By Dr. David Laing Dawson
I listened to a piece on David Foster Wallace, the American novelist and short story writer, the other day. The panelists offered a number of ideas about the man’s life and death, some of them mystical, some romantic, some referencing devils, demons, and struggles. One mentioned Kurt Cobain. One even mentioned that suicide may have been a way of ensuring fame.
David Foster Wallace, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Virginia Wolf, Sylvia Plath, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway.
All suffered from depression, severe clinical depression. Robin Williams, Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Wolf were probably bipolar.
All were either untreated or under-treated for their depressions. Of course, we did not have effective treatment for clinical depression before ECT was discovered, and then antidepressant medication (1959 for Imipramine, 1982 for the first SSRI).
I am writing about this because we have a tendency to romanticize this reality, suicide, especially when the sufferer was a writer, painter, performer, or musician. We write and talk of struggles and demons, of overcoming demons and how this is all somehow involved with sensitivity and creativity. We try to understand their actions. None of these people were unsuccessful (although Vincent only sold two of his paintings in his lifetime). They each had families. So we think in mystical, romantic terms about their work, their struggles, their successes, failures, and their suicides. We try to understand, find a satisfying narrative.
But really, they each developed severe depression. The illness depression.
I don’t know the stories of all of them in detail. Ernest was hospitalized with depression and treated with ECT. He returned home and back to writing for six months after treatment. When his illness relapsed (ECT is a very effective but temporary treatment) he was taken to hospital again. This time he talked his way out and went home and fetched a rifle and walked into the woods.
David Foster Wallace’s body was found by his wife.
Anthony Bourdain’s daughter in the USA was notified of her father’s death by suicide in Europe.
Robin William’s body was found by his assistant while his wife thought he was sleeping.
Of course each of these people suffered, at some point, from other problems as well, usually alcohol and/or drug addiction.
Depression: The key here is the way severe depression, clinical depression, diminishes one’s sphere of consciousness. It diminishes the sufferer’s awareness of, and empathy for, others.
When we are not suffering from a severe depression we are aware how awful, how devastating, how traumatic it would be for a daughter, a wife, a husband, a mother or father, a friend, to find us hanging from a rope in the bedroom, lying in a pool of blood, or simply dead in bed with an empty bottle of pills by our side.
It is the key to all of these cases. Clinical depression is not just sadness, not simply physiological flatness, not just struggle and failure and agitation, but an actual constriction of conscious awareness, awareness even of loved ones and the terrible trauma we are about to inflict on them.
And it is, usually, today, a treatable illness.