“And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you, everywhere you go,
Turn to, and put forth all your strength of hand and heart and brain,
And like the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.”
– Stan Rogers, “The Mary Ellen Carter”
Ever since Aaron Swartz killed himself last week, people in computing seem unable to talk about anything else. Some talk about Swartz’s life or how he was harassed by the American legal system. Even more talk about when they felt suicidal, or give advice about how to deal with the possibly suicidal – all of which leaves me feeling rather left out, having long abandoned my own flirtations with suicide.
My deficiency is not due to any lack of existential angst. I mean, I repeatedly read the collected works of Byron, Keats, and Shelley in my teen years, so I know all about the romance of dying young. And it’s not that I’m a stranger to depression, or never known weeks when ending it all seemed the smartest career move. In fact, at the risk of sounding egocentric, I’ve probably known these things better than most people, and with better reason, although you’ll have to excuse me if I leave the details private.
Yet the fact remains that I never attempted suicide. Even at my lowest point, I never worked past a bleak and overwhelming despair to considering ways and means – even though I’ve been in situations where many others did kill themselves. Partly, I was lucky, but, looking back, I suspect that my habits and mental attitudes played the largest roles in keeping me going.
To start with, after the inevitable experimentation, I was never been a heavy drinker. Missing half the next day to feeling attenuated and cramped all over lost its appeal to me before I hit twenty. I enjoy a few drinks when I’m out, but months have sometimes gone by without me having any alcohol. With these habits, I was never likely to drink myself to a point of rashness where suicide seemed sensible or I took careless chances because of my depression.
Even more importantly, I’ve always been a regular and heavy exerciser. With daily doses of adrenalin and endorphins rushing through my veins, even the most intense depression ultimately didn’t have a chance – especially since one of my reactions to depression has always been to take long walks. In my worst state, those long walks were not enough to leave me with a jaunty walk and a smile, but they did dilute the depression to some degree. Moreover, if I walked long enough, I would collapse into long, dreamless sleeps, which are probably one of the best states I can hope for when depressed.
However, an even more important reason that I survived serious depression is my personal mythology. That mythology, born of the lessons that Robert the Bruce supposedly learned from a spider and hours of training to improve my running was that I was a person who endured and kept on.
Moreover, I had read large chunks of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. I knew all about the stages of the hero’s journey, including the descent into the underworld. Consequently, as bad as things have been on occasion, a part of me was always utterly convinced that eventually change would come if I waited.
Meanwhile, I told myself, I would endure. I might sing “The Mary Ellen Carter” over and over to myself, sometimes until I was too distracted to do anything else, but I would endure. I was, as I kept telling myself, simply that kind of person. After a few hundred thousand repetitions of such statements, I started to believe them with some small corner of mind, even while the rest was being overwhelmed.
But the strongest reason I survived was even simpler: sheer curiosity. Like any intellectual, a part of is always standing a step or two back, watching what I am doing and saying. This part of me is as addicted to the show around me as couch potatoes are to their favorite TV series – I don’t want to miss an episode.
While the main part of me has been busy shoring up my life and despairing at ever managing to do so, this watching part was noting how depression and helplessness felt, how my time sense and eating habits changed, and a thousand other things I had never before had the opportunity to experience first hand.
Had I ever attempted suicide, this watching part would have been furious. Committing suicide would have forced it to miss too many episodes. So, I didn’t, and kept struggling on because that was what my image of myself forced me to do, and I was convinced that – unlikely as it might seem at the time – my current state was only one episode and others were coming along. This reaction never leaves me, and when I actually get around to dying, I suspect that my final words will be some variation of, “Not yet!”
Perhaps I am a biological optimist, and I survived for no better reason than an accident of chemistry. However, that’s not what it felt like at the time. Rather, I think that, partly by accident and partly by choice, I evolved a useful set of coping mechanisms against the effects of depression. Those coping mechanisms didn’t always operate smoothly – in fact, they often felt like they were dragging me naked across a field of snakes and broken bottles – but they turned out to be stronger than any inclination to depression or suicide.
Almost certainly, they wouldn’t function for everybody. All of them were the result of a lifetime of habit before they were needed, and probably they couldn’t simply be assumed at will. The most that I can say is that they worked in my case, and are enough for me, at least, to be going on with.
“I am not looking for loose diamonds,
Nor pretty girls with crosses around their necks,
I don’t want for roses or water,
I’m not looking for God — and I just want to see what’s next.”
-Ray Wylie Hubbard, “The Messenger”