Since the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, thousands of people have tried to kill themselves by leaping off. Only 34 have lived.
Kevin Hines is one of them. On September 24, 2000, the paranoid and hallucinating nineteen-year-old flung himself off the bridge in a suicide attempt. He fell 220 feet straight down into the bay, shattering his T12, L1, and L2 vertebrae and lacerating his lower organs. A Coast Guard boat pulled Hines from the frigid waters, and brought him to San Francisco General Hospital.
Thanks to an experimental surgery, the plunge into the water left almost no physical evidence on Hines’ body. He has a few scars, but otherwise his body is whole again. Currently, he lives in San Francisco with his wife and dog. He’s a comic book guy—he has an original Uncanny X-Men signed by Jack Kirby. He loves to watch indie films. He exercises every day. He now works as a mental-health advocate, traveling the world to share his story in the hopes of preventing suicide. His first book, Cracked, Not Broken, a memoir of his life before and after his suicide attempt, has just been released.
Hines has experienced a lot of notoriety as a bridge-jump survivor. He was in the documentary film The Bridge. He sat across the interview table from Larry King on CNN. Every newspaper in town has written about him. He has spoken to audiences of school kids, corporate executives, and even members of the military—350,000 people have heard him speak in the last decade. But even though he has toured the world to share his story, Hines does not define himself as The Bridge Guy.
Today he wants to talk about how he turned his life around, from desperately wanting to die to devoting himself to helping other people live with their mental illnesses. I asked Hines to meet me at a park in San Francisco's Jackson Square to talk about the struggles that inspired the book, which I read in one sitting. I was surprised at how soon in the text that the jump comes. By page 60, he’s already in the water. The bulk of the book takes place in the years after. I tell him that the aftermath is what I am most interested in learning about, and he smiles. Few people seem to ask him to talk about that part of the story. “There’s so much more to my life,” he says.
In some ways, the scars on Hines’s body mirror the emotional ones from his infancy. His parents were addicted to hard drugs and suffered from their own mental illnesses—both had bipolar disorder, which they passed onto him. When the San Francisco Police Department barreled through a motel door, the officers found Kevin as a baby with his older brother, Jordache, lying on a bed with drug paraphernalia all around them. “We both were infants, and both had bronchitis,” Hines tells me, his freckled face grim. “My brother died. My only full-blooded brother, gone from this world.”
Hines bounced through the foster care system before being adopted as a toddler by a San Francisco couple, Patrick and Debbie Hines, whom he considers his parents. “My dad,” Hines says, “is an old school banker, an old school San Franciscan, and a tough Sunset Irishman.” (Patrick Hines now sits on the advisory board for The Bridge Rail Foundation, which works to stop suicides on the bridge). The couple adopted two other children, and after a rough start, Hines had a stable—perhaps even idyllic—childhood.
But when he was in his late teens, his fortunes plummeted. His parents divorced. His drama teacher—a mentor—committed suicide. And at seventeen and half, Hines suffered a mental breakdown, succumbing to what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder with paranoia and auditory and visual hallucinations. Without a formal diagnosis or a treatment plan, neither he nor his parents knew what to do. Hines says he would drink himself into blackouts in order to cope.
The toil wore him down. After suffering for two years, he came to a point where he was “so depressed, so down.” He loathed himself, he says. “I didn’t believe that I deserved to live. I believed there was no other option but my death by my own hands.” When he tells me about the day that he jumped, he tells it almost automatically. He’s given this same story more times than he can count.
Desperately ill, Hines took two MUNI buses out to the bridge, sitting in the back and crying the whole way. When the bus stopped at the Golden Gate, Hines thought that the bus driver was coming to comfort him. Instead, he got kicked off. Pacing up and back along the bridge for forty minutes, Hines prepared himself to jump. No one loved him, he thought, he was all alone. A woman approached him and asked him to take her picture. He took the shots and she walked away. She never asked what was wrong with him. That was when he leapt over the rails.
He went over headfirst. “There was a millisecond of free fall,” he says. “In that instant, I thought, what have I just done? I don’t want to die. God, please save me.” Whether it was throwing back his head in prayer or simply the angular momentum of his fall, Hines’s body rotated so that instead of hitting the water head-first, he landed in a sitting position, taking the impact in his legs and up through his back.
Hines claims that when he was in the water, a sea lion held him up. That part of the story, even Hines admits, is hard to believe. Hines was hallucinating at the time. But dolphins have been known to make similar rescues, and Hines claims that witnesses on the bridge saw the animal. And so, this is part of his narrative. What we do know for certain is how Hines, crippled and near to drowning, was rescued from the water. A Coast Guard boat—summoned by a woman who had seen him jump while driving on the bridge and called 911 on her car phone—soon scooped up Hines.
He was taking to San Francisco General Hospital for emergency surgery. The doctors saved his body. Hines has full mobility today. But surgery can’t fix the demons swimming around his mind. You don’t ever really cure mental illness, he says. “It's just like alcoholism. I’m in recovery every day.”
I ask Hines why he thought he had to die that day on the bridge, and he corrects me. “People who die by suicide or attempt suicide don’t truly want to die. They may say the word ‘want,’ but they don’t. The psychosis brings them to the point of believing that they have to.”
Even though his work as a mental health advocate keeps him going, Hines still has bad days. In fact, he has had bad years. In the time since his jump, Hines has stayed in seven psychiatric hospitals. He’s been put in involuntary police holds five times. He’s been in several halfway houses. Within a year of his bridge attempt, he forced open an eighth story window in his dorm room at San Jose State and almost jumped. He was sitting on the ledge when three of his friends broke down the door to his room and coaxed him back inside.
But he says he has gained self-awareness as well as a psychological strength from his battles. He has learned not to try to eliminate his disease by force of will, but to navigate its currents. There have been some good times in the last several years. He is married to a woman he met while she was visiting a relative in a hospital. He’s traveled the world. Hines says that in his presentations, he tries to open people’s eyes to the struggle that he went through so that they can understand the challenges in their own lives. The Irish-American rock band Friends of Emmett wrote a song about him, called “Coming Apart.” In the video, Hines consoles a woman who has climbed to the top of a building and almost jumped off.
He hasn’t attempted suicide since the dorm incident. He says that he’s on medication now, and has a wellness routine that he follows strictly. He eats healthfully most days. He exercises every day. He sleeps seven or eight hours on most nights. He’s educated himself about mental health and his disorder. Still, there are times when his regimen isn’t enough.
Once, a few years ago, he believed that his wife and his father were planning to kill him. “I got into a tizzy,” he says. He recounts the experience in a chapter of Cracked, Not Broken that’s an unedited version of what he wrote down during at the time: “My wife & Dad are plotting to kill me sometime in the next few months,” he writes. It’s hard to read. “With enough time,” Hines says now, “I can beat the paranoid delusions.”
The measure of Hines’s growth is not that he no longer suffers from these episodes. The measure is how he reacts to them. The last time he felt the madness, he called the police, asking to be committed. It’s called 5150-ing yourself. The police officers had to arrest him outside of a coffee shop, in view of everyone inside. “In the police car on the way to the hospital, one of the officers recognized me,” Hines says. “I had given him a presentation on dealing with mental health issues. He thanked me for not being violent. We laughed, and I thanked him for taking me in when they dropped me at the hospital.”
When Hines was recovering in the hospital after the bridge jump, a priest visited him at his bedside. He asked Hines why he was there. “I jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge,” he answered. The priest laughed and said, “Oh yeah? And I’m the Pope.” But Hines’s father convinced the priest, and soon he was a regular visitor. The priest encouraged Hines to talk about what he had been through. Hines wasn’t sure.
The first time Hines shared his story in public, it was to a group of seventh and eighth graders at the middle school he had attended. It was Good Friday, and he stayed up until three in the morning writing his speech (“Not good for my mental health,” he jokes.) After he delivered it, he received 120 letters, one from each of the students who had listened to him. Among those were several from children who were suicidal. Because the letters were screened, those students received help. That was the beginning of his mission. Hines has spoken in front of thousands of people since then, always with the same basic message: You are not alone.
That’s the idea behind the book, too. Even though he’d been telling his story publicly for a while by then, the act of writing was a challenge, and the book took him several years to finish. “Writing it was cathartic,” Hines says, “But also very hard. My wife could barely read it, because it brought her back to those painful times.” I also have the sense that it was hard to write because it forced him to grapple with the same question I had for him: Can you ever stop being The Bridge Guy? He admits that there’s an irony there. Without the jump, it’s hard to see Hines becoming such a well-known figure, and it’s nearly impossible to see him devoting much of his life to suicide prevention. He doesn’t define himself as that guy, but he seems willing to pretend to be him, if it will get his message across.
Hines recounts a story for me that seems to prove his point. Several years ago, after The Bridge had been released, Hines was walking down Montgomery Street by himself. A thick hand grabbed his shoulder. It belonged to a six-foot-tall man who turned Hines around and looked him in the eye. “My son died,” said the man. “My son died and you lived. Why?” Hines pauses when he tells me the story. “I was freaking out. I thought he was going to kill me—and for once that wasn’t my paranoia.” The man had recognized Hines from the film, which means he'd heard his message, even if it came too late to save his son. “I didn’t know what to say. So I finally said to him, ‘I’m sorry.’ He broke down and cried. I stayed with him until he walked away.”
If you or someone you know is thinking of harming themselves, please call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or online at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/