Out of the Closet

I was never a good follower.  But sometimes there’s no choice.  Today, I must follow Professor Peter Railton who studies ethics and the philosophy of science.

I highly recommend the transcript of his entire Dewey Lecture but it is 16 pages long so I will be much more brief.  Asked to weave his own life story and developments in neuroscience into a call for action, he spoke of three times of transformation in his life.  I will mention only one, and here is the only bit of neuroscience:  “Memory turns out to be tightly linked to our capacity to imagine alternatives to the ways things are and to meet new challenges—to face the future, where it is still possible to make a difference.  For these purposes, it is better to have a living memory system capable of recombining, relating, correcting, and enriching stored information.”

Railton recreated in his speech “a series of moments from my remembered life,” each of them “a moment of making a transition.”  His hope was “if I can make the experience of these moments real enough to you, even briefly, they might speak to you in ways that go beyond the little stories.”

He followed those three seminal memories with what he hoped would be a new one right there in the lecture hall.  He introduced it this way:  “The stunning reversal of age-old attitudes toward gay marriage came about [because] enough gay individuals courageously … came out publicly.  Within two decades the rest of the population had learned … that among their friends, neighbors, coworkers, children, parents, teachers, students, and favorite movie stars were many gay individuals.  Were these people to be denied the rights of life and love the rest of us enjoy?”

What those courageous gay individuals did was “insisted that privacy should be a choice … made visible … so that heterosexuals could see their gay brothers and sisters for what they are, not for what their incomprehension and apprehensions had made of them.”

Being gay is not a choice.  What must be a choice for everyone who is gay is whether or not to keep it private.

We are still living in another “don’t ask, don’t tell” world, Railton continues So there’s nothing for it.  Those who have dwelt in the depths of depression need to come out as well.”

Our society sees depression as an inner weakness.  We must learn to call it what it is, Railton tells us “We must call it mental illness because that’s what it is, illness that takes up residence in the mind, but no more of the essence of a person than any other illness.  And when we hear of mental illness, treatment should be the first thing that comes to mind, not shame and withdrawal.”

So I, too, must come out because I, too, have lived through debilitating depressive episodes.

The first, when I was 16, is very luckily the only one where I wanted to kill myself.  I walked along the river bank for so long, afraid to continue living, equally afraid of drowning.  Finally I was tired out and continued to live by default.  I went to the doctor the next day and explained my symptoms.  “You’ll just have to get used to it,” he told me.  “Learn to hide it as best you can.”

So I did.  Alcohol was a mixed blessing in some especially severe episodes but I was luckier than my very close High School friend who killed himself.  My experience manifested most often in second-guessing that slowed me down but left me enough strength to keep forcing myself onward.

Shortly before I retired from business, where I accomplished a lot but could have done more, Felicity got me to a doctor again.  There are now plenty of antidepressants and although their effect is poorly understood and/or misunderstood, I have been symptom-free since that time.

If I had been open about my depressive episodes, the business challenges I enjoyed would not have been open to me.  But if more of us reveal our mental illness along with what we accomplished despite it, I hope others will have the choice of openness that Professor Railton, I and so many others did not.  And I hope they will promptly get treatment!

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