Livethroughthis.org is the website project and future mobile exhibition created by Dese’Rae Stage, her self a suicide survivor. Carlton Davis edited Dese’Rae’s interview. To see the unedited story and stories and portraits of other suicide survivors see: http.//www.livethroughtthis.org.
Suicide is the 10th highest cause of death in the United States. The mental illness that leads to this drastic solution of life’s problems is not understood nor discussed in great depth. Yet suicide plagues our culture, and takes away some of our best and most creative minds.
The recent suicide of Robin William made headlines. He was on the cover of Time Magazine, however very little of the story was devoted to his death. He suffered from depression and hung himself, but no in depth analysis or understanding was provided about his self-destruction. In Time’s cover story, the suicide was glazed over in a paragraph, and the rest of the story talked about his outrageous talent. Suicide is stigmatized. We hear of it, but we don’t look into its horrible reality with great compassion or knowledge.
Dese’Rae is confronting the blindness to the reasons and reality of suicide. Her portraits and interviews are a vivid study of the why and who that choose this path but didn’t end up dead. Too many do end up dead, totally more than 35,000 people a year. Everyone can learn something from those of us who survived.
Here is the written narrative of Dese’Rae Stage’s conversation with me.
Carlton: I can’t quite believe I’ve lived this long, to be honest with you. I didn’t think I was going to make it past 30, or after that, maybe 40. It’s a miracle that I’m still here. It really is.
I started out as an artist and then, because it was the ’60s and everybody was involved in revolution and changing the world, I decided to be an architect. ‘More relevant,’ I thought. But it’s not. It’s no more relevant than art. I went to architecture school in the United States and in Europe.
I’ve always been drawn back toward the art world, even though I find it highly corrupt. I like making art. I dropped out of architecture three times. I tried to be an artist, but it is very difficult to survive, and I’d always end up going back to work as an architect. Finally, in 2009, I had a major operation where I almost died and I decided, ‘Well, I’m going to do what I want to do.’ Since then, I’ve been a writer and an artist, and that’s how I define myself nowadays.
In 1967, I actually did my first art project. I went down to New York City and I remember going and seeing an exhibition called “The Object Transformed,” which had work by an artist named Ralph Ortiz. He was a well-known artist at that time and he burned a mattress and exhibited it at MoMA. I remember my friend and I went there and we couldn’t believe it. We said to each other, “What is this crap?”
We were in college and when we turned to the campus, we decided to have some fun, and created a thing we called “org art,” or organic art. We made three pieces: one was a dead fish mounted on a black piece of plywood with three nails in it that we called “The Last Lunch”; another piece we called “Ode to Braque” which was a bunch of scallions and a beer bottle glued onto a piece of plywood; and a third piece we called “Org Op No. 1” because optical art was big then. So we put a bunch of hotdogs of different lengths projecting out on a board with nails holding them in place. We went to the college art exhibit and they rejected us. They said it wasn’t serious; so we went outside and we erected what we called The Salon de Refuse, after a famous art exhibit of Impressionist painters rejected by the French Academy. Our exhibit was more popular than the college art show. Students and faculty came to laugh at us. The college dean’s dog ate the hotdogs.
I was troubled student. I was having a lot of difficulty. I was flunking everything. As a matter of fact, I spent the entire semester in a college fraternity house drinking and playing pool because I had no idea what I wanted to be or what I could be. My whole identity earlier had been as a baseball player. I had been offered a professional contract because I was a very fast pitcher, but I wrecked my arm. In my view I didn’t feel I could compete with all other smart Yale’s.
The Salon de Refuse was the one moment I shined, and after that my world crashed. I got into a big fight with my college roommates. I ended up living in a room, alone, at the top of a tower. I knew I was doomed to fail. I said, “Well, life is not worth living.” I attempted suicide.
I called up my friend, with whom I had done this project. He was one of the few friends I had left. I had alienated most everybody else. I told him what I’d done. The campus police came and they dragged me out and took me to the hospital, where they saved my life, but I came close to croaking that night.
I remember lying in bed next to a man who did die, and I heard his death rattle throughout the night.
I said, “Okay, I want to live.” “I’m going to live.”
I made it through that and I ended up in a psychiatric ward of the Yale New Haven Hospital. I got out and I got into art and design. It kept my life going, but I also realized I was a person who was subjected to periods of severe depression and cycles of great mania and excitement. I’d stay up all night and do things. I recall reading Sylvia Plath at that time because I felt a lot like her. This is what she said that I felt described my life:
“It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous and positive and despairingly negative; whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it. I’m now flooded with despair, almost hysteria, as if I were smothering.”
That quote from The Bell Jar defined how I would feel when I was depressed. I fought tendencies to attempt suicide for many years. Suicide was always my backup strategy. If I couldn’t deal with things, I was going to off myself. I struggled and continue to struggle with the desire to kill myself.
I found help in meditation, which got me more leveled out. I had dropped out of architecture and was living in the art world in downtown Los Angeles—sex, drugs and rock and roll, you know? I was living on marijuana and espresso coffee. Talk about jazzing yourself up and then crashing, which I would do periodically. I’d stay up for two weeks in a row—all night, all day, writing, drawing, designing—and then I would crash. I would close the door, turn all the lights out and go to bed for a week, at which point, I would think about killing myself. Then it would break and I would come out of it and restart the whole process over again.
Meditation gave me balance, but it didn’t end the depression, I was balanced enough that I went back to my job as an architect and I met my now-wife (I’d been married before but she said, “Nah.” I was too weird, too up and down for her). I married her and we started a business together, which grew quite large. We had 24 employees and were doing all kinds of interesting projects, but the stress of that got me. I started to have the same radical mood swings happen again.
I drifted away from my meditation and I started trying to find something to mitigate the downs. I tried pot again. It didn’t work at all. Then I discovered, lo and behold, this wonderful drug called crack cocaine. Want to talk about high? Whew! I got addicted to crack for eight years, and it got so bad that it seemed I was never going to get free of this. II went to the Betty Ford Clinic. I did all these different programs. Nothing got me off of the drug.
I decided I was going to go end my life. I walked out onto a freeway bridge near my house in Pasadena over the 134 Freeway. I was going to jump off. The only thing that held me back was that I didn’t want to kill somebody else. I couldn’t do it. I wanted to, but couldn’t do it. I even hoped the police would come along; I would get in an altercation with them, and I would have suicide by cop, but it didn’t happen.
I went home. My wife and doctor put me in a mental hospital, where I got diagnosed with bipolar. I always thought my problems in life had stemmed from some very early childhood traumas, sexual abuse, and some other things that had happened to me. The wonderful psychiatrist I met – I still see her to this day—said, “I think there’s something else going on. I think it’s biological.”
She gave me the psychotropic drugs and miraculously the addiction went away. I wasn’t suicidal anymore. Although when I get depressed later that’s the first place I’d go. I have to tell myself not to go there. I still worry about it to this day. If I got really down —let’s say I got sick or something—killing myself is what I’d plan to do. I don’t want to do it. I’ve seen too much of it.
I was about 55 years old before I was diagnosed as being mentally ill. When I was first put into the hospital way back in ’67-’68, they treated you harshly. You watched people get dumped into the ice cold baths and have all the shock treatments. What I learned was: you play sane. If you play sane, you can get out even if you aren’t sane. So I played sane and I got out. No follow up, no nothing. I went to a psychologist for a while, but I don’t think any of them had a clue.
I thought, ‘they’re nuts, I’m not going to get anywhere near them,’ and I didn’t for years and years and years. I finally went to a psychologist who was sort of the artists’ therapist in the Los Angeles. He’s the guy, who got me into meditation, which really did help mitigate the mood swings, those ups and downs. You can balance them out a little bit, but the suicidal thoughts were still there. They don’t go away. I don’t see them as ever disappearing. They’ll always be with me. I just have to be eternally vigilant. Suicide is the first thing that comes in my head when things get bad.
I’ve been lucky that I haven’t come across some law enforcement officer when I was in a state like that. There were times when I came close. Crack cocaine-brought out some really strange stuff in me. I got into cross-dressing and going out in the middle of the night and walking around with a ice pick in my purse, just looking for someone to fuck with me. One evening in downtown Los Angeles, in full drag, totally coked up, I was pulled over to the side of the road by the police.
I thought, “Oh, this is it. They find the crack pipe and the crack in my car and I’m dead. I’m not going to jail. I’ll fight them.” They would have to kill me. As I stood by the side of the road, the cops started to go to my car, but their command system bleeped out, “Shooting in south Los Angeles.” They dropped investigating me and took off. One of the cops said to me as he drove away was “Nice outfit.” I escaped that one. It’s the closest I’ve come to being killed by any one other than myself.
I didn’t take any medication until I was hospitalized in 2001. They started to give me a full complement of drugs. I gained 80 pounds. That’s how I got really heavy. Finally, I said, “I can’t take this anymore. I’m hungry all the time.” Working with my psychiatrist, we kept playing around with the meds until we found a cocktail that worked to keep me balance and not always hungry, but the weight I put on stayed with me. I think it’s one of the problems with the illness. The drugs make you fat and cause you a whole lot of other kind of health problems.
Over the years since then, I’ve gradually titrated down from all of these drugs. I take very, very little at the moment. I take a half a tab of Lamotrigine (or Lamictal). All the rest of it, I don’t touch. At one point, I got really depressed again and my psychiatrist put me on a new drug. I can’t remember its name. Was it Seroquel? After taking it, I didn’t know my own name. I said, “No, I can’t take that.”
There are some who are very opposed to medication. Medication worked for me, but you have to be your own advocate because if you go to most psychiatrists, they’re just pill dispensers. They say, “Okay, come in here. Oh, you’re sick? Here, take a dozen of these things and off you go.” There’s no other kind of help. With my psychiatrist, we talk, we discuss and we work it out together. I think it’s very unusual. Most psychiatrists aren’t doing that anymore. They’re under a lot of pressure from whatever groups they’re working for to dispense pills.
Des: Talk more about how to be your own advocate. Many people don’t know how.
Carlton: First of all, you have to read up and understand your illness. As for the medications, you’ve got to look at all the damn side effects to see if you’ve got them. You have to say, “Okay, what do I do about this effect? How do I deal with this?’ If the psychiatrist doesn’t have an answer, you’ve got to go find your own solutions
My wife went to support groups for her and me. NAMI was an excellent organization for her, although when I started going to NAMI, I found it more for families of the mentally ill. I found my support in the friends and cohorts I met at DBSA, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. I would religiously go to their meetings every week because you’re talking with people who are like you and to whom you can say whatever you want not have to worry about their reaction. They understand. They’ve been there and they have a lot of good tips.
You have to build a support structure for yourself. A psychiatrist or any medical professional can only be one of supporting elements. Support is a three-legged stool, as far as I’m concerned. Doctors are just one. If you rely on that, you’re screwed. You’ve got to have friends, family, and whatever else to create your stool.
A lot of mentally ill people think because they’re mentally ill, they’re not capable. You know, ‘Oh, I can’t make decisions.’ Well, bullshit. You can. You have to make yourself aware and you have to not pull back from the world because you think, ‘Oh, I can’t deal with it. I’m mentally ill.’ Everybody has some problems of some kind. You don’t give up. You don’t let somebody else dictate to you what you should do. You have to stand on your own two feet.
Des: Tell me what a suicidal person looks like.
Carlton: Like anybody else. They look like anybody. Anybody could do be mentally ill. They look like me. They look like you. We don’t look different. It’s all in the mind. No, we’re no different than any person.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Carlton: I would say yes, but I would also say god, I hope not. I can’t turn off my brain. I know twice a year that I have major depressions. One is in late January, and the other is in early fall. When I was 5, my mother kidnapped me. It’s not like I was put up for ransom. My mother ran off with me to avoid my father. My father came and took me from my mother’s aunt and sent me back to Rochester, New York. Then, because nobody could deal with me, I ended up in a foster home and I got sexually abused. This all happened to me in a very short period of time when I was 5, all around January 1949. Every year in late January, I start to get depressed and that option always pops into my head. I think, ‘Well, why live? Just pack it in, give up.’
The other reoccurring time of suicidal ideation happens in the fall, which is the start of school. I hated school, being not only an emotionally disturbed child, but also incredibly dyslexic and left-handed. I remember when a teacher pulled the pencil out of my left hand and tried to make me write with my right. I got so pissed off that I stabbed her with the pencil. I have to be especially wary those two times a year. I have to say, “Okay, this will pass. This will pass! You got to just let it pass…”
I don’t know. I can’t say no suicide attempt will ever happen again. I can’t say, “No, I’ll never do it again.”
No, no, no. The thought is always there. It’s always behind the screen, so to speak. Would I do it? I hope to god not. I hope that I can be a person that will always say, ‘Hey, you can survive this. You can get beyond it.’