Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Choosing life in the face of depression

In the wake of Robin Williams's recent death to apparent suicide, Dan Fincke of Camels With Hammers wrote a beautiful piece about how he viewed Robin Williams's life and death. Let me highlight a few parts that called out to me:
Reading the various lamentations of the suicide of Robin Williams, I’m troubled by the tendency for people to take a single deed to define a man’s entire disposition towards life. There is a tendency to frame what happened as Williams losing his battle with depression. Or to take his act of suicide as his ultimate verdict on the value of his life, or of life itself. 
But it’s neither of these things. 
Monday he had a bad day with depression. A lethally bad day. 
But had he been lucky enough to survive it, he would have likely regretted it. Most survivors of suicide attempts are glad to be alive. And his judgment day after day prior, over the course of decades of struggles, was that life was worth enduring even through the blackest nights of addiction and mental illness. He transmuted his pain into enduring art. It took the form of manic, exuberant, genius, edge-of-the-seat improvisational stage comedy that exuded life more than any other comedian’s. And it took the form of painfully self-revealing dramatic performances. He played so many characters who brimmed with combustible desperation and vulnerability.
And then later in the piece he wrote:
And those are the twin things to remember about life. Nobody gets out alive. We all die. Whatever the cause. But in most places on most days, everybody gets out alive. No matter how bleak things are for us, most of us live to fight another day. And it’s the same for those struggling with depression. Most days, they win. Most days, they endure. Most days, they choose life. 
On their darkest days the simple act of breathing is an act of hope. Even when the mind and heart feel like they’re in despair, they manage to breathe. They manage to take themselves to the next moment and see what it has to offer. 
My point is that people who struggle with suicide win their lives over and over again. They choose life more often than those who never make living into a question. They survive numerous ledges that their minds push them out onto, managing over and over again not to fall. And we should appreciate what their high wire skills tell us about them and what matters to them. Each time they choose their family, their friends, their life’s cause, or even just the next day, it’s a choice. It’s a choice to continue valuing and to continue giving.
If you've read this blog, or you know me personally, you know I've battled, and still battle, against depression. In my worst periods I've been suicidal. One night when I was 19 I got off work, and realized that if I went home, I might not --probably wouldn't-- survive the night (actually, I didn't even consider it in question). I made the choice to self-admit myself into the psych ward at a local hospital. I had to choose to think that life could be worth it -- or at least, that it was worth finding out. I didn't really think of it in those terms at the time, but that's what it was. To me, it seemed like I was battling twin desires: the desire to live, and the desire to end the pain. I made the choice to live.

Some years later, in my third year at college, I made two attempts at suicide, two attempts to choose an end to the pain. In one (I don't remember which was first), I started to cut my wrist before stopping myself. In the other, I started swallowing sleeping pills and chasing them with alcohol. In both cases, as I was doing it, I thought about what my suicide would do to my friends and family, my loved ones. I thought of the pain it would cause them. In the case of the sleeping pill attempt, I remembered the clear and obvious concern on a friend's face who ran into me as I was buying the alcohol I was planning to drink with the pills. I didn't tell him what I was planning, but I still noted that concern. And that concern was instrumental in making the choice to stop swallowing pills. In the wrist cutting attempt, I actually wrote a note, addressed to my roommate, and the process of that writing reminded me of her caring. And so, I could not finish the cut once I started. 

I made the choice then to stop, but though this may sound bad, it wasn't an easy choice. This was one of the worst periods of my life, probably my worst bout of depression, and every day was a battle. The sense of despair and hopelessness was at times overwhelming, and I can say that without hyperbole. 

But now I'm glad. I'm glad that I chose to live, even with all the pain I was in. I'm glad that I'm alive now to face yet another bout of depression, one that saps my ability to concentrate on things I'd normally enjoy, like reading or playing video games. I'm not suicidal this time (another thing I'm glad for), and I'm not giving up. I'm choosing to face this, and live. 

Thank you, Dan Fincke, for your beautiful words.

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