Monday, September 17, 2012

Depression, Suicide, and Lying Brains

The words that help me make it through are “Depression lies.”
- The Blogess

The greatest enemy will hide in the last place you would ever look.
- Julius Caesar

World Suicide Prevention Day and R U OK day have both been held recently, and it’s gotten me thinking about the darker days. Thinking about the hole I was in, thinking about how I got out and where that path has taken me since. And especially thinking about those words I read quoted on Wil Wheaton’s blog, “depression lies.”

Firstly, the warnings: there will be some discussion about depression and suicide here. If that might trigger you, stop now. But more importantly, this is just a discussion of my history and how it’s shaped me - it is not a recommendation to go it alone. The things I’ve learned were valuable, and they are valuable to people who aren’t depressed too - but if you are depressed, and especially if you are contemplating suicide, please seek help; loved ones are good but a trained professional would be better.

From about 15 to 21, committing suicide seemed like more of a “when” than an “if”. I’d had suicidal thoughts beforehand and they’ve made comebacks since, but for those six or so years I pretty much took it as a given. A large part of my brain was constantly telling me how worthless I was, how everybody hated me, how I was doomed to die a virgin, how I was too stupid to do anything meaningful with my life - and on some level it was just sort of assumed that the small candle of hope that was fighting back would eventually flicker out.

That candle was sort of like my own personal “It Gets Better” program - always telling me, in a small voice beneath the roar, that while things were shitty at the time, they would work out in the end. When I was getting bullied in primary school, I knew I’d be going to high school with an almost entirely different group of people. And when things in high school, while better, still weren’t good enough, that small voice still said things would get better at Uni.

But that looming spectre of depression just laughed and said “You’ll see. Things won’t get better, you’ll still be a poor, ugly loser and then you’ll have no choice.” It seemed all I was doing was delaying the inevitable.

By my second year of Uni, the dark side was feeling pretty smug. I hated my course, I was terrible at it, and I was failing. I was about to get fired from the job that I needed as part of said course. I was ricocheting between soul-draining crushes that never would have worked out - one of whom lived on the other side of the planet - and hadn’t had a girl express the remotest interest in me in a good two years (and by the twisted logic of the time, those that had previously, “didn’t count”). Everything I’d held out hope for had failed to materialise.

People can take a lot of bad, as long as they have hope. It’s when you don’t see things ever improving that you start thinking about suicide. People who have never been depressed often don’t understand this - although it seems like the worst of several options to a person on the outside, when you’re in that state of mind it seems like literally the only viable option.

A surprisingly large part of it is kind of a bizarre blend between saving face and revenge - like to do anything else (such as admit you need help) would just show everyone that you’re as big a loser as they’d always known, whereas if you kill yourself and leave a tell-all note, they’ll realise how good you were, how unjust they were, and then they’ll be sorry. I find this quite interesting, looking back - the ridiculous notion of a cry for help that you must keep to yourself at all costs.

I honestly don’t know if I would have really done it. I couldn’t stand the idea of my last moments being even more painful, so I wanted it to be quick and painless. I think if there were taller buildings in the town I was living in at the time, or if it were easier to buy a handgun in Australia, I might not be here today…but I guess we’ll never know. I’ve read a lot on the topic since, and the psychological literature draws a strong distinction between suicidal ideation (thoughts of killing oneself) and suicidality (attempting to kill oneself), to the point of considering them related but distinct symptoms. Many, many people ideate for years without attempting; but of course, ideation can turn into suicidality if left untreated. All told, I never actually tried, or even self-harmed. But I sometimes wonder, if a few key things had gone in a different direction, would I have? And how would people have reacted?

I got kind of a partial answer when I was about 22. A guy that I worked with, who was only a little older than me, committed suicide. He was a fantastic bloke, he seemed to have a great life - loved by those around him, job he enjoyed, saving for a house…it made no sense to me. I was well on the way to recovery by that stage but it really bolstered me to see the outpouring of grief - to see just how many people cared deeply for him, seemingly without him knowing. That special, valuable brand of cognitive dissonance hit me at his funeral - when your expectations miss reality by such a wide margin, something is wrong with your model of the universe. That lack of hope did not come from the real world - it came from inside his head.

Oh. So does mine.

This of course is far too neat. There was no lightswitch moment, it was a gradual process, punctuated by leaps like that, and by life changes like switching courses. But with these moments, a new voice started making itself heard: “You know something is wrong. There are too many inconsistencies, you’re having to explain away too much evidence. You’re not thinking clearly.”

It was a small voice at first - but as it gathered more evidence, it grew louder. And the more dominant those thought patterns became, the more easily they were able to see where I was spinning things incorrectly - and so on in a feedback loop.

But do you know what the seed for that was? The fuel that helped it grow?

Critical thinking. Science. Philosophy. Punk rock. All things that I discovered at various points during those darker years, all things that were primarily aimed at questioning what other people tell you - but all things that gave me the skills to question what my own brain was telling me.

Because the dirty little secret is this: yes, depression lies. But in a more general sense, your brain lies. Your brain lies to you constantly, and not just if you’re depressed. We have so many biases, so many ways we filter and distort the information coming in, so many ways we misinterpret our own thoughts; and when you know how to deal with depression you can better deal with other ones. The most visible example I have is that once you realise that your brain is telling you to eat like you’re a half-starving savannah-dweller, not a sedentary 21st-century nerd, it is much easier to lose weight. I lost about 25kg within a very short time of grokking that, and have by and large kept it off for several years now.

It is of course very difficult to stop your brain from lying to you when your only tool is that very brain. I’m nowhere near finished, and it’s not like I don’t have backslides - I still get depressed sometimes, but now I have the skills to deal with it. Once you have that handhold, once you can anchor yourself to reality and look at things more objectively, it becomes easier to see when your brain is lying to you, and you can shut down those negative thoughts very quickly.

But the point is this - there is a perception that reading philosophy, or reading psychology, is fairly pointless unless you want to make a career out of it. There’s a perception that it’s all too high-minded and abstract to have much relevance in everyday life. But critical thinking is not just a tool to be applied outwardly - it should be applied inwardly as well. And when you can do that, the results can be remarkable.

It’s like Sun Tzu said in The Art of War - “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Through philosophy I’ve learned how to navigate the swirling miasma of bullshit we live in, and through psychology I’ve learned to see myself with clearer eyes.

Knowledge is power. I fear nothing.


  1. Wow. What a powerful post. I've heard depression lies, tells you things about yourself that isn't true. When I was young, 9 in fact, I wanted to kill myself because I felt so isolated. That's my most upsetting memory, even though I don't remember thinking it, saying it or even going to the psychiartrist.
    Now at 31 I think of how suicide has touched my life in some way. A school acquaintance's dad. The boyfriend of a friend I worked with when I was 17-21 attempted it and was left blind. My best Uni friend's brother did it and I was there with her when she got the news. A primary school friend's twin. A blogging friend's husband. And closest to me, the man I loved had me talking him from the ledge twice - he'd attempted it before I knew him and had the scars to prove it.
    I can't imagine as an adult to know what it means and go through with it. I can't imagine what it'd be like to go through that depressive fog xa I hope you're ok. The saddest thing I have seen recently is a self loathing blog written by a friend and his wife replying, telling him he's worth it. I hope they can talk things through in person.
    Thank you for this post. Apologies for the ramble.

    1. Thanks for your comment, it's always good to get feedback!

      With regards to your friend and his wife - I can understand that. Obviously I don't know them but it sounds like maybe he just really needed to hear that he was worth it, maybe from her more than anyone, but couldn't ask directly. I definitely know that when you're in that situation, it's hardest to ask for the thing you need most, because it just makes you feel more pathetic.