Life: For When It’s Not Worth Living

Note:  This is an email I wrote to my teenage daughters.  I realized after I did that they’re not the only ones who need to know this.  In case it might reach someone else who needs to hear it, I’m posting it here.  Thanks for reading.


At the risk of sounding overly-dramatic, I want to start by saying this email is probably the most important email I’ll ever send you.  Maybe the only important email I’ll ever send you, in the grand scheme of things.  Please, please read it.  Read it carefully and thoroughly.  And then read it again, and read it often.

As you know, depression and mental illness in general run in our family.  Given that, and the fact that suicide has been coming up in various ways in your social circle, I want to tell you something.  (Did I mention this is important?  It’s important.)  This something has two parts.

Part One:  Depression is an illness.  In a very real way, and in every way, it is a sickness.  It is a sickness in that it happens in your body.  It is a sickness in that it is not your fault.  It is a sickness in that it is not a judgment against you or a weakness or a moral or intellectual failure.  It is a (potentially terminal) sickness in that it poses a threat to your well-being, your ability to function and your life.  And it is a sickness in that it can be treated.

Part Two:  While depression is absolutely a sickness, what it feels like is, most often, not being sick.  What it usually feels like is being healthy but in a world that is hopeless, painful, insipid, impossible, meaningless, terrifying and sort of evil.  It feels like you’re living a life that doesn’t matter, that’s not worth living and that hurts too much to tolerate.  But what I want to stress here is that to a depressed person, all that feels real.  It feels like they’re seeing everything totally clearly and that it really is that fucked up.

The good thing about Part One is that it means that it doesn’t have to be that way.  Yes, sicknesses can be chronic and fatal.  But depression is one that is highly treatable or at least manageable.  While many cases sadly go untreated or under-treated, there are very few cases that are impossible to treat.  That means depression, or at least all the symptoms of depression including the feelings mentioned in Part Two, can basically go away.

The bad thing about Part Two is that a depressed person often doesn’t give a shit whether there are treatment options, because their depression tells them (in the most convincing way a thing can possibly be told) that what they need is not treatment but out.  That the world is too awful and that their life is too painful for them to stay here, alive.  When depressed people choose suicide, they are not trying to hurt themselves.  They are trying to save themselves.  In the only way they feel they have left, they are taking care of themselves.

So what I want you to do, now and always, is this:

If you ever feel like your life is not worth living or like you’d be better off dead, recognize that as the symptom of an illness that it is, and seek treatment.

(To be clear, my argument here is not that your life is worth living, nor that you wouldn’t be better off dead.  I happen to believe these things, but they’re irrelevant to what I’m telling you here.  And if you’re not depressed, you don’t need me to tell you those things, and if you are depressed, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.)

The trick is in realizing that those feelings (which will feel like totally accurate perceptions to you if you’re depressed) are actually clear signs that, in fact, you are not seeing things clearly.  Because healthy, non-depressed people, barring those in rare circumstances, do not want to die.  It doesn’t make biological sense.  It’s maladaptive.  It’s the symptom of a serious illness.

But the good news is that, with treatment, a depressed person can feel better.  They can even feel like a healthy, non-depressed person.
Now, it’s hard to convince someone who is genuinely suicidal that they should put effort (and sometimes it will be a significant amount of effort) into something that will keep them alive.  If they gave a shit about being alive, we wouldn’t be talking about this in the first place.  That’s the crux here.  And it’s why it’s so, so important that people with depression understand, on a factual basis, what those feelings mean.  You don’t need to believe that your life is worth living or that you wouldn’t be better off dead.  You just have to understand intellectually that those feelings are illusions, neurochemical trickery caused by an illness.

Then, like someone driving forward while looking in the rear-view mirror, you have to act on what you intellectually know is going on, rather than what you’re seeing right before your eyes.  You have to take the steps – and sometimes there will be a lot of steps – toward health, and toward life, in the absence of any desire to do so whatsoever.  You have to tell yourself that it doesn’t have to feel worth it; just keep going.  It doesn’t have to seem possible; just put one foot in front of the other.  Then again.  And again.

The pay off, when you get there, will be a sense of waking up from a horrible dream.  A realization that there is good in the world.  And good in you.  That you want to see what happens tomorrow.  That you do, after all, give a shit.  And it’s the most amazing feeling.

I didn’t mean for this to be this long.  But I need you to hear every word.

I don’t know if there’s a god that answers prayers, but if there is, I ask them to never let you suffer from depression.  One thing I have rock-solid faith in though is the fact that you are strong and smart and brave and caring and good.  So if the heavens can’t protect you from depression, I’m going to ask you to do this one thing.  If you ever feel like you want to die, pour all your strength and smarts and bravery and caring into seeking treatment for depression.  Even if at the expense of everything else.  Give yourself a chance to be well again.  Give yourself a chance to want your life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s