As a teenager, Joe Kemp struggled with drug addiction and the urge to commit suicide. But Kemp, 43, now an assistant vice president of public relations for Northwell Health and a former managing editor at the New York Post, found salvation — which, on this National Suicide Prevention Week, he hopes to pass along to others.
It should have been my last glance at the outside world, but I took little notice of the cloudless sky or the plush green trees in my parents’ backyard. I pulled my bedroom window shut, dropped the metal blinds and turned my focus to a dimly lit end table. There, I had a small pile of heroin, and I was determined to shoot up enough to kill me. I was 17.
Suicide was something that I had contemplated for a few years, but until that day, I always managed to resist the urge to follow through. It was a struggle I kept to myself. It was something I never spoke about because I assumed it would be regarded as a cry for attention. I was a white kid from a blue-collar family in the suburbs; I didn’t have a lot, but I at least had parents who loved me. What could be so bad, right? I guess I was concerned about the stigma, of appearing weak or unable to cope with things that seemed so easy for everyone else.
Kemp attempted to commit suicide with an intentional overdose of heroin when he was 17.Joe Kemp Family Photos
I also didn’t want anyone to stop me if I did decide to end my life. I kept secret that little dark spot that for as long as I can remember was always nestled deep inside my chest. When it finally swelled so large that it began to overwhelm my heart and lungs, physically weighing me down, I quietly decided it was time to go. So there I was: alone in my room, planning an overdose — what would appear nothing more than a sad accident — to be the last page of my life story.
That moment of despair, now more than 25 years ago, may seem extreme to many. Kemp had been contemplating suicide for a few years before his first attempt.Joe Kemp Family Photos
But what is even more alarming is how common suicide has become among the youth and young adult population in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those between the ages of 10 and 24 account for about 15% of all suicides, which have become the second leading cause of death for that age group in the country. And yet so many of us who are struggling feel so alone.
Fortunately for me, that wasn’t my final chapter. A friend fortunately discovered Kemp after the overdose and he was resuscitated by medics.Joe Kemp Family Photos
It became instead an awful scene in what has been a much longer story. A friend unexpectedly walked into my room just after I collapsed. He alerted my mother (while somehow removing crucial evidence from the scene) and a team of medics were soon called over to resuscitate me back to life. I maintained it was unintentional, but the truth is that I failed an act of suicide. There would be a similar failed suicide attempt a couple of years after I dropped out of high school and grew tired of bouts of homelessness, hunger, violence and incarceration.
But then something happened when I was 20 — two close friends overdosed and died in quick succession. I was devastated by the loss, but also deeply ashamed. Kemp at 19 with his mother, father and sister Christine.Joe Kemp Family Photos
I had survivor’s guilt; I felt pained that these friends — two brilliant young men who could have made a difference in the world, if they were given another opportunity to get clean — were gone and I was still here, just wasting away and causing a burden to everyone around me. My last high was just days before my second friend’s funeral. I walked to the grave behind a long line of people, all of them completely broken that young Jimmy — a son, a brother and a friend to so many — was gone forever. When his casket was put in the ground, I realized that I had one more chance to make my life mean something, even if it was just for the sake of those who never got the chance. That’s when I suddenly found the will to live. The overdose deaths of two of his close friends motivated Kemp to get sober.Annie Wermiel/NY Post
I was barely 21 when I committed to staying clean and sober one day at a time (I’ve never enjoyed a legal drink in my life since). I surrounded myself with others in recovery and met a few incredible people who loved me unconditionally and gave me the confidence to take tremendous risks — including going back to school. It was a path that led me from suburban Virginia to New York City and into the newsrooms of two legendary tabloids, including the New York Post. I worked as a reporter and editor for more than a decade, often covering tragedies laced with drug addiction and suicide. If only my colleagues knew my personal experience on those subjects; if they only knew I was writing about the lives that I once lived. Kemp would return to school and eventually move to New York City to start his career in journalism.Joe Kemp Family Photos
Today, I have more meaning in my life than I ever imagined. I’m happily married, raising three beautiful young daughters in the city and working as a publicist for a leading health care provider. My job every day is to communicate how health care professionals are saving people or improving their quality of life. Nothing has been more satisfying than having a small role in how my organization creates impact in the communities it serves.
The irony is not lost on me. I’m also currently pursuing an MBA at Columbia Business School, the first in my family to attend — or to even imagine attending — an Ivy League institution. This alone is a testament that anyone, even if you started your journey in a gutter like me, can end up in a place beyond your wildest dreams. Kemp is now a married father of three and has a career in the health care industry.Annie Wermiel/NY Post
For me, it took a lot of time and required an enormous amount of luck. But I would have never found any of it if I didn’t take this one last chance at life. Most people who know me now — even some of my closest friends and family — would never guess how long I struggled as a young man with addiction and suicide. Sure, they know I’m sober, and they know there’s a reason why, but when I go into any amount of detail about my past, people are usually stunned. Sometimes, I even pressure myself to walk back anything I said; I still carry a tremendous amount of shame. It was only recently that I began to question why I felt so embarrassed. Kemp is sharing his story to inspire others to “find that sliver of light in their darkest moments.”Annie Wermiel/NY Post
I can’t deny my drug-addled past, or that I’m a survivor of two suicide attempts. But I can proudly show the man I am today as someone who has dignity and self-respect; I’ve acquired the most important things to live a happy life. I just followed a different path to get here.
I took a chance recently and shared the darker side of my story with a group of people I know professionally. Part of me was terrified that I would scare most of them away, but I walked through that fear and did it anyway. What happened was truly remarkable: It brought us all closer. So many people have since come up to me privately because each person found a piece of my story to which he or she could relate. Some of us cried together. We gave each other hope. In those vulnerable moments, we saw each other not as the businesses we represent or the titles we hold, but as human beings facing our own struggles.
Sharing my story is not easy, but it’s necessary. Because I know firsthand the power of connecting with others who have walked in similar shoes. I know the invaluable feeling of support and understanding. And I want to be that beacon of hope for someone else who may be in their darkest moments. So, if my story can help just one person find that sliver of light and choose to keep fighting, then I know it was worth it.