“Some people become sick with colds or tummy flus,” narrates the young Mercedes Silva in Goodnight Mr. Vincent Van Gogh. “And some people become sick with sadness. It is called depression, and it’s not their fault. It’s not anybody’s fault.”
It’s not your fault. One thing I’ve grappled with in my own experiences with depression and suicidal ideation is my level of culpability. Looking back, I feel terrible about the times I sunk into it and let it keep me from doing the things I wanted to do, compelled me to hurt others, or tried to convince me to hurt myself. We all know there’s various techniques we can use to fight depression. Exercise, diet, hygiene, socialization, therapy, and medication being among the most well-known. The catch-22 being when you are in the grips of depression those are among the hardest things to do.
I had a very kind therapist who, when I would beat myself up about my worst depressive episodes, would reassure me by saying “Maybe you were doing the best you could at the time.” And though I’ve grown better at managing my depression with lots and lots of help, sometimes it still gets the better of me and prevents me from doing the things I’d like to do. When those times are at their bleakest, and I hold on to the blanket crying and trying my hardest to re-focus my thoughts, I get a glimpse of how bad my depression used to be and I can forgive myself a little for letting depression make me, as the film also says, do things I would not otherwise do.
Yet I still struggle with my culpability. Am I facing laziness or depression? Is it okay for me to take a break or is that listlessness and lack of energy coming back again? Do I feel sad today because of what I ate or the news or because I can’t keep my negative thoughts away and need to do some cognitive behavioral therapy? It is a constant battle and most people I know who struggle with depression (all, I think, actually) have peaks and valleys.
Depression is tricky in this way. It has several variables and is notoriously difficult to treat. The chemical part of depression is not our fault. We can choose to get help or treatment, but some people can’t afford to. For others, sometimes it doesn’t work. The medicine isn’t right, or needs dosages adjusted, or it stops working or becomes less effective or has side effects. The therapist isn’t a good fit. Maybe it goes into remission for awhile, and then attendant life circumstances exacerbate it. For one of a million reasons, depression wins.
Some people call suicide “selfish” or “weak.” I wouldn’t say that. Most people who die by suicide were probably fighting a hellish nightmare of epic proportions in their head and their daily life was too painful to even imagine. If the pain didn’t create tunnel vision to the point where they were beyond thinking about the impact on others, it is also common distorted thinking to feel that your pain is a burden on others and they would be better off without you. That person was strong enough to battle those forces for a long time, I think, before suicide.
That’s not to say anger, betrayal, sadness, and other strong emotions are irrational reactions to suicide. Suicide and depression are irrational and emotional. And these are just my own musings and personal feelings, of course. I feel it’s important to realize, though, that mental illness can be a deadly illness. That’s part of the reason why it’s important to reduce its stigma. Some people become very sick with sadness. And that’s not really anyone’s fault.