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A note for the living

Some of those who took their own lives did not leave a note to explain. The living are left to speculate on the whys and the hows, belaboring apparent problems and rummaging through final conversations in search of clues. But even in those instances when full-length letters are provided, endless questions still hang in the air, because no matter the explanation, no matter how clear and simple the words are, suicide—as well as the depression that almost always leads to it—never makes sense.

“Am I not giving you enough reason to live?” I heard a friend ask his partner after seeing the nonfatal cuts on her wrist.

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“Where did we lack?” lamented a parent on TV during the wake of her child.

These questions haunt us primarily because we have so little grasp of depression. Science has gone a long way since it acknowledged it as a medical condition, yet there is still no definitive answer as to what exactly causes it and what can reverse it for good.

What little medical science knows on this subject is diminished even more in Filipinos’ perception of it. We are still raw to the idea that depression is an actual medical condition and that it is a valid reason to be concerned about someone.

We have been raised in tough love, trained to believe that feeling sad is a luxury we can always choose to forgo. As kids, for instance, when we cried after being reprimanded, our parents only reprimanded us more (“Wag kang mag-inarte!” or “Ayaw pag-gara!”). Even as we grew older, when we shed a tear for something seemingly trivial—a hurtful word, a nostalgic song—we felt ashamed of ourselves for being so petty. Where I grew up, there was even a notion that only millionaires could suffer from depression because the rest of us could not afford it.

There are merits to being brought up in a culture like this. We grow to become the smiling citizens we pride ourselves to be—a hardy bunch, an indomitable nation. But in steeling ourselves and denying our individual vulnerabilities, we fail to see the things that can truly push us over the edge.

Our misconceptions about depression prevent us from properly addressing it. Too few people can recognize the warning signs, too few know how to help. The hotline numbers of valuable organizations such as the Philippine Mental Health Association and the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation rarely reach those in dire need for them.

There was one afternoon when I was a teen—and probably more sullen-looking than I am now—when I realized how a cheerless affliction could be misunderstood. I was listening to Yano, and during the part in “Esem” where it laments life—“Nakakainis ang ganitong buhay”—an older friend piped in, suggesting that I skip the song. Those lyrics will only encourage you to wallow, my friend said, and as well-meaning advice, he added: “Don’t choose depression.”

This, I think, is the biggest myth about depression: that it is something a person can choose to have or not to have. That it is something one can just switch on or off. That it is something one can just go to a doctor for, get a prescription for, and dissolve with a happy pill in a snap.

I’m no doctor; I’ve had only close glimpses of this condition, and from what I’ve seen, people who are depressed are not wallowing. They are fighting the hardest battle trying to keep their dark clouds at bay. While others are fortunate to be able to slip in and out of moods, for a depressed person it may not be so easy. To most people a certain sadness may be a common and transient mood, but to a depressed person it can be a long and heavy downpour, a forceful flood, a quiet struggle against drowning.

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Depression is an enemy no one would deliberately choose to have, yet those who have it are fighting anyway. Sometimes, the battle is won with family, with friends, with medication. But other times, this cruel joke of nature wins and a fighting soul goes under.

David Foster Wallace described it so achingly well. He wrote that a person who tries to kill herself attempts it not because of the belief that life isn’t worth living or because death seems appealing. Instead, the situation is similar to being trapped in a burning high-rise building. The fear of falling out the window is still there, but when the flames creep close enough, falling appears to be the lesser terror.

“It’s not desiring the fall,” wrote Wallace. “It’s the terror of the flames.”

He went on to assert that none of those watching from the sidewalk would understand the jump. One would have to be personally trapped in the burning high-rise to comprehend “a terror way beyond falling.”

This is why depression and suicide wouldn’t make sense, with or without a note.

But here is a note for those grieving, for the parents who tried their best to share their child’s burden, for the partner who afforded extraordinary patience and acceptance: It is not your fault. You—with your endless ways of caring—you gave all the reasons there are to live. You did not lack. But you were confronted with a fire you couldn’t feel, and your beloved was brave to have fought it.

Here is a note for those watching from the sidewalk, those who are still coming to terms with the validity of depression: We need to acknowledge it, talk about it, and rinse it of its myths. That way, we can learn how to help a suffering soul with something better than “Don’t choose depression.”

And here is a note for those fighting, those who carry the weight of a flood, those who feel the invisible flames: We are fighting with you. Please stay.

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[email protected]

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TAGS: David Foster Wallace, Depression, Natasha Goulbourn Foundation, Philippine Mental Health Association
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