this post has proven to be inordinately difficult to write, and i’ve drafted it multiple times, then thrown away my draft every time. part of it is that i feel the need to write this well. the other part is that i am still terrified every time i talk about mental health because i can’t talk about mental health without talking about my mental health and i’m currently looking for another job (or more freelance work — either one), and i can’t help but fear that my openness about living with depression (for starters) will make me an undesirable employee, full-time or contract or freelance or otherwise.
i write against that fear, though, because that fear is responding to the very stigma i’m fighting to pull apart and eradicate. i write against that fear, too, because i know it’s stupid — i have a full-time job that i show up to every single damn day, that i do the work for, that i then go home from and do all the other work that means something to me. i work a full-time job, and, still, i create content for this site, do freelance writing and editing projects, read, cook, care for my puppy. i work a full-time job and do all that stuff, and i wrote a full-length novel-in-stories.
my mental health has never stopped me, so i don’t understand why i should shut up about it just because a hiring committee has a warped view of it. so here it is.
it was 6 am in los angeles when i learned of anthony bourdain’s death by suicide.
i was pulled to the side of the road, scarfing down a bowl of oatmeal because i was running late to soulcyle and needed to eat something so i could actually make it through the workout. as is habit, i opened up instagram, and the app opened to a black square, a new post by david chang, nothing but lyrics in the caption.
a black square means some kind of grieving. the comments said it was anthony bourdain.
the first weekend of may, my parents and i drove down to riverside to pick up a puppy. i’d been looking for a dog to adopt off-and-on for about two years now because i wanted my parents to have a dog, and i’d intensified my search last year, trawling the internet and searching for adoptable dogs that fit our criteria: small, hypoallergenic, young.
my parents wanted a bichon because my aunt has two bichons, but i didn’t want to go through a breeder because i don’t believe in the need to breed dogs unless for very specific purposes. it’s hard to find an adoptable dog when your search is so narrow, though, so the search went on. we went to see other dogs once or twice, getting closest with an abandoned litter of poodle/terrier mixes that almost passed muster, except they still shed too much.
and, then, i came across a post on craigslist for a bichon puppy. he was 8 weeks old. we didn’t know his story then, but there was a phone number, so we texted and called and arranged to go see him and bought a crate and bed and food and a toy and bowls just in case. it turned out he was with this older couple whose sister had a bichon pair who had had a puppy, and they’d been keeping him alone in the garage, this little eight-week-old floof-ball who’d only very recently been weaned and removed from his mother, who shook with fear when i first picked him up, easing into my arms as i scratched him and let him lick me.
he didn’t cry or throw up or pee the entire 2-hour ride home.
we named him 곰 (gom, with a long-O, korean for “bear”).
when i first heard of anthony bourdain’s death by suicide, the first thing i felt was sadness delivered as a punch in the gut, but then the next thing was anger. deaths by suicide make me both profoundly sad and profoundly angry, and it’s not anger directed at the one who has died by suicide — no, i can understand him, understand how acutely he must have hurt to take his own life — it’s anger at the world that allows this to happen and then sits in judgment when it does.
i firmly believe that we should not be losing lives to suicide, that we would not be losing lives to suicide if society, if people as a group could get its shit together and stop actively and willfully stigmatizing mental illness, depression, and suicide and enshrouding them in shame — and, if you’re opening your mouth to argue, but, na, it’s not fair to blame other people for people taking their lives!, let me stop you right there.
(i’m going to talk specifically about depression and suicidal thinking here, but this goes for any kind of mental illness.)
depression, as it is, is a silencer. it locks you in isolation and solitude and makes you curl up inside some dark corner in your brain, and it shuts you off to the world. it shuts you off to yourself. it taps into your mental reserve of all the negative shit anyone has ever said to you, picks out the things that target your softest spots, and blares them on loop on maximum volume, so that you know you’re worthless, a failure, a loser who deserves to be alone because who would love you, want to be with you, when you’re a burden and don’t bring anything of value or worth?
then add in the condescending, judgement shaming by the people around you and by the world-at-large, and there's where why i have zero tolerance for shame.
it is not anyone’s responsibility to keep people alive, but it definitely falls on people’s shoulders if they’re benefiting from and contributing to a system or a worldview that directly harms others. you might think this is a stretch, but that’s complicity, whether we’re talking about racism or sexism or homophobia or transphobia or, hey, the shaming of mental illness — and mental illness is part of a system, and it is about power and who gets to tell their stories and the stories that get to be told because that all has to do with acceptance, with what is deemed acceptable and not.
as in pretty much every other situation involving a marginalized group, i don’t really care to hear from people with “normal” brains about mental health because no matter how many academic papers you read or how many “mentally ill” people you know or interact with, you will never know the unique hurdles and struggles the mentally ill face. on a related note, it actually really pisses me off how many narratives we have from people who have lost people to suicide, not because they’re writing about their grief but because they’re trying to tell the stories of the people who’ve died by suicide, like writing these stories will somehow answer that question “why.”
(to be blunt, you’ll never find an answer to that question.)
it pisses me off because it makes me think how much of a difference it would make if people would learn to listen to the mentally ill, the suicidal, the depressed while we’re alive. sometimes, i understand why mental illness might scare “normal”-brained people so much; mental illness, after all, feels so unknowable because brains are still so unknowable; and i kind of, sort of (not really) get that fear of the unknown. that’s all an excuse, though, and it’s one that we’ve accepted for so long, perpetuating this notion that the mentally ill should be feared, that the “crazy” should be avoided or locked away or hidden away, and look where we’ve ended up — we live a world where we’re losing lives we shouldn’t to suicide.
and don’t get me wrong — you do not have to be famous or well-known to be a life worth living and knowing and valuing. you do not have to be a public figure or influential or whatever to be a life that should not be lost. as much as i mourn the loss of public figures like anthony bourdain, choi jinsil, lee jonghyun, i also mourn and fear for the lives of “regular” people, and maybe part of me admittedly mourns for all of us more, fears for all of us because the truth is it doesn't matter how much you have or how well you're known — the loss of any single one of us to suicide is one loss too many.
going back to complicity, though: see, every time you laugh at a joke about mental illness or suicide, you reinforce shame. every time you write someone off as being crazy, you reinforce shame. every time you dramatize a situation by saying, oh, i’m so depressed, or oh, i’m so anxious, every time you conflate moodiness to bipolarity, you reinforce shame.
because, hi, words matter, and, when you render something laughable, you suck it of meaning. when you diminish something by making it banal and everyday, you suck it of meaning, and, more than that, you remove from it the seriousness with which it should be treated.
depression is not sadness. it is not the blues. it is not a mere emotion you sit with for a while and move on from with ice cream or friendly faces or whatnot. depression is a debilitating illness that totally alters the way you see the world and affects your ability to function. sometimes, on good days, it just makes living harder. other times, on bad days, it makes everything impossible — and here is where i protest the opening to this blog post, despite the fact that i wrote it: i do not need to be a high-functioning depressive in order for it to be okay for me to talk about this.
i’m going to pivot a little here to something i hear a lot about suicidal thinking because it’s connected. there’s this idea that people who are “really” suicidal won’t ever talk about it because they don’t want to be saved. sometimes, yes, it is the case that we won’t talk about how suicidal we are, though there are often a lot of reasons behind that — maybe we don't want to be talked out of it, maybe we don't want to be condescended to, maybe we're sick of being asked "why," maybe we don't want to talk, period, maybe we just don't trust you. whatever the reason, that has nothing to do with how suicidal someone “really” is; if you’re thinking about dying, if you’re thinking about ending your life, if you’re thinking about a plan and figuring out steps to achieve that end, you are suicidal, and talking about it, voicing your fears that you might take your own life does not suddenly delegitimize the fact that you are suicidal.
because, hi, i’m suicidal. i’ve been severely suicidal for the last six weeks. and i’ve been making myself talk about it. if you want to question if i’m “really” suicidal or not, then, well, fuck you.
and that’s where we loop back to the fact that i do not need to be a high-functioning depressive for it to be okay to talk about this, just like i don’t need to live past this suicidal episode for it to be okay for me to talk about it. honestly? screw survival narratives. screw this idea that we need to “survive” shit to be able to talk about how shitty it was. screw this mentality that we have to have some kind of message to share in order to talk about this shit we live with.
because honestly? sometimes, this is it. sometimes, the really cold, brutal truth is that we don’t survive. and, if anything, that is why we need to tell our stories now, in this time that we are here and we are alive.
we brought our puppy home as i was sliding back into a suicidal, depressive episode, and this puppy has been keeping me alive these last few weeks. i was talking to my therapist about him the other week, and she made the point that emotional service animals aren’t considered emotional service animals just because they make us happy — they’re emotional service animals because we need to take care of them, and taking care of them is one way of caring for ourselves.
in other words, self-care looks like a hell of a lot of things.
it’s true, though. on days when i can’t get myself to care for myself, to get out of bed or shower or eat, my puppy still needs to be taken out to potty, fed, and played with. my puppy needs to be bathed and groomed, his teeth brushed, his nails clipped. my puppy needs to be taken to the vet, and he needs to be taken on car rides to meet other people, other puppies (now that he’s vaccinated) because socializing and traveling are essential things he needs to learn.
caring for him makes me care for myself because i can’t care for him without caring for myself — and, while we’re talking about self-care, let’s talk a little about what we can do if we’re living with mental illness, whatever it is. (though, again, because depression is the topic here, i’ll specifically refer to that.)
i firmly believe that treating depression is doing everything. it’s going to therapy (if able) and taking meds (if needed). it’s learning to be honest and open about the shit that’s going on in your head — you are your best (and, sometimes, honestly, your only) advocate because what you’re feeling, how you’re hurting and despairing and giving up, those things are knowable only to you, and no one can help you unless you speak up first. it’s exercising, going outside, getting sun and fresh air and feeling the goddamn wind on your skin. it’s seeing people, even if all you can do is sit at the end of the table, nursing the same cup of coffee the whole bloody time. it’s caring for your pup, your cat, your plants. it’s doing something nice for someone, and, y’know, yeah, sometimes, it’s looking at the shit going on in the world and writing an email or donating to an organization or retweeting something to give it a boost.
trying to dismantle depression is doing everything you can that might work.
personally, i see my therapist and take meds and meet with my psychiatrist every few weeks. i take care of my puppy, and i make pasta by hand and blanche and peel a stupid amount of tomatoes to make sauces and remake the same goddamn potato brioche over and over again even as it keeps failing. i listen to a lot of moody music. i cry. i go to bed early even if i can’t sleep, and i do pilates and soul cycle, and i say yes to everyone who’s kind enough to ask if i want to get food or coffee and stop by a bookstore. i try to reach out and ask people if they want to get food or coffee and stop by a bookstore. i reply to all the DMs i get on instagram, and i go on long drives. i follow my crush on instagram and smile every time she does (or i used to, until that started making my depression worse, so i unfollowed, which is also something i do to care for myself, unfollow people who make things worse). i do everything — hell, i even go to work. i go to my shitty disposable day job that i hate because that sticking to that routine is, in itself, a form of fighting the suicidal depression i live with.
usually, i’ll draft these posts and edit them, but this is just going up before i can sit here and overthink everything. this isn’t a post i really intended to write (i’m trying to write a post breaking down the bullshit SCOTUS decision on the colorado cake case), but i don’t know — this has been weighing on me the last few weeks, and the last few weeks have been difficult.
so, hey, i’ll leave you with this: be kind to yourself, and be kind to the people around you. depression doesn’t discriminate; it doesn’t care how much you have or don’t, how much you’ve earned or haven’t, how famous you are or are not; and a little bit of kindness goes a long way. you never know what someone is going through just by observing her/him/them, and no one will ever know what you’re going through until you give voice to it, express it in words, and try to be understood.
there is no shame in living with any of this, and living with a mental illness doesn’t make you any less human. it doesn’t make your life any less valuable, and it doesn’t make you any less worthy of love or respect. you are just as human and precious and wonderful as anyone with a “normal” brain, and you’re here on this earth at this moment because you should be. i firmly believe that.
so here’s a stupid number of photos of my puppy because he's adorable and makes me smile, and here’s that thing i’ve been saying over and over again and will keep saying over and over again: stay. stay because you deserve to be here. stay because you are someone to be proud of. stay because you are fully deserving of love and kindness and generosity. stay because you are fully human. stay because only you can be who you are.
do whatever you to do to stay alive, and stay.