Dying to Survive

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Story by Cameron Bocanegra | Photos by Aadil Sheikh

Jazz Johnson did his homework in a doctor’s office and called it a childhood. He lived in a nice neighborhood filled with cleanly cut lawns, attended a private school and played basketball while his father worked as an orthopedic surgeon and his mother played her part as a good wife and mother. He can piece these last 19 years together in small moments that were segmented by three suicide attempts.

His earliest memory is abuse. He is a fearless 5-year-old boy, quickly developing and absorbing everything he experiences. This is a smart kid, the kind that is in every accelerated program, but still bored. Every time he speaks, he’s got a quick tongue for talking back and challenging authority. At one point, he says something too quick and his mother smacks him over the head with a brush. He touches his head and finds blood. This is where it begins.

“There was a small moment when my mom went from being angry to coddling me and saying, ‘It’s OK. Mommy loves you. Don’t tell anyone,’” Johnson said. “The problem with that is that the idea of immediately excusing people when they hurt me stuck with me my whole life.”

He was the only one to endure his mother’s abuse. His siblings were unscathed. His father began getting physical with Jazz when he was old enough to be considered a threatening man.

During these early years, he did not understand why his mother could not love him properly. He assumed it was because one of his younger siblings died on Jazz’s second birthday, leaving him and his younger twin siblings. In school, he had no support system and was bullied for being more feminine than elementary kids seemed to think was OK. Homophobic slurs were normal and he slowly learned to internalize all the negative attention.

“I was 10 and I didn’t know how to process all the things going on,” Johnson said. “Everyone around me was an awkward interaction, and then suddenly I’m trying to suffocate myself with a bag. I think I would have really gone through with killing myself, except the idea of my siblings finding me dead at the dinner table stopped me. I couldn’t take that image.”

He opted for a hostile childhood. He was constantly being pitted against his siblings by his mother. It was a classic story of Joseph and his brothers. They wanted nothing to do with him, while he ached to not feel so alone in a full house. 

Middle school flew by and the inevitable angst of becoming a teenager began to combine dangerously with his toxic home environment.

“I hated school more than ever,” Johnson said. “I was a private school kid with friends in the streets. I was hanging around the wrong crowd. Sometimes I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘Why is this kid in the streets when he doesn’t need to be?’ I was looking for it.’”

Johnson was out of control, putting himself in risky situations and giving into every impulse just to feel something constant. The only emotions he had were mania and depression, yet he felt grounded by reacting to every want immediately as it came. He was surrounded by people who could not be expected to recognize the symptoms of an adolescent boy, struggling with bipolar disorder.

In ninth grade, isolation and the lethal early symptoms drove him to take a blade and slit his wrists. It did not work, and once more, he felt his life was defined by the moments he tried to die.

“Generally when someone has multiple suicide attempts, the cause is depression,” said Tiffany Anschutz, licensed clinical social worker at Sage Recover & Wellness in Austin. “The depression can be genetic, environmental, or even trauma related. So many factors can contribute to it.”

Anschutz also said that while women tend to have more suicidal thoughts than men, men make up the majority of suicide deaths in America. She also said that conditions like Johnson’s can be a contributing factor to suicide attempts. 

“When a person has bipolar disorder combined with separate suicidal thoughts, they are at a statistically higher risk to kill themselves,” she said. 

Johnson was dealt a hard hand, and the things going on in his head were only making the outside world less and less bearable. Johnson was too young to be so willing to leave this life, but he was surrounded by quick ways out. Knives were pulled on him, but guns were pulled on his friends, so he was just a step from worse at all times. During April of his freshman year of high school, Alec, a senior who Johnson had grown close to, was shot and killed a few blocks from school over an ounce of weed.

“When Alec died, it was unreal,” Johnson said. “I never asked directly what he was up to when I wasn’t around. I knew he was selling, but I just didn’t think it would get him killed. It was just an ounce. I still don’t understand how his life ended up being worth an ounce of weed.”

Burying someone he relied on and looked up to was not how he was supposed to become a man. If this were a coming of age story, it would have been the moment when nothing felt worse and the pressure of rock bottom would have shot him back up, but that is not Jazz Johnson’s story.

“By the end of that semester, I was really questioning God,” Johnson said. “I hated myself and everyone else. Being out with the guys was an outlet until Alec died. There was nothing left, so I ripped my wrists open 12 times to try and leave one more time.”

The next day came in waves of pain. When he woke up, his face was flushed and his body ached. He survived, so he did what he knew and aimlessly lived out his usual day, another day like the other times he had tried to die and lived instead. He went to school and when a friend grabbed his sleeved arm to catch his attention, he cried out in pain. He laid in bed that night, picking at the forming scabs and thought of Alec like he always did. He thought of Alec and wished things had been different from the time he was 5 years old and found blood on his forehead.

High school lulled on with a string of girlfriends whose parents did not want them dating a black boy and violent exes who tried to jump him. Every situation he fell into, he was chased out of by danger.

“People trying to kill you or stalking you is real and it messes with you in a way you can’t explain,” Johnson said. “You’re always checking for safety in situations first. You’re inching. You’re skittish. You’re not who you were.”

The last two years of Johnson’s high school experience drifted on in a state of depression with spouts of mania. He used this time alone to turn his grades around because if anything, he knew he needed his education. As he matured into a young man, his bipolar disorder made itself more apparent, lashing out and controlling his entire life.

He lived weeks at a time in fast forward and then came crashing down to moments alone with his actions. His grades were good enough to earn him an acceptance to Baylor University on the pre-med track and he soon spent the summer of 2016 taking classes on campus, making plenty of new friends, holding a steady job and spending every moment and dollar he earned at work on an impulse choice.

In the midst of his high-strung mania, Johnson found a community that cared, and thankfully someone noticed the symptoms he was experiencing before he could fall so low to attempt to take his life again. His girlfriend, Kelsey Rood, was familiar enough with bipolar disorder because of her own and referred him to Baylor’s Wellness Center to be assessed. 

Anschutz said Dialectical Behavior Therapy is the best option for somebody with suicidal thoughts. According to Psychology Today, this type of therapy is a cognitive behavioral therapy that  pushes for positive change through identifying and changing negative thinking patterns, and is often used to treat self-destructive behaviors, teaching patients the skills they need to deviate from unhealthy behaviors. 

“It is an effective tool that teaches impulse and emotion control,” Anschutz said. “Those are key when dealing with suicidal thoughts. It helps utilize specific skills to distract yourself, as well as bring yourself away from those thoughts while recognizing the rational ones.”

Johnson met with a psychologist and psychiatrist, tried out a few different medications and eventually found himself in a steady era of his youth, now in a happy, healthy relationship and majoring in a new field he is passionate about: psychology.

Johnson found a future that he was alive in and he is willing to live in it with the right resources available to him now. Although he still struggles with stress, anxiety and day-to-day battles of a college student striving for successful, he no longer wants to die by his own hand like his younger self craved so dearly.

“It is different now,” Johnson said. “Things have changed. I’ve changed, because now more of me wants to be here for all the things I want to do.” 

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