How Can We Talk About Surviving a Suicide Attempt?

deserea stage

This article was originally published in 2014. We're re-posting it today in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day. 

I associate the phrase “Live Through This” with Hole’s 1994 album of the same name—itself a nod to Vivien Leigh’s Gone With The Wind monologue, or perhaps Courtney Love’s own tumultuous coming of age. New York-based photographer Dese’Rae L. Stage (above) sees it instead as a mantra for those who have survived suicide attempts. In a way, “Live Through This” is a dare.

Stage’s Live Through This project is a collection of portraits and stories of suicide attempt survivors, as told by those survivors. The ongoing portrait series is currently showcased as a web gallery, where a text snippet of each survivor’s attempt narrative accompanies their photo. “When paired in this way, the portraits and stories work to de-stigmatize suicide as a topic unworthy of everyday dialogue,” says Stage, via email. “And to serve as proof of life on the other side of a suicide attempt.”

The portraits are stark and sincere. Each subject looks straight into the lens, forcing the viewer to make eye contact, and to connect. Participants range in age, ethnicity, and background, not to mention their wildly diverse experiences with suicide. To some, the experience is still fresh and resounding. “Do you feel like you’re healed?” Stage asks subject Dominick Quagliata (below). “Not at all. Not in the least,” he says. “I could hit that point again where I felt hopeless…That is the one feeling that you feel is a sense of hopelessness and a sense of emptiness, that there’s a cup that can’t be filled, that there’s a hole within you that can’t be plugged back up.”


To others, it is a moment in the distant past that inevitably pivoted their lives. “The thing about the mentally ill is [that] I had never been familiar with that community until I was diagnosed and went into the hospital and realized that this is an incredibly vulnerable community that is so silent and is not some tiny minority of people,” writes Melody Moezzi, a 34-year-old Iranian-American lawyer and human rights activists who attempted suicide at twenty-five. “It’s not some tiny minority of people, but they’re so fucking quiet about it, and that was the thing that really pissed me off when I went into the hospital and realized that.”

Stage began the project in 2011, but her story begins in 2006, after her own suicide attempt. Between college and grad school, Stage found herself  depressed, trying to maintain a job and trudging through the end of an abusive relationship. “I was trying to do it all without betraying the fact that I was not okay,” she recently wrote on xoJane. “I was suicidal.”

After a rather disillusioning hospital stay following her attempt, Stage got back on her feet and enrolled in a psychology PhD program. She wanted to focus her studies on suicide, but found most professors were less-than-thrilled about her pursuing that specific facet of psychology. She eventually left the program to pursue a successful career as a music photographer, but still felt the need to advocate for suicide awareness—especially for the huge and silent demographic of suicide attempt survivors.

“I Googled ‘suicide survivor’ and I kept finding ‘loss survivors’—those who have survived the suicide of a loved one,” she tells me. “I was like, I know I’m not the only one who has done this.”



Two portraits of suicide survivors from Live Through This. 

Nearly 485,000 Americans visited hospitals for injuries due to self-harm in 2012, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. That means for every person who ends his or her life, there’s potentially 12 people who attempt and survive suicide. “We are not able to distinguish intentional suicide attempts from non-intentional self-harm behaviors,” writes the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “But we know that many suicide attempts go unreported or untreated, and surveys suggest that at least one million people in the U.S. each year engage in intentionally inflicted self-harm.”

Live Through This is an artistic endeavor that gives suicide attempt survivors a voice. Above all, Stage wants the project to communicate a truthful representation of that experience. “I want it to be positive, but I also want it to be honest,” she says. “That means taking responsibility, acknowledging what you’ve done, showing your face, using your name, telling your story and saying, hey, I still struggle with this.”

Stage initially searched for subjects on (where else?) Craigslist. Once she had found some people willing to tell their stories of surviving suicide, she began the process of interviewing and photographing.  She asks each subject to share the events leading up to their attempt, as well as those that followed, with the disclaimer that they should only share what they’re comfortable sharing. It helps that her self-portrait is among the first visitors see in the Live Through This web gallery. “Everybody knows that I’m a survivor, and I think that gives me a special kind of access. They know the moment they sit down that I’m not going to be like, well, why the hell did you do that?

She also insists that each subject is at least a year out from their most recent suicide attempt: “You need time to have perspective on that [experience], and it’s not going to come in a week.”

The survivors’ stories are sometimes monologues, sometimes conversations, and always genuine and humble. “Most people don’t think their stories are interesting,” she says. “But I just feel like all of these experiences are valid.”

After taking 88 portraits and running a successful Kickstarter campaign to expand the project, Stage no longer needs to seek subjects—they come to her. She now travels the country photographing attempt survivors and sharing their stories. She has also recently partnered with the American Association of Suicidology as a member of the Lived Experience Division of their Speakers Bureau. Because of her work, and the work of other advocates, the American Association of Suicidology has recently established a new (and very necessary) division of their organization dedicated to suicide attempt survivors.

These developments are hugely important in the effort to encourage a more open dialogue about suicide, which in turn has the potential to save many lives. Suicide has long been considered a taboo topic, and while advocacy has come a long way in the last couple decades, there is still a fair amount of stigma attached to suicide, and to mental health issues in particular. The myth that talking about suicide will normalize it, or put ideas into people’s heads, is nothing short of pervasive.

“It’s less that you talk about it and more how you talk about it,” says Stage. “I’m not trying to normalize suicide; I’m trying to normalize the idea that these thoughts can happen to anybody.”

Candace Opper lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in GuernicaBrevity, and various publications from the American Association of Suicidology. She hosts a regular podcast Late Night Library, and is currently at work on a book about suicide and the ways we give it meaning.
by Candace Opper
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Candace Opper is a writer, a painter, a dinosaur enthusiast, and an aspiring suicidologist. She is currently at work on a manuscript about suicide and the ways we give it meaning. 

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

I wish we could erase the

I wish we could erase the word "attempted". It pairs a little too nicely with "a cry for help", which a lot of people seem to take as "looking for attention". The stigmas of all of these common statements related to suicide run deep and broad. I committed suicide. There was no "attempt". I did it. I just happened to survive it.

I feel the US desperately

I feel the US desperately needs better access to mental health care for those who want it. But at the same time I feel suicide should be more accepted in our society. It should not be a luxury awarded to only the physically terminally ill. We fight for access to privately end lives through abortion. Why do we then fight to save other lives from private suicide? It makes no sense to me why people aren't allowed to leave this life by choice.

I attempted suicide exactly 9

I attempted suicide exactly 9 months ago tonight. It's a little weird that this article popped up on my facebook feed.

I am so sorry honey , how are

I am so sorry honey , how are you holding up ? It takes time to recover and want to engage in life again, I know that from experience.I wish you all the hope and strength in the world to get over this xxxxxxx.

The OTHER suicide survivors

I know that this article mentions those who are typically called "suicide survivors," those who have lost loved ones to suicide, as people who are already understood and represented, but we are definitely not. This is not to say I don't think this project is important, but that it isn't complete as is--the fact is, suicide does take a LOT of lives, leaving others in their wake. As one of them, I can tell you that after my brother killed himself, after years of attempting it and surrounding himself with "suicide culture" (obsessions with Kurt Cobain, Hunter S. Thompson, and other famous people who completed suicide), he left behind a family whose social ties were almost completely severed because of the way he died. If my brother had died of cancer, I would have had a community outpouring of support--instead, most people in my life actually stopped speaking to me once they heard, as though they could "catch it." I realize people commit or try to commit suicide for diverse reasons, but the survivors are not just those who have tried and are still living. There are also a LOT of us who live every single day with strong feelings of loneliness, anger, and grief that have no place in our society. We have stories that make a lot of people uncomfortable, we care a lot about mental illness, and we have a lot of very dark days. In a way, we have a lot in common with the people in this project.

All experiences with suicide are relevant

Thanks for this incredibly thoughtful reply. I am so sorry for your loss and the grief you're going through. I actually am a suicide loss survivor as well—the catalyst and inspiration for the work I do—and this article was in no way meant to discredit the huge community of people suffering that loss. I do believe, however, that it is important to differentiate between the two groups because their experiences are diverse (as are all of our individual experiences) and each deserves an equal amount of attention in the suicide prevention community. Because of projects like Live Through This, attempt survivors are now getting some more of that attention. But I totally agree that all experiences related to suicide are still heavily stigmatized, and it is my ultimate goal to help alleviate that stigma through writing and advocacy.

"If my brother had died of

"If my brother had died of cancer, I would have had a community outpouring of support--instead, most people in my life actually stopped speaking to me once they heard, as though they could "catch it." This is so true and a HUGE problem in our society! sorry for your loss by the way.

Headline Change

This is just a note to say that I changed the headline of this article from "How Can We Talk About Surviving Suicide?" to "How Can We Talk About Surviving a Suicide Attempt?" to make the subject of the project more clear.

I wish people who attempted

I wish people who attempted or commit suicide would give half a thought to their families. Do you know you are leaving people devastated, children in cases orphaned? It is an act of violence committed to yourself instead of other, but yet you hurt others just as anyone who murders a person hurts the family of that person.

I wish people who make these

I wish people who make these sorts of statements about suicide would give half a thought to how much shame and blame this places on people who are seriously struggling with being in the world on a day to day basis. Try spending some more time thinking about how painful daily existence is/was for your loved ones instead of immediately jumping into a "what about the rest of us" mentality. Suicide isn't just about the people who are left behind, it is about the tragedy of the loss of a human who could not cope with the pain they faced being in the world. And in *SOME* cases it is also about the way that person was failed by the people around them. People who act like those who attempt or complete suicide are just self-involved and don't care about their families/loved ones are missing a crucial point about the compassion that we need to have for all of the people who struggle to stay with us.

Some people who attempt or

Some people who attempt or succeed at attempting suicide are thinking of their family. They might not be thinking of them in the right ways, but to them it does seem like they're doing the right thing.
Often I believe my family would be better off without me. If I weren't here, they wouldn't have to worry about me anymore. They wouldn't have to take care of me.
Because of my illnesses I'm not being rational about it, but I am thinking of them and how it could make their lives better. When I start thinking more clearly, I realize how much it would hurt them and change their lives for the worse. However, I can't think that straight when everything is so hopeless.

Statements like that are the

Statements like that are the reason people who are or who have been suicidal don't talk about it.

I can tell you for a fact that before my attempt I gave plenty of thought to my family.
Yes, I was 100% convinced that, objectively speaking, they'd be better off without me. I felt like I was a burden to them.
But no, I didn't think they wouldn't care if I was gone. I knew they would be upset at my death. The thing about being suicidal, though, is that your thoughts are so twisted and turned upside down. In my mind the fact that I'd even consider putting them through that was just more proof of how much I didn't deserve to live. Completely circular and irrational logic, but I believed it at the time.
Even part of the "planning" stage for me was planning out where I would go to ensure that family members would not be the ones who found my body.

I usually only talk about suicide to other people I know have attempted, and I once knew a guy who tried to figure out how to make it look like an accident so that his (grown) children could get his life insurance money.

I don't think suicide is the right choice, and having survived, I would tell anyone considering not to do it, but the idea that people who commit suicide are selfish and don't "spare half a thought to their families" is just a stereotype.

Families and Survivors

I wish people like yourself who believe that suicidal people don't give "half a thought" to their survivors would give at least one full thought to the terrible anguish and desperation experienced by people who make the decision to kill themselves, despite consideration of the effects on their loved ones. Usually, we truly believe that we are sparing loved ones the burden of our continued existence in their lives, that they will benefit from our absence in the future. We often believe ourselves to be so hopelessly toxic and damaging to the people we love that suicide feels like a gift to them. When we survive, we may realize how mistaken we were. For awhile, at least, until depression or the impulse to suicide arises again and distorts our thinking about our value in the world. The most difficult aspect of arranging my last suicide attempt was deciding where I should leave my body, knowing that it must be discovered by someone sooner or later. I never wish to inflict pain on anyone (including friends, family or strangers) in life or in death. I realized that I needed to select the emotionally strongest person I knew and a location that would limit the number of witnesses. Many suicidal people do consider the feelings of others while determined to end their own unbearable suffering.

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