RIP, David Foster Wallace:Some Thoughts on Suicide & Depression

David Foster Wallace committed suicide this weekend. 46. Hung himself.

The guy had made a career out of being brilliantly insightful and funny. Yet he somehow ended up on the dark side from which suicide seems the only out.

I’ve tried to write about depression over the last couple of years, because I know a fair bit about what it feels like to be on the wrong side of it. I’ve lived with others who’ve been suicidal. I understand depression in a whole slew of ways.

I’m on the other side of it these days, and think I’ll stay on the other side a while yet. I still struggle with being all happy-sunshiney, because, let’s face it, that works for demure screen sirens of old, but for the rest of us on Planet Earth in the here-and-now, happiness not some ubiquitous state we tap into with the flick of a finger or a “Hey, I know!” notion in the morning, as much as Dale Carnegie wants you to believe happiness is always a choice.

Even now, the quasi-adversities that pepper my life temper my glee-factor something fierce, but that’s humanity for you. I’m in touch with my moody glory. I can often think my way into better moods, though, as much as I like to mock the notion.

I mock it because depression is when the ability for levity and “opting out” of moods takes its leave.

Real” depression is a whole ‘nother beast than the “normal” depression. I can shake my depressions these days because they’re just that: normal. I know it might all be better again tomorrow. I know bad days are just part of the mix, just like finding surprise bad produce in the midst of your seemingly selectively-chosen product when you get home from the veggie store. Shit happens.

But not to severely depressed people. Even trying to “think” your way out of it doesn’t work. I wrote this posting on August 15th, 2006. What you don’t see is, that even though I talked a good game on the night of the 15th, the 16th became the first and only time in my life that suicide seemed like a good choice. There was a point in the day when I came apart. I came wholly apart. I worked alone in my office that day and had a complete breakdown to the point that I had an “emergency” call placed to me by my old therapist I hadn’t spoken to in years. A 45-minute conversation talked me down from that fever-pitch of suicidal thoughts, and things were a little better in the morning.

I remember that blackness now, and even thinking about how I got to be from the person I loved earlier that year to the woman I was that day just sends shivers up me still. Because I know, as much as I loathe the easy way out that suicide is, as much as I pride myself on taking on any challenge and usually winning… I know I was ready to give it all up. And I have no idea how I got to that point.

That’s the terrifying thing about depression. When you’re no longer yourself, how can you possibly act in ways that are right for you? When you have no logic, how do you make the logical choice?

Depression isn’t something that occurs to the weak. I’m here to fucking tell you I know more about “surviving” than most people of my age, and I almost didn’t survive my depression, despite having survived so much else in my life.

(As I’ve said in the past: My suicidal depression was as a result of trying to suppress my period through birth control pills. I’m not sure I will ever take birth control again. I still recommend it for the average woman, but believe me I do so with massive caveat emptor attached. However, my life went off the rails at the same time, for what was pretty much the existential “perfect storm”, and perhaps the hormones were just the straw on the existential camel’s back.)

Weak is not a word people ever, ever, ever describe me as in real life. Not in any definition of the word.

Yet somehow the stigma of depression = weakness endures. It’s why I’m so hell-bent on writing about it, because *I* have no stigma about the depressions I’ve had. Why should I?

And someone like David Foster Wallace just inexplicably disappears from the planet one day because he’s committed suicide. Was he depressed? Probably. Maybe we’ll find out. Either way, William Styron’s incredible Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness is something I think any moody creative type should read. The look that brilliant novelist takes at his own suicidal depression and the links he explores, believing his suicidal tendencies perhaps had to do with his creative nature, is something that has stayed with me over the years.

I’m obviously a highly introspective writer. I do it well, it’s my schtick. That said, there are dark and dingy places in the recesses of my mind that require stoicism and fearlessness, but particularly tempering, before I go trekking through them, and I find it healthy to remember just how much toying with the shadows of our psyche can unsettle us at times.

Styron quoted the book of Job from the Bible in the opening of Darkness Visible, and it’s something that anyone who has truly, truly endured depression can understand.

For the thing I greatly fear is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me. I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.”

~The Book of Job

In depression, the trouble always comes.

Because, when you’re depressed, being around life itself reminds you of everything you once had and feel has now become lost to you. It’s the inability to connect your reality with what your perception is, no matter how much you may be aware that it’s your perspective that’s the problem. It’s like looking at life through a cracked, distorted mirror. No matter how you try to defragment the view, it’s your perception and not the image that is broken.

Depression makes no sense. Suicide can never be understood. Unless, for the briefest of moments, it once seemed to make sense to you.

And even though I had that moment of clarity when “out” seemed better than “in”, I still don’t understand the choice of suicide. I don’t understand how life can make death seem appealing. I don’t understand having the courageous mix of fear and foolishness required to take that easy, all-too-permanent out, since all I had was the notion and not yet the motivation to make it so.

All I really understand about depression is that it’s not about weakness. It’s about something that we as a race still don’t understand, and we still can’t control. But we can at least try to talk about it. We can help remove the stigma that comes with a diagnosis of depression or mood disorders. We can make it easier for people, however brilliant and famous they are, to admit they’re powerless over this thing that’s come from the shadows only to choke all the light.

All I really understand is that it’s a crime, in this age of information and knowledge, that such rampant ignorance and judgment still exists regarding depression.

Because it’s why people like David Foster Wallace often think a rope over a rafter or a bullet in the head is easier than trying to end that chokehold of darkness over their light.

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8 Comments

  1. Claire
    Posted September 14, 2008 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Thanks for that, Steff. If I get told to “cheer up” one more time I may hit someone. If it was that easy then depression wouldn’t exist. Depression is a terrible beast that no one except those who have suffered from it understand.

  2. EmmaK
    Posted September 14, 2008 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I get depressed a lot too…some people think you can get over it by just ‘looking on the bright side’ but it isn’t that easy

  3. TinLashes
    Posted September 14, 2008 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    and perhaps the hormones were just the straw on the existential camel’s back.”

    Don’t underestimate the power of hormones. Look at the effects of castration, pregnancy, menopause, pituitary dwarfism, etc. If they were merely straw sized, this would be a common statement: “I’ve always had morning sickness, but now that I’m pregnant, it’s all day long.”

  4. Mary Jane
    Posted September 14, 2008 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    It’s so hard to try to explain depression to those who haven’t been there themselves but this piece comes pretty damn close, thanks for hitting the nail on the head :)

  5. Anonymous
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    Thanks for making such a point that depression doesn’t happen because of weakness — there persists such a stigma about that, and I think I perpetuated it as much as anyone else before I had an experience with depression myself. I had always considered myself “strong” (whatever that is), and then got hit with a bout of events (chemistry in my brain?) that just sunk me. into a place where just getting out of bed was way too big of a decision to make. Anyway, made it to the other side, even though I think that once having been there, its so much easier to find yourself back there; its always somewhere under the surface.in any case, glad you made it to the other side, and sorrowful that David Foster Wallace did not.

  6. Scribe Called Steff
    Posted September 18, 2008 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Claire: I believe the correct response when being told to “cheer up” is “BOY, have I got a bitch-slap for you!”

    People are simpletons sometimes.

    Emmak: No, it’s not. Which is why people keep killing themselves. Which would seem to be great evidence that this depression thing needs talking about, but as long as we want to keep pretending that suicide just happens, like it’s always some monster surprise (when it seldom is), then this is the cycle we’ll remain in.

    Tinlashes — Yeah, I know, the power of hormones are evil. It’s hard to take this intangible thing, hormones, that seriously, though, even when, as a woman, I know it rules my day from start to end.

    Crazy, crazy, crazy, those hormone things.

    MJ — Thanks for thinking I hit the nail on the head. :)

    Anon — I know, I was always angry when people would treat me as fragile because I was depressed. You need to handle people differently, sure, but don’t patronize them. It’s not weakness, it’s just an altered state.

    And that’s really hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, yeah. So, it’s good you understand that now, but too bad it had to happen to you for that understanding to occur. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

    Yes, this “other side” place is nice. I think I’ll stay awhile. :)

  7. Neil
    Posted August 10, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Yesterday my father decided to come visit due to my problems with the current job I have. He tells me that I am lazy and that I just need to buck up and get off my ass. Then he throws my coffee table and kicked some electronics that he “blames” for my depression. He doesn’t thrashing until he grabs me by the shirt and shakes me like he is trying to snap me out of “depression.“
    I think this is a perfect example of society. They can’t even begin to fathom so they throw tantrums. All I could think about while this was going on was shoving a knife into my throat or my arms.
    I can’t even begin to think how to try to explain to him or anyone else about how depression makes me want nothing more than to end it all. What can I do? What should I do? I contacted 3 different counselors to set up appointments.
    I have been told that I have suffer from a combination of symptoms that closely resembles Hypothymia but I have severe depression that comes and goes on about 2 year intervals. It comes and goes, but I can barely contain my life, let alone live in “normal” society as my father states.
    I don’t even know where I was going with this. I just felt that I needed to voice something.

    • Posted August 10, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      Time to look at all your options, Neil. Leaving town to ditch your father, medications would likely help. I have no idea, I’m not a professional, and while I care for your situation and hope you can power through it, I can’t be a support to you, as focusing on myself is hard enough.

      What I can tell you is, changing my diet to a healthy diet without any processed foods HELPED. Exercising and finding something that makes me excited (cycling) HELPS. Talking to a professional HELPS. Medication HELPS. Some people are able to take medication long enough (tends to be a minimum of one year) that their body levels off and they have to go off it. I was one of those people — I took meds, exercised regularly, ate better, drank less, and lost weight. Once my health was improving, I noticed my mood fucking up again — we realized I had stabilized my bio chemistry and I had to GO OFF meds.

      Some people have to stay on meds all their lives. Some people can remedy everything with healthy lifestyle changes.

      Depression doesn’t cure overnight, and once you’ve had it you’re always susceptible. That’s why I can’t be anyone’s shoulder in depression.

      But I can tell you this — my moods now are only a little darker than the “normal” person’s, and only sometimes. I don’t take any meds. I’m able to make choices that make me happier, work through my difficult times, and I feel like I have a handle on life.

      That wasn’t the case in 2006.

      So, keep the faith, kid. If your dad’s part of the problem, you don’t need him in your life. If you think leaving town and starting over will help, go for it. There’s a world of choices, and you need to start believing that.

      Keep your counselling appointments, keep speaking out, keep believing. Good luck. :)

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