the smell of my desperation has become a stench

“My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still”

Tomorrow marks the tenth anniversary of the day that I checked myself into University Neuropsychiatric Institute because of a debilitating case of postpartum depression, one that had pushed me to a terrifying edge. I had seen that edge from a distance and lingered near it from time to time since high school, but on August 26th, 2004 my toes hung off of the side and I stared down at the nauseating height beneath me: I wanted to commit suicide. I knew that if I did not check myself into the hospital that day I would carry it out. 

I had a plan, knew every detail of it, the timing and the tools, the words on a note I’d leave behind.

That last sentence seems so methodical and cold and detached, and it some ways I guess it is. Depression is so vicious that it mutes the ability to handle pain in any rational way. In fact, it’s such a dangerous condition that even in the absence of pain, even in the absence of any real reason to be sad or hurt or frustrated, it can cause one’s brain to shut down any capacity to cope. Cope with what? Breathing. Having to leave the bed. Sunlight.

How could I plan my own death in such a disconnected way? I’d be abandoning my family, my beautiful newborn child. She’d grow up without her mother and forever grapple with the devastating fact that her mother chose death over a life with her. I’d never see her walk or talk or score a superior score at her piano performance. I’d never get to curl her hair the day she started fifth grade.

Robin Williams’ recent suicide brought this subject into our collective conversations, and while I knew some people would shake their heads and ask how someone could be so selfish, actually hearing that opinion infuriated me just as much as if I hadn’t seen it coming like a freight train. How dare he leave his family? He had everything a human being could ever want: money, a home, a family who loved him, success, friends, admiration from fans around the world. He robbed all of us of the potential work he would put into this world.

While reading some of the more forgiving and beautiful tributes to Williams and his genius, I came across a quote from David Foster Wallace that, more than anything I have ever read about this condition, sums up what I was feeling on that Thursday morning in 2004:

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. And 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.

That quote is a goddamn gift. I wish every person who has ever had suicide affect them personally could read it and understand that it’s not about choosing death. You may feel abandoned and hurt and outraged, and you have every right to feel those things. But try to understand that in a mind that compromised by depression it sees life as a more terrifying option than death.

Last December my friend Stacia’s fiancé committed suicide. As friends and family gathered immediately to her home I waited until the right moment to pull her aside and listen to her pain which at the time was so bone-crushing that I thought her tiny frame would collapse beneath the weight of it. I held her as she sobbed and screamed and pounded her fists into her thighs, a wailing, “WHY!” punctuating every sentence. I did not know about that quote at the time, but I did finally pull her close and say, “I know you are angry and hurt. And you’re going to be angry and hurt for a long time. But I know where he had to be to do this to himself. I know that kind of pain. I have lived with that kind of pain, and I know that you loved him so much that if you had the tiniest glimpse of the agony he must have been feeling in that moment that you would grant that he did not do this to himself. His depression and suffering did this to him.”

Stacia and I have always been close since we met in 2009, but since her fiancé’s suicide our friendship has become one of the strongest I have ever had. I have spent many nights with her listening to her cry, holding her as she continued to ask why, as she talked of the plans they had made, the memories they had already created. Early on in her grief while listening to the anguish in every word that she spoke I had a sudden realization that if her fiancé could somehow witness this devastation, this ongoing trauma that will last for years, this haunting unknowing that will come back in waves throughout the rest of her life that maybe it would have been the one thing that could have pulled him back from that edge. The grief you might cause when you think about suicide is very abstract. It’s not a real thing, at least not in the confines of your compromised brain. Often you have convinced yourself that no one will miss you.

If he could touch her grief with his hands would it have mitigated his own?

My friendship with Stacia in the last year has shown me the very real, very tangible wreckage that his suicide has caused. I have been able to hold in my hands the heartache that would have plagued my family had I not checked myself into the hospital. I have wrapped my arms around a sobbing body, again and again and again. Robin Williams himself played a character who said “suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems,” and I could not agree more, obviously. As much as I want to share the quote from David Foster Wallace with those affected by suicide, I in equal measure want to share the aftermath that suicide causes to those in the throes of that kind of depression.

In May while I was with Stacia in Maui she shared with me a journal of writing that she had been keeping since her fiancé’s death. It compelled me to tears, a wobbly mess of tears and sorrowful recognition. When I heard about Robin Williams and the ensuing chatter about suicide, I asked her if I could share some of what she has written. Seeing as it is the tenth anniversary of you, my readers, urging me to get help and thus being an integral part in saving my life, I wanted to share this particular side of the story. Tomorrow I will publish several excerpts from that journal. I hope you will read it and share it with those you know who might need it.

  • MaryKC

    2014/08/25 at 4:11 pm


  • JessBesser

    2014/08/25 at 4:12 pm

    Thank you, Heather. I’ve been waiting for this post and you did not disappoint.

  • Stella

    2014/08/25 at 4:12 pm

    Thank you for this. My father killed himself in 2009 and we never saw it coming. My entire family was devastated not only by the loss but because of the why. No note, no signs, really. I still grapple with the thoughts of his selfishness, but that quote has stopped me in my tracks.

  • Abby Marschke

    2014/08/25 at 4:12 pm

    Beautifully written. Thank you both for sharing so freely of yourselves. Peace, love, and healing to you.

  • Michelene Insalaco

    2014/08/25 at 4:23 pm

    Thanks. Unfortunately, I totally understand.

  • Amy H

    2014/08/25 at 4:26 pm

    You seem to always know the right thing to say. I wish you nothing but happiness.

  • Kat

    2014/08/25 at 4:33 pm

    Thank you for writing this. For being so honest about a subject that people need to pay attention to. My grandad was killed by someone else’s suicide attempt and I spent a long time being angry about it, before realising anger is entirely unproductive and that anyone in that situation needs help and support above anything else.

  • kmpinkel

    2014/08/25 at 4:34 pm

    Thank you , a thousand times, thank you!

  • Any

    2014/08/25 at 4:35 pm

    This post, right here, is why I became a fan; why I have read your blog for years, why I keep reading even when I want to stop. Thank you.

  • Cheryl

    2014/08/25 at 4:40 pm

    I don’t know if him having even an inkling of her pain would have stopped him from ending his life. I think he may have even weighed that pain against a lifetime of (take your pick), his own pain, her pain at being linked to a worthless dead weight for a lifetime, a combination of the two. I don’t say that as “he was a worthless dead weight” but that he may very well have viewed himself this way. Perhaps he felt he was setting them both free. When I attempted suicide I didn’t bother to leave a note. I didn’t think anyone would even notice I was gone, such was the nature of my depression. I was worthless and insignificant. I will be reading her journal excerpts tomorrow and for as long as your post them. I hope that they are able to stop someone from doing what her fiance did, what Robin Williams did, what you and I almost did. Thank you for posting this today.

  • Danielle

    2014/08/25 at 4:51 pm

    Thank you. A million times, thank you. Our family survived it twice and we never found words for it, but it is so valuable to know there are other members of this tribe that get it, in a way that others cannot. I hope their lives remain untouched by it. And it is infuriating to read those opinions about selfishness, isn’t it? Imagine how that sounds to the ones that are left. Reeling from the facet that a precious life is no more, sorting through the fog of confusion, and any number of people from all walks declare the light that’s gone out “selfish.” Is that in any way helpful? Getting to the root of these issues? You know what, I wish that were all it was. I really do.

    Again, thank you for this quote. These are some of the words we had yet to find.

  • dc

    2014/08/25 at 5:07 pm

    powerful. i am happy you’re still here and that i am here to bear witness to your healthy choices.

  • Mari

    2014/08/25 at 5:40 pm

    I just hope Robin William’s kids and all other in similar situations can read this. I’ve never understood suicide until now.

  • Kristan

    2014/08/25 at 5:54 pm

    I’m moved to tears, and terrified to read what’s coming next… because I know how important and how powerful it will be. Thank you both for sharing.

  • Eileen McKay

    2014/08/25 at 6:59 pm

    Yes, I knew you would have wise words to share. I do think it is hard for those who haven’t experienced depression to fully understand. So sorry for your friend’s loss.

  • Melissa

    2014/08/25 at 7:51 pm

    Having lost my very best friend to suicide, I’ve only recently come to terms with the kind of pain he must have been going through. It doesn’t make it hurt any less but living with that kind of agony every day is far worse. I’ve read recently that it’s definitely not out of weakness, it’s just the only option and I hope people learn to reach out, like you have and hang on to hope that people love them and there are other ways out of the deep darkness.

  • Amusing Soprano

    2014/08/25 at 8:02 pm

    Thank you for sharing that quote. As someone who has not had any personal experience of depression it gives a real insight into what drives someone to what seems an impossible choice.

  • Medicated

    2014/08/25 at 8:04 pm

    Hey dooce,

    Last week I checked myself into a mental hospital for the very same reason as you. I knew I would commit suicide that night if somebody didn’t stop me. Thanks for sharing the quote. I will share it with friends and family, and maybe they will understand me a little.

  • eve

    2014/08/25 at 8:25 pm

    Thank you for sharing, opening yourself to us, your readers, your fans. It’s scary when your therapist is calling you home to make sure you’re ok. It’s a feeling, of can I start again? Can I get a do over? I know that pain and I thank you for sharing yours.

  • Jen Wilson

    2014/08/25 at 9:30 pm

    Thank you, THANK YOU, for this, and for all you write about mental illness. Your willingness to share your struggles helps more than you could ever imagine.

  • Amy

    2014/08/25 at 9:48 pm

    Spot on, Heather, you make a difference.

  • Hal

    2014/08/25 at 10:23 pm

    Thank you, and thank you Stacia. For your bravery put out to save lives.

  • Michael Mathews

    2014/08/25 at 11:37 pm

    Wow. I can hardly wait for the next post. Robin Williams hit me hard and I did a lot of reading afterwards. I had to tune out the “selfish” comments.

    I have been in funks, but I always know how to pull myself out from them, and I pretty much know what the factors are that cause them. My job is nuts lately and is not a truly good fit for me, and that does trigger them at times. When I’m in a funk I just want to run away to a beautiful place. There is no ledge to pull myself back from, because my will to go on is always there. I just want to escape the things in the world that I find nonsensical and the people I find toxic. I am finally understanding in some small way the difference between a funk and true depression.

    I am glad you got help, Heather, and all the others out there. Sometimes it seems discouraging, because some people don’t seem to find help that works. It was very good to read about someone who did find the help she needed.

  • Anna Cabrera

    2014/08/25 at 11:48 pm

    I guess I am thankful if all those folks whose first inclination is to scream “selfish” because maybe it means that they have never walked in the darkness of depression. Perhaps they have never had to make that call, or find other help to pull them from the brink.

    I wish they could extend some compassion to those of us who have walked that lonely trail — including those of us who succumbed to it.

    May we all find a way to be more aware, more open and more compassionate. Thanks for always having the courage to share of yourself.

  • Annie

    2014/08/26 at 12:35 am

    Thank you for this. Thank you thank you thank you. I can’t say it enough. Thank you.

  • Meg

    2014/08/26 at 12:58 am

    My mother’s first reaction to the news of Robin Williams’ death was, “That’s so selfish!” Coming from the person who says that I just need to “exercise and eat better” to make up for the fact that I can’t afford to visit a doctor to get a refill on my prescriptions right now . . . that’s not surprising. (I have been waiting for a month and a half for my medical assistance paperwork. I have been taking half my meds to stretch them out this far but I have three days left. I have thirty pounds of fur in my lap right now and she is my link to sanity.)
    Thank you for all you have written, and done, and shared. Thank you for every silly dog picture because they make me smile. I hope that Stacia’s Annie behaves her little puppy self to help her mama. (As much as a puppy can behave . . . but, oh, that puppy breath! I miss it.)

  • Carol

    2014/08/26 at 2:01 am

    I have always wished that it wasn’t called ‘depression’: unhappiness, sadness, downheartedness, dejection. It doesn’t tell the story, does it. It should be called DISTRESS: anguish, agony, grief, misery, ache, suffering.

  • Gretchen

    2014/08/26 at 6:53 am

    This: “Please, people, do not fuck with depression. It’s merciless. All it wants is to get you in a room alone and kill you.” – Harvey Fierstein

    A lot of people just don’t get how dangerous untreated depression can be.

  • a

    2014/08/26 at 8:14 am

    Thanks for this, i’ve struggled for 35 years to understand my father’s suicide when i was 5. this helps.

  • Lauren3

    2014/08/26 at 8:15 am

    I can absolutely second that.

  • Sarah Gammell Matthews

    2014/08/26 at 8:34 am

    So, so good. I’ve watched my sister pull back from the ledge a couple of times and held her in the messy aftermath. She’s had to watch her family struggle with their fear for her. We love each other with ferocity and yet it’s not enough to always keep the despair away. You’re so good at capturing the horrible nuances of what depression really means.

  • kisa319

    2014/08/26 at 8:54 am

    Thank you for this! My mother has tried to commit suicide three times, but didn’t manage to get it to take. She has finally found the right doctor/therapist/drug combination that her depression is mostly managed. I am going to share this with her and hope that she takes what you intended from it.

  • Heidi

    2014/08/26 at 8:59 am

    I said this on your FB link too, but I was so hoping you would share in the aftermath of Robin William’s death. I think everyone with depression, anxiety, or addiction probably have looked at themselves since, “That could have been me.” Opening the dialogue of this is so, so important. Removing the stigma and opening our arms to others who have suffered or are suffering will help everyone involved. “You are not alone. You are not alone. Hang on. I’m here.” Don’t let your loved ones suffer alone in the dark. Reach out to each other, people. One person, who reached out to me to let me know he cared, saved my life.

  • Heidi

    2014/08/26 at 9:02 am

    And, lastly, nothing. Emptiness.

  • issascrazyworld

    2014/08/26 at 9:17 am

    This post….just yes. I will never forget reading your posts from way back then. I’ve thought of them often, when my life seemed to be too much. Thank you for always sharing, even when it’s hard.

  • Steve

    2014/08/26 at 9:31 am

    I’m glad you sought help!

  • Solaana

    2014/08/26 at 9:35 am

    My friend Dale likened it to euthanasia, and having been suicidal myself, I agree, though I never thought of it like that. You feel like taking yourself out of the equation is the best solution for everyone – the only thing, during the darkest moments, was imagining my mother at my funeral. It scares the crap out of me, what losing her will do to me.

  • Stephanie Reidy

    2014/08/26 at 9:48 am

    It takes a tremendous amount of energy to act happy everyday when you aren’t. This energy gets sucked away and there is no way to recharge it, no way to rebuild the facade that gets you through the day.

    It has taken me almost 20 years to be able to speak openly about my suicide attempt during university. I lied to my doctor to get pills, wrote the note, stripped my bed because I didn’t want to “ruin” my mother’s sheets… the only reason I’m alive today is because my family came home unexpectedly early, found me comatose, and got me to emergency. I was never able to speak about it because I was ashamed of my personal weakness. Embarrassed that I could purposely hurt my family so badly.

    This winter I climbed out that metaphorical window again and the flames were licking at my heels. I told myself that it would be better for everyone if I was gone and that nobody would miss me. I called into work sick and arranged for someone else to pick up the kids after school… knowing that I wouldn’t be alive to do it. It was only the last thought of my kids and how my suicide would F their lives up forever that made me pick up the phone and call for help.

    I think it is nearly impossible for people who have never personally felt this way to understand how suicide seems to be the most logical decision of your life. At the time it feels like a supremely selfLESS act.

    Robin Williams was sick and suffering from a disease. This disease killed him.

  • Lisa

    2014/08/26 at 9:49 am

    This brought clarification beyond belief. I now understand a little better. Thank you, Heather.

  • Lisa

    2014/08/26 at 9:50 am

    Actually, I understand A LOT better…

  • J.

    2014/08/26 at 11:38 am

    Here’s a situation I’ve anguished over: my brother-in-law killed my sister-in-law, then killed himself. We didn’t know it beforehand, but he was struggling with depression and had a history of suicide in his family. We are devastated by what happened and the fact that we always saw them as a happy couple, and weren’t able to do anything to prevent what happened. It’s been 2 years and I honestly don’t know how to make sense of what happened. Could he have killed her because of his depression? Was his suicide the result of his depression, or the result of his committing the first horrible act? I think what is difficult for me is that if his depression is related to the murder/suicide, I feel like I must feel empathy for him and not blame him for what he did.

  • Becky

    2014/08/26 at 11:48 am

    thank You.

  • Jayme

    2014/08/26 at 11:55 am

    Heather, in 2006, reading your blog saved MY life. I didn’t know how close I was to the edge until I saw myself in your words. Thank you.

  • Kathleen

    2014/08/26 at 12:03 pm

    Can’t read this column just yet. My brother-in-law committed suicide the same day Robin Williams did. Apparently he had been planning it for a couple of weeks before he actually did it. It was as if Robin Williams gave him “permissions” to do so. His last Facebook post was “See u soon Robin.” No one realized what he meant when he said that. It took a week to find out he had killed himself. Everyone thought he was on another trip (he traveled for business). He was very business like and left specific instructions about everything and all of his passwords, bank account numbers, etc. I guess he thought this would make it easier on everyone. It didn’t. Our emotions are so conflicted and all over the place. But we are glad he is not hurting any more.

  • JenniferW2323

    2014/08/26 at 12:26 pm

    I repeatedly tell people that I’m very thankful for you, and Allie Brosh, and Jenny Lawson for sharing about your depression. Your posts (and theirs) helped me to help my husband recognize he needed to treat what seemed to be depression (ultimately he was diagnosed with it). Our life as a family was truly saved because you were all brave enough to share. Thank you.

  • BeckySTL

    2014/08/26 at 1:55 pm

    I agree. This is why I keep reading your blog. It’s so honest and open. I have lost several people to suicide and battled depression myself…it’s heartbreaking. I encourage anyone who thinks they need help to get it asap. Thank you for being brave enough to get help and share your journey with us. It helps more than you know.

  • Momma Sadler

    2014/08/26 at 2:16 pm

    Damnit, Dooce. I don’t come here to cry my makeup off and feel things. I’ve heard the “room on fire” metaphor before and it’s so true that I hate to even think about it. Great post. Stacia, I am so sorry for your loss. It’s a damn shame and I’m just so sorry.

  • Rose Marie B

    2014/08/26 at 2:30 pm

    I’m grateful for your bravery to write about your challenges and please thank Stacia, from all of us for sharing the most intimate details of her soul. It sounds a little vulture-ish to say I can’t wait to read your upcoming posts…but if I can learn to support a friend or a loved one better, that’s what it’s all about. I appreciate you both.

  • Tish

    2014/08/26 at 3:03 pm

    oh Heather…yes my dear wise friend, that is exactly a brilliant truth and I applaud you for sharing. My father committed suicide. I was blessed at a very young age to “get” suicide from so many different perspectives. It was one of the most tragic lessons a nine year old could learn, but I knew that the pain I carried would not only help me act as a beacon for others navigating the rivers of confusion and heartache, but would also save me from the same fate; battling my own depression down the road. Sharing, relating, understanding, empathizing, caring, remembering…these are all magical verbs that make you one of my favorite peoples on the planet.

  • Angela

    2014/08/26 at 3:08 pm

    Yes, I’m so glad you are here!

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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