Jan. 17th, 2013

I've been lucky in life. I've known several people who've killed themselves, but I've been friendly with them rather than friends with them. Their deaths have saddened me, but haven't left giant gaping holes that I have trouble imagining filling. I've also been lucky in that I'm not especially predisposed towards depression, and even luckier that the one serious episode I had ended well. That luck means I'm not qualified to speak authoritatively on the topic, but this seems like a good time to share.

Most of 2002 wasn't great for me. Many of my friends had graduated and moved away. My PhD, which was what I'd spent the past few years of my life working towards, was going horribly wrong. The girl I liked didn't like me. Lots of individual small things that didn't fundamentally matter, but which build up into overall feelings of isolation and failure at life. I was spending an increasing number of days not leaving bed and not talking to people. It wasn't that I couldn't have fun - socialising was still pleasurable, and I didn't actively avoid people, but it was always tempered with the knowledge that this was temporary and I'd be returning to the unhappiness afterwards. I couldn't see any sequence of events that would turn my life around and restore my happiness. This was how life was, and this was how life was going to be. I'd irrevocably fucked up, and this was my future.

Looking back, what strikes me is how reasonable this seemed. I could point at specific things that were making me unhappy, and nobody could argue that it was unreasonable to be unhappy about them. There wasn't any point in speaking to people about it, because what would they be able to do except agree that I was justifiably unhappy? I thought about suicide. Not seriously, because overall life still seemed worthwhile, but I could conceive of a level of further unhappiness that would make it seem like the best choice. I don't think it would ever have occured to me to speak to someone about it first. It seemed like it would be the same argument - I'm justifiably unhappy, I already feel like I'm letting my friends down, what could they do other than tell me that my feelings are wrong or make me feel even more guilty? So, when I saw exhortions for people to speak to someone if they felt suicidal, it seemed like they were talking to people who hadn't thought this through as well as me. It felt like I'd thought this all through carefully and rationally and come to a completely logical decision. If changes in circumstances and further consideration made it seem like suicide was the better choice, that would be because it was the better choice. Maybe other people weren't thinking about this as logically as I was. Maybe they'd have their minds changed by speaking to a friend or a professional. I wouldn't. Of course, with hindsight I was rationalising the way I already felt rather than making entirely rational decisions. I could have rationalised myself to death even though there were (in my case) straightforward ways to make my life better.

In any case, I've no idea how close I ever got to that point. Things were at their worst in August - by September I had a new job and new house, and things just got better from there. In the end, the friends I was convinced could do nothing for me ended up giving me the opportunity to find gainful employment and made sure I had somewhere to live. Without them, things might have been different. As it was, I spent less than nine months depressed and it was still the most hellish experience of my life. The thought of returning to that state is terrifying. I was lucky. I might not be again.

There's no terribly good moral here. If I'd known more about depression beforehand, I might have been able to identify what was happening to me and seek professional help. Other than that, I didn't learn anything about how to avoid or deal with depression. The experience didn't make me a better person. I've no advice for people in the same situation. The only thing I gained from it all was the realisation that if I'd felt any worse and knew that this was what I faced for the rest of my life, death might not have been the worst choice I had.

Depression is a huge social problem and we deal with it badly. We refuse to talk about it, and when we do talk about it we mostly limit ourselves to platitudes about how things will get better or placing the blame on depressed people for not wanting to talk to those around them. Sometimes it doesn't get better. Sometimes talking to those around you will make things worse. People need to be aware of what the effects of depression are and get better at identifying it in others, rather than assuming that they'll be able to ask for help themselves. Society as a whole needs to be better at ensuring that professional support is there for people who need it. And, unless we can make massive improvements in our understanding of the causes of depression and effective mechanisms for countering it, we need to accept that it will cost us friends. Let's redirect the anger we feel at their choice to avoid a lifetime of misery into anger at the society that still hasn't done everything it can to help them.


Matthew Garrett

About Matthew

Power management, mobile and firmware developer on Linux. Security developer at Nebula. Ex-biologist. @mjg59 on Twitter. Content here should not be interpreted as the opinion of my employer.

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