I am not a psychologist, but in dealing with, reading about and thinking about the problems of depression that have been close to me I have come to realize that personal demons are real and personal. They have little if anything to do with the outside world or “reality” as most of us think about it. Depression is a “thing” as far as I can tell. A physical, palpable, oppressive, real thing. Holding it at bay is a constant, exhausting and sometimes overwhelming struggle. It is incredibly unkind, naive, stupid and damaging to call suicide “selfish” or “cowardly.” As if that will somehow deter someone else, through guilt, from committing suicide. In all likelihood, such statements exacerbate the depression of those already battling it.
Those who battle depression are incredibly intrepid and courageous. They fight a battle they see as without end and without hope, yet they keep on fighting day after day, week after week, year after year until they finally can fight no more. That is the reality of depression.
Anthony Bourdain’s girlfriend said “only the best, funniest, loveliest, most empathetic, wonderful, talented people have depression.” She’s right and I have a theory that they are so, because they know the opposite. They know what a dark and dull and lonely and uncaring and loveless world looks like. They think they see it every day, so they try their hardest to be the opposite and they care deeply about those who suffer, because they see the big bad world every single day.
I have described my thoughts on suicidal depression to someone who has attempted suicide twice. The first time, she had second thoughts and called the paramedics herself just before the booze and sleeping pills took her under, they had to revive her on the way to the hospital. The second time, I found her. She was in ICU for two days. My description was as follows:
A person travels through a bleak desert. The sun bakes down on them. They can’t seem to get out of the desert yet they struggle forward in an attempt to get across it. Day by day they struggle. They have no food nor water yet they carry on. Occasionally, they think they see an end, but it is only a mirage. Occasionally they find a drop of moisture but it evaporates quickly. Onward they go. Soon they are on their hands and knees still struggling, still pushing, inching forward, clawing and crawling. Finally they can not do it anymore. Finally they give up. They feel terrible about giving up. Their dying thoughts are of their friends and family and the life they loved and lived, but they can go no further, struggle no more, they are just too tired. They are in too much pain.
Would you call such a person “selfish?” Would you say they were a “coward?” Of course not. They did the best they could through pain and suffering that we could not see or understand, we don’t see the world as hopeless and painful, they do.
Some make it through the desert. Some, with the help and support of family and friends, good doctors and good medicine can come out the other side or at least make the pain bearable, the struggle easier. To help them and others we need more understanding and compassion, not judgment.