According to the World Health Organization, over 800,000 people die to suicide every year, and there are many more who attempt suicide. Despite the prevalence of completed suicides and attempts, many people are reluctant to ask for ask for help for fear of facing discrimination.
Dese’Rae L. Stage, a photographer, writer, and suicide awareness activist, is tackling this discrimination head-on. A survivor of nine years of self-injury, as well as a suicide attempt catalyzed by an emotionally and physically abusive relationship, Dese’Rae was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder after years of misdiagnoses and bad experiences with medication. Now, nearly two decades into her understanding of the evolution of her mental health challenges, she focuses less on diagnoses and more on symptom management and maintaining a strong support system. Her letter is a reflection of those long-held views of the past.
Dese’Rae holds a BS in Psychology from East Tennessee State University, and she is trained in various crisis intervention techniques. Also a self-taught photographer, Dese’Rae’s personal experiences spurred the creation of Live Through This, a collection of portraits and stories of suicide attempt survivors, as told by those survivors. Historically, survivors have spoken under conditions of anonymity in order to save them from being shamed or discriminated against. Live Through This encourages survivors to own their experiences publicly–using both their names and likenesses – thereby working to strip the issue of anonymity and raise awareness by simply talking about it.
Dese’Rae has taken Live Through This on the road. She travels to collect the stories and portraits of suicide attempt survivors – over 120 since 2010! Live Through This has been covered by the New York Times, Associated Press, Upworthy, NPR, and more. She has spoken about suicide prevention and awareness, her life, and the Live Through This project at universities and conferences nationwide. She has provided commentary for various radio and TV programs (including the Glenn Beck Program). Dese’Rae was recently named New Yorker of the Week by NY1 News, and has even told her story onstage to a room full of science enthusiasts while violently ill. Her writing has been published in Cosmopolitan, xoJane, and The Huffington Post.
Today, Dese’Rae lives in Brooklyn, New York with her fiancée. She is drawn to good books, good coffee, text as visual art, and the long process of turning her body into an inked pictorial memoir. She remains committed to creating a safe space to discuss suicide and continues to share the photos and stories of survivors.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally. Below is a letter that Dese’Rae wrote to her teenage self. It contains advice about how to handle depression, anger, sorrow, self-injury, and a suicide attempt. She ends with an important message: “You will live through this… You’ll be proud of who you become.”
Melissa Banigan Founder/Managing Editor Advice Project Media ___________________________________________________
I have some bad news for you: in a lot of ways, the future sucks. At thirteen, you’ve already seen things that rattled you, things you should never have seen, things that will stick with you for the rest of your life. It’s about to get worse, and it will stay that way pretty consistently for the next decade.
The beginning of high school will be a nightmare. You’ll go from being a wonderful student to a bad one. Depression will set in. You’ll stop sleeping at night and start sleeping in class. You’ll discover Tori Amos, dye your hair black, and write bad poetry instead of paying attention when you do happen to be awake. You’ll even manage to fail marching band at some point. How is that even possible?
As you watch your friends start to date, you’ll find that it’s difficult to make connections with boys. You think they’re cute, but things don’t click, and you’ll wonder why you feel so alone. Just before you figure out that you like girls, you’ll start cutting yourself to deal with your pain. You won’t know where the idea came from or what compelled you to seek sharp objects, but you’ll find that hurting yourself takes that pain and turns it inside out. It makes it into something tangible, something real.
The depression will continue throughout high school and into college. You’ll have a short phase in which you’re randomly overcome with white-hot rage. You’ll start to lock yourself in the bathroom because you’re afraid you might hurt someone else. You’ll decide to see a doctor and you’ll be misdiagnosed. He will be the first in a long line of doctors and therapists who won’t know how to help you.
You’ll be given the wrong medication over and over, even after you are properly diagnosed years later. The side effects will feel unmanageable. You’ll stubbornly decide to forego medication, thinking you can overpower your illness with sheer will. It will take several years for you to realize that this isn’t in your power at all, and that you may have done yourself—and the people you love—a great injustice.
You’ll love a string of people who are wrong for you. One of them will hurt you not only with her words, but with her fists. Eventually, you’ll respond in kind. This will shake your foundation. You won’t know how to leave, and you’ll try to take your life.
You’ll fail. It will be your most successful failure. Attempting to die will show you the value of living. After a night in the hospital alone, you’ll vow to yourself, for yourself, to find a way to stop hurting yourself.
Your skin is like a roadmap. Your scars form byways and tributaries, but eventually you’ll tattoo hieroglyphs over the walls of your flesh, reminders like Post-Its. You’ll work with artists to create a literal body—your body—of art. You’ll make the pain productive and beautiful.
Eventually, you’ll marry. It will be brief, and it will end both badly and very publicly. You’ll be forced to reconsider your ideas about marriage and family. This is confusing and painful, and you will, again, want to die. This time, you’ll find the strength to keep living through an impenetrable support system. Your mom will be there for you every step of the way.
You’ll take the long way around, but you’ll become the artist you’ve always wanted to be. You’ll learn to be the change you want to see. You’ll learn to speak up and you’ll become a voice for what you believe in, even if you get a lot of shit for it. You’ll meet your greatest heroes and you’ll come home with stories you can only dream of right now (I won’t spoil the surprises).
It might take awhile, but you’ll find your way. Try this:
First, don’t panic. You’ll get that tattooed on your inner forearm when you find out your wife is cheating on you.
Learn early that the Beatles were wrong – love is not all you need.
Always try to remember that you are strong, and that you’re never alone, no matter how hard your brain tries to sabotage you.
Put the razor blade down. Don’t wallow in the pain. Try to find some other way to cope. Write it out, sing it out, cry it out, and don’t be too proud to ask for help. You’ll come to regret those scars otherwise.
You will live through this. You will find ever-fleeting happiness here and there, when the times are right. You’ll come to see yourself as kind, enduring, eager to do and learn, adventurous, bursting at the seams to see new things. You’ll be proud of who you become.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going, right? You’re tough, so go. Good luck, and chin up. I’m rooting for you.
Me at 31 ________________________________________________
If you feel you are in crisis, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Talk to a friend or family member, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They are confidential, to a point, but may contact authorities if they think you’re in immediate danger to yourself. If you’re not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world. ~Live Through This
The Trevor Project provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.
Crisis Text Line is an organization that has live, trained crisis counselors respond within minutes to your text messages through a secure platform. Text 741741 when in crisis. ________________________________________________
*Note – Photo used with permission of Dese’Rae L. Stage and Live Through This. Advice Project Media and authors hold the copyright to all of the content on this website, meaning that this letter (or portions thereof) cannot be reprinted without permission.