Today is a down day.
There are many factors at play here. Most common for me, it seems, is always the weather. If it’s raining or overcast, it’s an automatic strike against my ability to simply do. There are other factors, as well- another rejection for the project I’m pitching. Worries over money and how I’ll manage to stay in the black once this freelance project ends. And, of course, the news that broke not twenty-four hours ago about the suicide of Robin Williams. This comes not long after a friend of mine took his own life this winter. His name was Justin Carmical, and he shot himself while locked in his bathroom. I haven’t really talked about it until now, because I didn’t know what to say.
I didn’t know Robin Williams. I venture a guess that most people who are writing think pieces about his suicide today didn’t know him. All the same, in the wake of a suicide people grasp for meaning, try to rationalize thing that was, in their mind, simply not possible. In the grand scheme of Suicides To Which I Have Borne Witness in 2014, I’ve heard many variations on the phrase “I didn’t see this coming” or “this was such a shock” or “I never expected this from them.”
To that, all I can say is, you clearly didn’t know them.
Often the rationale behind this is a variation on “he seemed so happy” or “he cared so deeply about people.” While these statements are fair as people begin to cope with the loss of a friend, to me it belies a serious misunderstanding of the suicidal mind.
Part of this cognitive dissonance springs from this common idea that suicide is a selfish act, and that only selfish and self-centered people commit suicide. How could one so funny and vivacious as Robin William do such a thing? How could one as caring and selfless as Justin Carmical do such a thing? But people assume that the depressed mind operates on the same logic as a healthy mind. It doesn’t. Not by a long shot.
It’s not that Justin wasn’t capable of taking his own life- obviously he was. Justin didn’t fit with people’s idea of suicidal. Neither did Robin Williams. The idea, however, is a caricature. A hard-drinking, Edgar Allen Poe-like waif who goes to slam poetry readings on the rare days he can force himself to get out of bed, perhaps, until the one day he can’t take it anymore. Or perhaps the stock broker that had only one thing to live for and then lost everything. A one note caricature that no person is, for we are all complex animals.
And thus, we see variations on the following:
“I didn’t see this coming.”
“Him, of all people, it doesn’t make sense!”
“I didn’t see the warning signs.”
Well, I may be stating the obvious, but that’s not exactly the sort of thing you put on a resumé.
Being suicidal is more than a crushing emotional burden- it’s fucking embarrassing. This is not true for all, but most people with mood disorders learn that there is no room in this world for their damage. It jeopardizes jobs, relationships, businesses, and most people tend not to understand your mindset. In the rare event that they do offer help, they offer bad help. Well-meaning but ignorant help. Help based on the idea that a depressed person is just a sad person who needs to stop being sad, and this is untrue. Dangerously untrue.
Everything in our society purports misunderstandings of the suicidal mind. Hell, even suicidal people don’t understand the suicidal mind. The suicidal mind is elusive, distant, alien. It snaps somewhere, stops being human, and stops recognizing other humans. You begin to exist in a fog, a world surrounded by zombies that wear expressions that no longer carry any meaning. You crave beauty, for you remember the concept, but you no longer take any joy in beauty or beautiful things. You can remember human logic, just enough to know that your brain is no longer operating on that system.
Depression causes the brain to operate on a different wavelength from just being “sad.” Your thinking changes, your perceptions of yourself, the world and your loved ones change. You no longer feel human. You no longer understand other humans. As a result not only do we, the depressed, not know how to handle it from the inside, but the people who populate our lives have difficulty coping. Everyone has their thresholds.
The following is observations in fragments, loosely connected and possibly nonsense. A peek inside of one experience, but by no means meant to encapsulate the whole human experience. My intent with this is not to take this tragedy and make it about me, nor to seek validation, nor to rationalize self-harming behavior, but to try to shed some insight on how the suicidal mind works based on my personal experience. It’s not that the people you know aren’t who you think they are – it’s that there’s a side of themselves that they hide from you. They have to. So my intent is to demystify it, perhaps, and shed some light onto the mechanics of it, the logic and the lack thereof. My intent is to portray to the reader what it’s like when your brain is actively trying to kill you.
“I don’t believe that about you”
I have an on-again-off-again superior at the company I on-again-off-again freelance for. He asked me how I was doing one day not long ago, and for some reason I felt like being honest. I told him I wasn’t doing well, that I was in a downward swing, and that I should probably see a therapist, maybe even go on medication again.
“Of course you’re fucked up,” he said in his affectionate, New York blue-collar manner of speaking, “You wouldn’t work here if you weren’t fucked up. We’re all fucked up! But you’re not like that. You’re not crazy.” This was his way of saying that I was in the club, not among the Other, the shrivelled, quivering, nebbish sorts that need to see therapists, pop antidepressants like Tic Tacs and cry all the time.
He laughed and dismissed my concerns, told me that I didn’t need to bother with that psycho mumbo-jumbo hoo-ha. This troubled me, because although this guy is prone to saying, shall we say, insensitive things from time to time (you get used to it), this was a person I liked and respected. I tried to explain that this is not a new thing for me, that I have had some intense emotional downswings in my life, and the one I experienced last year brought me closer to taking my own life than I ever had. “Why?” I don’t know, but this was only a couple of months before I started working at this company.
And then there was how he saw me when I started working there – casual, adaptable, able to “keep up with the boys” and seemingly thick-skinned. Something didn’t line up. No livejournal poetry, no constantly staring into the middle distance or whatever it is that people assume depressives do all day. I did not, and continue not to, appear “crazy.” He stopped dismissing it, realizing now that I was serious, but all he kept saying was, “No, I don’t believe that about you. That’s not you.”
He seemed to have difficulty with the idea that people who struggle with depression turn “on” in public and at their jobs. They are conditioned to do this. They have to put on masks. The world has no room for people who wear their illness on their sleeve. And maybe there is a war being waged on the inside – some days are up days, some days are down days – but the rest of the world can’t know that. The rest of the world doesn’t understand that.
The rest of the world has no room for that.
My fish are dead.
Last year, Allie Brosch published her experience with depression on her blog, trying to relate to other people simply what the experience is like. I, well, I related to some of it, not all of it. My experience tended to be more Crushing Existential Misery than Gray Haze of Nothing (though the latter certainly took up its own share of time). Her “my fish are dead” analogy is, I think, intended to show how people suggest the wrong solution for a completely irrelevant problem, and that is fair. Think also of the metaphor of trying to run with a sprained ankle. You’re hobbling along, unable to keep up with everyone the way you used to, and everyone around you is telling you to run harder, or faster, or backwards, or it’s just got to learn to be an ankle again, or any measure of unhelpful advice suggesting that you power through it rather than address the problem.
Depression is a bit of a nebulous concept for something so common. Sometimes it applies to a one-off event, perhaps after the passing of a loved one or the loss of a job, sometimes it refers to a cyclical phenomenon with the individual going through phases of deep depression throughout their entire lives. Unfortunately I seem to occupy the latter flavor. Each time I pull myself out of a depression I always manage to delude myself that this was the last one. “That sucked!” I tell myself. “Good thing I’ll never have to deal with that again!”
But it always comes back.
Part of my problem was this assumption that I would grow out of it. Mature out of it, because suicidal ideation is the province of the immature, and I am too fucking old for this. As a result, rather than addressing the problem, I ignore it, convinced that I have reached some sort of maturity milestone. That I am now old enough, mature enough, to not have to deal with this shit.
This is all too often a fatal mistake.
The truth is, age does grind you down in many ways we don’t understand.
I saw a psychiatrist early in the year, and relayed this belief of mine that I was supposed to grow out of it. He told me to expect quite the opposite, in fact, depressive episodes “bloom into the DNA” of some people. That’s why mood disorders don’t set in until one’s twenties. That’s why older people, especially men, are at a higher risk of completing suicide. You don’t age out of suicidal ideation. There is no threshold that you reach, and then you’re safe. And if even Robin Williams, Oscar© winner, character actor and comedian beloved to millions was not safe, then who is?
That fateful day
“No Boys Allowed brunch”- that was how I phrased it. I’ve been rewriting a book to go on submission, and I’d been going a little stir crazy. I craved girly time. I wanted to get out, drink some mimosas, whine about writing and show off my spreadsheet I’d made to organize the rewrite. It was color-coded. I was proud of that spreadsheet. So I was out with the girls acting out an extremely poor man’s Queens version of Sex and the City when I heard about Justin.
Of course, I was shocked. But it took me all of about ten seconds, based on what I already knew about Justin, to know that it was true.
One of my girlfriends I was out with is also my neighbor, and her husband was at my place commiserating with Todd by the time that I got home. Todd was not quite drunk, though our neighbor was. He’d decided today he got a pass to self-medicate, and on the sixty dollar bottle of whiskey I’d brought him from Ireland, no less.“Writer’s Tears” brand whiskey. What better time to indulge in such a brand than now?
The method was by gun, which to me was the biggest shock. A gun is serious business. A gun is aiming for completion. But even more shocking the fact that he had a gun- why? Where did he get it? Had he bought it for this express purpose, or had he owned it?
If the latter, why? Why would Justin, knowing his own history with depression and suicidal ideation, keep a gun in his house? Were substances involved?
Speaking of substances, I whip out my own bottle of Writer’s Tears that I’d been saving for, well, a special occasion (this counts, right?). It’s here that I address the elephant in the room, that it could have been me. Justin’s death came only a few months after my last attempt.
My friend, by now quite tipsy, starts crying. He says he knows that, and it weighed on him, the fact that this happened to someone he knew, the fact that this could happen to me. The fact that sometimes those urges really do become too much for people, even people as sociable as Justin, is terrifying to him. He knew Justin, too. He’s more shocked by it than I am. But, he admits, he’s also afraid of losing me.
And though I don’t want to make this ordeal about me, I know everyone in the room is thinking it. People who make attempts are more likely to complete down the line.
I knew that about Justin. Knew this completed suicide wasn’t his first attempt. But even so, when people tell you, “I’m better now,” of course your instinct is to believe them. Your inclination is to assume that they will never be that bad again.
That inclination is almost always false.
Justin had left a suicide note on Foursquare, of all places. I didn’t get the alert since I only get alerts for my local friends, and Justin was in Colorado Springs, but I scrolled down to the fateful date, and there it was. He’d checked in at his house with only the words, “Goodbye. I love you all.”
Upon reading this, I realized that this wasn’t some spur of the moment thing. He was set on it. He had planned it.
Then, right on cue, as though we were living in a bad student film, snow started to fall.
Why do we suffer?
Last year, I was really low. Lower than I ever remember being before. I travelled for the express purpose of trying to expose myself to beauty, only to find I don’t remember why humans crave beauty in the first place. Then plans started popping into my head. I started dwelling on them for days. Then weeks. New York City sure does have an awful lot of bridges, I thought. And one of them is walking distance from my apartment.
And people ask me, what happened to make you like this? What changed?
And I answer honestly, nothing happened. Nothing changed. It just sprouted in me, like kudzu, and then left untended it got out of hand.
This is a question I wrestle with often- why does nature select for depression? We always try to find some meaning in it. We have to, to rationalize it, to justify it, to find some way not to be bitterly jealous of the seemingly happy people who bounce about life with confidence, with purpose, with whatever juice it is that keeps them going. Without the abundance of hairline fractures crippling their basic ability to function as a “normal” person, day after day.
No beautiful suffering for them.
It’s almost like an abusive relationship. Miserable but familiar, and acting to change your circumstances seems almost impossible. The excuses you make become normal, the detachment from others becomes comfortable, and you just stop caring. That doesn’t mean you stop hurting though, and when you finally reach the bottom of the well, the idea that keeping on keeping on just isn’t worth the effort starts to make more and more sense.
And you find your thoughts are occupied more and more with that suspension bridge down the street.
Some depressives have ways of rationalizing these things to themselves. The Lars Von Triers of the world romanticize it, which in my mind is its own form of stigmatization. Love your suffering! It’s part of what makes you you. If you didn’t suffer then you couldn’t art, therefore your suffering makes you a special snowflake.
Others try to logic you out of your sadness, which believe me is the surest path to failure and frustration (a depressive mood disorder is nothing if not illogical). Others still try to reassure you that, hey, you wouldn’t have that brilliant shining star of a creative mind without that burdensome depression-monkey on your back. And maybe that’s true, but when you are in the deepest throes of a depressive cycle, it hardly seems worth it. Wouldn’t it be nicer to just be normal?
And then, when you trouble yourself to look at the people in the world, you just don’t understand what keeps them going. Why in God’s name do they want to keep on living? Don’t they realize how shitty their lives are? How pointless it all is?
Thing is, when depressives are relaying these shitty thoughts to you, they aren’t doing it to bring you down, too. They aren’t even begging for attention. They’re asking for help.
Words Are Blunt Force Objects
I cannot stress this point enough, when you are trying to help a depressed or suicidal person: intent does not matter.
Sort of like when Liz Lemon was making her list of pros and cons as to whether or not Dennis was worth keeping around as her boyfriend, the depressed mind is constantly looking for pros and cons as to whether life is worth living, and the depressed mind has a tremendous confirmation bias. So what you mean to say is irrelevant in the face of what a depressive actually hears. While it might be cultural conditioning telling you that this is the right thing to say, saying “I’m really worried about you,” depending on the level of depression, can be a no good, very bad thing to say to someone.
An even more important point to stress is this: you cannot use logic against depression.
Seriously, your impulse to try to get someone to see things from your point of view? The point of view where your friend actually has it pretty good, so why be sad? Deny that impulse. Push through it. Your good logic-rooted intentions will come across as condescending at best, and actively compound the problem at worst. We know we’re not being rational. We know.
The best way to describe the suicidal mind is like a case of someone with the most mind-bogglingly rigid case of confirmation bias ever. Everything is twisted into evidence against one’s continued existence. You know how conspiracy theorists take everything and twist it into their bizarre narrative of how they see the world? Like one day Obama’s skin looked a little dry, therefore he is clearly one of the Lizard People? That sort of thing. The suicidal brain takes all stimulus, relevant to the brain-owner or not, and twists all things into evidence of why life is probably not worth living.
This is where the alien brain comes in – the distant, wheezing human brain might be eavesdropping, and indicating what one should be interpreting based on the stimulus it is receiving. But the thing is, what someone means to say to a depressed person, and what the depressed listener hears can be two very different things.
What you say is, “I want you to get better.”
What they hear is, “You are a burden on me.”
This immediately translates into the life-cons pile. “I am a burden on people.”
When the immediate, seemingly obvious response comes: “But think of how it would hurt people if you were to harm yourself.”
What message comes but the obvious? Again: “My mere existence is a burden.”
On a high-functioning day, it comes in the form of. “They’ll get over it. They think I’m selfish- how fucking selfish are they for making it about them? Sooner or later, they’ll realize this was all for the best.”
Statement: “Is there any medication you can take?”
Translation: “You are fundamentally flawed human being and I have way unrealistic expectations about magic happy pills.”
Medication can soften your edges, stabilize your moods, but it cannot fundamentally cure you.
Statement: “Glad I’ve never had to deal with that!”
Translation: “I am unbearable shitlord.”
Nevermind not saying that, don’t even think that, you prick so unburdened of empathy. Christ.
And for the love of God, should you be dealing with a woman, do not ever, ever say some variation on the following:
“But you’re so pretty! What do you have to be sad about?”
Ah, yes, I am naught but an object that exists for your visual gratification and I have done my job. Why be sad?
I usually hear that one from older men, but it bears repeating: don’t say this. Never, ever say this.
Statement: “Do you not see how much this is hurting me/your family/others/thing?”
Translation: “Your existence is actively harmful to me.”
This may seem obvious, and I’ve had people say this thing out loud in a sort of panic, but for the love of God if you are genuinely concerned about your loved one, stop yourself before saying this. This ranks pretty high on the list of well meaning worst things you can say.
Statement: “We need to get you better, and keep you that way.” or “Let’s hope that this never happens again.”
Translation: “We need to get you better, and keep you that way.” or “Let’s hope that this never happens again.”
Well gee, no pressure then, fuckstick. Not like this is a disincentive to be honest about one’s mental state in the probable event that it does happen again.
Honestly, that last one is the most dangerous, because not only does it show the most dangerous misunderstanding of depression, it’s the sort of reinforcement of societal norms that keeps people from seeking treatment in the first place.
But the most dangerous aspect of this misunderstanding is simply this- that depression can be cured.
One may go a month, a year, ten years, twenty years without a major depressive episode, but it is always a part of you.
Depression is like cancer; it does not get cured, it only goes into remission.
And if the reader interprets this as, “What, I’m just supposed to… accept depression as a part of my loved one that will never, ever really be banished?” Well… yeah. You don’t expect Type 1 Diabetics to get cured despite diet and exercise, so why would you expect the same from a depressive despite the fact that they lost weight and got a promotion? It is like chronic pain. It is something you live with your entire life, it is woven into the very fabric of your being. Some days will be good, some days will be bad.
You really want to help your loved one in the long run? Accept this.
Well, what do I say, then?
Well, my friend, that may be the wrong question. The most important step is not to make it about you.
Not all depressions are created equal, and different people have different needs. In general, however, the confirmation bias part of the brain is not the only part of the brain that longs to be sated. The depressed individual does long for evidence to the contrary. They do want to be listened to. They do want to believe they have value. They do want to believe that they are loved.
What they don’t want is to have their feelings negated with shallow, condescending suggestions that don’t address the problem. They don’t want to be belittled. Hell, they probably don’t want your goddamn advice. Because your goddamn advice is probably horrible.
And another difficult issue – not all depressives are willing to seek the help that they need. Many times have I avoided it simply out of the hope that I’d get over it on my own, when deep down, really, I know what I need to do, and what I need to do is not power through this episode while crying manly tears. But I have seen other people do the most extraordinary mental backbends to avoid responsibility for their own circumstance, to avoid even the possibility of seeking treatment (I knew one that blamed Obama, saying if she took even the mildest of anti-depressants her mother would lose the license to operate her gun range in California. No, really. No. Really).
And the problem with trying to encourage a friend or loved one to get help can walk a fine line of reading as “I don’t want to deal with you – I want to shove you on someone else.” It’s a difficult line to tread. Only you can judge where that line is.
Inevitably, you will fail them. You will make the situation about you. You will say something about them that fuels their already self-sustaining vortex of self-loathing. You’re walking in a minefield, and you will make mistakes. Forgive yourself, and move on.
And there is of course the possibility that they are beyond your help. Perhaps you are doing each other more harm than good, or perhaps (like our aforementioned Prozac-will-take-mom’s-guns-away example) they are simply unwilling to admit that their mental problems are actively harming others and that they need to seek treatment. There may come a point where you must admit that you cannot help this person, because this person does not want to be helped. Many, many depressives are not honest with themselves about their own state, and it is not your responsibility to change that. It may be in everyone’s best interest to walk away.
With that comes the possibility that they may harm themselves. You can try to help them, but you can’t always stop them. At the end of the day, it boils down to what you can live with.
My fish are still dead
I cannot do. For some people, depression robs you of your ability to do. I can barely get up the energy to do more than get up and go to work (at 2:00 PM, on a good day), eat ice cream and drink beer. A good day is one where I don’t drink alone. I try not to take more than half a Xanax per day. I don’t want to get addicted to Xanax again. I don’t want to drink myself to sleep every night. But I cannot do.
I was flying with productivity six months ago. Now I can’t even cobble together an idea for a review. Not even a review.
It is beyond frustrating to the depressed individual- why can’t I do the things I was able to do six months ago? This used to come easily to me, now it is like pulling teeth- why can I not do this thing I used to be able to do with such ease?
And the answer is simple: your brain chemistry is not the same as it was six months ago. Asking that question is like asking “Why can I not run this marathon like I could six months ago?” while hobbling along with a sprained ankle. Obviously, you cannot run that marathon, because you are injured.
But the answer is not so obvious with depression.
In the case of depression, the first step to recovery is to understand that you cannot treat your brain as though it is functioning normally. You cannot force yourself to do things that are overwhelming to you in the hopes you’ll snap out of it; you will only become more overwhelmed and dig deeper. You cannot talk yourself into the idea that doing should be easy, because it used to come naturally to you; you will only abuse yourself more.
In many ways depression is like addiction, in that the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. The difference here is that it doesn’t mean you ever stop beating yourself up for being, well, sick. Depression is a mood disorder. It is an evolutionary fuckup in the chemicals and hormones in your brain. It is a disease, much in the way addiction is a disease, but since you spend most of your time thinking like a normal, relatively healthy person, you attack the problem like it is an invading infection to be driven out.
It is corrosive, acidic, it sneaks up on you, and often times you find that your foundations have been eroded away before you even realized there was a serious problem. And there you are, unable to do, forced to admit to yourself your own responsibility, that you must get up and do or be trapped in this cycle for who knows how long. Perhaps this cycle will be the one that does you in.
And once again, you are reminded that it is not a thing that is cured, it goes into remission, and the only thing you, your friends and family can do is maintain constant vigilance. Constant vigilance…