I’m lucky that I’ve learned that depression lies to you, and that you should never listen to it, in spite of how persuasive it is at the time.
—Jenny the Bloggess, The fight goes on.
The above quote comes from Jenny Lawson, commonly referred to as The Bloggess. Jenny is an amazing, funny, caring person, and if you aren’t familiar with her work, you need to go familiarise yourself with it, right the hell now. Jenny has written more clearly about depression than I’ll ever be able to. No, seriously, stop reading my bullshit, and go educate yourself.
Because you really need to educate yourself.
Before I get into this, I want to offer a warning. I have very strong opinions on certain things, and I generally keep them to myself because of the nature of the subjects. They’re immensely personal, and I would no sooner try to change your beliefs than I would try to convince you to change your religion. But this post deals with immensely personal subject matter, and it only makes sense in the context of my personal beliefs.
So when you disagree with me, just accept that someone may have a differing viewpoint from you, and it’s possible they aren’t trying to convince you to adopt theirs.
I don’t speak for everyone with depression, any more than I speak for anyone that writes software or anyone battling the flu. But I speak for me.
I’ve largely held off on writing about Aaron. I say that, having tweeted relentlessly about it, posting on Facebook about it, and even going so far as writing on Tumblr about it. But for all the sharing I did about it, all the visible signs that it had hit me hard… they were a filtered set, a small sampling. It, and the sudden death of a friend from high school a week earlier, hung over me for longer than it should have, and creeped into every corner of my life.
Had you told me Aaron’s name at the start of the year, I wouldn’t have known who he was. I was, as so many were, introduced to Aaron posthumously. And yet, I felt his death as accutely as I felt the death of someone I had grown up with. Someone I had known for years, someone who was a constant character in the story of my life.
Because Aaron felt a lot like the protagonist.
I won’t be so bold as to claim I’m even a fraction of the man Aaron was. He was brilliant and principled and good in ways that I can only dream of being when I’m at my most hubristic. And yet his writing sounded a lot like my own, to my ears. His beliefs felt a lot like mine, his story felt like a “what-if” applied to my own life. What if my parents had supported me when I showed a passion for the internet, instead of trying to drag me away from it?
I wouldn’t have been Aaron. But then, who would have?
I’m not fit to mourn Aaron publicly. I’m not fit to write his obituary, I’m not fit to say goodbye to him. Because I never said hello. And so this post isn’t really about Aaron. This post is about you.
Yes, you. You, sitting there, reading this. You, ignoring your fellow passengers on public transit as you read my blog post on your phone. You, that friend I haven’t spoken with in years as our lives drew us apart, but who surely loves me as much as I love you.
This post is about you.
Because I was very, very angry with you. I was angry with you because you were ignorant.
You said that Aaron somehow didn’t know how loved he was, that he was somehow blind to how much others cared for him. That he couldn’t have known, because if he had, he wouldn’t have taken his own life.
You tried to help, but fell into the same traps that those you’re trying to instruct fall into. You presumed to know about something you can’t possibly know about.
You equated suicide to taking your ball and going home, and apparently didn’t read what you had written before you posted it. If you had, you would surely have realised that it was obscenely and offensively dismissive of the feelings of someone who is ruled by their feelings. You would have obviously realised that you do not, in fact, “understand that depression is a serious disease that can fell any person, however strong”. Because you don’t understand, if you can honestly equate killing yourself to quitting a goddamn game.
You made this political. I agree with your politics. The federal charges leveled against Aaron certainly provided an impetus, certainly were a part of his decision to die. But you are wrong to focus this tragedy on the court case, you are wrong to demand the removal of the prosecutor that tried his case. Because in the end, depression is not about circumstances, and anyone that claims it is has an agenda. This tragedy should have been a rallying cry to better understand depression, not an excuse to remove a prosecutor that will simply be replaced by an identical cog in a broken machine.
But you know what? I was wrong to be angry with you. You were trying to help. You suck at it, but that isn’t really your fault, now is it? Because how the hell are you supposed to know about depression, any more than I know about leukemia or a tumor?
So now I’m going to tell you about it. I’m going to tell you about it, and not presume to speak for everyone suffering from this disease. Because I don’t. I speak for me. I speak for the underweight, always tired 22 year old sitting in a chair in Syracuse, New York. I speak for the endorphin-flooded music addict that spent two days with someone he loves to chase a shared dream, because they could. I speak for the loud, obnoxious, sarcastic, and cynical developer and evangelist that gives you hugs and makes Call Me Maybe references at hackathons. I speak for my mother’s son, my coworkers’ colleague, my siblings’ brother, my peers’ friend. Because that is all I’m qualified to speak as.
So let me tell you a little about me, and if one day I end up losing the fight, they will at least be able to point you this way, to inform you as to how this could have come to pass. Because I have stared suicide in the face before, have seen that light at the end of the tunnel. And it blinded me, so I looked away. But one day my eyes may be stronger, and that’s just a reality I have to live with.
The first thing I’m going to tell you is that my depression is not about being sad. It is about feeling tired. Not the tired you feel when you’ve been up coding for 48 hours and things are starting to blur and you’re no longer thinking coherently and you’re prone to babble amusing things to anyone who will listen. It’s the kind of tired you feel when you wake up in the morning, knowing you have a bad day at a job you hate ahead of you, and looking forward to getting it over and coming home. Except in my case, I don’t get to come home. It starts when I wake up, and ends when I go to sleep.
So I distract myself. I throw myself, unhealthily, into work. I make things and talk to people and reach for things above my age or education or experience. Much for the same reason you read that funny comic at work, or focus on the fact that you’re wearing your favourite t-shirt, or relish the sandwich you eat that day.
Because it’s better than focusing on the crushing feeling of being at the job you hate.
I first thought about dying when I was sixteen. I was a weird sixteen-year-old, and spent a lot of time contemplating where I stood on things. It’s because I had a fascination with writing, and as I cultivated it, I cultivated my propensity for thinking about questions without answers. And one of those questions regarded what happened to us when we die.
As a gay teenager, I was decidedly uncomfortable with the idea of a Heaven or Hell. But as a writer, I couldn’t figure out how I would describe that. Because I came to a conclusion about how I experienced things. To this day, Randall Munroe has outdone even my most eloquent efforts to express it: “Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit.” If we have but one scale, and everything must fit on that scale, then surely our lives must always have pain in them, right? And surely they must always have pleasure? Because what I, from my position of privilege and comfort, may consider “painful”, someone more marginalised or less fortunate would be ecstatic to experience. And if the pain or pleasure derived from something is entirely relative and subjective, how could you spend an eternity experiencing only pleasure? You would adapt to it, consider it the new normal, and come to take it for granted, no longer deriving happiness from it. So Heaven, a place of pure happiness for all eternity, couldn’t exist in any form we can conceive of. I will put that qualifier there as a concession to my religious readers; I am not trying to argue that your religion of choice is wrong, nor that your idea of the afterlife is wrong. I chose to base what I believe about what happens after I die on what I can conceive of and what reason could provide me. That is as much an act of faith as any religious belief, and I won’t attempt to persuade you that it is the right one.
So of course, I concluded that when I died, I simply ceased to exist. Not in that I became part of the world, nor did I think I drifted off into some blackness. My theory was, and is, that I will simply have no consciousness to speak of. There will be no Paddy. Because I rooted my existential crisis in my self-perception; I am a set of ever-shifting principles and beliefs that I hold. This is really vague, and seemingly-contradictory; I’m purposefully trying to keep this brief, because this post isn’t really about my existential conclusions. They’re simply an important backdrop to my conclusions about dying.
Because I’m totally okay with dying. The idea of not existing at all doesn’t bother me; it actually is a really enticing proposition. Because of that tiredness. Dying sounds a lot like clocking out at the end of the job you hate, and finally releasing all the tension you’ve held between your shoulders for eight hours. It sounds like finally resting.
I even decided, as a teenager, that I wanted to die young. “Young” is decidedly vague, but I knew at a certain point I would grow into someone that held no resemblance to the person I conceived myself as. These changes are outside of my control, part of the aging process, and they make me really, really uncomfortable. And I knew one day I would wake up and no longer recognise the person in the mirror. And I didn’t want to see that day.
I never actually decided I wanted to commit suicide young; I still don’t. But it’s something I kind of hope the universe will just take care of for me. That before the day comes where I don’t recognise myself anymore, where I don’t even bear a passing resemblance to the person I feel like I am, I’ll die quietly in my sleep, or so suddenly my body doesn’t even have time to panic.
And a lot of people would say that’s unhealthy. They may be right. But much like I never really gave anyone permission to judge who I can love, I never gave anyone permission to tell me whether or not what I want is healthy. You don’t know what my “sound mind” looks like; you don’t get to judge when what I want is a valid choice. Which is why I get so angry when people say Aaron made a rash choice. Who the fuck are you to judge? Maybe he carefully weighed his options and priorities, and that was the rational decision he arrived at.
And just because his death caused you grief doesn’t mean it bothered him.
So if I’m so comfortable with dying, why am I still alive? There are two reasons, and the degree to which they apply to my current mindset varies over time and situations.
The first is because I’m becoming increasingly better at distracting myself. Sometimes I get a setback, and don’t manage my life as well as I should, and I’longer able to distract myself. I end up doing things I hate. Which adds insult to illness; it’s like getting up to go to work at the job you hate, knowing that not only do you not have the sandwich you like, you don’t have any money for lunch at all, and are going to have to go hungry that day. It’s the extra kick in the nuts that the universe gives you, after it sucker punches you in the gut. But I’m getting increasingly better at managing this, and I’m lucky enough to get so many opportunities to work on interesting projects, it is rare that I go a day without my proverbial sandwich. It’s an amazing time to be a developer, and I’m really, really fortunate for that.
The second is because I am my mother’s son, my coworkers’ colleague, my siblings’ brother, my peers’ friend. And even if I’m okay with the idea of death, if not the actual act of dying (our bodies are pretty against that, instinctually), those people are not. They actually get pretty upset about it. And while I won’t care if they’re upset if I’m dead, I will care if I’m planning to upset them while alive. So the guilt of abandoning those people keeps me moving, much like someone will endure a job they hate to provide for the people they love. This isn’t a good reason to live; motivation by guilt never gets either party what they really want. It doesn’t lead to good work from employees, it’s not a great foundation to build a relationship on, and it’s not going to make someone live a happy life. But it keeps one foot in front of the other when there’s no other reason to keep walking.
When I was in college, I originally studied to be an English teacher. I saw our education system was so incredibly fucked up it defied belief, and I had the hubris to try and change that. Two years into the major, I called it quits. Trying to fight the system almost killed me, because I couldn’t fight on two fronts at once. I could battle the depression or I could battle the education system, but I couldn’t fight both of them. When I tried, I lost on both fronts.
Because of that, I’m proud of Aaron. With all due respect, Mr. Atwood can go fuck himself. It is nothing short of extraordinary that Aaron managed to fight the system as long and successfully as he did. I could not have done it, and I humbly submit that neither could Mr. Atwood. Aaron’s extraordinary efforts and accomplishments are something to be lauded and marvelled at, not something to be disappointed in him over. What I did, Mr. Atwood, when I quit the degree program and decided to let the education system go on being a mess, was taking my ball and going home. That is not what Aaron did. When I was younger, I played football as part of a rec league. My father had a saying, that we should “leave everything on the field”. The idea was that we should so play so hard, we’d have nothing left to give when the game was over. And that way, if we lost, we knew we lost because the other team had practised harder or was better, and not because of some mistake or bad call. And that if we won, we knew we had earned it.
Aaron didn’t take his ball and go home. He left everything on the field.
So, if you made it this far, I hope you know a little more about depression than you did when you started. I hope you, at the very least, know how much you don’t know. Who knows, maybe you’ll be interested enough to find out more.
But at the very least, I hope the next time someone young and brilliant and good commits suicide—because there will always be a next time—I hope you’ll ask questions, not offer conclusions.
Because you have none.