I’ve mentioned the Live Through This project before, and today I had a chat with its creator, Dese’Rae Stage. Let’s jump right in. This is the raw chat again, like the one with Enoch Li from Beijing a while ago. We both seem to be good typists, or at least careful ones.
me: tell me about yourself. who are you?
Dese’Rae: first, i’m married. i married a person i’m still surprised i fell in love with. we grew up together. i hated her. she’s the most amazing human being. she surprises me every day. i’m also a photographer. i’m in the process of trying to make that the main focus of my career. it started out as a hobby, turned into a passion, and now it seems like the perfect vehicle to help me explore the issues i couldn’t explore in academia. i’m also a lover of words, music, animals, and crude humor.
me: please feel free to employ the crude humor. what got you into this project of yours?
Dese’Rae: i’ll do my best. the past couple of days have left me feeling pretty exposed, so i’m not at my peak.
Dese’Rae: i guess what got me into Live Through This was the fact that i tried to take the traditional academic paths to study self-injury and suicide, and doors were slammed in my face at nearly every turn. there was only one exception.
Dese’Rae: exposed in the sense that i’ve been listening to the stories of other people who made attempts and knowing that, eventually, i was going to have to tell my own story. i found that i hadn’t unraveled it all for myself yet. i’m still not sure i have. i listened to a story yesterday that paralleled my own in so many ways that i started to feel that not knowing my own story and my own answers to the hows and whys was an injustice to these people who were making themselves incredibly vulnerable to me.
me: is this the first time you’re telling your story, then?
me: and were those people asking you the hows and whys of your own?
Dese’Rae: i’ve told plenty of people the basics: what happened, the circumstances. i’ve been digging a little deeper lately, looking for the roots.
no, no one was asking me. i was asking myself. it seemed only fair to put myself in the same position i was putting others in. there’s also the looming AAS panel. i want to be prepared.
me: how would you tell it now?
Dese’Rae: i still want to gravitate toward the basics. i like to use the excuse that it’s for brevity’s sake, but i spent a lot of time thinking about it all on the train last night, and i was pretty shaken, to my surprise. i went home and told my wife i felt like i’d been hit by a truck, then asked if she’d come outside and help me make my own Live Through This portrait. it seemed like the right time.
Dese’Rae: but that doesn’t answer the question. the way i’d tell it is that i’d been a cutter for nine years. i’d been in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship for three years. i hated what she was doing to me. i hated what i was allowing her to do to me. i hated that i retaliated against her. i turned into someone i didn’t know.
we lived in tennessee, and a train ran behind our apartment. i used to sit on the porch and fantasize about lying on the tracks. i say ‘fantasize,’ but my first impulse was to say that i prayed for the ability to lay down on those tracks. i guess it’s semantics, but i don’t believe in god, so i’m pretty sure i wasn’t praying.
Dese’Rae: i found out that my girlfriend had been cheating on me, and–we were technically in an open relationship, but the fact that it was all behind closed doors makes it cheating–i just completely lost my shit. i wasn’t exactly in control of all of my faculties to begin with, but i think that was the last straw.
me: what did you do?
Dese’Rae: she left to go hang out with the girl she’d cheated on me with. she’d broken up with me and gotten back together with me in the weeks before, but the caveat was that she could do as she pleased, especially with regard to this person. so, she went out. before she did, we had an argument. a big one. i tried to listen to music, to watch tv. i knew that i had friends that i could talk to, but i was afraid because, as with any abusive relationship, i was systematically isolated from them.
Dese’Rae: eventually, i started cutting myself. with a sort of reckless abandon. not the very controlled cuts i’d been making for years. i cut my forearms, my biceps, my stomach, my legs. i’d hurt my back at work the week before and filed for workers comp. i am loathe to put substances (with the exception of alcohol) into my body, so i had this bottle of painkillers. i had a bottle of wine. the goal was to get so obliterated that i could sever arteries and not feel it.
Dese’Rae: but i called her over and over, begging her to come home. she wouldn’t. she stopped answering for awhile. eventually, she did and she kept me on the phone until the police pounded on my door.
me: how were you?
Dese’Rae: i was in hysterics. i couldn’t tell them my name.
me: what happened then?
Dese’Rae: it’s kind of a blur. it happened fast. i don’t think i ever did tell them my name. i think i picked up my phone and called my mom. i think i told her that the cops were in my house and wanted to take me to the hospital.
Dese’Rae: i know she spoke with them and they put her back on the phone with me. she told me to do as they asked, to go willingly. she said that, if i didn’t go willingly and they had to handcuff me, it would go on my record, and i’d never find a job in the mental health system. i’d just graduated with a BS in psychology six months before. i’d been accepted to a Ph.D. program. she told me to use my education to get myself out of that hospital as fast as i could.
Dese’Rae: and i did. they put me in an ambulance and took me to the hospital. they took my blood. i told them i was terrified of needles, and when they’d fill up a vial, they’d lay it on my stomach. they gave me a tetanus shot. there was a psych eval. i lied and told them i wasn’t suicidal. i manipulated the system.
they never checked my body. they treated me like a leper.
my mom called a close friend of mine, who left a party she’d been throwing at her house to come get me. i was out of the hospital in three hours.
me: wait a minute, weren’t you bleeding all over?
Dese’Rae: they were surface wounds. i never got far enough to cause the damage i intended to.
me: did your girlfriend come back?
Dese’Rae: i don’t remember what i was wearing. maybe the blood didn’t show through. there was certainly enough of it, but it wasn’t exactly the gorefest you might be imagining.
me: ok, i was imagining a gorefest
Dese’Rae: i figured as much.
Dese’Rae: it turns out, my girlfriend and this girl she cheated on me with had taken a little trip to a town about two hours away from our home. my girlfriend had called her ex-boyfriend and told him to meet her at a hotel. you can make the necessary connections there. she did come back, but i don’t know when.
the friend who’d picked me up from the hospital took me back to her house that night. she put on some music for me and tucked me in. she took care of me.
the next morning, i went home. my apartment was like a cave. my girlfriend was sleeping on the couch, and when i woke her up, i found that she’d taken some sort of sedative.
Dese’Rae: she said she’d been looking for me since 8am, calling all of the hospitals. the other girl, let’s call her k, gave her said sedative to calm her down. she made herself into some sort of a martyr over that, too.
me: was it over? if not, how did you get out?
Dese’Rae: it was officially over two days later, which happened to be the day before our three year anniversary. even after we broke up, the cycle continued. we’d fight, there was the honeymoon period, we’d sleep together. i’d made the decision when i got out of that hospital that i was done hurting myself. i knew part of that meant that i really had to find my way out of that situation. i’d made the connection that i landed myself exactly where i said i never would when i was growing up, but i thought i was so in love with this person that i would literally die without her. i was so dependent on her.
Dese’Rae: i guess i also knew that i’d die if i stayed with her, at that point, even though she made it clear that she was done with me. i called my best friend. she sent me enough money to get to her house in texas, a sixteen hour drive from me. i finished out my work week and packed as much stuff as would fit into my car
Dese’Rae: when i told my girlfriend i was leaving, things calmed. she was very sweet. one of the last nights we spent together was at the fourth of july celebration in bristol, virginia. we saw lynyrd skynrd (or what was left of them, i guess). i got to hear “free bird” live which, i guess, is pretty appropriate.
Dese’Rae: i didn’t want to leave. when it finally came down to the last possible moment and i said goodbye, i literally had to run out of our house, off the porch, and into my car. i didn’t stop driving until i got to my best friend’s house in texas. it felt like life or death.
me: have you been able to stay friends in any way?
Dese’Rae: we tried. we tried lots of things. we rekindled our relationship very briefly. i could only stay in texas for a month. i’d been accepted into a ph.d. program, and school was set to start. i needed to get down to miami. i drove through tennessee to try and pick up the rest of my belongings. i ended up staying several days longer than i meant to because she still had this hold on me.
she told me she’d meet me in florida. a day after i got there, she called me and told me she was sorry my attempt wasn’t successful and that she hated me. that still wasn’t the end.
Dese’Rae: i finally cut ties with her nearly two years after my attempt. my dad died, and i took it much harder than i ever expected i could. i reached out to her, and she told me she’d have to call me back because she was at a party. i didn’t hear from her again until about a month later when i’d flown my mom and myself to florida to spread his ashes. she called to tell me she’d finally met her half-sister. i told her not to ever call me again.
she still did for awhile. every three weeks, like clockwork. i just stopped responding.
me: why do we have to get to these extremes to change our lives? is there no better way?
Dese’Rae: i’m sure there is, but i find that i’ve always had to learn things the hard way.
me: when you were breaking down, what did you want and what did you think would really happen? to die?
Dese’Rae: i know that my method seems silly, and that’s because it was. what ended up being my one attempt was impulsive.
i’d almost attempted the halloween before that. i had a bottle of vodka, and i was planning on going driving. i was going to drive off a bridge. i bought that car because our arguments were so bad, so scary to me, that i felt like i needed a car to escape. it had gotten to a point where locking myself in the bathroom wasn’t enough. she’d bang on the door repeatedly while she screamed at me and destroyed my things. i met my idol and got my picture taken with her in 2002. she tore that photograph in half and slid it under the door.
she just happened to come home before i left that night, and so i guess maybe she saved my life while she was ruining it.
or while i was letting her ruining it. i have to take responsibility for that.
Dese’Rae: anyhow, i spent a lot of time reading newsgroups like alt.suicide.holiday and alt.suicide.methods over the years. i knew what had the best likelihood of working, and i also knew that those methods were harder to come by. so, while my method was impulsive and likely to fail, yes, i wanted to die. more than anything, i wanted to die.
i couldn’t think of a way that i could survive without her, or with the pain that the previous three years had caused.
i’ve been able to survive, but those three years shaped me in a lot of ways.
me: who is your idol, by the way?
Dese’Rae: tori amos. her music was one of the things that kept me afloat.
me: such an important decision, how do you dare to make it just on likelihood? (i mean “dare” in the real sense. no attitude.)
i should add that the fear of risks is a big drive behind the blog
Dese’Rae: i’ve noticed that. the only fear in my mind was the fear of having to continue to live the life i was living even one more minute.
me: and you couldn’t leave.
Dese’Rae: the obvious answer was that i could. at any moment i could have.
i didn’t know that, though. i didn’t know how. i didn’t know where i would go or how i would get there.
i was brainwashed, by the both of us.
me: why would you want to explore this openly, with others and yourself?
Dese’Rae: the decisions i made that night shaped every day of my life after it. i had to make the decision to live. i had to make the decision to stop cutting myself. i had to make the decision to physically remove myself from the situation. i had to make the decision to stop being a victim, to stop being a person i knew i wasn’t (and was terrified i’d become).
i needed something, and i guess it was to know that i wasn’t alone, that these things happen, that there are cycles of abuse and they’re fucking HARD to break.
domestic abuse is as easily stigmatized as self-injury and suicide. my story, i guess, is like a triple whammy. maybe even a quadruple whammy, because it was domestic abuse in a lesbian relationship, which isn’t something that seems to ever be addressed.
it needs to be explored because it happens, and i’m sick of these things being swept under the rug.
me: why do people want to talk with you? and how many do?
out of the people you approach, i mean
Dese’Rae: i guess people want to talk with me because they understand that feeling of aloneness, or because someone saved them and they want to pay it forward, or because it’s cathartic.
when it comes to Live Through This, i put it out there and let them come to me. i have over fifty people across the country (and a couple overseas) who want to tell me their stories.
out of the people i’ve actively approached, few have said no. a couple have said they’re not ready.
i’ve approached some people with quite a bit of name recognition. they’re more likely to say no than the layperson. the reasons they give seem pretty silly to me.
me: such as?
Dese’Rae: they’re too busy.
me: the people who are interested, what do they have in common? (i mean, what else.) any surprises?
and is it easier with younger people?
Dese’Rae: their commonality is their humanity, the fact that they’ve attempted, and their willingness to share, i guess. their motivations are all different.
me: is there anyone or any detail that stays with you the most?
Dese’Rae: no surprises so far, but i feel like i’m still in the beginning stages of this project. i don’t think it’s easier with younger people, necessarily. i don’t know if any of it is really easy. there’s a level of trust that these people have that i’ll do their story and their image some justice.
Dese’Rae: i find something that resonates in every story. one of the details that’s stuck with me most is actually what you told me about your own experience. the details of your attempts and your ambivalence about having a will to live.
me: a bad thing?
Dese’Rae: that’s a judgment call, really. it’s just unique, in my experience.
so maybe one of the things that is common among most of the people who want to participate in LTT is their will–or their desire, even–to live.
me: i wonder if that’s the follow-up question you asked about. in my case, maybe it’s too early. but this is your interview!
i have about five more questions.
Dese’Rae: bring it.
me: is coming out about this in any way similar to coming out?
Dese’Rae: i don’t know if i can answer that properly. i never really had to come out to the people that mattered–to my family, i mean. they figured it out before i had a chance to go to them about it.
Dese’Rae: i guess the closest thing i’ve experience to coming out is almost a backwards version of it. i had about a two year period after my attempt where i was single for the first time in eight years, and i’d never been with a man, so i decided i’d explore that. i knew i would end up with a woman, but i also knew that i was sexually attracted to men (not emotionally), and it seemed like the right time to have those experiences. when i would tell friends about it, there was a lot of… heckling.
i’ve never felt shame about my sexuality in the way that i’ve felt shame about my suicide attempt.
so, i guess that makes my answer no.
me: shame? i was going to ask this question: have you had any uncomfortable reactions when you tell people about your own experience, and how do you handle them?
but it sounds like you’re still reacting uncomfortable yourself
but how are the reactions, and what do you do?
Dese’Rae: to be clear, i don’t feel shamefully about it anymore. it’s something i had to go through to get to where i am. it shaped me. i have never been happier than i am now.
Dese’Rae: of course i’ve had uncomfortable reactions. it’s not a topic that’s suffered lightly. when i discuss it, i try to be as matter of fact as possible.
Dese’Rae: when i talk about self-injury, i try to bring humor into it. i did that recently, when my wife and i were home for the holidays and ran into some people we’d gone to high school with. i said something like, “oh, while you guys were out getting drunk and fucking, i was busy crying and cutting myself.” my wife pointed out how incredibly uncomfortable i make people feel when i say things like that.
Dese’Rae: we can make jokes about sexuality and race and a number of other hot button topics, but you bring humor into self-injury or suicide and people really start to squirm.
me: yes. actually, interesting timing. i hope to talk with someone tomorrow who’s written a book, with some humor, about the way people talk to you after a suicide attempt
Dese’Rae: kate bornstein? ha.
me: no, another person on this panel we’re doing!
Dese’Rae: good to know.
me: ok, leading in a way to this question: when are we going to talk about suicide more openly? or is that needed? is it better to live like it never happened and doesn’t happen?
that last one is kind of a slanted question, i guess
Dese’Rae: well, i think the when is now. obviously, we’re both working on similar projects, here. the main goal of both of them is to get people talking. so, it’s happening.
Dese’Rae: i think it’s important to talk about it, yes. some people who are thinking about it might just realize that all they need is someone to talk to, some of these stories to read (especially in the cases of botched attempts). some people who are thinking about it will still do it. fine. more power to them. what we’re doing is for the ones who want to be saved, i think.
Dese’Rae: and no, it’s not better to live like it doesn’t happen, or in the case of attempters, like it never did. i know that, in some cases, people keep their mouths shut because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs or because people will judge them. i guess that’s what we’re here for. eventually, they’ll join us, or they won’t. but pretending that it hasn’t been a problem all along and then sensationalizing it when one group starts to off themselves in larger numbers? c’mon.
or, alternately, ignoring it for fear that talking about it will inspire the masses to jump off bridges? equally idiotic.
Dese’Rae: i think it’s best to tell these stories so that people will know they’re not alone. give some hope to the hopeless. then, provide resources, both for people who want help to continue living and for people who’ve decided that they’ve reached the end. when it comes to the latter, i know that’s a pretty controversial opinion. i don’t know how you’d institute a program like that, but you know, ‘my body, my choice.’
me: others here have mentioned that too, but it’s admittedly a small sampling.
Dese’Rae: i know.
i don’t think it’s a road i’d choose to travel, but that doesn’t mean the option shouldn’t be there.
me: if there’s anything i haven’t brought up that you’d like to, speak now. otherwise, i wanted to end by asking you to tell me about the self-portrait you set up yesterday. and, of course, thank you for taking the time to do this!
Dese’Rae: i think we’ve been pretty exhaustive, but inevitably, one of us may have an ‘a ha!’ moment after we sign off here
what would you like to know about the self-portrait?
me: just describe the moment, how you set it up. seems like an “aha” moment for you too
Dese’Rae: i set it up as closely as i could to the way i do Live Through This shoots. i’d spent my train ride home thinking about my story, what led me to the relationship i was in, how i allowed myself to stay, how and why i started cutting. i went all the way back to the beginning. i dug as deep as i could. it was sort of like i was telling myself my story. like i said, by the time i got home, i felt like i’d been hit by a truck. i knew that an image of my face in those moments would be the most honest portrait of myself that i could make–or have made–for LTT.
Dese’Rae: so, i asked katie to do it, and she didn’t question me. she put on her coat and her boots and we went outside. we were losing light. i did a few test shots on her, adjusted the settings, and showed her how i’d like it framed (i had just come home from a LTT shoot). then i gave her the camera.
me: you haven’t posted the photo on your site.
Dese’Rae: i’m practicing restraint with the project. i post a portrait a week. i have two LTT shoots that i need to edit. truthfully, those images are hard to look at. i’m not sure that i will post one, or if i’ll try again.
me: ok. but you leave us very curious.
i know you have to go. thank you for doing this.
Dese’Rae: i think i owe it to the people who’ve helped me with this to post my own portrait and story, so i probably will, though i can’t say when.