On amusement parks, depression, and familiarity with death.

On amusement parks, depression, and familiarity with death.

My spouse, two children, & I recently visited an amusement park called “Holiday World.” We stood in line to ride the Halloween area’s “Scarecrow Scrambler,” which was, aside from a small painted scarecrow, apparently identical to amusement park Scramblers around the world.

A “Scrambler” is a giant metal hinged contraptions that send passengers hurtling toward each other, and toward the concrete outer walls, at alarmingly high speeds. Again and again, the Scrambler evokes an illusion of narrowly avoided collision. Certain death.

Phew, that was a close one!

A “Scrambler” in action — image from Golden Wattle on Wikimedia.

My spouse and our five-year-old rode in a car together. My spouse had loved this ride when she was growing up in Albany – and, since her family was often broke, she typically could only ride it after winning tickets from the local library’s summer reading program. Her glee was intense. Her laughter and loud “Wheeeeee!”s filled the air, a nice contrast to the wooshing wind that rushed past my ears each time my car accelerated toward another wall.

At the end of the day, our five-year-old unhesitatingly announced that the Scrambler had been her favorite ride. Happiness is infectious. It helps to have an unremittingly joyful tour guide.

On the Scrambler, I’d sat in a car with our seven-year-old. She too was laughing and giggling – but also, midway through the ride, she turned to me and said, “You’re not enjoying this much, are you?”

I wasn’t.

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Amusement park rides are interesting. The counter-intuitive physics of each contraption, the illusions they create, the sensations evoked inside the human passengers’ bodies – all of that is interesting.

And I’d even argue that the rides are psychologically helpful for most people. In contemporary society, we suffer from an unfamiliarity with death. A reckoning with our own mortality can help us re-calibrate our priorities – what matters to us enough that we should spend our time on it, given that our time is fleeting?

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the Christ-like character Myshkin speaks repeatedly about how it might feel to be pardoned from imminent execution. (An experience that Dostoevsky himself went through. He was sentenced to death for revolutionary activity, stood with his co-conspirators before a mock firing squad, then learned with mere moments to spare that the Tsar had pardoned them all. At least one person suffered an irreparable mental breakdown. Dostoevsky became a reactionary conservative.)

To feel certain, at one moment, that your life is ending. And then to find yourself reprieved, given time to make amends, to live and laugh and love some more. The world might seem so bountiful! There’d be no reason to squander time. No reason to waste hours worrying – each mere moment might be seen, again, as the precious gift it is.

During graduate school, I earned extra money as a study subject for Stanford’s psychology department. A team of researchers wanted to show that thoughts of impending death make people more likely to want to spend time with family members and close friends. So they had me listen, daily, to a twenty minute meditation on my own mortality.

“We do not know what will happen next, but one thing is certain: this life is drawing to a close. You will die. We all will die.” And on it went, in a nice calm voice, for twenty minutes.

My brain tends toward depression. Even without the guided meditation, I think about death fairly often. Daily? Yes, probably. During bleak times, perhaps hourly. My first love in philosophy was Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. His reasoning seemed sensible to me. Before determining how we should live, first ponder: should we?

Still, the meditation was nice. Helpful, even. In ways that, for my brain, the Scrambler was not.

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In July of 2020, I attended a funeral for a twenty-nine year old friend. He’d died of a heroin overdose. His death was almost certainly intentional.

My friend had also overdosed the week before. That time, somebody had Narcan’ed him back. Often, people return to life swearing and angry. Narcan blocks opiod receptors, so a person sharply transitions from extreme placidity into a world of hurt. With Narcan, suddenly the whole body aches.

But my friend had resumed breathing, blinking and beatific. A smile bloomed across his face. “That was so easy,” he said.

A week later, he was gone.

Easy.

The word ‘easy’ hurts. Lots of people experience a moment, here and there, when it seems as though it would be better to be dead. But the act of transition would be hard – it is difficult to kill oneself. And that difficulty can save us. That difficulty gives us time to reflect, to consider all the other people whom our absence would hurt, all the future happiness that a present act might steal away.

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Our nation suffers from an epidemic of gun violence. These deaths are ill-tracked – the NRA aggressively opposed all efforts to collect data on gun deaths, and the CDC didn’t begin studying the problem until 2019.

But it appears that around 60% of all gun deaths are suicides. And it appears that around 50% of all suicides are gun deaths.

Humans are a rather dangerous species. Especially among young men, it’s common for arguments to flare into bursts of physical violence. People can kill each other even with sticks and stones. With swords, with knives, with slingshots.

But guns make death come easier. There’s less time for friends or bystanders to break up a fight – within seconds, the fight is over. Somebody might be dead.

Similarly, people attempt to end their own lives in myriad ways. With ropes, with knives, with pills. Or by making increasingly risky decisions. But guns make death come easier. Less time passes between making a (bad) decision and a person’s life ending. No nearby friend can Narcan you back from a bullet.

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For some people, it’s helpful to make the approach of death seem easier. Recently, researchers have tried using psychedelic medication as a part of hospice care. Someone who is near the end of their life is given a vision of the infinite. Often, these patients report that their fear of death has waned. They are better able to enjoy the limited time they have remaining.

But for a young, healthy person with depression, we wouldn’t want the sensation of hurtling toward death to feel easy or familiar. That might reduce the likelihood that bad decisions would be second-guessed. That dangers would be avoided. Subsequent suicidal ideation might have a concrete vision to latch onto – this is what the car crash would feel like in the moments before impact.

In Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, Lauren Hough writes:

The fundamental misunderstanding of depression is the idea that the suicidal want to die. I didn’t want to die. But some misfire in my brain treats existential pain like a dog reacts to vomiting: Fuck it. I’m gonna dig a hole to die in.

Even on a good day, my brain will point out a few easy ways out: Take a hard left in front of that truck. It’ll be over before you feel it. But when it’s dark, when I’m hopeless, I’m just white-knuckling my way through the nights for no reason but instinct.

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Rides like the Scrambler ought to exist! For a lot of people, they probably have great benefit! The sensations are scary, but also safe, and that makes them fun!

Yes, fun! Big surprise twist here, which surely you’d never guess from the long line of people waiting their turns to get on: amusement park rides are fun!

And also: folks with minds like mine probably shouldn’t be on the ride.

On isolation, depression, and suicide.

On isolation, depression, and suicide.

From Emily Cox’s recent article in Bloomington, Indiana’s Herald Times:

[Scot Moore, a medical doctor on our school district’s Covid-19 metrics committee] said since the school year started, there have been zero pediatric admissions to IU Health Bloomington Hospital for Covid-19.

Over the same time, I think it’s important to point out that we’ve admitted now 29 adolescents with intended or attempted suicide, which is 10 times what we do usually,” Moore said.

Many cite isolation and academic stress as factors for their decisions, he said.

Moore also said he thinks the [Covid-19] transmission rate in the schools is about zero.

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From John Remember’s recent essay collection, A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World:

Depression nearly killed me once, and it’s killed friends and neighbors and people I went to school with. The only thing that saved me was the knowledge that at some point my life had ceased to be my own property and had become the property of the people who loved me.

Although there’s not enough love in the world, chances are that somebody loves you, and you shouldn’t decide to kill yourself without consulting the person or persons doing the loving. The voice of your depression is going to tell you that they don’t love you, but you should ask them if that’s true. If they say they love you, believe them and stay alive for them.

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From Gerry Duggan’s and Ian Doescher’s Deadpool #21 (which I’ve written about previously, here):

A young woman is standing at the ledge of a building. Deadpool tries to cheer him up, but his gallows humor only upsets her more. “What’s your problem?” she demands.

But then he takes her on an adventure …

… and, in a beautiful depiction of real-life heroism, Deadpool drives her to the hospital.

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This is a hard time of year.

If you’re living in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun won’t stay up long enough. Then there are the holidays – even in the best of years, many people find they can’t muster up the joy and enthusiasm that seems expected of them.

This is not the best of years.

If you’re struggling, please, reach out.

If you need someone to talk to, you can call 1-800-273-8255. At any time of day or night.

Things can get better.