Paul Currington is a storyteller who works in a government office in Olympia, WA. He hosts a storytelling show, Fresh Ground Stories, on the fourth Thursday of every month at Roy Street Coffee and Tea in Seattle. I interviewed him in an office at Lines for Life, Portland's local crisis hotline, on August 02, 2014. He was 47. I'm including the audio of his interview below. If you listen close enough, you'll hear crisis counselors taking calls throughout our conversation.
I was thinking how I would start this. About a year after my attempt, I started trying to write the story of how it happened. That’s always been how I've dealt with things: talk about it out loud in a story. I found that I couldn't. I couldn't even write the words without getting choked up and having little panic attacks. I had told parts of it to the two therapists I'd been going to for that whole year, but I hadn’t told anyone, really, the whole story in sequence.
I would be writing it in my journal and I would get choked up. I would get upset because it meant that I wasn't through it as far as I wanted to be. Then I'd get worried because at some point, for me, it's important to say it on stage. That's the next step for pulling the claws out. I thought, "I can't even say it in my living room alone without getting choked up and crying, how am I going to say this in front of strangers?"
I got that story out finally, and I told it. It was really good for me. But I've never told it all the way to one person without it [upsetting me], so I wasn't sure how I wanted to say it.
That date, December 1st, 2012, is burned into my memory more deeply than my birthday. I can barely remember my birthday, but that date I think about a lot. It is so terrifying, even in retrospect. It still scares me to think I could get to that place, even though I'm almost two years past it. I've done a lot of work. I am really happy where my life is now, in ways that I could not even imagine two years ago, but that night is still very scary.
One of the things that makes it less scary is just talking about it, but in a purposeful way. It's not part of my chit-chat on the elevator on the way up to the third floor. If I can talk about it to people who need to hear it, it makes it less scary for me.
I was in a relationship with a woman for seven years, and then off and on for another year after that. The night I realized it was over for good was the night I found out she had a boyfriend. Everything fell out from under me that night. I was trapped in a room with them. I couldn’t leave immediately. I didn't know she would be at this place. Then this guy walked in and it was clear that she had found someone. I had to be in this room with them for twenty minutes before I could escape. I physically could not get out.
I drove home and tried to end my life.
It’s good that the memory of being so out of control that night is still scary, because it keeps me doing the things I need to do every day.
I've had depression all my life. I've known that since I was a kid. I couldn't put words to it, but I knew, “This is bad. I'm not coping with this well.” I had a mom who was a very, very angry woman. My dad left when I was ten, so I was trapped with this woman who screamed at me every day. Nothing was ever safe. I was never safe in the one place where I should have been safe. I grew up always wondering why other people were happy. I wondered, “What does that feel like?”
I hate meeting people who love their parents, because it's like, "What are you? What kind of person?" I'm jealous, but at the same time I'm like, "Fuck you! Who are you? Does that exist and only I don't have this?”
All my life, I've felt like I'm a penguin raised by eagles. Everyone around me is soaring majestically and I'm just flapping around trying not to get eaten by a sea lion or a fucking orca. I don't even know I'm a penguin. I'm like a shitty eagle. I'm like, "What? How does that? The wings! How do you get? I'm trying really hard! Damn it!" I had no idea there was such a thing as a penguin, you know?
I go through life like this, wondering, "Why am I so unhappy?" I realized during my recovery this past year and a half that I've looked to other people to make me happy—women, basically—and in some way that seems logical. Everyone says, "I want someone to make me happy," but you don't realize you have to be halfway happy first. That's a lot to put on someone if they're your reason for joy.
I grew up, probably like most people, not realizing that you have to work to be happy. You have to do something.
I remember sitting on the couch a few months ago thinking about that phrase, "I want to be happy." I thought, "Oh, ‘to be.’ ‘To be’ is a verb. I need to do something. I have to do. In order ‘to be,’ I have to do things that make me happy, that bring happiness."
I had been doing those things because I was following directions from my doctor, therapist, and analyst. I thought I was just doing the things that were prescribed for me: exercise, get sleep, eat healthy. I didn't realize that, for the rest of my life, it's going to involve doing things. I can't wish I was happy. I have to find things that are important to me and then do them.
That? Whew! That's huge, man. I never in a million years... I don't know why they don't teach us that in high school. Who cares about algebra? I've never used that. Just telling a kid that you need to do things. If you're unhappy, there are things to do. It's work.
One of the things that really saved me was going to AA. I've never had a drug or alcohol problem. I've never done drugs, and alcohol isn't a problem for me. I went to this meeting because I just knew I had to go. My therapist had been talking about addiction, even though I didn't have a substance abuse problem. We were talking about emotional addictions, so it was on my mind, and then I found this meeting.
That first meeting was a bunch of people talking about what they did to be happy, to not sink into whatever problems they had. For me, if I just substituted the word "depression" for "alcohol," it made perfect sense. I'd never seen people treat each other with that kind of forgiveness and empathy. I was stunned. Then I read the steps. I thought, "Well, I'll try to do these steps. I'll just substitute depression for alcohol."
It was kind of life or death. I knew that I wasn't going to be around another year if I didn't find something to physically do. It couldn’t be done all up in my head because that was the thing that got me there. The brain that got you into this situation is rarely the brain that's going to get you out.
I followed the steps. They were things I had to do. I had to say things, I had to write things down, I had to take certain actions.
It's not that I didn't still want to die, it's that I didn't want to give up not having done my best. I just thought, "I want to go down swinging." I wasn't really scared of failing, I just didn't want to embarrass myself.
It started working. I didn't tell anyone I was going to these meetings. Everyone knew I rarely drank anyway. I was scared to drink because I know it's a depressant. I [wasn’t worried] I was going to crash my car, I was worried I was going to crash emotionally. I can't have any depressant in my life. For me, that seemed to be a way of being in that group and somehow qualifying. I still haven't told most people because it's just too weird for them. It has helped me more than I ever thought it would.
I run a storytelling show in Seattle called Fresh Ground Stories. It's an open mic. Anyone can get up and tell a true story about their life. This rabbi came out once. He was Hassidic, with the curls, big hat, and the big black coat. The whole thing. He walks in, tells a story, and he's right out of the Old Testament. He hypnotizes all of us. It's amazing. We were talking after a show and decided we would get to know each other. He was asked me how Jewish I was.
I said, "I didn't grow up with religion, but I have just recently started praying."
He said, "Oh, that's great!"
I said, "Well, AA taught me to pray."
He was shocked; it was hard for him to conceive of that. But it was true, I hadn't prayed in thirty years—not since my mom died when I was seventeen. That was the end of it. I was very much anti-praying, anti-anything spiritual. It seemed like I’d been abandoned by that too, from seventeen on. My mom died and I couch surfed for years until I got my feet under me.
It's still strange going to twelve step meetings when I don't have a substance abuse problem. I don't advertise that when I'm there. It's one of the many things that have surprised me in the last two years since my attempt. I had no idea what was out there. It seems strange to me to be this old and learning these things, because I just assumed that it would never get better.
When I was recovering that first year and a half, I guess I figured, “Maybe I’ll live, maybe I won't. Maybe I'll have a few more years in me, but I can't see suddenly learning to enjoy life.” It wasn't until I started talking about my attempt that I realized maybe I had something to live for.
I'm saying that as a parent. The thought of leaving my son without a father was not enough for me to put the razor down. That's a terrible feeling to have as a parent.
That's why I kind of get upset when people say that suicide is an act of cowardice and selfishness. First of all, it's really fucking hard to kill yourself. It takes a lot of half-assed attempts and a lot of months or years of ideation to even get to the point where you can step out on that bridge. Nobody [does that] for fun. When you get to the point when you're moments away from taking that step, that's really serious.
It's not selfish at all. You wouldn't ask someone in pain, with cancer, someone who's never going to be healthy, to stick around for you. That's what I want to tell people. "If you were dying, in pain, and there was no help for you, you would want to just ease yourself out of this life. You wouldn't want me telling you, “Oh, it would hurt me if you died! You stay in pain so I can feel better.”" That's a shitty thing to say. It’s such a cliché for people to say that.
I heard a friend of mine tell a story about his suicide attempt, and he called himself selfish. I love this guy, but I was so mad at him. He said it because those words have been pushed into our brains for so many years. I wanted to say, "It's okay. You were in so much pain. You just wanted it to end, man. You weren't being selfish, you were taking care of yourself in the only way you could think in that moment."
That’s a phrase I wish I could erase the phrase from this language, that it's cowardly or selfish. Whew. That's a big one.
The reason I'm here is that I know it helps me when I talk about this, but I don't know how much I should talk about it. I know I want to talk about it if it helps people. I want someone to know that they're probably standing in line next to someone at the bank who has been through this, and I want them to know that they're not alone, but I'm nervous that people will think I'm just doing this for attention. It's hard to explain to people who don't write or express themselves artistically how important it is to get this stuff out in your art.
It was really hard to tell that story on stage of exactly what happened, but it's one of the few times in my life where I got to be completely honest without having to worry about someone else's feelings. It was just for me. I wanted to make something beautiful out of the worst time in my life. I tried so hard to make something meaningful and beautiful out of it because I couldn't think of it as “that bad thing” anymore. I had to think, "There’s gotta be a positive side to this. I gotta make something good out of this." I do that through writing and telling stories, so that's the only way I could do it.
At the end of the first half of my recovery, I had this vague feeling that the second half of my recovery is when, or if, I get in a relationship again. That's usually what triggers all these things. I don't know how I’m going to react the next time I get my heart broken. I’m better now, I have more tools, and I'm stronger than I've ever been, but that's the trial by fire right there, man. That's the emotional gang initiation I'm going to have to go through. The past is just beating me with rocks and sticks.
When I am in a relationship, it's like we're both flying a plane. When we break up, it's like the plane disappears, but I'm the only one without a parachute. It seems like everyone else is floating down, "We got this!" and I'm just plummeting, and I’m like, "Where did you get that parachute? Did you get on the plane with that and I missed it?"
It's really scary. I started dating a little bit, but I've broken up with more women in the last few months than I have in my entire life put together. I am not putting up with any craziness because I cannot handle that right now. I suppose, in some ways, that's good. In the past, I would have blown past the red flags and thought, "I can fix this! I've got this! No problem. I just need someone to love me."
It's really important for me to learn how to be happy alone. I never, ever thought I could be happy alone, I always just thought it would be biding my time. I guess I’m practicing that. I feel like I have to hit the emotional gym every day to be strong enough to get through the periods when it's just me. I go many years between girlfriends. I've never been able to jump from person to person to keep me afloat. I'm always in the process of sinking and just before I sink, someone comes along.
I can't do that anymore. I didn't think, at forty-seven, I'd have to learn that.
Before I told my story on stage, I had to talk to my son about it. He didn't know what I had gone through. He was twenty-three and wasn't living with me at the time. About a year and a half after that night, I had to tell him. I couldn’t go telling strangers without telling my son. I was terrified. "How do I bring this up? What's he going to think of me? How do we begin this?"
I took him out for a drive and I thought, “I've got to do this. I need to to get it over with.”
Most of my life, I thought you had to keep secrets like that from your children. They don't need to know everything about you. I also knew that, if I was going to talk to other people about this, because I want to help them and be of service, then my son had to at least know what I was doing.
Somehow the subject came up. He had a cousin who left a suicide note. They got to her before she did anything. It was a perfect opening for me to talk about it. Thankfully, he was really understanding. He wasn't angry at me. He was happy about how hard I'd been working in recovery.
I think it was really important for me to tell my son, “This is how we get through things. We make something good out of something terrible. This is how your dad does it. You can't keep the bad thing in the bad place. You've got to bring it out and work with it.”
I don't think I could have ever explained that him if I hadn't lived through it. It would all just be an intellectual exercise.
Part of me wishes I didn't have to have this horrible thing happen to get that [understanding]. Everything I'm doing now… I know exercise is good for my depression, I know that eating healthy is good, I know that getting off my couch and talking to people about anything is healthy, but it was never important enough to do those things until I woke up every day going, "Well, am I gonna kill myself today? Do I want to experience that level of terror again? Because if I don't, maybe I should get on the treadmill. Maybe I should do a few push-ups.”
I get all gushy at the gym now, I want to hug my trainer every day like, "You don't know what you mean to me! Do it to me! Make me lift more! I don't care! A thousand burpees, let's do this!"
She says, "Why do you always show up?"
You don't understand. I have to. I should have my health insurance pay for this gym membership, man. It's funny, I'm stronger physically and emotionally than I've ever been, but I also know that I haven't tested myself yet.
Des: You're still training.
Paul: I'm still training, man. The Olympics is probably a couple years away.
I wonder if the memory of that night will ever stop scaring me. I wonder. I've only talked to two other people who had an attempt, that I know well enough to talk to about it. I've never asked them that. I just learned they were attempt survivors from my show. I've been running that show for almost two years before my attempt, and then after my attempt. It was the only day of the month I looked forward to, out of twenty-nine days of absolute despair and agony.
I would try to find any reason not to drive up to Seattle, but once I got there, these people told amazing stories of things they'd lived through. Some of them were way worse than I'll ever live through. It would be so beautiful for two hours—people coming together and talking about how they lived through these things they never thought they could live through.
Then they would thank me for creating this space and driving up all the way from Olympia to do it, and I'd think, "How can I not now?"
I didn't realize how much that show meant to me. In some ways it's still the best day of the month for me. I get to talk to survivors of life. It's so beautiful what people walk up and say into that microphone. Most of them I've never seen before. They're not my friends. They might be my friends afterward.
The other day someone said, "You know, this show feels a lot like an AA meeting." I thought, "It is a lot like an AA meeting, except they serve alcohol here. That's the only difference.” The show has that support group vibe. But it isn’t one. It's just people.
I didn't realize how much I'd grown toward that, people sharing these incredibly honest stories of people surviving something. Some of those people up there are crying and shaking, and maybe they’ve never spoken in front of an audience before in their lives. As sad as they are sometimes, remembering these memories, I feel this joy that they're there sharing it with me and all these other strangers, like all of a sudden everyone feels really safe and loved in that moment.
I never felt that growing up. There wasn't a day in my life I felt that. That really sucks. That's the one place you should feel safe. For most of my life, when I ruminate on these old memories of growing up, I think, "Well, I wasn't beaten. I wasn't sexually assaulted. There are so many people who had it way worse…” But it did what it did to me, you know? It made me believe the world is not a safe place and there is not a ounce of love extra out there for me. I grew up thinking one mistake can destroy you, and I can't live like that anymore. I gotta have faith.
For years, I didn't realize this. I'd been asking my friends how they found faith. One of my best friends became a Lutheran minister, and I asked him, "How did you find this faith in God, in anything?" He didn't have a good answer for me, he just had it. I would go around poking at people. I wasn't trying to derail them, I really wanted to know. They looked at me like I was crazy.
Then I said to my therapist, maybe six months after my attempt, “A lot of this comes down to faith. I have nothing to believe in.”
Once, I wanted to write an essay for This I Believe. I realized I had nothing positive that I believed in. I believed negative things were going to happen. I couldn't find one thing that I believed in that was a positive. I thought, "Oh, what? This is horrible!" I said [to myself], “If I can't find faith in a higher power or whatever you want to call it—anything, nature, art, God—I'm not going to make it.” One of the big steps of AA is to find and believe in something bigger than yourself, even if it's just the group.
[My therapist] said something that I can't believe no one ever said before. It was one of those things where you go, “Really?” He said, "Faith is a choice. You don't find it. You choose to have faith because, if you’re looking for proof, you're not going to find it. It would be a fact if you could prove it. It wouldn't be faith. You cannot have faith without doubt. You just decide to have it."
I couldn't believe no one had ever said that. All the people of faith that I know try to give me proof that I should have faith in a higher power, and you can't, so they always sounded ridiculous to me. Every day, now, I can choose to have faith. I'm trying hard to be grateful that I found that out at forty-seven and not seventeen. It seems like that would have turned my life around if I found that at seventeen, but no one said it.
If I had one thing to say to anyone who was in pain, I would say that faith is a choice. Sometimes, it seems like an impossible choice because you can't see how things are going to be better. You just decide every day to choose it and give yourself that day. That's what I had to do, man. That one day a time thing? Sometimes it was one hour at a time. I could not see any goodness in life, but I kept thinking, “I really like my therapist. He's a smart dude, and he says faith is a choice. I've never, ever, ever thought of it that way, so let me just give that a chance. I'll give that a chance today.”
As I cracked open little by little, day by day, in the year after that terrible night, people would come up and love on me. I can honestly say now my life is filled with love. I've never said that before, even when I was in a relationship. I could never say my life was filled with love.
The other day, I said something just ridiculous, almost as though I started speaking in tongues. Someone asked how I'm doing, and I said, "You know what? I'm pretty lucky."
What? I've never said those words, not even in Monopoly or any game. I could be playing Blackjack and win one thousand dollars and I still wouldn't say that. How did those words come out? I said, "Yeah, I'm a pretty lucky guy!" I don't know what I was thinking. I’ve never said those words in my life.
There are days when I truly do not feel lucky, where it is a slog. I think, “Alright, did I take my meds? Am I isolating myself? Did I not go to the gym?” There are days when it feels like luck is not in the room, but just the fact that I said that… I gotta remember those times more than I have to remember the other times.
Right now, I just gotta remember to keep doing all those things. I gotta remember not to let people into my life who trigger me. My ex-girlfriend and I love each other very much, but I can't see her. I can't. If I saw her in the grocery store, I'd have to leave because it's not safe for me yet. It's frustrating when friends will imply that I should be over it. I shouldn't go out of my way to go to the other side of town to go shopping. They weren't there in that room with that razor. They don't know that I haven't thrown that razor away yet.
I realized I hadn't thrown it away a few weeks ago. I had this daydream that maybe some woman would come into my life, I’d tell her the story, and she'd throw it away for me. I thought, "No, no. No, no. I gotta throw it away. I can't ask someone else to do that. I have to want to stick around enough that I throw it away."
It's important to remember that I haven't thrown that away yet. I think I'll know when the time is right. I have a feeling I'll know when I can do that. Every day I get closer to it, but I know if I throw it away too soon, it won't work. I'll figure out a way to bring it back into my life, so it's hidden away in a place I can't get to it.
I'm glad I didn't realize I hadn't thrown it away before now. It was just this week that I realized, "Oh, wow. That's still there. What do I do with it?" Then it was very clear that I wasn't ready to [throw it away] because I'm still training. I'm not ready for the show. I'm not ready for the opening night. I’m still rehearsing.
Boy, I sure hope this helps someone. It hurts all over again to know that there's someone out there feeling the way I felt a year and a half ago.
Des: It's interesting that someone is taking a crisis call right now, I don’t know if you know.
Paul: Is that what they're doing out there?
Des: Yeah! This is a crisis hotline.
Paul: I wondered, but I didn't want to ask.
Des: I just overheard—you're saying this, and he's out there saying, "Are you in a safe place?" It's like some weird kind of magic.
Des: Pretty crazy, huh? This is a weird day.
Paul: It is. You know, what's strange is that I just got a promotion yesterday at work, after eight and a half years. I have this great job. I’m absolutely beloved at work. I just feel so blessed.
Des: You're the best!
Paul: I'm in this mode where I have to do things that scare me. Courage is so important to me. I was writing a list of things I want in a partner in the future and courage was right at the top of the list. It's a big deal in my life. I have to show courage every day in some little way.
I work in an agency where we help people build homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, and low-income housing. We have a unit that's for victim advocacy—mostly sexual assault. I'm always looking for extra things to do at work. I'm always volunteering to go into a homeless shelter, maybe I’ll do a little radio story to get people's voices on our website, like a success story of some sort. I'm the guy people call when they're homeless and they need to know where the nearest shelter is. I was running out of these extra things to do, and we just got this new program called the Prison Rape Elimination Act—it's now officially against the law to rape someone in prison.
Des: How was that not against the law?
Paul: Well, it's not a popular law. Prisons aren't really into it because it forces them to investigate. There's a line you can call and leave a message saying that you’re being sexually harassed.
Des: How do you call it?
Paul: It's an 800 number, you can call it from prison. It's the PREA line.
States, until recently, have not bothered installing it. The federal government passed the law, but they didn't enforce it. Now, ten years later, they're going to start auditing to make sure there is a line.
We just got the program, and I volunteered to answer it. Because so many people I've been in love with have experienced sexual assault, I wanted to know how to help. I wanted to know what it was about. It never kept me from being with someone, but I knew I was way out of my league as far as how to deal with someone who's had that kind of trauma in their life. I offered to answer the prison rape hotline. I got thirty or forty hours of training. The training was brutal.
Going back and thinking of all the women I've loved who have experienced that, it was so important for me to say, "I want to help someone, even if it's a prisoner." If I'm going to say there are no bad victims, then I gotta walk the talk.
It's fucking scary, because those people are never in a safe place. That's what reminded me of this. I can't say, "Are you in a safe place?" I can't put them in another prison, and mostly, it's guards. It's not prisoner-on-prisoner. It's so hard to listen to someone saying, “I don’t know what to do. They're always there."
I never would have offered to help on that line if I hadn't truly known what hopelessness and helplessness were like to have. To have sympathy, even for a prisoner—I never thought I’d have sympathy for a felon, maybe a violent felon. I don't know what their crimes are. I don't want to know. We don't ask. It’s just like, “I don't want to know why you're in, let's just get through this period.”
I never would have said, "I'll help answer this crisis line," if I hadn't gone through that night.
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 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’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Paul's story is sponsored by a grant from To Write Love On Her Arms. Thanks to Lines for Life, Portland's regional crisis line, for providing a venue in which to do our interview. Thanks also to Sara Wilcox for editing.
Live Through This is made possible in part by donations from incredible humans like you. If the project moves you and you have even a single dollar to spare, please consider donating. Every dollar donated goes straight back into the project. These funds allow for gear, web real estate and hosting, travel associated with the project, professional fees, conference attendance, and more. If you would like to make a one-time or monthly donation, please click here.