'I jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and survived' - Kevin Hines on how he healed after his darkest moment
Kevin Hines is, in his own words, "extremely" happy. He is married to the woman of his dreams and travels the world as a motivational speaker. In conversation, he is open, upbeat and generous with his infectious laughter.
It's almost hard to reconcile the affable 35-year-old Californian with his extraordinary story; one that has seen him plumb to the depths of despair because of mental illness and one in which he jumped, aged 19, from the Golden Gate Bridge. He did not die, becoming one of 36 who have survived a suicide attempt there in its 80-year history.
Hines considers himself blessed to have survived and has turned the lowest point in his life into something of a calling.
"During my talks I will say, 'If someone is in danger right here, if you are in great pain, please stay afterwards and talk to me, as we want you to be safe'," he says. "You'd be surprised how many people stay.
"The greatest moment I ever had was when a Marine approached me after a talk and told me, 'I was going to kill myself today, but I came here on a whim. Please walk me to help.'"
At his speaking events, there are many people to offer hope and comfort to, but also a number of mental health myths to debunk, too.
"There's a school of thought that suicide is a selfish act, but I don't think it is," he says. "You have to be vindictively trying to hurt someone else and know it's wrong. Those people who I have talked to who have attempted suicide didn't want to die. Like me, they were convinced they had to."
Two years before his suicide attempt, the teenager had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features, around the same time his parents were divorcing. A lover of drama and theatre, he had a full-blown panic attack during a school production in front of a packed auditorium. Things only got worse from there.
"It's like living on a different plane of reality," he explains. "I was living in my head so much, like many people who experience suicide ideation, and I believed my family hated me and wanted me dead. My father would go to work in the morning and I'd tell him I was going to city college, and I'd stay home and stare in the mirror at this man I didn't even recognise. It was like a separate person telling me that I had to die. I was thinking, 'but I'm a good person, I don't want to die', but I'd think 'you have to. You have no choice'."
Emotionally drained, he left class, got the bus to Walgreens and picked up Starbursts and Skittles for his 'last meal'. Then he hopped on a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge.
"I was just looking at people, wanting someone, anyone, to say, 'Are you okay?'
"I got off the bus at the bridge, and stood there crying. I went onto the span very slowly. The whole time begging myself not to jump, but the voices were too strong, I just couldn't fight them."
As he stood on the bridge, Hines even took pictures for unsuspecting tourists. It's a four-second fall from the top of the bridge to the water, and Hines recalls that the second his hands left the bridge rail, he experienced instant regret. That moment of regret is something he says that all 19 living survivors of the jump have in common.
"The millisecond my hands left that rail, I thought, 'What have I just done? I don't want to die, God please save me', and then I hit the water," he said. "You hit the water and get vacuum sucked down 70ft or 80ft - when I opened my eyes, I was alive."
Hines hit the water at a 45-degree angle: "[The doctors] said if I had landed one centimeter to the left or right, I would have severed my spinal cord and drowned. What I did do was shatter two vertebrae into tiny little pieces.
"All I desperately wanted to do was survive - experts call this being 'shocked into reality'."
His myriad physical injuries were one thing; quite another was the agony of the reaction of his family when they learned what had happened.
"My father is a very tough man, and here's a man I'd never seen cry, with waterfalls coming out of his eyes. I said, 'I'm so sorry', and he said, 'No Kevin, I'm sorry.' And then he said, 'You are going to be okay, I promise.'
"I held onto those words during recovery, all the surgeries and back braces and the psych-ward visits. Those words carried me."
Many parents are afraid of approaching the subject of suicide with a child they suspect might have a mental illness, but Hines is adamant conversations need to be had.
According to Kevin, asking your child if they have a plan to end their own life is the "smartest thing you can do. By leaving it open, you leave it to chance. A person who isn't suicidal will look at you sideways," he says.
Hines says that for him, staying well remains an ongoing struggle. He spends a great deal of time and energy managing the symptoms of his condition. To this day, he experiences paranoia, hallucinations, manic highs and chronic lows. Staying mentally stable, he says, takes real work.
"It's about exercise, eating well, educating myself on bipolar disorder so I can fight it better," he reveals. "I go to therapy, I take medication, and I do this in a really regimented way. I will always ask for help. And I build a support networking around me."
But for all his efforts, the dark times still come with regularity: "I have moments where I think, 'I don't want to do this. I don't want to take my pills. I don't want to see my therapist.' Margaret [his wife] and I have a routine where if I'm having a low day, she'll make me drop to the floor and do 50 push-ups. And 50 more until I feel better."
Suicidal thoughts are part of Hines' bipolar disorder, but he acknowledges that many other men, particularly Irish men, face mental health issues for other reasons.
"My dad is half-Irish and the man doesn't emote," he smiles. "In Ireland, this is even more prevalent, let's be frank, about how males are raised. I saw it when I got here before: 'I have to man up and not show my pain.' You are shunned and put down if you do. And when a man finally does ask for help, where does he go? What continuity of care is there for him? This is why places like Pieta House are so important."
Meanwhile, Hines' activism has brought about one change: after much campaigning, the Golden Gate Bridge will be fitted with a suicide prevention net by 2021.
"I do think about those who (jumped from the bridge) and have passed on and why I lived, but I'm very grateful I got to stay here," he says. "I wake up grateful for every moment and don't take anyone for granted. Even in times of pain, I focus on the positive. And I know now I will never die by suicide, because I'll never inflict that pain on anyone else again."
Kevin Hines appears at the Mansion House, Dublin, on Monday, March 6 .Tickets are free but limited: see twitter.com/pietahouse for more details.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article please contact the Samaritans on 116123 for support or visit the website on www.samaritans.org.
Pieta House can be contacted on 1800 247 247. For more information on Pieta House and its services visit www.pieta.ie.