I didn’t know Josi Stewart for very long. She called me on a sunny morning this past April after hearing through her job as a peer support specialist at Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners (RMCP) that I was working on an in-depth piece about suicide prevention. During our first phone conversation, she told me she wanted to share her story because “it could be [a source of] hope for others.”
So she did. Over the course of two long meetings, she told me about being adopted from Peru, about being bullied and sexually assaulted, and about how her OCD helped her at work because she was so organized. She listed the various mental health diagnoses she’d received over the past 20-plus years. She told me she’d attempted suicide at least six times. And she described the meticulous efforts she put into her self-care routine to keep herself from falling into another deep depressive state.
I told Josi’s story in “The Canyon Of Why” in 5280’s September 2015 issue.
On Tuesday, October 6, 2015, Josi died. Doctors were unable to save her after a suicide attempt she made a few days earlier.
Having lost my father, an aunt, and an uncle to suicide, I can deeply empathize with the grief and turmoil Josi’s family, friends, and colleagues are experiencing, and my sincerest condolences are with all of them.
Living with a mental illness never stops being complicated. It’s a struggle that is immensely difficult to articulate to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, including those closest to the ones living with this unique and deep-seated pain. It’s isolating. It’s frightening. It’s exhausting. Overcoming its grasp is, as Josi told me, a “day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and sometimes minute-by-minute choice.”
Josi wanted me to tell her story unfiltered. She wanted people to see not only the good parts, but also the messy ones. There was no glossing over anything that might be difficult for others to hear or read. She was honest and straightforward in our conversations and would often pause to gather the right words before relaying a thought to me. She willingly made herself vulnerable so people could learn and find hope from all she’d endured; she was committed to helping others find the sense of peace she was never able to fully embrace.
Even though Josi is no longer with us, her message will live on.
She stopped by 5280’s office in early September with her Chihuahua, Ponyo, a few days after we published the article to pick up extra copies of the magazine. She was so excited to show it to her family. We talked for only a few minutes that day, and there’s one thing I didn’t have the chance to tell her: how many people the story had already helped. One mother emailed me to say that she was signing up for a class to better understand and advocate for her son, who has depression. A pastor informed me he was going to devote one of his Sunday morning lecture series to the topic in the hopes that “we and our faith can be a part of the solution to suicide.” A college friend of mine who has been dealing with depression her whole life said she found Josi’s story to be “painfully familiar,” but that she also found comfort in that recognition.
I can only hope Josi’s narrative continues to have the impact she intended. At its core, it’s a message to anyone dealing with feelings of hopelessness that it’s OK to struggle, to fight, and to ask for help. Josi’s story—from the tragedies of her youth to her chosen career—shows that even as she fought her own demons, she wanted to be there to lend a hand to others dealing with their own struggles.
I will always be thankful for the few months I was lucky enough to spend getting to know Josi. She was a light for many, and she will be forever missed.
Rest in peace, Josi.
Josi’s family is raising money to pay for her medical bills and funeral; if you wish to contribute, you can do so here.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or simply needs someone to talk to, please call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255. You can also find a list of local resources—including a grief support group—