Post by John Freriks
Programmer, guitarist, geneticist
I didn’t know Jamie Duffy outside of Acumen Nation (and even then I knew less than I should have), but news of his suicide has brought the issue of depression and mental illness to the forefront of my mind. And while it’s hard to talk about this subject without coming off as an attention or sympathy whore, it’s something I need to get off my chest.
In general I’m a happy person. If you’ve been around me, I hope that’s how I’ve come across. Maybe shy and a bit introverted (when sober) but I hope that the impression I give off isn’t one of a depressed person.
But…I suffer from depression. I’m not sad, blue, down in the dumps, or reacting to anything. There’s nothing romantic about it. It’s not something as simple as always feeling sad – it’s worse than that. That feeling (I assume everyone has this from time to time)- when you wake up in the morning and don’t want to face the day? You don’t want to get out of bed. You don’t want to interact with anyone. You’d just rather hide from the world, not bother or be bothered by anyone. The thought of leaving bed brings you mental anguish and, in some cases, actual physical pain. But as soon as you get out of bed, or maybe get in the shower, or have a cup of coffee – eventually the feeling disappears. Imagine it didn’t disappear. Imagine it NEVER disappears – it fades sometimes and lessens but never fully leaves. That’s depression. It means your mind is not always your friend, and sometimes it’s your worst enemy. That’s my baseline – it’s where my thought process starts and influences every personal, professional, and social interaction. I’ve struggled with it for more than half my life. I’ve been in and out of counseling since I was 14, and on and off medication since 16. I’ve checked myself into an emergency room twice out of fear for my safety – once after my wife and I split and once after my sister died. I’ve been on multiple medications – some (such as the Bupropion I’ve been on for the past 3 years) have helped immensely, some (Paxil and Effexor) had side effects so bad that I would rather have dealt with the depression on my own.
So what – depressed musicians are a dime a dozen – I mean how much more cliche can you get? I hear or read interviews where artists make statements like “depression is my muse” or “I can’t write unless I’m depressed.” This is as foreign an idea as I can think of. Depression is not my fucking muse – it’s the sadistic bastard holding my muse’s head below water, only letting it up long enough to breath so that it can continue pushing it under. Depression tends to be romanticized, but I strongly suspect that what they’re talking about is sadness, heartbreak, or loneliness – feelings and emotions that in time pass – not a mental illness that won’t leave.
Well, if I’m not looking for sympathy or attention, why am I writing about this? Surveys have shown that something like twenty-two or twenty-three percent of Americans have a mental disorder. You probably know more people with a mental disorder than you think. But there’s a stigma attached to it that isn’t attached to other disorders – this idea that the disease is the fault of the person suffering from it. No one goes up to a cancer patient and says “Well you must not want to be well,” or says to someone with Down’s syndrome “Just get over it.” Well some people do – don’t get me started on bullshit like The Secret – but no one with a shred of decency says such things. Yet we say it about people whose brain chemistry is off, whose neurons don’t fire correctly, who through some combination of genetics and environment have a central nervous system that doesn’t always look out for the individuals best interests. You risk friendships or your job by bringing it up. The fear of being a burden on people who didn’t ask to bear any burden has always been my biggest reason for hiding it. And with all the practice I’ve had, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
There’s also the stigma about the things people do to help manage their disorders. Therapy is for pussies – self-improvement is masturbation – medication is for the weak – it’s all a conspiracy by (insert bogeyman) in order to (insert dystopian control mechanism). Believe what you will – but therapy and medication have brought me back from the edge. I’m functional and usually very happy. I’ve been fortunate in that the VA in Madison has a great mental health program. I have a caring therapist and a doctor that does everything she can to help.
So … what to say to wrap this up?
The stigmas attached to mental illness exist, but they don’t have to. Victim blaming helps no one. If you know someone with a mental illness, remember – they didn’t choose to have their mind betray them. Understanding and an occasional helping hand is all anyone could ask for.
If you’re suffering from a mental illness – don’t be afraid to get help. Friends are great – meeting with trained professionals is great – and while you may not be able to afford it, there are in most cases federal, state, and community organizations that have programs that provide mental health care or to help defray the costs. And most importantly – your mind can turn against you and make you think that ending it all is the best choice. DO NOT LISTEN TO IT. You have one life, and when you’re gone, you’re gone save the memories you leave with your loved ones. Life with a mental illness is a struggle, but it’s worth it.
I’ll leave you with a much more eloquent talk, one that inspired me to write this: