Three Things You May Not Get About the Aaron Swartz Case

There are three things people get wrong about the prosecution and heartbreaking suicide of Aaron Swartz.

Two of those things are about the criminal justice system. They're disturbing, but not difficult to talk about.

The third thing is about depression. It's very difficult to talk about.

But I'm going to talk about it anyway.

The First Thing: Most Of What You Hear About Federal Sentencing Is Wrong.

First, people are wrong about what sort of sentence Aaron Swartz faced. They get it wrong because the media usually does a terrible job reporting on federal sentencing.

If you read about the Swartz prosecution, you saw people decrying the fact that he was facing 35 years in prison. That's more than rapists and murders serve, they say. But they are talking about the maximum possible sentences, not any sentence he was remotely likely to get. Recently in the context of another case I explained how federal sentencing works, and how it's driven by an arcane set of rules producing a recommendation that federal judges often follow — rules that on most occasions produce a result well below the maximum possible sentence.

There are a few reasons you keep hearing about maximum sentences in the media. The first is that federal sentencing is very complicated. Journalists not trained in the federal sentencing guidelines have a difficult time applying them, and prosecutors and defense attorneys are generally reluctant to give estimates. The second reason is that the government promotes misunderstanding by citing the maximum punishment in press releases, despite knowing it has very little to do with actual sentences.

The government does that for deterrence. The government does it to sound impressive. But I think the government also cites those maximum sentences because doing so obscures the vast power and discretion that federal prosecutors actually wield in federal sentencing. The sentencing guidelines provide a rather modest reduction in sentence to defendants who plead guilty. But prosecutors, by deciding which theories to pursue, can threaten a far greater gulf between a sentence after trial and a sentence after a guilty plea.

Swartz' lawyers say the government offered to recommend six months in jail if he pleaded guilty, but threatened to seek seven years if he went to trial. If the sentence is driven by a set of rules, how could they credibly make such a threat? It's because Swartz' guidelines calculation would have been driven by concepts like "relevant conduct" (that is, what actions should be considered for purposes of sentencing, whether or not those actions were charged as crimes) and "actual or intended loss" (that is, the harm done, or intended to be done, or the value taken, or intended to be taken). These are malleable concepts; the government can apply them aggressively, threatening a far longer sentence, or gently, driving a far shorter one. For instance, in prosecuting Andrew Auernheimer under the same computer fraud statute they used against Swartz, the federal prosecutors argued that the "loss" in the case included AT&T's cost of mailing tens of thousands of notifications to iPad users, thus driving Auernheimer's sentence to 41 months. Orin Kerr — who is taking on the appeal pro bono — explains:

The largest part of Auernheimer’s sentence was due to an alleged $73,000 in loss suffered by AT&T. Under the provisions of the Sentencing Guidelines associated with 18 U.S.C. 1030, sentences are based primarily on the amount of loss caused by the crime. More dollar loss to the victim means more time in prison for the defendant. The dollar loss is calculated based on “[a]ny reasonable cost to any victim, including the cost of responding to an offense, conducting a damage assessment, and restoring the data, program, system, or information to its condition prior to the offense, and any revenue lost, cost incurred, or other damages incurred because of interruption of service.” In this case, however, AT&T did not claim any loss to its computers from the conduct. There was no interruption of service and no cost of restoring data or conducting a damage assessment. Instead, the sole assertion of loss was based how AT&T decided to notify its customers that their e-mail addresses had been obtained by Spitler and Auernheimer. First, AT&T notified its customers by e-mail. That was free, leading to a “cost” so far of zero. But then AT&T decided to follow-up the e-mail notification with paper letter notification, and the postage and paper costs amounted to about $73,000. Auernheimer’s 41-month sentence was based in substantial part on that $73,000 in loss, and he was also ordered to pay restitution in that amount.

The government can play hard or play easy. In most districts federal judges rely heavily on a Presentence Report prepared by the Probation Office that offers a proposed sentencing guideline calculation. The government decides what to send the Probation Office and what stance to take with them. In Auernheimer's case the government could easily have not bothered to send the Probation Office anything about the mailing cost, or could have said in their view the connection between the crime and the cost was too remote; it's very unlikely the Probation Office would have recommended the higher sentence, or the judge would have imposed it, if the government hadn't pushed for it. Similarly, in Swartz' case, the government could have asserted that Swartz' actions caused no loss — which was probably behind their six-month offer — or it could have taken an aggressive stance that the court should calculate loss based on the value of all of the JSTOR articles he downloaded, or the cost of MIT's investigation, or some other theory that would have resulted in a high dollar figure. Federal prosecutors don't always prevail when they take those tough stances. But they prevail often enough to make the threat entirely credible.

So: the injustice of Aaron Swartz' prosecution was not that he faced a theoretical maximum of 35 years, because that number has no particular connection to any likely sentence. The injustice was that the federal government had vast power to drive his sentence to coerce him into a plea — vast power that overwhelms the limits contemplated by the federal sentencing guidelines. What is worse, that vast power is only infrequently reported and only dimly understood.

The Second Thing: If You Think Aaron Swartz Was Singled Out For Unusual Treatment, You Aren't Paying Attention.

Second, people are wrong if they think Aaron Swartz was singled out for treatment that other more obscure people don't face every single day.

The reaction to Swartz' suicide was tribal. This was someone people knew, recognized, admired, followed, loved. People in communities that cared about Aaron Swartz were outraged by the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, by the seeming lack of proportion displayed in the charges against him, by the arbitrary nature of him being charged when so many others who "hack" are not, by the pressure to plead guilty that he faced.

It's good to be outraged by these things. It's not good to think they are unique, or only unusual. It's not good to care only when this happens to your tribe.

Scott Greenfield, blogger and defense attorney and truth-talker, put it as bluntly as it can and should be put in several posts:

But there remains a side of this tragedy that the geek community misses. Government overreaching, "bullying" as Lessig calls it, didn't start on the day Aaron Swartz was arrested. The eulogists, friends, watchers from the Hacktivist side seem to think this was an affliction that happened only to Swartz.

Hardly. Aaron Swartz was just today's victim of government overreaching and abusive prosecution, largely undistinguishable from the multitudes who came before him. But you don't know about them, as they weren't 14-year-old RSS code writers. So you didn't notice. You didn't care. They didn't exist to you, even as they faced 50 year sentences just like Swartz.

Greenspun continues:

"A daunting prospect for anyone. Apparently too daunting for a 26-year-old."

Absolutely daunting, as it is for the tens of thousands of others who were forced to endure the unwanted attention of the government.

So it wasn't on the radar of the computer geeks until one of their own was the target? They weren't aware of how daunting it was for all the others who came before Aaron Swartz, some younger than the 26-year-old, some with children whose lives would be ruined because of a parent's stupidity, some who, like Swartz, did wrong but certainly nothing wrong enough to justify the government laying waste to their lives? These cases, these lives, were the precursors to the harsh treatment of Aaron Swartz, and yet you didn't know or care that any of this was happening because it didn't touch someone you knew.

Now you know what we know. Will your anger and interest end when Aaron Swartz is buried, and you can go back to writing code and thinking cool ideas? If you want to honor his memory, perhaps you might want to put all those brilliant minds to use changing the system that drove Swartz to take his own life. It's still here, and it's still just as bad as it was in Swartz's case. And it will continue to be, even as you move back to your more pleasant pursuits.

People think the system failed or abused or singled out Aaron Swartz. This is the system, dammit, and if you think that Aaron Swartz faced what he did because he's a hacker and the government has it out for hackers, then I'm here to tell you that you're full of shit. Aaron Swartz had a great, well-funded defense team and a healthy support system. Most people don't. If you read this blog, you know the types of things the system does to people, including people with far less ability to fight back. The system sends sick people to their death in a system that can't care for them because they smoked weed. The system denies its prisoners medical care until they have to have their genitals amputated in a fruitless effort to delay an early death from cancer. The system sticks people into cells and very literally forgets them until they've spent a few days drinking their own urine. The system strives and strains to execute people based solely on the word of serial perjurers — serial perjurers whose record of perjury they have concealed from the defense. The system prizes junk science so long as that junk science supports its allegations. The system treats invocation of constitutional rights as evidence of guilt. The system reacts with petulant fury to being questioned. The system detects and punishes law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct so rarely that bad actors are hardly ever subjected to real consequences.

These things happen every day to people less photogenic, talented, and charismatic than Aaron Swartz. You care, or you don't. If you only care about Aaron's case, or the cases of people in the same tribe as Aaron, you're not a serious person.

The Third Thing: People Assume They Understand Depression. Most Don't.

The third thing people don't get is depression.

People think that the prosecution of Aaron Swartz must have been unusually oppressive and abusive, because only a rare abuse of power could have driven such a brilliant and promising young man to suicide. People saying that may have been depressed at some point in their life — but they haven't experienced the disorder major depression.

I have. I've fought it for fifteen years. People — people of good faith, sensitive people, thoughtful people, smart people — don't tend to fathom major depression if they haven't had it.

Depression is not like sadness. Everyone has been sad. Everyone has been depressed on one occasion or another. But clinical depression is something else entirely.

What is it like?

Forgive me, but I'd like for you to imagine the worst day of your life. Maybe someone you love was killed in an accident. Maybe a loved one got a terrifying diagnosis. Maybe you abruptly lost a job you need to support your family. Maybe you caught your husband or wife cheating on you. Maybe you found out your son or daughter is addicted to drugs. Maybe you experienced some dreadful public humiliation.

Remember how that felt, at the worst part of that day? Now imagine you feel that way most of the time, for months at a time.

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.

Imagine that you know you should talk to someone about how you feel — but you can't bring yourself to do so. Have you ever been so nauseated — from illness or from drinking — that you can't bear for someone to touch you or talk to you? Imagine feeling like that — that the human interactions that might ease the pain are too painful to endure, that every word on the subject is a blow.

After a while, this wears you down a bit.

I can't know what was in Aaron Swartz' mind. But I know this: if he suffered from major depression, it may not have been the prospect of federal prison that was intolerable. It might have been the prospect of thinking about the case, about talking about it, about the weight of people's concern for him, about the crawling discomfort of answering their questions, about the brutal fatigue of putting on a game face every day.

If Aaron Swartz had major depression, he might have felt overwhelmed by far less unusual or frightening stimuli. That doesn't exculpate the government. The government is responsible for an unjust prosecution. But the depression may have taken Aaron Swartz' life.

Depression doesn't look like you think it does.

Some people think that Aaron Swartz must have been driven to suicide by extraordinary treatment because he didn't act the way a depressed person at risk of suicide acts. They think, correctly, that Aaron Swartz was an extraordinary man: brilliant, very accomplished at a young age, with a gift for winning people over. That's not what a depressed person looks like, is it? Surely someone in enough pain to take their own life would be more overtly distressed, more visibly unable to cope. Surely someone who finds human interactions so difficult would not be so good at them.

In fact, people with major depression are capable of great things, including great leadership. Consider these:

Abraham Lincoln once wrote, "I am the most miserable man alive. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or get better." Winston Churchill echoed the same reaction when he told his doctor, "I don't like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second's action would end everything. Is much known about worry, Charles?"

This is good, in a way: it means that depression is not an impediment to achieving great things. But it also means this: you might not be able to tell if someone suffers from depression.

People with depression become very adept at maintaining good appearances. Consider what this brave reporter wrote during her paper's series on mental health:

I have been hospitalized twice for “suicidal ideation,” most recently for eight days in 2009 with a diagnosis of “major depressive order and anxiety disorder,” according to my records. I take four medications a day and have my counselor’s name and number in my emergency contacts on my cell phone.

This will be news to most of the people who know me, family members included. That’s because with lots of help from my husband, a lot of exercise (one of my therapies) and medication, I’m able to keep my depression and breakdowns private.

. . . .

Most people with a mental health disorder are able to manage their illness, many so well that our disorders are invisible outside our homes. With the help of counselors, medication, even hospitalizations, we work, raise families, volunteer in our communities, run companies, hold elected office and go to school with little indication of what’s at work inside us.

And even inside their homes . . . even to those closest to them — people with depression can put on a brave face. Aaron Swartz' girlfriend believes that his death was "not caused by depression," in part because he did not show the familiar signs of depression in his last days. I mean her no disrespect — she has my profound sympathy for her grief — but she might not know, even if she knows him better than anyone. She might not fully grasp how he felt. That's not a reflection on her, or on her relationship with Swartz. It's a reflection of depression. Many loved ones will learn to see the subtle signs. For instance, my wife interrogates me when I stop blogging for a while. But being close to someone with depression is not the same as having depression yourself, and doesn't mean you really understand it. My wife is the love of my life and my best friend and a talented and remarkably empathetic clinical psychologist. But she doesn't fully get it, and I pray she never will, because she hasn't experienced it. Not everybody shows overt mood swings. Not everybody retreats from the world. Some people soldier on, their outward face may not reflecting how they feel. Many people with depression don't want to burden loved ones with the depth of their feelings. Many don't want to discuss their feelings because that human interaction is so painful in the depths of depression. And many are ashamed.

Shame is powerful. A ridiculous percentage of the population takes psychotropic medications, but there are still strong social taboos against discussing mental illness, and certainly against admitting to suffering from it. That, too, inhibits people from talking about their feelings. People worry that if they admit to depression, it will be used against them. Indeed, I suspect that this post will be used against me, if not by a litigation opponent than by one of my various stalkers. (Come at me, bro!)

My point is this: it's a mistake to conclude you know about how Aaron Swartz felt because you observe how he acted and what he achieved. It's a mistake to use Aaron Swartz' tragic suicide to measure the nature of the government's prosecution with him. There are many things to condemn in that prosecution, and further inquiry may reveal serious misconduct. But if someone suffers from depression, you can't infer things from their reactions the way you can from someone who doesn't suffer. It's very difficult, if you haven't experienced it, to imagine what it feels like, and even more difficult to imagine how it distorts your reaction to stress. I don't mean to excuse prosecutors. I mean to point out that life is complicated. It's entirely possible that, simultaneously, the government wantonly overreached and that Aaron Swartz' death was driven primarily by a pain that would have tormented him even if he had never been charged.

If people reacted to Aaron Swartz' death by becoming concerned with how the criminal justice system treats everyone, and by being open to discussions of how depression changes people, that would be one more way he left the world better than he found it.

(By the way, I'm just fine. Thanks for asking.)

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Chris says

    Thank you for posting this, Ken. From some of your previous posts it seems like writing about the effects of depression was very difficult for you, but I, for one, appreciate it.

  2. John David Galt says

    I subscribe to the theory that most people who use marijuana are self-medicating for depression. I would expect it to work well.

  3. KC says

    Ken, thanks for those explanations. Thanks especially for talking about depression and how that alone was a damn heavy burden for Aaron Schwartz to carry. The legal stuff may have only made him feel more helpless, but major depression… been there, doing that. I know I didn't comprehend clinical depression until I realized I had it. Thanks for adding your voice towards understanding of it.

  4. says

    "People with depression become very adept at maintaining good appearances."

    Ahhh, yes. "Fronting," I know it well… the countless times I've been told that I'm "so articulate" and "smart," the times I have been rigorously questioned — even by providers of mental health services — as to whether I'm *really, truly* in crisis, because I seem to be "just fine."

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the topic — and while the overall subject here is primarily the Aaron Swartz case, I may point people to this article for your description of what depression feels like.

    They still won't get it, at least those who haven't experienced it… but it's a hell of a lot better than I've seen expressed much of anywhere else.

  5. says

    Thank you for this post. Insightful on many levels, particularly the last one. People don't seem to understand the overwhelming (and frustratingly stubbornly biological) background of depression.

  6. Raul says

    Very brave post. Coming from a family with a long, intermittent history of battling the demons of depression, I thank you for your honesty. Shedding light on the fog of prosecutorial discretion was also disturbingly enlightening. Wow!

  7. C. S. P. Schofield says

    My Lady has suffered from depression for decades, and has at one time or another been on most of the common medications. She, too, puts up a good front, good enough that I often have to ask point blank if she is having a bad day. She's doing OK now, and has had it under control, if hardly cured, for years. You and your Lady have my profound sympathies. Hang in there.

  8. says

    Thanks for this, Ken.

    Depression runs deep in my family. In the past five years, I have lost my father and a brother to suicide. They were the best at covering it up, too.

    One of the worst things about suffering from depression is the guilt. I'm a reasonably intelligent white male living in (presumably) one of the freest nations on the planet; what possible reason do I have to be depressed? I gets tiring having to remind myself that those things have nothing to do with the way I feel.

  9. NeppyMan says

    Thank you for this post. As someone who's struggled with depression myself, I can directly relate to what you're saying here – and will echo your sentiments as to just how nasty, insidious, and paralyzing it can be.

    People need to realize just how dangerous it can be – and they also need to recognize it as a disease, that isn't the fault of the one suffering from it, and one which can be treated.

    When that sort of thing runs head-long into abuses of legal power like this one… tragedies happen.

  10. mt45 says

    I think all of your criticisms of "the system" are really (important) criticisms of individuals who have committed crimes/misconduct within those systems. I think the personification of police/prosecutors/judges as this one thinking and breathing being who tries to destroy everyone isn't accurate or really helpful in identifying and punishing those who are actually committing crimes and misconduct within that system. I loved your post otherwise, but that part touched upon a pet peeve.

  11. Chris Berez says

    Ken, everything you wrote about Swartz's case and government overreach is true of course. I just wanted to address what you wrote about depression; because I think it's an important thing most people really don't understand (again, as you pointed out).

    I spent most of my life suffering from depression. It probably started some time in First Grade. Even in pre-school, I didn't have many friends and I got picked on a lot. But in elementary school that really took off. Throughout school I always had a small handful of friends. And don't get me wrong, those people meant the world to me. I had my family as well, but I never let them know the extent to what I was going through. I don't know how to explain why. It was just a matter of "Well, of course mommy and daddy are going to tell me it'll be alright." That type of thing. It seemed pointless to talk to them in depth. I mean, they knew I was being picked on a lot. But I didn't go to them to talk. I didn't want to. Even in elementary school, there were times I'd come home and lay on my bed and pray to God to kill me. Things only got worse and worse as I progressed through school. I literally had no self-esteem. I wanted desperately to kill myself. The only thing that prevented me from attempting suicide was knowing how deeply it would hurt my family and I couldn't bear to hurt the people that loved me like that. But the pain was so unbearable. I couldn't sleep except for a couple of hours a night at most. I was constantly exhausted. Every day at school, even though I had a few friends, was unbearable. Dreadful. At home I would be numb. At some points I would even feel like crying during anything as simple as Simpsons reruns (this was the 90s when the show was still good). At most points I couldn't even physically cry at all. I sometimes wondered if I’d lost the ability.

    My clearest memory from my high school graduation is sitting on stage amazed that I'd gotten this far without committing suicide. By the time I got to college, it was getting worse. Again, I made a few friends– very good friends. And I felt happy in their company. But the depression had become so crippling that at times, even surrounded by friends, I'd become numb and nearly comatose. I'd try to hide it but didn't have the energy. I remember once my friend Brad noticed and asked if I was okay and I told him I was just tired.

    Eventually I met a girl and fell madly in love with her. And eventually I convinced her to give me a chance. She suffered from a crippling anxiety disorder. She was still dealing with a lot, but she was talking to a therapist. And she was on medication for her disorder. With her support I realized it was okay to ask for help. It was okay to talk to a therapist. It was okay to ask for medication if it was necessary.
    I started seeing the campus therapist. I said that I thought I might need meds, terrified all the while that she might think I was in search of a cheap high or something (I didn't really understand how antidepressants worked at that time; a lot of people still don't apparently). The first several weeks with the therapist, I wouldn't go without my girlfriend. I clutched her hand the entire time. I was so scared. Eventually I was able to start going on my own.

    I should also mention at this point that another reason I never tried to ask for therapy/meds from my parents growing up was that my parents believed (and to a certain degree still believe) in homeopathy. I was scared to ask for help because I thought all I'd get was some bullshit placebo or they’d have me talking to someone that I knew wouldn’t be able to help.

    Eventually I reached a point where I didn't have a choice but to let my parents know I was on meds. For some reason (I don’t quite remember the details) I had trouble with my student medical insurance and I was standing in a parking lot of the pharmacy needing $150 for my medication. It was a terrifying point of my life. And I thought they would be angry. But they weren't. They were supportive. They were supportive as they've always been.

    I'm still on medication. I still feel like I need it. I don't want to distract this post away from the incredibly important point of government abuse and overreach. But I think that by speaking up about depression, Ken, you've brought up an incredibly important topic that most people don't understand because they've (thankfully) never experienced it.

    I don't endorse suicide obviously. I agree that it's a very selfish act and that it only causes pain to those around you. But I've tried to explain to countless people that you don't understand what it's like to be in that place unless you’ve truly been there. You don't understand how absolute and encompassing being in that darkness is like. It's literally feeling like there is no hope. It's literally feeling like you are completely alone.

    It's an important thing to know that you can ask for help. Depression that deep is real. It's not something you can just snap out of 10 minutes or even 24 hours later. It's not something that you need to be ashamed of. It doesn't make you weak. It really is something you need help for. And it's okay to ask for that help.

    And to echo Ken, I'm okay now too. So no one go calling the cops or anything. I'm not going anywhere, I promise. Just saying, as someone that's stood at the edge of the abyss and managed not to jump, you don't have to either either.

    Thank you, Ken, for sharing your experiences as well. I appreciate you putting yourself out there like this. I guess this was my attempt at a sort of "I’m Spartacus" moment.

    (also, just as a ps, even though that first girlfriend and I are not together anymore, she is still my best friend in the entire world).

  12. Narad says

    I subscribe to the theory that most people who use marijuana are self-medicating for depression. I would expect it to work well.

    One might suspect that you have experience with neither.

    And thanks to Ken for the post. The only thing I'd add on the depression front is that the search for successful treatment (running through atypicals, various SSRIs, etc.) can be extremely frustrating in and of itself, which can actually compound despair.

  13. David but not that David says

    Thank you for posting this. I have had depression all my life, first diagnosed at age 11.

    Depression is a filter that is interposed between you and the rest of the world, and everything you experience must come through that filter.

    I have times when the very thought of leaving the house fills me with disgust, first at the idea, and then at me. I've had days where the only word I can think of to describe it is grey.

    (I, too, am fine, by the way. Medication really does help to lift that filter.)

    I smiled and lied to everyone around me, including my family, saying I was doing fine while I flunked out of college in my first semester.

    For me, one reason that discussing mental illness in public is so difficult, is that I worry that people will either (a) think I'm making excuses for myself, or (b) that they have to treat me like grandmother's china.

  14. orvis barfley says

    great post with many great responses.  much appreciation to all who've shared personal experience.

    this is a special place here.

  15. VivaLasViejas says

    I so can relate to the person who "presents well" without any one ever knowing what's going on behind her/his eyes. While I suffer from bipolar disorder rather than major depression, the "down" side feels the same and has the same effects on one's ability to live and manage their life. Thank you for a magnificent inside look at depression.

  16. princessartemis says

    People worry that if they admit to depression, it will be used against them.

    Oh God yes. I'm not sure I can enumerate all the ways I am afraid for myself and my freedom just because I deal with depression.

    Good description of the inner nastiness. Alas the boat has so many of us aboard.

  17. princessartemis says

    Sheesh it's late. Sorry, the post above in moderation is mine; can't seem to keep my e-mail straight sometimes.

    Anyhow, thanks for putting this bit of yourself out there to try to help others understand.

  18. En Passant says

    Thank you for this post on all accounts. I say that as one who has a T-shirt for depression, though perhaps not of the magnitude you described. I account myself fortunate that I finally shed that black cloak some years ago, haven't suffered a recurrence, and have a plan in case I do. For that I am very thankful.

    As for Aaron Swartz' tragic case, I think he shouldn't have been prosecuted at all. I also think that he's not much different from many criminal defendants (who also never should have been prosecuted), except for his vulnerability to severe depression.

  19. Matthew says

    I think all of your criticisms of "the system" are really (important) criticisms of individuals who have committed crimes/misconduct within those systems.

    A system that either relies on the good behaviour of its actors (as there are not rules against such behaviour within it) or fails to deal with any rule-breaking (if there are rules) is a system that needs blaming.

    In the many, many cases of prosecutor overreach, there's nothing I know of to suggest that any rules were broken are we really only supposed to appeal to the essential decency of the prosecutors, because it's unfair to "blame the system"?

    People who don't take advantage of the scope the system gives them should be commended for some basic humanity, but criticising the system doesn't mean blaming all the people who work within it equally – the aim is a system that doesn't allow bad behaviour, regardless of the individuals involved.

    Too often some variation on the idea that it's "a few bad apples" can be used as reason for not changing anything and hoping that those people "see the light". That never happens.

  20. TheOtherLisa says

    It's amazing to me that so many people would understand exactly how it feels to be in my skin. Depression sucks. And like Jenny Lawson – The Bloggess says, depression lies.

    I smile a lot. It keeps people from asking questions. It's also when I'm the most sad.

    Thank you for writing this Ken. You're a good man.

  21. Lily says

    I am studying to work in mental health, one those professions like law people assume that precludes you because of a health condition, so as someone who lives with bipolar depression, I want to say thank you for this.

    However I've been reading the comments and I feel like there is something I really need to address: suicidal ideation (and suicide attempts) are signs of a depressed mind, not a character trait and labelling them as selfish puts a value judgement on what should rightly be viewed as a mental state of a sick person. It's a symptom of an illness.

  22. says

    And when the world will stay the same
    But your place in relation to it has changed
    And when the word begins to lose
    Its power to restore and soothe
    And when the blackness starts its spread
    From behind your tired head
    What taxes now was once your wealth
    What sucks and aches becomes your health

    And when the night spreads into day
    In one unbroken spread of gray.
    And when the darkness fills the space
    Between the bone and skin of your face
    Seeps between your skull and brain
    As input filters through its stain
    The tightness in your brow contains
    What poisoned yesterday but now sustains

    And when the night begins its flow
    And you watch yourself give up control
    When what was cold now keeps you warm
    And you watch your outer self transform
    And the one you love
    Keeps the faith that you can rise above
    But if you've kept faith with yourself
    You might admit that you could use some help

    Remove yourself and study close
    When next the dark begins its flow
    The clinical the problem be
    Remove yourself and you will see
    When next the blackness flow begins
    I eat your pills, you eat my sins
    You take me back to prouder days
    But please don't take my anger away

    I don't pray
    But I humble myself
    I am on my knees today
    I don't pray

  23. Kathryn says

    Depression is a liar. It lies about who you are, what you are capable of, how you feel and how others feel about you.

    The day I realized that I wasn't actually a chronic depressive, I'd 'just' been in major pain all of my life (and as far as most brains are concerned, they're the same thing) I wept with joy. Pain, even chronic pain, even with all of the crap that happens around treatment of chronic pain, is far easier to handle and explain than depression.

    People understand physical pain and can extrapolate (kinda) to constant physical pain. Treatment for physical pain is accepted as a need. Constant mental/emotional pain? Not as much.

  24. says

    I don't think Swartz was "singled out" in the sense of, say, a political prosecution, but there are two ways in which Aaron Swartz was indeed treated differently.

    First, there's some evidence the prosecution was, like with Auernheimer, unduly obsessed with creating a strong deterrent effect on Swartz and others like him, as opposed to simply punishing him for the crime alleged.

    Second, saying Swartz wasn't "singled out" wrongly implies that US Attorneys are unthinking machines that aggressively prosecute the bejesus out of everyone. That plainly isn't right: Carmen Ortiz had nothing but sympathy for Medtronic, and chose not to prosecute it at all over its flagrantly illegal methods of promoting the Infuse bone graft, which included bribing scientists and manipulating scientific data. To me, there's no real dispute that the US Attorney's obsess over Computer Fraud crimes while generally ignoring fraud by major corporations like medical companies and national banks. (Every now and then, the US Attorneys will piggyback onto False Claims Acts filed by trial lawyers, but that's it.)

    So while I don't believe Swartz was "singled out" for being Aaron Swartz, prosecutorial discretion is not applied evenly in America. As Christopher Hitchens said, “The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law.”

  25. Lucy says

    Thank you for this post.

    I have a response brewing, but one point I don't have to work out initially is that some situations are just intolerable, let alone intolerable to someone who is sensitive. To the sensitive persons point of view, that is sometimes hard to decipher.

    An example I am thinking of is when I quit a job after I was assaulted. There was a very long chain of events lasting several months leading up to this. I followed all protocols in reporting….

    I initially wrote my letter explaining that my personal situation wouldn't allow me to suffer that work environment any longer. After running my letter by a trusted friend, it was brought to my attention that my situation wasn't the reason it was intolerable. I changed my letter, and even though I quit, I still received unemployment because they were so far out of line. I chose not to pursue the matter any further, simply due to not wanting to navigate the massive broken systems alone with no resources.

    I chose to use " sensitive", rather than over share. It's good to know we're all in good company.

  26. Fraud Guy says

    Not re: depression, but the tribe.

    Why does the system react as it does:

    "The system treats invocation of constitutional rights as evidence of guilt. The system reacts with petulant fury to being questioned. The system detects and punishes law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct so rarely that bad actors are hardly ever subjected to real consequences."

    Because it's its own tribe.

  27. Dan Irving says

    Thank you for this Ken. As you mentioned, it takes a lot to simply talk about depression – I'm sure this entry cost you and I just wanted to take the time to express my appreciation of your sacrifice.

    Wifey is bi-polar. Step-daughter is bi-polar. As a proud member of a 'support system' I can tell you that 'not getting it' is frustrating for us as well. Regular counseling, both solo and joint, have helped bridged the enormous chasm that used to exist between the wife and I. It got hard there for a bit but it's gotten better and my eldest has managed to survive the dystopia what was her mid-teen years. Each day is a gift.

    So again, thank you. If it's any consolation some of the smartest, most gifted people I know (my wife, daughter and two close friends) all suffer from bi-polar disorder.

  28. Alex Nesbitt says

    Well that contained more insight in one place than I've seen for a very long time. Thank you so much for posting.

  29. says

    Thanks for writing that. My wife suffers from serious, highly drug-resistant, depression. She has become unable to work (which, of course, adds to her depression — she has a Masters in Library Science that she dedicated a lot of her life to getting, and she is not able to do the work she trained for) and is classed as permanently disabled due to mental illness. We have, quite literally, gone from A to Z — Abilify to Zoloft– playing "treatment roulette" over the past 10 years. The last 2 years or so have been fairly stable (which is not the same as "cured", not by a long shot), due to going back to the almost forgotten MAOI inhibitor, Nardil, which carries with it a host of health risks and lifestyle requirements. (And to all the helpful folk in the audience… yes, we've tried that. And that one. Also that. No, that one almost killed her in the first few days due to side effects. No, that one's hippie newage bullshit, but thanks for the thought. Yes, we tried that, too.)

    Intellectually, I know she can no more choose to stop being depressed than she could choose to regrow an amputated limb. Emotionally, it's a constant fight for me to not get angry and frustrated when she's on a downwards swing, and then I get angry and frustrated with myself because I know my emotions are invalid and illogical.

    She's posted all of this in other public forums, so I'm not breaking any confidences here.

  30. says

    One of the things I've found is that depression is often worse for those who have been very successful (like Schwartz). It hits unexpectedly, possibly because of falling neurotransmitter levels. And when it does it creates a horrific Imposter Syndrome, making you feel that all your success in life in undeserved and illusory.

  31. That Anonymous Coward says

    The view from behind the trendy avatar is…

    People rarely understand the systems in place.
    The best example I have is so many people who think the $150,000 award in copyright cases is a slam dunk. Not understanding how the system actually works that number becomes the motivating factor in decision making, far outstripping the simple truth in many cases the target did nothing.

    The target deserves something different.
    There are people who decry what happened to Aaron, who at the same time think that Dotcom should be facing more. They are divorced from the idea that everyone has to be treated the same, and seem to think the system should be weighted differently based on likeability. Honestly it is looking like the system has different rules for different players based on power they control, it is not supposed to but they have done little to dispel that appearance.

    Mental health in 'Merika is a series of tv commercials telling you a cartoon cloud will attack you unless you take this pill. And once you take the pill the little cloud falls into the background and your happy go lucky… o_O
    Got a problem, we have a pill for that.
    Once upon a time we pushed these people into grand grey warehouses… well and that was expensive and some people were mistreated so we needed reform of that. They closed the grey places, called it mission accomplished and left people needing serious help on the streets.

    We have watched 10 commercial an hour hocking pills for the aliments, but we can not have any serious discussion about the aliments. The only time they get coverage is hyped media coverage where someone with an aliment did something horrific. Rare is the voice of reason, instead this helps keep people ashamed of having a common problem and disconnected from reaching out for help that often is lacking because the commercials told them all they have to do to be better is pop a pill.

  32. says

    > This is the system, dammit

    And THAT is why I want the government of the United States torn down, set on fire, salted, and plowed under.

    We live under an imperial government that creates the consent of the governed with bread, circuses, government run K-12 propaganda centers, and obfuscation. The true informed consent comes only from the financial sector insiders, the politicians, the cops, the government employees, and the welfare recipients…and they love the Empire because its checks always clear.

    Burn. Burn. Burn.

  33. Dan Weber says

    Thank you for the post.

    Thank you for the commenters who have mostly avoided derailing this into political issues.

  34. says

    Regarding self-medication: I've never felt more acutely and profoundly depressed than under the influence of weed. Nicotine may be a different case. I constantly regret stupidly getting myself addicted to cigarettes in my early 30s, but I have to admit it's possible I might have felt worse over the past decade if I hadn't. (Thus the spiritual cancer is mirrored physically.) I of course don't recommend taking up smoking as a remedy for depression. From what I understand, Wellbutrin is used to treat both depression and nicotine addiction.

  35. says

    FWIW, I have never gotten such a burst of emails about a post so quickly as I got from this one. There are many people out there who feel this way. If you feel this way, you are not alone.

  36. says

    Thank you for this post. As a college professor with ADHD, anxiety, and depression, I can say your description of the "secret self" is spot on. You can't really see these things from the outside. My ability to hide my symptoms is legion.

  37. sharl says

    Thanks for laying all this out in one place – I was vaguely aware of your interest and perspective in this area, but this offers much clarity to intermittently attentive folks (drive-by readers) like me.

    On the tenuous/evanescent/nonexistent/unknown correlation between Swartz's legal problems and his depression and suicide, UC-Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen posted on this from his own painful experience – his own NIH-scientist father also commit suicide, under circumstances that Eisen found hauntingly familiar to his father's.

    Eisen basically backed up your perspective, and in fact, the girlfriend Swartz left behind tweeted her appreciation for that post.

    She, and to a much greater extent, Aaron Swartz's father, have been (last time I checked) claiming that the prosecutor's actions drove AS to take his own life. I think that's the grief-enhanced rage talking. We just let that happen, and offer condolences if/when appropriate (and of course keep the grieving loved ones off relevant juries, I think/believe/hope…obviously, IANAL). And as you and Eisen noted – and as Aaron Swartz himself noted in his blog (as does Taren SK), in recognizing his own privilege – injustices need to be fought regardless of whether their victims are afflicted by depression or whatever.

  38. Anonymous says

    Depression is a bitch.

    There are so many things I would do, had I the energy and motivation.

  39. Claire says

    It still amazes me sometimes that people think "But he was so happy in the days before he killed himself!" is a strange and noteworthy phenomenon. That's the RULE, not the exception.

    Very few people kill themselves on the spur of the moment. Suicides are planned. And once the suicidal person has settled on a course of action — chosen a place, a time, and a method — a huge burden lifts from their shoulders. They seem brighter in the days leading up to the suicide because they know they'll soon be done with the pain and worry.

    Honestly, if a chronically depressed person suddenly seems very happy, you should think about that. Hard.

  40. Dan Weber says

    A ridiculous percentage of the population takes psychotropic medications, but there are still strong social taboos against discussing mental illness, and certainly against admitting to suffering from it

    Until this comment, only a few people in my life have known I'm on medication. I am now outing myself.

  41. Merissa says

    I've felt alone and as though I "don't fit" into society from a very young age. My bipolar disorder/major depression are refractory to any treatment I've been prescribed – I was preparing to look into electroshock treatment when I lost my healthcare coverage.

    I've had suicidal feelings for about 16 years, worse when treated with mood stabilizers than when untreated, but have mercifully trained myself to "go numb." This works five days out of seven. I consider it illustrative of the disease's significance that it's made nihilism into an escape rather than its own pathology.

    Of course, you sacrifice your interpersonal relationships with this method. Other people tend to think of me as cold, insensitive, and somewhat shallow. The people closest to me, fortunately, realize that I do this to protect them. As people with severe depression go, I'm pretty lucky.

  42. KC says

    Everyone, I don't know about you, but I feel so much less ashamed knowing that there are others who really get it, even though I'm sorry so many people have to experience depression.

    @lizard – your emotions aren't invalid or illogical. They're natural, but they can't change anything so I understand why you might label them that way. What a wonderful husband you are for being so supportive! I'm lucky to also have a supportive spouse!

    Depression is a smooth-sided well that you sit at the bottom of while well meaning people stand at the top and yell "just climb out!"

  43. Not My Usual Pseudonym says

    I may be back later to post under, not my usual pseudonym, but my actual real name. I'm teetering about whether to take that step. I know this is a law blog not a free therapy session but this post may be what finally pushes me to take the fight to a different level. It took me almost 20 years to start fighting back at all. My GP is a good guy and he's been trying what he knows for a year and a half but we both know that we're just treading water. Maybe time to suck it up and ask for that referral. Thanks, Ken.

  44. Kai Starr (@kaistarr) says

    Lily said: "However I've been reading the comments and I feel like there is something I really need to address: suicidal ideation (and suicide attempts) are signs of a depressed mind, not a character trait and labelling them as selfish puts a value judgement on what should rightly be viewed as a mental state of a sick person. It's a symptom of an illness."


    Most of us who have tried or contemplated suicide have done so as a way of seeking relief from the extreme pain we are suffering. To call that "selfish" is equal to telling a person suffering from cancer that they are selfish for wanting drugs to ease their pain. It's a desire for relief, for release from the agony, and it is in no way selfish. That value judgment can make the depression worse, because now the sufferer has guilt and self-loathing feelings thrust upon him/her, by people who have no understanding at all of the disease s/he is suffering from.

    This was a great post, and taught me some things about the legal system that I hadn't really understood. Unfortunately, I already had a deep and personal understanding of depression, but I applaud you, Ken, for your courage in sharing this and trying to help others to understand the illness a little better. Your remark about people using the illness against you hits home, too. Been there, suffered through that, still bitter about it. It never really gets easier to talk about depression or any mental illness. I always have great respect for those who find the courage to do so, and especially in a public way.

  45. Chris says

    Thanks for sharing that Ken. My wife suffers from clinical depression as well, among other things, and your post details many of the things i had to learn, and one of the most important was that i will probably NEVER understand how depression feels.

  46. Jason says

    Bravo for the very well written post. I suffered in silence for many years without anyone knowing about my clinical depression. The shame and guilt connected with the taboo of appearing "weak" for having that particular affliction led to a feedback loop that exacerbated the underlying condition. It wasn't until I reached the end of my rope and became fed up with the stigma that I was able to begin the long road to a recovery of sorts.

    None of us, including those who have and now suffer from depression can know what was going on inside of his head. My hope is that people can read posts such as this one and get past the sensationalist articles and seek the truth.

  47. says

    On the other hand, I think it's valid to acknowledge that depression is a highly rational response to reality, both within and without. Prison is understandably depressing, and the very real constraints imposed on us by society, and I'd suggest especially modern society, more than superficially resemble a prison. And that's only part of it. This makes me hesitant to embrace fully the notion of depression as a mental illness. To explain our malaise with "there's something wrong with me" is a double-edged sword. There is profound truth in the Book of Ecclesiastes. The pain of that truth has value, like the hot stove that tells us not to touch that again, that can lead us to seek deeper meanings in the world and better ways of living. The pain of that truth led me to quit a prestigious military academy when I was younger. It may lead me to forsake the law, and I know I'm far from the only lawyer "tempted" in that direction. Of course, this can be a dangerous path, and one should be careful. One needs to live. One cannot forget loyalty to those who are loyal to us.

    Moreover, although I am all too familiar with the fetters of my own mind, and that ruling one's own mind is easier said than done, I can't shake the notion that it is in fact easier done than said, that happiness lies in our own hands at all times.

  48. Mister D says

    As per prosecutor behaviour – it has seemed from the news stories the last 10 or 20 years, that prosecutors are like pit bulls – once they sink their teeth in, they won't let go until they win. (Or maybe, fire ants – twist their head off and tehy still won't let go.) The most egregious example, of course, was the Duke Lacrosse bunch. Being an arrogant privileged member of the upper classes is not a great role model, but does not automatically entitle the prosecutor to railroa you. Fortunately they were (a) funded well enough to catch the prosecutor in complete misconduct and (b) basically innocent. Most people in the justice system do not enjoy those luxuries.

    The one that sticks in my mind from the news, was the story that the prosecutors threatened that unless martha Stewart cooperated they were prepared to throw the book at a ground-level operative in her broker's office – you do as we want, or this lowly schlub with a $100,000 a year job who can't a fford a decent lawyer will do 10 years in jail.

    As for depression – the AS situation eminds me of the saying that "even paranoids have real enemies." People at the peak of their life's success may occasionally committ suicide – but the threat of going from sheltered academia to bunking with Bubba for up to 7 years for what is essentially an exercise of academic freedom – I think I would be a little depressed too.

    Which brings up another issue about the legal system… prisoner on prisoner abuse has been a staple of dark humour for decades. that it is allowed to happen at all is one of many sad commentaries on the system. That it is an implicit add-on to any threat of jail time compounds the moral abuse of the system.

  49. Anonymous says

    RE: Suicide and selfishness

    Suicide is what happens when your day-to-day life is more unbearable than death. The idea that you get to that mental state from "selfishness" is absurd.

  50. Dan Weber says

    For whatever poor treatment Swartz received from the prosecution, he was not going to the big house. He was going to white-collar jail, if he went at all. His cellmates would be embezzlers and hackers and frauds and perjurers.

  51. Ian Bagger says

    Ken, thank you for your eloquent description of depression and its stigmatization.

    My question, however, concerns prosecutorial discretion and the huge gap between sentencing recommendation for guilty pleas as compared with trial verdicts. If the accused has a right to a trial, confrontation of accusers, etc., then the specter of increased sentencing is essentially a prospective punishment for exercising that right. In other words, the factually-guilty accused is faced with either insisting on his right to trial, etc., on the one hand, or asserting his 5th Amendment rights on the other; while the factually not-guilty accused is faced with lying about having committed a crime in order to reduce potential sentencing if a jury believes the state during the trial. Obviously legislators can dictate whatever penalties they deem fit, and can probably outlaw plea bargains, to boot – but unless they do that, how can one reconcile lighter sentencing for guilty pleas compared with guilty verdicts – other than on conservation-of-economic-resources grounds?

  52. DM says


    Just reading your post was difficult, your descriptions are so frightingly spot-on with what have seemed like very long periods in my life! Thanks so much for attempting, and in my opinion succeeding to put a face on this disease, it can be almost impossible to describe to people who have not lived with it.

  53. SassQueen says

    @ Anonymous

    Suicide isn't selfish, but it SEEMS selfish to those of us left behind. It's another one of those I-know-it-with-my-brain-but-my-heart-won't-listen feelings.

    @ Really?

    Don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.

  54. David but not that David says

    @That Anonymous Coward:
    "And once you take the pill the little cloud falls into the background and your[sic] happy go lucky"

    That's I think one reason we need to talk about depression more.
    I don't think people understand anti-depressants. They're not happy drugs. I think that's a lot more marketable that "anti-depressant." Because that's not what the pills do (at least for me). Depression like a veil, a filter over the world that prevents you from seeing all the things in life that should make you happy, or angry, or scared, or anything. The pills don't make me happy; they just lift the veil. It's still up to me to find the good things in life, but now at least I have a chance to. And once (if) you've found a medication that works for you, believe me, you know when you no longer have it working. The veil descends once more.

  55. Dan Weber says

    Before you ever tell someone that they don't need that "little pill," be aware that if they listen to you, you aren't likely to notice the bad side effects. The bad side effects will be felt by the person and their loved ones.

    If you are worried about the pharma industry, find some better way to do it than by using someone suffering from depression as your proxy.

  56. princessartemis says

    I worry about the pharma industry and I take an SSRI anti-depressant. That ceasing an SSRI twelve years ago contributed to my permanent movement disorder does not change the unfortunate fact that I still need to take one now.

    I'm not ever going to tell someone they don't need medication. I will say they *can* have terrible consequences to their use and that I believe this is not well known.

  57. That Anonymous Coward says

    @Dan Weber – I am guessing that was directed at me. I think the commercials are dumb, but the pharmaceuticals are needed to keep people from suffering.

    It gives the general public the idea that it is as simple as take a pill and your fine. There is no discussion in public about these issues, and one can see from responses in this thread that there are people who thought they were still alone.
    It is a giant stigma that is misunderstood but we still aren't talking about it. Talking heads on TV only address the issue in tragedy, make vague calls for something to be done and then move on.

    @David but not that David – the commercials seem to downplay the serious nature of the issues. Depression is a little cartoon cloud… really? Depression is a serious problem that affects many people but yet we have no discussions of it. It is only ever depicted with people who look unhappy looking out a window at the rain, they show the pill bottle, then its sunny.

    Life is not like the Cosby Show where every problem is solved in 22 minutes and the ending is always happy.

  58. Geoff says


    Your finely honed critique of Ken's work is exemplary, setting – as it does – a standard for discourse that the rest of us can barely even aspire to.

  59. Kevin says


    That ceasing an SSRI twelve years ago contributed to my permanent movement disorder

    Just curious… if it's not too personal, could you elaborate on this a bit? I've never heard of this kind of effect of going off an SSRI. What kind of movement disorder, if you don't mind my asking?

  60. MattS says


    "And THAT is why I want the government of the United States torn down, set on fire, salted, and plowed under."

    You're going much to easy on the government. After being burned to the ground the ashes should be irradiated, mixed into molten lead at a concentration of 1 PPM by volume, cast into ingots then dropped into the deepest part of the Marianas Trench.

  61. says



    "And THAT is why I want the government of the United States torn down, set on fire, salted, and plowed under."

    You're going much to easy on the government.

    I haven't shared the part where everyone who's profited from exorbitant government salaries pays the taxpayers back by having their organs auctioned to the highest bidding Russian or Chinese oligarch.

  62. Ian Bagger says

    @James Ewell Brown Stuart

    One of the points Ken made was that often the depressed person functions in a manner outwardly inconsistent with the terrible despair they feel.

    Also, and I realize I might just as well complain about the weather for all the good it will do, but come on, need we add insult to injury by glossing this with another conspiracy theory?

  63. MattS says


    "I haven't shared the part where everyone who's profited from exorbitant government salaries pays the taxpayers back by having their organs auctioned to the highest bidding Russian or Chinese oligarch."

    I was assuming you meant for them to be burned with the physical infrastructure. That's why I suggested a much more extreme method of getting rid of the ashes. We don't want anybody being able to bring them back.

  64. says

    @TJIC and @MattS: Great idea! Let's start with the Defense Dept, the Armed Forces, the NIH and the FAA. Dump them in the Marianas and then drop a nuke on them! After that, we can work on the Treasury, the ACOE, and the Secret Service, followed by the DOE, ATF, the FBI, CIA and the NSA (if we can find them.)

    That suit you?

  65. says

    I don't trust psychiatrists any more than I trust priests. That said, although I have reservations about treating depression as an illness, I have no principled objection to drugs. I should probably be medicated myself, beyond my pack-a-day nicotine drip. For this very reason, I'm a little skeptical of the claim that unless you've suffered from major clinical depression you don't know what it is. Where's the dividing line? This by no means implies depression isn't very serious and potentially deadly. My mother committed suicide when she was eighteen and I was two, and her father followed suit a few years later, and these aren't the only reasons depression appears to run in my family, on both sides. But I'm more inclined to think of depression as a normal part of the thinking human condition, which shows itself more acutely in certain persons and at certain times. If it becomes debilitating (but here too there are no clear dividing lines) it should be managed. And people need to stop doing shitty things that make the world a shitty place. That would help a lot.

  66. says

    I think it's difficult for some people to accept that their entire identity, their self, their "I", is as much a physical phenomenon as their bones and muscles and heart. "You" are your neurons and neurotransmitters and all the rest. Change the brain, change the person. There's no immaterial, extra-physical "you" that's the "real you" and somehow interfaces through the meat: YOU ARE THE MEAT. (Well, the pattern in the meat, at any rate.) There isn't a part of your brain that is separate from your brain and that can issue orders to it. Or, if you want to believe there is, it is so tightly bound to the meat as its means of interacting with the world that you can safely focus entirely on the meat level for as long you're in the world.

    Having dealt with this for a decade or more with my wife, it gets under my skin when people dismiss anti-depressants as "more Big Pharama plots to corrupt our souls and turn us all into drones of the corporation, man". I don't for an instant pretend drug companies are run by selfless saints, or that there isn't Big Moolah to be made selling drugs. I suspect, though I have not studied the issue, that a lot of anti-depressants are prescribed to people who don't necessarily need them, or prescribed for much longer than is necessary, and that the lust for Filthy Lucre drives this. But, as with autism, ADHD, and other "trendy" conditions, the fact there are people who don't have the condition but, for various reasons, either claim they do or are told they do, doesn't alter the underlying reality that the conditions do exist. As others have said, anti-depressants don't make you happy. They make you, basically, able to *function*, to some degree, depending on the severity of your depression. They carry with them many side effects, and would not be remotely worth taking if the alternative was not worse. (One of the hardest things about living with someone with depression is that, when it starts getting really bad, they stop even caring about the fact they're depressed, not able to do anything to help avert it or reduce it. The drugs are only a partial solution, albeit an essential part. There are other aspects to it. Having an activity or purpose which can keep your mind focused on anything but spiraling down into a black pit and never crawling out again helps a lot, but you get into a chicken/egg mess.. if the depression gets bad enough, you can't motivate yourself to do things that will help get you out of it, or at least get you to a slightly-higher part of the pit.

  67. says

    "And people need to stop doing shitty things that make the world a shitty place. That would help a lot."

    No, it wouldn't. That's the point. When you get sad because something bad has happened, that's normal. Depression is when you get sad because of *no reason at all*, and you keep getting sadder, and nothing can help you, cheer you up, or give you any kind of pleasure or joy, that the best you can hope for in any given day is not to break down crying, not because you're thinking about something that's sad or tragic or heart-wrenching, but for NO REASON, or a completely random event — you drop a piece of toast, and instead of saying, "Well, shit, it's going to be one of those days", you instead curl up into a fetal ball and sob uncontrollably for four hours straight. THAT is what depression is. If you don't understand that fact, then, yes, you do not have the knowledge needed to meaningfully contribute to this conversation, any more than I would have anything to offer to a discussion about 4th century Chinese clay-glazing techniques.

  68. James Ewell Brown Stuart says

    @Ian Bagger: I think you dismiss the possibility of Aarons murder a bit too lightly. Also, I truly resent your casually tossing out the trite and tiresome label "conspiracy theory", just because you may disagree with someone elses take on a subject. I don't want Aaron to become a poster boy for depression, if in fact, he was not depressed, and did not kill himself.

    My opinion of this specific case in should no way diminishe a good and rational discussion of a serious and widespread malady.

  69. says

    "If you don't understand that fact, then, yes, you do not have the knowledge needed to meaningfully contribute to this conversation …"

    Dude, you just claimed that a depressed person is nothing but MEAT. Talk about a good reason to curl up into a fetal ball and sob uncontrollably.

  70. says

    As a fellow member of the non-sequiter society of America, I just want to say I'm also annoyed SyFy canceled "Alphas" on a cliffhanger.

  71. Jeremy says

    Someone with major depression will also *feel* "better" when major world events with very negative consequences are occurring. Mind you, it's not a better feeling, it's more like the world is just now shitty to match how the depressed person feels. The days go by easier when everyone around you is scared/depressed/anxious. The depressed person will feel as though they are more useful and almost better mentally prepared to act appropriately when everyone else in the world is afraid.

    I experienced this immediately after 9-11.

    Major depression sucks.

  72. princessartemis says


    Just curious… if it's not too personal, could you elaborate on this a bit? I've never heard of this kind of effect of going off an SSRI. What kind of movement disorder, if you don't mind my asking?

    The key word I used is "contributed"; keep that in mind. If everything else hadn't been just so with me, it wouldn't have happened–it is more like the SSRI withdrawal was the final shove. I had a genetic predisposition and previous prescription drug history that made a movement disorder more likely; the SSRI withdrawal kicked all that precarious house of cards down. If it hadn't been for the rest, it would have 'just' been seven months of hell.

    Dyskinesias and dystonias are known side effects of SSRIs. Not widely known, but they are known. What I have is called generalized dystonia. I still take a different SSRI because, well…gotta do what ya gotta do.

    I just wish medications like these weren't advertised like candy on TV and that when they were prescribed, doctors helped people be informed more often.

  73. says


    Girls! Girls! You're ALL depressed!

    If you're going for a "Last Psychiatrist" vibe, the proper diagnosis is "Girls! Girls! You're ALL narcissists!"

  74. says

    As a side note, it should be mentioned: My wife and I have a lot of great theological/philosophical debates, as she's a Baptist and I'm an atheist. She believes in God, a soul, and an eternal reward. I believe we're meat and when we die, we're worm food. She's the one who's depressed — not me.

    In 2005, I was fired from my "dream job", and two days later, my wife announced she wanted a divorce. I was not *happy* about this, and spent a couple of hours staring at the ceiling, but I got a new job the next day and a new girlfriend in a month and went on with my life. Two years later, my wife decided she wanted to come back, and so, we remarried, and since I'd been dealing with her depression before the divorce, I can say I went into the remarriage knowing full well what I was signing up for. (Still friends with the ex-girlfriend, who is now an ex-boyfriend, but that's another story.)

    My faith in the utter purposelessness of the universe, that all of reality can be boiled down to "shit happens", has kept me going through all of the stuff life throws at me. It probably wouldn't matter, though, if I was Christian, a religious as well as cultural Jew, Islamic, Hindu, Scientologist, Wiccan, or Buddhist — the factors that determine my temperament and mood and ability to recover from stresses were determined the instant Mr. Sperm met Miss Egg.

    One of the cruelest and most sadistic things you can do to someone who suffers from mental illness, depression or otherwise, is tell them that all they have to do is wish themselves to be better. This is "blaming the victim" in its purest form.

  75. says


    As a side note, it should be mentioned: My wife and I have a lot of great theological/philosophical debates, as she's a Baptist and I'm an atheist. She believes in God, a soul, and an eternal reward. I believe we're meat and when we die, we're worm food. She's the one who's depressed — not me.

    Makes perfect sense to me. She's the one who has to put up with a depressing nihilist!

  76. Merissa says

    @Jeremy: I thought it was just me! Although I'd describe it more as "We all have this paralyzing grief and fear in common now! I'm not alone anymore! YAY!"

  77. BNT says

    I'm a little skeptical of the claim that unless you've suffered from major clinical depression you don't know what it is. Where's the dividing line? … But I'm more inclined to think of depression as a normal part of the thinking human condition

    I know you *think* you know what you're talking about, but you don't.

    Depression comes in many different shapes and forms, so maybe someone has major depression that is just like an extreme form of the blues. But for many of us, there's no "dividing line" problem because it's qualitatively different.

    I remember being in mental agony for no reason at all; very much like having a bad headache, except the pain wasn't physical. That's not "a normal part of the human thinking condition."

    When I'm well, I'm a rose-colored-glasses optimist. When I'm depressed, I can find the negative in anything. Sad things make me sad — abnormally, unreasonably so. Happy things also make me sad, because they remind me that I'm not happy. This is not normal or adaptive.

    And people need to stop doing shitty things that make the world a shitty place. That would help a lot.

    Ditto to everything Lizard said. Being sad when sad things happen is normal. Being more sad than most people, or sad enough that it makes it hard to function, may be mild or even moderate depression.

    With major depression, paradise would be unlivable.

    I don't mean to trivialize those who suffer from less severe forms of depression; I've run the spectrum, and even the milder forms can make life quite difficult. I'm saying that thinking of major clinical depression as "being really bummed out, x10" is nowhere near accurate.

  78. says

    Clark and Ken,

    You guys should really have "Like" buttons in the comments, so I could express my appreciation for yours while still withdrawing from an understandably disapproved exchange :)

  79. says

    BNT: But see, I feel like my depression is debilitating, because largely constant. That's why I seriously said I should probably be medicated myself. But I can't say it's as acute as some of the manifestations that have been described here, although around age 20 I felt myself to be very close to a nervous breakdown.

  80. BNT says

    @Jeremy, Merissa: I experienced it more as external events being a distraction from my own personal hell. Also, no one expected me to act happy!

  81. BNT says

    John Kindley: I'd encourage you to do whatever it takes to make the most of your life, whether that's medication, therapy, self-help, exercise, or introspection. But please keep in mind that yours is not the only experience. When you say things like "This makes me hesitant to embrace fully the notion of depression as a mental illness" or "happiness lies in our own hands at all times" it's infuriating. They may be true for you, but they are not true for everybody.

  82. says

    BNT: The "happiness lies in our own hands at all times" line was more of a hypothesis, a notion I said I found hard to shake, and not a claim based on experience. Indeed, my experience is different, as I most often experience my mind as running amok, and often into dark places. But I've occasionally asked myself: How consciously have I really tried to rule my own mind?

    My comments were not by any means intended to diminish or express skepticism toward anyone else's experience. However, I do harbor a presumption and a skepticism in general toward claims that particular experiences are invincibly impervious and foreign to my own understanding, although undoubtedly there is a sense in which we are all each of "alone" in the universe. But we are all human. The person I probably admire the most in this world is my cousin, who was like a big brother to me, and who at age 25 went into a full blown case of paranoid schizophrenia. Today he is on effective meds, but at the time seeing him in that condition was absolutely horrific. It was much worse than if he had died. Nevertheless, I could still see myself in him.

  83. Nik B. says

    This was a very powerful post Ken, and I'm sure was written at tremendous personal cost. So I have a question for you. You may not be able to answer, and that's ok, but if you have some insight, I'm sure that I'm not the only one who's curious…

    If you are friends with someone who suffers from depression, how do you help? What is it that you can do, if anything, to be a good friend to people who suffer from depression, without being patronizing and without making things worse?

  84. Nate says

    I have a question (and I'm genuinely curious to see what people think): Do you guys think that these antidepressant commercials (while minimizing the complexities of depression) have had any effect, good or bad, on the stigma associated with depression?

    @princessartemis: I totally agree with you that more information regarding the both the intended and side effects of all drugs should be provided. And it should be provided in layman's terms. I'm in graduate school in the sciences and sometimes I even find what info I can acquire to be obtuse and uninformative (and I have access to pubmed). (@you guys taking down the government: Can you leave pubmed up and running? That's like my lifeline.)

  85. says

    @Nik: Speaking from my own experiences, and not trying to deny or exclude anyone elses' (else's?), the most important thing is to remember that a)This is no more something they can choose to change than an amputated limb or having asthma, and, b)Encourage them to think of it as a medical condition that needs medical treatment, not as a personal failure or character flaw.

  86. Merissa says

    There's also that thing where being reminded of depression makes you more depressed. That's very special, and also causes me to laugh whenever someone mentions "Depression Awareness Month" et. al.

  87. htom says

    Ken — this is one of the best posts about major depression that I've ever read. Thank you, and thank you, too, Chris, yours is excellent as well. I may have missed some ….

    Yes, this. Much (but not all) of my ongoing unresolved clinical depression came to an end (after decades of trying every drug and therapy under the sun) with a correct diagnosis and useful treatment for ADHD. That's me, though, others have other paths into the belly of the beast, and if they escape it will be via other paths.

    Telling someone to "cheer up" is probably one of the worst things you can do. Took me years to train my wife that not saying that was one of the most helpful things she could do.

    For those of you suffering, don't stop trying to recover. The light when you get out of that black hole is worth the struggle of the journey.

  88. Merissa says

    @Nate: While they may have destigmatized depression itself to some extent, they've made life a little more difficult for people whose depression is refractory to standard treatment. We're re-stigmatized when someone who felt shitty for a few month takes Cymbalta and suddenly feels better; they figure since it didn't help us, we must be malingering.

    My boyfriend also suffers from depression, but he was able to get a measure of help from hypnotherapy and psychotherapy. Because Everyone In the World Is Exactly Alike, he's incredulous that neither of them worked for me, and really believes I'd be fine if I went to a psychologist a little while longer despite having already done so for 12 fruitless years. To me, the lesson is that everyone needs to keep in mind at all times that we are not all exactly alike, and are in fact very different. We're only just alike in the ways that make us worthy of each other's compassion.

  89. says

    If you are friends with someone who suffers from depression, how do you help? What is it that you can do, if anything, to be a good friend to people who suffer from depression, without being patronizing and without making things worse?

    1. Be supportive, but not more present than they want. "I'm here if you want to talk or need anything."

    2. Offer perspective, but don't push it. If your work friend says "wow, that presentation I did sucked," you can say "I don't know. I thought it went fine and people liked it." But don't push them on being wrong about everything.

    3. Be cool if they don't feel like interacting. It's nothing personal.

  90. Merissa says

    3. Be cool if they don't feel like interacting. It's nothing personal.

    This. Seriously. It's not you, it's us. Or if it is you, you'll know it, because many of us are also possessed of an acerbic wit and very low bullshit tolerance.

  91. perlhaqr says

    I knew Aaron. Not well, but we had a lot of friends in common, and we had crossed paths. His suicide was, for me, very reminiscent of the suicide of another brilliant hacker I was very close friends with, several years before. There too, longstanding depression, and medical and legal concerns, were involved.

    I don't know what to think of Greenfield's posts.

    The eulogists, friends, watchers from the Hacktivist side seem to think this was an affliction that happened only to Swartz.

    As someone who has been reading Balko for years, and passing on his links to hacker friends far and wide; as someone who has many very close friends at the EFF (as Schwartz did as well); as someone who has been held at gunpoint in the barren NV desert for hours by the police; I would say that there are thousands, and probably tens of thousands of hackers who are aware of the overreaching of the federal prosecutoriat.

    Perhaps Greenfield is reacting to the speech of the most ignorant of Schwartz' friends, and those speaking in what may be for them their worst hour of grief. I don't know. But as someone who has been a part of the "hacker scene" for over 20 years, I'd say that hackers are among some of the most well informed citizens about how the legal system can be abused. If nothing else, the Kevin Mitnick affair, and his treatment before and during his trial taught us that. For some, Robert T. Morris was the defining incident that woke us up about the fact that if nothing else, lawyers and judges typically don't know a goddamn thing about computers.

    I guess it just seems harsh, the way Greenfield has put things. It seems likely to turn people off from helping, and realistically, hackers being the rather singleminded creatures that they can be, are often very helpful to have onboard with you.

  92. Nate says

    Thanks Merissa, that makes a lot of sense. From my family members' experiences, I can see how finding what works is as much an art as it is a science and different for every person.

  93. Nik B. says

    Thanks to everyone who answered my question and to those of you who shared your experiences with us and helped us get a glimpse of your world.

  94. perlhaqr says

    I guess my point is that berating the hacker community for not being aware of this before strikes me as sort of irritating hipsterish elitism. Almost no one is born with their eyes open to these things. Everyone has to "wake up from the Matrix" sooner or later, if they're going to at all. Good for Greenfield that he got there before some of these people. But why the vitriol at people in mourning that they were blind before?

  95. says

    perlhaqr – because the hacker community was so inflamed. And because the response also involved doing things like hacking a website.

    Also, Greenfield is a lot of things, but hipster is probably as far from who he is as anything else.

  96. pseudonymously depressed says

    Thanks for the post. Ditto to all your observations about the widely misunderstood nature of depression. I'd like to add one more, admittedly self-serving thought. Despite the ability of the Lincolns, the Churchills and the Ken Whites of the world to succeed in the face of crushing depression, sometimes the depression wins. And when that happens, it isn't a reflection of any moral failing on the part of the depressive who can't persevere any more. Having once been a successful professional, it adds insult to injury when the depression skeptics suggest you may have walked away from your lucrative, prestigious career for the good life of a shut-in on Social Security Disability because you're a lazy malingerer. If Churchill could do it, why can't you? The answer is, simply, because you can't. One day you're pushing the rock up the hill, as usual, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, you're on your back, the boulder is on your chest, and there's no amount of will that will move it off. For years, every day I was able to push through the depression and show up for life, my feeling about those I knew who couldn't was "there but for the grace of God go I." I wasn't wrong.

    (Sorry for the double post. I wanted to make sure my usual ID wasn't going to show up.)

  97. MattS says

    John Beaty,

    No, it doesn't. If we aren't going to do the whole thing at once, we should start with EPA, Department of Education, DOJ, FDA, ATF and DEA.

  98. BNT says

    My comments were not by any means intended to diminish or express skepticism toward anyone else's experience.

    That may not be your intention, but when you start with "depression is a highly rational response to reality," the most charitable interpretation is that you don't know what you're talking about.

    When you sound doubtful that you can't understand major clinical depression, but then follow that up by describing depression "as a normal part of the thinking human condition," it comes across as incredibly dismissive to those experiences that are far from normal.

    This ties in, in a roundabout way, to how I would answer Nik B.'s question: Don't be afraid to be up front about not being sure what to do. "I want to help, but I'm not sure what to say" is just fine.

  99. David but not that David says

    "b)Encourage them to think of it as a medical condition that needs medical treatment, not as a personal failure or character flaw."

    As my therapist likes to say: "If you had a heart disease, and there was medication for it, you would take it. Depression is a brain disease. Take medication."

    Let them know that you care. Everyone, depression or not, needs some sort of support network, but if this friend knows he/she can call you up and talk about anything he/she wants to, that's powerful. But don't try to be a therapist; be a friend. If you think they need a therapist, ask people you trust (boy, this sounds a lot like a lawyer referral) if any of them know a good therapist. And just keep that with you.

    There's a (bad) joke: How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to want to change.

    Unfortunately, I've always found this to be true. With my current therapist, it took me about 60 sessions (with time for reflection in between) before I was ready to start changing.

  100. Merissa says

    @Nik B.: Be yourself. The saying is beyond trite, but it's really the best thing you can do. We don't want to feel like we're putting you out, or that you have to change somehow to cope with our mindset (which isn't rational anyway – how do you cope with because blue banana treble forest?). After years of our irrationality mixed with the sometimes seemingly capricious cruelty of the world, both real and imagined, we are plutonium-clad against everyone's shit anyway, so if you're a nice person and not a YouTube commenter level of fuckface, it's highly unlikely that anything you say will make it worse. Just be yourself and know that you're bringing color into an existence that may be shades of gray otherwise, that being who you are helps us keep hold of who we are besides the depression. There's so much more to us, to everyone, but when you're drowning, all you can see/hear/feel/taste is water.


  101. Terry Towels says

    Ken, thank you. You've caught it beautifully. As did the veil and well descriptions, I've used them myself. (Also, it's like being buried under a paved world, with only a teaspoon to dig oneself out to light and air.) I think I've convinced my dearest friends that if (more probably when) I kill myself, IT'S NOT THEIR FAULT.

    I don't want to make others feel worse, but I've been in depressive struggles for 45 years. It can really wear one down. Of course, I've survived for 45 years, so it's a positive?

    I was in therapy for many years, and my psychologist said I was one of the hardest (most fearless) explorers of self she had ever met. It wasn't until the SSRIs came that all that therapy paid off. It was like a lightbulb went on in a dark cellar. I've been lucky, I've found the right chemical cocktail. It's taken a while, but my lows aren't so low and don't last longer than a year now.

    One of the best things about being retired is that I can finally just BE my depressive self without having to explain to anyone. We live in such a relentlessly keep-it-positive and cheerful-if-it-kills-me culture. I don't have to go to the workplace and shuck and jive. It's a big relief.

    A friend who struggles with depressions just says "I'm depressed today, and it's ok" in answer to "How ya doin? It really takes the pressure off when people can say "well, I'm depressed" and the other party goes "OK, wanna cancel plans or not, or do something else?"

    Fortunately for me, I've a spouse who understands that the depression is only about me. (Naturally cheerful spouse had to give depositions once, and became suicidal over same. Fortunately good friends and natural disposition overcame the suicidal thoughts)

    Even so, it's such a drag.

    I'm considered, by others, to be very accomplished in many areas. I think that I do all these things just to keep the depression at bay. Does anyone else have that experience? Do they think "Oh, that's no accomplishment, that's just a time passer to stay alive"?

  102. says

    BNT: Oh really? That's "the most charitable interpretation" you could give my comments? I am not a "depression skeptic," unless it's because I think major clinical depression is "ordinary" depression to a major degree. While ordinary (and by extension major) depression is rational in one sense it's irrational in another. Apathy is rational given what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes called the "vanity" of existence. It's rational to be fed up with the practice of law once one has seen firsthand the crimes that are perpetrated in the courts. Nevertheless, it's irrational because of your depression to spend a couple hours passively watching some stupid movie on TV, when you could spend it visiting your aunt whom you haven't seen in a while, even though you know and believe the latter would be a far better use of your time. This borders on what used to be called "sin." Let's not kid ourselves, or distinguish and carve out a special and elevated place for the majorly depressed as opposed to the minorly depressed. The former are excused, but the latter aren't? Don't get me wrong. I am not into judging, except maybe the judges themselves. I've become much more of a determinist in my old age, though by no means a materialist. I totally get what pseudonymously depressed wrote above: "For years, every day I was able to push through the depression and show up for life, my feeling about those I knew who couldn’t was 'there but for the grace of God go I.' I wasn’t wrong."

  103. That Anonymous Coward says

    @Nate I think they aren't helping much at all, other than making people think it is all solved once you take the pill. As Merissa showed with a real world example, people think what works for one should work for all. If there is a pill in an ad it works for everyone, right away, and the problem is solved.
    I got snippy with someone once (shocking I know), either on TechDirt or BoingBoing about the UN spending time, effort, money to get Africa wired for the internet. They seemed to think if you give them net access all the problems plaguing them would melt away. I pointed out the idea that they were unable to feed themselves, were in debt up to their eyeballs trying to get medicines, etc. were way more important than if the people in Africa could Like the UN on Facebook.

    People seem to be wired to accept that their experience is a shared experience. What worked for them, works for everyone.
    Because they could quit smoking, anyone can quit any bad 'addiction'.
    Because they can buy fresh fruit, everyone has access to it.

    I was once chided by a medical resident for not having insurance, because I had a job I should have been able to afford it and it was just as easy to get as stopping at the market for milk. The reality was I was cruising along just above the poverty line and the insurance I could get represented something like half of my income for the month. But in her mind because her job offered insurance at a good rate, everyone has access to that and they just need to take advantage of it.

    The worst example I can offer is HIV/AIDS. There are people who think 'the cocktail' makes it manageable and easy to handle. They saw the ad for the newest wonder drug showing someone climbing a mountain, but it didn't show the reality that when you took that drug you felt like crap all the time and were constantly using the bathroom. But the ad showed you could bounce up and go climb a mountain, so it works for everyone just like that.

  104. Malc says

    On "selfish": of course suicide by depressive people is selfish, it's the very essence of what the word means. The disconnect here seems to be a refusal to acknowledge that one can be simultaneously selfish and blameless, and indeed it is frequently a very good thing for someone to be selfish. In the case of depression, suicide is self-evidently selfish, but no-one should blame the victim.

    It also doesn't take a lot to know that, in a critical moment, breaking the pattern/cycle/whatever of depression holds the greatest possibility of averting suicide; this is why 72 hour holds exist: they offer a chance of disrupting the vicious vortex of depression. So if calling someone selfish disrupts their thoughts of killing themselves, do it!

    Incidentally, anyone who supports the sort of ass hats who advocate mandatory gun ownership needs to have a nice, unloaded firearm inserted into a lower orifice, because many many people have cast iron reasons to stay far away from guns.

    Lastly, I think I counted two people questioning whether depression was medical or an illness. Ignoring the Scientology loons (who are obviously naive to the point of incompetence, if not malice), what else would you call it? Bad humors? Grumpy Deity Syndrome? If problems with organs/glands/whatever that control blood is medical (e.g. with diabetes), why are problems with stuff inside your skull not medical?

  105. onehsancare says

    Ken, thanks for a great post in all respects. Your courage is commendable, your insight is extraordinary.

  106. says

    Will read comments when my balance is back–right now I'm hyperventilating.

    All I can say is something I think about you (quite often, as a matter of fact): you are a remarkably brave man, Ken.

    I'm glad you are well (and thank you)

  107. Jon says

    If a prosecutor willfully withholds exculpatory evidence can't we give him the proposed sentence of the defendant by default?? Oh, how about the quoted maximum sentence when the prosecutor leverages the misrepresentation of federal sentencing? I think that would be a more effective deterrent than misleading press releases!

    Those placed in positions of power should have both higher expectations and consequences placed upon them.

    And I can see why Ken previously said he struggled with broaching this post, and hope the outpouring of support is a good reward for the courage.

  108. says

    "Nevertheless, it’s irrational because of your depression to spend a couple hours passively watching some stupid movie on TV, when you could spend it visiting your aunt whom you haven’t seen in a while, even though you know and believe the latter would be a far better use of your time. "

    As the saying goes, "The stupid, it burns."

    You haven't read a thing anyone has written, have you? You're not comprehending something. To a person with clinical depression, it is as impossible for them to get out of that chair and go visit their aunt as it is for them to grow wings and fly to the moon. It is a *medical condition* with a *physical cause*, which cannot be wished away. You have presented no evidence contradicting this. Instead, you are engaging in scurrilous behavior, by trying to find reasons people would "choose" to believe this (besides the fact that there's overwhelming scientific evidence for it, but, nah, that's not important). Whenever someone attacks the "reason" for a belief by any means other than showing how the facts which sustain the belief are incorrect, you know they are aware they can't deny the facts and instead must ignore them and hope no one notices. Moronic statements like "This used to be called sin" indicate you believe you can just shame people into curing their illness. This is a reason depression tends to be more common among the religious — they're told they have failed to have faith, that if they trust in God and pray, he will cure them. Oddly, outside of a few weird cults, no one tells people with cancer, heart disease, or broken bones that they should just keep praying and then God will heal them, but mental illness is somehow different. If someone wants to pray for God to aid them in healing, that's pretty harmless, but there's a difference between "We're praying God guides the surgeon while he removes that tumor" and "You're depressed? How can you be depressed when God loves you? All you have to do is open yourself to his love, and you will be filled with joy."

  109. says

    "I think I counted two people questioning whether depression was medical or an illness."

    Depression is an illness like thinking is an illness:

    COULD man be drunk for ever
    With liquor, love, or fights,
    Lief should I rouse at morning
    And lief lie down of nights.

    But men at whiles are sober
    And think by fits and starts,
    And if they think, they fasten
    Their hands upon their hearts.

    A.E. Housman

    It's very possible others in this thread are right and I really don't know what I'm talking about. But I've been depressed, I've known people who were depressed, and my life has been significantly affected by acts committed by others in the throes of depression at the very beginning of my life. Plus, if our various separate experiences are really as insulated from each others' as some suppose, there's really not much to talk about, and little scope for empathy, across the board.

  110. says

    Depression is an illness like thinking is an illness:

    If you can say a thing like that, John, I think that you may have been depressed, but you haven't suffered from clinical depression. They are not alike.

  111. says

    "Depression is an illness like thinking is an illness."

    You've clearly been well-vaccinated.

    "It's very possible others in this thread are right and I really don't know what I'm talking about."

    Not merely possible, but very probable. An important distinction.

  112. Terry Towels says

    @John K. To echo Ken, it takes chemicals to get out of clinical depression, not just thought.

    I probably wasn't clear enough about how much thought I went into (20 years, off and on of therapy) to try and think my way out of depression. It wasn't until the SSRI that the depression receded. (I've friends who are still searching for their chemical cocktail.)

    After I first took it, I remember telling someone "You know, everybody kept telling me to think happy thoughts. Now I know I should have asked them "Just how do I do that?""

  113. says

    Plus, if our various separate experiences are really as insulated from each others' as some suppose, there's really not much to talk about, and little scope for empathy, across the board.

    This is wrong too.

  114. Avedis24 says


    I read your posts often, but I've never commented. As someone who has found himself on the end of some serious depression, I can only echo the comments of those above who merely thank you for stating things in such a way that it feels like someone else might understand. Too many people suffer like this and "front" as stated above, and because they don't talk about it, it becomes hard to believe anyone else knows what it feels like. I, like you, have a remarkably empathetic, caring, and loving wife. And yet, she can't even begin to comprehend what true depression actually feels like.

    Turning to the Swartz case, my law practice only briefly consisted of assisting a local criminal defense attorney with some federal practice (after my state appellate clerkship came to an end and before I landed at my current firm doing civil work). The federal sentencing guidelines are such an impenetrable mess that it should be prima facie journalistic malpractice to report on them absent real practical legal experience with them.

    In short, thanks for this inspiring post.

  115. Nate says

    I would like to say thank you to everyone for sharing their insights and experiences. As a child of people with depression (to what extent I actually have no idea, we don't talk about it really, giant elephant and all that) this has really been informative and allowed me to better understand where they are coming from, and how to be as understanding as possible. I would like to ask another question if that's ok. As a child (not the only child, but the only one my parents thought suffered from no depression what so ever) of people with depression, and the "happy kid" I often felt like I was a therapist, parent, and child all rolled into one. Sometimes I wanted to tell them that I couldn't do it any more. (Wow this is actually the first time I've told anyone. Thanks for the free therapy.) So my question is, at what point is it ok to say, mom, dad, I love you but I need to walk away for 20 min., a week, etc. and how am I affecting them? Or I can't handle this right now? (I obviously wouldn't be malicious, I love them and we have a great relationship.)

  116. says

    Ken, I'll have to take your word for it then. The point of my admittedly extravagant remark was my belief that depression itself is as natural to man as thinking, and that the former follows the latter. And I don't mean by depression mere sadness. Just as thinking can fly to extremes in schizophrenia, so can depression fly to extremes in major clinical depression. To say that is not to my mind to diminish the extremity or the seriousness of major clinical depression. Just like in the case of schizophrenia, I don't imagine one can pray or will it away. While my later comments made sense to me, they were in response to responses to my earlier ones, and somehow I think went far afield.

  117. says

    @John: my critique of your comment is that it seems to imagine clinical depression as being along a continuum of extreme sadness or colloquial "depression." But it's a thought disorder.

  118. Terry Towels says

    @Nate: Now you know why therapists have 45 minute sessions. I've been de facto therapist for a number of friends over the years (it's easier to handle other people's problems than one's own), but there is a limit.

    I usually say. "OK, I need a break now, how about we bake some cookies, or go for a walk, or play a game, or watch some television."

    But what you said is good. "I love you, but I need to be away from this for a while".

    I've got a friend who doesn't get my depression, and who really doesn't want to know about it. BUT, she checks in every now and then, with some little tidbit of gossip. That's all I need for sustenance. Funny, that. Just to know that someone is thinking about me is enough.

  119. says

    I appreciate all the kind words, people, but I just want to make it clear: we're not making Popehat a depression-themed blog. That's what Livejournal is for.

  120. says

    So my question is, at what point is it ok to say, mom, dad, I love you but I need to walk away for 20 min., a week, etc. and how am I affecting them? Or I can't handle this right now? (I obviously wouldn't be malicious, I love them and we have a great relationship.)

    I can't say how other people would react. I only know that I deeply appreciate honesty and openness, because the disease impacts your ability to perceive what people think and feel, and causes you to assume the worst.

  121. says

    …our brother Hugo, during one night of his journey home, was seized by a strange illness of his mind; he uttered unceasing laments about being doomed and sentenced to eternal damnation. he even wanted to lay murderous hands on himself and had to be prevented by force from doing so. Because of this strange illness that journey came to an extremely sad end. However, thanks to efficient help, Brussels was safely reached, and prior Thomas was immediately summoned. When he saw and heard all that had happened he suspected that Hugo was vexed by the same illness which had befallen King Saul; and remembering that Saul was relieved when David played the harp he at once permitted plenty of music to be made in the presence of Hugo and also other soothing performances to be arranged in order to chase away those fantasies. But with all this, Hugo's health did not improve; he continued to rave and to pronounce himself a child of perdition. In this sad state he came home to the monastery.

    The care and succor which our brethren extended to him with charity and compassion day and night, will be remembered by our Lord in all eternity and beyond even though at that time many people, including some magnates talked otherwise.

    There are many different opinions about the nature of the illness that had befallen this converse brother. Some said that it was a special kind of "frenesis magna," others asserted that he was possessed by a demon. Apparently some symptoms of both of these calamities were present; but I have invariably heard that at no time during his illness did he ever threaten anybody except, over and again, himself. And since this is not reported either of phrenetics or of the possessed, I think God alone knows what disease this was.

    Thus we can speak of two possible assumptions concerning the illness of our painter-brother converse. The first is that it was a natural one, a kind of frenzy. There exist various natural species of this disease: sometimes it is caused by "melancholy" victuals, sometimes by imbibing strong wine; then again by passions of the soul such as anxiety, sadness, overwork, or fear. Sometimes such illness stems from the malignity of corrupt humors that predominate in the human body. As regards those passions of the soul, I know for certain that this converse brother was much afflicted by them. For he was deeply troubled by the thought of how he could ever finish the works of art he wanted to paint, and it was said at that time that nine years would hardly suffice for it. Again and again, he was steeped in reading a Flemish book. I also fear that his illness was aggravated by the drinking of wine — though this was undoubtedly done for the sake of his guests. it is therefore possible that in this way, in the course of time, the basis was laid for his grave illness.

    The second possibility of explaining this disease is that it was sent by Divine Providence which, as it is written in the second Epistle of St. Peter, ch. 3, "is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." For this converse brother was highly praised in our order because of his special artistic achievements — in fact, he thus became more famous than he would have been outside our walls; and since he was only human — as are all of us — the various honors, visits, and accolades that came to him made him feel very important. Thus, since God did not want him to perish, He in His compassion sent him this humiliating disease which indeed made him very contrite. This our brother understood very well, and as soon as he had recovered he became most humble; on his own free will he refused to eat in our refectory and took his lowly meals with the lay brothers. I decided to speak of this in detail because I feel that God allowed all this to happen not only for the sake of punishing the sinner or forcing him to mend his ways but also in order to instruct all of us. . . . He lies buried in our cloister, under the open sky.

    Gaspar Ofhuys, writing ca. AD 1510 in an attempt to figure out what the heck was eating the brilliant painter Hugo van der Goes. Transl. Wolfgang Stechow.

  122. Terry Towels says

    Ah Ken, I'm just marking time until the next HOT courtroom case. Much more interesting than depression. ;D

  123. Terry Towels says

    Also, Ken, when I was in business, after a meeting, I'd always do what I called a "reality check" with my compadres in the meeting. Like you said, it really helped stop the thinking-the-worst head.

    IE "OK guys, I need a reality check. How did that meeting go?"

  124. That Anonymous Coward says

    @Nate – There is no correct magic amount of time, the correct time is when your needing a break. While you want to help and be there, if your getting worn down by it you can't be as engaged.
    You know them better than we do, so you know what to say.
    Even if it isn't as eloquent as you'd like it to be, be honest and open.

  125. Nate says

    Thanks for all the input. I will definitely be thinking about it next time I get overwhelmed.

  126. Terry Towels says

    @Nate. To put it simply, it's not your job to be your parent's therapist or confidant. It's to be their kid.

    It won't be easy for you or them to change (I suggest checking in with a therapist to learn about boundaries and how to set them– I had two depressed parents as well, and I had to learn about setting boundaries)

  127. says

    But I do experience depression not as a mood but as a thought disorder. Except I'm not so sure that it's really a "disorder" because it primarily consists of negative thoughts about myself that seem to have a foundation in reality. My comment about the TV and the aunt was a personal anecdote. Where does the "vanity" Ecclesiastes speaks about primarily exist but in myself? I've often thought that the real "Problem of Evil" consists not so much in earthquakes or even in the evil that men do but in my own negligence. In this regard my newfound determinism is a consolation, albeit a dubious one.

  128. Avedis24 says

    As brilliant as this post was, it doesn't equal the brilliance of "That's what LiveJournal is for."

  129. Terry Towels says

    @John K. Someone once said "We're all doing the best we can; if we could do better, we would". Relax a little.

  130. Jen says

    Darkness Visible by William Styron is, in my opinion, an excellent read if you're interested in major depressive disorder and what it can look from the inside. I inherited it from my grandmother; it was interesting to see that the depression and anxiety had deep roots within the family tree. It's always nice to know you're not alone in your struggles, even if it's not so nice to see that so many struggle. I wish you all peace.

  131. AlphaCentauri says

    Thank you for this. There are too many people spouting opinions of what depressed people ought to do or ought to think or ought to take, and the depressed people who are dealing with things most successfully often are unwilling to offer their more informed opinions due to the stigma. We should be able to discuss depression as openly as we discuss diabetes or hypertension.

    Everybody's different. Telling someone they ought not to be using a treatment that is working for them because you have some bias against using it is just ignorant. Some people with severe depression do get better spontaneously, but many don't. Most get better with just about any antidepressant, but some are resistant to almost all (and very few of those severely depressed people are in enough control of their lives to safely take Nardil, with all its food and drug interactions). Some have been depressed so long that they don't even realize there's anything wrong; others develop disabling depression in middle age, almost like a neurodegenerative disease. Some people get depressed as a manifestation of diseases that are clearly neuroanatomic, like Huntington's Chorea, even when no other symptoms of that disease have begun yet.

    I recall being disappointed in first grade when the nun told us that people who commit suicide go to hell, since there didn't seem to be any way around that. But it wasn't until I was in college taking Abnormal Psychology that I realized not everyone thought about suicide or thought it was an attractive idea. (And people being afraid of death still mystifies me.)

  132. Terry Towels says

    Back to legal systems. There's a book,"Vicars of Christ: Dark Side of the Papacy" written by Peter de la Rosa.

    It's a fascinating book about church laws and how they developed.

    As I remember, suicide became a sin during the plagues. People were killing themselves because they had lost everybody and were alone. To stop this and insure a workforce, the church made suicide (and contraceptives and abortion) sins.

    Priests had to become celibate (and immediately lose their wives and children) after the church decided it didn't want any potential income to be lost to inheritance.

    I think we don't often realize how much of our civil law is influenced by old politics.

  133. Name Witheld says

    I can't thank you enough for posting this. Major depression is an insidious, evil thing, that is impossible to understand unless you've been there — but your posting at last tries to lay it out in understandable terms, and does it generally better than most.

    I, too, am a "high-functioning depressive" for which nothing has really worked to even make things better — except for the first six months I was on medication, which was very much a "clouds parted, sun shone down" kind of experience… which then went away, and I've never been able to get it back. (It's cruel, to be able to get a glimpse of how easy life could be, of what normal life is supposed to be like, and then have it ripped away from you.)

    People don't see how much I suffer, how hard it is just to make it through the day, every day. Not my coworkers, not my friends, not my family. I've already drained my family and my friends making it this far, they really have no support left to give me. So I suffer alone, in hidden pain, surrounded by people but completely alone.

    The one thing "good" about the Aaron situation — if you can call it that — is I haven't really heard anyone trying to say how selfish he was for taking his own life. It's incredibly frustrating to continually hear statements like that, even though I know it's just a symptom of people not understanding what it's really like, by not having been there. If they knew what it was like, maybe they'd realize how selfish it is to want to keep someone in this world, when all it means for that someone is continued suffering.

    Thank you for posting this. It couldn't have been easy.

  134. htom says

    @John Kindley — It sounds a little like you've confounded situational depression and major clinical depression. While there is something like a spectrum between being depressed : situational depression : major clinical depression , that spectrum is kinda like radium dial : nuclear detonation : stellar ignition. Although that's getting brighter, not darker.

  135. More Anonymous Than Usual says

    My wife and I are both physicians. I have never suffered from depression, but I knew that my wife had had two bouts of major depression before I met her. During the second, she was intensely suicidal and quite successful at lying to friends, family, and doctors about her suicidal intent, and quite possibly would have completed a suicide had biological accident not intervened; in the midst of comprehensive treatment failure she had a generalized seizure, which proved curative. I knew all this, and I have had extensive training on depression, seen countless patients, etc.

    And yet. I lived through a third depressive episode, and I only realize now in retrospect that I did not (do not?) understand depression. I thought my wife should respond to me, should appreciate my efforts to support her, that she should listen when I explained all the ways that her life wasn't so bad. I resented her that she didn't, that she would lie to me like she lied to everyone else before.

    I am fortunate that she has a disease that is eminently treatable with a very low risk procedure, and we live somewhere it is readily available. Not everyone is so lucky.

    Anyways, this is just to say thanks for your post, and I understand and agree with what you're saying.

  136. says

    The intent, by any government actor, to "send a message" to any person other than the defendant, should result in immediate dismissal with prejudice and atourneys fees paid by that government actor personally.

    The _system_ as a whole should be and send the only message.

    Using one person to "send a message" is scape-goating in tweed clothing.

  137. Nate says

    @AlphaCentauri: I can tell you the reasons why I'm afraid of death.

    1. Death is the ultimate commitment. Yes, I generally try not to second guess my choices too much, but that doesn't stop me from having plans B-F just in case A doesn't work out. (You should see my back up career list.) Death is very final; there's no changing my mind if it turns out that I don't actually enjoy being dead. (I mean save for the zombie apocalypse.)

    2a. I'm afraid of not being. As someone who generally works with things concrete and tangible, the idea of ceasing to exist can be disconcerting.

    2b. I'm afraid of not being me. This ties into my fear of Alzheimer's, dementia, traumatic brain injury, etc. Although, death is probably less frustrating bc I won't have to watch me stop being me.

    3. There's sooooo much cool stuuf that is going to happen in the future. I'm afraid of not getting to do things I want to, not getting to see things I want to, not hearing stories, and on and on. I would be quite disappointed if I kicked the bucket April 1 and didn't get to see the next Prenda chapter.

  138. EnnuiThePeople says

    New fan of the blog; IANAL, but I DO suffer from major clinical depression, so I feel qualified to speak up.

    "I was depressed once, I know how you feel" is on par with, when suffering a severe migraine, hearing the inevitable "oh, I had a really bad headache once, too."
    Or the well-meaning gentlemen who think they can somehow comprehend what natural childbirth felt like for me because somebody once kicked 'em in the tender vittles in a touch football game.

    For the meds-skeptics (and everyone else) I recommend looking up the Affective Spectrum Disorders (the Wikipedia article is a good place to start.) Science is uncovering more and more evidence that anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and a host of other disorders are interrelated and very much biological in origin, NOT psychological.

    Thank you so much for posting this, Ken.

  139. says

    On depression: There was a very long period of time in my life (maybe five years) when my main sustaining thought was "I cant kill myself until my (two) cats die, since they wouldn't understand and there is nobody to take them, so getting my (final) relief would be unfair."

    This thought just camped out in my head, conversational a factual. It was a thing as real and present as the coffee table in my living room.

    One day I realized that my medication was working because I hadn't had that thought in months.

    So depression is one thing, but one of the harder things is that relief from depression is not the sudden sunshine promised by the television either.

    I think one of the reasons that young people who go on medication often kill themselves is because their relief isn't what they hoped for.

    There is also the siren call of "I am better now so I can stop taking the medication". There are some for whom this is true, but for most it's a terrible trap. They are constantly hearing from people who say how they'd hate to be "stuck" with a lifetime of "taking chemicals/pills" because that would make them feel so dependent. Well if you are depressed FUCK THAT NOISE. Nobody would try to talk you out of insulin dependency if you were diabetic.

    We are _all_ addicted to chemicals. Hell, I have a terrible oxygen dependency, I can barely go thirty seconds without taking a hit… good thing it's still free.

    I have a medication that gets me up to "bored and kinda alone", and I am damn lucky to have found it.

    Depression can look like other things. I am an evil hard-ass grumpy sort-of-heartless mean fuck when I am depressed. People wouldn't look at me and think "depressed" at all. That is the outward result of mustering the myself to act at all. The outward affect is pure spill-over aggression. Based somewhere in the "look if I have to put up with all this shit, your plaintive bleating about that trivial problem (this coffee is too bitter) earns you nothing but scorn" or something. It isn't a deliberate trade off, but lets just say its the normally sick result of comparative empathy.

    So anybody who suggests that depression has a single list of outward signs, like a checklist, is kind of full of shit. I know depressed people who deliberately don an affectation of cheerfulness in particular settings because they feel the must. Its a cheerfulness powered by pure hate and despair.

    The only true universal warning sign I have ever found is "don't tell me how I feel" or "don't tell my how I should feel" if and only if you can force someone to speak on the topic. So not so much a warning sign as a litmus. But who knows how many cases I have missed for being unable or unwilling to confront them that deeply.

    Every case of depression is different. Don't even believe the depressed when they are assessing others. It's like snowflakes. Even the "every case is different" assessment is grossly wrong.

  140. Adela says

    Unfortunately the Nerd tribe is more interested in Aron being a martyr not for the metal health/illness issues but rather for the entrenched idea that the world goes out of it's way to bully them. Clutching their victim cards like a security blanket, the Nerd tribe does not want to face the fact that world bullies any and everyone and that nerds are not special in that regard. As you make clear in point 2 Aron was not all the special in being targeted only that his tribe got loud and hand wringing about it.

  141. says

    @Nate: the most calming thought about death I have ever found:

    "You can't plan for oblivion". Whatever you are now, that won't be you when you are dead. IF there is just cessation, there is no contingency to be had. IF you still are, then whatever you are, it won't be you at all because, among other things, the spectre of death will be gone from it's psyche; the remnant may be a superset or a subset.

    When you examine all the theories they tell lead to a set with exactly two elements. Oblivion and thing-that-cannot-be-imagined.

    Consider reincarnation. Why don't you remember your past lives? (answer, because they are not you.) You-now will be to future-you as you-passed is to you-now. If reincarnation is true, there is -nothing- for you to do about it now.

    Consider eternal punishment/reward world. All existent formulations about such an afterlife are most likely false. If there is a judge-god, all such are "mysterious beyond comprehension" so any claim to comprehend the inconceivable are improperly conceived. In this case you are a plaything in a blind maze with no knowledge about whether the cheese you smell is trapped. Either way there is nothing to be done about it as you are under divine duress.

    Consider oblivion. There won't even be a busy signal. Thee won't be a transition to nothing. There won't be a you there to be disappointed. There is nothing that can be done to change this.

    No matter what line you take, if you take it far enough, you will realize that even Pascal's Wager is a losing proposition. It isn't safer to pick a god since in the judgement/penalty system you are statistically certain to pick the wrong one.

    I rationally believe in the nothing. What happens to the data in your computer when you turn it off?

    But here is a thought. According to the best understood principles of physics to date, this moment right here and right now is _eternal_. It will have always existed forever. We may not know how to go back and revisit it, but it is real and it is right there. So you are already eternal. This here is forever.

    The universe is a cumulative "small wish", whit nary a big-wish to be found. The great and terrible men of history don't spring up like Darth Vader in response to a writers need for principle actors. Hitler and Gandi both came about from the formation of Hitler and Gandi sized holes in the societies in which they emerged. All men are men of their times. Every drinker of tea set the destiny of the East India Tea Company, every dash of spice set the prices and the routes. But only by a nonce.

    It's not just the battles, or it's not _even_ the battles, that ring through history.

    Every snowflake in an avalanche would plead innocent, but the avalanche comes nonetheless.

    So too you and your life. If you spend all your now trying to second-guess a then that you _must_ get wrong if it exists at all, then you beggar your now and all the nows you could improve just by deciding between paper and plastic.

  142. says

    I think some of the reactions to the word "selfish" are misplaced. IF you re-read the post first using this word you will discover something…

    Many people having self-distructive ideation use the "but that would be selfish" meme as a delaying tactic, a bold-handed treatment, to keep themselves alive.

    See my comment above about live cats. Sometimes you only survive by understanding that it _is_ a purely selfish act to kill yourself. It is the ultimate me-first activity. It is the "I am going to take my ball and go home" of mental health.

    You are used to thinking of selfish and a pejorative, exactly the way "depression" is treated by others. "Selfish" is a hot-button word for you. Understand a deal with that.

    All negative traits have a basis in use and fact. People _are_ selfish, often, every damn day. So what? The fact that suicide _is_ a selfish act kept me alive through the dark times. Don't knock it.

    Wanting to kill yourself is a symptom. Doing it is the absolute definition of selfish. That is not a "bad" truth. Full understanding of this selfishness, and the outward empathy it can engender, is a lifeline not a condemnation.

  143. wgering says

    Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
    We people on the pavement looked at him:
    He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
    Clean favored, and imperially slim.

    And he was always quietly arrayed,
    And he was always human when he talked;
    But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
    'Good-morning,' and he glittered when he walked.

    And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
    And admirably schooled in every grace:
    In fine, we thought that he was everything
    To make us wish that we were in his place.

    So on we worked, and waited for the light,
    And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
    And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
    Went home and put a bullet through his head.

    If you'll excuse me, I need to go have a smoke and some me-time now. Maybe call a few people and let them know I love them.

  144. Narad says

    According to the best understood principles of physics to date, this moment right here and right now is _eternal_.

    Would you care to expound on this? My physics degree is rather dated, but I do try to keep up, and quite frankly I haven't the slightest idea what you're trying to assert.

    It is the "I am going to take my ball and go home" of mental health.

    You assume that you get to demand that others play your game. It doesn't work like that. I can very much empathize with your cat story; mine have kept me going more than once. But eventually, it's usually possible to plan for this (perhaps deceitfully) unless one is utterly isolated.

  145. dirigible says

    Clutching their victim cards like a security blanket, the Nerd tribe

    You're really not starving that narrative, are you?

  146. ls says

    Thank God for a fabulous therapist and for the RIGHT combination of medications! That combination took a long time to find. But, having found it, it is the only reason I am able to get out of bed every morning and face the day. Without the medications, I would be lost.

    Don't get me wrong, weekly meetings with my therapist going back 25 years is a HUGE part of keeping me sane.

    Over the years, the medication combination has required periodic tweaking. Over the years there has been the periodic slip (God those were scary!). But overall, I have been lucky…my depression has been managed well.
    I have been able to keep up an acceptable front for the world.

    Notice I said an acceptable front. Does this mean that I am skipping through the fields up to the storybook house surrounded by the white picket fence? NOT ON YOUR LIFE! Every day is still an ongoing adventure and an ongoing effort to interact with the rest of the world. Would I prefer staying home and not answering the phone or door? YOU BET! But I can't. I have to go out and earn a living. That means I have to interact with the world.

    I have a few, very few, REAL friends. Beyond that, it is really hard for me to connect with other people. I have never married, haven't really dated much in the past 10 years. I hate parties and family events. I go because I don't have a choice. I find a place out of the way to hide until it is over. Then run home as fast as I can.

    Work is just a place where I have to put up a better front. I end up changing jobs a lot. Not because I am asked to leave, but because I often find the situation intolerable. I can only deal with the "people" for just so long. Either I let loose and lay into someone or I hold back and then just cannot hold back any longer and have to get out. Usually about 5 yrs.

    No one understands the depth of loneliness that depression brings. No one understands the shame, the lack of accomplishment, the guilt.

    You did a fabulous job in describing what it feels like. THANK YOU.

    I can direct others to your write-up and hopefully they will get a better understanding of me.

  147. AlphaCentauri says

    @Nate: I guess it's my Irish ancestry. The Celts were good mercenaries because they didn't fear death. They thought the afterlife was a simple fact and that it would be a good thing. Death was just a bump in the road. They would even lend money with promissory notes to be paid off in the afterlife. The Elves sailing off to the west at the end of Lord of the Rings is very much like the Celtic idea of death. Perhaps if I had Chinese ancestry — where the traditional afterlife was a world governed by bureaucrats who had to be appeased and bribed — I might have some fear of death to offset the thanatos. Lots of traditions had an afterlife that consisted of eternal boredom, so that would definitely be scary to me.

    Anyway, in my family, death is something to be joked about and a funeral is a jolly family reunion. We have some Italian in-laws, and they're very out of place with their greetings of "Oh, I'm so sorry" and their long faces at funerals.

  148. AlphaCentauri says

    @ls — I can definitely see that might have been my path. I had a friend in high school that was going that way, and I saw myself in her. I decided I would have to consciously make a change. I made a decision to never turn down an opportunity for a social occasion, no matter how uninteresting it sounded. I looked for people I admired and acted the way I thought they would act — eventually it really became me instead of being playing a character. And I picked a career where I would be needed, all the time, where I wouldn't have the chance to sit and stare at a wall or call in sick.

    I've wondered how Ken has the time to blog or do pro bono when he's got his practice to run, but if that's what it takes to keep him out of depression and intellectually sharp (depression causes large areas of the brain to go quiet) it's a good investment of his time.

  149. JJB says

    Thanks for addressing the shallow hackers who think this was only about one person and one group. I have known a couple of people bullied into accepting a "deal" even though they professed innocence but feared a system that scooped them up, destroyed their business, and threatened them with years in prison, solely on the word of two previously convicted informants. Informants who had a very clear grudge against their former employers. 6 months was worth it to end the nightmare. Very sad.

    And many thanks for saying things about major depression that I could not find the words to express.

  150. perlhaqr says

    John Kindley: On the continuum, you are partially right. Bad circumstances or events can make a person "sad", or even "depressed" for a while. But my endocrine system doesn't make the same chemicals as a baseline human does, and just like a baseline human who doesn't eat for a while will get low blood sugar, this is the equivalent of being diabetic, and just not making the insulin your body needs. (As Robert White said above, and is an analogy I've used before.)

    And it's no more possible for me to will or think or reason myself out of depression than it is possible for my friend J. to will or think or reason himself out of his insulin dependent diabetes.

  151. says

    I hear you, but it does seem that we can more or less stop our thoughts and empty our minds, at least for short periods of time. That's what meditation is all about. Granted, as soon as we descend again into the realm of thoughts it becomes much harder to keep them happy. But the capacity to stop our thoughts at least suggests the capacity to stop our bad thoughts.

    Whether mind is a reflection of chemicals or chemicals a reflection of mind is an interesting question, asked by mind.

  152. AlphaCentauri says

    @John Kindley —

    That's why depressed people can't "just do something different." They don't have their entire brain anatomy at their disposal during those times. They can't even remember where they left their keys or what they went upstairs for, because their attention is too poor to move things into short term memory. They fear they've got Alzheimer's disease because they feel like the control knob on their brain is stuck on "stupid."

  153. says

    @AlphaCentauri: But I too have felt stuck on "stupid" much of the time for most of my life, which is why I've felt qualified to speak on this issue while acknowledging that others' experiences are even more extreme. But you know what? I AM kind of stupid, and it appears that some commenters on this thread would concur. By the way, I think the account of the illness afflicting Hugo the painter / brother posted up thread by David was tremendous.

  154. princessartemis says

    John, look into cognitive behavior therapy. It sounds like something which would interest you. It works for some people, but I'm not sure it does so very often without some medication too to help get a depressed person to the point where their thoughts are some semblance of rational.

    My typical experience when my depression lifts, whether on its own or with medical help, is I think to myself, looking back, "How the hell did any of that make any sense to me?!" Why? It's because, unsurprisingly, a hallmark of irrational and disordered thinking is that it is irrational and disordered.

    It's a bit scary how easy it is, once on the outside of my own depression, to identify in what ways my thoughts went off the rails, but if I could do that while depressed…well, I wouldn't be depressed.

  155. says

    One reason I don't trust psychiatrists much relates to the interview I had to have with a Navy psychiatrist after I told the Naval Academy in my 3rd year that I was going to resign and explore a possible vocation to the Catholic priesthood. Like the Navy chaplains, this guy's function was to make sure the wheels of the war machine kept turning with as little friction as possible.

    But here's THE inescapable fact: Everyone we love is going to die and be forgotten (unless there is a God). All of our works will amount to nothing (unless there is a God). That is a fact, and it's depressing, and it's more depressing the more we cling to the things of this world. We should learn from this fact.

  156. says

    a)Why does the existence of a god matter? If you accept Christian theology, then, this entire universe will soon be wiped away, creating "a new heaven and a new Earth", and the overwhelming majority of all the people who have ever lived, and an even MORE overwhelming majority of the creators, the thinkers, the people who have done the most with their lives, will be tortured for eternity. Further, to believe this, one must believe there exists in the universe a being with infinite capacity to prevent evil, and who does nothing about it, using "free will" as an excuse. (Does that work for us? If I see someone being mugged, and do nothing, do I get to excise any guilt I might feel by saying, "Hey, it was a matter of free will. Who am I to interfere?" If God gets to use that excuse, why can't I? But I digress.) Now, that's depressing. Good thing I don't believe it. "If God existed, we would have to kill him."

    b)In the ~15 billion year history of the universe, and the 10^100 years it's (probably) got left, in 500 billion galaxies (or more), each with 200 to 400 billion stars… there is only one me. I am singularly unique. Out of all infinity, out of all time and all space, this moment I exist is the only moment anything exactly like me exists. Even if there are infinite parallel words, with infinite me, each and every one of them is, in their own way, unique. My singular existence is more than sufficient reason for me to continue experiencing it. I do not exist to repay the past or to serve the future; I exist for me, for here, for now, for this world, for this life. I am not here to be the plaything, puppet, or pawn of any god, spirit, demon, or devil. I have no purpose for being except the purpose I choose for myself. (At the moment, that purpose is to *finally* get a level 90 character in WoW. I've only been playing since 2005, after all. You'd think I'd hit the level cap eventually.)

  157. perlhaqr says

    John: For what it's worth, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was the thing (combined with new / different drugs) that finally really worked for me. Of course, it took getting to the point where all of the possible perceived consequences and downsides to going to therapy were outweighed by the very highly probable consequences of not going and possibly getting better. It really helped that I found a therapist that I clicked with and got along well with, and likewise felt was trustworthy. (I'm kind of paranoid. I am concerned that admissions of mental health problems will be used in the future to possibly curtail my Second Amendment rights. Given recent events and the reactions thereto, I don't know if that's actually "paranoia" or just "accurately predicting the future", but anyway.)

    And too, while meditation may help to clear the mind, meditation is no more visiting your Aunt than watching television is visiting your Aunt. *shrug*

    Depression has very nearly cost me my marriage, and has definitely cost me some job opportunities, occasionally quite lucrative ones. I tried "thinking my way out of it" for a very long time. For me, at least, it did not work.

  158. says

    Lizard: Suffice to say, I did not become a priest. I find my lights in Angelus Silesius, William Law, Meister Eckhart, Max Stirner, Leo Tolstoy, Aldous Huxley, and Ernst Juenger. "Before Jesus was, I am."

  159. princessartemis says

    Lizard, one can accept Christian theology without thinking anyone is getting tortured for eternity. I'm not going to get started on the whys or wheretofors here, it's not the place for it. I'm just letting you know that there is some room for improvement on your base assumptions in that regard.

  160. says

    @perlhaqr: I totally concur with your point about meditation. And though I understand why some would think the tenor of my comments has been to suggest those with depression should be able to man up and think their ways out of it, this has not at all been my intention, though we should always keep our eyes open for freedom.

    I posit an identity with God, a sonship. How free will and grace fits with that remains a mystery. But I will say that the spiritual determinism I find most sensible these days leads me far from the spiritual determinism of the Westboro freaks, and to the conclusion that all will ultimately be saved. I do however pray that certain sons of bitches get it good and hard in Purgatory. But that may just be my chronic stupidity talking.

  161. says

    I don't normally leave comments. But as someone in technology who suffers from Depression/Anxiety thank you for this. It's so hard to put in to words what I have struggled with my adult life.

  162. Mematematica says

    I'm a regular reader of your words, Ken, I enjoy them very much. Today is my first comment and just dropped by to say: Thank you.

  163. says

    One of your most profound posts, not just because it's a topic of deep importance and wide discussion, but because you really work hard to reach across the gulf and communicate the feeling of major depression to those who haven't experienced it. I know this wasn't easy for you, and I'm happy that you've applied your gift with words to this difficult issue. This is a case that is widely misunderstood and I think this post will help teach many people who have been galvanized by it. Thank you!

  164. Bryant Jones says

    Thanks for this. I have suffered from depression for 30 years. Most of the time I have managed to hide it from others. I didn't even realize that was what it was until 11 years ago when the "suicidal ideation" took over my life. Medication helps, but I really should get more counsel than I do.

    I know you are right when you say you are glad your wife doesn't really understand. But I find most people aren't even empathetic. They don't really care to understand. They want you to "tough it out". I wish you didn't have to suffer and fight this as you do. But I selfishly am glad to find someone that really understands.

  165. says

    I also want to give a second comment thanking all the commenters for their compelling stories of their own struggles, as both sufferers of depression and people in the lives of depressed people. I have myself only dealt with occasional minor depression and can only hope to gain an inkling more understanding of this unfortunately common ailment from these descriptions. Thank you all for your bravery in discussing it.

  166. flip says

    Too late to join in the conversation, and normally I wouldn't bother but for the fact that this was a wonderful post. If others happen to see my comment, well, that's a bonus.

    Some people think that Aaron Swartz must have been driven to suicide by extraordinary treatment because he didn't act the way a depressed person at risk of suicide acts.

    People like to think that someone who is suicidal is obvious about it. Speaking from my own personal experience, "misery may love company, but depression is something you do on your own". Nobody ever sees it coming because part of the symptoms of depression is
    a) thinking no one cares so you don't share it
    b) most people will ignore most signs as normal 'sadness', or 'having a bad day' and not take people's actual state seriously, so that cries for help will really be dismissed: *cough* @John Kindley *cough*
    c) just trying to get along. Sometimes we don't want to be the depressed person, we just want to live life and get on with the day – so we ignore it ourselves
    d) it's there all the time, so it can often feel normal – it took me many years as a teen to figure out my version of a bad mood is not the same as most people's
    e) I'd also point out that not all countries have medications advertised direct to the public; this can both contribute to and detract from stigma and related perceptions about mental health

    Frankly, if you're alive and depressed for long amounts of time then with or without assistance you've already found some way of managing it – not necessarily successfully, but well enough to hide it from most people and/or have your own version of 'up' days. Today for me is an 'up' day, but that doesn't mean that tomorrow I won't be drowning in moodiness.

    With all respect to Swartz's girlfriend, my own parents never knew and I've been suicidal before I hit puberty. If that kind of logic worked, no one would ever kill themselves because everyone around them would have figured it out long before they tried.

    A ridiculous percentage of the population takes psychotropic medications, but there are still strong social taboos against discussing mental illness, and certainly against admitting to suffering from it.

    Not just taboos – an awful lot of people simply deny that it exists at all. And a RIDICULOUS amount of victim blaming. I agree with Lily that making suicide into a thing about selfishness does exactly that, blame the victim; and also with what Lizard said.

    I would add one thing though and that is that of course external triggers can and do make the illness worse.

    @Chris Berez

    Thank you for sharing your story. So much of your early life was like mine and it's well, for lack of a better way of putting it, comforting to know that I'm not the only one. (And yet sad at the same time)


    And you just described my life now… almost exactly.

    @John Kindley

    Was depression as much of an epidemic before God died?

    Are you somehow trying to blame depression on a lack of religion? In which case may I suggest you get your head out of the sand and try looking at some history books?

    The idea that mental illness only affects certain people is also a misconception: it affects any one of any race/religion/class/etc.

    Nevertheless, it's irrational because of your depression to spend a couple hours passively watching some stupid movie on TV, when you could spend it visiting your aunt whom you haven't seen in a while, even though you know and believe the latter would be a far better use of your time

    Like I was saying above… classic victim blaming. Has it occured to you that there are days when you literally can not, do not, will not, get out of bed? It's not a choice, one of the big symptoms of depression is LETHARGY so overwhelming that you can not even do basic things – like eating. If you experience this lethargy but still think you should just 'get up and do things', then well, you're like me: victim blaming without meaning to or wanting to. It's still a symptom and it's still important to recognise that you are accidentally blaming yourself – because it *is* tempting to say to yourself, "you're not trying hard enough".

    @Nik B

    If you are friends with someone who suffers from depression, how do you help? What is it that you can do, if anything, to be a good friend to people who suffer from depression, without being patronizing and without making things worse?

    The thing that works for me – and I can't say this will be for everyone – is that if I don't want to talk, don't push me to do it. When I'm ready to talk, I'll talk. When I talk, just listen (sometimes a nodding head is all you need) and don't judge. Support is what's needed, and if you broach the subject of meds and/or professional help, do it gently and with respect. Don't treat the person like they're lazy or that they need to try harder to be more 'normal'. Oh and yeah, don't look for ways to 'cheer them up', it doesn't work like that… And what Ken said.


    So if calling someone selfish disrupts their thoughts of killing themselves, do it!

    The only thing that would do for me is push me further away and convince me you're an ****. If anything that makes it 10 times worse.

    For everyone who talks about shame: don't. There's nothing to be ashamed of. If people make you feel that way, then they should be ashamed. You are who you are and you don't find people with diabetes or cancer feeling ashamed, do you? Shame is just another way society plays the victim-blaming card.

    … And lastly: thank you Ken for sharing. I found myself nodding my head to all of it; as a fellow sufferer I can empathise and understand, although likely not in the same way. It affects us all in different ways so we may have a shared 'experience' but it's never quite the same.

    And thank you thank you thank you for so many comments that are *exactly* what I would have said or have felt, only expressed ten times better.

  167. says

    flip, I think you've failed to understand my comments.

    I've sometimes wondered whether I would have been suicidal during the course of my lifetime but for the fact that my mother and then my maternal grandfather committed suicide. This fact seems to have made it out of the question for me, almost unthinkable. Walker Percy said something similar.

    When I wrote my comment about the death of God I was certainly aware that religious folk could be depressed, even before the death of God. This is one reason I so greatly appreciated the account of Hugo the painter / brother posted by David. But there is a logical connection between nihilism and depression.

    "Trying" may itself be a large part of the problem. Perhaps if we stop "trying" we will rise from our beds.

  168. says

    I need to clarify my previous comment by emphasizing the "almost" in "almost unthinkable." If I was facing 7 years in prison, or even the choice between falsely "confessing" my "guilt" to subhumans and a strong likelihood of 7 years in prison, not only suicide but manslaughter would be thinkable.

  169. Kat says

    For me it's when someone knocks on the door. I wake up at all hours of the night thinking someone is knocking at my door and have to creep into the living room to check before I can go back to sleep. (Part of this is due to a neighbor who sometimes gets drunk and thinks my apartment is his apartment, so he ends up rattling the doorknob while he's trying his key & then knocking when it doesn't work. I used to be able to sleep at night, dammit.)

    If someone knocks at the door while I'm at home with someone else, I have to run into the other room and hide while the other person answers it.

    If someone knocks while I'm home alone I can at least answer it (I can't NOT answer it, because I will just sit at home and have panic attacks until someone comes and helps me), but I'm a wreck for hours to days afterward.

    The phone I can ignore, email I can ignore (I tend to procrastinate horribly on those, actually), but somehow if I don't answer the door it just kills me.

    Related: paying medical bills. I recently had two $10 medical bills that needed paying and it took an effort of will to make myself do it. They were getting ready to go to collections before I managed it. All I had to do was put my information in the envelope and send it. I don't understand why it wigs me out so much. I have no trouble paying any other type of bill.

    I guess I'm saying this hit home. It might also be time to go back to the doctor soon, because reading this made me remember the symptoms that precede a major depressive episode & I'm having a lot of them. So, thank you for writing about this, especially now.

  170. princessartemis says

    John, for a few comments there, I was giving you the benefit of the doubt, but I really can't anymore. I won't tell you to stop talking, but I really wish you would, so that next time I get so depressed that taking a shower once in the space of three weeks is too much work, it will be easier to forget any future Yoda-like pearls of wisdom so they don't contribute to all the bullshit that is keeping me in bed. Since, after all, if I just *did* it, why, the clouds would part and rays of sunlight would gently caress me and choirs of angels would sing, right? Right? No, it wouldn't. I'll tell you what will happen: I'll just feel worse for having taken so long, berate myself for being a filthy slob (which will be good for a few solid hours of self-hatred), then crawl back into bed and wish I was dead. Oh, except, I can stop thinking those bad thoughts too, right? Not if I try, but if I just *doooooooo*.

    I'm glad I'm not depressed right now :(

  171. says

    princessartemis, Far be it from me to give anybody any advice, to preach or to exhort. Flip accused me of victim-blaming because he thought I was saying we should just "try" harder. Nope, I wasn't saying that. Am I now saying we should try harder not to try? No. But at your request I will stop talking.

  172. says

    I really don't know, at this point, what John Kindley means to say–but what I read in his words is the kind of stuff that makes me not call my family, answer the phone when they call, and actively wish they didn't have my address, so they couldn't drop on me for a month-long visit unannounced (it has happened), in order to "deal" with my depression.

    Because having them explaining to me what's wrong with me and how it will all go away, à la John Kindley, will make it all better.


  173. says

    Whatever I've had to say applies primarily with reference to myself. I've shared it as both self-expression and on the off chance that it my strike a chord with another soul. I recognize no judge over me. I have very little use for shalts and shalt-nots. I am free to kill myself, to kill another, to leave my wife, to resign from the bar, to lay in bed all day, to berate myself for my stupidity. I've associated with drug addicts, in the lowest dens of iniquity, and came very close to becoming one myself. I am sovereign. I've appropriated what I value, from the Gospel, from my experiences, from the authors I mentioned.

    Though I recognize no judge over me, others may judge me, and I may value their judgment. But it is only my own judgment which allows their judgment to reach and touch me. Likewise, I do not forswear judging others, though I do so at my peril. Others may impose on me, and I may impose on them. Once I called the police to do a welfare check on a client who hadn't answered his door or answered the phone in a week. They found him on the brink of death, after he had apparently sunk into a deep depression following the death of his partner. He died in the hospital a few weeks later. He had thanked me for saving his life, although I don't know whether he really meant it.

    I am nothing. I am not happy with myself, nor should I be. I am not free. Probably if I was tortured I would betray my best friend. Like my cousin, who I admire more than any man in this world, I may someday find myself overcome by insanity. Perhaps when I get old I will develop dementia, and forget all my loved ones. The only thing of value in me is the God whose son I am, and who is the father of us all. He is my true self. Nothing can separate me from him.

  174. babaganusz says

    "That's what Livejournal is for."

    bra-fucking-vo. i was just getting to the point where i could compartmentalize sites i go to for personal enjoyment, personal comfort, personal struggle, and various Knowledges. (of course there's occasional overlap.) it doesn't hurt that every time Ken discusses something personal i see more of a 'soul-brother' – but Popehat surely doesn't need pressure to be more of a mental health resource than it already is.

    that said, thank you so much, Ken. just that "third" of this post is extraordinarily generous and valuable (as are the subsequent comments in favor of understanding). mis- or barely-diagnosed mental illness has manifested in [at least] every living and recently-departed generation of my family, and with one exception (whose whereabouts are unknown) has only been referenced or addressed (outside of fruitless if (big if) well-intentioned homilies) within the last decade. my largely avoidant behavior (still looking for the "right cocktail", actually) left it to my niece to become the family's first real beacon of awareness. i'm incredibly proud of her, and… we're working on the others.

    still reading upthread, i'll probably dig out something else to babble over. thanks yet again, Ken.

  175. flip says

    @John Kindley

    "Trying" may itself be a large part of the problem. Perhaps if we stop "trying" we will rise from our beds.

    I think you've missed the point entirely about lethargy. @Princess Artemis is spot on (sigh…).

    If 'not trying' worked, then surely I should 'not try' to earn money. It will just appear on its own right? And I should 'not try' to keep up with friends, because apparently all people everywhere will care if I disappear for 3 weeks? And I should 'not try' to feel better, because 'eventually' I'll just get better on my own?

    Sheesh, if that last one really worked, then I suppose 20 years of practice should have me snapping back to reality any day now…

    And I'm sorry no, I've dealt with this stuff long enough to know the red flags and to think that your comments heavily trend towards denial and blame. Suggesting that there's some sort of metaphysical discussion to be had of mental illness instead of treating it like a real, physical affliction is one of them. Suggesting that it's all just a spectrum and some people are just having a bit of a worse day than normal is a HUGE one. And one that I hear *all the bleeding time*. The latter in particular is one that most people use because they don't actually understand what you're saying and would rather dismiss the issue than see it as anything more than "I'm having a bad hair day". For what it's worth, the "it's just a bump in the road" attitude has come from strangers, friends, family, teachers and yes, doctors.

    A bad day is not one where you try to hang yourself and then don't tell anyone about it because you don't think anyone cares. A bad day is where you stub your toe and screw up on a work project. The former is not normal; the latter is. Approaching mental illness as just 'a bump in the road' is telling the person that you either don't care to help, don't understand the problem, diminishes the person's ability to obtain help when needed, diminishes the self-confidence the person has, and in general just makes the whole situation harder. It also stuffs mental health issues under the carpet, and continues stigma and reinforces the idea that asking for help is the "wimp's way out". All of these red flags can be summed up as the "positive thinking" fallacy, one that's been done to death by mental-illness deniers.

    Perhaps you're not trying to do it, but again, those are red flags and they raise my hackles. With all respect to your own personal insight, I suggest that you have no clue as to what you're talking about.

  176. says

    When I had a steady job, I made a little sign to put up at my cubicle during my episodes: Caution: Temporary Acute Surliness Zone. No one ever said a word about it! I guess most assumed it meant my workload was especially heavy.

    I believe my depression came on at age 11, when I entered a school where I could no longer coast as easily as I had before. Its most important effect is a deep inability to believe that anything I do can ever be worthwhile (a thought disorder, so John Kindley isn't all wet). Makes it hard to think about what to do about my life's objective flaws.

    I've found two things that usually give some temporary relief: distraction and marijuana. (I'm in Washington, so: where the fuck is it already?)

    I'm socially isolated, partly because interaction (especially with new faces) is stressful, partly because (see above) it's hard to remember that some people enjoy my company. Accordingly, I unfairly want everyone else to make the first move.

    Paxil gave me diarrhea. Prozac gave me rapid weight gain (which in turn gave me sleep apnea, thank you very much). Wellbutrin gave me palpitations – and when I dropped it my mood improved for at least a couple of weeks. Happily I haven't been desperate enough in the last ten years to try pills again.

    Paxil did one good thing for me: it somehow helped me let go of the false conviction that my gloom, when it struck, must have an external cause; I was able to stop trying to find a way to blame the people around me. As I once remarked to Dad: sometimes it helps a bit to know there's no external cause; sometimes it only heightens the irony.

    But I don't think pills alone can ever "cure" me; I'll still have the bad habits.

    I read that depression and solitude tend to shorten life, and I think: well, that's a kind of compensation. I wonder how much pain of hollow existence I'm obliged to endure because my suicide (hypothetical!) would inflict pain on a few others (one of whom also knows the beast).

  177. says

    I said way up thread I have no principled objection to drugs, so I don't know how anyone could accuse me of prescribing mere positive thinking as a remedy for major depression. Does anyone imagine that when I visit my cousin, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, that I exhort him to think happy thoughts? Do people think I was kidding when I said I admire this cousin, whose good and courageous heart remains despite the demonic voices he still hears despite strong medication, above all others in this world? While we all have our own cross to bear, some crosses are particularly heavy. While the suicide of Aaron Swartz was a tragedy, I am the last person you will hear saying that he did wrong, that he sinned. But perhaps here is the undertone of my comments wherein others detect an alien and hostile view, for which I do not apologize: I refuse to pity Swartz unduly as a victim. I refuse to believe we are the mere playthings of chemicals. To me that would be truly disrespectful. We are worthy of our crosses. Our crosses are just. We are gods.

  178. princessartemis says

    John, no one asked for your pity. If anyone asked you for anything, it was for understanding, which you, so far, have not been able to give.

    Plaything of chemicals? Sheesh, tell that to my dystonia, which is neurochemical! I literally lose control of my own body sometimes because of chemicals! If that isn't a "plaything of chemicals", I don't know what is. Nevertheless, I'm not a victim, just someone whose got my own crap to deal with, like anyone else. It happens. Pity absolutely, utterly, not required nor desired.

  179. says

    Yes, we appear to be the plaything of chemicals, but that is not all we are, and it is not who we are in our deepest reality.

    I remain floored by the insistence that I don't understand, that I have no clue what I'm talking about. Depression is genetic, isn't it? You'd think the fact that two of my very closest relatives on my mother's side committed suicide would suggest I have the same chemicals flowing through my brain. And my paternal grandmother often alluded to the depression endemic on my father's side. And certainly I feel that my control over my own thoughts is shaky at best. How can one "understand" without some commonality of experience? But I get the feeling from some comments that unless you've been hospitalized you have no room to even talk. Should a mother regard herself as so foreign and alien to her own daughter? It almost seems that there is an exclusion or shutting out that a loving and concerned mother is not bound to respect without question or doubt, though certainly sensitivity is required. Are the majorly depressed really so odd, so foreign to us that we should treat them as oddballs? I respect my schizophrenic cousin not only as my equal but as my better.

  180. princessartemis says

    And I remain shocked that, with your personal experience with family members, that you could still speak as though major depression is something that the sufferer can just…stop suffering. Especially with a comment thread full of people talking about it. It's certainly possible that you're really quite depressed yourself and won't admit to yourself that you really need some outside help with it, but while I do not know this is not true, I doubt it based on what you've said.

    That's why I say you haven't given understanding. Hey, maybe you really do understand, but are also really, really bad at getting that across. More likely you don't, and the implication of your words is what you believe. I'm guessing you wouldn't say anything like, ""Trying" may itself be a large part of the problem. Perhaps if we stop "trying" we will unclench our hands," to me about my movement disorder, would you? But then, maybe you would if you had one too and were deeply uncertain that it wasn't something you should just be able to stop by force of will. That I would actually understand, being as I've been there, but…it really doesn't work that way, not with dystonia or depression. Accepting that and getting the help God puts in my way is a good way of carrying that particular cross.

  181. says

    Maybe I am bad about getting my point across. But when I look back over my comments I think I've been reasonably clear. Again, my comment about the pitfalls of "trying" was in reaction to someone who claimed I had said the depressed should just try harder. The further suggestion that this might lead to a getting up might have seemed laughable. And admittedly this statement said in reaction was a little extravagant and not all that profound. But insofar as my comments have incidentally contained such pearls of wisdom, is that so awful? In a normal conversation between normal people such things are said. that particular point was straight out of the Bhagavad Gita. My references to my schizophrenic cousin should have suggested that I don't imagine the majorly depressed can just "stop" their own suffering. But I have things to say to my cousin when I speak to him. He has extremely low self esteem, and for some ungodly reason thinks I'm some great person, a shining success in a family that has seen more than its share of tragedy and failure. I've told him the high opinion I have of him, reminded him of all he did for me when I was a kid and before he got sick, expressed my realization of the heavy burden he labored under, which I imagine would have crushed me, and makes any difficulties I may have overcome look like child's play. Trite? I don't know.

  182. flip says

    @John Kindley

    But I get the feeling from some comments that unless you've been hospitalized you have no room to even talk.

    That was not what I was saying at all. You just seem to have inconsistencies in what you think it is: that one should/n't try harder, but at the same time, that it's chemical. You respect people with mental illnesses, and yet the subtext of your words suggests that you are also dismissive of it.

    You couch your words in such a way that it says "now, the next sentence should be ignored because my first sentence says X".


    I refuse to believe we are the mere playthings of chemicals.

    This in itself is unhelpful because it suggests a denial of a real physical *chemical* cause to mental illness. Perhaps you're not aware of it, but a lot of mentally ill people will read into comments like that, and I myself blanched slightly when I read it I thought "well, he thinks it's all in my head, and I'm just being a lazy bum or a boy who cried wolf: no point in trying to explain it all, he thinks I'm making it up". You may not have meant that, but that's how it comes off.

    I will assume you simply can't express yourself very well in this manner and that we're talking across each other… Again, I simply state that your comments sound eerily similar to many who deny mental illness.

  183. AlphaCentauri says

    One thing to understand when discussing medication therapy is that some depressed people do get better without them. In clinical studies of antidepressants, about a third of the people in the placebo groups get better. To be approved, a drug has to perform significantly better than that.

    As far as what to say to depressed people, half the battle is developing insight. You can't get the right kind of help if you don't know you're depressed. Inquiring about the physical symptoms (waking in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep because of worries – or – sleeping all the time), fatigue (feeling tired just sitting still not doing anything), appetite change (increase or decrease, or most commonly, no interest in food but still not losing weight because they go in the kitchen and forage), constipation, headaches, back aches — that can be a safe conversation to encourage them to bring the matter up with a doctor. People who are depressed feel like "their bodies are falling apart," so knowing there is a single cause for all their symptoms can be a relief. Asking about suicidal thoughts is harder, but people thinking about suicide need to understand they are depressed, period. Even people who are dying and who accept the nearness of death aren't wishing to be dead unless they're depressed.

  184. says

    In my defense, the very nature of the subject would seem to defy expression free of arguable contradiction, unless one resorts to an abject materialism that is itself defied by reason.

  185. Merissa says

    1. We are all slaves to chemicals, including the thought process of not wanting to be enslaved by chemicals.

    2. Depression and reason are at totally opposite ends of the thought/emotion process. Trying to rationalize your way through depression is totally…




  186. AlphaCentauri says

    By the way, all of you folks with refractory depression have been checked for sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, right?

  187. says

    Apnea: My wife and I both have it. We both have CPAP machines. It didn't help her depression. (Well, it's hard to say. It might be a lot worse without it. OTOH, the most effective medicine we've found for her, Nardil, leads to bouts of insomnia, and her ability to develop a resistance to most antidepressants also includes a similar ability to grow resistant to sleep aids, only a few of which are safe to take with Nardil.)

  188. flip says

    @Alpha Centauri

    Yes. In my case there is nothing physically wrong with me. Any sleep problems I have are most likely then a symptom of the depression and not the other way around.

  189. says

    I went to see my cousin last Sunday on his 57th birthday. His sister and her fiance were there. He remembered and related to the fiance almost exactly what I had told my cousin in the past about my disillusionment with the law, about how you can pour your heart into something and craft a real and righteous argument and all for naught, because judges without honor will determine its merit. (That last clause is my phraseology rather than my recollection of his.) I know that he is proud of me for being a lawyer but that he will think no less of me if I chuck it all. He spoke about the voices he still hears despite his medication. Part of him knows they're not real and part of him doesn't. I listened respectfully, understanding that he is both crazy and not crazy, and was glad he talked about these things, but did not shy away from gently affirming that these voices were not real. His aged mother, with whom he lives, is a saint. I made the mistake of complimenting his shirt. Before I left he had changed his shirt and literally given me the shirt off his back.

  190. Stephanie Shore says

    I read your blog for the insights into the way that law is being practiced. Also, because my brother reads me the funny bits. However, this is the first time I've ever even considererd adding. Maybe because I don't know law, but I do know depression.

    Even professionals don't really get it. I have a psychiatrist that I've been seeing for over 10 years (medically not for therapy – that's someone else). We discussed how the recent change in my dosage of vitamin D made my day brighter even if it didn't at all affect my effect (mood – word play). What she said is that feeling brighter was how anti-depressants work. I told her that not thinking about how I wish I was dead was how I knew they were working for me. She admitted that that was true too. But, her first comment reminded me that you either have major depression or not and so you either understand it or you don't, not really. I think the worst is people who know about your depression who give you advice about how to feel better when they haven't a clue as to how you feel in the first place.

    Thank you for your courage in sharing.

  191. BitterBunny says

    Thank you Ken. I saw this around a fortnight after it was posted (not reading or comprehending much at the moment – this is one of a few places I dip in to from time to time) and it can't have been easy to write or press the button to post.

    Thank you also to many of the people who have posted their own experiences, either as a loved one, or as one of the large, usually silent clubs that we all seem to belong to and no-one wants to join. I wept reading some of this – it reminded me I'm not as alone as I think.