Mental health

[I’m probably cheating with this one.  I actually wrote this months ago for a mental health awareness campaign at my former employer. I got some good feedback from it. It’s part of the reason I’m doing what I’m doing now. It kind of had to go up today. Today my mental illness is old enough to drink.

I’ve edited this just the tiniest bit. It may be a little hard to read. I can tell you it wasn’t a lot of fun to live, either.

Everybody’s story is different.  This is mine.]

Thursday February 17, 1995 was pretty much a typical day. I taught a couple of classes. Met with some students. Did some reading for my dissertation. Closed my office door. Tried to figure out how to kill myself so it didn’t look like I killed myself. It had been my routine for a month or two. Except weekends. On weekends I didn’t teach classes.

There was one thing different that day, though. A few days before — I honestly don’t remember how many, but I know it was earlier that week — I had been doing some reading on survey measurement instruments and came across a number of simple diagnostic questionnaires. A couple of them were for depression. I maxed out the scores. Not in a good way. Other than its association with the word ‘sad’ I had no conception of the word ‘depression.’ I was 32 years old.

Shame-Typography-2-800pxBefore there was Google (or even the World Wide Web) there was Usenet and its newsgroups. If you wanted to see what a lot of people had to say about a given topic, you went and found a Usenet group. And there was a Usenet group for just about everything. I fired up my newsreader on my desktop computer and found a group called alt.depression. I started reading. It was mostly people telling their stories. And saying things I was pretty convinced I was the only person ever to think. For as long as I could remember. I just thought that’s how things were.

So on that Thursday when I closed my door and thought about how to kill myself because I couldn’t bear to be alive, the thing that was different was that I had the inkling there was name for what I felt. I had long before accepted the idea that I was screwed up, but that there was a *name* for it was a revelation. I was in hell, but it wasn’t a hell designed uniquely for me. So as I sat there trying to think of a way to kill myself another thought became to grow and grow and grow. “You really ought to talk to someone.” I said to myself, “because if you actually think of a way that will work you’re really going to be in deep shit.”

I called a colleague in another department who I knew was plugged into the social services system in town. Told her basically what I said in the first paragraph. She called a friend of hers who is a psychiatrist and I had an appointment with her the following Monday. My colleague called me every day to make sure I was OK. Just telling her made me feel better, so there really wasn’t much danger. But I appreciated her asking. I don’t know that I’ve ever properly thanked her for saving my life. Thanks, Pam.

I spent the next two and a half years in therapy. There was a move to another city in the middle of that. That probably didn’t help because sometime about a year and a half later I found myself on the Henry Avenue bridge over Wissahickon Park Valley in Philadelphia deciding whether or not I was going to jump. “Do it now, or don’t ever do it,” I said to myself.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t.

William Styron wrote a brilliant book on his experience with depression called “Darkness Visible.” (Of course it’s brilliant. It’s William Freaking Styron.) Anyway, he said that the fundamental decision everyone has to make every day is whether to live or die. That day I decided to live. Keeping the choice at the forefront was getting tedious. I had to decide to do it or not do it. I’m glad I chose what I chose, but I have very complicated feelings about those who choose otherwise. I would always counsel not doing it, but, when I hear of someone who has, I always have the feeling of sadness that an old enemy has taken another one. I can never condemn them. I hate the hurt the people left behind feel. I always tell them it’s OK to be pissed off at the person who killed themselves. It’s a more appropriate reaction than feeling like they should have seen it coming and been able to do something. People were uniformly surprised at how bad things had gotten when I told them of my suicidal thoughts. Never once during the whole time did I ever quit cracking jokes. Jokes were the only way I could make myself pretend that people liked me.

We live in an age where we’re told constantly to “go with your gut,” “do what you think is right,” “be yourself.” I suffer from depression. I’m on medication and have been in therapy. Those are three bad very bad pieces of advice for me. If I’d done any of those things I’d be dead. For the record, I didn’t think much of the Apple “Think Different” campaign either. You know who else thought different? Jeffery Dahmer. So there’s that.

I can’t tell you what it’s like to suffer from depression. What I can say is I can’t listen to my inner monologue. I know I can’t stand people telling me how I ought to feel. I’m way too in touch with my feelings. All kinds of feelings. Too damned many feelings. I don’t need an amateur telling me I’m doing it wrong. I think I’m wrong in ways you can’t begin to imagine. I do better when I ignore my feelings. “Luke, whatever you do, DON’T USE THE FORCE. It’s an asshole.”

A saying that’s gotten popular in the last few years is “depression lies.” I’m not sure what people who don’t suffer from depression get from that, but I like it. It’s something simple to think of when things start getting bad. And simple is good when things start getting bad because everything slows down and everything hurts. Simple is good.

Life is hard. But it beats the alternative. Don’t ever let go of that.

One Reply to “Mental health”

  1. I’ve known I was depressed since high school, which means even back when I knew you at SFA I was fighting it. But I didn’t go to counseling or get on antidepressants til I was 30. I managed to stay functional til I hit menopause at 42, then the struggle really began. For the last 10 years I’ve had difficultly keeping jobs – which of course means huge financial problems, as well as a sketchy job history. Thankfully, my mom can keep me from being homeless. But I despair that I will ever have any quality of life ever again. But I’ve now held a job for over a year 🙂

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