“Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.” —Ray Bradbury
Inspiration comes in many forms. In the past I have tried to shine a light on the positive stories — the resilient chameleon nature of humanity. I often choose to highlight individuals who transcend personal adversity to achieve tremendously empowering feats. But perhaps I am guilty of slanting the scales too hard toward the sublime. When it comes to inspiration information, I tend to focus on the incredible results people have accomplished while ignoring the equally incredible (and many times more inspiring) journey it took to achieve that happy end.
People like Rosie Pope Swale — who at 60 years young ran the entire circumference of the globe — but would have never embarked on this 5 year endurance marathon if her lifelong partner and husband hadn’t tragically died of cancer. Or Dick Hoyt — the overweight dad who would have never learned how to swim, let alone race in nearly 1000 traithlon events if not for the joy of pushing his cerebral palsy disabled son ahead to give him that momentary feeling of “flying”… free from the limitations of his locked-in body.
Life is not all sunshine and rainbows. It is a constant flux, a pendulum swinging wildly through the many shades of human emotion. And it is important to remember that sometimes the greatest inspiration comes from the moments of deepest despair. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
For this reason, I choose to highlight a story this week with perhaps some darker elements. Bear with me… I believe the end result well merits the sad beginning:
Meet Kevin Hines. At age 16 he was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder — characterized by dramatic mood swings and waves of paranoia and depression. Intensive psychiatry and cocktails of mood stabilizers alleviated some of the emotional downspins, but not all. His parents got divorced. His favorite drama teacher committed suicide. He started hearing voices. His girlfriend broke up with him.
At 19, Kevin just couldn’t face the thought of living anymore. So Monday morning he boarded the 28-19th avenue bus to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge…
At almost 9,000 feet long and 746 feet high, the bridge is an engineering masterpiece — a symbol of San Francisco and America recognized around the world. Yet for many, the bridge carries a darker side. Since its 1937 construction, more than 1,250 people have chosen to end their lives here (an average of 24 per year). More than any other destination in the world.
Kevin stood in the park lot for a long time, the voices taunting him, “you are a burden on on those whole love you. You can’t go back.” Finally he walked out onto the span, crying the whole way. Nobody stopped to ask what was wrong. He found a perfect spot mid-bridge. No railing separating him from the blank void of oblivion. No pylons to interrupt his downward fall.
Still he waited. A bike cop pedaled past without pause. Two construction workers drove right by the sobbing youth with barely a side glance. 40 minutes passed. “Doesn’t somebody, anybody care?” Kevin thought in despair. And then a hand tapped his shoulder. He turned, tears streaming down his cheeks, to find the glamorous smile of a beautiful woman. She lowered her Breakfast at Tiffany’s shades, and extended a small camera. And in a deep German accent she brightly asked, “Do you mind taking my picture?”
“This is it,” Kevin thought. “no clearer sign than that.” He snapped the photo, and the second the woman walked away… he took three hurtling steps and dove headfirst off the Golden Gate Bridge.
At over 800 feet, it takes a 6 second eternity to plummet, falling at over 120 miles per hour — near terminal velocity. But it only took Kevin the fraction of a blink, in that space between his foot leaving the edge and the ocean filling his future, to decide he had made a terrible mistake. He didn’t want to die. And in the next blink he begged God to let him live.
They say when you fall from great heights, you black out before you hit ground. You brain simply short-circuits – the final kill-switch of self-preservation. In Kevin’s case this wasn’t true. He managed to flip himself mid-air to a sitting position, the gray Pacific fast approaching. He knew he only had one chance – so he threw his head back, planted his feet… and hit the water like a watermelon hitting concrete.
The impact instead broke his back and shattered his vertebrae. He sank down into the frigid depths, his aerial freefall nothing compared to the enveloping darkness of his forty foot dive. But the indescribable pain kept his survival senses sharp — he was still ALIVE. And kick by kick he clawed his way back toward the surface and the light.
And here is where the miracle happened. Yes it was a miracle the impact didn’t instantly kill him. It was a miracle he managed to reach surface with a broken back. But now, with hypothermia fast approaching and wet jeans and heavy boots dragging him back under, Kevin was still very much alive and still very much a goner. And as his head slipped back under the green waters, something large and sleek brushed his legs. “Perfect,” Kevin thought, “I survived the bridge only to be eaten by a shark!”
Only it wasn’t a shark, but a large seal, who circled Kevin for the next 10 minutes until the Coast Guard finally arrived. Pushing him up from beneath and keeping his afloat. The seal protected him, saved his life. And to this day and forever Kevin believes it was God, his guardian angel, sent to give him a second chance, a whole new life purpose.
Today Kevin is a motivational speaker and Mental health advocate. He has talked to over 250,000 people suffering mental disorder and suicidal tendencies. He’s on the forefront of a campaign to build a simple suicide barrier on the bridge, a measure which has already drastically reduced — and often eliminated — suicides at landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, and Australia’s Sydney Harbor Bridge. And he continues to work with suicide prevention hotlines, military veterans, and mental health clinics. In 2009 he won the Voice Award for his inspiring message of “Living Mentally Well.”
After one of his motivational speeches a man came up to him and said, “You saved my life. I was going to kill myself before I heard you make a speech.” It is a reaction Kevin gets often and it is the reason he keeps fighting his own bipolar battles, keeps staying positive and happy, keeps getting up on that stage to share his heart-heavy story. In his own words: “I do it for that, not to get attention. To help other people.”
For me there is great inspiration in Kevin’s courage to speak. To share his journey into hell and back again. To shine a light on the depths of human suffering, in order to show the many paths that lead to recovery and life.
Sorrow, despair, loneliness, suicide — these words we don’t mention in public. These feelings we keep firmly locked away; we dare not discuss… though their currents run through all of us in varying ebbs and flows throughout the course of life. Just as hope and passion and happiness and love all run together as well. I believe it doesn’t make us weaker to admit these lulls. As the tea box so eloquently said: “acceptance is the first step toward happiness.” Don’t fight the flow. But don’t let it drag you under and hold you down either.
When you’ve leapt off that metaphorical bridge, when you’ve reached the darkest depths of your inner ocean, just remember to keep kicking for the light at the surface. Or better yet, take Kevin’s lesson to heart — We don’t need to jump at all. We just need to learn how to swim.