She had been deeply depressed for nearly five years. She had been suicidal for two years, with multiple attempts. She wondered again, was there any reason to go on? Because so far, she could see no reason to go on. And that idea makes sense, given her perspective.
The best part of her days were her four hours of ‘semi-normal’ living. This was always the ‘busiest’ part of her day. It meant she felt at least neutral, if not good. There was still a bit of pleasantness in life, thanks to things like favourite foods, visits with a friend, funny movies, special events, or bits of happy nostalgia.
The rest of her day was spent in a dull, torpor that was so empty it was painful to behold. To avoid beholding it, she slept about 10 hours a day. And that left her with 10 hours a day of soul-stretching emptiness every day, seemingly without end.
That is a lot of negativity to wade through. After something like that it makes sense that she was fragile and ready to surrender. How could she not be exhausted?
It makes sense that she felt there wasn’t enough joy to warrant life continuing as is. She was right. We have to at least see the prospect for future joy if we want to avoid death. Who would even want to start life if it was all suffering?
Suicidal feelings due to too much suffering makes sense. If we think by even considering death that she’s weak or lacks commitment to life, let’s remember that she’s hung on through a relentless hell for five years of painful depression. The only explanation for that was that she valued life.
That’s 18,250 hours of agony. And on the other side of the scale? Just sleep, and four hours a day of something a bit pleasant? That won’t work. Almost no upside, but 18,250 hours of downside? No one would want a lifetime of that.
Of course, what’s missing after a long depressing run like that, is perspective. All we can see is all that struggle because it’s surrounded us for five years. But here’s a question: what has surrounded it? What borders this agony? What is it relative to our entire life?
In most G20 nations, the average life expectancy is essentially 80 years old. 80 years = 29,200 days. 29,200 days = 700,800 hours. On average we divide that into three sections. 1) Sleep. 2) Work and life administration, and 3) Social, activity or hobby time. 233,600 hours each.
As kids we naturally find that the world is often filled with wonder, and a lot of it’s an adventure. We’re so excited by it we never even want to go to bed. So for most of us, at least 6 years of our early school time is pretty enjoyable. Same for our sleep time; our brains are busy doing important, healthy things.
In addition to those good things, obviously we only engage with our social or hobby and activity time if it’s something we want to do. So that portion is all at least neutral, and potentially good or even great.
Depending on what we’ve committed to do in life and why, the work part of life can be up or down experiences, depending on our circumstances and our attitude. However our work time is divided up, it’s not unfair to say that, on average, after childhood, a lot of our lifetime is spent feeling somewhere close to neutral.
For much of our adulting life, we’re neither elated nor agonized. We’re somewhere between mildly engaged to slightly irritated. But as we move along that gently undulating landscape, we encounter surprising moments of joy or pain, with the latter giving the former its value.
In this way, we essentially live for the little sparks of joy and meaning that arise both by chance, and possibly through some planning, though things like surprises, favourite authors, vacations, laughs, visits with friends or dinner’s out, etc.
If those more intense moments happened all the time they would seem less impressive, and we would feel less grateful. In this way, even the space in-between, filled with largely neutral feelings, is given value just as the empty white of this page allows us to see the black letters we read.
All of this means that much of our 80 year life is basically a background of experiences that are just okay, speckled with periods of joy, meaning, poignant pain and much-appreciated growth. And that actually pretty good. That can make for a very rich life.
So where does this leave the suicidal person who’s been in legitimate agony for five years? It’s an argument to just wait it out.
No one stays stuck on one emotion for a lifetime. The truth is, every life will know agony. Lots of it. No one has ever lived who did not get a few big doses of sadness in their lives. But the fact that we’re primarily sad for periods does not prevent all of our other emotions from getting their chances too.
The pain that goes with 18,250 hours of suffering cannot be dismissed. That is horrible to experience. But, as bad as that experience is, it is also important to keep that experience in context.
It’s still less than half of our total time spent alive in those five years of depression. And it’s only a tiny proportion of the 700,800 hours we’ll have available in our entire life.
Even if times are now difficult, the truth is, they will be better again. Can someone survive five years of depression? Or even ten? Yes. We know they can because basically everyone does that over their lifetime. We can think it’s possible that we can’t go on, but in reality we can and we do and we will.
The reason why people go on is because most of life is easily worth it. Which means the real question isn’t: can we survive 18,250 hours of sadness? It’s: what will we do with the nearly three quarters of a million hours we will live that won’t be spent in agony? Because that’s worth thinking about much more than the pain we’re in.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.