Hello, world. We need to talk.
I’ve been trying to write this post for so long. Since January, I’ve been constantly churning out beginnings to “We Need to Talk,” only to cringingly reread them the morning after and hastily erase everything from existence. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know which words to use, or in what order. I am very much terrified that I will botch my one grand attempt at explaining something that so desperately needs to be explained.
But today, I was scrolling through Facebook when a post to someone’s timeline caught my eye. “I hope you’re in a better place now,” it read. I clicked on it and scrolled some more. An eighteen-year-old boy had just committed suicide. In that moment, the dam inside my head burst wide open, and the words tore free.
I can only hope that these words will be enough to shed some light. Help people understand, or at least begin to understand. This, after all, is the only way we can begin to work a little harder to save the lives that do not need to be lost. If you don’t have the time or energy to ingest all 3K words, at least skip to the bottom where I start using bold font and capital letters. (The entire post is essentially a pregame for the bold font and capital letters.)
I want to begin by addressing one enormous umbrella aspect of depression, or any mental illness, that is often overlooked: it is a disease. Can you imagine telling someone with cancer that if they think recovery-recovery-recovery hard enough, they will in fact achieve a full recovery? Sure, willpower and determination are key ingredients in getting better. But you can’t just think yourself to a cancer-free body. In the same vein, someone with depression can’t just think-positive and be-happy themselves to full recovery. Just because a mental illness doesn’t manifest itself in physical ways, just because there’s no certain prognosis, doesn’t mean the patient has more control over it than any other disease. Let me knock on your brain three times to wake you up so you can properly re-process that statement. No one. Has control. Over mental illness. So, protip: never, never, never, never say to someone, “Snap out of it.” Never say “let it go” or “think happy thoughts” or “count your blessings.” That’s like pointing to a rampaging, man-eating rhinoceros with rabies and saying, “Pet it like it’s an irritated bunny, and everything will be okay!” No, guys. Everything will not be okay. Another protip: if you treat rampaging man-eating rabies rhinoceroses like bunny rabbits, SHIT WILL GO DOWN.
Please take notes and apply this knowledge to your treatment of mental illnesses as well.
With that said, I admit that it’s easy to say “snap out of it” or “let it go” or “think happy thoughts” or whatever, because we’re trained to view other people’s problems as just that: other people’s problems. We’re trained to think, Oh, I have problems too, and if I can handle my problems, they can handle their problems. This is bad. We need to work to chip away at this mentality; as a human being, you are morally obligated to simply be there for anyone who needs you. At least, that’s what I consider my human obligation to be. I don’t want to preach you to oblivion.
Other times, we mistake long-term sadness for short-term sadness. We mistake deep feelings for shallow ones. We mistake an ailment for a phase. We might not even notice anything strange at all. This is my next umbrella aspect. Have you noticed the same pattern I’ve noticed in suicide obituaries? Happiness. Photographs of smiling faces, glowing memories, and beautiful young adults surrounded by friends and family. Quotes like, “she was always cheerful and full of laughter” and “he was so talented and had such a bright future.” Why is happiness a pattern in articles about suicide, of all things? You see, mental illness is very much in the business of lurking. It’s not like, if you are depressed you spontaneously grow long, angsty bangs and begin to mope around in a Snape-like manner whilst listening to hormonally charged alternative rock. I mean, sure, that may be the case. But usually it’s not, and here’s where my story comes in.
Until now, I’ve withheld my story because I am a person who is very concerned with the way others perceive me (I’m trying to change this). I do not want to sound like a pity party. I also do not want to be stuffed in a box and labeled with a word. Because I don’t want to be viewed differently from anyone else, there is approximately half a person on this planet who knows this story. (I say half because he only knows half the story, not because I Texas-chainsaw-massacred him into two pieces.) But today I am going to grit my teeth and share my story, because I’ve seen too many articles about too many youth suicides and thought too many times, “Jesus, if only society understood, he/she could have been saved.” I hope that in sharing my story, I will reach out blindly into the darkness and find the help-me-help-me-help-me hands of those who also harbor secret stories. And once I do, I will hold on tight and never let go.
In high school, I was a flyer on the varsity cheer squad. I was the vice president of Tomorrow’s Women for Science and Technology and the co-founder of Learning and Inspiration for Everyone. I sold 500 copies of my own novel before I turned sixteen and graduated with an acceptance letter to Newsweek’s fourth best university in the United States. I started sporadic Cotton Eye Joe flash mobs in the physics hallway, collected coins to leave heads up as lucky pennies for strangers to find, and passed out handwritten cards on Valentine’s Day. I lived in a nice neighborhood with nice people and was lucky enough to be ensconced in a solidly comfortable financial situation. I had friends to badly karaoke with during lunch, boys to take me to awkward dinners and awkward dances, and a family who loves me more unfailingly than I deserve. In a letter given to me on the last day of senior year, my friend wrote the following: “First impression? OMG it’s that cheer chick my friend was talking about! She seems bubbly and the stereotypical cheerleader.” (Thanks Richie.)
That last paragraph was embarrassingly self-centered. I am so sorry you had to go through it. Here is a hypothetical cookie for those thirty seconds of your life that you will never get back.
Anyway, I stuck that paragraph in here so that you can get a holographic visual in your head of High School Angela. This is the Angela that my friends, family, teachers, and I-make-awkward-eye-contact-with-you-in-the-hallways-but-don’t-actually-know-you classmates knew. I’ve been called “perfect” more times can I can remember. God, I’ve even heard people say they want to be me, and I’m just like, Hey, be careful what you wish for.
See, they didn’t want to be Me. They wanted to be Her, this image of an ideal teenager that I presented to the world. I cultivated this image very carefully, going all-out, my-precious-my-precious Gollum on my appearance and achievements. Behind the scenes, though, something thick and evil was blossoming within me. I didn’t think much of it when it began during sophomore year—as a teenager, you hear so much about “that phase” and “growing pains” and “emolicious angst” that you tend to discount any and all emotions as hormonal imbalances and/or extreme sleep deprivation. Additionally, depression did not happen overnight. I did not have an epiphany one day and go, “I am depressed! Oh my!” It crept over me like fog with sniper training. In fact, I never really even labeled what I was going through as actual depression until this January, almost three years after it first began. Why? I thought my feelings were normal. (See above statement re: “that phase” and “growing pains” and “emolicious angst.”) When I finally cracked and word-barfed everything to a close friend, there was a long silence on the other end of the phone. Then my friend took a long breath and said, “Angela, to seriously consider killing yourself, more than twice a week, is not normal.”
And I was all like, “Wait, WHAT?”
So that happened.
It’s also worth noting that emotions in general should not be overlooked. Even temporary sadness should be acknowledged and treated. And full-on depression should be acknowledged, treated, and recognized . . . as something that is not normal, as something that warrants serious attention. Guys, it’s hurtful to confide sadness to a friend and hear them say, “Um, I’m sorry, but it’ll get better soon? Give me a hug.” It’s even more hurtful to confide suicidal notions to a friend and hear them say, “Um, I’m sorry, but it’ll get better soon? Give me a hug. Go see a therapist.”
If they came and told you, they chose you over a therapist. You help them to the best of your ability, and then you gently ease them into the idea of a therapist.
Right, so let me talk a bit more about my experience. Part of the reason I was unable to successfully complete this blog post in prior months is that I was still tangled up in being depressed, even as I was recovering. (Recovery is a tangled up matter in general.) Only recently have I been able to look back at the dark ages in a more holistic, detached manner.
There’s nowhere logical to start; there’s no good way to track fog with sniper training back to its roots. Overall, my life was in shades of gray. Even when good things happened to me, I lacked the ability to respond with proper joy. When bad things happened to me, my mood remained neutral. Basically, I was alive but flatlining, and I was consistently flatlining way beneath a decent, average emotional health level. At especially bad times, I lost interest in everything, including but not limited to: writing, hanging out with friends, binge-eating chocolate, binge-watching rom-coms, binge-sleeping, and so on. This was a problem. I didn’t want to do anything. Notice how the previous sentence does not say “I didn’t want to do anything except for ____.” I literally did not want to do ANYTHING. I didn’t want to sleep, eat, or even sit around and be lazy. In essence, my soul was a blob. And it was a pretty gross blob, too.
I also became obsessed with the idea that everyone secretly despised me, and I was a burden to the world. There was not a single thing in existence that I could do right. Long story short, I am so picky and overthinky about the tiniest things in life that it is nearly impossible for events to play out the way I want them to. And also pickiness and overthinkyness lead to misjudgements about how people perceive me. Thus: my obsession with the idea that everyone secretly despised me, and I was a burden to the world. I did not see a purpose in the continuance of my existence. All I wanted was to quit, but the plot twist was that I couldn’t just up and quit because I owed that to my family, so I was trapped. Need to quit, can’t quit, trapped.
Throughout this alive-yet-flatlining shitshow, I sometimes had these uncalled-for attacks during school whereupon I was suddenly struck with self-loathing and the desperate, searing need to be alone and away from all these people who (supposedly) secretly despised me. I’d haul ass to the nearest bathroom and pace in the handicap stall, my pulse and breathing rate going like those of an obese squirrel after it has been chased across the country by a murderous dog. Yeah, I cried during some of these, which kind of sucked because I was too forgetful to bring makeup supplements to school, and without makeup I look a little bit like a deformed potato. I’d just plaster my trademark smile on my face, redo my hair and smear my melted mascara into makeshift eyeliner, and mosey back to class like I wasn’t just dying ten seconds ago.
One last thing I’m going to say about my suckcrappery condition is: it wasn’t just mental pain. At times, the mental pain was so intense that I could feel it, very clearly, in my chest. We’ve all felt this mental-pain-on-steroids-branching-out-into-the-realms-of-physical-pain at some point or another. You know that feeling crouching just behind your rib cage, that crushing, vaccum-like feeling you get right before tears well up in your eyes? This is the pain I am referring to. Except for me, I’d get it for an extended period of time, and I would sit there and feel this pain behind my rib cage and this pain inside my head, and listen to my heart going whump-whump-whump inside of me and think to myself, I am in so much fucking pain right now.
Oh, I almost forgot the voice. The calm, reasonable voice in the back of my head that reminded me, frequently and with no warning, “The only option is to kill yourself.” I believed in this voice. I drowned in this voice. I became this voice. There was a time I nearly succumbed to the voice, but was saved. And so it goes.
All through this, I smiled and waved from the top of the pyramid during football games. I was loud, peppy, and laugh-filled. I had days where the thick and evil goo inside of me began to leak, and my friends would ask me if I was okay. “Yup!” I’d say. “I am A-plus!” [Insert tacky smile and leprechaun hop here.] I continued making straight A’s, continued upholding my constitution of perfection, continued being the girl that everyone wanted to be.
I recognized that I had a problem sometime during junior year and began actively seeking a solution. Which proves a point about recovery: I have been “on the road to recovery” since the summer of 2014, and the swings from Good to Bad or from Bad to Good along this road are INTENSE. One day a dive into the abyss. The next, catapulted back into civilization. One moment unbearably happy, and then a trigger sets me off into the pain again. So yeah, intense bungee-cord swings. And also, the road to recovery is one. Long. Motherfucker. But here I am, writing this post, healthy and recovered (**knocks aggressively on nearby wood**). So yes, it’s a road of goddamned proportions. But to those of you crawling up that road on your hands and knees, the same way I did for twelve long months, let me tell you this:
The road leads to the end of the tunnel.
I swear to God, it leads to light. It might take years to simply find a pinprick of this light. It may seem pointless to even try to search for that pinprick of light. It always seems like the best choice is to sit down in the middle of the tunnel and cry, or tie yourself down on the tracks and wait for a train to come. But if you’re reading this right now, I PROMISE that things will get better. There will always be dives straight back off the cliff, straight back into the pain and the terror and the confusion, but . . . acceptance and time are key. Accept yourself, and give yourself time. And remember this: this darkness will hurt you, mold you, and eventually emblazon you into a person who truly shines. It is a darkness that creates light. For now, find the right people to keep in your life, to hold dear, and to entrust yourself to. If you can’t find these people, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is my hand. Take it.
(“Some Half-Assed Road to Recovery This Is” addresses the specific steps I took on my personal road to recovery.)
Alright. If I haven’t lost you by now, thank you for being a marvelous and loyal reader. If I had the means, I would hand-pick a bouquet of flowers and deliver them to you myself. Unfortunately, I live in Chicago and it is cold and all of the flowers are in hibernation. And also I cannot purchase plane or train tickets because college tuition has rendered me incapable of purchasing in general. And also I cannot walk anywhere because I will probably get mugged.
Remember, this story is specific to me. I led a life chock-full of comfort and blessings, yet was still somehow struck with this illness. I know some of you will accuse me of being spoiled, and remind me of the greater hardships that are to be faced in the world. Children are starving or being abused, single moms are working day jobs and going to night schools, people are falling victims to senseless crimes of violence. But I will also gently remind you that mental illness is in fact a disease that no one is immune to, and that no one has control over. I know I am lucky to have a life like mine. I am simply sharing a shadow that swallowed me whole at one point, so that you may have a better understanding of what depression means to me.
Also, let me say again: this story is specific to me. Other stories may include different symptoms and different pains. Other stories might address the stress of academics, body insecurities, domestic issues, or living conditions. Yes, all our stories are unique, because as human beings, we are inherently unique. Yet put all these stories together, and you get a cohesive whole. This cohesive whole is whispering something urgently, urgently, urgently. Can you hear it?
It is whispering, “Help.”
Every single person who is struggling with mental illness needs help, whether he/she/they acknowledges it or not. For me, I desperately wanted someone to help me, but didn’t know how to ask. I knew I could talk to a friend. I knew my parents were 110% supportive and would do anything to make me better. I knew there were resources. But I felt alone, afraid, and most of all, confused. I didn’t know how I was supposed to ask for help, or what words to use, or where to start. And perhaps this is the problem for many patients: it is difficult to ask for help. Nearly impossible.
This is why everyone else—we, as a society and as a world—need to take the first step.
We should not wait for someone to ask for help. Whether or not they ask for it, or whether or not they even need it, we should give help whenever we can. We need to say, maintaining eye contact the entire time, “I am always open if you need to talk.” We need to call up our friends out of the blue and say, “Let’s talk about life, about anything. Are you free for coffee on Saturday?” We need to appear at someone’s door with a bowl of ice cream and say, “Hi, I just wanted to stop by and see if you are doing okay.” We need to see a stranger who seems stressed or sad or serious and slip them a note that says, “You look tired today; I hope you know that you are not alone and things will look up, and I am looking out for you.” We need to do these things without being told. Look, awareness for the cause has already been made. We already know that suicide is a leading cause for teen deaths. But please, for God’s sake, YOU MAKE A CHANGE IN YOUR OWN LIFE. This change is TAKING THE FIRST STEP. This change is ALL THE SMALL AND SUBTLE THINGS. This change is letting individuals know, each and every one of them, that YOU CARE. If you don’t take anything else away from this post, I want you to take this away. These suicides are not going to stop with awareness. These suicides are going to stop with actions. And I want you to go out there and open your arms to your friends, family, and strangers. You tell them you are there for them. And you BE there for them.
Guys, any of these things. Trust me. I would know. These things can save an entire human life.
It can be one afternoon getting coffee and talking. It can be one smile on a rainy day. It can be one genuine compliment. It can be anything.
You go up to someone, anyone, and say, “We need to talk.” And then, you do NOT use their problems as an excuse to bring up your own. You do NOT undermine their struggles. You do NOT brush them off and let them off the hook with a mumbled, or even a fakely happy “I’m okay.”
That’s all. Listen.
Take my word for it. That’s all you have to do to save someone’s life.