trigger warning for depression and suicide.
as people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. it kills more people than most other forms of violence — warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, assault, gun crime — put together.
even more staggeringly, depression is a disease so bad that people are killing themselves because of it in a way they do not kill themselves with any other illness. yet people still don’t think depression really is that bad. if they did, they wouldn’t say the things they say. (25)
earlier this year, penguin published matt haig’s reasons to stay alive stateside. it’s a memoir of haig’s experience with suicidal depression in his mid-20s, published in the UK in 2015 to positive reviews, and i was intrigued by what i’d heard, despite my usual instinct to avoid books about depression and suicide.
this might be a weird way of putting it, but i loved it — reasons to stay alive is one of the most honest depictions of depression i’ve read. it’s almost difficult to read because haig doesn’t try to gloss over the darker realities of depression, but he isn’t harsh, unforgiving, or judgmental, is kind and gentle instead. it's worth noting because kindness, i find, is crucial when we write or talk about depression and suicide, kindness to ourselves, to the people around us, because depression is a disease that breeds cruelty in so many ways.
what i appreciated most about reasons to stay alive, though, is that haig doesn’t give us false happy endings. he gives us hope and encouragement but acknowledges depression for what it is — darkness, a state of being trapped in a cave without air, without light. he doesn’t diminish it, neither the pain of it nor the reality of living with it, and he doesn’t allow the reader to harbor false illusions of a total “cure,” of some kind of magical thing that will fix everything forever.
it’s a sobering book because of its reality. according to the american foundation for suicide prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US. for every suicide, there are twenty-five attempts, though this number isn’t accurate; because of the intense stigma surrounding suicide, attempts are believed to be largely underreported. suicide isn’t an epidemic unique to the US, either; according to the world health organization, korea has he second-highest suicide rate in the world.
so why don’t we talk about it more?
the tattoo is a symbol; it’s a reminder of why i kept living.
nell is the band i carry with me, literally because i’ve their logo tattooed on my right wrist. people sometimes ask what it is, what it means, and the truncated explanation is that it’s the logo of a band that means the world to me. the deeper, more honest response is that it’s a reminder that i’ve been here before, in this dark place where there is no hope, no air — that, in that darkness, there was this band that i loved, whose music comforted me and reached me when nothing and no one else could.
to put it more bluntly, the tattoo is a reminder that i have struggled (and will continue to struggle) with depression, but that i have survived, that i kept living.
the weird thing about depression is that, even though you might have more suicidal thoughts, the fear of death remains the same. the only difference is that the pain of life has rapidly increased. so when you hear about someone killing themselves it’s important to know that death wasn’t any less scary for them. it wasn’t a “choice” in the moral sense. to be moralistic about it is to misunderstand. (18)
these are not words i write or share lightly. it’s terrifying to put them out here to be read; it’s easier to hide behind fiction, to talk about the book i’m working on, these short stories that have to do with suicide. it’s easier to offer some kind of abstract, oh, i’m interested in human darkness and pain and self-annihilation, as to why i write about suicide — which is true, yes, but doesn’t tell the whole truth.
one of the things i’m learning is that it’s impossible for me to write and present my best fiction if i’m not willing to be more open about why i write the stories i do. it’s also disingenuous for me to say that it’s hugely important to me to open up safe dialogue about depression and suicide if i’m not willing to talk about it first, to find some kind of courage to come out and say that i’ve been there, i am there, and that’s okay. i can’t ask people to be vulnerable and honest without first being vulnerable and honest myself.
similarly, i hedged a lot over whether or not to use these photographs with this post. i find it weird and discomfiting to put my face anywhere, but, in the end, i [obviously] ran with it for one express reason: to say that i am real, and i am here.
it’s easy to forget that there is a real human being actually creating the content we see on-line and on social media. it makes people say all sorts of shit on-line, shit they’d never have the gall to say to someone’s face, and it makes it easy to make assumptions about people’s lives. it’s easy to see the good things, the happy things, the celebratory things, but it’s hard to see the pain, the sorrow, the grief. it’s hard to see the human being in all his/her dimensions. it’s easy to forget even to try.
when i talk about depression and suicide, i want to put my face out there as a reminder that i am human, that depression is an expression of humanity, broken humanity but humanity nonetheless. i don’t want this conversation to be one that is depersonalized and dehumanized, hidden behind a mask of books and food. i don’t want these conversations to be stale and robotic; i want them to be vital reminders that we are human and we are here.
depression itself isn’t a lie. it is the most real thing i’ve ever experienced. of course, it is invisible.
to other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. you are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames. and so — as depression is largely unseen and mysterious — it is easy for stigma to survive. stigma is particularly cruel for depressives, because stigma affects thoughts and depression is a disease of thoughts.
when you are depressed you feel alone, and that no one is going through quite what you are going through. you are so scared of appearing in any way mad you internalize everything, and you are so scared that people will alienate you further you clam up and don’t speak about it, which is a shame, as speaking about it helps. words — spoken or written — are what connect us to the world, and so speaking about it to people, and writing about this stuff, helps connect us to each other, and to our true selves. (1-2)
if you’re depressed and/or suicidal, i am not here to tell you it gets better. when you’re spiraling, when you’re trapped in darkness, it won’t feel like it will ever get better until it already has. i am also not here to tell you this will never happen again. maybe you’ll be lucky to go through this depression once, but you also might not — i certainly wasn’t. i am also not here to patronize you by saying that you will get through this, partly because i don’t know that, but mostly because i don’t know how to tell you how to get through it, either.
i am, however, here to tell you that you are worth saving.
i am here to tell you that your pain is real, that you’re not crazy, that you’re just human.
i am here to tell you that you’re not alone, that, for what it’s worth, here is a stranger on the internet who understands. i am a real, solid human being who reads a lot, maybe thinks too much, takes photos of everything, and i struggle with depression. i have days when i can’t get out of bed. i have nights i do nothing but cry. i have moments when i want all this to end, not because i don’t want to live but because i’m so exhausted and drained from the pain and defeat and hopelessness. i want to believe that things will get better but have no basis for that kind of hope, that kind of faith, and i feel like i’m grasping at straws every day.
but here is the other side of it: i’m here. i’m still here. i’m still writing; i’m still [over]sharing; i’m still living.
this — all of this — is what the tattoo signifies. that i have been there and survived, that i have gone back and survived, that i am still here because there are people out there like you and me, people who suffer and struggle and survive. that there is this band that i love, whose music comforts me and has constantly been that lifeline in my darkest moments, and that alone keeps me safe. that there are people in my life who love me and support me and have faith in me when i’ve long run out.
that all of this is worth living for, even if living sometimes hurts so fucking much.
now me: […] you have a life. it is not perfect. no human life is. but it is yours. (177)
if you’re in crisis, please get help, whatever help looks like to you. if you want stories of hope, of survival, check out the #ikeptliving hashtag started by to write love on her arms for their national suicide prevention week campaign this year. if you want to talk to someone, in the US, the national suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. in NYC, the samaritans are 212-673-3000. calls to both lines are confidential and available 24/7.
if you’re not depressed, anxious, and/or suicidal but know someone who is, this is for you:
how to be there for someone with depression or anxiety
1. know that you are needed, and appreciated, even if it seems you are not.
3. never say “pull yourself together” or “cheer up” unless you’re also going to provide detailed, foolproof instructions. (tough love doesn’t work. turns out that just good old “love” is enough.)
4. appreciate that it is an illness. things will be said that aren’t meant.
5. educate yourself. understand, above all, that what might seem easy to you — going to a shop, for instance — might be an impossible challenge for a depressive.
6. don’t take anything personally, any more than you would take someone suffering with the flu or chronic fatigue syndrome or arthritis personally. none of this is your fault.
7. be patient. understand it isn’t going to be easy. depression ebbs and flows and moves up and down. it doesn’t stay still. do not take one happy/bad moment as proof of recovery/relapse. play the long game.
8. meet them where they are. ask what you can do. the main thing you can do is just be there.
9. relieve any work/life pressure if that is doable.
10. where possible, don’t make the depressive feel weirder than they already feel. three days on the sofa? haven’t opened the curtains? crying over difficult decisions like which pair of socks to wear? so what. no biggie. there is no standard normal. normal is subjective. there are seven billion versions of normal on this planet. (119-20)
it’s incorrect to think that we can save people. however, we can be there for people; we can seek to sympathize even if we cannot empathize; and we can love. and that love — as simple and small as it may sometimes seem — can go a long, long way.
it’s national suicide prevention week; let’s talk.