on depression

It’s been a big, emotional day, reading about Aaron Swartz’ suicide and all the anger and blame being thrown around. Working with Elliott Bledsoe on this open letter to JSTOR has been a concerted effort to try to bring some light to the darkness. Who knows if this mission of ours will take flight, but it’s heartwarming to see the strength of support it’s raised in just a few hours.

It’s 5.30am now. I’ve been lying on my sofabed unable to sleep, reading yet more articles and opinions and softly letting the tears fall. I always feel guilty when I cry, like I don’t have the right to be sad over the loss of someone I didn’t really know. Hell I spent a lot of last year feeling like I didn’t have the right to mourn my friend James as much as I did; so many other people knew him far longer and far better than I. But emotions don’t work like that – especially grief.

I’ve been lying there thinking quietly to myself about what someone so smart, talented and respected must have been feeling so desperately on the inside that he just couldn’t hold on any more. And then I found a blog post he’d written about depression in 2007, called simply “Sick“.  Actually, he calls it “depressed mood”, suggesting it’s too much of a stigma for him to admit it could be any more than an erratic, adolescent mood swing. Perhaps he’s right to hold back. Perhaps, because of this post, one day someone will wrap me up in a nice little descriptor-box called “depressed” and consider me “appropriately labeled and processed: tick”.

Yes, this is where I stop talking about a young man I didn’t know and open up about myself. Because we don’t talk often enough, or openly enough, about the depression most of us feel ourselves. We are supposed to be big and strong, always sure-footed, never stumbling – or making sure to laugh it off when we do. “Don’t cry, there’s a big girl” and “Oh come on, harden the fuck up” are far more common words of ‘encouragement’ than anyone telling you “let it out, you just need a good cry” or you proudly declaring to your mom, teacher or peers “I only felt crap about half of this week; it’s getting better, look!”. Society fucks us over at every turn. We barely have time (or money) to breathe between work and sleep never mind having to buy/cook/eat a healthy meal, induce some fresh-air-and-exercise-based-endorphins or enjoy any kind of cultural quality of life. Where in the hell is ‘mindfulness’ supposed to get a look-in?!

There have been countless times in my life where I have been through varying degrees of depression, lasting from a couple of days to (if I’m really honest with myself) several years. I’ve never been clinically diagnosed with it, but there have been several occasions (more than I care to admit, even in this grand reveal) when I just wanted it all to go away. In the past I had spent years pushing people far away from me, thinking it was surely better for everyone if they didn’t have to see these cycles, didn’t have to become embroiled in my pain.

No, “pain” is the wrong word. When I drop, falling heavily off that metaphorical cliff, I don’t feel pain. I don’t feel anything. The numbness is unfathomable. Think of the enormity of the Australian outback, mix it with the weight and density of a black hole, throw in the loneliness of desperately needing (but completely denying yourself) any love and attention from another soul, and add an exhaustion the likes of which only olympian athletes should anticipate, and you might come close. You don’t even have yourself for company; the inwardly-focused vitriol is overwhelming even for the most hardy of hermits.

The cycle (for me anyway) eventually comes back to the recognition that “I have been through this before”. That sudden moment of realisation is like a blackout curtain dropping away. Suddenly you are in daylight so bright it hurts your eyes… which is good. No, really, I’m not being a masochist. It means I can FEEL SOMETHING AGAIN. I know then that it’s OK. Or that at least it is getting better which in itself lets me know that (if I’m careful and do the right things) it should continue to get better. This is possibly the most fragile stage; I know I will likely again stumble on the way out but that at each step I will be stronger. And then it’s just a matter of working my way back through to the exit – or rather, entrance.

Of course this is a fool’s confidence, the mind is the same astonishingly clever little bastard whether it’s negotiating some intricate exciting new deal or excruciatingly screwing you over from the inside-out. With age (and sadly, repetition) you get to notice the warning signs. If you’re smart – and lucky – you’ll learn to notice them in time to take some action, but more often than not you’ll notice them retrospectively. It might sound perverse, but I have come to realise that each collapse trains you for the next healing process. The yin & yang; you can’t have one without the other. Now that I’m nearing 40 I’ve finally learned that if I’m happy all the time then something is wrong. At that point I either change something to rebalance myself, or prepare for the worst and wait to take the impending nose-dive.

Everyone is different. For me, sometimes all I need to rebalance is to hide myself away and just be, quietly, with myself. Sometimes a few hours, sometimes a few days. Some days are legitimately… [oh wow, that was an interesting Freudian slip; like depression isn’t legitimate? anyway…]. Some days are overtaken with intense stress-migraines that force me into a darkened room and deny my addiction to brightly-lit screens. Other times I just can’t/don’t want to/downright refuse to be anywhere near other living beings, online or off. I’ve learned that it’s the way it has to be for the other parts of my brain/life to work as (arguably) well as they do. I’ve learned to listen to myself, watch for those signs, be mindful of my mental state’s needs in the way that other people count calories. Of course since my tendency is peaks and troughs I frequently ignore the sensible and keep charging ahead, running on no food or sleep and an overdose of adrenalin for weeks on end, leading to the inevitable crash and burn. But it’s OK, it’s a cycle, and like any good cycle you just have to get back on and keep those wheels a’turnin.

It’s only OK now, though, because I had a couple of good Psychologists (yes, I’ve been through therapy). I learned to give myself the permission to hibernate when I need to, and to be broken when I need to be. And I talk to people about it when I’m ready to face the world again. If I didn’t have such great friends – the ones who hear my silence and send quiet checkins, the ones who boost my confidence when it sags and the ones who slap me down when I’m getting too big for my boots – my life really wouldn’t be worth living. (Admittedly, couchsurfing with this has been interesting, especially over the crazy last year I’ve had. The more loud and public things have been on the outside, the more I have craved solitary recuperation. That’s not always easy to achieve while living in other peoples’ homes and I’m exceedingly grateful for the kindness and patience of my various hosts).

They say it’s especially hard for men to talk about how they feel. I thought about this a while ago and realised that I rarely ask male friends those same deep searching questions that I ask my female friends. As a teenage girl the idea of asking a boy “what are you thinking” would instantly label you ‘needy’. Society trains us to act in abnormal boxes; it’s no surprise that we feel like we don’t fit the older we get. There are fine lines and balances, of course, but we need to ask each other “RU OK?” far more often than we do. And we need to mean it when we ask and be bold enough to answer honestly ourselves, too. Stephen Fry has written about dealing with depression, even leading a documentary on the subject; the below letter has always stayed in the back of my mind. Melbourne author/comedian Ben Pobjie wrote a couple of years ago about his own struggles. It’s OK, it’s normal. We need to remember that.

letter from @stephenfry to “Crystal” on @neilgaiman‘s Twitter feed.

letter from @stephenfry to “Crystal” on @neilgaiman‘s Twitter feed (via Daily Mail).

I will say again, I don’t know this boy Aaron. But from everything I have read in the last 24hours, he was an incredibly smart, bold fella who threw himself deeply into challenging the things he felt were wrong with the world. I think I would have liked him a great deal if we had met in person and I’m increasingly sad that will now never happen. (He was also damnably cute. I probably would have had an embarrassing crush on him, so maybe not having met him is a good thing really). But mainly, since reading a random link from my Facebook feed yesterday morning and unravelling his path ever since, I have been marvelling at how he had almost invisibly affected my own life.

I feel genuinely sad that he is gone, mostly hurting at the thought of his internal struggle regardless of the friends, family, colleagues (and even a handful of powerful peers) who surrounded him. I also feel anger that anyone (least of all a body charged with caretaking its people) would even vaguely desire to make another person feel threatened at all. I feel many things, and observing this lack of numbness reminds me, selfishly, that I am doing OK, most of the time, and that is a Good Thing. It also reminds me that I need to keep paying attention, both to myself and to the people around me.

So if the next time we meet and I look you deep in the eyes and say ‘so how are you doing, I mean REALLY?” don’t humour me and brush me off with an “Oh I’m fine”. Tell me. I don’t care if you’re male or female. Tell me that you’re broke and hate your job and don’t know where to turn with the great unknowns that loom. Tell me you miss the friend who died ten years ago and you just want to know when the longing ends. Tell me that sometimes you just don’t fucking feel anything. And we can talk about it for a while, and cry deeply and passionately into our cups of tea before going back to laughing about the latest meme that we saw on the internet. Then we should note that our meme was probably first posted on reddit, shared to via RSS and which we could read openly on an internet that hadn’t been locked down by SOPA legislation (yet), thanks to a great deal of Aaron’s astonishingly generous talents).

But it won’t end there, because by then I will have become part of your world too. When I stumble, you’ll catch me and ask me the same question. Because those are the type of people I want to call ‘my society’. People who care about one another not just themselves. People who aren’t scared of saying “I’m not feeling anything anymore; help”. Maybe, one day, you too can be in the same position. If so, I hope I’ve done something to help. RIP Aaron, and thanks x

NB: If you’re struggling and don’t have friends/family to talk to (or would prefer to talk to a stranger), try calling Lifeline (13 11 14), Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) or one of the many other services they link to through their sites. Don’t suffer alone x
UPDATE: Please take the time to read and (if you agree with) share/sign our open-letter to JSTOR.