Tag Archives: depression


The Sword of Time

IMAGE: Propagation, 2018, 4″x4″, acrylic on canvas (14/365)

I was recently talking with my father about a sign my freshman-year geometry teacher had hanging beneath the clock in her classroom. It read: Time Will Pass. Will You? I think there was an issue with the punctuation, or maybe two question marks, or the block letters and fonts rankled my design sensibility somehow, but whatever it was, it drove me crazy every time I saw it. My father said his third grade teacher had a similar sign, with slightly different wording, and it bothered him in the same way. We both agreed that one of the most frustrating parts (besides teachers having nothing more clever to post under their clocks several decades later) was that we usually only noticed the sign when we weren’t watching the clock. It was more often the case that when the bell rang, I was so engrossed in the class that I looked over to check if it could possibly be over already. Or someone on that side of the room sneezed or dropped a book and I involuntarily looked over. The smug little sign greeted me with its menacing words, as if the only options in life were pass or fail, and I always felt like sneering back at it, “Yes, of course I will pass, and I will probably get an A or at the very least an A-minus!” (I used to be good at math).

High school battles with signage aside, time has always been a nemesis for me. I have spent much of my life willing it to go slower, stretch out, and give of itself more generously and expansively so that I can soak in as much of what I am experiencing as possible. When my friends were in a rush to turn seventeen and get their driver’s licenses, I didn’t mind being younger because it meant more time visiting with my family while they still gave me rides places. I rarely wanted classes to end, especially in college, since that was really the reason I had left home and lived in a dorm full of strangers, pretending I was adjusting well to people who looked down on me (or were utterly indifferent) while I wondered three times a week why the bathroom in the science building perpetually smelled of vomit. (Freshman year was a mixed bag.)

Even when I am anticipating something exciting or looking forward to relief at the end of a challenge, I am careful not to wish for time to accelerate. One of the purposes of meditation is to fix time in the present by focusing on breathing and being completely in a moment. But sometimes I catch myself more looking forward to how focused and centered I will feel when meditation is over than actually doing the work to get there. I eat slowly so I can savor food, I look all around as I walk, and I try to take my time with whatever I am doing so I know I did it mindfully. The same is true with love and any pleasure – I don’t want to rush to a high point and find I was wishing my life away.

Intensifying, 2018, 9”x12”, wax and charcoal on paper (4/365)

A huge expanse of time can feel like a weight too heavy to carry. The first time my high school boyfriend broke up with me, I was so devastated that I didn’t know how I would survive time going forward. Cataclysmic events tend to cleave time into the Before and After, and to my teenage sensibility, this was the cruelest blow the sword of time had ever dealt. I imagined him going out with the new girl, the seasons changing as he transitioned from cross-country running to wrestling to spring track, the years adding up as he got his license, went off to college, and made a whole life without me. And I would be stuck, being with myself, as the person he didn’t want. I couldn’t imagine any future where I was happy, where I would ever stop hurting and get past the heartbreak, let alone one where I would be fine, meet one of my best friends while sniveling about it, or that the boyfriend and I would eventually get back together and I’d return the favor of breaking up with him for someone else a few years later.

I remember staring at the taunting clock sign in geometry class in those days with eyes puffy and sore from crying in the girls room, wishing I could escape time. I wanted to sink under water or slip into a coma for a while and only wake up when the world had changed enough around me that everything that hurt had become irrelevant, or I finally stopped hurting, as everyone promised I would with time. I snapped out of that ridiculous fantasy when I realized that to escape the pain of that breakup, I’d also miss being with my family, visiting our extended relatives on the holidays, major chunks of the short lives of our pets, and short-term things like post-prom parties or listening to a new Counting Crows album when it first came out at the same time as everyone else. I didn’t really want to escape time, just avoid hurting, and I learned for the first of many times in my life that the only way out, always, is through.

Loose Threads, 2018, 9″x12″, permanent marker on paper (11/365)

Lately I’ve found myself both trapped by and clinging to time again. Being a woman in my 30s is to be bound by reproductive time limits, whether my heart or dating life are in the place they need to be or not. My student loan debt and any attempt to save for a house or family or retirement are fundamentally at odds in an inverse relationship with time and each other. At my last office job, I simultaneously felt like I never had enough time to breathe or do anything at home, and like I was staring at the clock every day wondering how I would get through the week. I was wishing my life away while lamenting it was slipping out of my grasp.

Over the past year since the 2016 election, I cannot count how many times I’ve thought and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this.” Consciously I know there will be more life on the other side of this administration, but my mind cannot envision an America that survives it. I’ve begged the universe to fix time, or let me escape it, so I could go through quickly without feeling. The timeline I have been neglecting is once again my own, as the world spins off its axis and I look around feeling helpless and paralyzed with concern and fear. My father has reminded me repeatedly, “It happened. This is life right now. You can either spend the next few years miserable, or you can live your life the best you can.” My mother always adds, “And fight to make things better.”

Eons, 2018, 11″x14″, acrylic and ink on paper (15/365)

After the disasters that struck my family and friends this fall, paired with some heavy personal stuff, I sunk into a pretty intense period of mourning and depression that is only just abating. I didn’t mean to disappear, but time got away from me like it does. I am currently working to shift from a mindset that utterly dreads the future to one that embraces each day. It shouldn’t be as hard as it’s been, but I have never had an easy relationship with time. Some holes take longer than others to dig yourself out of.

At the turn of the new year, for the second time in a row I landed more uncomfortably on the side of “Good riddance to last year!” than “Welcome the new year!” I am exhausted of feeling bleak and hopeless, cringing through good times because I fear they are fleeting, and putting everyone on hold in case something awful comes up that I need to be prepared to face. I want to have hope again, even if that hope is simply in time. It will pass, and I have control over what I do in it.

I started a project that is both a challenge and a promise to myself, to make art every day this year (posting on my Instagram if you’d like to follow along). It has already made the passage of time bearable, stamping each day with an image I made and a promise that I will make more. It’s working remarkably well as self-prescribed art therapy because it is forcing me to be aware in time instead of going numb. Each day brings me further from the world inhabited by the people I lost last year, but it also brings me closer to a future I need to make bright, even if they are not here with me in it. I owe them that.

For the rest of my life, I am still charged with the double-edged sword of how I spend my time and how it spends me. I need to use it well.

Nothing more final

This post discusses suicide and mental health. If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact the national suicide hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE or visit suicide.org immediately for help.

I try not to talk about suicide very much. People seem sharply divided into two camps: those for whom suicide is an abstract concept and those for whom it is all too real. I can barely get through a conversation about death without getting propelled into an existential panic attack, so as much as possible I try to avoid conversations about suicide with anyone who glamorizes it or, conversely, condemns it out of hand as selfish, stupid, and so on.

At age 34, I already know way too many people who have seriously considered or attempted suicide, several who died from drug overdoses while in a suicidal state of mind, and in 2009 my aunt died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. I still can’t wrap my head around the gruesomeness and finality of her death, but it is her suicide I will talk most about below because it is the one I experienced with the most clarity.

I don’t usually participate in things like World Suicide Prevention Day (this past September 10) because it’s all still too raw seven years later, but in the interest of raising awareness, I think it’s important to stop keeping quiet.

Yesterday I relived some of the emotions around my aunt’s suicide when a purportedly suicidal man stood on top of the Macombs Dam Bridge in my neighborhood for about two hours. I was painting in my studio and heard so many sirens and such loud low-flying helicopters I thought I was in a scene from Boyz n the Hood. I didn’t find any news coverage or police alerts, so I took to Twitter to find out what was going on, where I watched a chilling video of the man, shirtless, on top of the bridge, as police officers approached him.

I responded to a few Tweets that were asking why Metro North had been suspended for so long due to “police activity near Yankee Stadium” to let them know the cause, and like me, most people wished or prayed for his safety and expressed concern. One editor for the NY Times made a tasteless joke, but that’s a story for another day. After a few hours, I saw a transportation alert that bus service had been restored after “an earlier incident on the Macombs Dam Bridge,” and I was cautiously relieved. It wasn’t until nearly 12 hours later that any news coverage showed up, with this local story from CBS including even more terrifying footage of the man climbing up the bridge, removing his shirt, and standing on the edge.

I read a bit about media guidelines for stories about suicide, and I understand and appreciate the minimum of information given and presumably waiting for confirmation from police before releasing any details, as every story that was posted came out within a few minutes of 9pm. I see how it would have been easy to sensationalize such a dramatic stand-off for breaking news ratings. Either a suicide attempt doesn’t count as newsworthy in New York City anymore, or I can be relieved that our local news outlets were responsible and showed restraint in their coverage, focusing on the steps taken by the NYPD to protect and save this man.

In college, I remember several friends repeating an expression we’d all picked up, “Suicide is never about just one person,” implying that it was about the victim and whoever the victim was trying to spite, or perhaps more optimistically, release. This mythology is, of course, a foolish and dangerous misunderstanding of the romanticized suicides of melodramatic love stories and pseudo-heroic fictions. I remember scrambling to change the subject whenever suicide came up in conversation in front of a dear friend whose father had died by suicide, and I will never be able to forget the look in his eyes when he quietly said, “I think he just wanted it all to be over.”

My aunt was not well. It’s not my place to air out all her personal business, but she struggled with mental health issues and an eating disorder for most of her life, and from what I understand, things were getting much worse toward the end. I hadn’t seen her in years after she moved from Hawaii to Nevada, and we were never very close, through a combination of violent episodes that kept us from meeting for most of my childhood and the unshakeable feeling that she basically despised me from about age 10 onwards, once we did meet. The few times I saw her when we visited family, I primarily felt pity and sadness that I struggled to articulate. She seemed so profoundly unhappy, in a way I’d never seen before, but also vaguely understood.

Arthur Dove, Silver Sun, 1929, oil and metallic paint on canvas

I don’t have any photos of my aunt on my computer, and I was never able to find an obituary or more information about her death than what was conveyed through hushed phone calls and sober family discussions. I remember the few conversations I had with her almost word for word because I spent so much time replaying them as a teenager and trying to get a feel for how she became the way she was. I feared the familiarity of some of her thoughts and saw her as a warning for what I might become if I didn’t get my mental health together.

Two nights before we found out she had killed herself, I had an incredibly vivid dream about her, which was so unusual I mentioned it to my mother the next day and we had a long talk about my aunt. My mother told me about some of the threats and attempts my aunt had made at suicide in the past, before I was born, about some of the erratic behaviors that were exacerbated by drug use, and we talked in great detail about the impact of her illness and actions on the rest of the family. I said, in almost a whisper, that in her case if she knew she truly wouldn’t get better and didn’t have any joy in her life and felt like she was just burdening everyone who cared about her, maybe I could understand suicide – but I quickly rushed to take that statement back and said I would pray for her to find some peace.

The next morning I was procrastinating heading into the city for thesis research, when my mother got one of those phone calls I immediately knew to be serious. She came into my room with a stricken face and said, “I don’t know what kind of creepy prophet you are, but I need to tell you something.” She told me all the information she had, keeping her composure, then her face crumbled as she said, “I just don’t know how to tell your father.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929, oil on canvas

We only knew my aunt as someone unwell, who was cruel when she lashed out, and seemed irreparably unhappy in life. My father knew her as a joyful little girl with a fantastic wit and fiendish sense of humor. He knew her as a fearless, tough, bold child who stared down the world and grew up into a free-spirited, tenacious adult. But most of all, he knew his baby sister, and knowing that she’d really gone through with it this time absolutely devastated him. I think we all hoped that her death had been an accident with medication, or maybe a cardiac episode, but once we learned that she had shot herself in the chest, there was no doubt that she intended to die. No one knows how long she lay bleeding on her floor or dead – the neighbors called the police when they noticed her dogs had been outside barking for hours, but they couldn’t remember if they’d seen them out the night before. It’s entirely possible that as I was dreaming about her, she was facing the reality of dying, and I don’t want to know what that means.

At the time, my grandmother was experiencing Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Earlier that year, I remember how upsetting it was for my aunt Elise to have to recount another death in the family to her repeatedly, but my grandmother’s mind held fast to the reality of her daughter killing herself. I don’t think the incredulity ever left her voice when she said, “I can’t believe she actually did it,” and I know it broke her heart over and over again for the rest of her life. My father and his sisters were similarly wrecked, and everyone kept going back over it, blaming themselves or wondering what could have been done differently to help her.

When my father came home from the memorial service, he seemed comforted by celebrating her life and remembering who she had been when she was younger, even remarking on her famous tenacity, “Well we always said once she got her mind on something, nothing was going to stop her.” But I watched their family ache, how deeply and sometimes resentfully they hurt, wondering why she had to do it instead of getting help, wondering if maybe she really was trying to spite one of them, and then asking which one. Things were never right with that side of the family since her suicide, and I can see the hurt in my father’s eyes when his childhood comes up because she took that joyful part of his memories away. No one can mention her without saying, “And then she killed herself,” negating every other part of her existence with the finality of her death, as she did with her suicide.

Salvador Dalí, Inventions of the Monsters, detail view, 1937, oil on canvas

I have heard many variants of the argument that in certain conditions of terminal illness, suicide is a noble or gentle way to escape suffering or relieve others of the burden of care. I have never known someone who lost a loved one to suicide who would agree with this statement. According to suicide.org, the leading cause of suicide is untreated depression or mental illness. Without getting too detailed, I understand what happens in the depths of depression when the mind is able to convince you that suicide is the best course of action. Facing a lifetime of struggling with mental health issues can feel very much like receiving a terminal diagnosis. I can’t speak for everyone, but the idea of “no one would even miss me” is really the opposite of the thinking – it’s more the sense that you will only ever cause pain and hurt to the people you love, and while your death would upset them, it’s ultimately kinder to them to get it over with and stop dragging them through things. Obviously this is distorted and unhealthy thinking, and it’s absolutely not true. I swore to my family that I would never go the route my aunt did, but I know how that voice sounds and how dark that place is, so I am deeply sympathetic to others who struggle with depression, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts.

I think it is essential to work together to remove the stigma around mental illness, to stop using it as a punchline or a gratuitous plot device, and instead encourage people to get help and treatment way before it comes to standing on a bridge staring down a void. It is especially damaging to children and young people who are increasingly dying by suicide after extended bullying or social media tormenting; in addition to not knowing how to battle the distorted thinking in their own minds, often their brains and ego-permanence literally haven’t developed enough to understand the finality and reality of death yet. We need to help people recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and make it okay to speak up and get help. We need to stop telling new mothers it’s just the blues – adult women know when their mind is not working like usual and they should feel supported and encouraged to get help for postpartum depression. We need to stop telling veterans with earth-shattering PTSD or those who are struggling to reacclimate that they need to toughen up and focus on being productive. We need to stop telling teenagers and young adults they are being melodramatic or ungrateful or attention-seeking, or assume they’re just upset about “school drama” and instead listen and learn to recognize behaviors like cutting, eating disorders, social withdrawal, drug abuse, and other red flags.

Most of all, we need to stop treating mental health issues as a sign of weakness or inferiority or treat people as “damaged” when they are struggling. We need to be better support systems, to listen to each other and take it seriously when someone expresses feelings of hopelessness or despair, not just wait to vent our own day-to-day frustrations. The mind is both the most powerful and the most delicate system we possess, and it needs to be treated respectfully and compassionately. Because once a mind becomes set on its own obliteration, it can be impossible to save people from themselves.

To reiterate, if you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, please contact the national suicide hotline 1-800-SUICIDE or visit suicide.org immediately for help.