I wrote this piece in response to a blogger named Matt Walsh (not the wonderful comedian) who wrote a piece on suicide, depression, and Robin Williams which just happened to be one of the most factually ignorant and spiritually misguided things I've ever had the misfortune to read. I'm not going to link to it. If you feel the need to read it, you can find it easily. The last thing I want for the Beard is clicks for him from here.
Walsh sees depression in decidedly non-medical terms, as a something which can be overcome by “joy,” presumably of divine origin, and which can lead to suicide, something that he defines in large part as a spiritual decision. There’s so much wrong with this harmful viewpoint that it’s hard to tackle, but the best way to counter is to tell the reality I know firsthand. This is a reality Walsh does not know. He writes on Facebook:
"A lot of you didn't even read [the Robin Williams piece]. Very disappointing. Also, don't tell me what I have or haven't dealt with. Don't do that. You have no idea. You have no idea what I've seen in my own family and in my own community. Don't sit there and tell me that just because you disagree. How dare you. Disgusting, truly."
While I can't say much about what you believe you've dealt with, I can very much say what you haven't dealt with: the depression you're talking about. I know this in the same way that only someone who was on Normandy beach at D-Day could tell you what it's like to be on Normandy beach on D-Day. People who've been in the shit know the shit, and I'm confident that you haven't been in the shit, at least not the kind you wrote about.
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” – David Foster Wallace [^1]
I sang at his funeral. I played "Here Comes the Sun" because I knew it would have made him smile. I told a story before I played, a story he'd told me about driving down to the coast to see the sunrise before rushing back to make his shift at work. He was my friend. We'll call him R. I think about him often. I was thinking about him the day before I heard about Robin Williams, actually.
The difference between R and I is that he walked through the door, and I did not. Let me explain.
When I heard about Robin Williams, my heart sank. It sank because of the meaning he'd brought me through his talent and because I knew why he committed suicide. People who've been on the brink have the unique perspective of knowing both why one steps over and why one steps back. I've been there. It's not something I talk about much, because who the hell wants to talk about it? The best image I can conjure for depression is the incredible shot in Gravity when Sandra Bullock is first floating away from ship after the debris collision. It's that empty. You are that small, and everything is that dark and cold. It's not passionate, it's not writhing in agony or some other expression of extreme misery and pain. It's deadening. It's numb. Dick Cavett was interviewed on NPR about Williams, and what he said toward the end of the interview struck me with its simplicity and truth.
"Another thing I'm sure that people all over the place are saying—how could he do this to his children and his wife? Easy—they don't mean anything to you. You can't feel anything. It sounds awful to say, but it's one of the worst things about it."
This truth is the problem behind people viewing suicide as a selfish act. In the depths, those people whose love and life make them real and present to you, just as you would be present were your love and life not buried so deeply, do not exist. You can't be "selfish" if there is no one else. It does sound awful, doesn't it, Mr. Cavett? But it's what happens. So maybe the act is selfish, but only for the people standing at the top of the abyss looking in. If you're all alone down there, if you are floating off into the eternity of space, how can you possibly be selfish? You're all there is.
The book "Hyperbole and a Half" by Allie Brosh does one of the best jobs of putting the empty nature of depression into words and images. For me, it started young, 8th grade or so. Things just gradually got grayer as time passed. I didn't know something was truly wrong, or that this wasn't the normal state of things. I was growing up, and figured this was part of it. I mean, I later realized adulthood sucks but this was different. Eventually, I was there in the empty. Life had lost its color. I thought about suicide a lot, had a plan for it, felt cowardly every day I couldn't do it. Then I stopped feeling cowardly along with all the other non-feelings, and shuffled through my days with a casual wonder if I'd see tomorrow. It was a remarkably detached feeling.
I came through it with the help of friends and family, people whose love overpowered my non-love. It could have easily gone the other way, though, because it would be years until I sought professional help. Of course, even after getting help there were a couple of serious lapses in which I found myself once again facing the real thought that non-living had to be better than living because living had become more grayscale than I ever imagined it could be.
R suffered from severe mental illness. He was a joyful person, a person I laughed with more times than I can count. Joy wasn’t antithetical to his life. Why? Because joy is the opposite of sadness, of despair. And depression is not "sad." It's emptiness, the complete lack of all things that make life worth living, which is terrifying. What's just as awful is that in your messed-up brain, you know it's terrifying. Like David Foster Wallace notes, you aren't immune to the terror of the situation. It's just that the scales start tipping in a way you never thought they would; eventually you find yourself in a position so unnervingly removed that completely removing yourself seems sensible if not downright correct.
R was faced with two scenarios: the utter lack of feeling, of self, of relation which weighed upon him with no regard to his "choice" in the matter, or the zombie-like state his heavy medications put him in. Doesn't sound like much of a choice, does it? That's because it isn't. Not in the sense that we think of, when we think of two opposing options, like when Walsh holds up joy and depression. It's more like the choice Wallace describes in the quote above. You've got two terrors to choose between, and in the end there is no real choice between the two.
It’s hard to accept logically, that at the end there is no choice. It's one way forward, and it's clear as day. At the end, it's the fire or the window. You pick the window because, duh, who wouldn't? Mental illness is no more a choice than any other disease with the capacity to maim and kill the body. Nobody asks for it, and no choice made after having it can stand up to the scrutiny of the true meaning of the word "choice." At best, you've got limited options, but never choice with a big C.
That lack of choice in addition to the lack of all things is why I want to correct people who say suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.[^2] No. Sometimes the problem doesn't leave, and, for those mired in the illness, there appears only one viable solution. Nothing temporary about it. I know what you’re thinking: “but you just said ‘appears’! That means there is one!” Yes, but it does no good that you on the outside can see it. Reality is fundamentally altered by depression. Time and space are stretched and twisted in depression, and knowing that does nothing to change the experience of it. It’s one of those things you just have to trust from someone who has been through it. Some people are just able and lucky enough to stick it out. Some people are lucky enough to get help, the right kind of help, before it's too late.
My depression isn't cured, and nothing will cure it. But it can be helped, and it can be held at bay. You won't find a bigger advocate for medication and therapy than me. I don't tell a depressed friend that meds are a cure, but I do laud them as a way to keep going. Like Gandalf's staff in the Mines of Moria, my meds are a light that holds orcs and goblins at bay. You can make your way out of the deep places with such a light, but the danger doesn't subside. It backs off. You find ways to fight it, even ways to win numerous battles over it. You put solid distance between those evil things and yourself, enough to feel well and safe.
Things will get truly better, not because you're cured, but because remission is still something to celebrate. This is all after getting help, mind you. And getting help is not about having enough strength, just as not getting help does not denote weakness. Some people are just lucky enough to get the help they need, are able to try enough treatments until something works, able in the right moment to ask for help or have someone strong enough to drag them to it before they end their life. This doesn't make them better than those who end up committing suicide, just as the soldier who steps on a land mine is no better than the soldier walking beside her. It's random, and that sucks. But there it is.
But you know what? Matt Walsh is right about one thing. For those with faith, for those who have known or wish to know God, there is a spiritual truth in the depth of depression. Unfortunately, it's the felt absence of God, the experience of a vacuum where even God cannot or does not choose to enter. There is only you and a door. Either you sit in the dark, or walk through the door. And you think about those options believing God is not with you in one of those places.[^3] Hopefully, you're pulled up like a rag doll before you take those steps (because you gave up trying to climb out long ago). Life is worth living, but this is a fact written on a page unreadable in the dark.
I don't say any of this to say that suicide is inevitable; it's not. If you need help, get help. If it takes your loved ones dragging you to the doctor, if it takes your last ounce of self-care to pick up the phone, do it. Get help.[^4] From someone who could have put the other foot over the edge and didn't, listen when I say that there are good things waiting for you outside of the abyss. Not a perfect life, but good things. They are worth knowing, touching, loving.
And if you're a person standing at the top of the bottomless pit, trying to catch a glimpse of your loved one, just keep reaching your hands down there and lowering ropes. Your task is not to chide, not to question why, not to explain depression away; it is to love for someone who cannot love for themselves. It is also to know that they don't want to be down there any more than you want them to be down there. They didn't choose to jump in. They can't joy themselves out or some other fucking stupid notion.[^5] But they will take a hand if they're able to see it; we can pray they're lucky enough to do so.
Love each other. Love yourself as best you can. Reach out as often and as best as you are able. Know that you are loved. Know that grace abides for those loved ones who could not abide.
- [^1]: Infinite Jest
- [^2]: I know this is a line similar to one Williams delivers in the fantastic film "World's Greatest Dad," a dark comedy dealing with a son's suicide. If you ask me, William's film "What Dreams May Come" hits a little closer to the mark on what the suicidally depressed person's seemingly never-ending isolation looks like.
- [^3]: I'm not saying this to get you riled up or to start a debate about the nature of God and belief in God. I'm telling you how it feels down there. If God is the loving one who pulls you up, you'll hear nothing but praise from me.
- [^4]: National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
- [^5]: I'm personally grateful for joy called "generic Zoloft."