CJW: Here is another bonus letter for you all from Marlee and I, but with this one we’re going to open it up to the public in a couple of days’ time and link to it in the main newsletter. I didn’t want to dump the whole thing into the main for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s a bit long for that, and for another, I’m always hesitant about talking mental health issues publicly. A voice in the back of my head warns me that talking about this might close some career doors for me in the future, but at the same time, I have to talk about this. Because it might help someone. Because we aren’t in this alone. Because every time I've brought up a big mental health issue, I've had at least one person respond to say that it helped them to better think about their own depression, or the issues of people they know. Because I would rather lose some theoretical future work than let someone suffer alone. The greatest trick depression ever pulled was convincing you you’re alone. But you’re not.
So here’s this. It’s heartfelt and true, and it hurts. If you aren’t in a place where you can read a couple of thousand words about suicide ideation, then please skip it.
I wish there was a nicer way to say this, but I don’t always want to be alive. Right now, I don’t actively want to kill myself — I don’t have a plan, I don’t check the majority of the boxes on lists of warning signs of suicide, I have a life I enjoy and I’m curious about the future — but the fact remains, I don’t always feel strongly about being alive and sometimes, on particularly bad days, I truly want to die.
CJW: I spent a lot of my twenties projecting my mental health issues onto all my friends. I assumed that if we got along so well and had such similar viewpoints on various issues, it must be because they were also broken in the same way/s that I was. I was depressed, so they must be too. But there's a difference between chronic depression and being momentarily unhappy, and there's a difference between hating the world/society/life for any number of reasons (on a spectrum of validities), and hating everything because of your depression and a near-constant desire for death.
I don't remember how old I was, but I remember what house my family was living in at the time. We moved in on my 9th birthday, and moved out when I was 12 and 13, so let's split the difference and say I was 11 years old. This is the time I trace my depression back to. I didn't want to die, but I certainly didn't want to live. Perhaps all of the talk of mankind's sin I heard at Sunday school had convinced me the world was a terrible place, or maybe it was... any number of other things. I distinctly remember praying to God and begging him to rewrite things so that I could simply cease to exist. I was certain that everyone in my life would be happier if my older brother Samuel had lived and I had never been born. I slept on the floor because I felt that I didn't deserve to sleep on a bed (and then felt great guilt and shame when I eventually grew too uncomfortable on the floor and slunk back into my bed).
My teenage years were fairly calm, mental-health wise. I was a nerd who got bullied and who bullied some as well. I was shy and awkward, and hated public speaking, but it wasn't anxiety. When at 16 or 17 I carved WHY? into the skin under my arm using an x-acto knife, I saw it less as a symptom of depression and more as a listlessness at the approaching end of high-school. By around 20 though I had a diagnosis of depression and a whole lot of things fell into place. The doctor prescribed me some antidepressants and told me that most people got over depression after a year or two, which was possibly the most damaging thing he could have said, despite his intentions. I spent the first half of my twenties feeling even more broken and damaged because the depression wouldn't simply lift. 15-ish years after that first diagnosis and the first genuinely good psychologist I've had diagnosed me with dysthymia, and a few more things fell into place. This depression probably won't ever lift, so all I can do is manage it.
I can tell when I'm having a particularly bad day because I will make a gun with my hand and press it against my temple. I long thought that if Australians had easy access to guns I would have killed myself a dozen times over, but I'm not sure if that's true. Because there's a difference between putting your finger against your head and doing the same with a gun. The former is, for me, a sign of frustration or exhaustion; I am just so tired of feeling this way and I want it to end – the feeling, not my life. The latter is a decision. The latter is a plan.
That's one thing I learned a long time ago when I was at the point in my church's youth group of maybe taking some sort of junior leadership assistant role (yes, I realise there are a lot of qualifiers in that sentence – my memory is hazy) – that if one of the youth group teens is talking about suicide, it's only truly serious if they have a plan. Maybe that's why I've never been too concerned about my frequent passive suicide ideation; I always felt that if I didn't have a plan, then it didn't really matter. I also assumed it was the same thing that every depressed person lived through, but apparently not – if I'd known I could have been paid to write an article about it, I might have done so, but a) I didn't realise it was a topic worth exploring because it is my common experience, and b) I might not have written something as serious/worthy/heartfelt as this piece from Anna Borges. Her piece doesn't exactly resemble my own experiences (of course), but the basic outline is the same, to the point where taken as a whole, the article is actually something of a revelation.
What makes it harder is being unable to talk about it freely: the weightiness of the confession, the impossibility of explaining that it both is and isn’t as serious as it sounds. I don’t always want to be alive. Yes, I mean it. No, you shouldn’t be afraid for me. No, I’m not in danger of killing myself right now. Yes, I really mean it.
Recently my psychologist had me put the number for a suicide support line into my phone because I was having a particularly dark week. That was not a pleasant feeling – it seemed like a personal failure that I apparently needed such basic support. But at the same time, I couldn't explain to her that my suicidal thoughts are constant (or if not constant, frequent), passive, and usually easy to ignore. I had to tell her I didn't have a plan. I had to tell her I don't actually want to die. But that doesn't mean I always want to live either. Lately I've gotten to the point of thinking that if I ever do kill myself, it won't be anything in particular, it will be exhaustion, pure and simple. This constant tide of suicidal thoughts – the ocean of Borges' article – will eventually wear me down. That's not a pleasant feeling either.
What if we acknowledged the possibility of suicidality all around us, normalized asking and checking in? If people talked about feeling suicidal — not joked, as we’ve all started to do online, but really talked — as much as they talked about feeling depressed or anxious, would we finally be forced to see how common it is and start creating space for these conversations? Would it be the worst thing in the world if we started talking about not wanting to be alive, and what might help keep us here?
What helps keep me here? My death would hurt my parents and my sisters badly. My friends too. It could damage whoever had to find me. There's still too much I want to do and see – more books to write, more countries to visit, another fifty years of interesting history I could get to live through. Music I could find. New friends I could make. I would love to see a film or TV series based on something I wrote. The next season of The Good Place. The cat curling up at my belly beneath the covers in the middle of winter. A nice scotch. These are just some of the things that keep me here, but they don't stop the thoughts coming in like the tide. Any maybe they never will.
I talked about exhaustion before, but there's also a stubbornness I’ve recently come to appreciate. This fucking depression has darkened my days and stolen so much joy from my life, and I’m not about to let that fucker kill me. My traitorous brain wants to kill me? Too fucking bad. Fuck you. You’ve already taken so much, and you can’t have this.
MJW: I love life. I love being alive. I love my partner Corey; my flatmate Sally; my two precious cats, Lenny and Carl. I love my mother. I love my friends. I love my career, making books, telling stories. I’m looking forward to the future, excited for what is to come.
But in my head, on a loop for as long as I can remember, my own mind-voice has been telling me to kill myself. Every day. Every single fucking day.
Shoot yourself in the face.
Nice one, brain. Where would I find a gun?
Drive your car into that concrete pylon.
No, brain, no. Don’t wanna.
Slit yourself from wrist to elbow.
Bah, what a mess.
Leap off this cliff/out this window/off this building.
Brain, we’ve talked about this.
I don’t remember when it started, simply because it’s been such a given in my life that it feels like it has no beginning. It’s a constant, like how I’ve always had a body, or a requirement for air, or a need to drink water. It is without inception, it just is.
I can tell you that I started struggling with mental illness at about the age of twelve. That’s when the big void opened up inside me, the one that’s never filled in. It’s when I started self-mutilating in earnest (though I’d dabbled in it from about ten years old.) The razor blade was my first true love. I knew that if I sliced right between my hips and my pubis or on the soles of my feet, then no one at the pubescent pool parties I was invited to would know. It was a way to stop the thoughts, to placate the loop with a little blood, a little sacrifice.
I know what it’s like to completely mentally break down before my thirteenth birthday and have to rebuild my psyche again while all my friends worried about boys and exams and who their English teacher would be that semester. I know what it’s like to hate myself so fully and utterly that I knew all I deserved was chaos and abandonment and hate and pain and scars.
The funny thing is, I’ve never, ever wanted to die. Not really.
I’ve wanted to change. I’ve wanted my life to be different. I’ve wanted to feel different about myself. And most of all, I’ve wanted my mind-voice to stop telling me I want to die. Because it’s not true. I’ve had some shaky times and some close calls. It’s funny, I always thought if I made it through my twenties without killing myself it’d be smooth sailing from there on out.
Not fucking so.
Did you know I’m afraid of flying? Wanna know why? It’s because I’m afraid of dying. I don’t want to die in some fiery plane crash, not with so much left unfinished. I don’t want to die at all: I’ve got books to write, people to love, cats to care for into old feline age.
So why won’t my mind-voice shut the fuck up and let me get on with life and love and writing? On particularly bad days the loop of passive ideation twirls endlessly, but even on good days, the thought persists. My third week at Clarion West - which was arguably the best and happiest and most fun time of my entire life - I had to stay away from my third floor window because the closer I’d get to it, the more the thought to jump would circle. I couldn’t stand too close to the edge of train platforms. I wouldn’t ever go to a range to try my hand at firing a gun.
Try telling that to a shrink. Try opening up about it to your friends.
The moment one mentions suicide the alarm bells clang. It’s not real, I explain. I’m not gonna do it. It’s just that I have to think about it all the time. Still, the worried glances, the shock when I admit it.
We need to talk about this more, and not just in an R U OK Day kinda way. Because I’m not the only one who deals with this. Anna Borges’ article revealed that, and the number of retweets it received shows that this is not a problem shared by only some. While it’s so much easier to talk about depression and anxiety these days, complex mental illness and passive suicidal ideation are still taboo topics. I wanna change that. I try my best to change it every day by speaking. I will not shut my mouth about it. I will not deal with this quietly any more.
I love my life. But sometimes, my mind tells me I want to die. And that’s okay.