Original artwork by the author. Media: stuff around the house on paper.
This post is dedicated in gratitude to the man who gifted me the courage to write it: Da Nang’s half-beard Dork Dancing messiah, the incomparable Ethan Levy.
Forgive me if I ramble a bit. It’s not easy to talk about.
Winston Churchill called it his “black dog”, and I like that. But for me, I picture depression as a vast labyrinth of soot-choked tunnels. They’re narrow and dark and foul and cacophonous; sometimes you crawl, sometimes you wriggle and claw and whimper. There are demons in those tunnels, clawing you back and down, snarling that you’re worthless and the people in your life would be better off without you and you’re a coward for not ending it already. The tunnels and the demons are always there. They’re under my feet every step of every day. I live in mindfulness of their vortex.
Lots of people go there. Lots live there, they never come out, and the wild howling black despair of interminable, ungraspable misery claims far too many of us. I think of the suicides I’ve known. The beautiful young Crown prosecutor I’d have shot off my pinkie toe for a date with. The father of three teenage children. The middle-aged defense lawyer, I talked to him the day before he gassed himself in his garage, an odd conversation, he asked me how old I was. I sensed something. If I’d taken any care at all maybe I could have said the right things to keep him alive, but I didn’t take any care at all, and he died. I didn’t like him. I sat and wept when I got the news.
I was five or six the first time I remember experiencing suicidal ideation. I tied the laces of my hockey skates together, wrapped them around my neck, wound the skates around a leg of my bed, and rolled until I was choking.
My stepfather found me and beat the shit out of me. That was a thing back then.
History repeats, I guess. Thirty years later, a year after my father’s death from lung cancer, drunk at 1030 in the morning, I pulled down the heavy-bag in my loft and attached a lunging rope I had lying around to the mounting. I used the clip at the end to make a noose, set a chair up, climbed on the chair to fit the noose around my neck, got everything nice and taut, then kicked out the chair.
Everything was going alright for a few moments; I was blacking out nicely. And then, like slowly turning the dimmer switch on a lamp back up, I was back. My feet were on the ground, the pressure off my carotids. The rope had stretched. It was a lunging rope. Thick, but twisted with a little bounce. More than I’d counted on. Fuckin loser. Can’t even hang yourself right.
In disgust I yanked the rope off my neck, staggered to the beer fridge, and popped another. I was drinking it and crying when the cops walked in. My apartment door was always unlocked, the building was high-tech secure. I’d called people to say goodbye. A girlfriend. My mother. They called the police, and the police put me in handcuffs and lit a clove cigarette for me while they radioed dispatch and looked around my ostentatious gentrified loft and wondered what could possibly be wrong enough about this guy’s life to bring him to this.
It was four days in a locked psych ward with rope burns around my neck, committed, a ward of the state by reason of mental illness that made me a danger to myself. Probably my briskest ego-check to date, and may it remain so for the duration. The psychiatrist there told me that depression is the state of exhaustion caused by prolonged anxiety, which jibed alright with the facts on the ground as I saw them. In the months that followed my release, he tried half a dozen different pills out on me. None of them hit the spot, as it were. It was a real jolt to discover that big pharma wasn’t the holy infallible philanthropic panacea everyone thought.
The schizophrenic old street preacher in the bed next to me, Reverend Jim, he told me stuff too. Most of it I couldn’t make out, but one clear phrase kept repeating: “Cast your bread upon the waters.”
They released me long before they released Jim, and I went back the next day and every day until he was out, getting an application together for him to get a disability pension when they finally sprung him. His wife happened to be in the women’s wing of the same psych ward (small world), with a scattering of petty shoplifting charges in courthouses all over the Lower Mainland. I rounded up all the files and talked to a judge for her when she was out.
I lost track of them after that, but “cast your bread upon the waters” stayed with me, and eventually I quit practicing law, I just walked away from it, and I became a full-time yoga student and a part-time bouncer, and then I found myself in Southeast Asia, and then I met a stunning little Viet woman [in a yoga class that I was teaching – don’t tell anybody] and had a baby. So now I’m a Viet and I have six year old daughter who is blazingly the best thing that ever happened to me.
But I never get to pretend that the tunnels aren’t there. Because I visit them sometimes. I’m better at clawing my way out than I once was. But it can get dark, and the world still has boxcutters and heavy truck grills hurtling down the oncoming lane on the road to Hoi An and tall buildings with accessible roofs and possibilities like that. I don’t get to coast, not ever. In relative terms, I don’t carry the heaviest cross in the world. But it’s there. It’s mine.
I’m writing this for the people like me. Not the thousands or the tens of thousands. The millions. There are millions of people who crawl those tunnels and grapple those demons. We lose some every day. I hate it, I haven’t done the tiniest fraction of what I should have done to reach other people like me. This is my offering. This is my message in a bottle.
To the people like me, please know that other people crawl those tunnels too. Those tunnels are hell. If you’re reading this, and you’re in those tunnels and those same demons have their claws around your ankles and your shoulders and your throat, please know that I know, that millions of other people know the horror of where you’re at. You’re going through hell. So please, I’m begging you, keep going. The tunnels aren’t the universe, there’s a world where the sun shines and you feel it on your face and you know rapture and you thank God that you didn’t stick the muzzle of a shotgun in your mouth and pull the trigger. You can make it out. It’s shit hard. But please, please keep going. You can make it out. You will make it out. Keep going. Survive.
Maybe it will help you, I hope it won’t hurt, but it helps me to remember than in the darkest places those tunnels lead, I’m insane. There’s a limited catalogue of rational reasons for suicide. Terminal illness that will make the remainder of your life unbearable, imminent capture and hard interrogation by the enemy. That’s what I’ve got off the top of my head. Anything else, “I’m worthless”, “It will never be okay”, that’s insanity. That’s the crazed and vicious snarling of demons trying to kill you. Don’t believe those bastards, they’re lying to you. Fight them. Claw free. Survive.
A prescription of any kind here would feel trite and reductive. The tunnels, we share. The means to get us out and keep us out, those, I think, are more individuated. If a pharmacy has a viable fix for you, for God’s sake use it, that’s a win. I have to scrounge what serotonin and dopamine and oxytocin I can from my life. Yoga helps, meditation is imperative, I need a combat sport in my life and grappling sports seem to be better, I think it’s the physical human contact. It’s not just that simple. But those are a compulsory start. For me.
But for right now, I need us to go back to the tunnels. Just to stand at that ravenous maw and peer inside for a moment. It’s frightening. But it might be important someday.
Psychiatry is a discipline in its infancy. Depression is more studied than understood, we know that brain chemistry matters, we know that the exogenous vicissitudes of life slam people into the tunnels and maybe they don’t come out. I won’t speak to causes, they’re too many and varied and uncertain.
At the moment, I’m more preoccupied with the experience.
There’s a place I go, there’s a place we go, where we’re so deep in and so trapped and confined and embattled, where it gets hard to move. Actual physical movement is grueling. When I’m there, I move and talk like an unhealthy 90 year old. I’m physically crippled by the war in my mind. It’s crushing, and frightening for me and for anyone unfortunate enough to see it happening. Terrifying, for anyone who’s ever depended on my strength and courage.
I watched a great lecture by a psychiatrist named Robert Sapolsky out of Stanford. It was reassuring to hear him talk about that experience as something known to psychiatrists. Not so reassuring was the observation that the state of meta-catatonic exhaustion isn’t the most dangerous time for us. We don’t have the energy to kill ourselves when we’re in that condition. It’s as we start to come out of it that the psychiatrists have learned to pay particularly close attention. When we’re not out of the tunnels, but we do have the energy to kill ourselves. That’s when they’re most likely to lose us.
Remember that. Here’s the link to the lecture:
In the last couple years of my life, my father quit drinking and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. We talked about the program deeply and often, I went to many meetings with him. They’ve got this concept they call “the Committee of Assholes”. The idea is that every alcoholic has their own Committee in their psyche, telling them they’re worthless, they’re losers, there’s no point trying, they’re not strong enough, they might as well just get drunk and stay drunk. The Committee are malevolent, mendacious, cunning, and opportunistic. They’re some of the same entities people fight in the tunnels. Some Assholes have seats on many boards.
In my darkest and most dangerous moments, I feel the old meme of a devil on one of my shoulders and an angel on the other. The devil is telling me all of those ugly lies and chanting “do it do it do it do it”. The angel is telling me the truth, trying to drag me back into the light, to sanity and [relative] safety and existence. The debate rages between them. The spark of sanity in me knows who’s speaking truth and who’s lying.
Remember that, too.
Now the bad news: don’t expect anyone who hasn’t been there to get it. Unless they’re avatars of compassion and empathy, they won’t. I’ve been judged and cursed and scorned and dumped and abandoned for visiting the tunnels. I’ll be judged and scorned for writing this piece. Some time, somewhere, some bastard will use it against me.
Try to forget that.
We should all of us tell our stories with as much candor and vulnerability as our courage and our circumstances can provide. Because we can help each other by telling our stories. No hyperbole, it’s life and death. For someone, somewhere, your story could be the difference between life and death. That’s the razor’s edge we walk, and the life-line potential of your message in your bottle. It’s intrinsic to life in those tunnels to feel utterly alone. If you’re in those tunnels, you’re not alone. And you need to hear that you’re not alone.
Think about it, anyways.
Reader, dear Reader, God help me but I’m running out of steam on this one. It’s not a small topic, the stories are ruthlessly abbreviated, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and a lot of time hiding under a pile of coats and wishing it would go away and not all that much time writing and I’m drained. But I need it out there. What if it could’ve made a difference to one person like me but I was a day late putting it out there, right? I need to put it out there.
So I’ll leave you with this: if you’re like me, and you meet me out there in the world, let me know. Tell me whatever you want. We’re Team Tunnels, and we should stick together.
And if you’re going through hell, keep going.