Once again my random thoughts are focused on the topic of depression, and not just because it's the second anniversary of my own hospitalization for the disease. Last week I learned about the suicide of a Middletown teenager, a stranger to me, but not to two people that are close friends of mine.
Yesterday I read about another life lost, that of Aaron Swartz, a computer and Internet wunderkind who is only a few years older than my own children. I remembered how the abstraction of not wanting to be alive had consumed me only a few short years ago.
I so wanted to be dead, and a major reason for that was the conviction that there was something that was simply not attainable for me at the time. And that particular something was — hope.
Hope is one of the 1,000 most frequently used English words according to the Oxford English Dictionary. I was massively disappointed when I read the short entry. As a noun, the OED defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.” Looking at the verb form didn’t add much.
The vague etymology relates it to various Dutch and German words that all sound similar. Looking at an online Webster’s cheered me up a bit. There were several definitions, all variations of the following: “a desire of some good, accompanied with an expectation of obtaining it, or a belief that it is obtainable.”
That’s what I was looking for — that modifying concept of goodness, of something helpful, something to negate or change the overwhelming despair that dominates every waking thought when you’re severely depressed. That’s what these two people, and countless others, were unable to hold onto.
In the U.S., a suicide occurs about every 17 minutes, and happens at least once a minute worldwide. All of these people have lost sight of hope. The etymology dictionary www.etymonline.com suggests that the word derives from the verb hop, translated as “leaping in expectation.” Funny, I still don’t feel that way most days.
Driven by a desire for deeper understanding, I began to explore how someone such as Mr. Swartz could arrive at that hopeless state. I was amazed to learn of his work as an “Internet activist” and political organizer, and marveled at the sheer enormity of his achievements at such a young age. I poked around in his blogposts for clues (www.aaronsw.com).
Yes, he was facing an upcoming trial for computer fraud after he downloaded journal articles from a database at MIT, but as recently as the past few months he presented a blog series entitled “Raw Nerve”, in which he spoke of “the virtues of stepping back and trying to see the bigger picture”, and wrote that “instead of just avoiding the stuff that bugs me, should I start making plans to fix them (sic).” He explored the concepts of being “fixed-minded” vs “growth-minded”, and that the “first step to getting better is believing you can get better.”
The italics are his. What happened here? “You can get better” sounds like a belief to me, and fits the definition of an expectation of something good. It obviously slipped away from him. He even wrote about the need to look at ourselves objectively, stating that it was “essential if we ever want to get better.” He gave suggestions such as “reverse your projections”, “look up, not down”, and “find honest friends.” Even this could not save him in his darkest hour. Looking at these words, even though he’s gone now, I do see shreds of hope; I know deep down inside that he tried, he really tried, to hold on.
Alexandre Dumas wrote “All human wisdom is summed up in two words; wait and hope.” If that is so, then I’m lucky to have been wise in this little way: I chose not to end my life because I didn’t want to leave that legacy to my children. To allow hope to enter my life again, I had to wait. For me, this was absolutely the most difficult part.
I’m very excessively left-brained, highly book-educated, and am also an extrovert. People meet me and say “You don’t seem depressed to me.” They see me, but they’re not really listening when I describe what’s going on in my head. They see me smile as I’m out and about, but don’t realize that on any given day I’m doing my “I like people” act while not necessarily liking myself. I reached out to people when I was hopeless, and was frequently dismissed or outright rejected because to them I seemed “fine.” I wanted to remind them how deceiving looks can be.
I care deeply about how depression impacts individuals and society, and know that each sufferer has unique circumstances that I must respect and accept without judgment or blame. If someone tells you they’re depressed, just believe them. If they tell you they’re not but your radar is sensing the opposite, believe yourself instead of their words.
Listen, watch, and try to give them something to hold on to, even if it’s just a simple phone call, e-mail, or text message every day. By doing so, you may be helping them acquire the wisdom that kept me alive. By helping them in their struggle to wait, you may just be giving them hope.