Hacking Despair: The Politics of Marginalizing Distress

The Kiss in Heat

“The Kiss in Heat,” oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store). After Rodin’s The Kiss.


Who among us has not thought: “Fuck this shit”? The Germans have a word, of course, for that tiredness of life with which we long occasionally to give up existence—LebensmüdeMost people think about suicide at some point; despair is a normal part of human experience. But the holiday blues that send some people drinking or packing can drive others to suicide. And although violent crime including suicide tends to peak in the heat, caring people often suppose the winter holidays are a period of heightened suicide risk for lonely people. And these caring people keep posting suicide hotline phone numbers on Facebook as a result. Facebook itself encourages people to report suicidal posts to law enforcement.

Stop. This actively hurts acutely suicidal people, punts them off on strangers instead of opening your own door, plugs them into a system that ignores the empirical research on what works (and doesn’t work) for the main drivers of suicide (depression, alcohol abuse and its reasons, post-traumatic stress disorder, and lethal means access), and contributes to the overall societal mistake of criminalizing despair and medicating away what might be perfectly rational, appropriate distress—and necessary pain. What if blunting the pain of reality on a mass scale is stunting revolution?

Reality sucks. We’re told we live in an age of a clash of civilizations, but we’re really riding towards a crash of civilization. Without coordinated global action addressing climate change, income inequality, arms trade, corruption, and mass surveillance as the existential problems they are, we are likely to see hundreds of millions die in the coming decades. But instead of nation-states, corporations, civil society, and other groups working together in a coordinated global campaign like the WWII-scale mobilization effort—but for climate change—we see the resurgent rise of fascist populism worldwide. That is to be expected, since we know right-wing authoritarianism rises across the board when people are exposed to threats like those of our increasingly unstable world. That makes instability loop in historical moments like this, with perceived threat feeding political attitudes and behaviors that magnify threat perceptions and threat… So this is bad. If you care about people, it’s depressing.

Do not adjust your sets—or your brain chemistry. This is upsetting, so get upset. And do something about it.

Why no hotlines?

1. Getting people in trouble makes their lives worse.

U.S. hotlines are subject to U.S. law, under which suicidal intent is a threat to harm yourself—on par with threats to harm others. Under this legal regime, suicidal intent is criminal intent that doctors, counselors, teachers, college RAs, and even supposedly anonymous and confidential hotline workers are required to report to law enforcement. This might deter people who need help from asking for it at all. 

Sure, suicidal people can skirt the reporting requirements by saying they don’t have specific plans to harm themselves at a particular time or place, or in a particular way. But it’s not ideal for a person with lethal means on the table in front of him to have to choose between lying while asking for help, and having his door beaten down by armed police authorized to take him in handcuffs to a hospital where he may be forcibly drugged. This is a particularly stupid response in the context of gender violence, with distress a common response to sadly common sexual assault and domestic violence problems—and gender imbalances in law enforcement and medicine creating ample opportunities for revictimization. 

You may be thinking this is actually too horrible to be true.

Where are you getting your information? asked one of the people I already talked at after he posted a hotline number on Facebook. Please point me to the US law that requires them to report callers to the police. But the practical question is not about the letter of various state and federal laws. The question is: Do hotlines in America report suicidal people to the police? Let me Google that for you: yes

The U.K. Samaritans‘ anonymous email line (jo at samaritans dot org) presents one relatively safe alternative to hotlines. You can use an anonymizing browser like Tor and an anonymous email created via Tor to further protect your identity, but that’s unnecessary. A serious attacker who already monitors your communications can still compromise your endpoint no matter what alias, anonymizing tools, encryption, or other information security practices you use. Meanwhile, the U.K. Samaritans aren’t trying to figure out who you are. Within the U.K., they’re bound by U.K. reporting requirements, which involve keeping confidentiality rather than answering despair with coercion. (But within the U.S., the Samaritan hotlines are bound by U.S. law just like the others, and act accordingly.)

Some prefer tea and sympathy… Sicking men with guns on people who are crushed and crying out for help is not my idea of help. 

2. Punting isolated people who feel bad about themselves off on other people probably doesn’t help.

Suicide has correlated with social isolation since Durkheim. People without families are more likely to kill themselves. People without strong social networks are more likely to develop at-risk problems like depression and post-traumatic stress in the first place. These are social problems that require social solutions.

That means it’s your job, as a non-asshole in the world, to talk to people. Sit down with them for coffee or tea. Give them your number. Help them make other friends. If you have the means, have an orphan holiday dinner for people who might not have somewhere to go. Open your door instead of Facebook posting a toll-free phone number for a hotline under-staffed by inadequately trained volunteers who are legally bound to report acute despair to law enforcement, and then patting yourself on the back like an upstanding citizen. Post your own damn number. 

How else does one do this community-building thing? One of my new year’s resolutions is doing this more… In creative, fun ways. Taking poems to bars, performing (stand-up, mostly—also poetry and music and dance, oh my) even though I always think I am not prepared, and having more life drawing/move night sorts of things at our place. Those were some of my favorite kamikaze, artsy community-building events last year. But probably the most important community-building cannot be planned or brainstormed. Probably it is about reaching out in the moment to other expat/artist/hacker/LGBTQIPWTF/assorted misfit types, and being there when they reach out.

Probably a lot of people will reach out for a lot of reasons this year. Please be prepared to be a human being with them, with us. This is really not rocket science. Being there is just… Being there.

And it does not take special expertise. To the contrary…

3. Medical practitioners are getting despair all wrong.

There is basically no recognition in quotidian medical practice that for many, the usual drugs don’t work or backfire, exercise seems to beat other treatments, and the gold-standard non-pharmaceutical treatments like cognitive-behavioral and exposure therapies also don’t work or backfire for many long-term. This means chronic depression and traumatic stress are chronic, if you report for the usual suspect treatments and see what happens. No wonder then that, despite supposed advances in treatments for them, the number of people suffering with such disorders seems only to grow

Psychedelics might cure treatment-resistant depression and PTSD, but we don’t know yet. The consistently promising research in this area should tell you something: A radical perspective shift beats daily soma. 

It is the ultimate hubris to believe you can standardize such a shift. Life-changing conversations do not fit the cookie-cutter standards of randomized controlled trials. Art is not factory work. Forced singing and dancing don’t work out any better for the soul than forced affection. Getting off pain meds and back to music after a terrible accident may have been the only way forward for jazz singer-songwriter Melody Gardot, but we can’t run that experiment both ways to see—and I don’t care, because I get to listen to Melody Gardot. Maybe people have to find more right lives for themselves in order to have higher quality of life.

Much of positive psychology points this way, toward getting unstuck by building out from bright spots with gratitude, for instance. But the replication crisis affecting all social science, especially psychology and medicine, suggests we should be cautious in buying what they’re selling under the auspices of science. Maybe this means letting go of the idea that the scientific method can be employed on questions of how we care for our souls. Or maybe it just means if you want it done right, you have to experiment for yourself.


Radical anti-depression

Changing your mind—or your life—or your whole society, because it fucking sucks—is not standardizable. It does not come in pill form. It will not give you impotence or a beer belly. And it may hurt like hell in the short-term instead of lessening pain. But the pain of articulating reality and actively solving problems instead of medicating away symptoms and talking has a hell of a lot better chance of actually banishing distress.

And the sizable chunk of the U.S. population that currently drags their sorry asses to dead-end schools that don’t get them jobs, and dead-end jobs that don’t make ends meet, with the aid of drugs that keep them compliant without making them happy—what if they just stopped tomorrow? Stopped taking mind-altering meds that don’t radically shift perspectives, and don’t cure what ails them? Stopped going to work? Stopped paying into a system that preys on the weak for the benefit of the strong? What if a bunch of weird, honest, and deeply unsettled people dropped out of the rat race to hang out with like-minded people and shake shit up? That would look like some radical anti-depression. People have gotten in big trouble for suggesting as much before. 

To paraphrase Orwell: In a time of universal crisis—met with the enforced compliance of keeping calm and carrying on, or else—taking time to go through the pain and change is a revolutionary act.

(Sometimes I am more aware than at other times of how we are all one big cultural consciousness soup—and in that soup, good artists borrow but great artists steal. Here I am acutely aware of having gotten farther in this talking with my partner Rop, who has spoken at 32C3 and other places on related ideas, and may or may not one day accidentally write a book with me on something like this.)