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Nicole Keimer is the first person I interviewed and photographed for Live Through This. Since our shoot, I’ve changed my interview format and my shooting technique, which accounts for why her portrait is stylistically so different from the rest. The project evolves with every new story.
Nicole has been an active member of the suicide prevention community for years and spends quite a bit of her time working with PostSecret. As a result of being bullied about her weight, she developed and struggled with multiple eating disorders from adolescence through her early twenties. Here, she discusses how these struggles led her to consider suicide as an option.
When you have a problem with food, you can’t just stop eating and cut food out of your life. So there was a time period where I thought, ‘I’m never going to get out of this. Every day is just going to be getting up and thinking about food.’ There was a time where I was literally spending 16 hours of my 24 hour day thinking about food: how I could cut calories, how I could just get down to as little as I could.
‘How am I going to get to a place where I can stop thinking about food?’
I just thought that was never going to happen, because you have to think about food every day. Once I started to feel like I was stuck in this for years, that’s when the suicidal thoughts started to happen. It was, ‘The only way to actually stop thinking about food is to kill myself because otherwise I’m going to have to think about food every single day.’
It was a comfort when I went to bed each night knowing, ‘Well, I could kill myself. You don’t have to do this forever. There’s always an opportunity. This is a possibility; this is an out.’ I think a large part of just knowing that I had that possibility was enough sometimes…
I think the aftermath was really constructive. I needed to know what was worth saving about me. After that, I spent so much time alone because I felt like I needed to give myself rehab. I started writing and photographing things and living with myself, being my own girlfriend, being my own… I started figuring out who I wanted to save, the Tile that I didn’t want to be gone and disappear.
For me, in the moments after I had actually done everything that I had been planning for so long, I realized that I didn’t want to die. But that’s unique. That’s not everyone. It wasn’t a release, it was afraid. I was afraid, and I said, “There must be someone that I like in there,” and that was what I realized. It was constructive, and that is why I still want to live. I lived through the rehabilitation process after it, but I did it all by myself because I was ashamed of what I had done. I thought that everyone was going to say, “That’s so… Oh, wow. How lame. How selfish.’
That’s kind of what happened in a couple of cases when I did express it. People pushed back and said, “Why would you do that? How silly. How frivolous.” And I thought that was the worst thing. To think that suicide is something that is kind of privileged, like, “Oh, you can just take your life like that? Don’t you think you’re special!” And that’s the worst thing. It’s absurd that people think that you think you’re special. That you’re another kid who tried to kill themselves, and they think that it’s not going to stay with you forever. It has to stay with you forever.
It’s not to say that I’m better and not manic; I mean, you can hear it in my voice. Clearly, I’m still very zero to sixty about most things and that’s kind of what almost killed me. I was being so black and white and had no gray area, but I’m building the gray area. I want to live long enough to build the gray area for myself and learn to love myself the way that I want to.
Some people can’t do that, and don’t want to do that, and are done, and I felt that. It’s not always in the bullied, queer teen, which I thought of myself as, and still do. It’s not always that story that is the example of why kids should live. It’s not that simple. It’s so much more complicated. All I know is that there are no voices that I know of that are showing that it’s a complicated, muddled issue; that there are people who not only have ‘survived suicide,’ which I think is a kind of silly term in the first place, but who also have built a life… not around it, but built on the foundation of wanting to live through suicide, and through suicidal thoughts, and through suicidal feelings, and self-destructive behavior. I mean, I wanted to love every ounce of my flesh after that, because I saw it going away, like “Oh my god, it’s all going to be gone. Everything’s going to be gone.”
I feed myself in various different ways now. It’s complex, but I think it’s very important to be a voice against the chorus of sad, crying videos, or the ‘it will all be fine’ kind of mentality. It’s not always fine. It’s not always completely a hundred percent better, but to live with yourself and realize the parts of you that you love—and you still might hate parts of yourself—but for me it’s realizing the parts of yourself that you really want to live to see, live to be. I have faith in myself and hope for myself.
Cara Anna was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing when she attempted suicide.
You do things that define you and your life, and this is one of them, but it’s hidden because everyone is so scared of it. What would happen if we talked about it instead of hiding it away? What would happen? I don’t know what would happen, but what would happen? Why not try it?
I met Joey Olszewski in McCarren Park in Brooklyn. I found out in the middle of our interview that we were just feet from where he made his attempt.
Eventually, it just got to the point where I was just sick of being sad like that, and I just got real, real positive. I changed my group of friends. We abide by this philosophy… I’m not sure if we invented it, but it’s just something we just do to each other to remind each other to keep our heads up, because we’ve all struggled with these issues. At least, the friends that I have now that are a bit more mature like that.
‘P.M.A. – Positive Mental Attitude’ is what we call it. If anything bad ever happens, we always go and hang out with each other and provide that solidarity, but it’s not commiseration. It’s always like, ‘Listen, you’re going through this shit, but you got this. It’s not the end of the world.’ That’s the most important thing to remember, I think.
Right now, I feel like I’m doing so much better. I still think about it sometimes, but it’s…I’m struggling for the right way to phrase this. It’s difficult because, unless you’ve gone through that, unless you’ve gotten to the point where you’re willing to end your reality because it’s gotten that crappy, it’s hard to explain to someone. They’re just like, ‘Why would you ever want to do that?’ They can’t relate at all.
My perception of reality has changed, I think. I feel so grateful for the things that I thought used to bring me down. Like empathy, humility—things that would be unrelated to me entirely. I would read something in the news and I would just get so depressed by it and now I’m grateful that I have that much compassion for the world.
I saw some picture online, actually, and it was a really good quote that summarized everything. The gist of it was, ‘do I tell people when I have issues that I’m dealing with—pain and whatnot—and let them think that I’m seeking the attention that comes with that, or do I just suffer in silence and pretend that everything is OK?’ It really does feel like a lot of the time, it’s one or the other, even if you legitimately have issues.
I know there have been a lot of people who assume that’s just a cry for attention, because unfortunately, there are some people who do that. You hear about people that cut themselves, and do that stuff for attention, and that’s sickening, honestly, but it happens. So, a lot of people don’t understand, especially if they haven’t dealt with it, and they don’t get it, so it’s hard to talk about. I think that because there’s such an awful stigma placed upon having depression in our society that it makes telling people that much worse.
Chris Agudo’s suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization was the inspiration for Living is So Big, the life appreciation organization he and his family operate. They travel around the country helping people of all ages find their reasons why life is worth living.
For some reason… for some reason, out of nowhere, I’m like, ‘let me turn my phone back on.’ I turn it on and I see—exaggeration, of course—but hundreds of missed calls, hundreds of missed texts and voicemails. I go through them. They’re my parents, my brother, my friends, and even friends of friends, who I don’t even know. That really got to me. That really got to me, and on the spot, I was crying like a baby was being born. Just ridiculous. It was the worst I’ve ever cried. It was tremendous.
Marina Kastan attempted suicide when she was a teenager. She also struggled with self-injury.
Dese’Rae: “Do you think there’s a connection between cutting and suicide? For you, was there?”
Marina: “I don’t. I think they’re really separate things. In my experience of it, the cutting was an action, and the suicide attempt was an inaction, like it was giving up instead of doing something. I mean, obviously I took an action, but I was really trying to avoid having to take an action, to do anything ever again. I was just giving up, as opposed to consciously trying to cause harm.
“I think, psychologically, the two things were very different. In one way, I think cutting is about trying to be in control, and the suicide attempt was not wanting to have to be in control anymore, not wanting to have to be responsible for anything anymore. Like, ‘I can’t carry this anymore.’ I think cutting is about trying to carry it.
“I think that cutting is ultimately self destructive and trying to cause more pain, and suicide is trying to escape from the pain. In a way, I almost think they’re the opposite thing. It’s not that they negate each other, it’s just that they’re trying to do opposite goals.”
Dese’Rae: “I was reading an article yesterday where someone was asserting that cutting is a gateway into suicide.”
Marina: “I definitely think there is an aspect of… you sort of have to value yourself very little to want to injure yourself that way, and you have to value yourself very little to want to end your life. So I can see the argument that you can start to value yourself less and less and less, but I think the reason cutting has an appeal is not the same reason that suicide does. In a way, cutting sometimes makes you feel alive, which is the opposite.”
Dese’Rae: “It makes the pain you’re feeling tangible. That’s why I did it, being able to see it, instead of just feeling it.”
Marina: “I think ultimately there were other things that sort of made me feel alive.”
I think so many people will casually mention stuff like, ‘I’m on Xanax and it’s making me fat,’ or ‘I’m on Zoloft and I have no sex drive anymore,’ but people never talk about why they’re on medication. I feel like it’s such a common thing to be medicated, but no one wants to really talk about the serious stuff, like, ‘Why am I like this?’ I think that that’s something that you don’t need to tell everyone in the whole world, but it’s something that you need to talk about, because if you don’t, you can end up where I ended up, and so many other people ended up.
Talking is so therapeutic. I think that being able to talk about it, for me, helps me. It helps people who are going through the same thing not feel by themselves. For me, the most important part of all of this and any of this is—because my little sister is the same age now as I was when I tried to kill myself—I think that I just want her to know that, God forbid she ever feels the way I felt, that she can talk about it, she can feel okay telling me… because I didn’t have that. I didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t want to be judged. I thought nobody understood and I think that, if she knows, she’ll never reach the point that I reached.
I included myself as a participant in this project because I felt I needed to make myself vulnerable to the process—so that I could understand what the people who are sharing their stories with me might be feeling in these moments. My experiences with nearly a decade of using self-injury as a maladaptive coping mechanism, an emotionally and physically abusive lesbian relationship which resulted in my suicide attempt, and the struggles of living day-to-day with Bipolar Disorder (which I’ve chosen not to medicate) have made me feel pretty strongly that my story needs to be shared, too.
The decisions I made that night shaped every day of my life after it. I had to make the decision to live. I had to make the decision to stop cutting myself. I had to make the decision to physically remove myself from the situation. I had to make the decision to stop being a victim, to stop being a person I knew I wasn’t (and was terrified I’d become).
I needed something, and I guess it was to know that I wasn’t alone, that these things happen, that there are cycles of abuse and they’re fucking HARD to break.
Domestic abuse is as easily stigmatized as self-injury and suicide. My story, I guess, is like a triple whammy. Maybe even a quadruple whammy, because it was domestic abuse in a lesbian relationship, which isn’t something that seems to ever be addressed.
It needs to be explored because it happens, and I’m sick of these things being swept under the rug.
Frankie Barretto left a troubled home life to join the U.S. Army and fell into a deep depression after being discharged for a knee injury. Suicide is the second most common cause of death in the U.S. military.
I was in the Army with so many people and I got out right out before everything happened.
…I know people, I’ve lost friends that went over to Iraq and Afghanistan. I know people that have gone over and come back and they are not the same. The Veterans Administration, they are doing, in my opinion, they are doing a hell of a job to address these issues, and I’m seeing it firsthand just by the way that they’re treating me. They actually care.
A lot of the soldiers that come back that I speak to, they’re involved in so many different programs to not only help them acclimate back into society, but to help them deal with these emotions and deal with the PTSD and the ticking time bomb syndrome and all of the other things, ‘cause they saw a lot of things over there that the public is not privy to at all, and that stuff will definitely scar you for life. So, being a soldier and knowing people that went through that and losing people that were really close to me because of all of that, that’s something that I’m very passionate about…
I think the biggest problem is the disconnect between society and the soldiers. Society does not understand what these soldiers go through. That’s why you have former Marines and former Army servicemen getting shot and killed by police and getting locked up, and you hear it more and more every day because they’re labeled as crazy.
They’re like, “Oh, these crazy soldiers are coming back.”
The thing is, a lot of them don’t know that there’s help available for them. They just come back and they just try to live their life and they’re dealing with so many things. So I think, like I said, there’s a huge disconnect between how society sees it and what it really is…
They see what they see on TV and they’re thankful that the soldiers go over there and give their lives for our freedom, but when the soldiers come back, they’re stigmatized and they’re labeled as crazy and it’s not fair. It’s not fair to them at all…
A lot of them, they just internalize it. They have that soldier mentality. Like, ‘I’m a soldier, I can survive anything.’
I make it a point not to divulge methods here because it can be triggering for some, but Kevin Hines has an incredible (and incredibly well-documented) story. He attempted suicide twelve years ago and has since become a nationally recognized suicide prevention advocate.
I’m saying we, as human beings, are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and if we don’t wake up and realize it’s not just us in this world—that old adage ‘we’re not alone’—we’re not alone! And no person in a fight for their life is alone. There are millions of people out there fighting just as you are. Find that network. Talk about the issues.
There was a time when I first started speaking that I would talk in a very low voice in public places, because of my paranoia but also because I didn’t want people hear me talk about my mental illness. Today I’ll probably shout it in a coffee shop, in a library… hell, because if people ask me questions and I answer them, they’re going to get the information they so desire. They’re also going to get the fact that, you know, let’s stop hiding. Let’s all come out and talk about this.
Look what happened to [NAME REDACTED]. He attempted, was on the news for half a second, his managerial team shut it down, and he never spoke about it again. [He] is in a position to save way more lives than me. I’m not saying he has to do that, I’m saying he has the opportunity—had the opportunity at that particular moment—to say, ‘Hey kids, I made a mistake. I’m so glad I’m here, you should be here too.’ He just had to do it one time and the whole world would see it. As opposed to what did happen: the managerial team said, ‘If you don’t be quiet, we’re not going to hire you. And we have to know you’re healed, and now we have to have an insurance policy on you, but we have to know you’re healed.’ Movies are more important to him than helping other people.
I’m not trying to judge [him]. There’s millions of [famous people] out there who have these issues with their mental health, don’t address them, get sick publicly, and don’t address them publicly. And I think there’s a failure in the system with that going on, because… how many lives could they save with a campaign for suicide prevention? Way more than any other people [sic] in the suicide prevention world right now. They have that power, but they are crushed by their managers and their talent agents that say, ‘No, shut up.’ It makes me sad.
I met Chris Benedetto in a lively park on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—such an interesting juxtaposition for the story he told me that day. Here is a man who has fought addiction and homelessness, who strives every single day.
There were times when I just felt like such a misfit. I remember—I’ve been in and out of therapy for a few decades now—there’d be times in group therapy when people would be looking at me like I had a head sprouting out of my shoulder and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I don’t even fit in with these people?’ You know, so there was, I guess, just this resounding kind of alienation. So, those were, I guess, triggers.
I think a lot of it too was, for years, I always sought validation outside of myself and I let too much of my happiness be contingent on the external. And when I gradually learned to get past that, I think that’s one of the things that messed me up, like, ‘Wow, you know, I’m not drinking, I’m not drugging, I’m not pissing my rent money away. Why is this happening? I’ve been on time every month with my rent. I’ve tried harder with this girl than I have with anyone ever in my life…’
I guess everyone kinda has to take their turn at it, and I guess it was my turn this year. The last big pot hole I hit was probably when my brother died two years ago, so I guess I was kinda overdue for something big. I think too, you know, we get tested on our faith, or if you’ve decided to quit drinking or drugging or gambling, you’ll get those tests. So I think this was probably a mid-term or an SAT.
Caitlin Coleman’s suicide attempt and subsequent coma resulted in nodes on her vocal chords and nerve damage to her arm–a hard way to go for a vocalist/pianist. Below, we discuss the way we use language in the context of suicide:
Caitlin: Now I feel like I’m at a really good, functional point in my life. Are there things I would change? Yes. Are there things that I’m still fearful of? Yes. But I want to speak to people, and I Googled suicide survivors, thinking I would talk to people like me, and that’s not [what I found]. It’s people whose families have been affected by it, which I think is still really important, but I just think people have so many averse reactions to it. They blame themselves but they also blame the victim, which is interesting. I think the use of the word ‘commit’ is also interesting, because it’s not like you do a suicide or you have a suicide. You have to commit suicide and it’s like you’ve committed a crime or a murder or a robbery.
Dese’Rae: That’s what the prevention community is trying to change. That’s the [societally] accepted terminology. Now they say that you ‘attempt’ and you ‘complete.’ And even for me, it’s ingrained. I say, “Oh, so and so committed suicide,” and it’s like, wait, you know?
Davey Davis is a talented filmmaker and activist living in Brooklyn. He’s also a suicide attempt survivor. Below, he tells me about what might have stopped him from making his attempt.
I think the only thing that could have stopped me would be—‘cause I was a thoughtful boy, and I was smart—the only thing that could have stopped me would be somebody recognizing that this was a potential of mine and really patiently and clearly and lyrically and, you know, in the form of literature, explaining to me what the repercussions of this act would be for myself and for my parents and my family.
I mean, you live so many lifetimes and the 25 year old version of me still doesn’t have his shit figured out and still hasn’t lived every aspect of life. I’ve never had kids, I’ve never had some huge successful project that makes me feel like a validated human in terms of artistic output.
I’ve not lived through many historical things that humans are faced with. Like, what if when I’m 38, the American economy collapses and suddenly we have to like reform our notion of civilization? The anarchistic 16 year old version of myself would want to see that, but he wouldn’t even have conceived of it as a possibility.
On a much more fundamental and goofy level, I was still a virgin. I hadn’t had any adult relationships. If the 25 year old version of me could have just been like, ‘You have lived a great life, it’s true. You’ve had a great 16 years, but from this point onward it’s only potential and it’s only things that you can make up and you can put the reality into, you know? You’ll go here, you’ll learn this language, you’ll meet this girl, you’ll meet these great people, you’ll make this project. You’ll live here, you’ll live here, and everything changes so many times in a lifetime.’
So, that potential and also somebody just being like, ‘Look, no one that you love deserves to be hurt as much as you’re about to hurt them and they don’t deserve it at all. It doesn’t make sense. Why would you do that?’