On Anxiety and Depression

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that you are not alone. If you are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

Yesterday was a rare beautiful summer day in the NYC area, just sunny and warm with very little humidity.  I was out walking my dog near my building when I came across a table set up by a security vendor my condo management company had hired.  I heard the sounds of “Funeral Pyre” from Phantogram’s 2016 album Three coming from the table and stopped to inquire who had chosen to put it on, since I thought it was a bit of an odd choice.

While Lady Bird alternated between trying to eat the Dunkin Donuts spread on offer and basking in sunbeams, I had a very in-depth conversation with a tall, burly man about Phantogram’s journey from small upstate NY act to working with Big Boi as Big Grams and their most recent singles to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

It was while we were discussing our respective favorite tracks on Three that the oddest thing happened.  A little background on Three: while the band was recording it, Sarah Barthel’s sister, Becky, who was also a close friend of her musical partner, Josh Carter, committed suicide.  The album is, let us say, not the most uplifting at times [again: the first track is called “Funeral Pyre”].   One of my favorites on the album is “Destroyer,” an almost Heart-sounding track, and I mean that in the best possible way.  It ends with the lyrics:

My time has come
My head is falling off
I can kill you all
And finally be alone
I am alone, I am alone

So we’re talking about this album and about this song and about this past week with the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, the latter of which had happened just the previous day, and I almost started crying talking to this complete stranger.   As if that wasn’t enough, I was at the gym later and my workout playlist shuffled out “Celebrating Nothing” from Phantogram’s Voices album, whose chorus is:

Give me a reason to stay alive
I’ve got the feeling we’re gonna die

And I started crying on the freaking elliptical.  I think it’s safe to say that this week has hit me harder than I thought it had.

Thus far this has been a soaring paean to an electro-pop/rock duo I randomly discovered from a free Barsuk Records sampler 5 years ago who write a lot of very sad songs.

I know enough now to realize that I had a bout of depression my sophomore year of high school and that a relative likely did when she was in her late 20s/early 30s.  I was aware enough to recognize that I was mildly depressed in the fall of 2008 and to express that to my boyfriend at the time to prevent it from adversely affecting our relationship.  A few years ago, I became friends with someone who suffers from anxiety and I could not wrap my head around it at first.  Everyone gets stressed, right?  Just manage your stress better.  Being on the subway during rush hour is horrendous, but anxiety-producing?  Surely that’s an overreaction.  I can now recognize when I have panic attacks and even what causes them.  But I still cannot imagine experiencing depression and/or anxiety with any sort of regularity.  My friend has told me about her fatigue and sleep issues, her getting too stuck in her own head when she’s alone, what she describes as an anxiety spiral that she can’t escape.  Ken White, a partner at a law firm in LA, blogger at popehat.com, and podcaster about the 1st Amendment at Make No Law,  describes it like this in a  post he wrote in 2015 on the anniversary of a hospitalization:

Think of the most stressed and worried you have ever been in your life, and then imagine that your stomach feels like that all the time.

Imagine that you are constantly gripped with overwhelming feelings of dread and crushing hopelessness — irrational, not governed by real risks or challenges, but still inexorable.

Imagine that you are often fatigued to the point of weakness and irritability because you can’t get to sleep until late at night, or because your mind consistently shakes you awake at four in the morning, racing with worry about the day’s activities as your stomach roils and knots.

Imagine that most social interactions become painful, the cause of nameless dread. Imagine that when the phone rings or your computer dings with a new email you get a short, hot, foul shot of adrenaline, sizzling in your fingertips and bitter in your mouth.

Imagine that, however much you understand the causes of these symptoms intellectually, no matter how well you know that you are fully capable of meeting the challenges you face and surviving them, no matter how well you grasp that these feelings are a symptom of a disease, you can’t stop feeling this way.

Imagine that you have moments — maybe even minutes — where you forget how you feel, but those moments are almost worse, because when they end and you remember the feelings rush back in like a dark tide that much more painfully.

That sounds like straight-up torture.   I know on a very simple level that my life doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. Nihilistic, but basically true.  I’m not changing the world for the better, arguably for the worse from an environmental perspective.  I just get up and go to work every day, consume finite resources and create waste while I’m at it, and lather, rinse, repeat.  But I have a couple truly innocent lives that depend on me as well as my family and friends whom I love and that, for me, is life and I rather enjoy it.   One could say that Spade’s and Bourdain’s lives were far better than mine, as they were successful in their careers, well-regarded, affluent, talented and doing what they loved and were passionate about [Bourdain in particular touched many people’s lives, some who had never even met him].  But that has nothing to do with anything when it comes to mental illness.  It makes me especially sad to see reactions from some people, particularly toward Spade as a mother, that their actions were selfish.  How could someone choose to abandon their families?  How could they do this, knowing how it would affect their loved ones?  I’m sure even some close family and friends of those who commit suicide will feel anger, in addition to grief, at that person for not hanging on a little longer, finding something to live for.  But that person could have been doing that all day every day and been exhausted by the struggle.  We still don’t fully understand these diseases, their causes and effective treatments. They could have been receiving affirmation, love and support and seeking help in the form of therapy and/or medication every day, but all of it still might not been enough to keep them here the next day. That’s just awful.

[And no, I thankfully have never experienced thoughts like these, so don’t @ me.  I’m good.]

[I repeat: this is not a cry for help.]

[If I had a superpower, it would be compartmentalizing.]

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