This week we hear from Josh Rivedal, a New York-based writer and performer who also, like many who’ve survived thoughts or actions of suicide, has gone on to collaborate with groups such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He once thought he’d have the perfect life by age 25. He has since adjusted his goals — and found a richer social life.
First, two brief notes: It’s worth pointing out that the Georgia school employee who was praised last week for keeping a potential school shooter calm made a connection with him by bringing up her own past troubles. He had told her he was having mental issues. “I thought the same thing, you know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me. But look at me now. I’m still working and everything is OK,” Antoinette Tuff told him. After the gunman was arrested, a former FBI hostage negotiator called her performance “amazing,” and President Barack Obama gave her a call.
Also, if you’re interested in addressing the national suicide prevention community about attempt survivors or other issues, the American Association of Suicidology is taking applications for next year’s conference, with a deadline of Oct. 31.
Now, here’s Josh. His story has been adapted from his memoir, “The Gospel According to Josh: A 28-Year Gentile Bar Mitzvah”:
At my apartment, all I wanted to do was sleep, but my mind wouldn’t allow it. My thoughts were consumed with all the things I lacked in my life. Inside my brain, the words “death” and “suicide” were flashing on a neon marquee advertising a coming attraction.
I curled up in a fetal position on the floor and stayed there and sobbed for hours, more than I ever had for a broken bone or a dead father.
Somehow, I survived for three weeks in this storm of despondency, unable to eat more than one meal a day or sleep more than three hours a night. A knot was growing inside me, born of malnutrition and anxiety. I was able to pull off working a few days each week, but not without questions of why I looked so ill — questions I wouldn’t and couldn’t dignify with a response.
In late January, I had four scheduled days off in a row and nothing to do but stay inside my apartment. The first three days were a blur. I stopped showering and didn’t leave my bedroom. On the fourth day, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. My eyes were
bloodshot and my skin lily-white. I didn’t know this pathetic piece of a man anymore, and I couldn’t stand the pain.
(—You don’t have to feel like this anymore.—)
I backed away from the mirror and moved over to my bedroom window. My bare feet found a pair of slippers, and I carefully stepped onto the radiator. I pushed my head through the window opening and gaped at the sidewalk lined with cars and heaps of trash spilling four stories below. My hands were sweating.
(—I can’t go headfirst. It’ll ruin my face.—)
(—An open-casket funeral is the least of your concerns.— )
(—No. I’m going out backwards.—)
I hoisted my torso halfway through the window. But before I could pass all the way through,
an unfamiliar voice spoke to me. It was powerful yet tender and barely audible.
(—This isn’t the way. This isn’t your time.—)
(—What am I supposed to do? I’m hurting. I can’t do this anymore.—)
(—You don’t have to. Go back inside. Go back inside and ask for help.—)
(—From who? Who’s going to help me?—)
I held myself suspended for a few more moments, then climbed back inside.
To whom could I turn? I hadn’t asked for anything from anyone in a very long
time. It was a matter of pride. I had paid my own way for everything since I was
15 years old. But if I didn’t ask for help here, my pride was going to get me killed.
And so I spoke aloud, “What am I doing? How am I going to ask for — I don’t know. God. God? We haven’t talked in a while. I’m not even sure what to say. I need help. I can’t stop
thinking about this girl and my dad and my life and … dying. I don’t know what to do. … I’m just so messed up, goddamn it. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to … it’s not you, it’s me. It’s just … I don’t know how to ask for help. I don’t ask for anything, ever. But … but my dad never
asked. And my granddad never asked. So I have to ask. Help me find somebody or something.”
An hour of that put the voices in my head on mute and gave me enough clarity
for some serious debate about where I could turn.
“I don’t have too many friends, and God knows if they could handle the weight of this. I can’t … wait, wait … I know who to call. It’s a stretch but she — no, I can’t. But she knew what he was going through at the end. I’ll do it. I’ll call her. We’ll just have to see what happens.”
So I called my mother. The person who gave birth to me, raised me and then completely
betrayed me. But none of that mattered anymore. She knew my father, and she knew me all too well.
(—You get back up on that radiator.—)
(—I don’t know if I can do that.—)
(—It isn’t a request. That radiator.—)
“Hi, Josh. This is a nice surprise. How are you?” my mother asked.
“Um hi … not so good,” I said.
“What’s going on, Josh?”
“I don’t know how to tell you this … but I just need to talk to you. I need you to listen, and
please … I don’t even know if I want any advice, but I’m in a bad place right now. I messed up my life, and I have nothing and nowhere to go, and I think I might feel like Dad did …”
“Are you thinking of … are you thinking of suicide?” she asked.
I grew silent, not ready to admit the truth, fearful of whatever would come next if I did. But
that fear wasn’t nearly as bad as the pain, sadness and guilt I felt.
“Yes. Yes I am. I think I might do what … Dad did. I don’t want to, but all I ever do is lay on my floor and cry all the time. I need help. I don’t know what to do, but I need you to say something.”
And she paused briefly. I could hear her stifle tears.
“Joshua, I love you very much. You know your life is important to me. I know we don’t hold the same beliefs … but maybe this is God telling you that you need to come back to Him, to come back to church —”
“Mom, this ISN’T the time for that. I don’t need to hear that right now. I just need some
practical advice. I need to know that I can call you and you won’t lecture me, or else I’ll hang up.”
“No, you’re right, Josh. You can call me anytime and I’ll listen,” she said with a trace of panic. “How serious are these thoughts you’ve been having?”
“I don’t know. I almost … I don’t really want to die, but I don’t know what else to do.”
“Do you … have pills in your apartment or anything else you can hurt yourself with?”
“No, no, of course not.” I hadn’t even thought about that. All I had was a radiator and slippers.
“Listen, maybe you should talk to a professional. Maybe a psychologist or something like that.”
Hearing her suggest a psychologist surprised me. Most church folk I knew would tell me to go to the pastor and pray about it.
“You’re probably right. I’ve been meaning to look into talking to someone.”
“I know you’re thinking about, you know … but … is there any reason or reasons you might want to live?”
“I think so. I’m pretty sure now that you mention it.”
“That’s good, Josh. Do you want to talk about them with me?”
“I think … I want to keep that private for a little while. I’d be too embarrassed …”
“Do you think after we get off the phone you could sit down and write out what those reasons might be?”
“Yes. Yes, I can do that,” I said. We were having a real conversation, and she actually cared about me.
“That’s very good. I’m very proud of you.”
“Thank you and, um, on the God stuff … I did say a prayer recently. I felt pretty good about it.”
“That sounds good. It certainly couldn’t hurt.”
“Thank you. And thanks for listening.”
“Anytime, Josh. You know you can call me anytime. I love you.”
“I … love you too.”
I sat at my desk and wrote out my reasons for wanting to live.
1) I’ll feel so guilty. If I kill myself, Erica and Jacob will probably be very upset. I can’t let
them lose their father and their brother … not like this.
2) There could be other adventures, many of them which I’ll never experience.
3) A family of my own. A soul mate … a happily ever after, a fairytale ending …
After reading and re-reading what I wrote, I folded the paper until it fit into my
wallet — a place where I could quickly find those reminders whenever my thoughts directed me to self-implode.
I staggered over to my bed to lie down, exhausted. I had a lot to process, including how to get better.
In the first few months of my recovery, I had to lean on friends and family for extra support. I started seeing a therapist. I started exercising regularly, eating right and taking regular breaks during my work day. I started investing myself in my personal relationships and let that become the meter that determined my success in life. And I made a conscious decision that I would use my writing and performing, my art, to help others dealing with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, as well as people who’ve lost a loved one to suicide. Choosing to live was the greatest gift I ever gave myself.