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Shayda Kafai

is a suicide attempt survivor.
this is her story

Shayda Kafai

is a suicide attempt survivor.

"I survived a suicide attempt."

Dr. Shayda Kafai is a professor in Ethnic and Women’s Studies. She was 30 years old when I interviewed her in Los Angeles, CA, on April 13th, 2014.

I was diagnosed with manic depression when I was at the end of 17, beginning of 18.

It was after high school. Up to that point, I started self-harming in the third grade, and so that was always kind of a coping mechanism. It was just there. It didn’t turn into cutting and things that were really aggressive until I was 18. My depression was worse than my [manias]. I didn’t really have that. I had a little bit of it, but not a lot of it. So, it had all just kind of been adding up, and I wasn’t on the right medication, and I wasn’t seeing a really supportive therapist, so feeling depressed was just part of the everyday.

There is absolutely no logic in that, which I think is what’s really scary about a psychiatric disability—there’s no logic. It just seemed like the right move.

I had gone to see the movie about Frida Kahlo with my family, and I had been really depressed up to that point. We went to see it, it was great, and we were in line to get burgers from In-N-Out. And this is just the randomness of moods: I think my dad didn’t want onions or wanted onions, and the burger got ordered wrong. In my head I was like, “Well, this is the perfect time to go. This is a little argument,” but my brain connected this argument with, “It’s about time.” There is absolutely no logic in that, which I think is what’s really scary about a psychiatric disability—there’s no logic. It just seemed like the right move.

So, we go home, and they say goodnight, and I go to my room and I have—I think I was taking two different medications, and I took as much of both of them as I could swallow. I changed and I went to go to bed. My sisters and I, we share a wall, and a sound hit the wall, and I think it was a shoe, and I heard them giggling. This is the other thing about a psychiatric disability: I think we don’t often talk about [how] you go from a space of madness to a point of lucidity really fast. At least, for me, it was a really fast back and forth. It wasn’t always madness and it wasn’t always lucidity, it was always back and forth. It just hit me, like, “They are right there and they are giggling, my parents are right down the hall sleeping.”

I changed my clothes again, I put my shoes on, I grab my purse, and I walk to my mom’s room, knock on the door and say, “I did something stupid, I have to go to the hospital.”

She went with me, and my youngest sister went with me, and we went to the hospital. I felt fine. I felt fine, I didn’t feel woozy, I didn’t feel… I felt fine. I get there and the nurse gives me two large Styrofoam cups of charcoal that I have to drink, and it’s this sludge. After that, after I drank everything, the doctor got mad because they wanted to pump my stomach, but they couldn’t after that. So they kept me, and I still felt fine. Then, I guess, everything started to kick in, and it felt like my joints were being pulled apart. That’s the only way I can describe it.

I would fall asleep and wake up, but time was no longer a present thing. I remember waking up, and my sister was singing a Tori Amos song to me.

Des: Yes! Which one?

Shayda: Oh my god, I think, um, Cornflake Girl? Because we loved Tori! We had gone to see her concert and, to me it was just like most precious, precious act of sisterhood.

They didn’t keep me, they let me go home. I remember getting home, and my dad and my other sister had made eggs and they put the eggs in front of me, and I remember they were very yellow. When I get very depressed, color is very helpful for me to see because I don’t feel or see color. It’s very strange. I remember these eggs were just really, really, really, really yellow, and I thought, “That is living.” That brightness, that is living.

Then, maybe a week or two after that, I wanted to do it again, but this time I called my therapist, and that’s the first time I got hospitalized.

After that, I got hospitalized two more times before finishing my Bachelor’s degree. School, for me, was a really good way to structure my brain. If I was hospitalized during school, I would do my homework and negotiate with my faculty. When I was suicidal and couldn’t drive, my mom would drive me, and then wait for me and pick me up and take me home. The next time I was hospitalized, it was when I was going into my master’s program. That’s when I got on the right combination of medication.

I wasn’t hospitalized again until I was getting ready to take my qualifying exams for my Ph.D. program. It came up again because I was studying for all my exams. After you finish all of your classes, you’re supposed to take these exams that kind of say, “I’m proving to my faculty that I know what I need to know and I can write now, and I can teach about these things now,” and if you fail, well, you fail. Nice try. There was a lot at stake because I had just spent three years in this program, and a lot of money. As I was reading, I was just spending a lot of time by myself reading. I wasn’t in touch with my friends. Our study community kind of dissolved, but then we put it back together. I just remember, I kept studying and I kept thinking, “You are so stupid, you are going to fail this test,” and that thought was so repetitious and frequent enough that I made myself sick again, and started cutting again, and was hospitalized for about two weeks.

But after all of that, I think, after every stay—after every hospital stay, I’ve talked to other friends who thought that hospital stays were really negative and not positive—but after every single one I gained something. And that one, I definitely gained something after that, and I ended up doing fine. Everything turned out okay. Knowing how that self sabotage is actually a reality and it actually works, it’ll set you up.

Des: Yeah, definitely. How many times have you attempted?

Shayda: I did that one time when I took the pills. Every other time, before I knew something was going to happen, I called my therapist or told my parents.

Shayda: Those urges precipitated every stay. Every hospital stay.

After that one, before the meds settled, I remember begging my mom, “Just let me go.”

My mom kept saying no and my dad kept saying no and my sisters kept saying no, and so, if my brain was taking me into one of these places, I told someone and I was hospitalized.

Des: So you’re very close with your family?

They kept me alive. They gave me a reason to want to be alive, you know?

Shayda: Oh yeah. They kept me alive. They gave me a reason to want to be alive, you know?

Des: Mhm.

Shayda: Yeah, there’s five of us, and they were critical to my being here, having this conversation.

Des: Yeah. Kafai is…?

Shayda: It’s Persian!

Des: Oh! Delicious Persian food!

Shayda: Yes! Yes! Yes! Delicious Persian food.

Des: It’s the best. You’re very into semantics?

Shayda: Yeah!

Des: Tell me about why you used the phrase “psychiatric disability,” as opposed to “mental illness.”

Shayda: Wow, that’s a big question.

Des: I think it’s important. I think you’re going to say something big. Pressure’s on. Go!

Shayda: Well, the reason I chose that language is because… well, two reasons. I believe that, culturally, we code concepts. If I said the word “crazy” or “insane,” immediately, in less than a second, these images start to pop into our heads. See, I don’t know, like, Girl InterruptedSilence of the Lambs, all of these images start to come into our psyche, right? I feel like “mental illness” calls a similar image. Right? It’s an illness. It’s something you catch. I think, for me, personally—not for everybody, but for me—it’s a very pathologizing language. And, immediately, if I say “mental illness,” my whole being becomes mental illness. I am many things, but I think “mental illness” makes me just that thing. I think it’s such a socially coded word that if I say that one thing, they see me as just that one thing. I stopped using it because of that, because I felt like it was really connected to medical discourse and medical language. I chose “psychiatric disability” because a disability is something one has, but I also believe it’s a political term. So something that’s a disability, it’s a political term, but it’s also very much informed by however everyone depicts whatever disability it is. I’m claiming that as a identity, but not my only one, and I’m using it as a political tool.

I wrote my first academic article where I decided to talk about psychiatric disabilities, and I called it “The Mad Border Body.” If we have a psychiatric disability, we live in these kind of border spaces where we’re not always perfectly sane, but we’re not really mad either, and those categories are really artificial because we move between things all the time.

I use “psychiatric disability” because I think “mental illness” is one half of a binary of sanity. You’re either sane or you’re mentally ill, and those are the only two categories, and never shall the two meet, right? That’s just not true. Someone who doesn’t have a psychiatric disability could go through a bout of depression if someone they know dies, you know what I mean? So I don’t want to replicate this either/or, either/or thing all of the time. I want to have some middle ground. And I think that’s political.

Des: Yeah. You just made me think of the part in Girl, Interrupted with Vanessa Redgrave when she talks about ambivalence. It’s my favorite part in the movie.

Des:But you used the word “madness,” and you used the word “insane”—or “sane,” actually—and “insanity” is a legal term, so I want to know why you chose to use “madness” instead of “crazy.” What’s the difference there?

Shayda: Did I say that? I said “madness,” right?

Des: Yeah. I feel like there’s a distinction for you. Is there?

Shayda: Between “madness” and “insanity”?

Des: Yeah, or “crazy.” Either one. Those are labels we put on people, but some people use “madness,” and I want to know what that’s all about.

Shayda: Well, there is this whole movement. In disability studies, at first, everyone was talking about the visible disability. Lots of writing, lots of discussion about the visible disability. Then, they started talking about invisible disabilities and then, recently, people started talking about psychiatric disabilities. There’s a whole mini subgenre called “madness studies,” and just like there’s queer pride, there’s now “mad pride.”

I think that when we’re just talking amongst ourselves with friends and watching TV and things like that, I think a lot of meaning gets created even in those really casual spaces. I think what happens if we want to talk about someone who [we might think embodies] the term of “insane,” we usually say “crazy,” right? Or “insane.” We’ll say “insane,” too. But I don’t think “mad” gets used because it’s so antiquated. Like “mad houses”—nineteenth century mad houses—it’s so antiquated, we don’t really use that language anymore. So I wonder, and you’re making me think about this now because I didn’t think about that. I feel like, because the words “mad” and “madness,” in a timeline, are all the way over here, and culturally we’re using “insane,” “insanity,” “crazy,” that maybe we can use this word to say something different about this positionality than is already out here, than we’re already using. I don’t know if that’s possible, but I’d like to think it doesn’t carry the same immediate baggage as “crazy” and “insane” do.

Des: I don’t think it does, actually.

Shayda: No, because if you say “mad,” people are automatically going to think of being upset, angry.

Des: And they have to sit there and consider what “madness” means.

Shayda: Yeah.

Des: Where as, with “crazy,” it’s like…

Shayda: Immediate. “Insane.” It’s immediate. Maybe that’s why I made the distinction between the two, actually.

Des: What about the word “commit”?

Shayda: What do I think about the word “commit”?

Des: Yeah, in the phrase “commit suicide,”because that’s our accepted lexicon for how we talk about suicide.

Shayda: That’s such an interesting question. Is this is a question you’ve asked everybody?

Des: I don’t ask everybody, I just ask the ones who are clearly interested in semantics.

Shayda: That’s so interesting because I feel like there’s two bits of it, or two layers to it. I think one layer is that it suggests or initiates choice, like, “I’m going to commit myself to learning ballet,” or “I’m going to commit myself to leaning guitar,” you know? It has a sense of choice. I think that’s one layer. Then the other layer of “commit” is kind of like you’ve given yourself up to something. I think there’s a positive, but also a really negative way of looking at it. Like, you are so—and I think it could be used in the sense of like ballet or the guitar—you are so overwhelmed by this thing that you’re going to give up yourself, you’re going to give yourself over to it, and be involved in it.

I think, in terms of “commit suicide,” I used to think of it as this very liberatory thing. I am suffering. I don’t want to wake up. I am going to commit this thing to remove myself from my current place. That’s one way of looking at it.  It’s liberatory and you’re committing yourself. You’re dedicating yourself to this goal. I think the other part of it is that you’re being swallowed by something. You’re gonna allow something to commit you, in a sense.

And when that distinction was made in my brain, as much as my brain wanted me to self destruct, and as much as my moods wanted me to self destruct, I pushed. Even if it was just a little nudge. My parents helped me, and my sisters helped me push, even if it was a little nudge.

Des: Yeah, and it’s funny because most of it—I’ve never thought of it like that, so you gave me some stuff to chew on. Usually, I think of it in terms of how suicide used to be a crime. Now it’s not a crime. You committed a crime. So, when you use that phrase, it’s automatically coloring the perception of the act. Whereas, if you say something like “die by suicide,” that’s just some objective language for what happened.

Shayda: That’s fascinating.

Des: I noticed that that language even permeates the culture of people who do [suicide prevention] work.

Shayda: …Doesn’t it sound like you’re being implicated for something?

Des: Yeah, yeah. It’s like, if we’re gonna get this to be a thing that’s not so stigmatized, you can’t use that kind of language.

People are always like, “Well, you’re never going to change that.”

I’m like, “I can just not use it, and maybe people will catch on.”

Shayda: How would you say it, then?

Des: “So-and-so died by suicide.” Bam. It’s done. They’re dead. That’s how they died.

Shayda: What does that revisioning do for you on a language basis?

Des: Less implication. There’s less coloring and it’s neutral.

Shayda: God forbid, right?

Des: Yeah. Yeah.

Shayda: I feel like that’s why I say “psychiatric disability,” not “mental illness.” It’s a little more neutral.

Des: Why do you say “manic depression?”

Shayda: No, this is fun. This is fun for me! I’m having a great time. Did you ever read Kay Jamison’s book?

Des: Yeah. Same explanation?

 What really happens for a lot of people, including myself, is that you move between these spaces and they speak to each other, they engage with each other in ways that are not exclusive.

Shayda: Yes. She basically, at the end, said something to the effect of, if you say bipolar, it suggests you’ve got mania here and you’ve got the depression part here, and they are on a binary, and they just say hello to each other from the distance. What really happens for a lot of people, including myself, is that you move between these spaces and they speak to each other, they engage with each other in ways that are not exclusive. Like “bi” and “polar” suggest, or “bipolar” suggests. For me, I think they diagnosed me with manic depression, as well, because the depression cycle was worse, but it rapid cycled. The rapid cycle could be in a day—the manic and the depressive collide—or it could be in a week. We could talk about just the medical system and the role of psychiatrists and all that, but that’s just a whole other kettle of fish.

Des: Yeah. I got shit recently for talking about the medical model or, I guess, sharing content that is heavily medical model-rooted, and I think that’s just the way we conceptualize this sort of stuff in this country. I also think that whatever works for you works for me, if that’s how you need to conceptualize it for it to make sense.

Shayda: This is very interesting. Can I bring something up about that that you just made me think of?

Des: Go!

Shayda: So, disability therapists and disability activists were very like—you know how feminism had a first wave and second wave and third wave? The same thing happened in disability studies, and the medical model was bad. Don’t go there. Don’t talk about it. Don’t acknowledge it. It’s all socially constructed.

Now, what’s happening, by the nature of disabilities, is it might be bad, but we have to engage with it on a daily basis. I have to go see my psychiatrist and my therapist, they give me my pills, I have to order my pills. So, how can it be? In other words, to say that it’s all bad, and whoever engages in it has to get shit kind of ignores the fact that we have to engage with it. That’s a very simplistic model. Super simplistic model.

Now what’s happening is that people are saying, “Okay, it’s socially constructed, the way we look at these things, but we have to also listen to the lived experiences of our bodies and acknowledge that we have to engage with this medical and industrial… We just do, so let’s just look at it in a more complicated way.”

Of course there are problems with it, but we live it too.

Des: True. Do you feel like you rely on your medication, or will rely on it, for the rest of your life?

Shayda: Yes. I still think there’s a lot of stigma with taking medication.

Even in my own family, my uncle tells me that like, “Oh, my friend was depressed and he did a lot of exercises and drank orange juice every morning, and he’s so much better now,” or my aunt gave me this book about overmedicalization in the U.S. Without a doubt, I’m sure that happens and, without a doubt, I’m sure some people have minor depression or anxiety, and the medication helps them and they don’t have to be on it anymore.

But I’m doing this for my sanity. Like I am doing really, really, really, well right now. That’s the argument I give people.

It’s not like, “You’re doing well now, you don’t need your medication.”

It’s actually like, “I’m doing well now because I have my medication.”

You wouldn’t tell someone who has diabetes, “You know what? You’re doing great, right? You can stop taking your insulin.” We just wouldn’t have that conversation with someone.

And I do feel pressured to get off of my medication. I really do. But I’m doing this for my sanity. I lost some hair. I gained weight. I need to sleep a lot more than most people do. In my mind, I’m like, “For sanity, that’s a small price.”

Des: What made you lose your hair? Which medication?

Shayda: Depakote. So I changed my part. It just never grew back.

Des: Wow. Side effects.

Shayda: Yeah. Side effects, yes. But at the same time, for me personally, for the side effects I had, small price. Really small price. So, I foresee myself being on medication the rest of my life. Every six months, I will go get my liver tested because of Tegretol, and I don’t drink, and I will probably always think about self-injury.

[I was] talking about cutting [with my psychiatrist], and he was like, “I would be surprised if you never thought about it again.”…I think one of the down sides of [talking about self-injury is] that it’s not viewed as an addiction, and it really should be. It really, really, really should be.We had to go to groups [when I was] in the hospital most recently, and the only group that was open was AA. We go there, and we’re talking about cravings, and literally, because my arms are where I did it the most, my arms would start tingling.My mind keeps running around telling me, “Are you stressed? Are you just a little bit stressed? Well, guess what, I got the best thing for you. It’s the best. Just one line. Just do one line, and you’ll be set, you’ll just write for pages and pages.”The guy [at AA] was like, “That sounds like you’re talking about a drug…”I was like, “It is.”

I feel like a huge disservice happens to people—I mean culturally, universally, anything like that—when we don’t talk about self injury as an addiction because it absolutely is.

Des: I like to talk about it too because, when I first conceived the project, I wanted to do self-injury and I wanted to do suicide, but I realized I couldn’t do them together because self-injury is not a suicidal behavior, and sometimes it’s seen as such by people who don’t know better, so I chose to focus on suicide.

Des: Did you stop?

Shayda: I stopped for three years and then, two months ago, I did it again, and I lost my three years of sobriety. Three.

Des: It’s funny how people use like recovery language for it now, which is not something that was happening.

Shayda: No, and I think because, even in those three years, it’s not like I never thought about it or had cravings. I absolutely did. But it was this constant day to day conversation with myself, so that language just felt like it fit it very well. The last time I did it, it was just a lot of stress, and afterwards I felt—not even a minute afterwards, like a second, I was just absolutely disgusted. I felt betrayed by my brain. You know, like, “No, this isn’t beautiful and roses and romantic and the best thing for you and the fix all.” It’s not the fix all. It’s not, and so I’m actually grateful for that, because in the three year span of nothing, of not self-injuring, my brain had really romanticized it and said, “It’s the solution. It’s the best thing for you, and I know it is. You just have to listen to me.” In a way, that was a good thing.

Des: I fucked up last summer, and I had been dating my girlfriend for about a year, and seeing how much it scares other people is really powerful also. How do you feel about your scars?

Shayda: That’s a very interesting question. I mean, they aren’t going anywhere. These are really old.

At first, when I started working and teaching, I would wear three-quarter sleeves, long sleeves. I was in the San Fernando Valley. We’re in the 100’s there. It’s summer weather, brutal summer weather. I thought if I walked into a classroom like this, I would be immediately coded and read in a very specific way.

What I do do is, if I go in for an interview or something, I cover up. When I went in my for my most recent job interview, I wore a suit jacket that came up to here.

So, I always covered up, and then one summer I was like, “You know, fuck it. It’s really hot. This is really uncomfortable.”

It opened up a space for dialogue for students who perhaps have never considered talking to faculty about their problems.

And a really interesting thing happened. It opened up a space for dialogue for students who perhaps have never considered talking to faculty about their problems. I stopped covering everything up when I was about 21 or 22. Yeah, it was probably right around the end of my 21st birthday. I had taught for one semester. Now, at this campus, if it’s a little bit hot outside, and I’m feeling hot, it doesn’t even come into my mind anymore. Every time I teach a new class, though, I do think about it for a half a second before I take my coat off, but it doesn’t prevent me from being comfortable. But yeah, I think it’s created space for dialogue with people who normally wouldn’t go out and look for help. We have conversations now that lead to other places. Also, all the work I do is very body-based and narrative-based, so if this is the body narrative, then it’s a part of it. It just is.

Des: Well, my next question was going to be about if people ask you about it, so thanks for answering it.

Shayda: They do talk. In the beginning, people—not my students, just random people—would be like, “Did you have a bad car accident? Did you fall out of a tree?” Genuinely. But since those times, when it wasn’t old and it was new looking, no one’s ever asked me what happened. I think it’s just this unspoken or understood thing now because I think we have more images of it in the media, so nobody has ever come up to me to ask me. My students have never asked me.

Des: Do you think that’s fear-based?

Shayda: I think it’s partially fear-based, partially respect-based. The ones who need help with something will come and start talking to me about it, and I know this probably facilitated some of it.

Des: Are you on Instagram?

Shayda: No, but I could be.

Des: I started an Instagram for the project recently, and I use hashtags like #depressed, #suicidal, #cutting, whatever. Any of the stuff that will pull people in who need to see this kind of content. What it’s gotten me is a lot of followers who are young cutters, so when I go to follow them back, I see a lot of bloody wounds, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to change that. Like, what is that all about? I was wondering if you had seen that.

Shayda: Yeah, before the last time I was hospitalized, I was Googling cutting. The results that came up were actual databases, not just Instagram. I think this is before I knew about Instagram. Databases with images. I was looking at them and that made it worse, because I was thinking, “Oh, that looks great. I wonder how they did that,” which makes me think that these images are really problematic, and I didn’t think about this until right now, but I wonder how similar they are to the thinspiration photos.

Des: Oh yeah, they’re connected to the pro-ana stuff. There’s quite a bit of crossover. A lot of these same kids will use language like “days in recovery,” “goal weight,” “current weight.”

Shayda: I was looking for a support group, so my old therapist made a support group of two—me and another young woman who was cutting.

The support group, very interestingly, became the two of us sitting together, and she was asking me like, “What do you do? What are your hints and tricks?”

It became very anti-support group very quickly. It degraded very quickly. I think that’s what those pictures do. I mean, partially, they fill appetite and they fill desire, but depending on peoples’ mindsets… for me, at times, it absolutely terrified me. So when I wanted to [cut] and I went to look at those pictures, it repelled me. But I think there’s such a closeness between those two that it’s a little too much. How often would you go down the, “Oh, this is too triggering” path, and how often would you go down the desire path?

Des: This leads me into something that I’ve been really interested in lately: the idea of support groups, and the history behind how the mental health field has treated attempt survivors, specifically. There are very few attempt survivor support groups because, the thought was, if you put them in a room together, they’re going to give each other tips for how to kill themselves. Give me some thoughts.

Shayda: I understand that argument. I do. I really understand that argument, but if I were to play devil’s advocate, on the flip side, I would say that one of the most powerful things we have as human beings are our stories. One of the most powerful things we have are our stories and our experiences.

I feel like all support groups have their pitfalls and potential for regression for whomever is involved. They just do. It’s the nature of getting a bunch of people together who have a shared addiction or problem, whatever the case may be. But I feel like stories—telling stories and having support groups—is a very necessary and powerful thing because it feeds us and creates community. If it’s just you and your therapist, which is really successful for some people, there is no sense of community and support. I feel like the benefits outweigh the drawbacks for support groups. Because our narratives are radical.

That’s why I love this project. It’s asking us to share us what we’ve been told not to share, and I think we’ve been told not to share it because it’s very powerful, and radical things happen when we talk to each other and when we share what we were told not to.

Des: Speaking of narratives, I noticed that this one has been coming up recently, but I don’t want to lead you into it. When you took the pills, how did you envision that to go? What did you think was going to happen?

Shayda: Oh, I thought I was going to take the pills, go into my pajamas, and just sleep. I didn’t even think of any after effects like being found or anything like that. I just thought, “This is great, I’m just going to sleep—perpetually sleep.” It was so—which is why I think psychiatric disabilities are so dangerous—it was so impulsive. Even if I go back and look at the path that led to that, it was a discussion about, “You ordered onions when I didn’t want onions on my burger?” You know what I mean? Now I can laugh at that. That’s absolutely insane and hilarious.

Des: Onions made you try to kill yourself!

Shayda: Yeah! Obviously, a lot was going on otherwise to get me to that place. But yeah, looking at the trail, like, that was the trail? That was the rabbit hole entry point? Really?

I think that’s why these disabilities are so dangerous, because it’s so impulsive. There was no letter. There was no sense of ,”I’m going to be found,” or, “I need to give my things away to someone.” That’s one of the hallmark signs, right? You start giving the things away that matter to you the most. It was just like, “This was the best idea, this is the right time, things aren’t improving, I’m just going to go to sleep.”

Des: Did you think it was going to hurt?

Shayda: Nope.

Des: Why do you think we think that we feel that way about pills?

Shayda: Because I think that when we take them on a normal basis, they don’t hurt, they’re very sanitized. Cutting hurts. Shooting yourself hurts, we can imagine. Because we already, most of us, engage in the act of pill taking—not even as a prescription, even if it’s just Tylenol. We already engage in this act of putting a pill in our mouth and swallowing. It doesn’t hurt, it’s just something that one does. [I thought,] “Well, okay, now I’m just going to do it in excess,” and it’s going to maintain that same integrity of, “Well, it’s just something you do.”

So no, I didn’t think it would hurt. I didn’t really think about anything. It was just pure, selfish impulse. That’s why that little pop on the door with the shoe—or the wall, rather—that’s why that was kind of like a, “Oh, that was supposed to happen,” thing. Because it just kind of woke me up, jolted me, to just say like, “Hey, really? Really?”

Des: “What’s happening to you?”

I don’t think there’s such thing as “insane,” “sane,” and never shall those two meet. No.

Shayda: Exactly. I feel like that’s why, going back to language, we can’t say if someone is sane or insane because we’re always negotiating that. In that moment, I had a really sane moment, when I was like, “Okay, no, put your shoes on, grab your purse, go to the hospital.” That was a sane moment in a series of moments that could absolutely be categorized as insane, but all of that went down in 40 minutes. All of that back and forth. I don’t think there’s such thing as “insane,” “sane,” and never shall those two meet. No.

Des: What does a suicidal person look like?

Shayda: It looks like you and me, sitting here, having a talk. Just sitting and having a talk. Because I know I felt—every time I wanted to die—I felt heavy. I’m sure my posture, I’m sure my shoulders were curved in. My mom describes the way I would leave the car to go to class as just hunched over with my backpack. I’m sure my body was speaking in a different way. It was hard for me to take a shower and do all of those things, and get up in the morning.

Well, on the flip side of it, the last time I was hospitalized, I had taught that morning, I saw my boss that morning, I had a conversation, and I knew by the end of the day, “I’m going to go home and do some serious body cutting damage.” Nobody—he was not the wiser, my students were not the wiser.

I called my mom and I’m like, “I’m checking myself in.”

I called my coworker and I gave her all of my lesson plans for the rest of the week. I was like, “I’m going to check myself into a hospital now. These are for you. Take over my class.”

And she said, “Yes.”

Nobody up to that point knew. So I think it looks like me. Someone who is suicidal looks like me. Because we can pass. At least, I could pass. I could perform sanity really well, which is even more perverse, and speaks to the artificiality of sane and insane. Because that shit can be performed. You can perform it.

Just like, “You want to perform your gender? Okay, great. I can perform sanity for you.”

I know exactly what steps to do and what to say and how to sit and how to talk and how to look. So yeah, that binary is absolutely artificial and crafted.

Des: What about the stereotypes? What about the ones you experienced? The ones you thought about what a suicidal person looks like?

Shayda: Disheveled, muttering to themselves, food stuck in their hair, haven’t slept for days, haven’t showered for weeks, haven’t left the house. They don’t talk to anybody, they sit in a corner and rock and wear pajamas. That image comes from a collection of books and commercials and movies, and also narratives that I got from friends.

Des: Is suicide still an option for you?

Shayda: No. It’s so fascinating because I was coming here, and over the weekend, I kept talking and thinking about, “What am I going to say?” Because, sure, I’ve talked about this, and I’ve thought about this, but I haven’t really.

I don’t think it’s an option for me, and I think that’s why I reach out every time and say, “I need to go to the hospital,” because it is not an option.

Would I say that cutting would never happen again? No. That’s a different story. I know it’s hard to reconstruct a pathway in our brains when we’ve been going down one pathway for so long. Is suicide an option for me? Absolutely not. Have I had general stability since my meds have been all settled? Yes.

Now, actually, the last time I went to the hospital, up to that point, and I was… How old was I when I took my exams? I was 27, or maybe 28, somewhere around there. It was in the fall, right before my birthday. Yeah, I probably just turned 28. Up to that point, I thought, “I am at the mercy of my moods. I’m just riding this ride, and I can’t raise my hand and say, “Turn that way, please!”” I was so blessed to go to this one hospital in particular, I think it was Chino. Yeah, it was Chino.

The doctor said, “You are in control of your moods.”

I was sobbing and I was like, “No, I’m not.”

She said, “Yes you are.”

I didn’t believe her, but at the end of two weeks, I started to believe her a little bit more. And more and more now. More progress and I see that yes, absolutely, I am responsible for how I feel.

I think, if you were to tell me that 10 years ago as a 20 year old, I would say, “No way.”

I think the blessing of being 30… I love being 30. You could not pay me money to go back. I want my hair to be silver hair, all silver, and keep it short with plum lipstick. I just don’t want it to fall out before it turns silver because I love the idea of getting older. I feel like it’s such a fucking accomplishment. I got a tattoo on the day of my thirtieth birthday. It’s a circle I drew. It’s not round, it’s bumpy, so it’s supposed to be like an imperfect but whole life. That’s what the past thirty years were: imperfect but whole.

Now, as a thirty-year-old, I absolutely understand I am in control of my moods. When I cut, I would let myself go there… I don’t know what will happen next time, but now I have a better sense of knowing that if I have a lot of negative self talk, I will move myself towards depression.

Des: Do you feel like the suicidal thoughts and the cutting thoughts compete? It seems like the cutting thoughts are stronger.

Shayda: Do I think they’re competing? Maybe. It depends on the situation and the time we’re talking about. Because I know if we’re talking about not wanting to die, then cutting was the way I would stay alive, so they weren’t competing. I think, for me, I think they were—cutting was a self care, like, “You’re going to stay alive and make it through this,” kind of act. Which, I know if I said this to anyone else, I would be like… problem.

Des: Girl, what if it goes on the internet?

Shayda: No, it’s okay! I think it’s important, too. There was a time when my mom asked if I would want to get these lasered off, and it just didn’t occur to me.

Des: I didn’t even know you could do that.

Shayda: Apparently you can. I don’t think it’s specifically for cutting, it’s just for scars. You can go and laser off scars, like if you had an accident and there’s a little scar somewhere.

Des: I had no idea.

Shayda: Yeah, apparently you can. And no, it never occurred—

Des: It sounds painful.

Shayda: It does, yeah! But at the same time, it’s like, this is the evidence that you were here, or this is the evidence that I was here. Why would I want to remove it?

Des: It’s a history.

Shayda: It’s a history and it’s a story, and it’s connected to me.

Des: If you wanted to address people who were going to read your story directly, what would you say to them?

Shayda: I would say to whoever read it that, regardless of their body story, to honor their narrative, and honor their experience, whatever shape it takes and whatever it looks like. Honor their body story, honor their narrative, and share it, and speak it. Don’t be shamed into keeping silent.

Thanks to Molly Shannon for providing the transcription for Shayda’s interview. Thanks to Sarah Steck and Eric Monacelli for allowing me to use their home to interview Shayda. Thanks to Josh Voelker of The Adventures Of for filming the interview.

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About Live Through This
Live Through This is a series of portraits and true stories of suicide attempt survivors. Its mission is to change public attitudes about suicide for the better; to reduce prejudice and discrimination against attempt survivors; to provide comfort to those experiencing suicidality by letting them know that they’re not alone and tomorrow is possible; to give insight to those who have trouble understanding suicidality, and catharsis to those who have lost a loved one; and to be used as a teaching tool for clinicians in training, or anyone else who might benefit from a deeper understanding of first-person experiences with suicide.
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Tax-deductible donations are made possible by Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization, which sponsors Live Through This. Contributions for the charitable purposes of Live Through This must be made payable to Fractured Atlas only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
Please Stay
If you’re hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can’t feel it—and you are worth your life.
Find Help

You can reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. Trans Lifeline is at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada). The Trevor Project is at 866-488-7386. If you’d like to talk to a peer, 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. If you don’t like talking on the phone, you can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

NOTE: Many of these resources utilize restrictive interventions, like active rescues (wellness or welfare checks) involving law enforcement or emergency services. If this is a concern for you, you can ask if this is a possibility at any point in your conversation. Trans Lifeline does not implement restrictive interventions for suicidal people without express consent. A warmline is also less likely to do this, but you may want to double-check their policies.

Live Through This is dedicated to the lives of so many friends and family members lost to suicide over the years. If you would like to add the name of a loved one to this list, please email me.
Live Through This is dedicated to the lives of so many friends and family members lost to suicide over the years. If you would like to add the name of a loved one to this list, please email me.