When I started comedy several months ago, I met a guy named Alvin in my classes. A tall Asian guy with thin-framed glasses, he had dropped out of medical school and decided to pursue his dreams as a comedian. There was no pretension with Alvin. He was funny and sweet as he explained his uptight Asian family who so desperately wanted him to become a doctor and joked about picking his American name, then finding out it was that of a cartoon chipmunk.
Today I found out Alvin killed himself.
He had depression issues, and I remembered that we once talked about how he felt that onstage was the only place he could be himself. It was the only place he didn’t have to pretend that everything was fine and that he didn’t think once in a while about suicide.
In his death, I heard the echoes of people around me every day as I have fallen into dark times. Stay positive and happy. Keep a smile on your face. Don’t ever let them see you sweat. And especially don’t let the Internet see you down, or else it could ruin you.
My depression has been taking a toll lately. In the stress of trying to survive I have been falling apart. The world seemed to know it too, as I watched people who I called friends reenact the cliché of “rats from a drowning ship.” I’m blessed to have quite a few good friends to catch me, but at the same time I’ve been hearing people tell me to push it down, play pretend. Don’t let the world see that, because how are you going to get a job/romantic partner/anything good if you are negative?
This time of year seems to be a trigger, especially with Seasonal Anxiety Disorder, commonly known as SAD. This time of year has brought it out for so long that it even has its own psychological diagnosis. It kind of makes sense: The holiday season is stressful. There are presents to afford, travel arrangements to make (also expensive) and family issues that can be ignored for most of the rest of the year. There’s a lot of work to wrap up before the financial year is finished, if you are so lucky to have a job. If you don’t and are looking, you have to patiently fold your hands and wait until the new year happens, and who knows what your situation will be like during that time?
All the while, the entire world is telling us to be happy. Joy to the world, have a holly jolly Christmas, be whimsical in the holiday spirit. When the world is difficult and everyone is telling us to be positive, it adds a toll on us. We have to play pretend and smile because we don’t want to ruin that most wonderful time of the year for everyone else around us. When we are worn thin, we have to give to everyone else that positive spin and act as if nothing is the matter in our lives, when in truth everything is.
Our lives have become that way in the social media age, where every day we have to pretend like it’s good when often it’s not. We have to become our very own public relations departments, and like with editing your own work, this is a very hard task when things might not be 100 percent great. Top it off with comparing yourself to your friends who seem to be getting engagements, job promotions and babies like they were falling from the sky, and there seems to be a recipe for disaster for anyone who is struggling through dark times.
Putting up a front destroys us. We want to tell people how hard it is, but we don’t want to lose our friends. At the same time hiding it becomes a hard task.
When it’s something that everyone knows about, it gets worse. I remembered how, after four years of struggling in my marriage, I got divorced to so many people saying, “I had no idea it was so bad.” Four years of marriage hiding counseling sessions, his threats and putdowns and my utter unhappiness had taken a toll on me; that game of playing pretend that everything was fine has come with a price I’m still paying.
Yet as I have sought transparency in my current emotional situation, unafraid of the truth in it, I also pay as people who I stood by in their dark hours run during mine. There is no winning this battle of emotional turmoil and depression. And in cases like Alvin, sometimes the depressed people pay for the careless actions of those around them who think the only answer to depression and darkness is to, “Stay positive.”
The other night, I had a friend call me to catch up. It was amazing to hear her voice after so long, as I missed her terribly; I could even see her smile in my mind’s eye through our conversation. We talked about people in general, and I will never forget what she said to me.
“There are a lot of people there who are all about appearances,” she said. “There are people who pretend to have money by flashing fancy things they can’t actually afford. Pretend to have love by surrounding themselves with people they call friends but aren’t. Pretend to have their shit together, and they really don’t, Reina. But they want to make the world think they do.”
As the conversation flowed between us as if no time had passed, I thought about this microcosm that our world had become. I was depressed as hell, but I then thought about the people who loved me, the authentic life that I was seeking. I’d rather have real ones who loved this person through the ups and downs than the fake ones who would leave as soon as what was in it for them disappeared, as that price is cheaper. I’d rather people know about the struggle rather than try to hide it, because struggle is what makes us human. It’s what makes us who we were always meant to be, and creates the beauty in our worlds.
If Alvin was open in life the way he was onstage, maybe things would have been different. I don’t know, though. All I know is that it should never have to come to this.
If you or someone you know has been thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit them at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.