Featured on Tonic. Author: Aisha Mirza
Content Warning: This piece contains discussion about suicide and depression.
It’s June 2018, the week that two famous Americans have killed themselves, and although I don’t really know who either of them are, it still feels like a blow. It's always a blow when older people kill themselves, because it feels like proof that in fact it does not get better. It feels like a blow when famous people kill themselves because I will still be suicidal when everyone stops talking about it. It’s June 2018, and the sun feels like a spotlight on misery. I am sinking into a deep depression that can’t seem to shift like it normally does, and I’m thinking about ending my life much more often than usual. I can feel the people I love distorting and then disappearing above the surface of it all, like angels or refracted light.
I make a post on my finsta, which doubles as a rowdy fan base and a support group depending on how depressed I am, explaining that I am scared and might need some help. My friend Cat is among the first to respond. I met Cat at a sunny BBQ in 2013 where we bonded hard and fast over our shared bipolar diagnosis, love of condiments, and quietly seething rage.
Following my post we arrange a Skype call, and after a few minutes I realize she is not at work. She explains that she is at a respite in London for suicidal people. My shock settles quickly into a smile—it makes sense that Cat would offer to support my suicidality while she is actively grappling with her own; that hers would feel like the most comfortable company I could keep right now. It’s like that, I Want a Dyke for President poem but it’s like, yeah, and I only want people who have thought about killing themselves to ever talk to me about suicide.
During our conversation, I find fragments of answers to questions about survival and love and madness and pain and life that so often become accidentally hypothetical. Better yet though, I feel more at peace with all the relentless not knowing. I am not alone in this mess. Cat and I are sharing parts of our initial conversation here as an invitation to listen in on a quiet moment between two friends who want to die, and want to help each other live.
Aisha: How’s it going in the respite?
Cat: It’s day two, and it’s a bit terrifying because I’m really shit at talking about how I feel. It’s not something I grew up doing, so in a way, it’s good, but in another way, it’s like, what do I say? I feel hopeless. There’s no image of myself in the future feeling well. Even though I know I’ve felt kind of like this before, I’m like: Well this time, what if I don’t get better?
What about you?
A: I’ve just been completely engulfed by depression, again. And it’s just the worst, again. It is taking a tremendous amount of energy to get the most simple things done, and my whole body is just rattled with this unspeakable sadness and feeling of catastrophe. I’m finding it really hard to understand why I would stay here. I didn’t think I’d revisit this place. I feel devastated. It’s the fucking weirdest thing, to drag together some kind of semblance of a routine or a rhythm; to feel like you know who you are and where you’re going, and then to have it snatched away without reason or with too many fucking reasons. And to have to completely restructure your life around it—to move into a new pace, a new way of communicating with people, a new relationship to your body, to food, to sleep, to sex, to asking for help.
I have to re-learn it each time, learn to survive over and over again, and I just wish I didn’t have to. I’m finding the whole “acceptance” part really hard. I’m very much like “fuck this shit” right now. But I’ve been thinking about the idea that there’s relief to be found in falling apart; that maybe I needed to come to terms with what was happening because I’ve been putting a brave-ish face on it for a long time.
C: It becomes automatic, the brave face. It becomes your default position. For me, it’s because I don’t think I’m worth that care. And then there’s managing everyone else’s emotions—what if they see you when you’re sad? I think you’re right, I need to feel this stuff that I’ve been trying not to feel and accept it.
A: It’s so hard to be okay with it though, isn’t it? Like, I really do feel like my life gets stripped of joy. I don’t see the point in fighting to live if this is what it feels like.
C: Yeah, I enjoy nothing. Nothing. There is nothing that I used to like that I still enjoy.
A: Ha. Yeah. How do you accept a state like that?
C: I don’t know. Maybe what you’re doing right now—it doesn’t feel like enough, right? But maybe it’s enough for now. I feel like for the past few weeks I’ve been just turning up to events, and then I’ve been there, and I’ve been doing a thing, and I’m just like [whispers] “I feel nothing.” But obviously outwardly I’m like, “Yeah, this is great! In fact this is the best!” And that’s exhausting too.
A: That, for me, is one of the worst feelings, I think. It’s just like, Does the person in front of me know how much pain I’m in? And the person in front of me is like, a cashier at the supermarket, or my best friend showing me photos of a dog they want or something. Like, I don’t feel in any way okay, but I’m doing all the things that will indicate to everyone else that I am, which at times feels like a deep betrayal to myself, but what else do you do? It’s trippy, man. It’s like watching bad TV. You’re not invested—like, you’re not sure why this show has been commissioned. You’re like, just cancel the show. It’s okay.
C: It’s also trippy how easy it is to fool people. It’s made it quite difficult for me to trust people. Not that I want anyone to notice, but also I feel like I might.
A: You do. I do. I want people to notice. Cause I need help. It’s one of the most maddening aspects of depression to me, needing help so badly to survive, and wanting no one to look at you at the same time. It’s confusing for everyone. But there’s also the logistical aspect of it, where everyone I know is just really busy. Everyone I know is doing two or more jobs and an internship; everyone I know is Black and brown and trans and struggling, and in many ways I am more privileged than a lot of the people I know, so I reprimand myself for wanting support from them.
C: But you deserve that support, and you might be more privileged than some of your friends in some ways, but I’m sure there are ways that you are less privileged, like your mental health for starters. I just think people don’t know how to believe it. They don’t know how to show up. There are ways to show up.
A: What’s a good way to show up for you?
C: Checking in, I guess. I don’t really know. I’ve got some quite supportive friends. I’m lucky. We sit, and while I deflect, we’ll talk about them, ‘cause I’m very good at that. And then at some point they’ll ask me a bit of an awkward question that I can’t wriggle my way out of, and we’ll talk a bit about my stuff. They’ll listen and give advice if I want it, and if I don’t, they’ll just chat.
When I see those resources about ‘How To Support Your Partner or Friend Who Is Depressed’ I always think there’s that imaginary “well person” it’s written for, but who doesn’t exist. There’s got to be some way to have this mutually supportive system, right?
A: It helps me to have my depression acknowledged by others when it’s happening. I think that can be hard for people though. It can be overridden by an impulse to distract me from the pain instead, or run away out of fear of not being able to fix me, or kind of go inwards and talk about themselves, or do anything except sit with me on my terms. But a simple acknowledgement can be really powerful as an intervention all by itself. And it can even be extended to an honest conversation about capacity, you know? “I see you, I see what you’re going through. Here’s where I’m at right now, and this is what I feel like I can offer you.”
C: Yeah, as long as it’s not an economics equation and it’s about where people are at, it can be so helpful.
A: But I think there can be so much fear and guilt implicit in these conversations about putting limits on care that a lot gets unsaid, and that can be even more treacherous in my experience.
C: Yeah. People in caring positions need to be frank. They need to be firm. And that doesn’t mean they’re not also being caring. They’re caring for themselves too. But it’s just another thing, isn’t it—having to teach people how to be there for you. It’s just another way to be exhausted. You can’t leave room for interpretation when someone is feeling that bad about themselves. All of the blanks that I will fill in are basically: I am a piece of shit.
A: Totally. One of my downfalls is that when depression arrives, I have a very clear idea of who I think should be present for it—often friends who enjoy my company when I’m not depressed—but it’s just not always possible. It hurts, but there’s usually someone else willing to care for me. They might be someone I haven’t spoken to for a while or don’t even know that well, but it doesn’t matter, it’s good to stay as open as possible.
C: Right, and for others to not act like it’s too much. I think one of the fears of being mentally ill is being too much, right? Being a burden. That whole narrative that you tell yourself over and over again about, you know, basically being a pain in the ass, being needy, needing something that other people don’t need. It’s basically a constant adjustment. People have to adjust, because that’s your life, and that’s how it’s going to be, maybe, over the next few decades.
A: No thank you.
C: I mean, that might not be the case, but I feel like that might be the case for me. I’m getting to a point in my life where if people can’t deal with it, I’ve had a few conversations where I’ve had to say, “I’m still really unwell, but what you said or did—or your lack of acknowledgement—was inappropriate. I need you to go away and really give this some thought now that I’ve told you how it makes me feel. God forbid, if I feel like this again and you respond that way, I’m not gonna do this anymore.” It’s all very well to enjoy my company when I’m well, but historically there have been quite long periods when I’m unwell, and I don’t want that abandonment.
A: That’s really validating to hear. I’ve definitely had that conversation in my head many times. I’m impressed to hear that you do that, because it’s so hard to balance advocating for yourself with hating yourself for bringing this stuff into a space with other people.
C: It’s coming with you, but you’re not bringing it. It’s not a choice you’re making, it’s just there, right?
A: I find that part so hard though. Like, regardless of the mechanics of how it got there, it has found a host in my body, and my body is the body my friends and family have come to love—and lovers...Don’t get me started on romantic intimacy. It’s just depressing. In the colloquial sense, it’s depressing to try to be intentional about who you love; to try so hard to reserve your care and excellence for the people you want to build a future with, for other queer and trans people of color, for people who share your struggles and experiences and languages of celebrations, and for that to all be horrible in the end too.
And so much of it comes down to trauma, right? The inevitable fact that when queer people of color try to love each other, the trauma can just really rub up. What do we do about that? It’s scary.
C: Yeah. I think networks of care/not relying solely on that person is really important. Sometimes there's not much choice in the matter, but it's better if there are multiple people available, and that those people know that you have other people you can turn to if they can't help, talk, or be there in that moment. Separate therapy is really important too. And communication, and a commitment to giving space (from each other, and also to emote) without judgement. You have to work on your own shit and bring some of your learning into the relationship.
So much in romantic relationships is assumed (e.g., monogamy, what care and love look like) when actually loads of us want different things, find different things acceptable, and have experienced trauma throughout our lives in totally different ways.
A: It can feel impossible. What do we do with the people who are less easy to care for, who might slip into abusive patterns? What do we do when that person is us?
C: It's so, so hard when you have to experience the trauma of abuse whether it’s from another depressed person or not. Part of me has felt like I totally deserve it in the past, or it's maybe been a form of self-harm, tolerating behavior I wouldn't put up with when I'm well.
There are ways to be ethically depressed, right? If someone isn't showing through their actions that they're consistently trying to unpack how they are hurting others, or if they refuse to do so, my wish is for whoever is around that person to have the self-love to cut them loose. I think we know instinctively when someone has pushed it too far.
A: Yeah, I’ve also realized though that I have a fear that I’ll use up people’s kindness; that they’ll tire of me needing support from them. I often think: They could just find friends who don't need this kind of support. I feel so guilty that this person, through no fault of their own, has decided to love me, and then I pay them back by barely clinging on; by suffering in a way that makes them suffer, too.
C: I'm terrified of this! It's totally my stuff, though—no friend has run out of being there for me. Part of this, maybe, is trusting people to not give more than they feel able to without really stretching themselves, and having that conversation about boundaries. You don't have to pay anyone back for loving you, Aisha. That's the reward in itself: They get to love you. You're not something to be dealt with or managed—you're a kind, complex human being. And you'll be there for them when they struggle too. I don't think that support has to be a finite resource, but it is something I'm scared of too. Like the emotional equivalent of sustainable farming, you know?
A: I've been thinking about what, in these moments, keeps me wanting to stay here. I find it soothing to think about. If I really think about it, that thing that I want to stay here for might grow stronger. For me, it is mostly my mum and some early memories of immigrant family life: the smells and the fierce kind of love. There's usually some general hope—some distant memory of music and laughter and good sex and wonder—and I hold on in faith that I'll feel it again, even though in moments, living through this pain to get there, knowing that I might have to do this again and again, it doesn’t seem wise.
What keeps you alive, Cat?
C: Not wanting to distress anyone, partially. Fear of trying to die not working and ending up in the hospital. The hope that I'll feel better soon (I have before, after I've felt really bad), the hope that I'll learn to like myself a little more. Friends, and the idea of supporting my friends through whatever is coming next. The faint thought that being this sad is only a few steps away from being crazy happy, in a way.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
If you or a loved one are in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In Canada, visit suicideprevention.ca for more information on how to get help.