This past month, I interviewed a psychiatrist named Bruce Levine for a piece I was writing on climate grief. Bruce would probably be mad that I opened by calling him a psychiatrist; he is one, but his goal is to dismantle his own profession. Without getting too much into it, Bruce thinks that psychiatry has failed, and he does not accept the chemical imbalance theory of mental illness. He believes that mental health, or un-health, is a response to society, and is best addressed by organizing for one’s own dignity among friends. But let’s talk about that later. The important thing here is what Bruce said to me about depression and anxiety. I’d asked him for his definition, since he doesn’t believe the common one, and he said this: People with anxiety and depression are fueled by desire to rebel against a sick society, but fear that if they rebel too much they’re not going to survive. Their idea that they have to rebel or else they won’t be human, but their fear if they do rebel they won’t be able to survive—won’t be loved, accepted, safe.
For weeks after I talked to Bruce, I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said. I thought about my own anxiety and depression, of which (no surprise to you, frequent reader) there are heaping servings. For years I have battled between the usual poles of the mental health debate: gift or curse; aberration or neurodiversity; illness or sensitivity. I debated with close friends about whether—if there were a pre-existential choice in these matters—I would choose to have depression (for the sake of feeling? for the sake of empathy? for the sake of some 19th-century tubercular idea of the feeling artiste?) or get rid of it. My answers almost entirely depended on whether I was currently depressed or not. But after a while I lapsed into a sort of inert agreement with the dominant idea: my brain soup was the wrong kind of stew, made with bad ingredients. I had depression. I had anxiety.
And so Bruce’s definition was a jolt to the system, a sort of activation energy for reassessment. Was I caught between a desire to be myself and a desire to be loved?
To answer this question I had to go no further than my own Google Drive, to a folder called I Meant to Say. Original fans of this blog will remember that I even asked a Confession Booth question on the topic. As for myself, I’ve been keeping this folder for years. Every time I don’t say what I mean, I write what I said down in this folder, and then I write what I meant to say. The list is long verging on endless, and gives the reader an almost vertiginous sense of falseness. Had I really swallowed my words this many times? Was depression a stew made of scrapped words?
This line of questioning led resolutely to questions of lies. I thought of how many times, in an attempt to dodge the truth of my own opinions, beliefs, or needs, I had lied in the past month alone. There was the not responding to texts and email, a sort of hiding in lieu of saying: I am depressed; I cannot ______. I thought of unequal friendships and relationships that had needled me for months but that I had not called into the light; I thought of allowing myself to be treated poorly because it was easier than speaking up and being treated right. I thought of my full-bodied terror at the idea of standing up for myself, of the way I have learned and tutored myself in the art of going along. I thought, too, of the time I told my therapist I had been on the plane with Vanilla Ice—the one where everyone had come down sick—and that was why I could not make it to my therapy appointment. How had it come to this? How had it become easier to claim flu-like solidarity with a has-been rapper than say what was true: I am tired all the time. I am afraid to cancel because I barely believe myself, barely have patience for my own bad immunity. But I really am sick again and I really cannot come.
It’s not entirely my fault. I grew up in a religion that taught that there was one truth for everyone, everywhere, all the time. I learned—osmotically, not explicitly—that this religion was so important to its believers that I would destroy them if I did not also believe it. This freighted every disagreement with eternal repercussions, with the possibility of deep hurt. And if only one thing was true, what was the point of disagreeing about anything anyway? So I learned to send my true self underground, like one tectonic plate sliding under another in the heat of two opposing forces. Subduction. And what was left were fault lines.
To be clear, I love my parents. They have never told me not to tell them who I am. In fact, they’ve spent decades trying to know. But we learn in gestures, actions, and assumptions—not words—and so I had learned my lessons from the broader culture. I had learned to keep myself to myself, and the result was avoidance. I avoided their calls. I avoided telling them about me. I avoided confrontation. I created an idea of their fragility, their inability to handle me, that I had never actually tested. (For the record, and for family members reading this: Nobody has, or ever will describe me as a wilting violet. They are probably laughing right now. Ash not sharing her opinions? Ash afraid to talk, to get into it? HA. And it’s true. I don’t seem like a terrified person. But I am one anyway).
All this was happening internally. But then something happened externally. In Mormon General Conference—a biannual meeting of members where the prophet and his apostles give divinely-inspired speeches about the goals of the Church—one of the leaders stood up and reiterated a tired Mormon theme. There were two genders, he said. Male and female. Trans people were confused people. They’d been hoodwinked by the devil. Queers, too.
I’ve heard countless talks like this, but when I heard this one, I felt rage. How could this man say this, and how could people I loved, and who loved me, believe it? I knew what I wanted. I wanted to stand up for myself. To say something. To stop swallowing my own words and let them out. I wanted to tell my parents what I really thought. But I was scared. I would destroy them they would hate me I would hurt them they would suffer. The usual claptrap.
But in the dim light of my bedroom that day, I didn’t listen. I knew, in the Bruce Levine kind of way, what the real problem was. For years, I had traded my authentic self for my safety and acceptance. For years, I had lied lies of omission and commission so I wouldn’t hurt people, and I had hurt myself. So I wrote an email. Dear mom and dad, it said. And then it said everything else. I wrote without pausing. I wrote without editing. And then I sent it. I sent it off into that vague ether where desperate truths wait desperately for response. And I felt light as a kite, people. Light as a fucking kite.
That lasted five minutes, and then I felt everything else. I was sick, I was anxious, I-wanted-a-response-I-didn’t-want-a-response. I checked my email compulsively. I threw my phone across the room, then found it and checked my email again.
I’ll tell you about the response some other time (words limits, attention limits). But for now I will write only this: I would like to say that I sent this email and nothing was ever the same again, but that isn’t true. It was one truth in a marshland of half-truths, one step out of a boggy swamp. I thought of a friend who told me once about her dad, who was dying, and their relationship. “You’d think someone’s imminent death would change things,” she told me, “but really it just shows you exactly what already is.” I agree. As much as I like Cheryl Strayed, no story actually ends with and nothing was ever the same again. At the risk of being clunky, they end, at best with this Bruce-ian idea: and who I was was clearer than ever, and I began to change—to choose myself, my real self, over the come-hithers of false belonging.
I am fifty percent person that likes to try new things, and fifty percent a frightened puppy huddling in a corner. I had never been on a blind date, and quite frankly hadn’t been on that many dates in general, when I agreed to meet a guy I met on Craigslist at a bar in Tacoma, 90 minutes from the tiny town I was living in.
The fifty percent adventurous me was a excited, and got my hair cut that day. Put on make up. Warned a friend that I was doing this, in case he was a serial killer and I was never heard from again.
I found The Spar, a quiet, run-down, beer and billiards place that only had a few people in the corner when I rolled in at 6 pm. I sat down at a table…and then the fifty percent shaking puppy part of me kicked in. Before I ever ordered a drink, I could feel my mind start racing and my heart start thudding. I stood up again and walked out.
I walked to the end of the road, a block away, where the street awkwardly ended. It overlooked a tangle of freeways, beyond which was the hazy, gray-watered working waterfront.
I said to myself, “This is crazy. YOU ARE NOT A PERSON THAT MEETS STRANGERS AT BARS. Go home, fast.”
I had actually stood up a guy once before, so this wasn’t unfamiliar territory. I turned and picked up the pace toward my car.
Just as I approached the corner where I was parked, my phone rang.
“Hey, this is Todd. I’m running just a little late, I”m sorry. I’m on my way, though. I”ll be there in 5 minutes.”
I couldn’t think fast enough to say “Don’t bother,” so I numbly turned back around and went back into the Spar and ordered cider and tried to stop my knees from shaking.
Since he’s the father of my children, and I spent yesterday watching one of them ride a sheep at a state fair, I’d say things were never the same again.
The suicide note was left on a desk in the middle of my classroom. I don’t remember much of what it said besides the author didn’t feel like anybody cared about them. It was right on top of a desk, face up, in the middle of class, just waiting there for me. I wouldn’t have even noticed it if I hadn’t been arranging desks and picking up trash to end the day. My room was so hot too, upstairs with west facing windows. It was late spring and that time when everybody just wanted to be done with school already and out in the summer air. I was ready to go home too, but here were these words, this cry for help, and it was left for me to see.
The note was so vulnerable. The words were so honest. I might have been the most authentic piece of writing this student had ever produced for a teacher. And as they were so raw, the student had also declined to sign.
There is a law that requires teachers to report abuse, suicide, or other destructive behavior as soon as possible. From that point, other professionals take over who are trained make the next move. But I wondered if any of that mattered or would be helpful. The note gave a specific time and place: Home, tonight.
Next, I grabbed a stack of un-graded papers from the class, and started comparing handwriting samples. There was the match. I was sure it was “Matt”.
By this time, almost everybody had left the building including the councilors who would know best what to do. I ran down white tile halls with the papers flapping in my hands. The janitor had his headphones on, and hardly noticed me run by as his machine waxed the floor. I got to the office where the vice principal was locking up the gates and leave too.
I yelled, “Wait, stop, we need to do something.”
We went into his office and I don’t remember many details after that. There were the certificates on the wall, the trophies, the neatly arranged desk with a jar of paperclips. I showed him the note and the handwriting sample. We called who I was suppose to call, but there was no guarantee that they could do anything before the morning. Maybe they could. We didn’t know. Then I said, “Can you just call Matt’s parents?”
I don’t know why the tone changed in the conversation, but then again I do. I never had a great relationship with my administrators. They shut down the hip-hop club that I had founded. I thought it was a chance for the bad-boyz to be connected to a teacher at school. But my principal only heard bad music, and wasn’t going to allow any of that gang-banger shit in his building.
Then there was the time that I saw a boy/girl fight at a homecoming and the next day she showed up with a black eye. I pulled the boyfriend aside in the hall and said, “ You know what? Guys who punch their girlfriends are assholes.” Teachers aren’t supposed to do that. They are supposed to call the mandatory reporter hotline and let the professionals deal with it.
In other words, I had made some mistakes, but my bosses were assholes too.
So when I suggested that the vice principal call Matt’s family, he raised his voice and said, “It’s not my or your job to deal with this kind thing Russell. You did what you needed to do- now go home and we’ll deal with it tomorrow.” But the note said there wasn’t going to be a tomorrow.
I may have argued about it for a minute before he cut me off and said, “If you try to call Matt, or his parents, this will be your last year teaching at Montrose High School.”
So I went home and cried and prayed. They were the only things left that I could do. Matt was such a cool kid.I really wanted to see him again and know that he was ok.
After about an hour Heather got home from work and saw me on the living room floor with a stuffy nose and tears on my cheeks. I told her what had happened. She held me and we talked for a while. Eventually we realized that it was getting dark and that neither of us had made anything for dinner. We decided to go grab a pizza and beer just to get out of the house.
But then, things started to work out. Matt’s school counselor was having a beer with his wife too, and so I pulled up a chair next to him at the bar and told him what had happened. Then after a pause he said, “You need to call him tonight.”
“But I can’t. I’ll lose my job.”
“But you are the one that needs to call him. There are all kinds of different suicidal behavior but this is a textbook example where there’s a person who leaves a note for you to find, because YOU are the one that they trust and YOU are the one that they are reaching out to. I’ll coach you through what to say.”
It was settled. I’d make the call.
And that was the moment that I realized what heroism actually looks like. I always had thought of it as some kind of glorious moment where a single individual who is somehow more courageous, or stronger than the rest of us, steps up to do what is right.
But heroism, if it exists at all, has nothing to do with courage or strength. It has much more to do with vulnerability and a bleeding heart. In my mind I knew that I was probably going to lose my job when I picked up the phone. But my heart was ached so much, I didn’t have a choice. I loved Matt. I wanted him to live. I dialed the number.
So much has changed the way my eyes have taken in the information that life presents. I’ll highlight three and go in to depth more on one. The three are as follows - my first relationship with my girlfriend Anna, my healing process through difficulties with depression and anxiety, and my opportunity to go to school at Salt Lake Community College.
Going to school has opened me up to such a wonderful amount of knowledge, it makes me so excited to know more and shows me just how many opportunities life can bring. I’m so enjoyed by what I get to learn and how it can be applied. It truly is a blessing, I’m excited to have a direction of where I want to go and know too that if that doesn’t end up being the route I take another will show itself. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to attend school!
I lived on a farm that experienced a supposed 1000 year flood. It made me less interested in the idea of "owning land."