Topher Jones is, or has been, an Army vet, director of photography, director, camera operator (land and sea), set medic, EMT, and ambulance dispatcher. He was 31 when I interviewed him on April 12, 2014 in Los Angeles, CA.
CONTENT WARNING: [brief] discussion of methods
Topher: [My most recent attempt] was four years ago. It was New Year’s Eve 2010, and I was in a really bad place. I had some really good friends that were helping me out, but I was in a really bad place emotionally and mentally... [I attempted] and just kind of went to sleep and wasn't expecting to wake up in the morning. And I did! I woke up that morning. I was kind of frustrated. I was a little upset that it didn't work which, I mean, it's weird.
You'd think that maybe you'd be relieved, "Oh, it didn't work, I'm still alive. Maybe there's something left…"
But no, I was still upset.
That was my third attempt. I kinda decided after that that maybe—since that was the big attempt—maybe it's not meant to be. It's not meant to happen. That whole notion kinda just started to leave my mind about [dying by] suicide. I still think about it every once in a while.
Des: How old were you?
Des: What about your first attempt? How old were you?
Topher: First attempt I was 19, I think. No, 18. I was in the Army.
Des: Talk more about that.
Topher: I wasn't doing very well at the time. I was new to the Army. I was a young soldier and I kept screwing up—as young soldiers usually do—but I come from a military family, and they're all stellar performers in the military. I had this real feeling that I had let my family down because I wasn't doing very well.
The morning, that morning, I can't remember what caused it to happen, but my squad leader pulled myself and the rest of my squad to the side and said, "Jones isn't performing the way he should be. Sometimes he's good, sometimes he's not good."
He was kind of trying to encourage everyone else to help me, but I didn't take it that way.
I took it as, "I'm horrible. I'm a horrible soldier."
Lunch came around. I had a bottle of Tylenol and took a bottle of Tylenol. I was actually kind of surprised at how easy it was to swallow the pills. I thought it would be difficult. I had a whole handful of pills and just downed them all like it was nothing.
It started to hurt after a while. I guess it felt as though I had been chewing really tough gum. My jaw hurt a lot. It was weird. It wasn't the way I expected. I expected something easy. I'd go lay down, go to sleep and not wake up, but it started to hurt. I started to feel somewhat nauseous and I started thinking about everything, about family and stuff, and what they'd think getting the news, stuff like that.
I called a suicide hotline and spoke to them for a while. I didn't tell her—at first—what I had done. I just told her I was feeling really depressed and everything like that. I don't remember the whole conversation, but I do remember that, during the conversation leading up to when I told her, the background noise was really quite loud where she was.
Then I told her, "I took a bottle of Tylenol."
I noticed, almost immediately afterwards, everything in the room on her end got really quiet. I don't know if there's an alarm that they set off or something, or if she went off to a special room or something, but everything got extremely quiet on her end. We spoke for a little bit longer and she kept trying to convince me to tell someone or call an ambulance or something like that. I really didn't want to and finally she asked if she could speak to my roommate, just talk to my roommate. I didn't want to let her and then she finally convinced me, I guess, to let her talk to my roommate.
She spoke to my roommate and I remember the reaction on his face—he was talking to her and it was very poised: "Yep. No. Okay," and he hung up the phone.
He asked if I was alright and he ran out of the room and got one of our other friends who had a car. [They] drove me to the hospital and they pumped my stomach and they sent me to a mental hospital in Kansas.
Des: How long were you there?
Topher: About a month. They kept trying different medications and that didn't work. I guess they finally got the right cocktail of medications and sent me back to my unit.
Des: Why did you think that it was going to be easy?
Topher: Why did I think it was going to be easy? I don't know. I have no idea why I thought it was going to be easy. I figured it had been something I had thought about for so long and everything had been so difficult up until then. I thought that would be the end of it and it would be the easy way out and the problems would be all over.
Des: I've heard that more than once that people are surprised when it starts to hurt, and I wonder if that's because of the way we portray suicide in the media.
Topher: It could be, yeah. I noticed for a while that there was a lot of awareness toward suicide and depression. It's kind of dropped off since. It seems as though it's something we kind of ignore, or try to ignore… I think we, in this country, don't take death very seriously. I mean we see it all the time in the news and stuff like that and it's, "Oh it's nothing…”
Des: What happened in the Army afterward?
Topher: I went back to my unit. I was there for maybe a month or so, and things just didn't improve. I think I had my second attempt, and after that I went back to the hospital for about... I think it was, like, two months that time. It was at this really great place called The Menninger Foundation in Topeka. Unfortunately, [it] closed and moved to Houston, so they sent me to the VA in Topeka which was drastically different.
It was a horrible experience. That's actually really kind of kept me from seeking help a lot of times. I got there and it was a real psych ward; it wasn't just people who were depressed or had suicide attempts. They were people who were schizophrenic and people who had very, very serious mental illness who were talking to themselves and batting at the sky, which isn't a really good place to put somebody who is depressed and suicidal and doubting their own sanity, but the VA doesn't really care. They don't really seem to care.
It's just, "We'll medicate the hell out of them and kick them out the door," apparently.
It's unfortunate because I don't have any health insurance yet and one of my new jobs has finally given me health insurance because of the whole Affordable Care thing. Obamacare. But the VA was kind of my only source of healthcare that I could find for help for my problems, which really kind of kept me from getting the help that I need, I think. I just don't want to be put back in a situation where I get put in the same ward as individuals who are in that really bad state of mind.
Des: How did you get out of the Army?
Topher: I was honorably discharged. I had medical discharge for the depression and suicide attempts.
Des: Did you want to be?
Topher: I didn't want to be, no. It's like I said, I come from a mil—well, my mom's side of the family is military. Two of my three younger brothers are in the military. Well, were. One was in the military, one is still in the military. Growing up, that was thing that I wanted to do. I had aspired to be in the military for as long as I could remember. It was kind of this big, I don't know, big disappointment, I guess.
Des: That's hard.
Des: So in the past, I'd say, two or three years, they've been talking a lot about suicide in the military, and in the past few months, actually, they started to realize that the suicides are not so much from the people who have seen active combat, but they’re people who are here who have not been dispatched to any kind of war zone.
Topher: I'm not sure. I mean, it could be the military mentality that there's some people that seem to take on this hyper-masculine persona in the military where you're not... I think it may be because you're not really seen as an individual or as a person, you're seen as a tool or an implement or a piece of government property, oftentimes. I feel like that's something they told me when I went to basic training.
It's like, "You're no longer a person; you're property of the United States government."
I'm like, "Okay, that's a little odd."
Topher: I don't know. I don't remember a whole lot of my military career and what may have caused my problems. I don't know.
Des: Talk more about the cocktails—how do you feel about meds?
Topher: I recently just went back on the medications, or just finally was able to because I finally got into the VA to be seen to get the medications. I used to be against them, and then I used to be for them. Things kinda went back and forth. Now I notice a difference in me when I'm not on my medications. I notice that things don't seem as easy to do when I'm not on my medications. But I mean, I don't like the idea of having to be drugged for the rest of my life. I don't know if there is an alternative, but I guess that's the way it has to be until I can find something else.
Des: Do you feel like the VA wants to help you now?
Topher: I don't know. It feels as though they're overwhelmed with people, especially with OIF and OEF soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq and getting out. The load that the VA had beforehand was huge, and now there's even more people coming into the system that's already overloaded.
I just went to the VA the other day. I was feeling really depressed and somewhat suicidal, and I was almost begging them, and they're like, "Well, all the psychiatrists are busy for the rest of the day."
The one that I got to see was doing it as a favor for the case manager or the caseworker, and she seemed as though she just kind of pencil whipped the whole thing. She's like, "Alright, here's the medications, now go away."
I don't know. It's a system that just seems very—like many government systems— like it's very broken. Filled with bureaucracy.
Des: All the good stuff.
Topher: Yeah. The red tape and running around in circles and everything. So. There are some that I've noticed who are trying. It seems as though it's that the whole thing with the government is, there's some good people who are really trying, but the system is set up to make them fail and make the people who just slide by live off apathy or this idea of, "Who cares? It's not my problem." It seems to encourage those people while the people who are actually doing the job well don't really [get to]. Those attitudes aren't really enforced, unfortunately. Or it doesn't seem like it.
Des: You said that you were feeling suicidal as recently as a few days ago. How often does that happen? What do you do when you're feeling suicidal? If, for some reason, you couldn't have gotten into the VA, what would you have done to deal with those feelings?
Topher: I don't know. Usually, it's different every time, I guess. I watch movies. I try to take my mind off of it, somehow. I try to fix the problem that's making me feel depressed, but it's not really always always possible.
Des: It sounded kind of like you said you weren't sure where your problems started in the military. Was there anything going on before that that was difficult?
Topher: My parents got divorced when I was 15, which was really hard on me. My mom decided that she wanted to be a child again, or be a teenager again, after the divorce. She kind of decided to go out partying and stuff, and multiple different boyfriends throughout the house—coming into the house—and stuff like that, and then just basically took off for days at a time.
It was this weird situation where I went from this really stable suburban Minnesota home with both my parents there and things going okay, going relatively well, to this weird, hectic, chaotic existence where I didn't know if we were going to eat that day. We didn't know if we were going to have a roof over our heads at night. So yeah, it was hectic. It was a really drastic change.
After a little while, myself and my little brothers went to live with my dad in this little, tiny apartment in Burnsville, Minnesota. It was a 2 bedroom apartment for four boys and my dad. Actually, it was two bedrooms plus a den. I just turned the den into a bedroom, so I had my own room, and my three younger brothers shared a room, which I kind of felt really bad for 'cause I had my own room and they didn't. We lived there for... until I, actually, dropped out of high school and got my GED and went in the Army as soon as I could.
I went in the Army when I was 17. I kinda had to force my mom to sign the paperwork to let me go, but I just was trying to find some way to escape the situation. My dad did a lot. My dad tried as hard as he could for a single parent raising four kids in a tiny apartment. He had—or still does have—a decent job with FedEx and he tried his best and we turned out pretty well.
I say to my parents, "Three out of four ain't bad."
My three younger brothers are rather successful and me, not so much. But I don't know. Yeah. Yeah, he tried very well and he did the best he could.
Des: When you attempted, I guess they knew because you were hospitalized for so long each time.
Des: What was their reaction?
Topher: My mom got very involved. She hasn't really shared it with me, but I think she's been battling mental illness for awhile, herself. She's never really shared it with me. Now that I do think about it, there was a time in junior high. I was in junior high and I didn't make any attempts, but I wrote the story. I was feeling really depressed about the whole family thing and everything about the divorce. I had written this short story for English class about a boy who killed himself, who kills himself. My teacher sent it to the principal and the principal called my parents and... because I had been thinking about it so much, I didn't think much of it. My parents’ reaction at the time, my dad, I think that was one of the very few times that I've actually seen my dad cry.
He left work and he told me, "I don't know what I would do if you killed yourself."
Des: So, they were supportive.
Topher: They were supportive!
Des: Why did you decide to tell your story?
Topher: I don't know. I have no idea. Yeah, I'm not sure why I decided to tell my story. Maybe I'll regret it later.
Des: Hope not.
Topher: No. I'm not really sure.
Des: Do you know any other attempt survivors? Is there someone you can talk to about this openly if you want to?
Topher: Not really, no. Almost all of my friends that I know don't know that I suffer from severe depression.
Topher: I don't know. I guess I'm afraid to look weak to those people.
Des: How would you want them to treat you, assuming you told them?
Topher: Like they always treat me, I suppose. I don't want someone to treat me special because I get depressed or I get sad more so than other people.
Des: That's fair. Is suicide still an option for you?
Topher: I'd like to say no, but... it's been something that I'm constantly—I don't know that it's constantly—but I'm thinking about quite frequently. If something doesn't go right, I think maybe I could just kill myself. Take myself out of the equation. I don't know.
Des: Do you feel like it's an actual possibility, or is it a thought that comforts you? Or an addictive thought or compulsive sort of thing?
Topher: I think it may be just an addictive thought... It seems as though it's something that I'm so used to thinking about that it's just automatically where my head goes when something doesn't go right.
Des: You said you just got back on medication. Are you seeing a therapist? Do you want to be seeing a therapist?
Topher: I do, but again, the VA is my only option right now, so it's rather difficult. They're booked months in advance. Trying to get in is a hassle, it's an ordeal to try to get in. But yeah, I guess it's my only option right now.
Des: I want to know more about what you'd envision as the best kind of care you could receive— what you would have wanted or, what you do want, rather.
Topher: What I do want? I want somebody to give me a lot of money to do nothing.
Des: Millions of dollars, please!
Topher: Yeah. I don't know. It seems simple, but I just kind of want, I guess, a therapist or someone to care, instead of me just being another patient. I've seen a lot of psychiatrists and a lot of doctors and stuff like that. I think I've had every diagnosis under the sun, and it all seemed as though, "Alright, you're just another patient." It's not a person in front of you.
I know a lot of people who are depressed and suicidal feel as though they're all alone in those feelings. I'm kind of the opposite. I know I'm not alone in those feelings. I know there's other people who are depressed and other people who are suicidal.
It kind of annoys me when somebody says, "Well, you're not alone."
I'm like, "Alright, cool. I'm not unique. I'm just like everybody else who's depressed. Great. Thanks."
I guess I'm kind of the opposite of those people who feel like they're alone. I know I'm not alone, but I don't need to be reminded of it.
Des: You don't find comfort in knowing that?
Topher: No, I don't find comfort in it. I've always wanted to be different while I was growing up.
Des: You want to be a snowflake.
Topher: Yeah, exactly. I do want to be a snowflake. I want to be different from everybody else.
Des: You're pretty!
Topher: Yeah, thanks! But yeah, it just...
That's my ride.
Des: Hop in.
Topher: Yeah, I wanted to be different.
It just really bothers me when somebody says, "Well, I've dealt with this before. I know how you're feeling, and I know this is what the textbook says you should be feeling, and blah blah blah blah blah."
I'm like, "Well, thanks. I'm glad the book laid me out so perfectly in it."
Des: So then do you think, based on the fact that you've received all of these different diagnoses, is it real? What’s your sense of that whole thing?
Topher: I don't know. Working in EMS and my introduction to the medical world as a healthcare provider of sorts, I find it troubling sometimes that there doesn't seem as though there's much science behind it.
It's all kind of, "Well, let's see if this works. Let's see if that works."
There's no blood test like, "Oh, this blood test says that you have depression, or this blood test says that you have depression, or whatever."
It all just kind of seems like it's all—I don't know what the right [word is]—I guess sort of subjective, and [providers are] just throwing drugs at people like, "Oh, this worked for everybody else. They felt better. We have somewhat of an idea of what it does, but sort of not, and never mind the horrible side effects."
It's gotten to the point where I'm like, "Fine. I'll give it a try," 'cause I have to do something to change it.
Des: Do you feel like you only rely on medication to make yourself well?
Topher: Yes, I suppose. I haven't been to any real talk therapy or anything like that stuff in awhile. In, probably, the past five years or so, [medication has] been my only option. I can't afford to go to a psychiatrist outside of the VA, and I can't get into the VA. Waiting for six months to get in. That's kind of been my only option.
Des: Do you find therapy helpful?
Topher: I don't know. It's been so long. I'm not sure. Yeah, it's been so long since I went. I think it helped last time I went, but like I said, it's been so long that I'm not sure.
Des: Have you tried any of the other stuff that people recommend, like meditation or regulating your sleep schedule or running or whatever?
Topher: I have. I found that when I exercise, I feel a lot better. I tried meditation a while ago. It didn't really help me all that much. I don't know. Recently, it's gotten to the point where the medication’s not working. I've been looking at almost extremes of things, like asking the physician or asking the psychiatrist if I can do ECT 'cause I understand they've made big advancements treating depression with ECT.
Des: When you were hospitalized, did you go willingly? Was it involuntary? What was that experience like, in terms of getting there and getting in?
Topher: I suppose technically it was involuntary, but I wanted to go. I wasn't fighting them on it at all. Yeah, like I said the Menninger Foundation was a really good place. The ward that I was in or whatever you would call it, the unit that I was in, was just for people who were depressed and were suicidal. Their psychiatrists dealt with just that and the nursing staff dealt with just depression and knew how to sit down with you and talk to you and resolve the issues and stuff like that [if you were feeling bad].
Like I said, it was a very stark contrast between them and the VA psych ward. I mean, there have been times in the past where VA psychiatrists have been trying very hard to get me to go into an inpatient treatment at the VA, and I absolutely will not go. It's like a prison. Everything's set up exactly like a prison cell. It's concrete walls and they take your clothes from you and make you wear hospital scrubs. The bed is the exact same [kind of] beds that are in jails and stuff like that. It's not the right way to treat somebody, regardless of what mental illness they have. They shouldn't treat them like criminals.
Just recently I went to the VA to—it was probably about three weeks ago—I went back to the VA to try to get a refill on my meds, and I went to the ER. They have a separate section in the ER called a Psych ER. Just to get my meds refilled, they took my clothes, they put me in this cell block area where there was a sheriff’s deputy watching me.
I'm like, “I’m not… I'm just trying to get my medication for depression. I'm not looking to hurt anyone or anything like that. I'm not even suicidal.”
I wasn't looking to hurt myself, either.
I suppose, being an EMT, it's kind of good and kind of bad for me because I know all the right questions or right ways to answer things so they can't involuntarily take me. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing.
Also, working as an EMT, for a while, I saw a lot of death. I had a lot of suicides and a lot of homicides and stuff like that, as well. When I was doing that job, you would think that would make you more depressed, or make you more concerned, but it actually seemed to help me more because I saw how, I guess, not like the movies death is. It's not as clean as people would think. There are people who are left behind who hurt afterwards. Even if you try and push people [away] as much as you can, you're still going to hurt people.
There were quite a few suicides that I went to. I used to work for New Orleans EMS. There was a couple of them that I remember where they… weren't exactly clean and all together. I just couldn't think of doing something like that to somebody and to other people, to make somebody have to clean up that mess or that emotional trauma to friends and family. I suppose that's kind of what's kept me from going all the way, I guess.
Des: Is there anything you want to say to people who might be reading your story?
Topher: I suppose it gets better. I've had good times and I've had bad. Don't give up. I'm really trying not to give up. I'm trying really hard not to give up.
A couple years ago, I had a really good paying job. Nice six-figure salary job. I lived in Kuwait and traveled all over the world, and it was this wonderful break from the depression, from everything. I was still somewhat depressed, but it kind of felt as though things were paying off. I may have had to go through all the struggle to get to that point, but when I was in that point— unfortunately I got laid off from the job—but when I was in the point it was great. It was this wonderful opportunity that, if I had [died by] suicide, I wouldn't have been able to have. I got to go to some great places. I got to learn to scuba dive, which helped a lot with my career because I now do underwater cinematography a lot. I've always been fascinated with the water and the ocean and stuff like that. It was this great opportunity.
Des: Tell people that they're snowflakes.
Topher: Everybody's a snowflake. [We're] all different.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. 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.
Thanks to Matthew Parr for being amazing and providing the transcription for Topher's interview.
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