November 3, 2021

Don’t Fucking Kill Yourself: Jeff Romig

Disclaimer: Please note that the following episode contains discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation as well as brief profanity. While the discussion is primarily centered elsewhere, some may find its contents triggering.

 In February of 1996, Jeff Romig’s father died by suicide. Until that moment, there was no sign that his father had been contemplating suicide. Steve was always so driven; he was hardworking, successful and there was no sign of inner turmoil of anxiety and depression. In Don’t Fucking Kill Yourself, Jeff Romig details his own battles against anxiety depression, and suicidal ideation, while sharing his stories about the people, passions, and experiences that have kept him alive through mental illness, divorce, alcoholism, cancer, and the legacy of his father’s suicide.

In Jeff’s own words, this isn’t a self-help book. It’s a memoir in service of two potentially life-saving ideas that we can reduce the stigma around suicidal ideation by sharing our stories and that we can push through our darkest moments of suicidal thoughts by connecting our minds with the passion, people, and experiences that define the best parts of our lives.

Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host, Benji Block, and today, I am so honored to be joined by Jeff Romig. He’s just released a memoir entitled, Don’t Fucking Kill Yourself. It’s a memoir of suicide, survival, and stories that keep us alive. Jeff, we’re thrilled to have you on Author Hour today.

Jeff Romig: Thank you so much for having me, it’s great to be here.

Benji Block: Jeff, can you provide some context for us just on who you are and why this was the right time to write this memoir?

Jeff Romig: Sure, yeah. I am a storyteller, I’ve worked as a journalist. I’ve worked in nonprofits, I’ve worked in politics but everything I’ve done since I was in middle school has been related to storytelling. So, that’s really the heart of who I am, which comes through in the book.

My dad died by suicide when I was 18 in February of 1996 and it had always, really haunted me. He did the carbon monoxide in the car thing, and it always really haunted me, [what], in those moments before he lost consciousness, what was he thinking about, what memories was he remembering, and why weren’t those things enough to get him out of the car, you know, for them to take over and stop this terrible idea that he was in the midst of executing. And so, that combined with the concept or I guess, the theory that our lives flash before our eyes when we’re dying or near death is sort of the concept for the original concept for the book, which is not only, what did he or could he have seen, what was he thinking about, but if I were dying, what would those memories be for me?

I’ve inherited his— I believe his same mental illness and I struggle with generalized anxiety and clinical depression and suicidal ideation myself. But I obviously live in a different world than my dad did in the 90s, and we’ve moved the needle on talking about mental health but there’s still a pretty big stigma around talking about suicidal ideation.

The concept for the book was what might I see? Then, through the writing, I really landed on it’s the people, passions, and experiences of my life that bring me joy and can help me get through those darkest moments. I realized halfway through writing that those were the stories I was telling as I chose stories to tell from my life for this kind of nonlinear memoir.

And so it didn’t just feel like a good time to do it, it was in quarantine. I was reading a book by a wonderful author named Lane Moore called, How To Be Alone and it really spoke to me. I actually finished it on Father’s Day in 2020. Her book just made me see that I didn’t need to be a mental health professional to write this kind of book. I could tell my story, share some things that I’ve learned but in more of a memoir-style than a self-help book— which is how I refer to the book as memoir, not self-help, exactly.

Benji Block: Right.

Jeff Romig: Yeah, it was just reading her book and it gave me a jumping-off point where I just felt like I wanted to dig into it. I was in a nonprofit fundraising job at that point and had a lot to do during the day but the free time wasn’t too full, it’s quarantine. Just embarked upon it and started in June and finished the first draft right after Thanksgiving last year.

Changing The Conversation

Benji Block: Amazing, yeah. I mean, to tackle such a difficult topic is note-worthy and I know it can be difficult. I’m sure there was also probably an element of an almost like therapy and getting some of these things written out, right? Who were you imagining as you’re writing this? Who is kind of the ideal reader?

Jeff Romig: I think there are a lot of people that struggle with suicidal ideation that don’t want to die, they just don’t want to live the way they’re living and they’re looking for resources, but they’re also looking for connection. And so I say this, you know— I’m describing myself as well, right?

I see the core reader being that person who is looking on Amazon or in their bookstore just for something to jump out of them, and I hope that the title will grab their eyes and they’ll find something helpful in the book. I try to write the book in a way where— I’m really passionate about baseball, I write about baseball a lot in the book, maybe you don’t care about baseball— but I try to write about baseball in a way that maybe, you’re passionate about dance, maybe you’re passionate about NASCAR, fill in the blank.

I felt like if I write about the things that I love and I’m passionate about, in a way that connects us, people, they will see their own stories in mind, and then hopefully, those stories will help again, give them the perspective and connect to the people, passions and experiences in their lives, just to get them through those darkest moments.

Benji Block: Absolutely, yeah, I can say, having already gotten a chance to take a look at the book, that it comes through and I think that those connections are going to be made for those that pick up the book. I want to do this, I want to rewind to pre-February 1996. Because that, clearly you’ve given a sort of mile marker moment, you’re 18 years old at that point. I’d love to go pre that moment and just would love to paint a picture of your family and some of your childhood memories in growing up.

Jeff Romig: Yeah, I think that’s when you experience a trauma as a child and even as an 18-year-old, it really does hinder a lot of things before that moment. So the book was actually a good exercise and sort of digging back in and to remember some of those things. I have a brother, he’s four years younger than me. He’s literally a rocket scientist, we’re very different academically.

My mom was an elementary school teacher and my dad was a bankruptcy attorney, one of the best bankruptcy attorneys in South Carolina, I’m told. I was just your typical angsty 90s teen. Now I know I had an untreated anxiety disorder, probably from the time I was in middle school and was trying to navigate all of that and adolescence and being a teen. So I turned to writing and newspaper and baseball. Those are my two— and movies to a degree when I was a teen.

Those were my biggest things. I had friends and girlfriends and those typical teen things but you know, I was just really kind of navigating my own mind before I knew that anything at all was awry. My dad did his best for us. He had left home when he was 17 and put himself through college, and my mom helped him through law school and always wanted to give us everything he could give us. That’s why in his letters, he said that he ended his life because he felt like that was the way that he could provide for us.

I think the reality is, that’s how his life ended but a version of that was how he was in general because he was just such a workaholic. After he died, I learned, when people talk about him, they talk about “he just always had a smile on his face, he’s willing to help out anybody.” Which is great to know. I just didn’t get to know that version of him when I was a teenager, and as much on me as it was on him because I was just trying to navigate my own typical teenager center of the universe kind of stuff.

We lived in sort of upper-middle-class, northeast Columbia, South Carolina. Just sort of a typical kind of white teen 90s existence, I captured that where I could. It’s interesting now, and this is a whole different topic, but interesting just to think about growing up in the 90s as a teenager versus now. Just with all the social media— I mean, there’s just so much more pressure now. At least for those of us as teenagers in the 90s that wanted to isolate, we were able to. Now it seems like it’s so incessant.

Benji Block: Impossible.

Jeff Romig: You can’t get away from any of it. Honestly, I hope that this book can help teens now, even though I’m Gen X. I just can’t imagine what they’re going through right now, trying to grow up and the world we live in.

Benji Block: Yeah, I know, loneliness, isolation and these anxieties, depressions, these sorts of things are topics that go through generations. So while there’s new complexities, I think the common themes definitely speak and come through to people of different ages.

You have a friend that ends up asking you if you could say one more thing to your dad, what would it be? That ends up being the title of the book but talk me through what your answer was. If you could say one more thing to your dad, what would it be and why that’s the thing that came to mind?

Jeff Romig: Yeah, I think in a reactionary way but in a very correct way, I answered the question. If I could say only one more thing to my dad I’d say, “Don’t fucking kill yourself.” To me, it was always the perfect title of the book because it does have a couple of layers to it. The reality is, I don’t necessarily have— I don’t cuss all the time but it’s serious. Suicide is serious and I think that’s the most serious way that you could convey that idea of “Just stay here, stay alive.” I mean, there’s something about “Stay alive,” as powerful as that is, that might not be good enough.

So yeah, that’s how I answered that question but I think it’s also a mantra for people who deal with suicidal ideation, you know? If you can build that mantra and share your stories and connect with the people, passions, and experiences that bring you joy, I think that those things can help you help you stay alive. I think there’s lots of tools to fighting through suicidal ideation and lots of resources, and I in no way wrote this as the solution for everybody because it’s probably not.

I do think, when I talk to people who also experience suicidal ideation, they have their own tips that they share and I think that’s what I’m trying to do here. It’s not saying, “This is the only way” but “This is where I’ve landed and I hope it can help.” I hope it can help the reader.

And, you asked me about the core reader— I think the next group of readers are people that love people who either have died by suicide or that experience suicidal ideation and want some insight into their minds and how to help. The reality is, for those of us that experienced suicidal ideation, we have to have the tools in that moment when we’re alone and thinking about suicide. That’s the most dangerous.

Benji Block: Right.

Jeff Romig: Because it’s not, that’s what it comes down to. It ultimately comes down to that moment and that decision and typically, far more often than not, you’re alone. So I hope this can give some insight and help bring folks into the conversation that maybe— again, a lot of people that struggle with suicidal ideation— just to help us have a broader conversation and continue to lower the stigma on that. Because it’s scary to say you think about suicide. You don’t know if someone’s going to overreact and think you need to go be committed to inpatient care immediately.

I think, in theory, there’s a lot of self-preservation related to not talking about suicidal ideation. In reality, as it builds up in your mind, it’s poison and it’s the idea of a pilot who is coming in upside down on landing because his instruments were wrong.

Benji Block: Yeah.

Jeff Romig: That’s where we can get turned upside down in our minds and that’s when I read my dad’s suicide letter. To him, what he was doing was perfectly logical and he made a case for it in explaining why he had done what he did and was very pragmatic, but you’re seeing pragmatism through a funhouse mirror.

That can become a real mirror if we let these things out of our mouths, whether it’s to a therapist, to a friend— for me, at AA meetings— sharing on social media, you never know. I mean, first and foremost, getting it out of your head is going to help you but you also never know who else is going to help.

Because you never know who needs to hear it. I think that’s what I found so far in trying to share more, is that people need to hear it and, like I said, the stigma on sharing about mental illness and mental health has changed in 20 years but I can count on one hand the number of people that I’ve seen share on social media specifically about their own suicidal ideation. I think we can save lives by changing that conversation.

How RENT and Other Stories Impacted My Life

Benji Block: Absolutely. Just having an open dialog. And I think the image of a pilot with the wrong tools in front of them is a great picture because when it is all internal, it really can be so distorted, so having those open conversations and that open dialog is vital.

I want to home in on the three things that you’ve brought up, this idea of passions, people, and experiences. To quote you and to quote the book here, you say that “I know that pushing through our darkness is how we survive and I’ve learned to stay alive in those moments by reconnecting with my passions, people, and experiences.” We’re going to highlight just kind of one of each.

You share so many great stories on all three throughout the book but one I’ll just start us with is an experience and it was when you went and saw Rent. You didn’t see it once, you saw it many times. Talk to me about that experience and what it is about art— and I mean for that, it is like theater— but there is something to art, I feel, that really can reconnect us, can’t it?

Jeff Romig: Absolutely. I mean, I will also use this opportunity to say it was fun with the book— I did my best to write the chapters in the voice of myself at that time. Which was interesting because I am not 21 anymore.

I was 21 when I saw Rent for the first time and I think I say in the chapter [that] my dad had died three years before. I was just kind of sleepwalking. I had been a zombie figuring out life in college for three years, it was the end of my junior year, and two of my fraternity brothers and I decided to do a road trip. Jason and I left Columbia and picked up Mike in Baltimore and then went to New York and then went to Boston, where I got to do a story at Fenway Park. That’s not even a story that’s in the book but it was a fun sort of up the East coast road trip. At 21 I have never done anything like that. I have only been to New York once and New York is also a theme in the book, it is probably my favorite place on earth.

It is interesting because I don’t remember a ton. I mean, we were only in New York for maybe a day and a half and I don’t remember a ton other than going to Rent and I just remember we sat in the balcony and it just smacked me across the face and woke me up and just gave me –

As we drove from New York to Boston and then driving back to South Carolina, you had three southern straight white fraternity guys singing the soundtrack to Rent up and down the east coast in 1999. It was astounding. It was just astounding. I went to see it between that first viewing and the end of 2000. So really within a year and a half, I saw it on New York on Broadway four times and sat at a different place each time and sort of got a different experience each time.

Then over the years— between the soundtrack and they filmed the last show in a way on Broadway (I have that on Bluray) and then the feature film they did. It’s just always stuck with me and just opened my eyes to so much that I never saw just growing up in Wembley, South Carolina. It’s really put me on a different path in terms of how I saw the world and how I think about people in general.

Benji Block: I love that you said it slapped you and woke you up. I feel like that is what art, in general, can do when you’re in a space of anxiety or depression or suicidal ideation when you encounter something that’s so brand new and kind of has this vital energy source to it that’s beyond you. It is such a beautiful thing that it can remind you the beauty in life and how big it is and how much beyond you it is in a beautiful way. So, I definitely resonate with that.

Jeff Romig: I started the book, my dedication at the beginning of the book is to the storytellers who have influenced me and some of them are famous people that I have never met, some of them are friends and I don’t list their last names. I just did first name or last initial but Jonathan L. who’s in there is Jonathan Larson, who wrote Rent and didn’t live to see it make it to Broadway. And I talk about that in the chapter.

Benji Block: Yeah, I actually learned that from your book. That is a wild story but I’m just giving tribute.

Jeff Romig: Rent is like the randomness of— I believe, I don’t have it in front of me, but I believe that Rent opened on Broadway on February 23rd, 1996 the night before my dad died. I think that’s right.

Benji Block: Crazy, it was definitely yeah. It is right around that time, I remember seeing the parallel there. It’s crazy.

Jeff Romig: Yeah because Jonathan Larson died at the end of January and then it opened on Broadway a month later, so it was right around the same time.

Benji Block: Wow. Well, let’s talk about passions and people. I’ll just let you go ahead and highlight when it comes to people, who are some people that have really in your words pushed you through the darkness and maybe given you significant light? Who comes to mind?

Jeff Romig: Yeah, I think we mapped it out in a spreadsheet. I mentioned 200 different people in the book and so you know, there are so many that it’s hard to pick one. But I think one story that I would say from the book— which I think when you read it, it’s not necessarily the chapter that jumps out of you but it was a chapter that was so important to me and it’s because it brought together all three of those ideas; people, passions and experiences.

It is a short chapter, it’s maybe only three or four pages. When I was a business reporter for the Herald Journal in Spartanburg, South Carolina I covered BMW manufacturing and the plant that is in Spartanburg County. Through that opportunity, I got to meet and interview Hank Aaron about his BMW dealership here in Atlanta. It was right when Barry Bonds was chasing his record and he didn’t want to talk about Barry Bonds, but it was such a cool opportunity.

The way that I was able to sort of tell that the story in that chapter was about the Hank Aaron piece, about the BMW piece, and then bringing my passion of baseball, bringing this experience of interviewing Hank Aaron.

Also, I talk about, we did this drive up into the mountains of North Carolina and back to Greenville, Spartanburg area for the media drive for the BMW Z4, before it was even released to the public. It was just this beautiful October day and I got to experience in my Z4 for the afternoon, but the person, for me, Hank Aaron was an experience more than a person in that context, right? I didn’t really get to know him, but the person for me in that story was an amazing woman named Bonnie Richardson. She died from cancer but she was the head communications PR person at BMW.

She had formerly worked for, had been the assistant managing editor for the Statement Strip for Columbia, which was the paper I got my start at in college. I weave her into the story, and that little chapter really for me was sort of the epitome of bringing people, passions, and experiences together and sort of interweaving it through storytelling about a few different things that happened. But I hope the story is pretty seamless.

It let me share Bonnie, who had this massive influence on me as a reporter, and then the amazing opportunity to interview Hank Aaron, home run champion, as his greatest fan. And then just to have sort of the passion of journalism, the passion of baseball, all that kind of coming together and being able to tell a story from 2002.

Being Intentional

Benji Block: When you think of these three areas if there is someone listening that’s going like, “I need to be more intentional with these areas of my life, to have something to really hold onto and to remember. “ How have you maybe intentionally fostered the people that you’re around, the passions, the things that you experienced? How have you been intentional with those things so that you can in your darkest moment recall them?

Has there been any level of intentionality to really seek out new experiences, new people, different passions?

Jeff Romig: There has been more intentionality. I think the state of the world right now hinders that a little bit in terms of just sort of getting out there on multiple levels. But you know, I didn’t really— I came upon this concept halfway through after the book had been written. And the first chapter of the book, and my first editor asked me over and over again about chapters like, “Why are we telling this specific story?”

It frustrated me because I wanted to just be like, “I want to. It matters to me,” you know? But I had to really explore that. If he is asking these questions then what am I not conveying, what am I not communicating? And I figured and that’s when I landed on “These stories are the people, passions, and experiences.” I think since landing on that at the end of last year during the writing process, I have been more intentional this year about the opportunities I’ve had to engage with people.

I mean, obviously in quarantine still to a degree, you know there are only so many memories we’ve all made over the past year. But, I had this awesome opportunity in August to go to Pennsylvania to have a memorial for my dad’s parents. My grandfather had passed away this May, and then my grandmother had passed away right before COVID, so we waited to do the memorial where he grew up in Pennsylvania at the plot.

Just being able to be there; it was all of my roommates, cousins, and my aunt and uncle and spouses of cousins and my sister-in-law with my brother, we were all there. It was the first time that the cousins have all been together since 1991. I am the oldest and the youngest is, when I was 21, are twins and they were one. So I was really the only one that even remembered that trip, and so it was just great to be in the midst of that and sort of soak that up.

Just a really special time and my aunt set up a tour for us to visit the land that my family settled on coming over from Germany in 1732. Just a really great experience and honestly, so moving that I unlocked my book and added an epilogue from that experience combined with my aunt had sent me an audio recording that she found in my grandmother’s things of my dad recording a cassette tape for my grandmother in Halloween in 1978.

I was in it with him and I was eight months old. He was talking to her about what was going on, you know, they got a new car and talking about his law firm but then he was dealing with me and I was saying like, “Da-da-da-da” and so he was interacting with me. He was talking to her about fatherhood, and it just became this amazing gift of new last words from dad. Just all I’ve thought about for 25 years is the end of his journey as a father. And to go back to 1978, eight months in, and hear him and how kind and patient he was with me as a baby, as an eight-month-old.

I think that that idea of connecting with the people, passions, and experiences has allowed me this year to really just be present in those moments and not rush through and soak in the opportunities we have with our family and with our friends and with the things that we love. I think even especially coming out of this pandemic, it is even more important once things return to where we can kind of move about with a little less caution, just being able to embrace those opportunities and connect with them.

Then they’re there later when you need them and I mean, I think that’s the thing. The biggest thing I thought about that weekend in Pennsylvania with my dad’s family and the Romig side of the family was— I’m just glad. I am glad that I am alive to be able to have this experience that really gave me some new perspectives on a number of things. Again, when it comes right down to it, in those dark moments if we can remember what happens if we stay alive rather than feeling like the only thing we can do is die, then again, I think we can be equipped better in those moments to have the perspective we need to pull through.

Benji Block: Amazing. Well, the book highlights so much of your journey and it highlights different careers, marriage, divorce, friendships, sports, politics, and I really encourage listeners to go grab it. It is a fantastic read. Let me ask you this, when readers are done they finished the last page of the book, what’s the feeling that you hope that they ultimately takeaway?

Jeff Romig: Honestly, I just hope— for the readers that struggle as more than anybody— everybody feels connection, and feels like they’re less alone and I think that especially for the folks who struggle with suicidal ideation. My hope is that by connecting, by reading my story I hope they connect to their own. I hope they remember their people, passions, and experiences and feel less alone and that’s the goal. And then obviously, find those tools [as] a way to break out in those moments where they’re desperately needed.

Benji Block: Jeff, for those that want to connect with you further, stay connected, where can people find you and reach out?

Jeff Romig: Yeah, so there is a companion nonprofit that I started called Suicide Survivor Stories and we’re going to be launching a podcast of our own. By the time this runs, it may have launched. But if people go to suicidesurvivalstories.org, then that is where the book lives and where the nonprofit lives. And the goal of the nonprofit is again just to give other people the opportunity to share their stories.

I didn’t do this for personal fame or money or anything like that. I did it to start a conversation and writing the book was kind of like, All right, I’ll go first and share mine. But I hope that through this we can get lots of people sharing more. So, that’s the point of the nonprofit and the podcast there, to share more stories, create more connection, give people more tools. Because like I said, the couple that I share that helped me aren’t silver bullets and they’re not the end all be all.

I think if we can all talk more, we can collectively build better tool belts to navigate ourselves out of darkness when it’s tough.

Benji Block: Absolutely. Well, it’s been so good to speak with you Jeff. Thanks for being vulnerable. Thanks for writing this book and starting the podcast and yeah, thanks for being on Author Hour today and best of luck moving forward from here.

Jeff Romig: Thank you so much Benji. I appreciate the opportunity.