A stranger asked me to take her photograph. It saved my life.


The day I decided to die, I watched the sun disappear into the San Francisco Bay.

As the orange ripples spread through the water, I made my way to a subway station, sat on a blue steel bench and waited for the eastbound train to Oakland. I’d been drinking whiskey mixed with flat Coke all afternoon to work up the nerve to jump in front of the train, and I was drunk enough that my plan felt within reach. I was 23. Two months earlier, my mother had tried to take her life, and I had interrupted her attempt. This experience, compounded by years of depression and addiction, made me long to stop feeling. It’s not that I wanted to die, exactly, it’s that I didn’t want to live.

I stood, and took a few steps toward the platform’s edge.

The incoming train screeched. A gust of air blew up my sleeves.

“Excuse me,” said a voice to my right, “but would you mind taking my picture?”

I turned toward the voice. A wiry woman with pink hair and a titanium lip ring stood a few feet away from me, smiling and offering her phone. Her nails were painted silver. She couldn’t have been older than nineteen.

“I literally just arrived in San Francisco,” she said. “And I’m so excited to be here.”

It didn’t occur to me that I could have said no, that I was busy, that I had to catch a train.

I nodded and took her phone.

She skipped toward the blue steel bench where I’d been sitting, stood on it, flashed a peace sign, and grinned.

I took a few pictures. For the next ten seconds my attention was glued to her poses. By the time our interaction was over, the train I was going to jump in front of had slowed into the station, and I’d missed my chance. I could have stayed and waited for another train, but the interruption had thrown me off just enough to lose my nerve.

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I left the station and walked uphill until I reached a park. Below me, clusters of people gathered on the grass, playing the guitar, drinking wine. I sat down, lit a cigarette and stared at the dark water behind San Francisco’s glittering skyline. I pulled out my phone and took a picture of a husky’s backlit silhouette. My hands shook so hard the image blurred.

Seven years have passed since the day I almost jumped in front of the train, and I know a lot more about suicide now than I did at 23.

The process of gathering data and information has helped me understand what almost happened to me. The child of a parent who has attempted suicide is almost five times more likely to become suicidal than the child of a parent with no history of self-harm. People with an alcohol misuse disorder are up to 120 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who are not dependent on alcohol. Roughly one in four people who complete suicide are intoxicated. (My mother and I were both drunk during our close calls.) What this means is that the completion of suicide often occurs when ideation, opportunity and a lack of interruption converge into a single unretractable moment.

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Today, my mother is alive because I found her. Today, I am alive because a pink-haired stranger stopped me for a picture.

I call this woman my “interrupter.” Interrupters exist everywhere — there’s a man who has seized more than 400 people off the railings of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in China. There’s a retired police officer who has walked more than 600 people back from the ledges of the Tojinbo cliffs in Japan. And then there are accidental interrupters — the people who approach desolate strangers in subway stations.

Sometimes I wonder whether my interrupter saw my suffering rise from my body like steam. But even if the interruption was a coincidence, she saved me that night and gave me a tool that continues to save me to this day.

As I write this, I am in recovery, sober and in therapy. The combination of these factors has curbed my suicidal impulses, but I still have days when my despair threatens to burn through me like a wildfire. On these days, I take myself outside and ask strangers whether they’d like me to take their picture.

I tend to approach folks who are already in the process of photographing one another — couples, friends, families, people taking selfies. I also approach people who look sad, lonely, lost in thought. Often, I don’t have to say anything: I’ll hold up my hands and curl my right index finger as if I am pressing the button on an invisible camera, and they’ll hand me their phones with a smile.

To date, no one has turned me down. Thanks to this practice, I have a catalogue of sweet snapshots embedded in my memory: the teenage couple sitting on a bench enveloped in yellow daisies in a garden in Mendocino, a group of women with purple feather boas wrapped around their necks in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, a pair of redheaded friends sipping iced chai on a wooden bench in a tiny town in Northern California, a man standing in front of a weeping willow, arms outstretched like wings.

I will never see these photos or these people ever again. And if I did, I probably wouldn’t recognize them — nor would they remember me. Our entire relationship lives and dies in the amount of time required to take a picture. My temporal existence collides with their temporary experience to create a frozen frame that will outlive us all — a sliver of visual proof that says “we were here, smiling.” Then, we go our separate ways — I leave them with a tangible reminder that our paths crossed, briefly, even if they forget about me. And they leave me with a jolt of connection that interrupts my hopelessness and makes me feel that being alive matters, just a little bit.

Sometimes I close my eyes and try to recall the picture I took of my interrupter, seven years ago: how she stood on the blue bench in the subway station, how her pink hair stuck out in every direction, the way her grin was so wide it looked like it might fall off her face. The more time passes the harder it is for me to remember her expression, but what has stayed with me is a feeling of sharp, profound gratitude. Maybe one day someone will feel this way about me, too.

If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. You can also visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Billy Lezra is a freelance writer who is working on a book about intergenerational addiction.


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