Struggling In The Swamp Of Sadness

Note: this is not a cry for help (I am actively getting help). It’s a statement of solidarity with other people who are suffering right now.

This is going to start pretty dark. It will get more hopeful as we go. Content warning: this is all about suicidal ideation.

I spent a lot of time this weekend reading up on famous suicides. I ended up on a site called Lost All Hope dot com, which bills itself as one of the most comprehensive suicide resources online. I was there looking at painless ways to commit suicide. (Spoiler alert: it turns out that a lot of the ways you think might be painless in fact are not, and that the ones that are more painless are messier, and that the best way to kill yourself actually requires the help of another person, which makes it more of a murder.) I was not in what we usually consider a good place.

Right now I’m dealing with a lot of depression and anxiety. Some of it is situational – I’m unemployed, running out of money and don’t see a clear path towards being a position where I can get a real job that will allow me to move out of my current living situation, where I’m accepting the charity of friends. But there’s something I’ve learned in my 18 months of sobriety and spirituality – it isn’t my situation that’s making me want to die, it’s how I’m relating to it.

Let’s take a step back. I don’t think I’m going to harm myself in the near future. It isn’t dying that is attractive to me, it’s not existing. There’s a crucial distinction here, and I suspect that if you’ve been suicidal in the past you understand what I’m talking about. I HAVE wanted to die in the past. For me wanting to die – to leave a corpse for another person to find, to create sadness in my friends – is an outward-directed impulse. When I was a teen I used to imagine shooting myself in public places in order to show people how much they had hurt me, and that juvenile “I’ll show them” attitude is about getting back at others. Like, full disclosure: sometimes I idly fantasize about getting back on Twitter and running a poll asking if I should kill myself. I know Twitter, and I know the poll will come back in favor of suicide, and I fantasize about doing it on camera. R. Budd Dwyer 2K18, live on Twitch.

Weirdly that doesn’t scare me. That’s resentment and anger bubbling up; it’s a symptom of a lifelong problem related to dealing with my emotions and my self-image, stuff I work through in therapy (the ultimate midlife crisis, I believe, is coming to understand that all your emotional issues in your 40s are, on a fundamental level, based on your emotional issues from when you were 9). I don’t drink or do drugs anymore, so getting to a place where my decision making is so impaired that I would actually do that seems remote. Don’t get me wrong, I keep an eye on these impulses, and I talk to my therapist about them.

No, what scares me is the other kind of suicidal feeling. It’s not feeling that you want to die, it’s feeling that you don’t want to exist. It’s going to bed truly hoping you don’t wake up, and it’s waking up and having your first thought be “Fuck, I’m still alive.”

“Saigon… shit, I’m still only in Saigon.”

That kind of suicidal thinking is scary because it’s so hopeless. It’s so exhausting. I can’t find the exact quote, but someone once said that depression is not disbelieving in hope, it’s forgetting that hope even exists. One of my favorite quotes describing depression comes from Lord of the Rings, and it’s Frodo talking to Sam:

I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing–no veil between me and the wheel of fire.

He’s talking about Sauron and the darkness of Mordor there, but that’s exactly what depression is like for me. Some Christians believe that Hell is not a place but rather the absence of the presence of God, and that also sounds like a really good description of depression. It’s not being sad. Just as darkness requires the concept of light to exist, sadness requires the concept of happiness to exist. When I am depressed there is no concept of happiness, so it can’t quite be sadness.

This miasma is all-encompassing, and it is self-replicating. It comes at you from the corners of your own mind and it slowly takes away the things that make you feel good and make life feel worth living. It is wily, and it will do it in ways that you don’t recognize. It’ll tell you that you deserve the day off from your exercise regime, or that you should eat badly today because you’ve eaten well all week. In my case it’ll tell me I don’t need to go to an AA meeting because I feel pretty good; other people will feel like they don’t need their meds right now because hey, they got this thing licked.

You don’t even recognize that you’re sinking into it. You spend the day on the couch. Then the next. And you begin abandoning your self care. Getting back to your regime seems exhausting and shitty; you haven’t showered in two days and you can’t imagine going out looking like this, so you order food in. You feel ashamed about what you ate, and you don’t have the energy to clean up the mess. Your friends text and you ignore it because you can’t quite cope with them right now, and you maybe worry that you’re too much of a bummer at the moment.

Your life has gotten very small. This can happen quickly. Overnight, even. You start to believe that the people you know don’t like you, or that they barely tolerate you. You feel profoundly isolated, which both suits you and is killing you. The more isolated you feel the more despair you feel. You feel terribly alone because you have engineered that aloneness.

Just like that you’re sunk. You didn’t even see it coming, you thought you had it, you thought you were in control and now, all of a sudden, you’re without drive and you’re full of shame and fear, and you hate yourself. But even that drains away, and in the end you’re just left with the grey exhaustion. Your mind is all concrete slabs of despair, and you look and you can’t see a way out. You maybe don’t even recognize how you got in. Is it possible this is what you’ve always been living in, and your moments of happiness were actually delusions? And really what’s the point of continuing for twenty, thirty, forty more years if this is all you’re going to have? I mean, you fold in poker when you’ve got a bad hand – there’s no point in staying in the game for the perverse purpose of proving you can.

Literally of this happens inside your mind. There are biochemical processes involved, but those processes are all about impacting your mind. They’re all about impacting the way that you think about a situation. They’re all about which thoughts get generated, and then which thoughts get hung on to, and believed. All positive thoughts become annihilated.

And that’s when self-annihilation becomes very, very attractive. When ceasing to exist becomes the dream. It’s the only hope; all others doors are closed, locked, chained up, boarded over, but this one door is open, and it is spilling bright light into the dark, smelly room where you lay. And this time you don’t act on it because you can’t even bring yourself to act on your desire for pizza, let alone acquire the right amount of pills and a plastic bag to put over your head. But maybe it’s just a matter of time, and eventually you’ll end up at the correct junction of motivation and despair. If you did you wouldn’t be alone. Many, many get there. Every day. Everywhere.

Like I said, I’ve been there. I’m still, right now, a little bit there.

In a better version of this essay I tell you a secret to never getting there again. I tell you that there is a way to live that will keep you from ever becoming depressed like that, that will keep the suicidal desire for non-existence at bay. This is not that version of the essay. I believe that for most of us, those of us who will probably not become enlightened in this lifetime, the wheel will continue to turn and we will eventually get back to this place of depression. These thoughts will arise again, will become intrusive again.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that I have come to understand that there are ways to deal with these inevitable downturns, and that doing work and gaining understanding can help soften and shorten the periods of depression and suicidal ideation. At the very least there are ways to ensure that when you enter one of these periods you can see it for what it truly is, and cope in a different way.

I recognize that, in a weird way, my thoughts are trying to kill me. In recovery I hear a lot of people talking about their addiction and how it never goes away; even as they maintain happy, sober lives their addictions are off in the corner like Max Cady in Cape Fear, just getting all pumped up and in great shape to eventually return and exact its revenge. That’s how depression is – you can take it out of the driver’s seat, but it will use its time off to get stronger and more cunning.

But that’s just half the story. The other half is that I am learning to take it less personally. Through meditation I have seen that my thoughts think themselves; I’m not sitting here making them happen. Through reading about evolutionary psychology and cognitive theory I have learned that the thought-making process is just as automated as my heartbeat or my salivary gland producing drool. Once I understand that thoughts think themselves I get to do two things: one, I get to stop being bothered by them so much (it’s not my fault I have that bad thought) and two, I get to focus on the ones I want to focus on, and thus strengthen the functions that generate positive thoughts. I can train my mind how to think. I change how I relate to this suffering. It’s slow and might take a lifetime, but it can be done. I have seen the changes in my own thinking over the past 18 months. And I have, of course, seen the old thinking arise again on its own, and even get the upper hand for a while.

So now I have taken my thoughts and realized that sometimes, due to childhood trauma and current circumstances and millennia of evolution and the weight of culture, they try to kill me. But I also realize that this doesn’t make them my enemy. I’m not at war with my thoughts, and they’re not actually Max Cady. They’re confused and deluded, and often they think they’re doing what is right. They believe they’re saving me other pain. I’m like young Harry Potter, thinking Snape is my enemy, when in fact he’s just hurt and doing his best in his own weird, fucked up way.

That allows me to be friendly towards these thoughts, and thus towards myself. It’s okay that I feel this way. If I can remove one Jenga piece of depression – the self-loathing, or the shame at feeling bad and needing help – perhaps the whole thing will come falling down. All those concrete brutalist blocks tumble.

The one magic weapon here is the understanding that all things change. The Swamp of Sadness in The Neverending Story is the real shit, and it kills you because you allow yourself to sink into the despair, not believing it can change. You give up. By maintaining the knowledge that all things change you allow yourself to keep walking through that fucking swamp, even as the fetid waters get up to your chin. You know that eventually you will come out the other side because you know there IS another side.

There’s an old recovery motto: this too shall pass. I don’t like that. There’s a newer version of that which I DO like: this too is passing. Change is happening RIGHT NOW. From moment to moment. Every moment is different from the last. Every moment you stay alive gets you closer to the other side of the Swamp of Sadness. It may not be a fun journey, it may take way longer than you like, you may not even like what you find when you’re out of the swamp, but if you stay on the journey you get to the other side.

That is so hard to remember in the moment. Losing sight of that is the main reason I want to stop existing. The swamp extends as far as I can see and I tell myself the lie that the swamp is all that there is. But the work that I have done in the times when I’m not crippled by depression has allowed me to know that THIS IS PASSING. Depression isn’t a thing, it’s a process, and eventually that process will end. To bring it back to Lord of the Rings: this understanding is the Phial of Galadriel, the star in a bottle she gave to Frodo and that he and Sam use in foulest Mordor. It’s the light that I carry in my pocket, and when it is darkest I can pull it out and show myself the way forward. But I had to get that light; I wasn’t born with it, and it cost me to acquire it.

And I have to pull it out. That’s the other hard part. I have to do the work. Depression knocks me off the work, and I have to weather the hardest parts of it to get back to a place where I can go to a meeting, or ask someone for help, or do the walking that I know makes me feel better. But the more work I do between depressions the more I’ll be able to weather the next depression. I have faith that this process will continue working, and that I will be better prepared for each emotional winter. I have to be the ant, not the grasshopper.

The final thing I have to do? I have to share this with you. I was reading about famous suicides for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones was it made me feel less alone. Someone else had felt the way I was feeling right now. I knew that, intellectually – you don’t get to 44 years old without realizing that other people also get VERY VERY sad – but I need to be reminded. My sobriety and my meditation give me a daily reprieve from things that vex me, but I need to do them daily or else they vex me again, and that’s just like being reminded that other people feel how I feel. I need to keep being reminded of it.

So I was on Lost All Hope dot com and I found myself crying because of this guy’s story. The guy who runs the site created it when he couldn’t find good, actionable information about suicide when he was trying to kill himself. He shared his story and it was totally different from mine (he goes to a sports psychotherapist so he can enjoy golf more), but it was exactly the same. His circumstances were different but his emotions were familiar, and I felt such a connection to this guy. He’s still alive and he runs this site not to help people kill themselves but to talk to them in a very forward, judgment-free, matter of fact way about the decision they’re thinking of making. It was a moment that helped crack the emotional isolation I felt, and it was the moment that allowed me to pull out my own Phial of Galadriel.

Writing about this makes me feel better. I have learned the value of confession. I have also learned the value of sharing my story for the benefit of others. Not because I think I have answers but because it’s so important for people to hear that others go through what they go through. I see you, alone and sad and hopeless. I see you and I love you and I am there with you.