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.
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.)