I should be writing. It’s 6am in Austin and I should be working on revisions, but I can’t stop thinking about something I read about on Twitter yesterday.
So I’m going to get real about depression and suicide. These are tough issues to talk about, so I’ll understand if you’re not able to read this.
Yesterday I saw that a respected YA author made an offhand suicide joke on Twitter that was related to one of his books. It wasn’t funny. Jokes about teen suicide are never funny. When I saw what had been posted I thought about myself at 19. I thought about who I was and how my thought processes worked back then. If I’d seen that post when I was 19 I would have felt as if someone with a voice louder and more important than mine was telling me that my life and my death were fodder for an internet laugh. I would have felt like someone the community respected was saying my life was unimportant and that no one would care if I died.
Seeing a joke like that when I was 19 would have crushed me. If you’re an author (especially if you’re a YA author), if you have a platform from which to speak, you have to believe that people are listening. You have to understand that your platform amplifies your voice and that the people who are listening take in your words and assign an importance to them greater than that which you might assign yourself. You have to assume that someone is listening to anything and everything you say. You need to assume that there’s a kid out there who’s hurting and who’s hearing what you’re saying and taking it in. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are when you speak—whether it was a joke or not—you have to assume that someone is taking your words at face value. And when you make a joke about suicide or mental illness, you’re telling someone out there that the pain they’re feeling, the darkness and demons they’re struggling with, are unimportant. That they are unimportant. It doesn’t matter what you intended, only what you said and what they heard.
If I’d read an author’s works when I was 19 and looked up to them and looked to them for that sliver of hope I’d needed to latch onto, and then seen them make a joke of the thing I was struggling with, it could have been disastrous for me. And let’s not kid ourselves: those words still impact me. I attempted suicide at 19, but surviving didn’t mean the end of my struggles. I was devastated when author Ned Vizzini took his own life a few years ago. When I sold my first book, I looked up to him. I saw what he’d gone through in his own life and all the things he’d accomplished and I thought, “If he can do it—if he can battle his demons and succeed at the things I want to succeed at—then so can I.” And then when he took his life, I struggled to understand how someone who had all the things I wanted could have given in, and with what that meant for my own battles. Even though I’d never met him, I took his death very personally. I took it as a pronouncement about my own life and its worthiness. And even though I know it wasn’t, I couldn’t help looking at his circumstances and his choices and comparing them to my own. I struggled to understand that what he went through was not what I go through, and that his death was not a judgement about my life. And that was difficult because all I could see what was he put out there. I couldn’t see the intricacies of his personal struggles. I couldn’t see all that lay behind his public persona. I could only take what he put out there at face value.
Even recently, I’ve been battling feelings of worthlessness. The last couple of months have been exceptionally difficult for me and there have been many nights where I lay in bed and struggled to find just one thing to keep me anchored. “Depression isn’t a war you win. It’s a battle you fight every day.” And there have been moments recently where I was afraid I might not win that day’s battle. I don’t often talk about my day-to-day struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts because that’s not the message I want to put into the world. I want the people who see me to feel empowered and hopeful and brave. But maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do. Maybe it’s important to see my losses as well as my victories in order to understand that it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to doubt, it’s okay to be low so long as you keep on fighting. Because the fight is real, and seeing someone with a voice louder than my own make a joke about it hurts. I’m not 19 anymore, but it still makes me feel like my own life and my own struggles are nothing more than someone else’s joke.
My pain is not a joke. Your pain is not a joke. No one’s pain is a fucking joke.
Before I went to bed last night, I posted a bunch of tweets about this and someone mentioned that being able to use humor about their own struggles is one of the things that’s helped them, so I want to address that too. I also use humor to help me. If you’ve read any of my books you know that I use humor to help lighten serious issues. I also use humor in my personal life as a coping mechanism. But there’s a difference between making self-deprecating jokes about myself when I’m with my family or friends and making them publicly. My family and friends are people who understand me and who understand the context of the jokes I make about myself. They understand that I’m uncomfortable talking about things and that I use humor to navigate difficult topics and situations. And when I use humor in books, I also give the humor context. When a character reacts to something like depression or a suicide attempt in an inappropriate way, I provide the context that shows it’s inappropriate. Context is key. If I made the comments that I can make with my family and friends on Twitter, people who viewed them would lack that context and wouldn’t understand what I was saying, and as a result my comments would come off as thoughtless and insensitive.
When I’m hanging out with my brother (who is also gay) and his husband and I make a joke about a gay person we see on TV, there’s years of context that we share that gives that joke meaning. Years of understanding between us about my own struggles coming to terms with what being a gay man means to me and years of context about my brother’s own struggles. My brother would understand the joke in a way that no one else could because our shared history provides the context. If I made the same joke in a public forum, that context wouldn’t exist and it would make me sound like an asshole. And I’ve similarly used humor about my own struggles with suicide around my family because the context exists for them to understand where that humor is coming from and what it means. They understand I’m not diminishing what I went through or the emotional trauma they experienced when I attempted suicide. But I would never, ever make those jokes publicly because that context simply doesn’t exist and my words would mean something totally different to a stranger than they do to my family.
And if I’m being honest, I would never make jokes like that around my mother because 19 years later, she’s still hurt by what I did. No amount of context would ever make my suicide attempt or what she went through funny to her. That I thought, even for a moment, that my life wasn’t worth living, is still an open wound for my mother and she would never find it funny.
So while I understand that humor can be a powerful tool in recovery, context matters. I can find humor in my own traumas, and I can maybe share that humor with people with whom I shared the trauma, but that humor, lacking context, simply doesn’t translate to something that would be funny to strangers. And we have a responsibility to understand that.
I don’t personally know the author who made the joke, so I’m not going to pass judgement on him. I don’t know what he struggles with in his own life or where the joke came from. What I can say is that the joke was not funny. It was insensitive, thoughtless, and I hope he considers the weight his words carry in the future. I hope he considers his audience when he posts things going forward. Because it doesn’t matter if 1000 people see the “joke” and laugh if there’s one person out there who sees it and it makes them feel like they don’t matter. Like their pain is meaningless and their life worthless. Their pain is real. Their life does matter.
Your life matters. You matter. Everyone deserves to know that.