On Depression and Not Suicide

“I’ve told mine, now go tell yours. “–Kirsten Powers

I had two close friends in high school and on into my twenties; I called them The Jays. Jay One was quiet, often withdrawn, fought depression constantly, and routinely considered suicide but always decided against it. Jay Two never mentioned depression, but at the age of nineteen made a serious attempt at suicide.

Both of the Jays would–and did–unhesitatingly agree that by any objective standard, I won the Whose Life Sucks the Most? contest. Both of them lived in middle class stability with functional families. In contrast, my family and social life had dysfunction, humiliation, misery galore. The Jays knew of enough of these events that they felt lucky.

After I learned of Jay Two’s suicide attempt, I spent a good bit of time wondering why the hell anyone would deliberately seek out death. My fear of death is–I think–healthy and normal? But being a good and proper depressive who masks anxiety with obsession, I worried about death, usually through one focus point. When I was four or five, up through eight or nine, I would lay awake at night convinced that I’d heard a “burglar” coming to rob the house, who would kill us all, and practiced holding my breath so that the bad guy who would look at me and go “Hmm. This one’s dead already.” and move on to my sibs. Then I’d feel bad, because I’d be the only one alive and they’d all be dead, so I told my brother that if the bad guys come, he was to hold his breath. My brother, two years younger, agreed this was a good strategy.

This fear carried me through to age eleven, when a real-life traumatic year or three in school forced me to put aside imaginary horrors.  When that episode finally ended, and I got back to worrying, I was old enough to realize that the “burglar” of my night fears was more properly described as  “serial killer”, who would just wait to see if I started breathing again, so I better make sure I had an exit strategy for my bedroom. For years I avoided plugging in any electric device–both my brother and sister would plug things in for me without even teasing. In my early twenties, it became air travel, a phobia which has stayed with me. Mind you, I flew. A lot. I was a consultant for much of that time.  I’d just convince myself, a la Warf, that today was a good day to die–which stopped working once my son was sitting in the seat next to me, so then I had to go back to worrying.

Prior to Jay Two’s attempt, I understood that suicide existed. Hemingway had done it. Hitler and all his Nazi friends. But it had nothing to do with my life. By twenty, I had three events in my life that, had I committed suicide in today’s media-saturated environment, would have made me a  poster child for one cause or another. Yet I never even conceived of slitting my wrists as Jay Two had.

In no way could I have been considered  a happy-go-lucky, optimistic cheerful soul. An aunt once told me that I’d look back and consider high school the best time of my life.

I said, “Jesus. Shoot me now.”

Nor was I one of those  “shake the dust of this miserable town off my feet” sorts. While my psyche was in terrible shape, my life had many bright spots. My family was dysfunctional and damaging, but also loving and fun. I had no visions of conquering the world, no specific goals, and a self-esteem that was in the toilet.

My twenties saw the same pattern continue–I wasn’t setting the world afire, but was quietly, modestly successful given my upbringing, with a personal life filled with dysfunction that I spent years trying to fix or end. But my son was born, and that changed everything, including my willingness to tolerate insanity. At a certain point, I realized it didn’t matter if this was all my fault or not.

Life in my thirties did get better. I went to a therapist, which was very helpful in smoothing out my life and developing strategies to cope with craziness. My  original diagnosis was dysthymia. I didn’t feel depressed. My therapist had quite a time figuring me out; I used to joke that our conversations were a series of my “bumping into lists”–diagnostic lists, which would serve to determine if some casual comment had actually revealed a deeper issue.

One of the lists I bumped into  while talking about “daydreaming” led my therapist to determine that I’m “O without the C”, or obsessive without compulsion. From that point on, whenever I mentioned “worrying”, I’d hear “You don’t worry, you obsess,” a distinction that made utterly no sense to me for five years until suddenly one day it occurred to me that worrying didn’t mean spending every single waking moment outside of conversation thinking about….something. Whether I’d get another contract. How I would pay the bills if I didn’t get a contract. Whether I was a bad parent. Remembering a book or a movie. Reliving a prior conversation. My brain is in constant motion, and a lot of that time is spent reviewing and rethinking and future-tripping, but when I have a real concern, the one issue grabs every single minute of my conscious time. And the only way I knew to get out of that cycle was avoidance–literally not opening mail, not returning calls, not going to the bank, not doing bills, refusing to think about it, or I’d get into a cycle that never stopped.

Once I figured this out, I learned, over the next year, to time my obsessions.  When possessed with a fear,  I’d allow myself to “worry” for five minutes every thirty minutes. When I felt the thought grab me, I’d check the clock…no, wait ten more minutes.

Over time, my obsessions were less able to grab every waking moment, which paradoxically left me vulnerable to unmitigated depression. In my late 30s I experienced a major depressive episode, one in which my therapist had to contact my doctor, to my considerable annoyance, one in which I was constantly offered medication, which I rejected.  While there were a few triggering events, the overwhelming sense of cycle was what defeated me. This is my life. It will always be a struggle. I am Pigpen, attracting troubles and craziness like dust.  I won’t have calm certainty, serene upward progress, happiness. I’ll have craziness spiked with terrific highs and lots of disappointment and inexplicable defeats. There would be no end to this.

I am a high functioning depressive who talks a lot and most of my small group of friends knew my pain. One pal told me, “You always seem completely in control, never in need of help. I don’t know how to give you a hand.” I found this very perplexing, since one thing I don’t have, never had, is any sense of control.

I resented the fact that others who felt this way could consider and reject suicide–or consider and accept it. They had a choice. I had none. I don’t mean this in any noble sense, much less a religious sense, simply that the deepest grip of this dark time, I’d still agonize about air travel, still hear a  bump in the middle of the night and freeze, thinking great, I’m horribly depressed and will get butchered by a sick madman. Suicide meant death. I was absolutely incapable of even envisioning taking action to cause my death.

Except once.

I was driving along my favorite highway, trying to figure out how to escape this intense sense of exhaustion and despair at my nothing of a life and suddenly wondered if I could just drive into a wall. If I hit the accelerator, hard, faced a curve, or a wall, or a train, then no airbag could work well enough and I’d feel….nothing.

I felt it. I felt in that minute, the blotting out that death might bring.

But I didn’t have time to consider whether that feeling was attractive, because literally the second the sensation arose, I could feel my son’s devastation.

All throughout this huge depression cycle, people would tell me, look, you can’t give in to this. Think of your son. I would always shrug that off because they didn’t understand, I couldn’t commit suicide, so I didn’t have to consider my son. But for a split instant, I managed to think of a way  that I might fool myself into dying, and got an equally split second to consider my son’s reaction. No. I couldn’t do that to my son.

That realization didn’t lessen the depression, but now I was relieved instead of annoyed that suicide was not an option. And eventually, that major depressive episode ended. My life since then has been…fun. I still have dysthymia. I’m still  obsessive but, as my shrink said, on a scale of 1 being mild worry that you left the oven on, and 10 being visually tracing woodgrains for hours on end, I’m at a 7–which is much better. Over the years I’ve trained myself to stop avoidance, which has done much to stabilize my finances.

I’ve realized that the ideal lives I thought everyone else was leading were…not so ideal, that trade offs I thought were unconscious were, in fact, active. I’ve been more consciously making life choices than I give myself credit for.  Like joking that teaching was something I just stumbled into, when in fact I realized my skill at tutoring, sought out that occupation, then applied to ed school. And so the wonderful career I have is not just fortunate happenstance.

In no way am I suggesting any moral superiority or strength of character.  My experience in my thirties taught me that I’m fortunate to hate the idea of death, that my mental anguish didn’t force me to daily make a decision to live, to pick my son and my future over ending an existence that didn’t seem to have much to show for the struggle.

But my experience with the Jays taught me that suicide does not correlate with objective misery.  And  my experience with fear has taught me that others have far less tolerance for discomfort than I do.

Everyone assumes suicides are faced with unrelenting pain and depression. But in fact, 54% of suicides are not related to known mental illness. And certainly not everyone fears death to the same degree.  It’s not only possible but likely that millions of people face terrible anguish and horrible life  circumstances and never or rarely consider suicide, while other people kill themselves over minor setbacks. Still others combine a lack of fear with a lack of consideration that genuinely seems spiteful to those left behind. Yet the public reaction to suicide is to unquestioningly accept that the murdered person was tortured and desperate, that this pain led to the decision.

That’s simplistic. Leave aside a painful and immediately terminal illness, dementia, schizophrenia. Absent these conditions, choosing to die is a multi-factorial glitch in the system, a combination of personality, circumstances, and genetics. Those of us left behind don’t have to hold ourselves responsible for others’ choices, whether by blaming ourselves–or  our culture, as Kirsten Powers does.  Not that this makes dealing with their choice any easier.

But having children should put certain choices out of reach. All these celebrations of Bourdain and Spade overlook or barely mention their daughters.

Leaving a child behind with a conscious suicide is not, perhaps, unforgivable, given years of retrospective.  But it’s a choice violates the  fundamental parental creed.

And Spade’s note to her daughter is an obscenity.



About educationrealist

12 responses to “On Depression and Not Suicide

  • NewarkTFA

    Thank you for writing this.
    I’m quite afraid of dying, yet have often thought of suicide, so the two are not mutually exclusive!
    I have no children, but have often thought about how much preventable pain such I thing would cause my brother and my parents. At one point during my first—very emotionally difficult—year of teaching, I decided I should not kill myself because I was concerned for the welfare of a cat I had at the time!
    However, when I do hear about people killing themselves, I take it for granted that they must—on some level—have been worse off than me, even if it’s hard to see from an outside perspective how that could be.
    I really appreciate you sticking around and working so hard to find your way because I love your blog. I also think you are probably a fantastic teacher. Although we would disagree on many things, I love reading about your thoughts and experiences.
    So again, thank you for your writing.

    • educationrealist

      Wow, thanks for the kind words.

      “hen I do hear about people killing themselves, I take it for granted that they must—on some level—have been worse off than me, even if it’s hard to see from an outside perspective how that could be.”

      I don’t do this. I don’t think “Wow, they have it BETTER than me”, I just figure they are less afraid of death.

  • Michael Pershan

    Thanks for writing this — besides for everything else, it’s a really good read.

  • Anon

    Jordan B Peterson put 3 years of his Psyche class up on YouTube, well before his recently high profile public life.

    They are water for a thirsty heart and mind.

  • Peter Gerdes

    I think it’s a little facile to so easily conclude that suicides aren’t at least highly correlated with serious pain and misery. Certainly that isn’t the *only* factor. Some extremely miserable people will never commit suicide and some generally happy people will kill themselves in a moment of despair. However, that doesn’t mean that our mental stereotype of suicides as being victims of serious pain and misery is wrong (or that it’s right…it’s simply unclear) just because it’s not the only determinative factor.

    The observation that “54% of suicides are not related to known mental illness” is particularly useless because that is just as easily explained by a lack of appropriate medical care or diagnostic failure as it is by non-depressed people taking their own lives.

    Indeed, I suspect that it’s essentially tautologous that it’s a diagnostic/treatment failure since I believe that a conclusion by a psychiatrist that an otherwise healthy person not in pain is likely to self-harm guarantees some kind of DSM diagnosis.

    I just comment because while I’ve known chronically miserable people who didn’t kill themselves all the people I’ve known well enough to be sure about it (and often people may appear fine to casual observation but be suffering) who did kill themselves were pretty miserable.

    • Peter Gerdes

      But on a more positive note I’d like to add that I found both your distinction between obsessing and worrying and the idea of only allowing obsessing in limited contexts helpful (or at least it seems like it might work and I mean to try it).

    • Peter Gerdes

      Actually, please IGNORE the parent comment. On a second look I think I misinterpreted you to be saying something you weren’t simply because I find the way so many people always focus on the suicide and act like that’s the great harm/badness rather than focusing on the pain the person was in so disturbing.

      Sorry, I’ve just seen enough situations where after the suicide everyone gathered around to explain how tragic they thought it was and wring their hands about how awful it was (I believe quite genuinely) but if they were half as concerned about making sure people weren’t miserable as they are about stopping people from taking their own life many people would be much less miserable.

      For instance, consider the difference in the way we treat depression and cancer/heart disease. Doctors will give it a go try multiple prescribe potentially lethal medications to fight tough cases of cancer but I’ve had multiple friends suffer (and even eventually kill themselves) because when it comes to depression they are inclined to err on the side of not putting the patients life in jeopardy rather than (following the patient’s preferences) take whatever risks are necessary to make that life worth living.

      So SORRY, I shouldn’t have let my hangups cause me to misread what you were saying so I wanted to at least explain why.

      • educationrealist

        Thanks for clarifying.

        I disagree, although I didn’t arrive at the conclusion in a facile manner. I was quite sure that medication wouldn’t help me, and refused to take it. I am not sanguine about the notion that medication or intervention at all can help. In some cases, yes. In all? That’s not what my life experience shows. And I guess I just don’t agree that everyone who commits suicide would be *objectively* in a miserable state. Subjective, of course, but that is my point. Experiencing pain is subjective–something I know not just from mental pain, but physical.

        So I think it’s logical, but potentially inaccurate, to assume that if Person A is fighting depression, and Person B commits suicide, to conclude that Person B was in an agony far worse than Person A’s. But I would never argue that it’s linear or in any way a mathematical process. As I said in the piece, it’s multifactorial and highly complicated.

        ” when it comes to depression they are inclined to err on the side of not putting the patients life in jeopardy rather than (following the patient’s preferences) take whatever risks are necessary to make that life worth living.”

        Yeah, I don’t see that. For one thing, as is quite obvious, any objective evaluation of Bourdain’s life indicated he had a lot to live for. So what would you do, no holds barred, to get him to stick around.

        As you can see, I’m pretty resistant to the notion that mental illness=physical illness. Certainly some of it is biological, but even in those cases, it’s very difficult to predict.

        “I’d like to add that I found both your distinction between obsessing and worrying and the idea of only allowing obsessing in limited contexts helpful (or at least it seems like it might work and I mean to try it).”

        I’m glad. Not only did it take me years to realize that I wasn’t worrying, but obsessing, but another five or six years past that to realize how powerful avoidance was, and how my desire to avoid obsession was warping my behavior, even in cases where it was absurd to do so. For example, I’d avoid paying bills, even ones I could afford, because it made me worry about money. So paying my utilities through autopay smoothed out my life considerably, yet it took me five years past the depression to do it. But once that worked, I said hey, this is a good idea, and put more things on autopay.

        One-off tasks are still a challenge, but I have a procedure for them that has helped tremendously.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Wow. I’m glad things are better. Nice piece. When your brain gives you lemons …

    It really bothered me that Anthony Bourdain left an 11-year-old daughter. I had never seen any of his shows before but watched an episode of Parts Unknown set in Buenos Aires. Using the hook that Argentina is the nation with the highest number of therapists per capita, he does a week of on camera therapy. Among other things, he says that though he is in a communication business, he feels he can’t really communicate with anyone but his then 8-year-old daughter (and then adds the joke that they’re on the same level). I wonder if he feared he was losing that too and just gave up.

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