CW: Suicide

Put behind a cut for suicide and depression. Here’s hoping it works on previews.


Anthony Bourdain killed himself a wee while ago. It was the weirdest celebrity suicide I experienced, for the simple reason that I’d never heard of the guy. I’ve not really watched TV since ’88, so that happens quite a bit. Everyone around me seemed to know and love him, though, so I ended up stuck in the odd position of watching everyone go through a process I could not engage with. For me, a person was dead, and that was sad, but the death was no more impactful than the death of any other stranger.

Most people I know had serious feelings about the situation, though, and they weren’t shy about expressing them. I’m an asshole with a very low tolerance for other assholes, so the people I hang with are carefully selected and pretty splendid. As a result, I didn’t have to suffer through the moralising and vilification that so often accompany suicides. Instead, everyone seemed to feel that they had to do something – not just mourn the death, but Take Some Steps to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, especially to someone close to them. Most responses consisted of:

  • Posting broad-spectrum advice for people with depression;
  • Pleas to contact suicide hotlines in the event of an emergency;
  • Heartfelt declarations to people as to how their continued existence is appreciated by their loved ones.

I’ve blogged a few times about clinical depression and suicidal ideation, but I have to admit that I’ve been pretty cagey about my actual experience on said subjects. That isn’t going to change with this blog. All you really need to know is that, once upon a time, I used to know four people with clinical depression. Now I don’t know any: two got better, two died. And I know that this isn’t The Official Statistic For Depression, that it’s not a disease that kills 50% of its sufferer, but it’s hard for me to care about that. The number of people I’ve lost is the only number that matters to me. My dead people matter to me.

Being of a quasi-scientific bent, I have tried to disentangle my experience in a rational and organised fashion. Four people, two alive and two dead. How can I fit that in a pattern? What are the relevant factors? Three had lovely, supporting families of origin, and one didn’t; the latter is alive. Two had created lovely families for themself; one is alive, one is dead. Two were stuck in horrific living situations; one is alive, one is dead. Two were receiving treatment for depression; one is alive, one is dead. One self-medicated; they’re dead. One is neurodivergent and unmedicated; they’re alive. One was at the peak of physical fitness, two were meh, and one was a wreck; dead, alive x2, dead. Two were financially secure and two weren’t; one alive and one dead in each group. I just can’t make it stack up. The data doesn’t fit any of my theories, and it leaves me with the sneaking, horrific suspicion that it doesn’t really work like that, that this an aspect of life that can’t be kept at bay by Good Living, or even by good luck.

The really funny thing is that I know that. I know it because I’ve seen it, because I’ve lived it. I know that if anyone else came up with a checklist of ‘Things To Do So Depression Won’t Get You, Guaranteed’, I’d laugh in their face. I would know without even looking that half of them would be things people can’t do when they’re depressed and the other half may or may not help people, and are less likely to help those with depression.

This is the thing people don’t seem to get about depression: it’s a debilitating disease. It takes away your ability to do things and to enjoy what you do. Yes, for a person without depression, it may be obvious that “if you’re dirty, take a shower; you’ll feel better!” But the truth is that someone with depression may not be able to summon the energy to take that shower, and may not be able to feel better after it, because they are depressed. Telling someone with depression to “just” do this or “just” enjoy that is no different from telling an asthmatic to “just” breathe properly. And get this: people with severe depression know that if they could do this or enjoy that they’d feel better. They don’t need to be reminded about how badly they’re malfunctioning; their depression has got that covered.

When Anthony Bourdain died, I sat and I watched as my timeline filled up. I pondered, and eventually I started fuming. I knew that people were coming from a good place, that they really wanted to help, but I also knew that they weren’t helping. They meant well, but they were putting real people in real danger.

I tried to talk about it. I tried to explain that listing a whole series of things that people ought to do to fix themselves may help some folk, but is throwing some very vulnerable individuals under the bus. I was told that I was too negative. I tried to explain that some support lines are awful and pushing at-risk people towards them could be the thing that finishes them (fun fact: The Samaritans cut off a friend of mine twice after telling them they could call back if they really needed to). I was told that, unless I could suggest some better helplines, I ought to shut up and let people do their thing.

And then one day I got a message, and it was so amazing that I wanted to ring my best friend and tell him all about it. “So, this guy out of the blue decided to Do His Bit by telling me how much he values my presence in his life, which was beyond funny because he had to write to my work inbox because he unfriended me two months ago.” I knew exactly what my friend would have said, how his laughter would have sounded, how much he would have enjoyed that kind of unintended irony, and I would have given anything to share that with him. But I couldn’t, because he’s dead.

Antony Bourdain died. I watched people agonise over the event, and not one of them said that he “died of depression,” in the way we’d say that someone “died of diabetes.” Nobody commented how amazing it was that he’d made to 61 despite his disease. If a cancer sufferer made it through decades of treatment before finally dying, we’d call them an inspiration; but when someone with depression does that, we call it “a tragedy” or “a waste” and we trot out advice on a par with “two apples a day.” Seems to me that, despite protestations to the contrary, we refuse to accept that there is a disease called depression, that it is real and potentially lethal, that we can do our best and still catch it, that we can fight our hardest and still lose to it. And I can’t help thinking that this is part of the problem.


My friend Randy Packer wrote this today. I think it’s brilliant, so I stole it.


“So much of our sense of morality and ethics comes from the heroes we discover through media. I’ve been asking people here and elsewhere to talk about their inspirations and motivations. So often the source is a movie, TV, book, game or comic hero.

Our feelings around these things are powerful, even if they sometimes feel subtle to us. They are the new recieved stories and moral plays that guide us and shape us.

So for the entire history of modern media, with some small exceptions, the people who’ve been making the go/no go decision on whether or not to produce a allow to live a certain story, have been people like or answering to people like Weinstein. All they’ve had to do is say “nobody wants a female hero, that won’t sell.” And they’ve said it time and time again, and that message sinks in all the way through all of our media, whether it’s in compliance with that message or opposed to it.

The real power of #metoo goes beyond people telling their personal stories, and is a deep warning about the messages we’re being fed. Because those messages shape how we see the world. And even if we personally have found inspiration or shaped our beliefs independently of such sources… you don’t have to look very far at all to see someone who has been shaped by them. Or to see the incredible backlash against stories that run counter to the recieved narrative.”


(It has been my bugbear forever when people state that women who cosplay MUST be looking for sexual attention, because “look at how they dress!” How many mainstream cosplay opportunities are there for women that don’t emphasise certain features? And why is that?)


A wee while ago, I went looking for a book that explained the neurological and physiological reactions to emotions, in a desperate bid to make myself believe that emotions are real and valid. I found this instead: How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett. I don’t know enough about neuroscience to even begin to speculate as to how accurate the book is, but I don’t care. I can use the information it gives me to navigate my internal environment with a modicum of skill and grace, instead of crashing around like a bull in a China shop, and that’s good enough for me.

It will probably be some months and a few re-reads before I’m confident enough to try and discuss what I got out of the book, but one concept has already proven so useful that I can’t leave it alone: Emotional granularity, i.e. the degree to which people can tell emotions apart. People with low emotional granularity cannot differentiate between similar-ish emotions. For instance, if they feel low energy and down, they may not be able to tell whether they are depressed, bored, or tired. They may instead clump all those emotions together under a single banner (e.g. “I feel like shit”). They are the emotional equivalent of those people for whom a watermelon, a strawberry, and a cherry are the same colour.

Low granularity can be the result of a limited vocabulary. Young children, for instance, may not be able to differentiate between any negative emotions – “mad” and “sad” may end up getting lumped together and used interchangeably, under the banner of “feeling bad.” As they grow up and learn more words, they can develop the terminology to differentiate whether they are experiencing annoyance, exasperation, irritation, indignation, or resentment. This will also enable to understand those emotions in other people.

It takes more than a large vocabulary to improve our emotional granularity, though. I used to read the dictionary for funsies, but there are things living at the bottom of ditches with a greater emotional granularity than me. My problem isn’t that I lack the words, but that I’ve lumped disparate words under umbrella terms that obliterated the nuances between various emotions.

Growing up, I was trained to lump my emotions into the following categories:

  1. Good. A very specific state of being requiring complete focus on the situation at hand, low physical energy, submission, and a very specific form of “happiness” (see below). So basically I had to have switch my brain on, switch my body off, relinquish my agency, and enjoy it. It was the only allowed state of being, so there was no practical difference between feeling and being good.
  2. Bad. Most things that didn’t fall under “good”, so all negative emotion (sadness, disappointment, tiredness, fear, etc.) but also all positive states that caused me to be too boisterous. If my happiness was too loud, it was punished, so being any kind of excited was a bad feeling. Again, there was no practical difference between feeling and being bad.
  3. Ill. Illness was the only condition under which I was allowed to rest. It was, therefore, a useful feeling, if not a pleasant one.
  4. Angry. Anger was an interesting glitch in the above system. It was a Very Bad emotion, but it caused people to leave me alone for a bit, so it was extremely useful. As the resulting punishments were no worse than those for less bad emotions, it became one of my go-to states. Get angry now, get a break, and pay for it later.

As I grew older and escaped my family’s sphere of influence, I realised that there was more to life than what I’d grown up with. I discovered new and exciting emotional states, and then proceeded to lump them in two new emotional classes:

  1. Scary. All emotions that enabled people to hurt me – love, attachment, any kind of need, trust, etc.. And, when unduly scared, the safest bet is to switch to “angry.”
  2. Useless. Pretty much all negative states relating to physical needs – tiredness, thirst, hunger, pain, etc. (Boarding school ftw). I couldn’t do anything about them, so it was best to ignore them and carry on as normal.

On reflection, it shouldn’t have taken me a book on neuroscience to tell me that I might have had a tiny bit of an issue with emotions. It did, though, and that’s all there is to that. Now I’m left with a load of new ideas to play with. How can I trick myself into feeling a greater range of emotions? How can I use my knowledge of emotional granularity to improve my interactions? As epiphanies go, this one is a bit late in coming, but unpacking it all promises to be quite a trip.


I am starting to really hate the word “anxiety.” Hell, I’m getting to hate the word more than I hate the actual thing, which is saying something. I have what one may call a history with anxiety. We spent my formative years together. She was my constant companion, closer to me than my favourite stuffies; she came with me everywhere, even places where my stuffies were not allowed. We aren’t as close now, but we still hang out. I’m so used to her that I find myself habitually accommodating her, making arrangements under the assumption that she’s going to show up, as if she were an intrusive relative with the keys to my house and a penchant for gatecrashing parties.  I’m so used to living with some anxiety that I easily forget what it was like to live with all of the anxiety, and find my current self chiding my old self for missed opportunities. I should have done this and that while I had the chance. I shouldn’t have allowed my brain to hold me back. Then something happens that triggers me back to being seven years old, in church, literally paralysed by the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, and I remember how it was. I really remember: I remember in my body, not in my head.

Growing up, I was terrified when faced with literally any kind of interaction apart from hanging out with my two best friends. There were degrees to my terror, so public speaking was exponentially worse than talking one-to-one with my teacher, but every single interaction was a cause of stress – saying hello to a neighbour, getting the bus,  shopping, going to a party… The only time I didn’t feel anxious was when I was alone or with close friends, with no imminent prospect of having to interact with anyone else. So, basically, I was relatively relaxed for about four weeks in the summer, until my mom realised that going on holiday as part of a group was “better,” and took that away from me.

Did I have social anxiety? I sure did. Framing it like that, though, means that most people translates it as “the kid had brain worms.” They treat the situation as if it was an error in my thinking, the result of a brain chemistry imbalance, or both. It never occurs to them that there was a real reason for my anxiety, that it was a rational response to my situation.

I was anxious because I knew that:

  1. In social situations, there was only a narrow band of behaviours that were deemed appropriate by the people who controlled my life. Those behaviours weren’t stated prior to each event, so there was no rule book I could play by. Most of those behaviours did not come natural to me, either. I could not rely on my thoughts or feelings to come up with adequate responses to stimuli, because I would have come up with the wrong answer. I had to think my way through each situation trying to anticipate the wishes of people who expected me to read their minds.
  2. If I behaved incorrectly, I would not be told at the time, so I could correct myself. I would, however, be punished later. The punishment wasn’t a one-off that cleaned up my mistake; it was a permanent state of being. I’d be carrying that mistake with me forever, together with every mistake I’d ever made, so that it could be used against me in perpetuity.

My anxiety didn’t just happen: it was the result of my experience, collected into a data set and used to make predictions. Those predictions were gloomy – a rather reasonable assessment, given the situation – and that knowledge made me extremely wary when faced with certain scenarios. Yes, I had “social anxiety,” but I was anxious about social interactions because social interactions were really, truly, honestly high-risk and low-reward for me. People who viewed me as an anxious child never seemed to consider that my anxiety might have been a reflection of my reality. If they cared at all, they addressed the symptoms of my anxiety, rather than its causes.

As I got older and escaped my family’s sphere of influence, my anxiety changed. Instead of fearing punishment, I feared failure – and, again, that fear didn’t just happen. It was based on real experience and accurate predictions. My childhood anxiety was in my head, but it was also in my body. It constricted my throat, making it hard to talk clearly; it tensed my muscles, so I couldn’t coordinate properly; it clogged up my brain with a constant stream of predictions, what-ifs followed by potential solutions followed by more what-ifs in an ever-growing, ever-changing fractal pattern that left me very little mental capacity for dealing with what was in front of me. I was trying to run my social interactions while most of my energy and attention were on something else; unsurprisingly, I fucked up a lot. That populated a data set from which I could predict the results of future interactions – and, again, the predictions were gloomy. I had fucked up consistently and spectacularly in the past, so I could reasonably expect to fuck up consistently and spectacularly in the future. Shockingly, that kind of prediction made it harder for me to relax in social situations. It’s hard to be relaxed while hurtling towards abject failure.

This later aspect of my anxiety looked and sounded very much like brain worms: my negative expectations contributed to the negative results which confirmed my negative expectations. The way I (eventually) got myself out of that was to prove myself wrong, time and time again, and doing that fucking sucked. There is no joy in social interactions that are the psychological equivalent of putting your hand in the spider tank to show yourself that you’ll come out alright. I wanted to do it, though, and my life facilitated it, so it got done. But, first and foremost, my situation had to change. If someone had tried to change my mind when I was a child, to make me absorb a new set of “positive” beliefs that just didn’t connect with my reality, it would have been gaslighting, plain and simple. Rather than helping me, it would have probably just cracked my brain in half.

That’s what I hate about the word “anxiety,” as it is so very commonly used: it is taken to mean something that is “just in your head,” something that you can – nay, that you should overcome by ThinkingRight(TM). Nobody seems to contemplate the merest possibility that some people may actually be anxious about certain things because they have learned to, that their life is different enough from that of the majority that the “normal” way of looking at the world would be simply incorrect. I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there who are “just” anxious; I’m saying that I wasn’t, that the vast majority of people I know aren’t either, and that I’d really appreciate it if this was occasionally taken into account.


TL/DR: Being neurodivergent can increase a person’s chances of needing to self-defend. The way in which martial arts and self-defence are taught often erects barriers that prevent neurodivergent students from accessing or benefiting fully from the training. It sucks.


I have dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADD. If it sounds like a lot, believe me, it isn’t: comorbidities are actually pretty common. I am also a kinesthetic learner. I am very lucky because those four aspects of the way I’m made generally don’t cause me too much bother, or at the very least pay me back richly for the bother they cause me. They are, however, a fact of my life. They aren’t going to go away. I can’t switch them on and off at will.

Their main practical impacts when it comes to learning physical skills are:

  1. Dyslexia: I have no concept of left or right. They are meaningless words with no connection to my body. If you tell me to turn in a certain direction or use a certain limb, I have to stop for a moment and work out what that means. If I don’t have that moment, I have a 50-50 chance of getting it wrong. This applies to each movement, even movements within a series – the fact that I found my right hand doesn’t mean that my brain now knows that my other hand is the left, kinda thang. So, a three-punch sequence “right left right” requires me to find which is which three times. Disappointingly, this programming fault isn’t decibel-dependant: if you yell at me the same commands, I’m just as likely to mess them up.
  2. Dyspraxia: My gross motor skills are… really gross. I am uncoordinated as hell. This particularly manifests in a total inability to throw and catch. I am the only person I know who can’t juggle 1 ball. My proprioception and interoception are also a bit wonky (e.g., people can feel my tummy rumbling but I can’t, and I found having a root canal kinda relaxing, but tags in clothes are hell).
  3. ADD: Most people are slooooooow, which makes it quite hard to follow any but the most riveting conversations. It just takes people too long to get to the end of each word, so it’s hard for me to stay focused. If you think I’m being rude, watch your favourite movie at 0.75x speed and see how far you get before you wanna tear your hair out. In my ideal world, I’d adjust people’s speed to about 1.25-1.5x. As I can’t do that, my brain occupies itself by finding connections between what the person is saying and what I know, or by going on random meanders that have nothing to do with the subject at hand. The latter doesn’t do much for my concentration.
  4. ADD, again: The only thing that truly motivates me to study or practice is the subject matter. I thought this was the norm for the longest time, and then I learned that people can be motivated by all manners of sticks and carrots. Apparently, rewards and punishments are used so often because they actually work – I have to take that on faith, because it makes no sense to me. I only respond well to immediate, bottom-of-Maslow’s-pyramid rewards or punishments. Are you going to punch me? Am I going to starve? Anything less tends to have no result or backfire. Not only I won’t become interested in working extra hard because if I pass that test I’ll get a colourful belt, but attaching extraneous rewards to activities makes me lose interest in them. As for trying to punish or shame me into doing stuff, I would strongly advise people against it.
  5. ADD, which clearly is the gift that keeps on giving: I love novelty and I hate structure. I know that people often feel safe within stable routines, but I feel like I can’t breathe. I am good at maintaining routines because I’ve had to in order to function, but I can become very depressed very quickly if I’m forced into fixed routines with no creative outlets. Making me do something that bores me and has no practical purpose can drain my energy to the point of making me physically ill for hours or days. My metabolism crashes, I feel awful, I can’t function, and I catch every bug going.
  6. ADD, probably: I have the memory of a goldfish, and that has nothing to do with my interest in a subject. I have to go over written material at least 3 times (read, read while underlying, read with the underlined bits) before it even begins to sink in. I am particularly bad at remembering movement sequences – and by “sequence” I mean “more than two movements.” By brain also randomly ejects large chunks of information as soon as new information comes in. So, a new kata knocks the old kata right out of my brain, regardless of how much work I put into it.
  7. Kinesthetic learning: I have to perform a movement to understand that movement. Explanations of the movement pass through my ears and get converted into Charlie Brown’s Teacher Speaking – and it’s NOT because I don’t care. Visual aids help. Taking notes helps more, even if I never refer to them again. So if you talk me through a Turkish get-up, no part of that will actually register. If you show me one, I’ll remember either the first or the last part. If I mimic a teacher demonstrating one, even if I’m just approximating the movements while standing, the sequence may actually go in – though I may still scramble later on if I get my left and right confused.

As I’m sure you can appreciate, the combination of these factors does not make me a prime candidate for learning physical skills. It was particularly true when I was a child. Where/when I grew up, it was almost impossible for children to learn anything they were bad at. Schools rewarded students based on their product, not their effort, so PE was hell. Sport clubs, even ones you paid to join, weren’t welcoming towards kids who were gonna suck. If you were bad at something, you didn’t get to do it, which meant that you never had a chance to improve. And lo, it came to pass that I didn’t learn how I learn physical skills until I was in my 30s.

A few years ago, I spent a year training martial arts, self-defence, strength training, and functional fitness at the worst gym in the world. I learnt no useful physical skill and I got hurt a bunch, but the space was disorganised enough to give me the chance to find out how I can insert that type of information into my brain, and even (sometimes) make it stay. Most of the adaptations are pretty simple and require no extra effort on the teacher’s part. The one, single thing I found most useful was mimicking a movement while the teacher was describing it, so my brain would actually file it. If I stay still and listen, hardly anything goes in.

Alas, at most dojos moving during an explanation is not a behaviour deemed acceptable. In fact, it is actively punished, most usually by a public reprimand, which sends me right back to being 7 and being called “spastic” in the school gym. Having to ask for the same explanation multiple times is also punished, because “I should have been paying attention,” as is making “silly” noises during physical activities, however quietly – both activities that greatly enhance my learning. Many if not most teachers seem to have a mental image of what an attentive, interested, serious student looks like, and those who don’t match it are punished for it.

My problem is that when I look attentive, interested, and serious, I’m actually most likely spacing out. It’s not that I don’t care or that I’ve given up; it’s just that style of learning just doesn’t work with my brain. I just can’t pick up that signal. Leave me to my own devices, and I’ll find a way to get over that, to make my system interact better with the environment; but I will most likely not look like a “good student” in the process. I’ll look like an uncoordinated, flapping, humming klutz who spends half their time doing things the wrong way round. And, try as I might, I’ll never, ever learn a long kata.

The irony is that the characteristics that make me a really crappy self-defence student are responsible for my interest in self-defence. Until puberty struck, they were my main reason for needing self-defence – shockingly, when you’re physically impaired and socially shamed for it, you become a target for bullying and violence. I think the same applies to a lot of neurodivergent people: the things that make us different from the normies, the ways in which we can’t blend in, put us at greater risk of needing to protect ourselves. And when that risk inspires us to learn the skills we need in order to do that, we often find ourselves shamed, punished, or excluded by those who are, allegedly, there to help us. It’d be funny, if it didn’t hurt people so often.