Featured in

Featured in: Tiny Buddha, Halifax Media Coop, Fine Fit Day, Simplify the Season, La Presse, Filles, Le Canada-Français

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Choose the toothbrush

Cristiana Gasparotto, Flickr

Maybe that's why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn't able to do what it was meant to do... Maybe it's the same with people. If you lose your purpose... it's like you're broken.

(From the beautiful movie Hugoby Scorsese)

I recently wrote a post that tackled a number of taboos. When I asked for suggestions for other taboos I should crush, fellow blogger Roy, from Contemplative Fitness, mentioned suicide. He himself wrote a piece on that topic, a few years ago. That post of his inspired the title of mine; indeed, Roy writes

You see, many days of my life I wake up and must decide whether to put a toothbrush in my mouth, or a revolver. This has been a choice I have faced on awakening on many occasions since my teens. Since I don’t own a revolver, and possess an obvious genetic predisposition toward dirty teeth, and that I still see so much beauty and so many possibilities in the frame of a day, toothbrush always wins.

(Through Roy's post I was also introduced to the story of David Foster Wallace, and if you are interested in a fascinating talk by him, please click here.)

I've been thinking about it since then (the topic, not suicide!), wondering what approach would be best if I was to write about it. I could have talked about Emile Durkheim's theory of suicide, but I believe whoever's interested in the sociological aspects of it can research it themselves.

Instead I decided to simply share what some people have to say about suicide and its best friend, depression. In fact, I will mostly focus on depression per se, which is the main cause of suicide after all, and a real mental illness nobody should be ashamed of. There is still a lot to do in that direction. Most of us don't want to talk about our own depression, for reasons ranging between shame, fear of being judged, false certainty that it will not help us, or simply because we don't want to alarm others. But to reach out is crucial!

I start with a personal "essay", and follow with other people's take on the topic. This post is NOT an exhaustive analysis, but if you feel something has been left out, please do write it in the comments. Please also feel free to share your own experience of depression, to help crush the taboo. Thank you!

Note: If you have been contemplating suicide, or have had depressed thoughts, please get help NOW. There are suicide hotlines in most areas. Your doctor can also point you to the right resources. This post is an essay on suicide, and DOES NOT qualify as help.

My take on depression

Depression runs in my family, which is why I unfortunately know a little bit too much about it. What I know about it is the following:

There's a very wise saying about suicide, which goes like this: "Suicide is a final solution to a temporary problem". This saying is absolutely accurate, and if we could all understand and remember it at all times, then suicide would soon be eradicated. Unfortunately, when you're in a depression, the "problem" does not feel temporary at all. In depression the "problem" is not situated in time nor in space; it is all-encompassing. It permeates your whole life, and sucks both the enjoyment AND the meaning right out of it. If you're truly depressed there is absolutely not reason left to life, or life has become too painful to live, or both.

This is why you cannot simply shake off depression. You need help, and the sooner the better.

Another thing I know is that depression can hit anyone, anywhere, anytime. Even people who seemingly have a fulfilling life, even successful people, can suffer from it. Depression does not spare you; it has no mercy. The other pernicious side of depression is that people who suffer from it are often very good at hiding it. 

If you're not depressed, good for you! My only advice would be: don't let it creep in. Not the slightest. Ever. Especially if depression is a sword of Damocles above your head (i.e. you've had it before). Like Roy from Contemplative Fitness, I use exercise as a preventive measure. When I'm physically active, dark thoughts just don't have a grip on me. They drift by. When I'm not active for more than a full week, I can feel them come back. I know there are studies about the causes of this, but the details are futile. Exercise protects me, therefore I exercise... that's all.

My other strategies to stay on the right track are the following:

  • Don't put all your eggs in the same basket. This way, if something totally collapses in one area of your life, something else will still be there.
  • Actively block catastrophic thinking or "cluster negativity"; it's tempting sometimes to collect all our negative thoughts and assemble them into a dirty snow ball. It leads to depressive statements such as "I fail at everything I try", "Nobody likes me", "I'm no good", etc. Such statements are not allowed in my brain.
  • Don't pursue perfection, or goals that are other people's goals. Think this through. Sit down and have a chat with yourself: am I doing this for myself, or to please or impress someone else?
  • Remember that nothing has the right to destroy your faith in life. Some things might feel unbearable when they happen, but I always remind myself that life is a gift, that it could be worse, and that in time, I will recover.
  • Be grateful. About everything you could possibly be grateful for. Make a list at the end of each day.
  • Reset your buttons: http://happinessdishbestsavouredhot.blogspot.ca/2011/09/life-sucks-reset-your-buttons.html

Of course, if you're already flirting with clinical depression, those strategies won't suffice. They are strategies for the everyday downer. If you're further than that... GET HELP.

Others' take on depression

Depression also runs in society at large. Some people have described it very aptly, which unfortunately means they know a little bit too much about it, too.

1) JK Rowling and Harry Potter

JK Rowling has explained that the dementors that haunt Harry Potter's story are a metaphor for depression, that she herself has experienced. It's clear from her descriptions that she know exactly what she is talking about:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

2) Allie, from Hyperbole and a half

If you don't know Allie's blog, run, don't walk! When I discovered it, I was, just like hundreds of others, under the charm right away. One day, Allie announced she was writing a real book. She had an editor, she had a date of publication. It was exciting! And then... we did not hear about her anymore. Her blog became silent. Everyone wondered what had happened to her. Depression is what happened to her. Many months later, she reappeared and wrote about her experience of depression. I cannot recommend those 2 posts enough:

3) Role Reboot

This blog recently posted a piece entitled We Need to Talk about Depression, and Everyone Needs to Listen. It describes, step by step, the gradual descent into depression, and it debunks the common myths surrounding that genuine disease:

That's what depression looks like for many people. We are not depressed because we are selfish, lazy, or weak, and we know we are difficult—even infuriating—to live with. So we often cling to denial as tightly as people who don’t understand that depression is a life-threatening disease, people who believe depression is a narcissistic behavior. But it's not a behavior at all.

For the whole article, (again, highly recommended):

4) Wipe Out Suicide

If you're on Facebook, please check out their page. Lots of great stuff there.

5) The song that best describes depression (I translated the lyrics below):

Maman, by Pierre Lapointe

Mom, tell me why
The birds deep in my heart
Cry each and every minute
Even if you're there to comfort them
Mom, tell me why
Everything that moves around me
Makes me feel like crying
Like the day I came out of you

If that's what it's like to be 20
I'd rather be a child
If that's what it's like to be 20
I'd rather die now

Mom, tell me why
I feel old inside
Even if the minutes of my hours 
Are still to young to put me to sleep
Mom, tell me why
Happiness, in my hands
Breaks like porcelain
Is it because I'm too clumsy
Or because life likes me no more

In conclusion

Depression spares no one, but it's not a reason to surrender to it. Know yourself, and surround yourself. Never, ever, face it alone.

Let's all focus on this quote from the movie Hugo, which reminds us that we all have a reason to be here:

Everything has a purpose, clocks tell you the time, trains takes you to places. I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine... I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.

For more on depression, you can do a search at the top right corner of this page.

Update: Since I posted this piece, 2 days ago, I received a very serious confidence. This post prompted a good friend of mine to confide in me, and to tell me she has been having suicidal thoughts for a while now. I am keeping the communication lines open, and she will see her psychologist today to talk about it. 

This is exactly why we need to talk openly about this difficult topic: so that people feel more comfortable opening up and getting help. 


  1. Well this is a serious subject. You are correct that depressed people can often hide their feelings of depression. I live in a state (Montana) with one of the highest rates of suicide in America. I've known people who chose to check out early. One day they are there and gone the next. The suicide is (IMHO) a selfish act. The person who kills themselves is not thinking about the consequences for those who are left behind to pick up the pieces and continue on with life.

    One big warning sign is giving away material things that once had personal value for that person. Collectibles, gifts, personal items they have had for years. It all becomes meaningless to them. I know what I'm talking about. Now I want my stuff back, but am too embarrassed to ask. (hah!) No...really.

    I survived major depressive disorder. It wasn't easy. It can be done. I don't normally blog about that time of my life. I don't like to be down. I was very blessed and just did not appreciate my blessings. Now I do.

    1. Hi Marc,

      Thank yo so much for sharing your insight. I am very glad that you are okay now, and aware of all your blessings. :-)

      I absolutely respect your take on things, especially since you've been through it, but I have to admit I disagree with part of what you say: I do not believe suicide is a selfish act.

      When someone is suffering so incredibly that they consider taking their own life, they are in so much pain they just want it to end. In such a "modified state", they might be unable to take into consideration the consequences it will have on others. I feel that depression can destroy everything, not only your desire to live, but also your empathy and judgement. Which is why it's so dangerous.

      The people who are left behind are hurt tremendously, of course. Some say that suicide is even "contagious", triggering depression in others.

      Personally I have told myself that I will never do it, simply because I would not want to "do that" to my children. But I cannot judge others, because they probably were suffering much more than I ever have. (It's still NOT the solution though!)

      Again, thank you for your input. :-)

  2. Great post! Such a sad topic. My neighbor killed himself at 17 3 years ago and it struck the whole community. Just tragic. His parents are so lovely and I see them everyday. You can tell something has forever been taken from them. I used to babysit him when he was little. I wish I could have known or done something. It is so well hidden and way too common!

    1. This must be a parent's worst nightmare.

      You are right that it is often well hidden and way too common.

  3. Depression, more simply put, is a mother fucker with a knife, and a gun, and a detailed road map to the head of every person in the western world.

    I will simply add a rebut to the ignorant but ever so popular edict on suicide; that it is a selfish act.

    The act of suicide is often referred to as ‘selfish’. Those who are left behind are often resentful of, and bitter toward the departed. I don’t subscribe to that belief, and if you are one who does, I ask you to reconsider.

    We who remain behind in the wake of suicide, have no idea what thoughts may have been colliding, nor how hard or how long those collisions might have been taking place inside the head of someone that desperate to end their life. That is a judgment no living person is qualified to make.

    There can be no way to understand that moment – that chaotic moment when a life, a future, a legacy, and the all the relationships that go with it, no longer hold any value. It must feel, in that chaotic moment, like the universe has not yet begun, or has already ended, and therefore there is nothing to lose.

    Thank you for taking on this subject Julie. IT means more to me than you know....

    1. Thank you for your comment Roy. Unfortunately you are among the ones who know too much about this... but if we talk about it hopefully it will make a difference for the better.

      Thank you for inspiring all this. :-)

  4. Thank you for sharing all of this - I always try to be aware of the different signs of depression because I don't want to be drifting along thinking things are great with my boys only to realize that I'm just oblivious!
    I know many people that have to take medication for depression and I will never forget one friend who really struggled with the medicine finally had a DR tell her that it was no different than any other disease. He asked her if she would take insulin if she were diabetic and she said of course - he told her that this was the exact same - necessary!!!

    1. You underline one of the main problems with depression: it't too easy to "drift along thinking things are great".

      Thank you Kim!

  5. Wow. Tough topic. It's hard to write on it without falling prey to the preconceived ideas. You did a good job.

    I recommend reading Marilyn Monroe's last letters.

    1. Thank you Lisa, and I will check out those letters!

  6. When I feel a little blue, I try to reset my perspective by focusing on all of the good things in my life. There is no faster way for me to snap out of a bad mood then to count the wonderful things in my life.

    Having said that, I understand that true depression is a chemical imbalance and should not be taken lightly. I have extended family members who suffer from crippling depression, and my hearts go out to them.

    Thank you for writing about this very serious & difficult topic.

    1. Thank you Nicole for your balanced view on this. There is feeling blue, and then there is clinical depression. You seem to know the difference. :-)

  7. My brother messaged me yesterday saying how he felt so depressed the past two days and my response to him: when was the last time you exercised. He told me it had been a few days and I said, well tomorrow morning, before work, exercise. And what do you know, he texted me this morning saying his mood did a complete 180! And he used to wonder why I work out every single morning! ;)

    1. Awww, how I love to read this, Gigi. Exercise is pure magic!!!

  8. Incredible piece. I think those who suffer from it have the hardest time talking about it. It's not easy to deal with and you never know.how you're going to feel.when you wake up on the morning.

    1. Yes Carla, for so many reasons, it's still a big taboo. And still misunderstood. Thank you for commenting!

  9. Oh i love your list of strategies to stay on the right track. I had a very low period in my early/mid 20s, so i completely understand that bleak darkness that has a way of consuming a person. however, now i choose being positive. to look at the bright side, to remind myself that life is all about perspective and focusing on what I can do for OTHERS. as soon as i feel myself slipping, i try to do something for somebody else to make them happy, its amazing what it does for my own mood in return :)

    1. Oh, you are right Charlotte! I forgot that strategy: do something for others. Somehow it has the power to dissolve part of the darkness. Thanks for your input!

  10. The first time I read Harry Potter, I wondered what the Dementors were a metaphors for. My mind went in all crazy directions, to be honest, and I don't think I ever thought it was depression. Now to go back and read it makes sense. I love your list to stay on track. Depression is not really a part of my life, and doesn't run in my family, but I don't think that equals immunity ever. Anxiety is more my thing and I do have a list to keep it at baby and it generally works well. I have to confess - I had to read this post several times to go over your words. They make perfect sense - but I still wanted to make sure I was giving it my all.

    1. Hi Tamara! I think Harry Potter contains more metaphors and references to "the real world" than most people are aware of! :-)
      Anxiety is not easy to live with either. I would love to read your list of strategies.
      I hope the post was not too heavy! Thank you for taking the time.

    2. Not too heavy! And so sorry about the typos I see above. I was tired last night!

  11. I agree with you. Everyone should do everything in their power not to let Depression slip into any space of their live. It's a DARK, DARK place.

    1. Yes, and just like everything else, it's much easier to try and avoid slipping into it, than it is to actually get out of it.

  12. Very powerful piece. Depression runs in my family as well, and I'm no exception. I've struggled with it off and on clinically for 13 years, but honestly closer to 25+. For the most part now I'm steady...but there are times when it does become overwhelming. Knowing my depression, and getting comfortable with it has taught me that when I feel those things, to start to move, to eat less crap, to surround myself with the people I love instead of pushing them away. Depression is a part of me, but it doesn't have to BE me.

    1. Very well said, Missy. I will remember that.

      Knowing ourselves and the signs, we can hopefully react quickly and before it goes too far.

      Thank you for commenting.

  13. Yes, depression and suicide are pretty serious. I've been depressed and worked through it, known depressed people professionally, and lost a close friend to suicide.

    Bottom line, catch it early and do something for yourself, of be lucky to have someone close to you see it and get you help, because really, if you can write a post like this, or read a post like this, you ain't that depressed!

    1. Catching it early is THE trick!

      Depression can come and go, one will have good periods and not so good periods. The idea is to use the good periods to the fullest, and react quickly when a bad period is showing its first signs. Reading a post like this, like I said, would not do much for someone who is already deep in the darkness of depression.

  14. J'ajouterais que tout déséquilibre mental, quel qu'il soit, est encore tabou. Au bureau de psychologues que je fréquente, on doit entrer par la porte arrière et sortir par la porte avant... pour ne pas croiser les autres patients!!! Ce n'est pourtant pas ainsi chez le dentiste ou le médecin...
    P.-S.: J'adore le titre de cette chronique!

    1. Très intéressant, ton commentaire, Bella!

      Et brossons-ous les dents vigoureusement, ça nous préservera de faire des bêtises! :-)