The Burning Building of the Mind

There’s a famous David Foster Wallace quote that’s often included in discussions about mental illness, depression and suicide. Most pointedly to de-stigmatize those issues and frame it in a way that people understand the impetus behind suicide. Check it out in full below:

“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. 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.”

Without exaggeration, that is the most poignant, raw analogy I’ve ever read. I’ve read that quote many times and it still hits like a hammer. It makes me want to shake people by the shoulders and say, “WHY DON’T YOU GET IT?” Because here’s the sticker: The people “not getting it,” which I think are the masses, and the swirling stigma therein, is what pushes these issues underground and makes it incredibly difficult to help those suffering from whatever it is that’s going on in their head.

I look forward to a future, hopefully in my lifetime, where seeking help because something is wrong with your mind isn’t seen as bizarre or weak. Where getting diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder doesn’t mean you’re a leper. Where people who commit suicide are understood in the proper context of their struggle and not crassly referred to as “weak.”

Where when asked by your friend what you’re doing today, you can respond, “The grocery at ten, then the therapist at noon, and then maybe the dog park at 2,” and it’s seen as completely normal and okay.


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