It’s gray outside. That’s not unusual here; it’s been gray for days, and I know this is only the beginning of some long months. I remember that from living in the Midwest before, years ago. But twelve years of living in California got me used to seeing the sun on a regular basis. I knew this part of the move would be challenging.
This past summer I was starting to crash yet again. Life was increasingly appearing both bleak and terrifying, and I was barely treading water. I hadn’t been hospitalized for an entire year—an accomplishment, that—and I saw myself headed to the ER once again. Except that I wasn’t sure I could stand yet another trip to the regulation and boredom of a psych ward, and I wondered whether this time around I could keep myself safe.
Nietzsche famously said, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” In my life, the idea of suicide has often felt like it functioned paradoxically as something that kept me afloat. It has been reassuring to think that there is, if needed, an exit. And it is only after years of therapy that I have started to even question that way of thinking, to see suicide ideation as playing with fire rather than something keeping me safe. At least for me, it is not, in the end, a safe way to live. That may sound obvious to you, but it is something of which I have to continually remind myself.
“The debate was wearing me out,” writes Susanna Kaysen in Girl, Interrupted. “Once you’ve posed that question, it won’t go away. I think many people kill themselves simply to stop the debate about whether they will or they won’t.”1 That makes sense to me. The internal debate about staying alive slowly erodes whatever hold on life you might have, undermines whatever tattered fragments of hope might remain. It is crazy-making.
And I found myself once again traveling this all-too-familiar road. With depression closing in on me more and more, I felt the need to do something drastic. I started playing with the idea of moving across the country. It was a surprise to me that I was contemplating the idea that seriously, because I loved California and had imagined myself staying there indefinitely. But the more I thought about moving, the more sense it made. My siblings had slowly been migrating to the Midwest, and I wanted to join them. If I was going to be lost, I figured, I’d might as well be lost with family around.
I tend to overthink things and struggle with decisions, but it quickly became clear to me that this was the right thing to do. It felt good. It felt right. This got me through the misery and hassle of moving. I arrived without a job or a place to live—a situation that was highly out of character for me, since I generally like the security of having things planned out. But I had an unusual confidence that this was what I needed to do.
I’ve been here a few months now. There have been some real perks, such as the cost of living, which is so much lower than it was in California that I now have an apartment large enough to hold my books. And the biggest perk of all is what brought me here in the first place—the chance to see my siblings regularly. I miss my friends, my ward, and the weather of California. But I am immensely glad that I moved here.
But the excitement of moving has worn off, as I knew it would, and now I am back to working on the hard business of healthy living. It is hard to admit just how difficult I find that. Sometimes simply functioning, getting through the day without self-destructive behavior, is a major accomplishment. I faithfully take my meds. Deep down I don’t think I really need them, but since everyone in my life, including my therapist, is quite convinced that I do, I stay on them. It is a constant challenge to work on the basics of sleep, eating well, exercise. I know they make a difference, but it is all too easy to veer off that path.
My therapist talks a lot about creating a sustainable life for myself. Not something overly rosy, but something real, something that has enough good in it that I see life as worth living, something that—unlike the fleeting highs of a mood disorder—is grounded and can last. That is my ongoing project. Sometimes I believe in it, and sometimes I don’t. Depression is always just around the corner, and sometimes it overwhelms me despite my best efforts to keep it at bay. Sometimes, though, I don’t make those efforts. Sometimes I just want to retreat.
About a year ago, The Atlantic published a story that I found fascinating. Researchers found a consistent correlation between age and happiness in a wide number of countries. In what they referred to as the happiness U-curve, life satisfaction plummeted during people’s 40s. I am almost 41, and this is obviously a concern to me. And yet in an odd way I find it reassuring; perhaps in the sense of lostness that I feel and the questions I am wrestling with, I am not alone. “In my 40s,” writes the author of the article, “I found I was obsessively comparing my life with other people’s: scoring and judging myself, and counting up the ways in which I had fallen behind in a race.” This resonates with me. It is not just that I am lost, that it is hard to see that I have accomplished anything in life—it is that I feel like I have fallen drastically behind my peers, and that stings. It would be nice to report that I have moved beyond such a competitive way of thinking, but the truth is that it’s there.
The good news is that things get better in the next decade. One reason for this, it appears, is that people focus less on accomplishments and status, and more on relationships and connectedness. That is worth remembering.
In a memorable scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry yells at Dumbledore: “I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE!” Dumbledore responds, “You do care. You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”2 Depression is numbing. Self-destructive behavior, I find, is way to avoid that wrenching hurt of living and caring. In the long run, it is of course not worth it, as it only escalates what is wrong. I know that. I don’t always care. But I am trying.
One of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver is titled “The Journey”:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – – –
determined to save
the only life you could save.3
It’s hard to articulate why that speaks to me so deeply, but it does. “There was a new voice / which you slowly / recognized as your own.” I think that is intertwined for me with this idea of creating a sustainable life—listening to my own voice, and taking that seriously. Not the voice that preaches self-destruction as a tenable way to live. Rather, the part of me that actually wants to be alive, that sees the wonder of the world. It is there. It is slowly growing, as I learn to feed it. And at times I see something in the distance. Something real. Something hopeful.