Suicidal Ideation and Who We Allow to Be Real

Relegating women, POC, and queer people as minor characters in their own lives

2003 © movie still from Last Life in the Universe

I was laying down when the nurse practitioner was rubbing a gelatinous substance on my neck, cool like how I imagined waves would be running over my body, drowning me into a calm oblivion full of neon and pastel colors leaving lines like jellyfish long after their departure. I was in the middle of having a sonogram done; only a few weeks before, my doctor ordered one, because the lymph nodes in my neck were swollen, too swollen. I left without any answers. A week later, they called for another test.

There was a problem, but they didn’t know what it was. They still don’t. So, I trudged through the labyrinth of making another appointment, speaking to various people who didn’t have any answers. I find myself, in those instances, checking off boxes, checking off female even though I don’t identify as female, but there is no other option. No option for “other” or “gender neutral” or “non-binary” or something. I look like a woman, so I’m not going to argue. I’m used to not arguing, taking up as little space as possible, being silent. Sometimes, I prefer this.

When the beginning of June rolls around, I always read Anne Sexton’s poem, “The Truth the Dead Know.” It’s cliché to admit, maybe, but it’s one of those poems that has burrowed itself in my bones, that understand the strange excitement the world contains, but also the disappointments — most of all, the desire to disappear. To die. The first stanza gets it immediately:

“Gone, I say and walk from church,

refusing the stiff procession to the grave,

letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.

It is June. I am tired of being brave.”

And then, the third:

“My darling, the wind falls in like stones

from the whitehearted water and when we touch

we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.

Men kill for this, or for as much.”

I don’t remember when I first felt like I wanted to disappear. Do any of us? The one thing all humans have in common is the survival instinct — the need to stay alive, sometimes no matter the cost. Humans have been known to cannibalize others in extreme circumstances to stay alive and yet, sometimes, that instinct malfunctions. We want to disappear, we try to undo our bodies, ourselves. Yet, it is hard for most of us to admit when we have suicidal thoughts — that we suffer from depression or anxiety or any mental illness. And yet, according to Healthline, “the NIMH estimates that in the United States, 16 million adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2012. That’s 6.9 percent of the population. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. It is a leading cause of disability.”

“I don’t remember when I first felt like I wanted to disappear. Do any of us?”

I remember being in middle school, writing and listening to The Cure and staring at my carpet wanting to slip into another reality — or none at all. I remember feeling this way in college, during my assault, after my assault, watching an ex throw up after drinking too much for the umpteenth time, then taking care of him — only to have him forget, on lunch breaks during various jobs, while giving my 12th graders a lecture on “The Canterbury Tales,” during Hurricane Sandy while sitting in the dark waiting for the lights to come on — during perfectly mundane, even calm moments. Sometimes, the idea that I should be happier led me to believe there is something wrong with me, that I will never be as happy as I want to be — if happiness is even the end goal, and can be the end goal, for humans.

Depression, and suicidal ideation, has historically been documented when it comes to men — all sorts of literature has been written by men, and for men, including Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Foster Wallace, James Wright, Richard Brautigan, etc. And some of these writers, I do like, like Brautigan — but there is, and has always been, a proverbial (and often real) award that these men get for being complicated, depressed, even otherworldly humans whose struggles have been long romanticized.

And yet, for women, people of color, or queer writers, they are often labeled crazy or hard to deal with — whether they deal with depression, or even just their womanhood or their “othered” gender and/or racial identity, in their work. Whatever happened to Zelda Fitzgerald, for instance? Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Yoko Ono, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Lee Krasner, and Candy Darling are just an array of marginalized people whose work was either largely written off as “crazy” or other — or whose hard work and dedication were never fully as celebrated as their male counterparts. It’s well known that Krasner, for example, didn’t get a huge studio space until her husband Jackson Pollock died.

“But my experiences are not unique — and that’s the problem.”

Zelda Fitzgerald is the tragic, perfect example of a woman writer whose own talent was ignored because she had a famous writer husband — whose mental illness was mocked — and whose alcoholic husband abused her (and clearly contributed to her declining mental health), and yet, hardly anyone talks about Zelda. Except that she was F. Scott’s crazy wife — as if we should feel bad for him. Delmore Schwartz, for instance, wrote how F. Scott was “regarded as a toy, puppet, and victim of the zeitgeist [and] will certainly be invoked as a witness of how America destroys its men of genius by giving them a false and impossible idea of success.” As if men are the ones who are destroyed. Not that they do the destroying.

In an interview in 1923, he also stated that “women care for ‘things,’ clothes, furniture, for themselves … and men, in so far as they contribute to their vanity.” Zelda, agreed, adding, “I don’t mean that money means happiness, necessarily. But having things, just things, objects makes a woman happy. The right kind of perfume, the smart pair of shoes.” But what other choice did she have, considering the time?

Of course, Zelda did bear a lot of privilege for her time, especially considering she was not a poor woman — and she was white, so she had more visibility than women of color without a doubt. But it would be untrue to say her life wasn’t full of tumultuous highs and lows — and that she wasn’t a victim of abuse and her society’s neglect of mental health, considering the affects of Victorian female hysteria were basically still believed then (and you could argue the affects still linger even now). By the end of her life, Zelda was institutionalized — where she died at age 47 in a fire.

Literature Needs Angry Female Heroes

Like Yoko Ono being blamed for breaking up The Beatles (because men can’t make their own ruinous decisions, or you know, bands can’t break up just because), Hemingway accused Zelda of stifling her husband’s creativity (not that his excessive drinking was maybe the cause) — and even her own husband criticized her only novel, saying she wrote too autobiographically — and worse, that she stole details he was going to use for his own book Tender Is the Night.

But this isn’t just about Zelda Fitzgerald being a second character in her own life — being routinely ignored and abused by the men around her. This is about how countless women, people of color, and queer people are treated like the minor characters in their own lives — how their own struggle with mental illness, and physical ailments too, are relegated to the side, not taken as seriously. I myself went to the hospital for Toxic Shock Syndrome, only to be turned away, basically told I was making my symptoms up — and luckily, my primary care physician believed me when I called and gave me medication. Yet, I could have died. Or the time I was told by a psychologist that I wasn’t raped, because I was dating the person who raped me, and better yet, that I had to “get over it.”

But my experiences are not unique — and that’s the problem. It’s easy to see these problems, like marginalized writers being ignored, or healthcare inequalities for marginalized people, as not being related — but they so evidently are. Our labeling women and queer people as crazy and tragically fragile, like Nina Simone or Billie Holiday, happens in vastly different ways than male artists who also suffer from similar mental health issues and substance abuse problems (like Elvis Presley, Elliott Smith, Brian Wilson).

Take Billie as an another example, an important example of a black queer woman: No one knew, and still don’t, what to do with a black woman who was all parts vulnerable, sexual, resilient, complicated — all while in a hyper-masculine world. She’s still known for being dependent on dominate men and having addictions, despite the fact that she did have affairs with women, wanted to be a jazz singer since age 12, and was in control of her overall persona and her writing (she co-wrote “Lady Sings the Blues” with William Dufty for instance). No one is all powerful or necessarily all submissive — and to pretend that women, queer people, and people of color are dependent on their supposed flaws and weaknesses — their struggles — is to assume they have no agency.

The men, more often than not, are still revered as geniuses. Yes, Wilson is often referred to as crazy, but usually in the context as a “crazy genius.” For instance, in the Daily Mail, Wilson is written about as a “tortured soul” but “musical genius”: “In spite of it all, Wilson, now 74, became a musical genius — albeit a tortured soul — and co-founded along with brothers Dennis and Carl, arguably the quintessential American band, The Beach Boys.”

While I don’t disagree in that I, too, love Brian Wilson, let’s also take a look at how Amy Winehouse has been written about, so notoriously as irresponsible and attention-seeking, when in reality, she was suffering, like Wilson. Since the documentary about her life came out several years ago, the media has largely been more sympathetic to Winehouse — but it also shouldn’t take her death to do that, as if we need women to be martyrs.

And even then, her documentary hardly focuses on the mental and psychological affects of bulimia and body dysmorphia. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, “research suggests that nearly 50% of individuals with an eating disorder (ED) are also abusing drugs and/or alcohol, a rate 5 times greater than what is seen in the general population.” But, why would we talk about that?

As Pitchfork intelligently pointed out, even now, Winehouse’s behavior supersedes her actual work, in a way someone like Presley or Wilson’s work is never spoken about:

“Indeed, even after her death, those in the media were seen expressing resentment at the way Winehouse suffered in public, rather than feeling regretful for participating in the circus that amplified and intensified her diseases. Douglas Wolk, in his review of At the BBC, calls the album ‘a stinging reminder that she spent the better part of her too-brief career making her audience complicit in her self-destruction.”

Of course, this is not to disparage Wilson’s own struggle with mental health — or deny that in the ’70s when this was happening, he was mocked in a way that mocked mental health issues, an attitude all too common of that time. Or any man’s struggle, but it is remiss to say that women, queer people, and people of color are seen in the same way — and are allowed the same grace and generosity of language that white men often have received.

Language in all of its myriad forms is too important and precious for us to be sloppy with; at its simplest form, language is used to communicate in order to allow us as animals to survive — and at its most complex, to share complicated ideas and strategize new ways to streamline our ordinary lives (like creating software) to the intricacies of being in love and having sex beyond procreation. Communication has become so specific, and so complicated, that bots have created their own language as a way to negotiate, even “feigning interest,” as humans do, in order to create meaning and value. When we value one experience over another, we grant a new language, thus reality, to that experience. While the bots are far from being intelligent in their own right, it is still a language — and a new world to comprehend, just as the way we talk about mental health, and give space in language for marginalized voices creates a new reality.

“Communication has become so specific, and so complicated, that bots have created their own language as a way to negotiate.”

The beauty of language is the fact that it bends, destroys, and creates worlds based on the complex nuances of precise word choice — at least, if you believe in deconstruction of language. If we use our language to be more generous and diplomatic — as an equalizer for all experience, not just some experience — then we can allow marginalized experiences to go from the imaginary, the silent, the repressed — to an intrinsic part of our societal consciousness these experiences deserve. Everything is imagined until it isn’t — until we allow it to be real. Everything is real until it isn’t.

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