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Elements of Suicide

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David Foster Wallace, who killed himself by hanging in 2008, gave this phenomenological account of “depression” in his 1996 novel Infinite Jest:

And re Ennet House resident Kate Gompert and this depression issue:

Some psychiatric patients — plus a certain percentage of people who’ve gotten so dependent on chemicals for feelings of well-being that when the chemicals have to be abandoned they undergo a loss-trauma that reaches way down deep into the soul’s core system — these persons know firsthand that there’s more than one kind of so-called ‘depression.’ One kind is low-grade and sometimes gets called anhedonia or simple melancholy. It’s a kind of spiritual torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important. The avid bowler drops out of his league and stays home at night staring dully at kick-boxing cartridges. The gourmand is off his feed. The sensualist finds his beloved Unit all of a sudden to be so much feelingless gristle, just hanging there. The devoted wife and mother finds the thought of her family about as moving, all of a sudden, as a theorem of Euclid. It’s a kind of emotional novocaine, this form of depression, and while it’s not overtly painful its deadness is disconcerting and . . . well, depressing. Kate Gompert’s always thought of this anhedonic state as a kind of radical abstracting of everything, a hollowing out of stuff that used to have affective content. Terms the undepressed toss around and take for granted as full and fleshy — happiness, joie de vivre, preference, love — are stripped to their skeletons and reduced to abstract ideas. They have, as it were, denotation but not connotation. The anhedonic can still speak about happiness and meaning et al., but she has become incapable of feeling anything in them, of understanding anything about them, of hoping anything about them, or of believing them to exist as anything more than concepts. Everything becomes an outline of the thing. Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world. An anhedonic can navigate, but has no location. I.e. the anhedonic becomes, in the lingo of Boston AA, Unable To Identify. . . .

* * *

Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that . . . dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain. Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria. Instead of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul, the predator-grade depression Kate Gompert always feels as she Withdraws from secret marijuana is itself a feeling. It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also throughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably the most indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. There is no way Kate Gompert could ever even begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. This anhedonic Inability To Identify is also an integral part of It. If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.

The authoritative term psychotic depression makes Kate Gompert feel especially lonely. Specifically the psychotic part. Think of it this way. Two people are screaming in pain. One of them is being tortured with electric current. The other is not. The screamer who’s being tortured with electric current is not psychotic: her screams are circumstantially appropriate. The screaming person who’s not being tortured, however, is psychotic, since the outside parties making the diagnoses can see no electrodes or measurable amperage. One of the least pleasant things about being psychotically depressed on a ward full of psychotically depressed patients is coming to see that none of them is really psychotic, that their screams are entirely appropriate to certain circumstances part of whose special charm is that they are undetectable by any outside party. Thus the loneliness: it’s a closed circuit: the current is both applied and received from within.

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.

But and so the idea of a person in the grip of It being bound by a ‘Suicide Contract’ some well-meaning Substance-abuse halfway house makes her sign is simply absurd. Because such a contract will constrain such a person only until the exact psychic circumstances that made the contract necessary in the first place assert themselves, invisibly and indescribably. That the well-meaning halfway-house Staff does not understand Its overriding terror will only make the depressed resident feel more alone.

One fellow psychotically depressed patient Kate Gompert came to know at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton two years ago was a man in his fifties. He was a civil engineer whose hobby was model trains — like from Lionel Trains Inc., etc. — for which he erected incredibly intricate systems of switching and track that filled his basement recreation room. His wife brought photographs of the trains and networks of trellis and track into the locked ward, to help remind him. The man said he had been suffering from psychotic depression for seventeen straight years, and Kate Gompert had had no reason to disbelieve him. He was stocky and swart with thinning hair and hands that he held very still in his lap as he sat. Twenty years ago he had slipped on a patch of 3-In-1-brand oil from his model-train tracks and bonked his head on the cement floor of his basement rec room in Wellesley Hills, and when he woke up in the E.R. he was depressed beyond all human endurance, and stayed that way. He’d never once tried suicide, though he confessed that he yearned for unconsciousness without end. His wife was very devoted and loving. She went to Catholic Mass every day. She was very devout. The psychotically depressed man, too, went to daily mass when he was not institutionalized. He prayed for relief. He still had his job and his hobby. He went to work regularly, taking medical leaves only when the invisible torment got too bad for him to trust himself, or when there was some radical new treatment the psychiatrists wanted him to try. They’d tried Tricyclics, M.A.O.I.s, insulin-comas, Selective-Serotonin-Reuptake-Inhibitors, the newand side-effect-laden Quadracyclics. They’d scanned his lobes and affective matrices for lesions and scars. Nothing worked. Not even high-amperage E.C.T. relieved It. This happens sometimes. Some cases of depression are beyond human aid. The man’s case gave Kate Gompert the howling fantods. The idea of this man going to work and to Mass and building miniaturized railroad networks day after day after day while feeling anything like what Kate Gompert felt in that ward was simply beyond her ability to imagine. The rationo-spiritual part of her knew this man and his wife must be possessed of a courage way off any sort of known courage-chart. But in her toxified soul Kate Gompert felt only a paralyzing horror at the idea of the squat dead-eyed man laying toy track slowly and carefully in the silence of his wood-panelled rec room, the silence total except for the sounds of the track being oiled and snapped together and laid into place, the man’s head full of poison and worms and every cell in his body screaming for relief from flames no one else could help with or even feel.

The permanently psychotically depressed man was finally transferred to a place on Long Island to be evaluated for a radical new type of psychosurgery where they supposedly went in and yanked out your whole limbic system, which is the part of the brain that causes all sentiment and feeling. The man’s fondest dream was anhedonia, complete psychic numbing. I.e. death in life. The prospect of radical psychosurgery was the dangled carrot that Kate guessed still gave the man’s life enough meaning for him to hang onto the windowsill by his fingernails, which were probably black and gnarled from the flames. That and his wife: he seemed genuinely to love his wife, and she him. He went to bed every night at home holding her, weeping for it to be over, while she prayed or did that devout thing with beads.

The couple had gotten Kate Gompert’s mother’s address and had sent Kate an Xmas card the last two years, Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Feaster of Wellesley Hills MA, stating that she was in their prayers and wishing her all available joy. Kate Gompert doesn’t know whether Mr. Ernest Feaster’s limbic system got yanked out or not. Whether he achieved anhedonia. The Xmas cards had had excruciating little watercolor pictures of locomotives on them. She could barely stand to think about them, even at the best of times, which the present was not.

— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, pp. 692-998 (Little, Brown, 1996). Footnotes omitted.

When I first read Infinite Jest, around 1999, I felt particularly comforted by this passage. I was comforted at seeing the thing It named and described, but on a more practical level, I was comforted by the reminder that I could always try ECT, and maybe even surgery. (I read about the practice of trepanation with longing.) Something about this thought seemed a little traitorous to me, believing as I did at that point that suicide was wrong. Is there, at the most essential level, any difference between suicide on the one hand, and attempting to erase one’s experience with electroconvulsive therapy or psychosurgery on the other? What is the difference, if there is one, between suicide and having one’s capacity to feel emotion removed?

I suspect that many people who would want to prevent Ernest Feaster from committing suicide would want to allow him to get his desired emotion-destroying psychosurgery. This, I think, is inconsistent.

The most essential thing another human being is to us is a co-experiencer. To experience ourselves and to have a truly human experience of the world, we need to see ourselves and our environments reflected through the eyes of another person. A body without an experiencer within is but an animate doll, of no use to the doll himself, and by that fact of no morally appropriate use to those who love him.

If we want to offer mercy to a man by ridding him of painful aspects of his experience, how different, then, to allow him to rid himself of all aspects of his experience, if all he experiences is pain? What reason, save religion or cruelty, to force a man to experience pain against his will?

Written by Sister Y

April 14, 2011 at 3:14 am

The "Unwanted Life" Diagnosis

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When providing a medical treatment of any sort, physicians are generally expected to produce a diagnosis of a medical problem that the treatment is intended to correct. In most cases, the medical problem is one that anyone would recognize as a medical problem, such as diabetes or a broken leg. However, one of the most widely prescribed medical treatments is contraception. But what “medical problem” do you diagnose in order to prescribe contraception?

People in institutional settings (locked hospitals, homes for the developmentally disabled, etc.) are, of course, sexually active. The doctors that care for them must provide contraception to prevent pregnancy – usually injected hormone contraception. The surprising (to me) diagnosis you most commonly see on the chart of an institutionalized patient, when a doctor is prescribing contraception to her, is “unwanted fertility.” Fertility is something we think of as healthy – but doctors may diagnose “unwanted fertility” as a medical problem for which contraception is the preferred treatment.

I think this is an interesting solution, although the diagnosis is often, strictly speaking, a fiction, as many female residents of group homes and such will tell you they definitely want to get pregnant – what is really meant is that the patient’s fertility is unwanted by her guardian.

A similar diagnostic possibility is necessary in the case of the rational suicide. A diagnosis of “unwanted life” could form the basis for the provision of lethal means of suicide that require a prescription, without requiring general legalization of the lethal drugs. The diagnostic criteria might even include more than just a wish to die – requirements might include that the wish be persistent (repeated requests over a period of time), that it not be accompanied by (or motivated by) delusions, and that the wish to die be clear and unambiguous.

Although I do not think there is a moral right to procreate (for anyone), I am concerned with the use of the “unwanted fertility” diagnosis against the expressed wishes of patients, even though these patients would likely not be able to care for any children borne by them. It is a convenient solution, but it stretches the truth a bit. This worry is even more important in the analogous “unwanted life” case. The “unwanted life” diagnosis would never be appropriate in cases where the life of the subject is unwanted by someone other than himself (his guardian, say) rather than unwanted by the subject of the diagnosis. Likewise, if a person met the criteria for the “unwanted life” diagnosis, despite having some sort of mental illness as defined by the DSM-IV, it would be inappropriate for his wish to be denied because others disagreed with his wish to die.

Written by Sister Y

July 17, 2008 at 7:25 am

Suicide Trends: Antidepressants, They Do Nothing

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Suicide trends in the United States: this is what they look like, in case you’re confused.

One question often asked, in reference to whether antidepressants are effective, is whether suicide rates have declined in response to widespread antidepressant use. Many authors have attempted to answer this question. One study attempted to demonstrate a time correlation between antidepressant use and declining suicides. Why did these authors cut off the data for the 1950s, and begin their analysis with data for the 1960s? Including the suicide rate data (very low, especially among women) for the 1950s would reduce confidence in the authors’ conclusion that antidepressant use is time-correlated with a drop in suicides. (The 1950 data occurred long before SSRIs were available, but undercut the authors’ claim that the 1960-1988 data represented the baseline condition from which suicide rates dropped.)

More importantly, given the data that antidepressant use is not associated with a drop in suicidal behavior, such as suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, even if time correlation were properly demonstrated, the effectiveness of antidepressants is not supported. It is difficult to imagine any way in which antidepressant medications could reduce suicides while having no effect on suicidal ideation, behavior, and attempts, especially given that the JAMA study found that “cry for help” insincere suicide gestures decreased slightly between the 1990-1992 and 2001-2003 studies.

Actually, there is a way that antidepressants could reduce completed suicides but not suicidal behavior or ideation: if they interfere with cognitive ability in general, rendering suicides clumsier or more poorly planned.

But the more likely explanation, given all the data, including the February study that the commonly prescribed antidepressants don’t work better than placebo, is that some factor other than antidepressant use is responsible for any drop in suicides. The obvious answer is that, to the extent that there has been a drop in suicide rates, it’s due to the drop in gun ownership over the past few decades. (Here’s a graphic.) As I have previously noted, gun ownership is highly correlated with suicide. Reduction in gun ownership, in addition to reduction in availability of other reliably lethal methods of suicide, such as lethal pesticides (frequently used for suicide by men and women in poor countries) and barbiturate sleeping pills, is much more likely to be responsible for the drop in suicides than increased antidepressant use. These factors – what might be termed coercive suicide prevention methods – would easily explain a drop in suicide not associated with a drop in suicidal ideation or behavior.

Thanks to Overcoming Bias poster Peter McCluskey for the pointer to the PLoS article.

Edit: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), much hyped for depression, apparently doesn’t work either. From the study:

Stravynski and Greenberg suggested that all models of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavior therapy, may be “equally unsound scientifically but they energize the therapists and provide useful fictions to activate the patients to lead somewhat more satisfactory lives.” [Citations omitted.]

Written by Sister Y

June 12, 2008 at 11:30 pm

The Myth of the Hospital

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I have been unlucky enough to be the guest of two different psychiatric hospitals. In addition, I have worked in nine psychiatric hospitals in a professional capacity. Most people, even professional psychiatrists, have a rather naive view of what happens in a mental hospital. Private psychiatrists who spend most of their time treating private patients for depression and anxiety may have very little experience with a real psychiatric hospital. Ordinary people may get their views of psychiatric hospitals from books and movies, such as the extremely optimistic “Girl, Interrupted,” during which a forced psychiatric patient rediscovers her joy in life while receiving a great deal of individual therapy and developing relationships with other inmates.

The reality of the psychiatric hospital is, unfortunately, much bleaker than even popular culture would lead us to believe. The hospital is a good place for low-functioning people with thought disorders or severe personality disorders to get stabilized on their meds. The hospital is no place for a high-functioning depressive.

What could you expect if you were involuntarily hospitalized? First, don’t expect for there to be people like you around. Most people involuntarily hospitalized are the aforementioned low functioning folks with thought disorders (like schizophrenia) and severe personality disorders (like borderline personality disorder). “Low functioning” means that these people will mostly have a hard time engaging in normal activities of daily living, like washing themselves, feeding themselves, and having a conversation. You will share a room with one or more of these people.

You won’t get individual therapy (one-on-one talk therapy). It’s too expensive, and not very effective for the hospital’s normal clientele, those low functioning folks with thought disorders. The usual plan for low functioning people with thought disorders is to “stabilize them on meds” – they come in psychotic, they are given antipsychotic medication for a while, and their psychosis disappears. (Medication may be forced in most states. Some states require a hearing before forced medication may happen; these are generally rubber-stamp proceedings.) This process has a very high success rate for low functioning people with thought disorders; individual therapy is not seen as effective or necessary.

Generally, hospitals try to apply the stabilize-on-meds approach to high functioning depressives, with mixed results. As mentioned above, individual therapy is not available. Instead, expect mandatory “group therapy.” Group therapy, in a private, outpatient setting, is often interesting and productive, given a group of intelligent, high-functioning, thoughtful people. You will not find that in a hospital. Instead, you will find yourself in group therapy with that same group of low functioning people with thought disorders that you’ve been rooming with and eating with and smoking with during your stay. Often, group therapy takes the form of practicing activities of daily living – say, writing a letter, or washing oneself. This would be very helpful for a low functioning person with a thought disorder; it is humiliating and harmful for a high functioning depressive.

You may meet with a doctor once or twice during your stay. The doctor does not want to talk to you. The doctor wants to know if you are tolerating your meds, and if you have figured out how to answer questions about your suicidal intent correctly, so that you may be released. Most suicidal high functioning depressives quickly figure this out, and answer that they feel much better, that the meds are working fine, and that they have no further suicidal ideation.

The stabilize-on-meds approach for depressed patients is especially ridiculous, given that anti-depressant medications don’t work any better than placebos. Given that the hospital doesn’t help the high functioning depressive, except to medicate him or her, the purpose of the hospital in this context becomes clear: it is a prison. Hospitalization doesn’t help people become non-suicidal. It merely teaches the high functioning depressive to make sure he or she succeeds the next time he or she attempts suicide. And never to be honest with a doctor again about suicidal ideation.