this is going to be a short one, a filler substack, kind of, as i’m still working on my next substack on momofuku takeaway, taylor swift, and k-dramas. it’s world suicide prevention day, though, so i thought i’d send out a short missive. content warning, obviously, for talk of suicidal ideation and thinking.
last summer, i shared about living with suicidal ideation on instagram stories. this wasn’t the first time i’d done this; i’ve been open about living with major depressive disorder, panic disorder, and suicidal thinking for years; and it wasn’t unusual for me to be talking about suicidal ideation during the summer. summers tend to be the hardest season for me.
i had a new coworker, though, and she’d just started following me on instagram. she knew i had all the company instagram accounts blocked, my manager’s, my boss’s, literally everyone affiliated with the company except a few coworkers who had become like friends. i stupidly trusted her and didn’t block her right away.
she took my stories and shared them with our manager who shared them with our boss. i’ll be fair and concede that she probably didn’t have any malicious intentions, but i’m not someone who gives anyone credit for intentions. even now, a year later, i’m furious she did that. she was wrong to do that.
like i said, i live with major depressive disorder, panic disorder, and suicidal thinking. i was also diagnosed with ADHD two years ago, and i have had chronic sleep issues for years. i think about dying almost every single day, not necessarily because i want to be dead but because i no longer want to be alive. i’m exhausted with living because, to me, living requires an extraordinary amount of energy and will, and that is incredibly painful. this is not a pain that can be taken away by medication or therapy, simply managed, if that.
for years, i’ve wondered about my stupid willingness to say all this so openly. when strangers read this, i’m sure they automatically write me off as a liability, and i’m sure this honesty has and will cost me job opportunities and relationships.
2019 made me acutely aware of how people don’t know what to do with people like me. people don’t know how to interact with us, talk to us, or help us, and it’s more common to see people go into this bullshit savior mode with faux-compassion and meaningless platitudes. we’re implored to stay alive, that “this, too, shall pass,” but it’s rare to meet the person who is willing and able to set aside the shudder at hearing the word “suicidal” and say, “what can i do for you? how can i help you? what do you need right now in this moment?”
i don’t know that i’ve met a person like that who didn’t also live with this, and i’ve stopped reaching out to the non-suicidal when i’m hurting the most. even those who love me don’t know what to do or say, have resorted simply to saying i should be back on medication, i should go back to therapy, like medication and therapy don’t cost hundreds of dollars and require time and energy to find. it’s ridiculously difficult to access therapists at affordable price points, and people don’t know how crippling depression and suicidal thinking are. i’m lucky, i guess, in that i am at least high-functioning, which means i can still go to work, do my job well, and appear “normal,” even though i go home and immediately curl up and go comatose in my bed.
i think that’s why i talk about it, though — because i’m high-functioning. i have it programmed in me to be responsible, to produce good work no matter what, to show up to things i’m committed to, so i can pull on some deep, hidden reserves within me to put on a good face and do what i need to do. that, too, is a kind of bizarre privilege, a kind of fucked-up privilege, because i shouldn’t have to do this, i shouldn’t have to put on a show of strength and point to my ability to function because i’m afraid of being dismissed because of my broken brain.
maybe i should stop calling it my broken brain, but that’s what it feels like. it’s incredibly lonely and isolating to live with a broken brain.
there’s a lot i have to say about david chang’s eat a peach, but most of those words will be saved for later. it is world suicide prevention day, though, so i did want to share something — that i am grateful he wrote the book that he did, that he was willing to be open about living with bipolar disorder and suicidal thinking. it’s not often that i read writing about suicidal thinking that i can relate to, and it’s even more rare for that recognition to come from a fellow second-generation korean american. we don’t talk about mental illness in our communities. it doesn’t exist because, if it did, if one of us were mentally ill, that would bring shame upon our families.
i don’t have the energy to make this a long substack and go deep into this. if you want to read more of things i’ve written in the past, here’s an essay i wrote that the rumpus published about living with suicidal ideation and loving a stranger on the internet. here’s a substack i wrote last year, which marked ten years since the december morning i first tried to die, and here’s a blog post i wrote after anthony bourdain’s death.
and here is a long passage from the end of eat a peach.
“come on, dave,” you’re saying. “what the hell do you have to be depressed about?”
nothing. there’s nothing to be depressed about. for those who know me well, it can be a struggle to reconcile my depression with the look of joy on my face when we’re eating and goofing off together. you know how much i love my family and my job and the people i work with. but if you’ve fought depression or know somebody who has, you know that no amount of money can fix it. no amount of fame. no logic. the continuing stigma around suicide and mental illness tells me that not enough people truly understand it. i don’t really blame them — it’s impossible unless you’ve lived it. but there’s this puritanical notion of suicide as evil, depression as some kind of failure of character. too many of us assume that antidepressants and suicide hotlines and generalized compassion are antidotes — that painting the train station a calm color is going to stop people from jumping. you wouldn’t suggest to a cancer patient that calling a hotline would cure them, would you?
to fight this, you need help. medicine, yes, but people are key. you can’t do it alone. i’m lucky to have dr. eliot. the mere routine of talking to him has kept me alive. i speak to him even when it doesn’t seem necessary or feels like a chore. he brings out my most thoughtful and considerate self. when we’re talking, i’m the version of me that’s happy to wake up and face whatever challenges lie ahead. it’s frustrating that i can’t be like that all the time.
i’m unbelievably lucky to have met grace. i’m trying really hard not to let work be an excuse or a buffer between us. but for years, my best coping strategy has been work. i have assumed so many responsibilities and said yes to so many things. working hard creates my own gravity. the more i work, the more i am on terra firma. even on vacation. when i’m out of the office, it usually means that i’m cooking dinner for twenty friends. i’ve developed a pretty serious fly-fishing habit, and it's not the relaxing kind. it’s work. when i read or watch a movie, i get overly invested in the characters and overthink the plots, no matter how atrocious they are.
this all raises the question of whether depression is something you can control by simply sucking it up. my answer is no, i don’t think you can overcome it with willpower, but i do believe that dealing with depression is a choice that needs to be made. you have to choose to stand up every day and keep going. to reject your default settings. to offer another silly analogy, i always liken it to being a jedi. it’s easier — and probably cooler — to give in to the dark side. the only way to be a jedi is to do the hard thing and reject your base instincts.
on good days, the fight will push you into experiences you would never have known otherwise. you will have purpose, even if the purpose is only to stick around. (254-6)
i guess one last thing i’ll say is — i don’t want to speak for all suicidal people, but i dare say that many of us don’t expect people to “fix” us. when i used to reach out to people during suicidal episodes, i didn’t expect or want them to offer me some kind of solution or try to help make things seem better because i knew they couldn’t. they didn’t know what it was like to want to stop living. i was glad they didn’t know. i just wanted comfort, to be reminded that i wasn’t alone, that here was a soft space where i could stop trying so hard to seem okay.
these days, i refuse to talk about my suicidal brain with the non-suicidal. i spend too much energy reassuring them that i’m okay, i’m not going to go kill myself, and it’s exhausting having to manage their irrational fears when i only have so much energy in a day to begin with. this is why i wish we could change the conversation around “suicide prevention” because suicide prevention often places the burden on the shoulders of the suicidal. i want, instead, for the non-suicidal to learn not to freak out, to calm the fuck down, to have the goddamn common sense not to report their potentially suicidal coworker to HR. i want the non-suicidal to be better, to do better, to advocate for the things that will actually help the suicidal stay alive, things like affordable healthcare, housing, transportation.
things like combatting and dismantling anti-LGBTQIA prejudice.
i want the non-suicidal to stop seeing us as liabilities who aren’t worth investing in, whether financially or emotionally.
i don’t expect people to save me or keep me alive. i’ll go on making my daily choices to stay alive and continue writing and creating good work, just like i have for the past two decades. i would love if everyone else would catch the fuck up.