A long time ago, I thought seriously about exiting the planet.
Heads up: This episode references suicide, which was probably already clear in the title. If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.
Yep, this week the 'guest' is me! Taking a turn in the guest chair seemed like the right thing to do, so I did.
I've been public about the hard time of Trent's passing, but this one, my first really hard time, I've mostly kept private. I was ashamed about this part of my history but not anymore. These kind of thoughts are common--too common--and I hope talking about them will help someone, even if that someone is only me.
Heads up: This episode references suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, call or text 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
Hard Times & Hope E11. Jule: A fifteen-year-old considers suicide
Jule: Hi, I'm Jule, and this is Hard Times & Hope, a place for real conversations with regular people about a real hard time. We talk about what it was, how they got through it, and something good that came from it.
[00:00:30] Today's guest is Jule Kucera. That's right. It's me. What happened was, as I've been participating in these conversations, it started to feel as if I was asking my guests to be more vulnerable than I was asking myself to be. And that didn't seem fair. So I'm putting myself in the guest chair, what will I say?
[00:00:50] Let's find out and I don't have it scripted. So we'll see. Trigger warning: This episode contains references to contemplated suicide.
The way I thought I would do this would be to so that I can fully be in the role of guest, is write the questions out that I often ask guests and put them on index cards and talk myself through the questions that way. I did think about asking one of my podcaster buddies if they would be willing to interview me, but I thought I'll try this.
[00:01:20] This is an experiment. Maybe I'm not brave enough to be interviewed. We'll see how this goes. Cool.
What's the hard time you'll be using for context today?
The hard time, the first really hard time was when I was 15 and I considered exiting the planet and that's how I phrased it to myself. Maybe I'll exit the planet or in other words, killing myself.
[00:01:47] Can you say more about that?
Yeah. Um, I'm not quite sure how it started. So 15 probably my hormones were going whack and I know part of it was my father who wasn't around very often, but when he was, he would ask me and he never asked me when anybody was around, he would just say, and he would yell it, but I won't yell it.
[00:02:09] I guess that would be too loud. He would say, “How do you justify your existence? What right do you have to take up space on the planet?” And I never had a reason for him. I never had an answer. I just stood there mute until he walked away. And then, what started happening was I started thinking that since I don't have an answer, maybe there isn't a reason.
[00:02:36] Maybe I don't have a reason to justify my existence. Maybe I don't deserve to take up space on the planet. And I began to think about… ending my life.
The days got very blue and I pretty much stopped changing my clothes as I recall, because I remember one Friday when a friend of mine told me at the bus stop to go home and change my clothes.
[00:03:04] If you had asked me at the time, if I was depressed, I would have said no, because I didn't know what that was. And I'm sure that wouldn't have been me anyway. But if you'd asked me if I ever thought about killing myself, I would have said yes. If you asked me how often I would have said pretty much every day, if you asked me if I had a plan for how I would do it, I would have said yes. One Sunday morning, I was lying in bed and I wasn't raised, we weren't raised with any religion really.
[00:03:34] So I didn't pray, or hadn't been taught to pray, and I was lying in bed. I couldn't think of a reason to get out of it. And I just kind of raised my voice to the sky silently and said, “Is today the day, is this the day I should just go?” And in response I heard singing and my first reaction was, you've totally lost it.
[00:03:58] Now you need help. But then I realized, no it's Spring. I've got my windows open. I really am hearing singing from somewhere. And I remembered that there was a little church up the road. And that had to be it. The place where I grew up, our house was in a new subdivision and it had been carved out of an old farm field.
[00:04:18] And if you walked up our street road, it ended, it T-boned in a dirt road that was Church Lane. If you took a left on church lane, you couldn't go right. You just had to go left and it was a dirt road and you walk back and there was a very small community. It's a black community and noted for being the oldest African American settlement in New Jersey. At the heart of the community, there is a small, white, beautifully kept church.
[00:04:46] Clabbered I mean, just the, the picturesque little church that you, you would think. It's back in the woods and around the church are some small, nice little houses and then many other places… dwelling places that you couldn't rightly call houses more like shacks. And it was my first exposure to extreme poverty.
[00:05:10] But if you walked up my road and walked down Church Lane, that would take you to Red Hill road and at Red Hill Road, there was a candy store. It was a combination gas station-candy store, one of those old fashioned candy stores. So I was familiar with walking down Church Lane and walking by the church.
[00:05:26] So that morning when I heard the music, I got out of bed. I walked up the street and when I got to the church, I stood in the woods by the church and I just listened to the music and the music was incredible and I had felt so bad. And when I heard this music, I thought if the people in this church who have so little, can find a reason to sing, then maybe there's a reason for me to stay alive.
[00:05:53] And I just don't know what it is yet. So I waited there and listened. And then when it seeed that the music was finished, the singing was finished, I turned around and went home. And it wasn't like I had had this grand epiphany that, you know, now I I'm cured of my depression! I frequently went to that church on Sunday mornings and listened to the singing and the singing made me feel better, a lot better.
[00:06:16] It gave me hope. And then eventually the feelings lifted. But before they lifted, I made an agreement with myself, which was, I can't kill myself. I'm not allowed to kill myself because there's something good coming down the road. And I just don't know what it is yet. So if I kill myself out, I won't, I'll never know.
[00:06:37] So that was the deal.
How did you feel going through it?
I would say I felt sad, but really it was more like, I didn't feel much at all. It just felt… everything felt like it was far away from me. And like I was living in my own private gray cloud and it just, I just felt very small, very insignificant. It's like I curled up into a little ball inside myself.
[00:07:07] What helped you get through it?
Well, one was the church and the church members and their singing on Sunday mornings. To this day I love Black gospel music. Another was my dog. I had asked when I was 13, I had begged to get a dog. Her name was Molly. She was a border collie, black and white border collie.
[00:07:27] She loved to run with me. There was a field behind the houses across the street, a big field, and we would go back there and I would just be outside. And that's probably the third thing that helped me is being outside in nature because being at home in my house didn't feel good. It wasn't a happy home, but being in nature, it seemed like things made sense in nature.
[00:07:50] I could, I could see seasons seasons made sense. I could watch a snake slitter across the path and not be afraid just knowing he's going where he had to go, and I'm going where I had to go or wanted to go. And the sun felt good. It all, it just felt good to be walking in the field with my dog and seeing what was out there.
[00:08:11] It's one thing that gave me hope.
Can you say more about that?
I think I'll talk about the sassafras trees. There's so much interesting stuff in nature and we just pass it by so easily. But a sassafras tree is one of my favorite trees. They were pretty much all around that neighborhood, around the field.
[00:08:32] They bordered the field and I liked them because their leaves weren't all the same. They had leaves that were just kind of plain. They had leaves that looked like mittens. They had different numbers of lobes for their leaves. I guess one-lobe two-lobe and three-lobe would be the way you would say it. But I just, I just liked it.
[00:08:51] That tree could be so creative that would have different shaped leaves. And I especially liked the mitten-shaped leaves. The other thing I liked about the sassafrass was if you scraped the bark, and you could do it on a twig or on a root that might be sticking out of the ground, it smelled like root beer.
[00:09:08] And so to a teenage girl, trees that smell like root beer and have leaves like mittens, that's a good thing.
Let's do a mental palette cleanser. What's one of life's simple pleasures that you really appreciate?
Hot running water. It's easy. I feel like anybody who's ever spent any time camping, especially if you've slept in a wet sleeping bag,
[00:09:32] When the temperature has been about 34, you appreciate hot running water, hot showers, hot baths. I love them all. It just feels so… showers feel cleansing, baths feel comforting, the water, hot water automatically coming out of the faucet. I don't have to boil it. It's just really, really nice.
As you look back, if the you that you are now could say something to you back then, what would you say?
[00:10:02] I know this hurts. I know this is hard. It's going to get better. It might not get better tomorrow or the day after that, but it's going to get better and you are special. There is nobody else like you on this planet, that poem or whatever it was that you saw on your cousin's bedroom wall? That's true. You are a child of the universe,
[00:10:28] no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here. It's true. So just hold on, make it through each day. It's going to get better. Those things that you tell yourself you're waiting for. There are so many good things coming your way. You're going to travel all over the world. You're going to fall in love with a man who adores you.
[00:10:50] You're going to have great dogs in your life. Molly was just the first. Don't go. Don't go. There's too much good stuff waiting for you.
What's something good that came about as a result of the hard time, that hard time that never would have been possible otherwise?
It definitely gave me real empathy for people who are thinking about suicide and that's useful for me now, especially because I teach a class at University of Cincinnati part-time in the fall. And in every year, there's somebody who's struggling with this question.
[00:11:27] And what they don't always realize is that suicide is a… and I heard this in a training class that I attended at the university because after the first semester in the first student, I wanted to get smarter about this. I knew about my own experiences, but I wanted to get smarter. And what the facilitator said that really stayed with me is, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
[00:11:51] And that just hit me because when you're in that feeling, in that place where, where suicide just seems like a smart alternative, or the only alternative you don't realize there are other options. You can't see them. And you don't realize that the feelings that you're having are temporary, you think they're permanent and they're not, it does get better.
[00:12:13] But the problem is that suicide takes away the opportunity. There's nothing else that happens after that. It's over, at least this life. So the good news is that when a student tells me or anybody, but so far it's only been students and yes, students plural, tell me that they're either currently struggling or have struggled with thoughts of suicide.
[00:12:36] It doesn't frighten me. It doesn't scare me. I don't, I don't think less of them. I don't think they're defective in some way. I just think, Oh, this is a person in pain, and they need help. How can I help? What can I do? And so that's where we start. We start with these feelings that you're having don't make you a bad person.
[00:12:56] They make you a person in pain, and let's talk about what we can do, where the counseling center is, where we can go to get you somebody to talk to.
Is there anything else you'd like to say about hard times? Hope, anything?
Yes. On the hope side, sometimes when we're feeling down. We only see the down stuff.
[00:13:20] We don't see the good stuff. And what I would say is to anybody who's feeling down, just look for something small—really tiny—that makes you feel good. Like right now I'm sitting in my closet, which is the place that I do podcasts surrounded by blankets and clothes. But I brought in a stuffed animal that used to belong to my dog before she passed away recently, Christmas time.
[00:13:47] And I like this animal because it reminds me of my dog, and it makes me feel happy. So that's an example of one small thing. Another small thing is for me, it's a plant. I have a rosemary plant growing in my living room. It's not a big plant. It's not a fancy plant, but it makes me happy to see it grow and to see how it responds to light and water.
[00:14:11] I would just say that. Find something small that makes you happy and focus on that. Just, just for a little while. Just find a cloud, a plant, a dog, whatever, whatever there is that gives you joy, carve off a little piece of that joy for yourself. You deserve it.
After I recorded this, I woke up the next morning and I realized I had misremembered something.
[00:14:39] And I also wanted to close the loop on a couple of things. What I had misremembered was the commitment I made with myself about I'm not allowed to kill myself. It wasn't because if I did, I would miss the good things that were coming, even though that's true. I wasn't allowed to kill myself because if I did, I would never know why I was here.
[00:15:01] What justification I had, what reason I had to take up space on the planet. As for the church, in case you're wondering if I ever went inside, the answer is no, not as a teenager. I thought that if I went inside, I might wreck the music in some way. And so I just stayed out outside in the woods, but I did go back as an adult.
[00:15:24] I did speak with the pastor and his wife. They did ask me to share with the congregation what they had meant for a teenage girl, half a mile away. And then the third thing is my dad. My dad died in 2016 at the age of 88. And in 2015, after I'd had my thyroid removed and had a dream about him that I thought was somewhat meaningful or prophetic or something, I called my dad.
[00:15:53] And I said, “Dad, do you remember the question used to ask me often when I was a teenager?” And he said, “What's that?” And I said, “How do you justify your existence? What right do you have to take up space on the planet?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “I never had an answer for you back then, but I have an answer for you now.”
[00:16:16] And he said, “What is it?” And I said, “I have a right to be here because I am.” And he said, “Sounds like a good reason.” And I said, “I'm not asking you to evaluate it. I'm asking you to hear it.” So those were the three things.
I'm not allowed to kill myself because if I do, I'll never know what justification I have to be on the planet.
[00:16:44] But now I know the answer is because I am.
[00:16:52] Thank you for listening. That was me. Jule Kucera, host of Hard Times & Hope. My website is julekucera.com. That's J U L E K U C E R A.com. If you think this episode would be helpful to someone, please feel free to share it.
Take care, take heart. See you next time.