Why Openness About Mental Illness is Worth The Effort And Discomfort

Last week I was having a bad day — nothing tragic, just adult life's vicissitudes — when I got an email from a complete stranger that knocked me on my ass.

I'll call this guy John. John recently survived a brush with suicidal depression and anxiety. John's story is both terrifying and inspiring because he faced that depression without a job, without medical insurance, and (until he reached out for help) without a support network, and came out on the other end. John took a leap of hope, sought help from a loved one, got treatment, and got through the crisis. Is he happy all the time? I doubt it. Who is? But he's managing the illness successfully and living his life.

John thanked me for writing openly about my experiences with severe depression and anxiety and how they have changed my life. He expressed a sentiment that I also experienced as a powerful deterrent to getting help: the fear that medication, or hospitalization, and therapy somehow mark you as other and lead to the end of your plans and ambitions forever. It's not true. It helps, John said, to see other people who have fought mental illness, taken the plunge into serious treatment, and come out the other side continuing to pursue their careers and families and lives. John thanked me for writing, and said I made a difference for him and helped him imagine recovery as a possibility. I'm going to remember that on my worst days, when I'm down on myself.

People who have fought mental illness — people who are still struggling with it, every day — can change people's lives by offering hope.

Depression and anxiety are doubly pernicious. They don't just rob you of your ability to process life's challenges. They rob you of the ability to imagine things getting better — they rob you of hope. When well-meaning people try to help, they often address the wrong problem. "Your relationship will work out if you just talk," or "I'm sure your boss doesn't actually hate you," or "things will look up and you'll find another job" may all be true, and may all be good advice. But they don't address the heart of mental illness. A depressed or anxious person isn't just burdened with life's routine problems. They're burdened with being unable to think about them without sheer misery, and being unable to conceive of an end to that misery continuing, endlessly, in response to one problem after another. Solving the problems, one by one, doesn't solve the misery.

The hope you can offer to someone who is depressed or anxious isn't your problems will all go away. They won't. That's ridiculous (though certainly it's much easier to solve or avoid problems when you're not debilitated). The hope you can offer is this: you will be able to face life's challenges without fear and misery. The hope isn't that your life will be perfect. The hope is that after a day facing problems you'll still be able to experience happiness and contentment. The hope is that you'll feel "normal" again.

You can make a difference. You can be open about how you've fought depression and anxiety. You can talk about how you felt hopelessness. You can talk about how you reached the point where you got help. You can describe how you had doubts about the point of getting help, too. You can talk about how getting help has changed your life — even if the process hasn't been smooth. You can convey to people out there that they aren't alone, that other people have felt the way they feel, that there is life and love and fun and success and normality following treatment for serious mental illness, and that it's achievable. You can spit in the face of the social stigma against mental illness and its treatment. You can defy the trolls and assholes who will mock you and use your openness against you — because what's their opinion worth, anyway? You can show that it's possible to get better even if you're broken, flawed, afraid. You can show that a setback isn't the end of the road to getting better. You can help them understand there's no magic instant cure, that recovery can be a lifelong process.

Your — you personally, not the collective you — can make a difference. It might be your story that connects with someone, that helps them imagine getting better. It might be someone in your social circle who is suffering and doesn't know anyone else talking about these issues. It could be your take on this process that tips the balance towards treatment for someone you've never met or heard of. Your story counts. Tell it.

Here are just a few who have made a difference — to others, and to me — through their openness about depression and anxiety, with links to what they've said. You're not famous like them, you say? Good. That means you're more relatable and your story may resonate more with folks. It will be embarrassing (though it shouldn't be) and awkward (at first, at least) and some loser will probably take a cheap shot at you, but it's worth it. Try it. And please join me in thanking and admiring these people for their openness:

David Weigel
Allie Brosh
Jenny Lawson
Wil Wheaton
Buzz Aldrin
Kristen Bell

What Empathy Looks Like: Twitch Streamer Brandon Nance Resigns After Ranting At A Depressed Fan

Everyone knows that if you've fought depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder, you'll be much more patient and compassionate with others who suffer, right?


Well, no. Not necessarily.

I've heard that nobody has more contempt for junkies than another junkie, that nobody despises drunks like a drunk. This doesn't surprise me. Compassion and empathy are beautiful, but they are products of conscious effort, not of nature. Our minds often run the other way. Even if you've had a searing experience with mental illness, your reaction to others might not be saintly. It might be a visceral, angry snarl of "why the fuck can't you just be normal?" It doesn't take an advanced degree in psychology to figure out who the you in that question really is, friends and neighbors.

I, for one, am not more patient with mental illness than I was before I learned to manage it. In my gut I'm less patient. It rustles my jimmies something fierce. I know perfectly well why: I'm pissed off about how depression and anxiety have impacted my life, I'm pissed off about how it's impacted the lives of those I love, and I resent the hell out of having to deal with it. So I fight the urge to shout the questions at others that I can't shout at myself: why can't you just walk it off? Why can't you seek help when you ought to? Why can't you stay on your meds? Why won't you take a methodical approach to this? Why the hell can't you manage this better? I don't actually ask these things, and most of the time I think I achieve decency and compassion to fellow sufferers through deliberate effort. But it's a damned uncomfortable feeling.

So: if I see someone go off on the depressed or the anxious or the suicidal, I'm not inclined to assume that they're just a horrible unfeeling person. Rather, I suspect they may have been there themselves.

Brandon Nance is a Twitch Streamer — that is to say, people watch him play games online. This bit of modern culture is inscrutable to me, but my kids claim it's fun. Whatever. Recently, when one of Nance's viewers messaged him during a session that Nance's videos had helped him recover during a period when he was suicidal. Nance didn't react well. He ranted brutally and bitterly at the viewer, characterizing depressed people as lazy and helpless and suicide as selfish and weak. Controversy ensued, and Nance resigned.

When I heard this story I assumed that we'd learn that Nance himself had lived a life touched by mental illness, and indeed he has — he wrote honestly and bravely about fighting serious depression and about the experience with a family member whose life was ravaged by addiction. That shit's not easy. It might even make you lash out in an angry, bitter rant about suicide and depression.

Many people were very angry at Nance, and expressed that anger in various popular Internet ways. Some were just venting themselves. But I'm sure some thought that they were fighting for empathy and compassion by condemning Brandon Nance. But they weren't, really, were they?

h/t Stephen Combs

That Time I Accidentally Played Dungeons & Dragons With White Nationalists

We geeks are just better at being good people.

We're better than the jocks, the cheerleaders, the socs, the hierarchically and socially mundane. We transcend bigotry. If you like dwarves — who, after all, are clearly Scottish or something — and Minbari and so forth, how could we be preoccupied with silly pigmentation issues? How could we, who cheer when Éowyn slew the Witch-King of Angmar, doubt that women can do anything?

Or so the legend goes.

Years ago there was a game shop called The Last Grenadier in Burbank. north of Los Angeles. It was old-school gaming: dingy, cavernous, overpriced, a favored hangout for gamers of all sorts. I shopped there as a kid when the game Twilight 2000 referred to a dark future, not to an increasingly dim past.

On the brighter side, team, nobody can say we didn't find WMDs.

On the brighter side, team, nobody can say we didn't find WMDs.

The summer of 1991 I was back from college, waiting for law school to start, and working. Most of my high school friends were gone. Evenings and weekends loomed empty. I was more self-confident and independent than I was in high school, but let's face it: I wouldn't be hitting the bar scene. So I decided to go to some at the events at the Grenadier that got people together to form gaming groups. What better way to meet people and get back into a favorite hobby?

After a couple of events I fell in with a small group of other young adults who lived not far from me. We were similar in age — very early 20s — and similar in hobbies — video games and tabletop games and geek culture — so what could other differences matter? We started a group playing Dungeons & Dragons (second edition, introduced in 1989, still somewhat old-school) — young men, a couple of women occasionally, with free evenings and weekends. That led to more hanging out — meals, rented VHS tapes1, and so forth.

I had been parts of gaming groups growing up, and those groups were like many staffed by teen boys — raucous, overcaffeinated, cheerfully profane, immature in a polite-to-grown-ups sort of way. This was — different.

I'm a little slow on the uptake. So it took me a while to notice. I noticed that a couple of the guys would mutter and curse at the screen on the Star Trek movies we watched when a black character appeared. I noticed "Jew" used as a verb or adjective. I noticed jokes about Orks being on welfare and robbing liquor stores. I noticed that the D&D campaign seemed portrayed rather explicitly as a struggle of white humans and elves against a dark horde of black people and their inhuman allies. I noticed that the DM and players liked to talk about rape a lot — and in a sort of triumphalist "these are the spoils of war" type of way and not in a sort of real-war-is-ugly-not-heroic sort of way, either. One of the women joked along. Another stayed silent. That one dropped out eventually.

What did I do? Not much. I told myself that if I didn't like it I was just being politically correct. I told myself that I was being a snob — I lived in an expensive neighborhood and was about to go to Harvard and these guys were mostly in blue-collar jobs with some community college in a more working-class neighborhood. In an effort not to be classist, I persuaded myself that working class people must just talk that way about Jews and blacks and Asians and rape and so forth and I'm prejudiced if I'm not down with it. (Going to college in the late 1980s was excellent preparation for thinking about people that way, as was growing up in a neighborhood with no working-class people.)

I'd like to say that I noped right out of there with reasonable speed. But I didn't. I just ghosted them. I went off to law school at the end of the summer and never talked to any of them ever again. I didn't see any of them again until the late 1990s, when one was a peripheral witness in a civil rights cased I prosecuted involving some tweaker skinhead wannabees harassing a multi-racial family.

I cut off contact because they creeped me out — because some of them were starting to get an edge when they asked why I didn't laugh at a joke (I still remember some of those jokes, and no, I won't repeat them) or when they incorporated more and more racial imagery into gameplay, or when they became comfortable enough with me (or, more likely indifferent enough to my presence) that they started to talk about how Hispanics destroyed the neighborhood and Armenians couldn't be trusted and Asians were all cheaters and there should be neighborhoods just for white people, decent people, or maybe an entire state or region or something, and about how they were looking into groups of white people who felt the same way. I didn't say anything when they made one of the women in the group increasingly, visibly uncomfortable until she left, or when they made passive-aggressive increasingly open comments about race to the one Latino in the group until he left, or when they talked shit about people I knew and liked. Why not? Part of it was I was still growing out of shyness and geekery into self-confidence. Part of it was that I didn't have so many friends that it was easy to give up some. Part of it was that I accepted geek social fallacies, among them "there's no such thing as bad ideas" and "it's wrong to shun a group" and "don't be judgmental" or "there's something wrong with you if you can't get along with everyone." People take advantage of those fallacies to an incoherent and internally inconsistent extent, which is how folks convince themselves that it's judgmental and therefore morally blameworthy to think less of someone just because that person thinks that non-whites are inherently inferior.

Maybe these guys are still playing D&D, still making jokes about blacks and Orks having the same game stats, still making tables to roll for how many rapeable women are captured in the siege of a village. Or maybe not. I don't begrudge them entry into my hobby. I believe, adamantly, that the government should not punish them for their speech or beliefs. I don't dream about tracking them down and getting them fired from their jobs or shunned from their social circles. I remember some of their names but I wouldn't dream of naming them. I don't even wish that I had told them off: that would have been about me, not about them, and wouldn't have changed them.2 I do, however, genuinely wish that I'd gotten the hell out of that group much sooner. I wish I hadn't tried to convince myself that you can't expect any better from people who don't work in an office — Christ, what an asshole. I wish that I'd contacted the people who left the group and told them that they were cool and I enjoyed gaming with them and I hoped they found a group that wasn't full of racist creeper dipshits.

That's my experience. So, when people tell stories about encountering bigots and creepers and gropers and various other elements in the gaming community, my reaction isn't to assume they are lying.

The Moroz Family – From the Soviet Union to the Liberal Gulag

A case of overreaction

A case of overreaction

It is said that if you are a young conservative you have no heart, and if you are an old liberal, you have no brain.

As a 46 year old Liberal, I take offense at half of that, but I would not wish to stop anyone from saying it.

Unfortunately, I feel like an endangered species – the Liberal who embraces dissent and debate. As a Liberal, I have always valued education – as I look at places of education as places where we manufacture Liberals — by educating people. To me, wide open and robust debate and the revelation of knowledge will inevitably drive one to the Liberal view – but to get there, we must tolerate views with which we disagree.

I realize that this may not always be the case. But, I have sufficient confidence in my views that I enjoy seeing them challenged, confronted, and either torn down, reconstructed, or galvanized in the fire of intellectually rigorous discussion. If they can not survive this crucible, then they merit their place on the trash heap.

Unfortunately, my view of places of learning as the font from which free speech flows is showing its rust and stretch marks. Now that people (I guess) who are of my like views are largely in charge of education, the prevailing view is to end the debate. Declare victory. The discussion is closed.

A burning example comes to us from Philadelphia, within a stone’s throw of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. There, Michael Moroz is the son of Soviet immigrants. I interviewed Michael’s mother, who told me that they left there because they wanted their son to be able to grow up with freedom. Freedom to speak his mind without concern that saying the wrong thing would mean that the state would come down on him. She believed our marketing materials for "The American Way."

She now believes that America did not come as advertised.

Michael is a high school student at Central High School in Philadelphia, and is also the managing editor of his high school newspaper, “The Centralizer.” He recently wrote an article called “A Case of Overreaction,” which criticized the Black Lives Matter movement.

I didn’t particularly agree with the article, but I found it to be well written and well presented. It was originally printed alongside an article that supported the BLM movement. Two opposing points of view, presented to the reader – who is left to decide which is more persuasive. This was the marketplace of ideas in action.

But, the Regressive Left does not want debate. The Regressive Left does not want, nor tolerate, a marketplace of ideas. The Regressive Left leaves no room for dissent. The Regressive Left does not want a free press, just public relations for them. You’re either with them, or you’re “a racist.”

Michael's fellow students took to social media to try and convict him, all in one movement, of his treasonous thoughtcrimes. They posted that someone ought to shoot him. There were calls that he must be “dealt with.” One wrote that “[he thinks] his white privilege will keep him from getting ‘popped.’” Even an alumnus proudly wrote, “Black students at Central will handle their business.”

Michael's fellow editors then censored his article, “If an article comes across as insensitive, and the Central community would rather have it taken down because of this, then the article will be taken down.” Remember, only Moroz’s article was censored for being “insensitive.” Meanwhile, the counterpoint – the “politically correct” perspective was not. Enter the state — administrators backed the decision. (source)

One would expect that the principal would clamp down on threats of violence against a student in his care. After all, if we condone censorship in the name of "sensitivity", then certainly we would do the same when calling for the boy's safety to be compromised. One would perhaps expect the Principal to even call for a “safe space” for a minority view like Michael’s to be able to flourish – even if only to be rejected.

Instead, the principal seems to have sided with the censors, although three of the students issuing specific threats were, ultimately, disciplined. (source) The student paper’s faculty advisor promoted someone else to serve alongside Michael as managing editor and then stripped him of the right to access the paper’s accounts. Moroz claims his faculty advisor admitted to diminishing his authority because the paper was “receiving email requests from media.”

Moroz’ parents left the Soviet Union because they did not want to have their son grow up in a country that suppressed and intimidated disfavored political views. They moved to America – Philadelphia no less – so that they could live in a country where dissent and diversity of thought would be welcomed.

Moroz got a little trip into the mentality that his parents sought to escape. He had the wrong politics, and thus he was subject to harassment, intimidation, and a different set of rules than if he would just be a good boy and get in line with the favored viewpoint.

Of course, in Soviet Russia, hyperbole rhetoricals you. And here, the KGB did not kick down his door and whisk Michael off to the Lubyanka building. Nobody froze to death in a gulag. So, I'm not in a state of panic for him. But, this is how it begins. We don't wake up one day, and overnight, you're not allowed to have a dissenting viewpoint.

No, first they come for the conservative students, and maybe you don't speak up because you're not a conservative student… Michael was subjected to a hail of abuse and genuine threats, with those who should have protected him complicit, even if they were not active participants. (Although, I would say that every adult should have stood up to protect him).

I wouldn't be half as outraged if Michael simply suffered social ostracism for not conforming to his peers' prevailing views. Sometimes, thinking a little different than everyone else means you have to take a little shit. But, that's when the adults are supposed to step in and act like referees – keeping the game fair (at least as long as Roger Goodell isn't involved).

But, when the administration condones it, even tacitly, something is damned wrong. When the rules for one side of the debate permit censorship in the name of "sensitivity," but the other side of the debate is licensed to speak, something is terribly wrong. When a student gets death threats for an article in a student newspaper, and every single teacher in that motherfucking school was not standing next to him, supporting him, then the place should be razed to the fucking ground, and every teacher in the place marched out into the fields to grow rice until they drop from exhaustion. Fuck them.

That school "license[d] one side of a debate to fight freestyle, while requiring the other to follow Marquess of Queensberry rules." See R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 391 (1992) That's not how we do it. At least, that's not how we are suppose to do it.

Imagine if Michael had written a piece supporting gay marriage, transgender rights, racial equality, or some other happy liberal view, and he found himself attacked and threatened by bigots of the opposite view. Would the result have been the same? I think not.

The school should have protected him the same as if he were supporting gay marriage and he received threats for that view. Give him the same shield as if he were promoting racial equality, and racists threatened him. There is no hope for any of us if we teach that 1817 year old that if he does not get in line with the politically approved doctrine, that we adults condone death threats and violent harassment.

Michael’s entire faculty should have stood up, unequivocally, for his freedom of expression – even if they despised his views. There should have been no question that the trash that threatened him lost all moral authority when they opposed him through intimidation. The entire faculty should have stood up for him.

But that didn’t happen.

Because that’s not the way things are handled anymore. We have "safe spaces." But not for conservatives. We have a culture where victimhood is currency, and the crybaby is king. We have an intellectual environment where if you dissent from Liberal orthodoxy, you are a sexist, a racist, you're mansplaining, whitesplaining, or simply worthy of being killed… or at least threatened. After all, you're wrong, and "they" know it. What use is there for debate or dissent? Let the letter writing campaign begin, because the victims will now be the victors, and to the victors go the spoils.

And funny enough, those who would threaten Michael or tacitly condone the threats are also the first who would screech for remedial racism in the name of "diversity." Meanwhile, they want anything but "diversity." There will be one way of thinking. There will be purity of philosophy. You must follow the approved orthodoxy or things can go very badly for you.

That is not what education is about. That is not what America is about.

Mr. Moroz, I promise you, not all of us adhere to this view. We didn't sell your parents a bill of goods. Its just that somewhere along the way, after they got here, we changed and fucked it all up. Some of us want to change it back, and I think there is still time.

Jessica Valenti Calls For Jailing of Critics Of War And The Draft

Jessica Valenti of The Guardian thinks that, just as we jailed people who protested and criticized the draft during World War I, we should be able to jail people who release unflattering videos about Planned Parenthood. Both, she believes, are justifiable.

Well, she doesn't say that explicitly. But that's the necessary implication of column today in The Guardian, in which she says that releasing undercover videos about Planned Parenthood should not be protected as free speech.

Freedom of speech is one of America’s most cherished rights, but we’ve always had limits on what’s acceptable: in 1919, the US supreme court ruled that the right doesn’t apply to speech that incites action that would harm other people.

At the time, the example presented by the court was that falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater doesn’t count as protected speech.

Like many people who favor censorship but have a cookie-sheet-shallow grasp of its history, Valenti is misquoting Oliver Wendell Holmes dropping a rhetorical aside in Schenck v. United States. Holmes invoked that image to justify the prosecution and imprisonment of a man who criticized and questioned the draft during World War I. Of course, in the century since, American courts have abandoned Holmes' sloppy and unprincipled stand, narrowing the "incitement" exception to intended to and likely to cause imminent lawless action. But Valenti speaks approvingly of the original ruling because, in her mind, it justifies censoring speech she doesn't like.

Just as she misleads her readers about history, Valenti misrepresents the present. She suggests that a federal judge in the Northern District of California prohibited the distribution of the Planned Parenthood videos because they posed a risk of danger to clinics. "Now, in the wake of the release of secretly taped and deceptively edited videos of abortion providers, a judge has issued a temporary restraining order because of the very real threat of violence that the videos pose." Valenti either doesn't understand the legal issues or is lying about them. In the Northern District case, the National Abortion Federation learned from the mistakes of Stem Express and explicitly couched their lawsuit and injunction request against the defendants in terms of breach of confidentiality agreements and fraud, not wrongful content. As Eugene Volokh explained, such content-neutral grounds may support prior restraint on speech, because they aren't about the content of your speech, they're about enforcing your promise not to reveal the information you're revealing.

To secure an injunction, a plaintiff must show — among other things — that they are likely to prevail on the merits of the suit and that the "balance of hardships" weighs in their favor. The NAF did not invoke the threat of violence as evidence that they would prevail. Instead, they argued that they would prevail because the defendants fraudulently obtained access to NAF events and violated confidentiality agreements. Only then did they argue that the balance of hardships was in their favor because of the atmosphere of threats and violence against abortion providers. The judge's temporary restraining order did not say that NAF was entitled to prior restraint because the risk of violence allows prior restraint. Rather, the court said that NAF had shown it would prevail on its substantive claims of fraud and breach of confidentiality agreements, and that the threats of violence went to the balance of hardships. Valenti is misleading her readers.

Valenti asserts that the Planned Parenthood undercover videos have caused violence against Planned Parenthood clinics. The only evidence she cites are the statements of the crazed and evil Colorado shooter. Valenti asserts that the videos are "secret" and "deceptively edited," but she does not explain how we know that the "deceptive" parts are what (allegedly) incited threats and violence, as opposed to the parts of the videos that are admittedly true.

Valenti's goal is clear: a broad, unprincipled rule that would punish rhetoric she doesn't like:

The frenzied language surrounding the video’s release – including out-and-out lies on national television by Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina – has stoked harassment and violence. And though preventing the release of more footage may not stop lies and violent speech, it could help curb it and would send the message that anti-choice activists will not be allowed to spread lies without consequence.

Some social controversies do lead to death threats and violence. Both are utterly unacceptable; I wish that more political death threats were investigated and punished. But note that Valenti's eager advocacy for censorship is not tethered to illegally recorded videos or misleading videos or even videos with explicit lies: it's an explicit call to censor political speech that makes people mad, whether or not it's intended or likely to cause imminent violence. It's an vague call for someone in the government — perhaps people who agree with Valenti? — to decide what bits of political rhetoric and hyperbole are "lies" and suppress political speech accordingly.

Everyone who reads Jessica Valenti's column and believes it is now stupider about First Amendment law. Remember: free speech has enemies. Fight them.

Lisa McElroy On Books and Thankfulness

Popehat is pleased to welcome a guest post from Lisa McElroy, an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. Her first novel, Called On, was just published by Quid Pro Books.

Several years ago, my father forwarded me an email he thought seemed suspicious. “Do you think this is a scam?” he asked. The email was from an elderly woman in Miami Beach, Florida, who had retired from teaching and was moving into an assisted living situation. She was clearing out her belongings, and she had come across some books she’d almost forgotten.

Fifty years before, this teacher had taken over her classroom from a young woman who was leaving to be married. On her first day, she had looked in the room’s supply closet, where she found a pile of books, most of them inscribed from a father to his daughter. Thinking they seemed special and that the departed teacher might want them someday, she took them home.

As these things go, the books lay forgotten, and by the time she found the young bride, it was through her obituary. My grandmother had died at the age of 87, leaving her son and several grandchildren. The retired teacher, a new internet aficionado, sent my father an email. “Would you like these books?” she asked. And my father, having lived 65 or so years himself in a world that had become more and more suspect and unreliable and scary, was worried that he was being taken for a ride.

As we head into the holiday season, we’re often asked what we’re grateful for, what would be a true gift. As my father recognized when he worried about scammers, the world, while more advanced, is also scarier and sadder in many ways than it was back when my grandmother and her successor were teaching school. I’ve been searching the internet, just as the retired teacher did, but for something different. As I sit around the Thanksgiving table next week with my parents (now in their 70s) and my husband and my teen daughters, I know I’m going to need to smile and tell them all just what makes me feel thankful. But in a year that has been about anything but peace, I’ve been looking for something concrete to hang my “thankful” hat on.

And so I began thinking about my grandmother, and books, and that retired teacher in Miami Beach.
My grandmother was a woman of style, a dedicated learner, and a lifelong reader (and crossword puzzle cheater, but don’t get me started on that). My most vivid childhood memories of her are of sitting in her living room, sometimes on the parquet floor, sometimes on the piano bench, sometimes on her brocade couch, reading some new book we’d checked out from the library. Although I lived a six-hour drive from my grandmother, she knew the librarians at her local branch well enough to talk her way into getting a borrower’s card for me; after an ice cream sundae or a trip to see the giant dolls at the department store, we’d always end up back at the same circulation desk in the same brick building, watching the librarian stamp in ink the due date for some new adventure bound up as a book.

The best part about reading with my grandmother was reading together. I don’t mean that she read aloud to me – from the age of four or so, I was determined to read on my own (I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was about eight, but that reading thing was way more necessary in my book). But we’d read together, there in her living room, my grandmother with her new mystery thriller, me with my children’s classic on which she insisted. And looking back, what I’m most grateful for in my relationship with my grandmother was that true gift she gave me: a love of books.

There was one book in particular that we both loved: Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Although Francie, the protagonist, lived an underprivileged Brooklyn life, and I lived in a well-to-do Texas town, there was just something about Francie that resonated for me. I wanted to be gritty, like she was, determined to do something with my life. I wanted her powers of observation, to notice the smells of baking bread and the splashes of puddles on the sidewalk. And more than anything, I wanted Francie to be understood for her love of books, even in a family that wasn’t very readerly, the way I wanted to be understood and my passion nurtured – as it was by my grandmother.

Thirty-five years later, one night, when my husband was away for work, I found myself lying in my king-sized bed, reading a book. There’s nothing remarkable about that – my children know that, if they can’t find mom, check the bedroom and see if she’s absorbed in her reading so she can’t hear you call out. But what was special about this winter evening was that my two daughters, ages 6 and 8, were lying next to me, each with her own book. We were mostly quiet, absorbed in our own stories, but every so often, one of us would say, “Listen to this!” and we’d read out a description or a joke or a pithy line. And then we’d quiet again. Eventually, they fell asleep, there in the big bed, their books in hand.

These days, as teenagers, my girls have lots of interests, and I can’t remember the last time we all piled into the big bed and read books together. My older daughter now looks at the stars and imagines flying among them, but my younger daughter still looks down, at books in her lap, at the pages she turns. She reads because she cares about words, loves how they come together into sentences and paragraphs and entire chapters of plot and character and nuance. Last week, she asked me for a suggestion for a book to read. I thought of my grandmother, and I said, “How about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?”

A few days later, a package arrived from a used book seller. My daughter disappeared into her room, tattered book in hand. For the next few days, she didn’t talk much. She’d get her backpack ready for school or look up if I told her it was time for dinner, but, mostly, she kept her eyes focused down, on paperback pages that told a story of a poor girl in Brooklyn in the 1910s and 20s.
Yesterday, she came downstairs. “I finished it!” she said. I smiled. “Yeah?” I answered. “It has always been one of my favorites.” “Well,” she said, “It’s my absolute favorite. Every sentence is a delicious treat.” A delicious treat. Exactly. A treat that we can devour again and again, from different perspectives and at different times in life, with different people who are important in our lives. Those varied possibilities are so absolutely delicious.

And so I found it, my list of things to be grateful for, the gift I need above all. I am grateful for my grandmother, who took me to the library every visit; I am grateful for my daughter, whose enthusiasm about books fills every room; I am grateful to the retired teacher in Miami Beach, who somehow knew that my grandmother and her family would treasure those books.

And I am grateful for books. During this difficult year, they’ve given me a place to escape. They’ve given me a place to belong. And they’ve helped me see that, whether in the dirty streets of 1920s Brooklyn or the suburbs of 2015 Philadelphia, a tree will always grow.

The Fire and the Fall

Over the last couple of days, several Facebook friends posted links to a story about a young woman from our church community who had gone missing. Her friends and family were deeply worried. The police were involved, and the media. It was clear from the outpouring of support and concern that many people loved her, many people wanted to support her.

I read the news story about the search for her with a hard, cold clenched fist in my stomach, looking for the words I was afraid would be there. I found them. She "suffered from depression." I took some deep breaths, and went for a walk.

The worst fears of her parents, her friends, her community were bound up in those three words and what they implied. Those worst fears were realized, tragically, when police found her. She had taken her own life. She was 22. The story describing her mentioned that she had John 3:16 tattooed on her back: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." It's a verse full of indescribable hope.

Suicide cuts a wide gulf across our society. It's a gulf between people who cannot conceive of why a bright, pretty young woman surrounded by supportive family and friends could kill herself, and those who can. The people who don't understand try, but fail, to think of circumstances so terrible that they'd kill themselves rather than face them. They don't grasp the way depression kills you — not by heaping burdens upon you, but by making you incapable of thinking rationally about the ones you already have, by making you certain you can never survive them and don't deserve to. People who don't understand often regard suicide as a hateful, selfish, unfeeling act. Perhaps it would be if they did it, because they are capable of believing that the world is better with them in it. They're able to believe that the people who love them will be better off if they stick around.

David Foster Wallace — a moody, wordy man — understood it, though not enough to save himself. In Infinite Jest he described it. It's not clear how many people knew then that he was talking about something he had felt:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

An acquaintance commented on this passage to explain why the love and support of friends and family isn't always enough to save someone. Friends and family, she said, are on the other side of the flames. They may shout encouragement and promise rescue and yell at you to hang on. But the flames keep you apart. And the flames keep coming, higher and closer. And so you jump anyway.

When I wrote about severe depression earlier this year, I mentioned the mindset that saved me. It wasn't a belief that I could get better. I didn't believe, and couldn't hope. I couldn't think straight. The only thing that worked was surrendering and putting myself in the hands of others. I didn't believe in myself, but I knew that the people who cared would take care of me. And so they did, until I could hope and believe again.

I think people don't get help in crisis because they can't believe, can't hope. Going to a parent or a friend, calling a hotline, making an appointment with a doctor can feel futile if you can't believe that it will make things any better, if you can't see how things could possibly improve. But that's not what you have to believe. You only have to believe that there are people who care for you, whether they are loved ones or strangers dedicated to helping people like you. Depression lies. The leap of faith required is that the people who care about you know the truth. The leap of faith is that if you lay down your burden they will pick it up. They will.

If you're ever in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Just say "I need help." And say it to a loved one. You may not be able to imagine it now, but they will lead you out.

Edited to add: I'm doing well right now. Thanks for asking.

Happy To Be Here

The first thing you need to know about secure psychiatric facilities is that their bathrooms smell strongly of pee.

That may not seem remarkable to you. Many bathrooms smell of pee. But the facility in which I was a guest this time last year was notably immaculate in every other way. A lot of time and attention went towards making it clean and welcoming. Yet the private bathrooms — one to a two-person dorm room, no lock — always smelled of pee. That's because there's an elaborate metal cage built around the workings of the toilet, like one of those Hannibal Lecter masks. This makes the toilets very difficult to clean. Hence, the constant smell of pee.

The people who run the facility protect the toilets like that so that you won't disassemble them and use the pieces to hurt yourself. My wife would tell them that this concern dramatically overestimates my home improvement skills, but I guess they want to be careful. It seems to me that if you take the time and effort to disassemble a toilet with your bare hands, you're committed enough to be allowed to do to yourself as you see fit. To date my view has not prevailed in the psychiatric community.

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