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August 2016
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This is the opposite of a suicide note.

“So we weep for a person who lived at great cost /
Yet we barely knew his powers till we sensed that we had lost”

“Mark Rothko” by Dar Williams

“This is the opposite of a suicide note / I plant my roots too deep in this earth to move”

This is the opposite of a suicide note” by Guante

Aaron is gone

I woke up Saturday morning to the voice of my partner telling me, gently, “Aaron Swartz killed himself.” I had a few minutes of confusion before I managed to get to my phone, open twitter, and see that it was true. I started crying. I kept picturing him the last time I’d seen him, years ago at an Open Library hack fest day, intent over his laptop, in a t-shirt that read “Design will save the world.”

I somehow got dressed and out the door to CalTrain, even managing to arrive early for the day’s RailsBridge hack day. I tried to focus on my work. That’s usually what I do when I don’t want to feel a painful emotion.

Feeling my Feelings

I have been deeply moved recently by the courageous acts of two women who are among my heroes. The first is Maria Bamford. If you haven’t seen her new comedy special, please do yourself a favor and go watch it. ( Not only is this the funniest comedy special ever conceived, it is honest and vulnerable about mental illness and suicidal feelings in a way that feels unprecedented to me. I wonder if Maria’s therapists tell her what mine always tell me, that I have to be open and honest about who I am if I ever want to get better.

The second inspiration came from this post by Valerie Aurora, co-founder of the Ada Initiative, in which she discusses suicide the way a good hacker should, in terms of how we actually fix the problem. One of the ways she enumerates is for all of us to be more open and honest about our own experiences.

I am deeply concerned about addressing suicidal behavior and mental health issues among hackers, activists, and free culture advocates, because those are the people I love. And they (some of them at least) love me. And they are not going to shun me for being open and honest about who I am.

I have been struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for a very long time. It has been there since before my brain was fully formed. I was raped when I was twelve, and because of misogynistic beliefs I had been raised with, I responded to losing my virginity by attempting suicide. Ever since then, suicidal thoughts have dogged me.

I am no longer afraid that I will kill myself. I have spent the past few years, including a very intensive few months last year when I was recovering from a concussion and the ensuing depression, practicing cognitive behavioral therapy with an excellent therapist. I still have panic attacks, sometimes for no obvious reason. I still get anxiety induced nausea, and I’ve kept my hair trigger startle reflex. But the blinding, crippling migraines have mostly stopped, and that is a blessed relief. The endometriosis that gave me unbearable pain for much of my life is mostly dormant these days. Life without chronic pain is good, and life with meditation, exercise, and CBT is amazing. I can hardly believe that I am the same person. In many ways, I’m not.

Central America

I don’t often talk about my time in Central America, at least not in any detail. On my resume, that time is written out as a list of skills and technical tricks I picked up doing IT support for human rights agencies. I don’t often go into what life was like in post-NAFTA-ravaged war-torn Mexico, in places where people attempt to live everyday life amid a state of “low intensity warfare.” It was a place where, while we weren’t being bombed (which I guess is what makes it “low intensity”), anyone who was putting up a fight, even via the legal system, against having Mayan ancestral lands stolen by American corporations might end up dead. I had no idea what we were up against before I accepted this job.

I was used to political organizing on American college campuses, and to impassioned conversations about the ideals of the free software movement. In my political work, we protested, we even got arrested, we even occupied buildings, but none of us ever seriously feared being harmed, or at least I didn’t. I was twenty-three, I believed passionately in the causes I fought for, and I wanted to find a contribution to make that would actually matter. I had been earning a living as an IT professional since the age of 19, and that work had put me through college and had done well for me financially. I had just started earning my first significant money as a software engineer, and I was confident, idealistic, and perhaps naive enough to believe that providing better Internet access for human rights agencies was my little corner of saving the world.

My slow realization that real people were dying around me, that mistakes on my part could kill, was not something I had been prepared for emotionally by my years providing IT support to bookstores and universities. I was deeply religious at the time, and my work was an attempt to serve God. My heroes were the men and women who had given everything to God in order to make peace in the world, like Sister Dianna Ortiz, and Juan Gerardi. When I felt that I had failed at my task, when I realized that I had probably been a security liability to the very people I had cared so passionately about protecting, I fell into despair and I tried to end my life. I took as many sleeping pills as I could swallow and washed them down with lots of wine.

Miraculously, and I give thanks for this as often as possible, I woke up the next day. And then, to everyone’s shock, I decided to move to Edmonton, Alberta to go to library school, and my life shot off in a totally different direction. To paraphrase Augusten Burroughs, sometimes you have to kill your life so you don’t kill yourself.

This is the opposite of a suicide note.

I got into library software because it seemed so safe to me. “No one’s life will ever depend on my actions again,” I remember thinking with relief. And yet I feel now the way I felt then, powerless to save my heroes. The people I care about, the people in this movement that was my salvation, are still dying around me. At a wake for Aaron at No Starch Press in San Francisco this week, I sat around a table with some hackerspace friends and we talked about mental health issues in the geek / hacker community. This was their third friend lost to suicide in the past year. I got to sit in on part of a much larger conversation about how to better provide emotional support and mental health service access to our community. I look forward to continuing that conversation at Aaron’s memorial service at the Internet Archive in San Francisco this week. My first contribution to the effort is this blog post, an attempt to be open and honest about who I am. This is the opposite of a suicide note. This is a love letter to all the hackers and activists and artists, to all the people who do what’s right instead of what’s safe. I link my arms with yours and together we cannot be moved from this earth.


Comment from Peter Binkley
Time: January 24, 2013, 3:11 pm

Bess, my admiration for you and your optimism and the depth of your rootedness in principle knows no bounds.

Comment from Natasha Nunn
Time: January 24, 2013, 3:16 pm

Thanks you Bess for your words, your openness and your work. You have been an inspiration to me since I first worked with you all those years ago. I had no idea of the struggles that you have had in your life, and now that I do your intelligence, warmth and passion are even more incredible. All respect to you beautiful woman.


Comment from William Denton
Time: January 24, 2013, 5:09 pm

As always: bess++

Comment from Ping
Time: January 25, 2013, 10:42 am

Thank you so much for what you said at the memorial last night. It was the first time I’d heard a code of ethics for librarians, and it was inspiring.

Comment from Declan Fleming
Time: January 25, 2013, 12:17 pm


Comment from bess
Time: January 25, 2013, 12:44 pm

Aww, y’all made me cry. I love you people. Peter, you were such an amazing mentor to me in library school. I basically had the best private tutor anywhere to introduce me to the world of digital librarianship.

Comment from laura
Time: February 9, 2013, 2:40 pm

Thank you, Bess.

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