Each depressive episode is a battle in a war that will never end. Sometimes, you can see the enemy coming, its march toward you set up in straight lines like a British military exercise, and you have time to fortify yourself, to build up your habits and your friends and your resources to protect you. But sometimes, when everything seems fine, and the horizon looks clear, you face a guerrilla attack. Every episode, you must fight not for victory, or power, or glory, but simply to continue, to stay alive.
Here is a list of habits I have constructed to keep me here: I walk every day for more than an hour. I exercise three times a week. I do not have more than three drinks at a time. I try to eat vegetables every day. I see a therapist weekly for an hour. I get eight hours of sleep. I take two pills every morning. I go to museums and walk in nature and do things I like even when I cannot feel anything from them at all. I am fighting like hell, and I am so tired.
“What merely a few weeks ago had seemed beautiful to her, was no longer beautiful, it was nothing,” Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about his wife’s depression in his new book, Spring. “She hated it. There was nothing she wanted more than to free herself of it. It ruined her life, she often said. There was something other inside her that took her over.”
That other, that creeping terror, that darkness is always there. It creeps around the edges of your vision even on the best days. If you get to the darkest part, and you are all alone, danger is there waiting for you. “I’m a solid six out of ten.… I’m drawn to negatives in life, and I dwell on them, and they consume me.… If I get a couple of days a week at a seven, fuck, it’s great,” Scott Hutchison, the former frontman of Scottish indie rock band Frightened Rabbit, recently told Noisey.
I say “former” because last month, Scott Hutchison lost the war. Designer Kate Spade lost last Tuesday; celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain on Friday.
In the past year, four beloved musicians got stuck in the dark space and couldn’t find their way out. Chester Bennington of Linkin Park lost his war last July. Chris Cornell lost last June. Tim Bergling, the Swedish DJ-producer who performed as Avicii, lost in April. I know how all these men died. I shouldn’t, but I do. I know how Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain died. I know if they left notes. I know what method they used. There are guidelines to reporting on suicides that are perfectly clear: Don’t describe it. Sharing these details, we know, is statistically dangerous.
Among the depressed — those on the front lines — war stories are allowed, encouraged. The more people who know you’re scared and tired, in theory, the more people you have on your team. Rarely do those stories leave the safety of like-minded people with the same fears. And so we all — those of us with the brains that lie to us, who can see the vignette of depression always just there — know plenty of people struggling with our same fears. But depression manifests itself differently in different people. Its symptoms are both weight gain and weight loss, sleeping all the time and not at all. It is a loss of pleasure, a slowing of the brain and the body, an absolute conviction that those around you would be better off without you. And it is hard as hell to talk about. In the wake of these deaths, more people have been writing about this struggle, talking about it, opening up. Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes admitted Saturday in an Instagram post to once having been “dangerously and actively suicidal,” and that “suicide has been an at-many-times daily part of my psychic reality.”
I’m a high-functioning depressed person, and I am not brave. For years, I hid those thoughts from everyone, kept them tucked away from even those closest to me. They were too damning to share, I felt, too terrifying. I could hide the darkness — not from myself, but from everyone else — behind good grades and hard work and productivity. It feels easier, safer, to be more like Kate Spade, to tell no one how extreme your feelings are. But it isn’t actually. In a statement, Spade’s husband said that she struggled with both anxiety and depression, took pills, saw doctors, fought. But still he was blindsided; her death was a “complete shock.”
Mental health remains stigmatized: To take an antidepressant is still, in some perceptions, an undeniable weakness; to see a therapist means that you must be broken. We are getting better at admitting that people have depression; we are even trying as a society to talk more about it. But suicide? Suicide seems, in the court of public opinion, like another level of mental illness, something beyond depression. But it’s not. The darkness can arrive at any moment. Ready or not.
These deaths are devastating. They are not romantic. They are brutal and terrible and so, so sad. Suicide is no one’s first choice. Suicide is an act a person commits because they feel they have no other option, because they feel — as David Foster Wallace so eloquently put it — like a person who jumps from the window of a burning building: “It’s not desiring the fall; it’s the terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk looking up yelling, ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’ can understand the jump. Not really.” Suicidal thoughts only make sense if you’ve at one point opened the front door of your consciousness to find them on the doorstep already pushing their way in.
As Chris Gethard says in his HBO comedy special Career Suicide, about his lifelong battle with clinical mental illness, “Sometimes people just break.” It seems like more and more people are breaking, and not only artists or famous people or the rich. Depression does not discriminate. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that one of the action steps in preventing suicide is simply to talk openly and honestly about it. Not to debate its ethics, but to check in on people you love, even if they seem fine, explicitly about suicidal thoughts.
The hardest part for me about Scott Hutchinson’s loss, about Kate Spade’s loss, and Anthony Bourdain’s loss, is that we know they were fighting. Hutchison was even brave enough to talk about it publicly. He knew he was depressed, and he told us. He was vulnerable, and open, and he still failed. He found art that could mend him, and friends who could support him. He made mistakes, of course, but he was relatable. He lost a battle so many people are fighting. What happens if you fight like hell and still lose? You can know everything, be doing everything, and it might not be enough.
Perhaps the most important, most constructive thing we can do is continue to speak openly and honestly about the battles we are fighting; to listen, as Scott did, to each others’ stories and fears. Depression did not deserve to take any of these people. And it does not deserve to take you.
If you or someone you love is in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It is free, operates 24-7, and provides confidential support for people in crisis.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 11, 2018