Lately I’ve really been into John Green’s Crash Course: World History, a series of 42 videos that basically covers everything you should have been taught in high school about world history (but probably weren’t) in about eight hours.
There are a number of different courses on the Crash Course YouTube channel, from Psychology to U.S. History. There is also a course on Literature, which I’m watching (or often listening) concurrent with World History. I was particularly struck by this excerpt from the video on Sylvia Plath:
Dear suicide, You are a permanent response to a temporary problem, and you are a solution to nothing. I just want to say at the outset that there is nothing good or romantic about you, suicide. You are a tragedy. You are also, in almost all cases, preventable… So it’s very important to me whenever we talk about a writer whose life ended with suicide that we note that people survive depression—and also that Sylvia Plath wasn’t a good writer because she eventually committed suicide. In fact, her career was cut short, and I mourn all of the many wonderful books we might have had.
I live in the shadow of suicide. My grandmother committed suicide in 1960. As a writer, I’m cognizant of the corpses that litter the landscape of our profession: Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Yukio Mishima, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Sarah Kane. To most, these are words on a page, a collection of letters and dates. But each of these human beings endured what must’ve felt like an eternity of bleakness and torment before finally gasping out their last breaths, whether head-first in an oven or looking down the barrel of a shotgun.
Up until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t fathom the idea of suicide. For one, it was an appalling sin, the ultimate act of rebellion against God. For another… well, I couldn’t even stick my own finger in biology class when we were testing our blood types. Plus, it seemed like such a cowardly way out, an option for those who just didn’t try hard enough.
Somewhere in my adolescence, probably around the time I started becoming aware of my sexuality but possibly as early as eight or nine, I started experiencing periods of darkness. As an Evangelical, these slumps in mood had a spiritual cause. The cure was more Bible and more Jesus. Once I started going to public school and took a psychology class, I learned that those dark moods had a name: depression. And it was different from “the blues.”
What I’ve learned over the years of living with depression is that it isn’t just a condition. It’s the way we view the world. Even the happiest moments are colored with gloom. The flavor of victory or celebration comes across more like sand than sugar. Well-meaning friends try to cheer you up and be supportive, not understanding that the problem is within, not without. It’s like having glasses inside of our eyes that pre-filter the light before it hits our retinas.
It took me a while to understand this and how depression was shaping my perceptions and moods; why the smallest setbacks loomed large like megaliths of personal failure; why tiny inconveniences would set me off as if they were crimes against humanity. Most people just associate depression with sadness. It’s much more.
You feel worthless. Powerless. Hopeless. Disconnected from everything and everyone in your life. At worst, it feels as if I’m trapped in a glass box, able to see everything going on around me but utterly untouched by all of it. Things that bring me joy and happiness seem gray and drab. Not even sex interests me. Forget about concentrating.
And this is how it’s going to be for the rest of your life.
In June of 2008, just months away from my decision to stop hiding from the truth about my sexuality, I started having random and intense thoughts of suicide. Things like driving my car into oncoming traffic. Slitting my wrists while working in the kitchen. Overdosing on pills I was about to take. At first, these thoughts were disturbing, as they should be.
Over the past couple of months, however, as I’ve settled more into the reality that death is merely the cessation of brain activity, that consciousness just fades, as I’ve struggled more with loneliness and exhaustion from dealing with the emotional minefield that is my past, the more alluring those thoughts of suicide have become.
For example, a few weeks ago I met this guy on OkCupid who seemed decent. We went on a date, had dinner and wonderful talk, and a few days later had a second date that seemed to go equally well. Then on Sunday night, I get a text from him saying that his ex boyfriend had just got back in touch with him and he was pondering whether he wanted to get back together with him. When I asked if he missed him, he said yes. They were together for eighteen months before the guy broke up with him.
Here’s how a normal person might view that: We went on two dates. It was fun. If he decides to go back to his ex, it wasn’t meant to be. Move on.
This is how all that looks through depression: I was crushed. Not so much by the (potential) loss of a prospective boyfriend. Yes, there’s disappointment. But it was more the persistent and growing thought that this is how my entire dating life has gone so far. I meet a guy who I like, and things might seem to go well for a bit, and then something like this happens.
So on Sunday night I decided that, if when I’m 35 and am still single, I’m going to kill myself. Because if I haven’t met anyone by that point, it won’t ever happen. I don’t want to be one of those single, older gay men constantly getting passed over or used as a one-night stand.
Again—there’s the depression talking.
The frightening thought is how comforting the concept of simply not existing is after all the struggle. Not having to worry about anything, anymore.
Then my reason snaps into gear again, like a bucket of cold water to the face. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? And the day after. Maybe I’m about to meet my future husband, and if I die, I’ll never find out. It’ll be like an O. Henry short story, where an ironic twist of fate causes two people to just miss each other at a train station. I think about that sometimes, while waiting at, say, stoplights. So much of our life is just waiting for the inevitable to happen. Then the waiting is over, and you’re off again to the next waiting.
But the depression is always there, casting Edward Gorey-esque shadows over those hopeful thoughts. “Who are you kidding?” they say as they turn crepuscular. “You’re holding out for a dream that might not ever come true. Your future husband could always be just beyond the next hill. Or the next one. And pretty soon, you will be wrinkled and gray, and your whole life will have passed behind you, and you’ll have nothing but white-hot regret to warm you…”
It’s like having a dementor for a best friend.