on uplifiting topics

We were lying in bed together in 2005, talking in both generalities and specifics about depression.  I talked about mine, he talked about his friend T’s, and then he told me about T’s suicide.

“Listen,” he said to me.  “No matter how depressed you get, please don’t kill yourself.  It’s the most selfish thing anyone can ever do.  T killed himself without thinking about how his friends and family would feel after he left.  I was so angry.  I’m still angry.  Don’t ever kill yourself.”

It was the first thing he said to me that made me wonder if we maybe weren’t right for each other.  It made me think he didn’t really understand the nature of depression.  It made me think, there is nobody on this earth who, when faced with the kind of depression that makes one want to commit suicide, would decide to stick around because they wouldn’t want their friends to think them selfish or because they thought suicide might mean that they’re a failure.

“Okay,” I said.  What else could I have said to my boyfriend?  The truth?

“The truth is that I’ve thought about suicide before.”

“The truth is that it’s technically impossible for me to give you a guarantee that I won’t ever kill myself.”

I’ve read The Broom of the System, half of Girl With Curious Hair, and about 1/50th of Infinite Jest, and I plan to try the latter again soon.  On the occasion of David Foster Wallace’s suicide, I’ve been reading the Metafilter thread about him.  Someone posted this, an excerpt from Infinte Jest:

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 Its 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.

He’s right, you know.  I understand why suicide feels like a selfish act to the loved ones who are left behind, but it isn’t.  Depression is a disease just like any other–its effects are no more a choice than the effects of other chronic illnesses, and its sufferers don’t relish the prospect of death.

I’m sorry to see you go, David Foster Wallace, but it’s okay with me if you’re not sorry.

13 thoughts on “on uplifiting topics

  1. The worst part of suicide, I think, is for the person who decides they have to go because they have no other option. The pain of that… I cannot imagine. I am sorry he left but I understand why he had to go.

  2. I am here (to stay) via Mighty Girl. I want you to know that this single entry made me understand depression. I do not suffer from depression, but have known and know people who do, I can now offer much more understanding to these relationships thanks to you and the late Mr. Wallace. Thank you.

  3. Thank you. And yes.

    That is exactly what it’s like. If you still have enough mind left that hasn’t shut down to a grey, swirling tunnel of fear and misery–if you still have anything left that can parody the rational–suicide seems reasonable, a viable option given the circumstances. People who are not depressed do not understand how very different “circumstances” look from inside depression. Everything, even love, is a scary face with fangs.

  4. Well said, Alison. I am always surprised and a little mystified at people who say “that’s so unfair” when they hear about a suicide. (Especially if/when it’s someone they don’t know personally.) Fairness is not at play in such occurrences, and isn’t something we can judge from the outside anyway.

  5. Great post! Even if it’s lacking in snowglobes. I clicked over via Mightygirl and am looking forward to poking around.

    That passage is great for understanding depression (or trying to). I also highly recommend William Styron’s _Darkness Visible_. Awesome.

  6. There are pics of your grandpa to the left in what appears to be the hospital. I don’t know if you’ve commented on it, but I hope everything is OK.

    As for suicidal depression, I’ve never thought of it that way. It’s terrible. I’ve been so low that the only thing worse is the thought that my family would never, ever get over it. It’s never occurred to me that there could be anything worse than that- my family dealing with it afterwards. But of course it must get worse than that for some people or else no one would ever do it. It’s so simple, but I’ve never thought of it that way.

    Really this affected me. It made my skin crawl to think some people must be living in a place so dark.

  7. He’s been in hospice care for the last few months. Last month I went to see him for what will probably be the last time. He’s in relatively good spirits, and my father and mother and aunt are taking care of him. It’s sad, but he’s 93 and not in any real pain, so I guess it could be worse.

  8. I had an immediate family member attempt suicide as a result of severe depression. I witnessed intense anger from younger siblings at the decision to do so; herein lies the fault in thinking it was a decision.

    Two days after the attempt and only in day 1 of a 5 day shock therapy treatment, I watched my family member wake up, register loved ones with glazed eyes, moan discontentedly, and at the same time both despondently and wildly reach for the nearest object that could possibly inflict damage (here a pencil on the bedside table); this was followed by a stabbing motion towards the chest and a hopeless say as they realized there was no way this pencil would end any agony.

    The younger siblings were not here for this. They were allowed to visit further into the shock therapy treatment, when semblence of normalcy had returned. There is no doubt it was too intense for them, but perhaps they should have witnessed the depths prior.

    Depression is a very real and very scary disease. The person involved was in a world of pain and suffering so intense that even if loved ones were registered, the only look in the eye was a pleading one: not for understanding or forgiveness, but for sympathy, sympathy to help them end their suffering.

    The shock therapy created a complete change. The 5 days throughout the therapy are completely evaporated from the individuals memory, as well as much about the decision making process leading up to the attempt; they are only confused about how they felt just so-so and then came out of the hospital a week later with instructions to family members to keep harmful objects out of reach.

    Shock therapy worked in this case. I feel blessed and lucky, both because the individual has turned around and I still get to see them. I also feel blessed that my younger siblings do not have to go through life without the chance to reacquaint themselves with the family member who still lives with depression today. What they wouldn’t have been able to understand is what you wrote here. This had nothing to do with the people on the ground.

  9. D, I’m glad the shock therapy worked in your family member’s case. One of my family members had shock therapy and her mind and personality were altered forever after that. I don’t want to make it sound more severe than it was- she was still able to hold her job and live her life and enjoy friends and family, but she was forever after getting memories mixed up with one another and with fiction and always a bit clumsy and awkward thereafter. Her treatment was in the early 70s. As far as I know, they don’t do shock therapy anymore. Like your family member, mine could not remember the treatment either. I’m not sure how I feel about all of that, but on the other hand I got to have this person in my life, so…

  10. yes, depression is real. Thank you, Alison, for having the courage to speak about your own experience. Courage and connection are needed in this world. Strangely enough, I found out about DFW’s death here, a few days ago. He was a college professor of mine. He was kind and thoughtful, and he reached out to me when I was having a hard time. These things meant so much more to me than his writing. I am glad to have known Dave, and I am deeply saddened that he chose to leave this world. And yet, I also respect this choice. Dave, thank you for being you and thank you for all that you have given us. You will be missed.

  11. You said that perfectly. I always thought it was kind of selfish for the left behind (or potentially left behind) to think that way, to be honest.

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