It’s time for an honest discussion about depression and suicide beyond media hype and cultural valourisation
In the summer of 2007, at the end of a long, rainy week incidentally filled with free cocaine, I made a serious attempt to take my own life.
I am alive. In fact I live an incredibly happy life. But the memory of depression remains vivid, and my depression will return. On depression and suicide, I feel qualified to speak up.
Robin Williams, that wonderful man, completes suicide, and suddenly everyone has an opinion. “Genie – you’re free”, some said. No, he isn’t. He’s dead. He is exactly the opposite of free.
I’m a ditzy, garrulous English grad who likes cats and goes to lots of festivals. Relatively normal, you might say. Yet I was only 12 when I learnt to really hate myself. At 15 – when I was still getting gold stars at school for writing stories – I gave away my best CDs just before half term, planning to use the timeout of teachers’ and parents’ attention to get away with suicide.
I finally did it aged almost 20, because an inviolable realisation came upon me that nothing would ever change. I would always be this person, and that meant I would always feel this way. The only sensible thing I could do was end my life. It certainly felt like a rational choice. I thought it would free me. At the time I was Christian, and I was pathetically eager to ‘go home’, to God, where I would be loved and there was no more pain.
The problem with depression is that it robs you of perspective. It creeps up on you: you are gradually engulfed by a huge tarpaulin of self-disgust, and it all seems perfectly objective and normal. Nobody suddenly wakes up one day thinking of themselves in totally different terms, thinking that killing yourself might be a legitimate option, and often, eventually, the only option.
But one day you do wake up and there it is, and the next day too, as far into the future as your myopic mind’s eye can see. Usually, at some point, most likely with treatment, it then lifts just as gradually as it came.
“Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?”
Albert Camus’ famous question, “should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?”, will be familiar to anyone with severe depression. I am certain this question would have been familiar to Robin Williams. Is this really a choice?! Only someone with a seriously skewed perspective, in which literal life-and-death decisions and inconsequential options assume equal significance, could even entertain such a question.
But ‘suicide is a choice’ is a myth which refuses to go away. It continues to be discussed as if the options – coffee or death? – were in any way equal, or the question legitimate.
I lost two of my friends to suicide last year and I do not believe, as a third (also suicidally depressed) friend said, that it was “a choice they’ll never have to live to regret”. Only the myth of an “easeful death”, and a culture which cannot cope with conceptualising the loss of personal agency – of actual choice – could create a space where this logic survives and flourishes. My friends did not choose; they died from treatable illnesses, because their illness had temporarily removed their capacity to sense the worth in living. And part of our response as a culture is to discuss the ‘choice’ they made? Well-intentioned as it may be, I find it obscene.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s gorgeous line “I have been half in love with easeful death” tells you everything you need to know about the seductiveness of suicidal ideation. This romanticisation of suicide as the ‘other option’, the alternative to the ignobility of human suffering, is preserved in the literature, art and myths of every people throughout history.
The fact that depressed people, searching for an alternative to their present suffering, find themselves thinking more easily of death than of change, is at least partly a result of our cultural attitudes to suicide, which we invoke and perpetuate every time we murmur ‘they’re in a better place now’.
Suicide is not a way out, but the opposite
In truth, if your interior life feels like total irreconcilable shit, or even just grey, pointless awfulness, death still offers no real alternative. You need to look for a balance of treatments or strategies which can assuage or cure those feelings, or you need to hold on, until it passes. Those are your alternatives. Suicide is not a way out of mental illness, but the opposite: it cuts off any route to recovery.
We’ve got to start facing the horror of death. It is usually horrible and is almost certainly final. And if we found unnatural death as abhorrent as we ought to, we all might work a damn sight harder to stop killing each other.
If we did – if the government and the press did – what then? My friends, who deserve to keep and enjoy their lives, would not be dying because there are ‘no beds’ in psychiatric hospitals; keeping people alive would be valued above not annoying millionaires with extra taxes; we would not act like confused vultures picking through an emotional carcass every time we lose someone; and perhaps ISIS or the occupation of Palestine would never have come into being.
Robin Williams’ life should have been his own. Depression ensured it was not, not fully. Voyeuristic empathising and speculation in the press and elsewhere only serve to rob him once more of full ownership of his life. Let him keep the darkest feelings of his own mind; they died with him. He is dead. He was a wonderful man.
Depression is a treatable illness
But we who are left, how do we survive? Thanks to campaigning in recent years, we have a new understanding of mental illness; we are more aware that it can happen to anyone.
Consequently it becomes even scarier: when it was something that happened only to freaks, victims, or ‘the weak’, you (not me, I’ve been there and got the T-shirt) could still imagine you were safe.
Well, has my experience ‘made me stronger’, at least? Was there a silver lining to my suicide attempt? Was it at least, as the Independent suggests, a cry for help which DID come in time?
For a long time, no. Nothing was gained, only lost: time, a boyfriend. A perfectly good tent.
Trying to kill myself did lead me to a kind of freedom, but not freedom from life, or suffering: those notions are not real.
My freedom was the realisation that, if I have decided to die, if I have even semi-seriously considered killing myself, then from that point on my life is my own.
“Why shouldn’t I go through another day?”
I can unhook myself from the societal sausage machine and pursue health, wealth and happiness on my own terms, because what’s the worst that can happen? It can’t be worse than death. Suddenly no shame, no stigma, no pressure, no comparison with others, no humiliation, no failure, exists. Why shouldn’t I take antidepressants? Why shouldn’t I go through another day?
The problem is that this freedom is only accessible if you corporeally survive.
So, don’t kill yourself! Things may be shit, and you will definitely think you’re being totally objective about it, but you aren’t, trust me. And whatever our mythology has led you to believe, you’ve got nothing to gain by ending it now. Do something else instead. If you don’t like coffee, have tea. Hey look, it’s not even you asking that question – coffee or death? – it’s depression. And when’s he ever made you happy?
Different things help different people. These are the things that helped me: mirtazapine, cycling, lovers, pets, a great GP and a great CPN (community psychiatric nurse). A quiet home but a good party now and then. Forgiving myself. Allowing bad, better, and okay days, without panic about their implications. (Though to be honest, it was mostly the mirtazapine for me – that’s right, Daily Mail, I’m ‘hooked on antidepressants’ and you’ll never get them off me!)
My depression is going to come back; it’s the nature of my brain. And when it does I may not see the upside for quite a while – that’s the nature of depression. But don’t believe the hype. In my experience, life with a mental illness gets better, not worse, as you get older. Life gets better.
Image from: http://www.listal.com/viewimage6087027
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