Deeatra Kajfosz is an award-winning suicide awareness/prevention and mental wellness advocate. As a public speaker and the Founder of LiFE OF HOPE, she is active on the front line of peer-based, knowledge and emPOWERing processes and programs for sustainable mental health recovery and wellness. As a keynote and workshop presenter, Deeatra is engaging mindful change among diverse audiences. She reaches event attendees with her story of hidden secrets, multi-mental illness diagnosis, a near-fatal suicide attempt, and an unexpected twist toward acceptance, healing, and hope for others. Deeatra dedicates her life to raising awareness, providing education, and supporting others. It is through her own life journey that her story connects with audiences in highly personal and inspiring ways. Her commitment to others continues through the nonprofit organization, LiFE OF HOPE (LOH). It is there that she, along with staff and volunteers, are dedicated to changing the landscape of suicide prevention through a unique and comprehensive approach that has connected with 5,000+ individuals since 2015. Of those, 150+ people (ages 8-72), with active suicide ideation and/or survived attempt have taken part in LOH support programs. To date, none have been lost to suicide.
A LiFE OF HOPE: Discovering Me
It was the 1970’s and 80’s and my sense of self was a kaleidoscope of unpredictability. From being left at an abusive babysitter’s home for days on end to being moved into a stranger’s home for weeks with very little contact with my mother, I learned to accept my surroundings and not question. By the time we settled back into our house with some sense of predictability, the rules were already being rewritten. I was an outcast at school, my little brother an outcast at home, and my baby sister too innocent to understand it all.
Keeping secrets to hide what goes on behind closed doors was a lesson learned at a very early age. With abandonment, alcoholism, drug use, physical violence, verbal abuse, sexual advances, and extreme control and fear embedded within the walls of every room, it was understood that what happened within our home, stayed within our home.
By the age of twenty, I was eastward bound with husband number one at my side and expecting my eldest son. Anything to get away and make a new start. Fifteen hundred miles to separate what had been from what could be. I became a mother for the first time in early 1994. He was the love of my life and by his first birthday, we were on our own. Another marriage and baby later, and I seemed to have finally overcome my past. For all outward appearances, I had it all. Two beautiful little boys, big house on the hill, respected position in my work life, church leadership, and an engineer husband who supported adopting my little sister, moving her five states away to our Wisconsin home. Each day, I woke with the same goal; don't crack. Hide the fear. Fake it till I make it.
The spiral downward can take many shapes and the higher a person is at the time of their decent, the harder they fall. By the beginning of 2001, my grandfather had died, I had left my loveless marriage, jumped into a very unhealthy relationship, lost my independent consultant business, sold my dog to buy food, was estranged from my mother, siblings, and grandmother, and faced homelessness. As I looked into the bright eyes of my children, I was pained by how little I had to give them and how much more they deserved. I was, after all, the failure in life I had tried so very hard not to be. My head replayed every harsh reminder my mother, step-father, and childhood peers had ever spoke. I was, in fact a bastard child, ugly, stupid, weird, and nothing more than a worthless whore. The façade of confidence and value were a tattered mask. I had worn it like a stolen cloak, only to have it stripped away, one thread at a time, until the only thing left was the tattered shreds of me. Broken. Alone. A burden to everyone around me; most of all my children. I was the greatest hurdle they would ever have to overcome.
With a fist full of stones gripped firmly in my hands, I mentally hurled them at myself as I looked into the mirror. The hot water within the bathtub reflected the light of candles that broke up the darkness as I cried silently for my soul's pain to ease. In a blur of thoughts, emotions, and scattered memories, I stepped out of myself and into a space of pure desperation. It had come to this; all I could do was wait for the cycle of pain that filled my mind, heart, and pit within my gut to end.
No more secrets. No more shame. And no more hiding from a past I couldn’t outrun. This was all I had to give. A world without me was surely the greatest gift I had to offer to those I had failed far too many times.
Sixteen years have passed since that near fatal day.
Learning to live mentally well has been a slow process but I’ve come a long way. I’ve found forgiveness to be a gift—when I’ve forgiven others and especially when I’ve forgiven myself. “Deeatra, you can set healthy boundaries for yourself”, my therapist said during a session following my survived attempt to end my life. It was then that I recognized that living is so much more than a physical journey. Having a pulse. Breathing. They serve as signs of life, but living is a tricky balance between logic and emotion. Growing up, I believed acceptance was entirely dependent on how well I could mirror the expectations of others. Speaking my truth has meant opening past pains so that they can finally be healed. I no longer treat my chronic mental illness as one that is situational. I’ve fought through the judgement I placed on myself to enjoy the calm that accompanies genuine trust and love. I’ve remarried and seen my children grow into adulthood; so many beautiful memories that never would have been. I am forever thankful for the many second chances I’ve been given.
I wish I could say that feelings of hopelessness are a thing of the past. But I still have days that knock me down. The defining difference is my ability to catch myself and tap into the many tools I’ve developed and surrounded myself with over the years. Healthy coping skills and relationships guide me through the darkness, helping me to distinguish between my fears and the hope that resides from within.
Today, I am an advocate for mental wellness and suicide prevention—serving as a public speaker and the Founder and Executive Director of a nonprofit, LiFE OF HOPE. A quote by Jon Acuff fuels my new passion for life: “Sometimes God redeems your story by surrounding you with people who need to hear your past, so it doesn’t become their future.” May it inspire you as well.