’t, but I tried.
Here, people know that I can't be perfect, that I come with a history, and that I'm going to change; I'm going to get better. They support me in that choice, but they don't push me into it. It was a choice I made on my own. It wasn't forced onto me. It wasn't demanded of me that I go to therapy and get help. It was suggested that therapy might be a good thing, and I agreed with them. I go on my terms. I think that's important because, once again, the angsty adolescent didn't want to be forced into anything. I think that's true even now. I'm not fighting against being forced into anything because no one's forcing me into anything. I'm choosing to do this as slowly or as quickly as I want, and whether it be slowly or the quick road to recovery, everyone here supports me, even people that barely know me.
Des: You're in therapy right now?
Des: How do you feel about it?
Niomi: It's interesting. Before [I came] here, I never actually considered therapy.
Niomi: Because I didn't think I needed it. I didn't think I was crazy, 'cause I had seen crazy. I had seen crazy and I had been convinced that therapy was for crazy people. I was wrong, and my definition of crazy has changed. Everything about that's changed, and starting therapy was hard because I don't know this person. They have no idea who I am or what I've gone through, but I had to remind myself that it's their job to learn and try to help me.
It's still odd sometimes. I've only been going for a short while. I feel like I need to sugarcoat my life for this perfect stranger so the shock value is less. You don't grow up in a cult-type family without shock happening, and it's nice to talk about it with someone who doesn't know because all I've ever heard is, "I know. I know what you're going through. I know how you feel." That can be infuriating sometimes because the easiest way to dismiss things is saying, "I know," and I don't want my life to be dismissed anymore.
So, it's a good thing and I feel like it's helping. I'm able to talk about things in a different light. I see them in a different way because I'm paving a new perspective on things with the help of my support group and my therapist.
Des: You mentioned earlier that you didn't think that you needed therapy before you moved to Texas. Is that why you didn't push—or did you push?
Niomi: Oh, I pushed…hard. I really wanted to get help because I didn't know how to stop. I was unconsciously doing these things to myself for the longest time, 'cause I didn't think about it. I would have the time that I did think about it, and then I would stop thinking about it, and I would find myself digging at the wound while I'm in the middle of a conversation—and I'm not even thinking about it! I didn't know how to stop that. I didn't know what to do about that, and the feeling that I got was… I guess the best way I could put it is that it was addicting. It made everything feel better. I wasn't in pain afterwards, and that's always been weird for me 'cause I was causing pain, but after it was over, I didn't feel anything and I loved that. It was addicting to me. Not being able to feel anything when all you do all day is feel the emotions of everyone else? It was incredible.
I knew I needed to stop because there were points in it when I did not want to die. There were things. There were people that I was living for, that I was helping stay alive, and I just really wanted to stop. I wanted it to go away. It was horrifying how badly I had assumed that I needed this, how badly that I felt that I needed to do this every day, 2-3 times a day, just so I could function—but not everyone does that 2-3 times a day. Not everyone does that at all. I wanted to know how they did it, and I couldn't find the answers myself. I knew that things like this were considered psychological problems. I knew that therapy might give me the answers I needed. It might help me in some way. If not, then I don't know what I would have done. I had hoped that someone could help me, and I tried to stop. I did.
Des: How did you try to stop?
Niomi: Just cold turkey. I threw away my razorblades. My knives were hidden from me by my friends. I tried focusing on other things. I tried doing other things that made it easier, that made it better, and I always went back. It was just there and I knew it would make me feel better, even though I knew I was doing damage to my body. And it didn't matter because, in that moment, I would feel better about myself, about the world. Everything would be okay in that moment and nothing else mattered beyond that.
Des: How did you stop?
Niomi: When I finally gave it up, I had moved to Texas and I got scared for a different reason. I'm genuinely scared to hurt my family now, now that there are people who care. I once again had stopped cold turkey for the same reasons that I did before. I didn't want to hurt people. I didn't want to hurt anymore.
I haven't gone back, and every day that the thoughts cross my head is just another day on the calendar that I can say that I'm okay, that I can say that I'm getting better. I set a goal for myself and I'm damn determined to keep it. I want to go as long as I possibly can without feeling that way ever again. I don't need it. I don't want to hide from how I feel anymore because I'm not feeling everyone else's emotions. These are mine.
I don't think that there's any reason that I should go back to harming myself. I don't feel like I want to. The thoughts cross my head often, but I'm not planning on it. I'm not fantasizing about doing it. When they happen, I just let them happen and then I let them pass.
Des: You said before that you knew you were damaging your body and you didn't care. How do you feel about your body now?
Niomi: I don't think I've actually thought about it. I'm not scared of it anymore. I'm not actively looking to change it. I'm comfortable in my own body now, when I definitely wasn't before. Where I used to see flaws in myself, I now see… I suppose a really messed up way to think of it is as artwork: a story, a novel. Every nick on my body has a story, from the surgeries I've had, to the really bad days that I've had. All of them have a story and I love writing, so I had to learn how to appreciate a good story when I saw one. That's the way I look at it now. It's become an entirely new chapter, living in Texas.
The first chapter was obviously a hell of a chapter, but it's over now. Everything that happened, happened for a reason—not all of them great reasons, but they happened for a reason—and I've accepted that.
Des: Does anything trigger you now when it comes to cutting?
Niomi: Yeah. Screaming. My therapist and I have been talking about PTSD, because there was screaming every day in my childhood. I can't think of a day when someone wasn't screaming. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's explosive in my home—and it terrifies me. When I get scared, I start to shut down. That's how I prevented myself from shutting down before, by forcing myself to feel something different. When people talk down to me, purposefully talk down to me like I'm 5 and completely incapable, I start to feel that way. And I just want it to stop, so I think of the only thing that can forcibly change the way I feel, and it's that.
Des: Why did you decide to tell your story?
Niomi: I thought it would make me feel better about it, because I've read other people's stories, and hell, if they can do it, so can I.
It's important that people know that these things happen, that people who seem average, people who are above average or below average, all have these feelings. People who can seem absolutely happy—or content, even—in their life can have these feelings and act on them. It's important that people know that even children feel this way. It's not just an adult thing, and that's what I've been told my entire life. I can't have this much stress. I can't feel that way. I can't be depressed. I can't feel lonely when I'm not alone. But that's not true. Children feel this way, even babies. People get stuck and that's the only option, and for all intents and purposes, I'm still a baby. I'm still someone's baby. I tried to change that by making sure I was no one's baby, and that's terrifying.
Hopefully, if and when people read this, they feel less alone, because that's what I always hated. I felt alone all the time. I was lonely all the time. I don't want anyone to feel that way. It's not a comfortable feeling, and especially when you're a survivor, because you don't know who's willing to talk about it, who's willing to tell you that everything's okay, and that's all I really want. I just want people to know that it'll be okay, that they're not alone.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Niomi: I don't know. I want to say no as an initial reaction because that's always been my reaction. If anyone asked, it's never been an option, because it's not something you talk about. I don't think I'm going to, but it's always an option in my head. It's always an option. It's not the best option, it's not the only option, but it is an option. And I'm too damn stubborn to take the easy way out now. In my head, once again, that's the easy way out.
Des: I don't know if that's an easy way.
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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