Content Note: In this post, I’m going to talk frankly about suicide, suicidal thoughts and ideation, and severe or chronic depression. Please don’t read if these things are trigger points for you because I want you to take good care of yourself.
Anthony Bourdain’s suicide spurred a lot of thought about suicide in me–and pain. Actual pain for a man I had never met and hadn’t really thought about except tangentially over the past few years. Here’s part one of my thoughts and musings on the subject. Let me expand on these thoughts, starting with the last one: stopping the stigma surrounding depression and suicide.
There is still a lingering belief that you can conquer depression by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. “Just think positive thoughts!” “There are people who have it much worse than you do!” By the way, this last one? Never say it to someone. Ever. I don’t care what the circumstance is, it’s a shitty thing to say regardless. Yes, it’s true someone has it worse, but someone also has it better. Plus, someone else’s suffering doesn’t negate your own. In addition, while gratitude for what you have is a good thing, it’s not helpful to have someone else scold you for not being properly grateful enough. And, again, it touches on my earlier points. We already know what we have to be grateful for. We already know whatever it is you think you’re telling us. Or conversely, there are plenty of people who have pretty rough lives. No, it may not be starving in a refugee camp, but that doesn’t negate that it’s still shit.
“Mind over matter!” “The mind can do anything!” The last is from a story I heard on NPR about someone who had to deal with a close friend dying by suicide (and had interviewed him about his suicidal thoughts before he (the friend) actually did it) and later, the brother of the friend who died by suicide as well. The friend’s therapist told him this, and I was appalled. Want to know my own therapist’s (my last and best one) take on this? When I was telling her that I felt I should be able to think my way out of depression, she said to me, “Minna, your brain is what got you here in the first place.” It was a light bulb moment for me, and while it didn’t stick around long, it did plant a seed that continued to flourish.
Side note: Drugs. There’s a disturbing trend for some people (both on the right and the left, for vastly different reasons) to decry antidepressants at the top of their lungs. Whether it’s because they’re ‘not natural’, ‘pushed by Big Pharma’, or ‘turn to God instead’, they need to STFU. I am not the person to go immediately to drugs, but I also know that they can help–they really can. I’ve been on three of them, all in the SSRI family–Prozac, Zoloft, and Celexa), and each one really helped me for approximately a year. Unfortunately for me, the effectiveness wore off, and when I tried them again, the result was disastrous. They actually made me suicidal, and I hastily had to get off them stat. By the way, a side note to the side note: During this period, I had a doctor’s visit. Because of the suicidal thoughts, I couldn’t eat, and I lost nearly twenty pounds in two months. My doctor, who was a fanatic about weight (side note to the side note to the side note: she was a fairly new doctor to me. I had to leave my last one for stressful reasons), noted approvingly that I had lost weight. I explained the situation and said it was because I was deeply suicidal. She faltered for a few minutes then quipped feebly, “Well, it doesn’t matter why you lost the weight as long as you did it!” I was shocked by what she said, and I never went back. Later, in retelling the story, I realized that she probably felt deeply uncomfortable by what I’d said and joking about it was her way to deal with the discomfort. This is a perfect illustration of what not to say to someone who is in a lot of pain, but it’s not uncommon.
I know it’s difficult to be with a friend who is seriously depressed. I’ve been both the depressed and the friend of the depressed, and while the former is harder, the latter is no walk in the park, either. It’s hard to see someone you love suffering so much without wanting to do something about it. In addition, let’s address the elephant in the room–a severely depressed person may not be the most pleasant person to be around. In addition to being self-destructive, they may lash out at anyone who is near them. Part of my own depression was pushing away people I loved and pursuing people who were incapable of loving me because deep down I didn’t feel I deserved love. I was never outright nasty to my friends, but it’s not uncommon. And, as in the case with any kind of relationship, the friend in question should not feel guilty about setting boundaries with their depressed loved one.
I also want to talk about the way we talk about depression and suicide. Take ‘committed suicide’ for example. So-and-so committed suicide. There has been a recent pushback against this term as I learned in reading more about Bourdain’s suicide. The reason why is because it puts too much of the onus on the person who died. We would never say, for example, committed cancer or say someone who died by cancer was choosing to die that way*. I know suicide seems different because it happens at the person’s own hand. There’s no way getting around the fact that it’s self-inflicted in practice. But, the question of choice is ambiguous in this situation. Americans are very passionate about individualism, choice, and all that shit. It’s almost a mania, and it’s both positive and negative. One way it’s negative is the insistence that we have control over everything we say and do. It’s at the root of positive thinking, and it’s utter bullshit. We actually have very little control in our lives, so I get that it’s a comforting fiction to believe otherwise.
But, it only underscores how difficult it is to talk about depression in this country. It’s less stigmatized now than it was even ten years ago, but there’s still a strong belief that it’s a weakness, that it can be overcome with positive thinking, and that it says something about the person who has it. I think one of the reasons for this is similar to why after hearing about a woman being raped, some women start criticizing everything the woman did. Her dress was too short! She was drinking! She was flirting with him! She went home with him! She was in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time! It happened to me with my own experience. Without fail, my male friends were sympathetic and, incidentally, outraged on my behalf. My female friends, on the other hand, while also horrified, were more apt to give me suggestions what I should do to prevent another occurrence. It hurt at the time, but I realized much later that it was because they were trying to protect themselves. If they could pinpoint why it happened to me, then they could prevent it from happening to themselves.
It’s the same with suicide. It’s such a shocking thing, the mind recoils. And, suicide can be contagious in that upon hearing about it, it can mess with the mind of someone who is already on the edge. It can make something that is considered taboo and outre suddenly accessible. In other words, it becomes a possibility when it might not have been one before. And, it allows the brain weasels to work their nasty magic on you. Many depressed people have a persistent negative voice (or voices) in their head that never shuts up about how terrible they are. I had one of those, and it never gave me a break. Every minute I was awake, he (and it was definitely a he) would tell me how I was a waste of space, how toxic I was, how the world would be better off without me, how my friends just felt sorry for me, and how I had to earn my right to live. It got so bad, I nicknamed him the Dictator. Weirdly, it actually helped me deal with him by giving him a name, but I was still in his claws for a very long time.
How long? Well, I still haven’t completely escaped yet. I still have this voice that sometimes pops up in my head. It’s not the same voice, and it’s not nearly as strong as it was before, but it’s still there. Just last night, I was looking into the full-length mirror because I’m wearing a sundress instead of my usual shorts and tank top. I tend to put off doing my laundry until it’s past the point of reasonable, and this is something clean and simple to wear. Anyway, I don’t look in the mirror. At all. I still have body (and face) issues that makes it an uncomfortable experience. Even when I brush my hair, I don’t look in the mirror. For whatever reason, I decided to look at myself in my dress, and I immediately regretted. The voice in my head, “You’re a disgusting whale!” “How can you stand to even look like that?” “You are so fucking gross!” “No wonder you can’t get a date!”
I had to stop right quick because I was about to go in a negative self-spiral. I walked away from the mirror, put it out of my mind, and moved on. This was actually an improvement over what I used to do, which was dwell on it until it made me practically catatonic. I don’t think the initial feeling and negative self-talk is ever going to go away, but I’m amazed at how much it’s faded. I mean, I have a low-key depression that is always around, but that voice, that awful voice, I hadn’t heard that in a week or two. Actually, I hadn’t heard that particular voice in months.
Back to suicide. As I’ve been trying to show, there are many reasons suicide occurs, and I want to return to the idea that it’s a choice. Yes, it’s technically a choice in that the person does it. However, most people who reach the point of suicide are past the point of conscious choice. Again, there’s no way to apply logic or reason to this situation. Throw it all out the window because it has no place here. If you reach the point where suicide is the answer, then you’re beyond reason. The key is getting to someone before they reach that point, but that’s another post as well. What I’m trying to convey here is the look inside the mind of someone who’s had suicidal thoughts, ideations, and has even tried (weakly, but tried, all the same) to commit suicide (sorry, but that’s the way I think of it in my own head). I want to emphasize that it’s just my mind and anecdote does not equal data, of course, but I believe there are points in common with other people in similar situations.
Bottom line: We need to talk more about depression and suicide with less judgment and more compassion.
*Though, of course, there are people who will argue about what you do to combat something like cancer, but that’s another post for another day.