CW: suicide, self harm
When I was first prescribed antidepressants, my psychiatrist noted that adolescents often experience an increase in the intensity of depressive symptoms during the first few weeks of taking the medication. She was right, but it was difficult to acknowledge the truth of her statement, especially when I was curled up into a ball, bowing my head down into the floor, wishing my neck would snap – or else the discomfort I was putting myself through would stop my racing thoughts for a moment.
After stopping the medication for several months, attending therapy regularly and reading more clinical research about my condition, I understood how I could protect myself during depressive episodes. Because the episodes continued to be abnormally frequent and intense my psychiatrist and I agreed that I should start my medication again. I planned how I would handle myself during that first week of adjustment. It was syllabus week, so things wouldn’t be too intense. I planned a regular sleep, meal and study schedule, but wouldn’t push myself beyond that.
When my brain felt like it was condensing under a hydraulic press – headaches being a side effect of the medication in the first few weeks – I would excuse myself from whatever situation I was in, take painkillers, and go to bed. I would have no resources to self-harm; I had hid any particularly dangerous objects in inaccessible plays days prior. When I would feel the urge, I would restrain myself in bed. These tricks all worked well, and, in between moments of internal discord, I found space to be proud of myself.
These moments of clarity were rare. I was confused. I work at a lab with fruit flies, and I left multiple vials of precious flies in the fridge where we keep the food moist. My coworker noticed that I seemed off, and I told her about what I had been dealing with. “Blame it on the SSRIs,” she said to me.
That weekend, my phone notified me that its storage was full. Of the 64 GB it could hold, my nearly 3500 photo library held around 35 GB. I decided to delete photos from all the way back in high school knowing they were backed up to Google Photos. As the photos disappeared from my trash can, I caught glimpses of some I hadn’t seen in some time. Switching to the Google Photos app to view them for a longer time, I noticed they were not there.
I’ve held the incision open as my aunt fished out a lipoma from a patient’s back, the years of infected fatty cells releasing their odor; I’ve eaten a full turkey leg twenty minutes before going on a roller coaster. I didn’t feel nauseous either of those times. I feel sick in other instances, like when I made my little cousin cry by editing “Steph Curry is stupid” into his presentation on the NBA star, or when my 12-year-old brother yelled at my Grandmother, who has dementia, for forgetting his name. The moment I watched the last of those 3500 photos empty themselves from my trash can was one of those times.
Blame it on the SSRIs.
Whatever you can think of, I’ve tried. I pleaded to iCloud (last backup 2019), I scoured Reddit, I downloaded a sketchy program which advertised its ability to recover permanently deleted photos, I waited obediently as the program website advised me, “[...] don’t be panic,” and then I managed to dredge up 2000 photos that were already available in my WhatsApp. I called a hardware data recovery service in Chicago which referred me to a “data forensics” technician in California whose minimum service fee is $2000. I exhausted my resources and likely downloaded malware in the process.
I managed to recover some important memories. I re-downloaded Snapchat and found around 200 photos and videos from the past four years. I hunted for pictures of sentimental moments in group chats, nestled among obscene memes. They stare at me now, a hodgepodge of random memories without any metadata to chronologically organize them. In one photo, I am 16, acutely acne-ridden, with deep, dark bags under my eyes. In the next, I am 20 with clear skin, my face buried in the hair of my beaming ex-girlfriend. I deleted my Instagram account a year ago, and my Twitter account a year before that. I have only these photos from the past four years.
Any explanation into why I did not just pay 99 cents a month for 50 more GB of iCloud storage – and hope that my father did not somehow find out would require a lengthy discussion into the way I was raised, my family’s dynamic and my father’s marked resentment for unnecessary surcharges. I wish only to write about my family dynamic to contextualize what I was going through in the four years my photo library covers – and thus why it looked the way it did. I hope to focus more on sharing a narrative about my growth as a person through recalling the chronology of my photo library and a discussion of my feelings about their loss.
At first, sadness. Guilt. Anger, loneliness, fear, hopelessness, nihilism, depression. I had been told that my entire life goal before age 18 was to get into an elite university. I could decide what my next goal was after I got in. My “college coaches” were perennially breathing down my neck about academic opportunities I should have been pursuing and writing competitions I should have been winning. “What's is [sic] clear is that he's a super bright young man!!! No doubt,” my coach wrote in an email to my mother in 2017. “What's missing....any real passion for anything that I can get out of him. We have to work on this.”
My passion was literature. Or, someone decided it was. “[...] as an Indian male, we’d encourage him to pursue his interest in literature to set himself apart from other applicants in his demographic,” my college coach wrote in a report about me. My “interest in literature” came from my friendship with my eighth grade English teacher and soccer coach, though we mostly talked about soccer, movies, and art.
My time in high school was spent mostly in class, doing homework, writing (agonizing over) pieces for competitions, or reading, and wishing I had written, award-winning pieces. My friends played sports. My counselors had written that the sports I played were “fairly generic” and “[would] not help [my] application.” I stopped playing sports for that reason. My friends and I grew apart. I kept writing – and received negative feedback about my work.
I broke down often. The first breakdown I remember was in my sophomore year of high school, when I showed my parents the draft of the application I had been writing for an eight-week summer literature program just before the deadline. Actually, I was forced to by my coaches because the application was so incorrigible that the only productive thing I could do was show it to my parents, so they could know just how immature and irresponsible I was. Maybe, then, they would put their foot down during the next application cycle. Oh my God, I remember them seething as they read the work I had worked multiple hours on. What were you thinking?
A little taste of my family dynamic. This would be the first of many times I’d sit in my closet, whispering with a counselor at the suicide hotline about why they figured I was such a failure, what my options were, how I should stay safe. Getting rid of the coaches was out of the question – Do you know how much we paid for them? The answer, multiple figures, rang in my head.
I had been told that my entire life goal before age 18 was to get into an elite university, and after I got in, I could decide my next goal as long as I made a lot of money or brought honor to my family. You can do what you want to, whenever you want to. I got in, and I decided my next goal was to end my life – to free up an admissions spot and a place in the world for someone who was not incompetent, dull and worthless.
I worked toward it slowly, like most of my goals. First, there was math homework, physics homework, the anatomy of a Murakami novel. When quarantine hit, I took to reading books during Zoom classes, my camera roll clogged with pictures of quotes I enjoyed from books like Of Human Bondage, Man’s Search for Meaning, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A picture of my name photoshopped below Weber arch, next to a panel of distracted students. Chemistry homework. My mother advised me to keep pre-med “in my back pocket.” I acquiesced; I did not care where my life was heading.
Naturally, I learned how to ride a skateboard. A video of me attempting to ollie. A video of me ollying badly. A selfie of me on the toilet, throwing up a peace sign. I thought this was hysterical; I used it on Bumble. I got no matches after weeks of swiping, and I deleted the app. I redownloaded other dating apps after Christmas, in Evanston. This time, I was cautious. The name for my profile on Hinge was called “Void,” and my main picture was this. For the prompt, “I’m hoping that you,” I filled in: are willing to beat me to death with a baseball bat. I wondered why I was so lonely.
Memes. Esotericism. Esoteric memes. This, but with “kill” instead of “distract.” A selfie of me, unshaven, gaunt. In case I ever wanted to do a face reveal on my burner Twitter. Snow falling outside my dorm room window. Saline solution spilled on my desk, the salt recrystallizing. I never talked to any of my dormmates, partly due to COVID restriction complications, but mostly due to a tremendous amount of social anxiety. I rationalized this as natural because they were cringey and elitist. A screenshot of a tweet I posted in February 2021: i think it’s time to go bulimia mode. Antarctica.
Cockroaches. I felt a kinship with them à la Kafka’s Metamorphosis. “Everyone hates them,” I remembered my high school English teacher saying, “but no one really knows why.” Different kinds. “I love you,” written in dead cockroaches. This was my shtick on Twitter; I was the schizoposting cockroach guy. I amassed a hundred followers within a couple months. By this point, any ability I had to think logically had long eroded.
My mother forced me to come home after a FaceTime call one day. I was skinny, ungroomed and my voice was low. My friends from high school stopped by to visit me, which I think she orchestrated. I got crossed in my room as they shared their experiences and I made up experiences that didn’t happen. A man riding a horse in an FSU fraternity house. It’s crazy up there, they said.
Knives, beer bottles. I tried to fix myself, but I didn’t think.
A ticket to O’Hare and a ticket back to Orlando, twelve hours apart. An email from Residential Services: 2020 Fall - First Year Application Cancellation Request Received. I moved back home.
My dog in green grass. A screenshot from 4Chan:
>>How can I kill myself with household objects?
>>Bleach, drain cleaner, overdose on painkillers.
A gap in the library of about two weeks.
Math homework. Amazon: Readings in Modern Philosophy. William James on a naturalist expedition in Brazil. A quote from his essay, “Is Life Worth Living?” A video of me, fully clothed, soaking wet in the shower dancing interpretively to Ravel’s La Valse.
More gaps. My dog. A wedding. Mansions flanking a lake in Vermont. A screenshot of CVS texting my mother that medication had been refilled. Then, a period of two months with solely pictures of me shirtless, flexing. My body gradually becomes more defined over the course of this period. My playlist was full of heavy metal during this period.
Syllabi. Wrigley Field. Throbbing neon lights in Kemper, music, a large crowd. A dorm common room, my soon-to-be friends. My friends playing ping pong. Inside jokes. A selfie of my father and I in front of the common room door, which has a notebook paper with “DILFS ONLY!” scrawled in pen taped onto it. Snow. Videos of me sliding across the frozen lakefill.
I could not understand why people wanted to be around me. I spent most of my time alone in the library, reading for my classes. I figured this was what everybody did, until my friends started asking me why I was always “grinding.” They begged me to rematch them in ping pong multiple times past midnight, after we had already played several games. I figured I wasn’t offering anything useful besides a ping pong partner, but we talked about things that friends were supposed to talk about – movies, books, TV, love interests, news, games, school. Fall quarter reading week, I decided to stay home to study, and two people I had only briefly hung out with sent me a Snapchat video telling me they missed me. I cried. Was it always this easy? I remember thinking.
More lights. Math homework. Someone drinking the death cup. Various photos of various friends passed out around a dorm common room. My friend wearing a birthday tiara, giving a thumbs up. Another one of my friends wearing the same birthday tiara. A video of a cake being delivered into a darkened room, friends singing “Happy Birthday,” me smiling sheepishly. Me, wearing the birthday tiara. Karaoke videos.
I’m missing things; I know I am. This documentation has taken me from early 2019 to spring 2022. I could not have possibly covered all the photos from those three years. My memories are circumscribed by buoys – those photos I had that were salient enough to remember, and the photos I still have from Snapchat and have recovered from group chats.
I’m grateful for the latter category of photos, though I’ve realized that they’re not as informative as I would like them to be. The Snapchat media I took was almost always meant to be sent to another person or a group of people. As a result, most of the media was always somewhat staged, unoriginal or embellished. And my friends’ photos – the angle, the staging, the moment captured – are indicative of the kind of people they were and how they acted in those moments.
For instance, tThere are a number of videos from a night in which my friend blacked out. He’s stumbling around on the sidewalk on the way back from the bar, yelling obscenities as different pairs of friends take shifts stabilizing him. In a particular set of videos, me and a girl (my ex-girlfriend, before we started dating) are holding him up. The videos are by her, and they’re focused on my friend.
In it, she’s wearing my coat. It was cold, she had forgotten hers, and I had lent her mine. Like I said, the videos are focused on my friend. The only photo I had taken that night was of her, walking ahead of me, in my coat, turning around to look at me.
That picture is gone now.
The title of this piece suggests that I will make a normative statement about the loss of these photos – that, as claimed by the speaker of the original poem, the loss of all memory may be a good thing, an event which purveys “eternal sunshine.” If I believed that, I don’t think I would have spent the last few days of my life dredging up old memories.
Charlie Kaufman invokes the poem ironically. Kirsten Dunst’s character is crossed when she delivers the lines to her boss, and incorrectly cites the poet as “Pope Alexander.” Then, she moves closer to him and kisses him before learning that they were ex-lovers, and she had consented to have the memory of their relationship wiped.
Kaufman suggests love and loss are a metaphysical duality – an inseparable pair working beyond human control. Lacuna Inc. attempts to eliminate love from loss, but it is love’s inevitable resurgence which ruins their entire enterprise. To the adage, “It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all,” the movie first asks the question “But to love, must you lose?” and then answers “Yes.” The normative claim of the adage, “it is better…,” is only addressed in the final lines of the movie. This is when the two protagonists realize they like each other romantically before finding out that they had previously been in a relationship with each other and both consented to have their memory wiped of it:
Joel: I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you.
Clementine: But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.
Clementine: [pauses] Okay.
They laugh. A loop of them running in the snow on Montauk beach fades to white, and the credits roll.
In other words, Joel and Clementine say, Yes, it is better. But Kaufman lets the audience decide whether it really is as only the audience knows the emotional turmoil which occurred in the relationship that the protagonists don’t remember.
I’ve also used this title ironically.
I was an emotional mess after my ex and I broke up. I called her names and alienated my friends. We spoke one day; her intention was to clear the air and my intention was to antagonize her.
We talked about photos. She told me it hurt to look at ours, and I told her I wanted to delete them. I relished the hurt flashing across her face. Now you know how it feels, I thought, when someone you cared about wants to get away from you.
Of course, I could never delete them. I routinely gathered them all – a non-trivial task, popcorning around in my photo library to find anything I might have sent her, every picture of us. But every time I “deleted” them, I would go to the “recently deleted” album and recover them all a few minutes later. Afterwards, I’d put my phone in an inaccessible place out of frustration.
Having been around clinical psychological settings often in the past few years, I’ve learned to defer to scientific literature to inform myself of the most productive thing to do when I’m conflicted emotionally. But literature on the ethics of voluntary memory loss is much less concordant than literature on the ethics of methods to reduce self-harming behaviors in depressed individuals. So, unfortunately, you must bear with the findings in my case study.
Now that all of my photos are gone, I observe that I do feel a certain sense of lightness. I’m no longer haunted by photos of my depressive episodes and failed relationships, as I no longer have the material that cataloged those moments. I can focus on what I’ve learned from those experiences and distance myself from the potent emotions elicited by the photos.
As I was deciding whether or not the loss of these photos has been a net good, I wrote two endings to this essay. I wrote the first on the third straight day of writing and approximately five days after I had lost my photos. Recalling all of my memories from the past four years and writing a cohesive essay about my mental health struggles, emotions and selfhood had exhausted me. Memories of my ex and I danced in my head.
I groan when I think of pictures of my first date being gone, but I won’t pay $2000 to get them back, even if I had that kind of money. I am so tired of agonizing over the person I was yesterday. Though all of the photos and accompanying emotional turbulence are gone, I can still enjoy the positive memories and take away valuable insights from the negative ones, without succumbing to the throes of immense regret or misguided pride sometimes induced when I viewed those pictures.
Far from being in Joel and Clementine’s predicament in the final scene of the movie, I’ve gained the self-knowledge and confidence to navigate the emotional obstacles life will throw at me. Losing all of my photos has not conferred me “eternal sunshine,” but it’s certainly allowed me to stop worrying so much about my stormy past.