April 13, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

If you don’t like to read about depression, please stop. Really. Turn to something happier. Reread yesterday’s letter or wait until tomorrow’s. Write out that gratitude list you’ve kept in your head, bake chocolate chip cookies, play with your roommate’s cat. Again, if you don’t like to read about depression, stop now. You’ve been warned.

If you love to read depressing pieces about depression, please stop. Turn to something sadder. Listen to The Smiths or Nine Inch Nails. Reread The Bell Jar or The Road. This piece is about depression but it’s not depressing, or at least that’s not its intention. Again, it you love to read depressing pieces about depression, stop now. You’ve been warned.

Now that we’ve cleared out 95% of the room, let’s all pull our chairs a little closer together—while still maintaining six feet of distancing, of course. Settle in. Relax. Everyone who’s left in this space has likely tasted the ever-present-aspirin in the soul, has known life’s exhaustion, has felt the clammy hand of despair or what Churchill called the Black Dog. Like you, and you, and you, I’ve shared my life with depression for years, even back into childhood. While depression sounds as though it should affect the emotions, I’ve always experienced it in the brain more than in the heart. My thoughts become like falcons circling in the air, but instead of returning to me, they always land on the idol standing next to me, the statue called Suicide.

Many of you know the opening to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

While Eliot may have been speaking metaphorically about the meaninglessness of modern life, he also describes most of my Aprils going back to at least my teens. I have only attempted suicide three times—each in April. (I know the irony of that word “only” to the never-depressed, most of whom will never make an attempt at turning out the lights.) Whatever else it may mean to others, April has been for me a month of deadly nostalgia for a world that never was, a time where the mixture of memory and desire were like ammonia and chlorine. As we all know from childhood, mixing those two cleansers forms chloramine, a poison that kills.

You may remember from mythology units in junior high English class the Sirens, women whose beauty and enchanting music drew sailors off course to shipwreck on the rocks. The Sirens’ voices and playing were not just beautiful, but induced sadness and lethargy, so the sailors drifted into death more than sailed for it.

I am a lucky man, for suicide’s siren song has not played for me since I got sober. Oh, I still have thoughts of killing myself all the time, random suicidal snatches in my brain, but since May 21, 2007, I haven’t felt the gravitational pull of death, the sense of life being pulled down a drain, a huge tub emptying into nothingness. I can only guess at the reasons for this luck, and I’ll try to list them here without much description.

  1. I’m not practicing the “better living through chemistry” model of putting into my mouth, nose or arm whatever substances offered an easier, softer way to live.
  2. Seeming to contradict number one, I see a therapist and a psychiatrist, and take an antidepressant as prescribed. The seeming contradiction here is the difference between taking drugs or alcohol and using medication, a distinction unclear to me for most of my life.
  3. I have other men to whom I’m accountable. I know they want the best for me and believe they can see my life with more objectivity than I can.
  4. I try to help others, particularly folks in early recovery, giving away what was freely given to me.
  5. I have work that matters, at least to me. While my current position at Hope offers obvious meaning, my first get-well job was in retail, selling computers at Office Depot. Somehow I managed to find inject meaning into each encounter with a customer or coworker.
  6. At the end of the day I review my actions, trying to see where I could have behaved better, or at least differently, then devise a plan to do so in the future.
  7. I pray, although in an unconventional way, saying “Thank you, God” at least a hundred times a day.

I could go on, and may at some future point, but for now I want you to know this April I don’t feel drawn to suicide, this April has hope bouncing across it like sun against the water, this April life is worth living. Just as I used to be a homeless drunk and could be again, I used to experience April as a period to, just barely, survive, and could again. For today, though, I am safe and sober and relatively satisfied.

Thank you, Hope Nation, for your part in that, and let me know how I can help you.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith