Nobody’s Choice but Hobson’s

In a recent issue of  the New Yorker,  D.T. Max wrote about the author David Foster Wallace, Wallace’s life, his work, and his eventual suicide.  See the article here: 

I thought the article was well-written and very sympathetic to Wallace — until its final words about the tragic ending Wallace “chose” for his life.  When a person is so deeply depressed, I don’t think he is capable of choosing much of anything.  He simply wants to end his pain.

After a friend’s son killed himself in 2000, I wrote a column about depression.  I really didn’t want to publish it — and kept looking for excuses not to submit it.  I didn’t want people to know I had a history of depression in my own life and my family background.  There’s a terrible stigma to depression, even now, and part of me still believes in that stigma in spite of myself.

But, since my friend’s son’s death and her openness about his depression, I’ve tried to speak up about it whenever I can.  I’m reprinting what I wrote then in hopes people will try to understand the horrors of this disease and how limited a depressed person’s choices can be.  Most people don’t deliberately kill themselves unless their lives are unbearable.

                                         CHASE KELLER (1982-2000)
Our upstairs phone wasn’t working, and we could barely hear the phone downstairs when it began to ring.  It was five in the morning, and our room was dark and cold; it was too much trouble to go downstairs.  So my husband and I lay in bed and listened to the phone ring, quietly and insistently.  After a few rings, it was answered by our voice mail, and the house was quiet again.

Two hours later, my husband went downstairs to check the voice mail.  By then, the sky had lightened outside our windows, and the day was beginning.  “You need to listen to the message,” he said.  “Something’s happened.  But I don’t know who it is.”

He handed me the phone he’d brought upstairs, and I listened to the message.  It was a friend calling to tell me her teenage son had committed suicide the evening before.  Her voice broke, then it continued.  “I’m just sitting here in the wee, small hours of the morning,” she said.  “Please call me.”
Her son.  Her 18-year-old son.

When I called my friend, her voice was soft and dazed.  I listened to her — what else could I do?  I wanted so badly to be able to do something more, to take her pain for a few minutes or a few days, and divide it, somehow, among the people who cared about her.  Couldn’t I do that?  Couldn’t I do something?  No, I couldn’t.  In the face of such devastating grief, I could only listen and say how sorry I was.

I know this woman because we’re both breast cancer survivors, both involved in a local resource center for survivors.  But we know each other better than that, because she’d asked me for advice about her son when he became depressed three years ago.  She asked me because my husband is a psychologist, but also because she knew I’d suffered from severe depression in my own life.

She asked me — and I did my best to answer her with recommendations about therapy and antidepressants, which had helped me.  But it made me enormously uncomfortable, talking about my own depressions in a matter-of-fact way, as if it were just another blameless physical illness, like breast cancer.  Intellectually, I knew that was true; emotionally, I felt differently.

It’s easy for me to talk about my experiences with breast cancer.  But I’ve rarely talked about my depressions, which have caused me the greatest and most crippling pain in my life.  By doing this, I’m reflecting and accepting the culture in ways that make me ashamed of my own cowardice.

But think about it.  When you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you have a disease that can be “seen” on pathology slides, so clearly physical that surgeons use their tools to cut at it.  You are brave; you know this because everyone tells you how brave you are, even though you know you’re only putting one foot in front of the other.  Your friends — and you have so many of them, you realize gratefully — send cards and big bouquets of flowers, and they bring casseroles and desserts by your house.  They all want to help.

But depression?  You’re trapped inside yourself, shrouded in darkness and hopelessness and relentless suffering.  You wonder if you can survive the agony and torture of the next few minutes, the rest of the day.  Do you see the problem?  I use words like agony and torture because they’re as close as I can come to describing what depression is like.  But they’re not close enough, not strong and graphic enough.  They can’t make you understand the torment of depression unless you’ve been there yourself.

Depression is a private hell.  Those who have been there don’t want to talk about it, and even if they did, the world doesn’t want to listen.  Nobody brings flowers or casseroles, and nobody tells you you’re brave — even though the same act of putting one foot in front of the other is as brave as I’ve ever been in my life.  There aren’t any races for the cure, no ribbons or T-shirts for survivors to wear.  This is a disease of silence and, at most, hushed voices and averted eyes.

But that didn’t happen at the funeral for my friend’s son.  At the parents’ insistence, both the minister and a friend who spoke made this young man come alive — his intelligence, his irreverence, his drive and humor — and their voices were loud and clear.  They made you understand how dearly this boy was loved, and how hard he and everyone who cared about him had struggled against his depression.  But in the end, the therapy, the medication and the love hadn’t been enough, and the pain was too great for him to bear.

He had so much to live for, but still, he killed himself.  Can you imagine how enormous his suffering must have been?  If you’ve ever been deeply depressed, you can imagine it all too easily.

I watched my friend and her husband and their older son, their faces wrenched by grief.  They want so much for some kind of understanding and compassion to come out of their great loss.  Quietly and insistently, like the unanswered phone, they’re asking for something.  This is all I can do — to be honest about my own life and to try to make you understand.  My silence has to end.

Rest in peace, Chase Walter Keller – you and everyone who loved you.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

9 comments… add one
  • Nancy Link

    Ruth, thank you for writing this.  My brother was deeply depressed and committed suicide two years ago.  I still struggle with trying to understand and with guilt that I could not do more to help.  I noticed that no one commented (yet), and wondered if that’s exactly because of what you said– that we are very uncomfortable with the disease of depression, especially if it has touched us directly.  I know it was hard for me to write this, but as you said, the silence has to end.

  • I feel futile leaving a comment, Ruth, after reading this post. But I have to tell you how it moved me. For the first time, I have an inkling—and I know it is but an inkling—of how it must be to live with depression. You are a remarkable woman.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Oh, Nancy, I’m so sorry.  I had no idea.  Thank you for writing.

    Tessa — If I helped you understand something about depression, I’m so glad I reprinted this.

  • brannon Link

    Ruth, I have a very practical question about depression.  You mentioned that people bring casseroles and desserts to a friend who has breast cancer; what do you think  one should do for a friend who is depressed?  What kind of support, if any, would you think a depressed person might find comforting?  I have had a few friends suffer from depression from time to time, and I never know how to act or what to do, if anything.  I don’t want to interfere, but I want to be a good friend if I can, you know?   And the nature of depression is (often) such that the depressed person doesn’t want to have company in the first place – should I respect those wishes?  I know all situations are different; I’d be interested to know what, if anything, was comforting to you at the time.  

    On a related tangent, I’m sure you’ve read this, but I wanted to make sure you had a copy of it while you’re reflecting on DFW.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I wish I knew what would invariably help, but find it depends on the person.  Also, people who are depressed can often compensate so well that no one has any idea the difficulties they’re facing.

    When friends of mine are depressed, I try to check in with them more often — just calling or emailing to see how they are.  When you’re depressed, I think, you go through so much self-loathing that it can help to know others still care about you.

    But, as a friend, you do what you can, even when it’s not enough.  All you can do is ask what you can do to help.

    No, I haven’t read this piece.  Thanks for it. 

  • It’s an extremely debilitating illness that is all but impossible to talk about. I get angry when I think of the time and opportunities lost to depression in my own life, and about all the good people who take their lives because of it. Thanks for shedding some light.

  • Mary Shaw Link

    I too have survived depression by putting one foot in front of the other, usually well enough that few could see the effort this took or the turmoil benith.  This is progbably at least part of the reasonthat I work so many hours.  Work is defined and can be accomplished by putting one foot in front of the other.  It leavesa little time for dweling on the dark holes.

  • I admire your courage. I, too, struggle to tell others about what I can’t even call depression. When I talk about it, I call it “my dark place.” I’m always worried that people will see me as weak, but whenever I open  up about it, I learn that there are A LOT of us out there. Maybe we should have T shirts and a charity race?

  • Thanks for writing about this. We have depression and mania in our family and I have a friend who was inches away from killing herself. It’s important to talk about stuff like this.

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