Things That Happened When My Dad Died

Death. My dad’s death. Weighed on me for a number of reasons.

We were not close. I did not know how to mourn. I could not just pretend that the hole he’d left was impossible to fill. And the religious rituals would no longer work for me. The clean, scheduled, dignified mourning was impossible.

A few things happened.

I suppressed my emotions

I struggled to feel my emotions. I struggled to manage them and express them in a healthy way. How could I, when I did not even know how I felt? That’s the thing about trauma. If you were confused before, you’re only gonna be more confused after. The time to clear your head is before the big bad happens.

But I did not clear my head, and when he died, I did not know how sad I was, or what other feelings it brought up. I cried a lot at first. But a lot is relative, and relative to other mourners I’ve known, I barely cried at all.

I felt sentimental and ashamed for feeling sentimental.

And I felt angry. Angry at him and for him, for never dealing with his pain and dying with no resolution.

I saw life for what it was

I watched a man who’d struggled with his own demons for at least a decade just wither away. Getting sick had not brought him closure. He had never had a moment in which he’d come to terms with it. Until the end he’d been in denial.

And then he died without a resolution.

Nothing was fixed. He never lived his dreams. He never learned to live in the present. We never resolved the problems with our relationship.

The closest he got to any of it was buying a piano and writing a blog. A blog which he’d never share with his family.

It’s not fair, I thought

but I knew that fair is human

and in all the idiocy of human belief

fair

takes first place

Optimism, closely connected, comes second

Pessimism is third and

Realism dutifully takes fourth

I thought I died too

We weren’t close, but I was more similar to him than either of my brothers were. I saw in his habits my own low self-esteem. In his gambling addiction, I saw my own search for an easy way out. In his naive love of writing, my own naive dreams.

He struggled with belief in his own competence, and passed that to me. He struggled to understand his place in this world, and passed that to me.

And so, when he died, I saw my future. An unresolved person, living in denial to the very end, before expiring without so much as a famous last word.

I internalised it. I even dreamed that I was dying with him. And I dreamed of him coming back to life, only to continue dying without a resolution and without even trying.

I denied pain

Perhaps more than anything, I was angry and scared that such pain was possible. The pain he had gone through for no good reason. A few days before he died, I wrote this in a message to a friend:

I hate this and I hate God for it which is my way of trying to make the pain external. I’d rather that nothing had been created than for even one person to go through his pain. I don’t sleep properly anymore and I can’t hear the phone ring without feeling either anxiety or anger. I’m angry a lot and I’m crying a lot. And I’ve been talking about it a lot. I’ve felt very much lately on the side of euthanasia. Anyone staunchly against it can never have experienced the pain of this kind of suffering.

In many ways I wish he would die sooner rather than later, to alleviate his own suffering and make concrete that of our family. I wish he would be well enough once more that he could speak with us, without immense confusion, but that’s unlikely to happen. We’ve lost him already, and we’re left with a suffering shell which is awful to see and extremely painful to love and impossible not to.

Fuck life. The world’s not worth it; even if some people can find happiness, there’s too many that find only suffering. I love life and I won’t let go of it but I can’t see its worth.

I now know that this view of pain is synonymous with depression. The idea that pain can only be bad, and that too much pain invalidates life, is indicative of a depressive worldview. The idea that anything can invalidate life is a depressed worldview.

The main reason mindfulness works in treating depression is that it requires you to view pain in the moment, without judgment. Once you take that judgment out of the equation, all it is is pain.

As they say: pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.

Grief need not lead to depression…

…but it’s hard for us to avoid. For someone who struggles with depression, it’s hard not to choose suffering at such a tumultuous point. We battle to manage our emotions effectively, and when we don’t, they become that awful numbness. That numbness which is, paradoxically, the worst type of pain.

Grief does not have to lead to depression. In an ideal world, it would not. We would feel the sadness keenly, along with all our other heightened emotions, and would rejoice in uncensored life.

I could have learned a lot from my dad’s death.

  • Resolve your familial relationships while you can. Advice I’ve been unable to take and possibly never will.
  • Deal with your shit before it hits the fan. After two more major depressive episodes, I finally learned to do this.
  • Life has no resolutions. The important corollary (if that’s what this is) is that it does not need to have a resolution. Life is fine as it is, and we can be happy just being alive.
  • Pain is inevitable. And by avoiding it, you’re just making the inevitable into a monster that is impossible to overcome.

But ultimately, we cannot foresee how we will react to the ultimate big bad, and the luxury of learning usually presents itself to us only in hindsight.

Can Identity Politics Save Men’s Lives?

In February I went to see a trans-activist and spoken word poet perform. Alok Vaid-Menon, presenting and identifying as neither female or male, said stuff that made me feel a lot of things.

Anger. Confusion. Shame.

The contempt they showed for cisgender feminists seemed over the top and gratuitous. It was hard to stick to their grammatically troubling gender pronouns – them and their. And, of course, the anger against white, cisgender males – like yours truly – made me very uncomfortable.

Obviously, this was their goal. To leave their audience slightly less sure of themselves than when they arrived. Which is not generally the goal of identity politics. In many circles, you need to be certain of your pronouns and adjectives in order to feel comfortable.

Alok subverted that trope.

They succinctly exposed the damage we can do to each other by placing expectations on who they are supposed to be. And there was one group in particular, against whom a subtle violence is perpetrated every single day, simply by reinforcing gender binaries:

Men.

Masculinity does not only endanger women

Their point was that, while women and sensitive men are typically considered the victims of what becomes toxic masculinity, we forget about what it does to the masculine man.

Many of us envy the man who fits into the masculine ideal. He does not have to question who he is. He faces no discrimination due to his gender. And, in much of the world, he has access to far more opportunities than the rest of us.

But masculinity is also a prison. And we see that no more clearly than when it comes to mental illness.

Mental illness is man’s biggest threat

Almost twice as many women are diagnosed with depression as men. In South Africa, psychiatric clinics have a ratio of about 4 women for every 1 man in depression and bipolar wards.

However, men are twice as likely to commit suicide. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK.

Why don’t the numbers match up?

There are a few reasons for this, including the fact that men are likelier to use deadlier weapons than women and therefore have a higher success rate. But the main reason should be pretty clear:

While more women are diagnosed with depression, as many men suffer in silence.

There is much less of a stigma for a woman to seek out help for depression and they therefore get treated for it.

However, the problem starts at an earlier stage.

Femininity encourages speaking about emotions. Masculinity all but demands the opposite. Because men don’t acknowledge their emotions, they become toxic and turn into depression.

We need to break down gender norms

Alok was spot on about what masculinity does to the masculine man. But, while they advocate for the abolition of gender entirely, I’m not going to go that far. It’s not that I don’t agree with them, necessarily (I might! but it’s a topic for another day). I just don’t think we need to go that far in order to confront this problem.

Maybe we can keep separating boys and girls into sports teams and have gender-specific bathrooms. But the binaries have to be weakened. Boys need to know that emotions are not weakness. They need to feel comfortable talking about them, and share the burden when life gets too difficult to handle alone.

In that way, they can manage their emotions before they become toxic. They can get help when they suffer from depression.

Weaker gender norms will lead to less men feeling they have no other option than to take their lives.

Masculinity is, in some ways, a violence perpetrated against men. It is time we stop perpetuating its artifice.

Cliffy Is Dead

Darryl hooted and I rushed out the house and got into his car. I was wearing smart black pants and a dull red-striped button shirt. I don’t remember what he was wearing. I don’t remember how his face looked or what he said to me or what I said to him. I was only pretending to be there. Pretending to care that Cliffy was dead.

I do remember the dullness and denseness of the colours around me. The trees that lined the streets on the way to the cemetery. The dullness of the cemetery itself. I remember nothing of the eulogy or whether people cried aloud or how long the funeral took. I do remember his squad from the police force doing a tribute, and I remember that one of them looked anemic, almost like Cliffy would have looked without the muscles.

I had felt nothing when my mom had told me Cliffy’d committed suicide. I was too deep in my own depression. The fact that a person who was once my  best friend had gone through the same and had not made it was too dull to break through the wall of terrible numbness.

I had loved Cliffy once. We had all loved each other back then and had vocalised it regularly. But after school, we took very different paths and I hardly ever saw him again. I’d always thought we would reconnect one day, but that did not matter to me on the day of his funeral. All that mattered was that I was stuck at a fucking funeral and just wanted to get home so I could lie in a fetal position on my bed.

The episode had started about a week earlier.

I was at my old alma mater for shabbat. Yeshiva Gedola, where I had spent many of my happiest days. It could not lift me. Instead, it left me feeling trapped, unable to leave until nightfall on Saturday.

On Friday morning I had written a poem:

Give in to me
I’ll have you mine
I’ll have your breasts
I’ll have your fine
stomach, long hair,
sweet lips, pussy
In which to stick
fingers fussy

You have no self
and nor do I
You are my tart
and I your pie
of timeless time
eternal? No!
You are my soul
ejac’lated.

I’d named it Procrasturbation. I had not known what what was yet to come. But I had felt intensely negative and I had known I was not doing well. Hence, that awful poem.

The problem was that I’d thought the pit was the right place for me. It had seemed to absolve me of responsibility for knowing what to do with my life. It had seemed like a good thing until it absolutely broke me.

On that Friday night, trapped in the confines of a religious institution, I cracked. Major depression took me for only the second time in my life. I did not know how to manage each second. I tried playing around on my phone, even though it was the sabbath. I tried calling a friend, even though he was probably observing the sabbath. I hid the phone in my pocket when around some of the others, but I knew they probably saw it. I couldn’t care less.

I couldn’t care about anything.

When I look back on it, Cliffy’s funeral epitomises that particular episode. I had once loved him, and to this day, I feel immense fondness for him. And I feel guilty for not being there for him. And guilty for not being able to care when he died or properly say goodbye.

I never mourned for him, and maybe that’s why I still think of calling him sometimes. I’ve never fully come to terms with what happened to him. I will always feel that guilt.

It’s the most visceral example I can come up with when trying to describe what depression can do, aside from suicide.

It can make you dead, inside what looks like a living human body. It can make the best times seem like the worst times. It can make lying in a fetal position seem as moving as your best friend’s funeral.

Along with death, it is the great equaliser. Because it’s its own type of death. To paraphrase my awful poem, it is the detritus of le petit mort of the soul.

Will The Mental Illness Stigma Ever Go Away?

No.

The mental illness stigma will never go away.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

I live in a diverse world, with friends of varying sexual preferences, gender identities, races, and religions. Nearly every one of them has been stigmatised by one or another sector of society. We’ve all thankfully come to a place in our lives where we live openly and honestly. With pride.

Personally, I’ve faced the stigma of being a gay Jewish atheist in an interracial relationship. And I am able to speak about my identity with anyone, no matter their own personal beliefs.

Well, with one exception: I suffer from depression.

Now, unlike homosexuality, most cultures and belief systems do not reject the depressed. There is no verse in Leviticus saying that I should be put to death. So why is it still so hard to be open about the fact that I suffer from mental illness?

And why am I convinced the stigma will never completely go away?

It’s part of the illness

Because I’ve been out the closet for years now, I can say with pride that I am gay. There are a few reasons. I can logically understand that being gay is perfectly normal, and that embracing that identity has made my life better. I am also constantly around others who embrace that identity.

Most importantly, the dissenting voices came from the outside. I was told being gay is bad and shameful and immoral and so on.

Depression is, unfortunately, very different.

You can live in a society that is open about mental health and you can know others who suffer from mental illness, but still feel ashamed because of it. The reason is that the stigma is not coming (only) from the outside.

Underscoring just about all mental illness is the internalised belief that “I am not good enough”, “I am weak”, “The world is better off without me”. Those types of thoughts and the feelings associated with them are symptoms of the depression. They become so ingrained in us that we don’t even think to question them.

Which is part of the reason that, to this day, I am still ashamed that I suffer from depression. At this moment, my mind is still telling me that if I wasn’t so weak, I would never have reached the really low points punctuating my life.

BUT…

…even the societal stigmatisation of depression will never completely go away. And there’s a good reason for this too.

It is an illness

The ultimate acceptance of homosexuality is to view it as normal and not give it thought. To not have to pity the person or wish, for their sake, that they get “better”.

Mental illness is, by its very definition, completely different.

If I tell you I suffer from depression and you say, “that’s a perfectly normal and healthy lifestyle”, I’m going to look at you strangely. Mental illness should elicit sympathy from others. They want you to get better and to be free of the burden.

Yet, when you tell someone with a mental illness that you feel for them and hope they get better soon, they will take it as pity for their weakness. As I said above, that’s just part of the illness.

But it goes beyond that.

We stigmatise illness for practical reasons that, unfortunately, are compelling.

For example, would you start dating someone who you knew had cancer? Someone who you know you’d have to accompany to chemotherapy. Someone whose health needs would consume your life. Someone who might die on you way too early.

Some people will answer yes, but for most, the answer is no ways. You’re not judging the person for being ill, and if they were already in your life you would stick with them without a second thought.

But to take on that burden is to be a martyr.

Dating someone who suffers from a mental illness can be similar. Their depression or mania might well set the tone for the relationship. They might be in and out of hospital. And ultimately, they could kill themselves, leaving you to feel both terrible grief and unbearable guilt for not having saved them.

I’m not saying that there should be a stigma. Rather, it makes sense that others would want to know that the person was managing their illness well before getting involved.

There’s a difference between stigma and concern

The problem is that as humans, we tend to categorise things as good or bad and making all-too-easy associations. Since mental illness seems like a bad thing, people associated with it get a label too.

And that does not have to be the case.

There are things we can do to limit the stigma, and keep the focus on the illness rather than the individual.

Separate the illness from our/their identity

This applies to those who suffer from mental illness as well as those who do not. Part of recovering from depression (or anxiety, or bipolar, etc.) is to depersonalise it. Instead of saying “I’m depressed”, we have to learn to say “I feel depressed” or “I suffer from depression”.

We have to realise that mental illness is not an identity. Only then can we start to heal from it. Because we’re not trying to fix something broken in ourselves, but rather treating a disease.

People who do not suffer from mental illness need to recognise this as well. When someone they know is suffering from bipolar, they too can say “X suffers from bipolar” instead of “X is bipolar”.

ALSO…

…never call us crazy!

Ultimately, we can hope to lessen the stigma, but not only will it take time, it will also be an essential part of the healing process.

This Is Why Depressed People Hate Their Psychiatrists

“When can I see you?” I texted in desperation.

“I have an opening at 3PM,” Dr Lymeberger wrote back. “Come visit me at the clinic.”

I was in the midst of a major chemical depression, one that had been brought on in a misguided attempt to change my antidepressants. I had not needed to change my antidepressants. I was not feeling any worse than I had over the preceding year. But I was depressed nonetheless, and hoped that a chemical change might be just what I needed.

Unfortunately, switching antidepressants can have unexpectedly disastrous effects, as happened when I switched from Cymgen to Cipralex. Both of them are SSRIs, working in almost exactly the same way. But, for some reason, I was plunged into a deep horror-show, which I would have given anything – literally anything – not to have gone through.

I wrote that text to Dr L at 11AM. 3PM seemed like an eternity away, but at least I had something to look towards. Some semblance of hope.

In the meantime, I decided to go for a run. It would release endorphins which might make me feel just a little bit better. It was a horrible idea, although curling up on my bed would have been just as bad an idea. As would anything else. I ran for what felt like hours of torment, but when I got back home only 10 minutes had past.

3 hours and 50 minutes left before my impromptu appointment with Dr L.

Throughout this week-long depression, Dr L had been readily available. He’d given me his personal cell number, which I phoned and texted over and over again. My mom even phoned him a few times. He had given me sleeping pills as well as anxiety pills to help me get through the chemical hell while my body adapted to the new drugs.

But up till then, the sleeping and anxiety pills had been his only solution. I’d been taking them during the day, making myself unconscious for a few hours. Only to wake up to the same suffering. Only to take more sleeping pills that would eventually just make me groggy instead of helping me sleep, leaving me both depressed and disoriented.

3PM finally came around and my mom drove me to my appointment with Dr L.

“I think we’d better stop the Cipralex,” he told me. “From tomorrow, take the Cymgen instead.”

That was all he had to offer. I was in infinite suffering, and all he had to offer was to tell me to abort his initial suggestion. Something I would do only the next morning. That my body would take time to get used to.

I needed something right then and there, but he had no good ideas. The long-awaited appointment lasted about as long as my earlier run. I hated him. I had to hate him.

Dr L is innocent

Doing their job

Psychiatrists are just doing their jobs

I’ll go back to that story at a later date. It was one of three major depressive episodes I’ve been through, each one progressively worse than the one before.

For now, I want to focus on my hatred of Dr L.

Technically, Dr L had done nothing wrong. When I first saw him, my chemical depression was under control. My life, however, was not going the way I wanted it to, and I did not know how to change that. So I asked him to try use medication to fix it.

Psychiatry is often hit and miss. Certain drugs will work for one person and not another. Some will do the opposite of what they were supposed to, like Cipralex seemed to do to me. Nonetheless, I have huge respect for the profession, and I have personal experience with the lifesaving potential of antidepressants when they work.

And yet, to this day, 5 years later, I still hate Dr L.

Why psychiatric patients hate our psychiatrists

Help me, doc

Blaming someone gives you a little bit of control

Mental illness is a unique kind of hell. It is unique in that there is not always an evident cause, which is why it can be impossible to treat. Sometimes it’s chemicals. Other times it’s unresolved feelings or traumas that you thought were behind you.

Whatever the case is, there seems to be nothing you can do in the moment to fix it (at least for those who have not learned techniques to manage their mental health). You have no control and it is terrifying.

Still, from within that deep chasm you look for anything to clutch onto. Anything that might give you some semblance of control in getting out of there. Since you cannot do anything yourself, the most instinctive option is to look to someone else.

And when that does not work, you have to blame them. Because as long as it’s their fault, there must be someone else who can fix the problem.

If only I had gone to another doctor, you say. Alternatively, you reject psychiatry as a whole. If only I hadn’t trusted these quacks and their unnatural chemicals, you say.

It gives you something to believe in. The tiniest hope that maybe you can get out of this darkness that you’d otherwise have to admit is your life itself.

Why we continue to hate

StockSnap_LXCKQ8LU32.jpg

We are terrified of getting lost again

Now, when we get out of that chasm – through some miracle of science or willpower or simple luck – we need assurance that we’re never going back.

Shortly after a major episode, it seems almost impossible to live knowing there’s a chance it might happen again. The memory of what has just happened is so bad that our minds force us to forget it so that we can get on with our lives in some sort of ignorance of what happened.

But how do we ensure that it doesn’t happen again? We need to either blame it on something, or find something else to save us. Or both.

So we blame our psychiatrists, we blame the meds, or we blame our own lifestyles. If we trick ourselves into thinking we can get rid of the problem, we can go on living.

This is why most blogs about how to beat depression are not milquetoast about anything. They are not only CERTAIN that they are RIGHT, but they have to convince everyone else, too. Because the possibility that they might be wrong and that someone else might have a better solution is just too much, man.

So, to Dr L, I’m sorry. I know my hate is unjustified, and that you were just trying to help me. But my mind is never going to forgive you entirely. Don’t expect to see me again anytime soon. And if anyone asks me for a referral, unfortunately they’re not coming your way.