I recently read a Spin article discussing the stance Henry Rollins took on the topic of suicide via his website; that it is a selfish act, rather than something depressed and desperate people fighting mental illness do because they can no longer tolerate the pain of being alive.*
I used to be ignorant too, because I was genetically “blessed” with the opposite of depression: I am diagnosed with generalized anxiety and panic disorder with associated agoraphobia. So rather than “pick-me-up” pills like anti-depressants, my brain functions better with “calm-the-eff-down” pills, which I take daily, with success.
Because I had never experienced depression growing up, I never understood it. I had always felt happy to be alive, grateful to be given every day I received, and I too, used to think depressed people simply needed an attitude adjustment. Back then, I might have nodded my foolish head along with Henry Rollins as he recently stated: “Fuck suicide. Life isn’t anything but what you make it.”
In my youth, I wasn’t openly dismissive of the depressed, but would privately think, “Why don’t they just get some fresh air and take a walk, exercise, read a book, or go be with nature?” because these were things that comforted or uplifted me if I needed peace.
As if people are all the same. As if what worked for me would magically cheer up other people. As if my particular brain chemistry applied to all.
I was so stupid.
My 20s panic attacks were an occasional thing I attributed to either low blood sugar or asthma. I felt humiliated when they happened and lived in denial, because if they weren’t happening for a physiological reason, that made me one of the weak people who couldn’t handle life; one of the people Henry Rollins has spoken out against with his disdain** for depressed people.
What I didn’t yet understand is that anxiety disorders, depression, and other mental illnesses DO happen for physiological reasons, and are as beyond the control of the person experiencing them as any other illnesses.
If I had been experiencing seizures because of a chemical imbalance in my brain, for example, I would have immediately headed to a doctor for anti-seizure medication. But because so many people chastise those with the brain chemical imbalances behind mental illnesses and dismiss them as weak, I’d bought into this theory, too.
So I didn’t seek help, and would instead try to hide when the panic attacks happened in public. When my chest would tighten and I’d begin to gasp for air, when my vision would start to tunnel, when I’d drop my basket in the middle of the store and run for my car, soaked with sweat, my heart-pounding, and when I’d have a panic attack in the car while driving, pulling into the closest parking lot to cry tears of terror, I was bewildered because I had no idea why my body was doing this.
And I was ashamed. So very ashamed. I am weak and pathetic, I’d think to myself.
And I was terrified, wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Am I dying?
But then the mean, all-logic, no-emotion voice in my head would chastise me.
“Come on, you wimp. Pull up your big girl pants and move on,” my inner drill sergeant would bark, “You’re lucky to be alive, somebody always has it worse than you, and you have no reason to be crying, so get on with it!”
I’d take deep breaths, finish crying, feel utterly humiliated by my self-perceived weakness… and I’d eventually get on with it.
Cut to me at age 34, a book-loving, classic introvert with severe social anxiety. In bars and at parties, I used alcohol as a natural sedative to function amongst people without breaking out in hives. At work with the public, I wore an over-compensatory cloak of extreme friendliness to hide my social fears that employers loved, as an always smiling, non-confrontational employee makes any company look great.
(I waited on Henry Rollins while working at a Trader Joe’s in West Hollywood, by the way. He was always very kind, polite, and really loves cheese popcorn.)
I had been playing in bands for the last 12 years, which people who really know me have trouble understanding, considering my anxiety. The best way I can explain it is that onstage, I got to be someone else, and that girl wasn’t the shy, awkward chick who couldn’t make small talk to save her life. (It felt like an acting role. It was a beautiful escape from The Unbearable Lightness of Being Me.)
Then I got married, pregnant, had a baby at 35, moved from Los Angeles to Tulsa, and was suddenly isolated from all family and friends, no longer playing music, while staying with a lovely and kind member of my husband’s family.
The once-carefree, guitar playing and singing rocker chick was now alone all day in the suburbs with a 2-month-old who didn’t sleep more than 2 hours in a row until his 9th month (and stopped napping at 2-years-old).
We now know his sleep issues were symptoms of his ADHD/gifted neurology, but at the time I just thought I was doing everything wrong, as new parents are wont to believe. I was deliriously tired to the point of hallucinating, and… BAM. I experienced depression for the first time in my generally happy life.
I need 8 hours of sleep a night to function, and I was now going on months without REM. Sleep deprivation is used as torture for very good reason. I think this, combined with roller-coaster-ing postpartum hormones, had everything to do with my depression, and I hazily remember tears pouring down my face as I fed the baby.
I was strung out, wrung dry, beyond exhausted, alone without the support of my family or friends, and for the first time in my usually positive, high-energy life, everything felt pointless.
I logically knew I was the luckiest woman alive, with a healthy (albeit sleepless) new baby, a husband who loved me and treated me well, a roof over my head, and food on the table.
But despite all logic to the contrary, my emotional side simply couldn’t grasp that I had no real problems and nothing about which to complain. Sadness was sitting on my shoulder like an unwanted gargoyle of misery, and I couldn’t shake the ugly bastard off, no matter what I tried. Exercise didn’t work anymore. Nature wasn’t cutting it. I was officially depressed.
Possibly the weirdest thing about my depression was that I didn’t even have the will or desire to complain… I just felt kind of numb. I’m a lot of things, but numb isn’t usually one of them. I’m a fighter of injustices. I’m a complainer. I kvetch. I speak up – like I’m doing right now. The numb feeling was my main clue that things were very, very off inside my brain.
The old me that could look optimistically into the future, the girl who simply appreciated “every day above ground” was gone, and in her place was a drained and empty shell that couldn’t figure out where she’d misplaced her hope. It was so weird to logically know all was okay, yet emotionally feel a huge disconnect. I had no reason to be depressed. Nonetheless, I still was depressed. But logic and emotion, as we all know, are two completely separate things.
I had a new understanding about the physiology of mental illness, and oceans empathy for anyone experiencing depression. I vowed to never be of the callous, unsympathetic “People who commit suicide are selfish!” mindset again. Because I wanted to stop feeling sad more than anything in the world, and there was no way to “choose” happy anymore. I finally realized that for many people, happiness is not a choice.
And it’s insulting and cruel to say this. Are you really telling depressed people they’re choosing to be miserable?
I stopped breastfeeding at 6 months, even though I’d wanted to continue for at least my son’s first year. But I needed sleep. My brain chemistry was obviously imbalanced and I was horrified by the fact that I couldn’t escape the fog of sadness. I never reached the point of suicidal thoughts, but I’d definitely checked into Hotel Hopeless, and that was scary enough.
I started getting more sleep, and very slowly, the fog of depression lifted for me.
Because I got lucky.
I was entering my 40s before I finally spoke to a psychiatrist about my anxiety, and the only reason I did this was because my hyperactive son needed a calm mommy, and the panic attacks were now happening on a near-daily basis. Only because I could no longer function as a parent (as “leaving the house” is necessary for that job) was I forced to the doctor.
I got on daily Xanax and the panic attacks stopped immediately. I feel no euphoria on the medication, and only like a calmer version of myself who doesn’t go straight into “fight” mode at every perceived threat. The medication gave me back my life, gave my husband back his wife, and most importantly: it makes me a better mother for my son.
I only wish I’d sought help years ago. I’ve wasted so many years living in fear, and it’s partly because people like Henry Rollins who equate mental illness with selfishness made me feel like the chemical imbalances in my brain were a sign of weakness, and something I could control. Because my life isn’t anything but what I make it, right, Henry?
Wrong. And fuck anyone who thinks so. I now know I’m not weak, as I once believed – I’m actually incredibly strong for dealing with my anxiety alone and without help for so long. And I feel the same way about every depressed person on the planet – yes, even if they kill themselves.
Two of my mom’s brothers (my uncles) committed suicide in their 20s. They held onto life as long as they could stand it, and killed themselves because the pain of being alive was unbearable, and I don’t see anything selfish in that. It just makes me feel really, really sad for them. Because I have empathy.
Mental illness is legitimate and real, and it’s time we stop making people feel ashamed and alone for physiology beyond their control by ostracizing them for their “icky” feelings because we’re too uncomfortable to talk openly about them. Everyone has a different life perspective, and everyone is allowed to interpret their experiences any way they will, without shame.
What might be “no big deal” to one person can severely traumatize another, because we’re not fucking robots.
Pain is not a contest.
And showing pain is not a sign of weakness.
You’re not stronger than the person dealing with mental illness because you’re handling rough situations better than they are; you might have simply gotten a luckier roll of the genetic dice.
Or maybe you compartmentalize bad things more efficiently.
Or maybe they’ve been pushed over the edge into darkness, and you haven’t yet. Who knows?
But maybe instead of feeling cocky or stronger than them, you could try feeling grateful or compassionate.
Or shit… feel whatever the hell you want to feel… but please stop shaming others for their feelings, because you’re making them feel too humiliated to seek help, and that’s just mean.
What anyone who thinks depression is a “choice” made by people who aren’t “making their lives into what they should” needs to realize is that the one thing in the world depressed people wish they could be more than anything else is happy.
Nobody “chooses” depression.
All Henry Rollins has done with this ignorant opinion is potentially shame people suffering from depression by making them feel weak and pathetic, and possibly too embarrassed to seek help.
Way to go, Henry.
*I am not linking the website of Henry Rollins because I don’t want to increase website traffic for someone with an intolerant and uncompassionate view of mental illness.
**Actually, on his website, Henry Rollins spelled the word disdain as distain, but as an English major and Hall & Oates fan from way back, I can’t go for that. (No can do.) Both are official words, which is probably why he didn’t catch it with spellcheck, but in this context, he was clearly using it to mean “scorn or contempt,” which is the definition for disdain.
Also: Here’s an excellent article about suicide I highly recommend: