Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz


I’m sorry I haven’t been keeping up with Bubble City. I’ve spent a lot of the last few weeks lying in bed and drinking fluids. (With occasional breaks to play Rock Band, much to the annoyance of my neighbors.) Once again, I’ve been sick — this time, with four different illnesses.

I have a lot of illnesses. I don’t talk about it much, for a variety of reasons. I feel ashamed to have an illness. (It sounds absurd, but there still is an enormous stigma around being sick.) I don’t want to use being ill as an excuse. (Although I sometimes wonder how much more productive I’d be if I wasn’t so sick.) And, to a large extent, I just don’t find it an interesting subject. (My friends are amazed by this; why is such a curious person so uncurious about the things so directly affecting his life?)

One of my goals for this blog is to describe what it’s like to be in various situations and it struck me that I’ve never said much about what it’s like to be sick. So I figured I’d try to remedy that. (Unfortunately, being sick has made this slightly more difficult. I started this post on thanksgiving and now it’s almost four days later.)

Cold: All the time I feel tired and woozy. My throat is sore and I’m constantly searching for kleenex to address my nose. Sometimes I feel too hot, like I’m burning up. I’m always thirsty. Concentrating on anything is difficult. I just feel kind of wasted.

Upset stomach: Huge pains grind through my stomach, like it’s trying to leap out of my body. Food is always followed by pain, followed by running to the bathroom. I’m afraid to go out because I wouldn’t want to get too far from a toilet. I’m always thirsty and the dehydration makes me angry and confused. At times the pain is excruciating and even after it goes I spend some time just reeling from it.

Migraine: Ever felt someone’s nails dig into your scalp? Imagine that their nails are knives and they’re scratching thru your brain and you can begin to imagine what a migraine feels like. Light, sound, touch — everything makes it worse, making the most painful pains even more painful. Even when you quell it with a pill, you still end up feeling woozy and disconnected, as if the pill is just barely keeping the pain at bay.

Depressed mood: Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.

At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms. As George Scialabba put it, “acute depression does not feel like falling ill, it feels like being tortured … the pain is not localized; it runs along every nerve, an unconsuming fire. … Even though one knows better, one cannot believe that it will ever end, or that anyone else has ever felt anything like it.”

The economist Richard Layard, after advocating that the goal of public policy should be to maximize happiness, set out to learn what the greatest impediment to happiness was today. His conclusion: depression. Depression causes nearly half of all disability, it affects one in six, and explains more current unhappiness than poverty. And (important for public policy) Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy has a short-term success rate of 50%. Sadly, depression (like other mental illnesses, especially addiction) is not seen as “real” enough to deserve the investment and awareness of conditions like breast cancer (1 in 8) or AIDS (1 in 150). And there is, of course, the shame.

So I hope you’ll forgive me for not doing more. And hey, it could be worse. At least I have decent health insurance.

You should follow me on twitter here.

November 27, 2007


Hey Aaron,

I was depressed for about 18 months before I admitted to myself I needed help.

SSRIs and counseling helped me get over the worst of it, and the experience helped me identify when I’m started to feel depressed so I can nip it in the bud.

For me, there are two things that help when I feel depressed: 1) Having interesting conversations with new people. Though the last thing I want to do is go to a bar or party, if I force myself to go out with some friends and talk to new people, I return feeling invigorated for days. (This is in contrast to my usual mood; I’m generally introverted and feel wiped out from socializing in big groups.)

2) Setting a goal that requires discipline. Being disciplined about one thing makes it easier to face the rest of my tasks. Some of my goals have been: * run 25 miles per week * give up caffeine (oh, the headaches) * give up alcohol * thoroughly clean one room each day

Anyway, I can relate to how you’re feeling, and I hope your health gets better soon. Maybe the above suggestions will help.

Cheers, Aaron

posted by (a different) Aaron on November 27, 2007 #


Feeling ashamed is usual when someone has any non-stop conditions. It’s worse when people feel pity about us or try to offer advice, we start thinking that we should never talked about it in the first place.

I have a migraine problem for seven years now, sometimes entire weeks pass with my head hurting non-stop, nothing making it better. Doctors never found cure or cause. Eventually I learned to live with it, but it doesn’t hurt less.

Also been living with depression since the early nineties. Therapy helped for a while, pills didn’t make real difference, what really helped me is creating comfort zones for my worst fears (i.e. the things that I thought when depressed). For example I was terrified about being unable to get better and work, then losing my job, so I saved every penny I could and now I can pay for years of bills if necessary. While these don’t avoid depression, I know that I’m safe against my fears. Perhaps this can help you anyhow.

Regards, Daniel.

posted by Daniel on November 27, 2007 #

Cold http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_C_megadosage Try megadosing (20+g/day) on Vitamin C . Linux Pauling thought it worked. Even if it doesn’t, the placebo effect will relieve your pain naturally. I use to regularly feel awful with sore throats. It’s done wonders for me.

Upset stomach My cousin had an upset stomach yesterday. My aunt made him eat only simple bread and water. Take the vitamin C with a meal or an antacid or you’ll definitely feel pain from the acidity.

Migraine I don’t have any experience with this. I’ve read that magnesium can help: http://www.ctds.info/magnesium-migraine.html

Depressed mood I feel this way a lot too. I should really study my mood in a scientific way (http://repositories.cdlib.org/postprints/117/). It seems to oscillate.

I remember one time recently that I got out of a slump. I started to list all of the accomplishments of my life. I wrote it in this style: http://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/~susan/joke/essay.htm

I’ve done quite a bit for my age. I started to make a really long list that was very impressive and ironic. Reading over it, I was surprised. I noticed that my mood was better afterwards.

Maybe that’ll work for you too. Or maybe I just naturally shifted moods and making the list was coincidental.

posted by Q on November 27, 2007 #

Have you looked into potential dietary changes since your post some time back about proper nutrition? Also, have you found the changing of the seasons (sunlight, weather) to affect you negatively or positively?

On the last point, when I’m feeling down I often, err, find reading my old blog posts often cheers me up. Looking back at what I was doing or thinking about a few years ago around the same time is interesting and memory-evoking, at least for me. But maybe not for everyone.

posted by Daniel Silverman on November 28, 2007 #

Aaron: that sounds terrible. I have no direct useful advice. I just wanted to thank you for sharing how you feel. The simple act of writing about your illnesses means you have been able to move beyond the shame. Hope you get well.

posted by LivePaola on November 28, 2007 #

I think a lot of geeks get depression, it appears to go with the territory. Although I think a lot of ppl dont talk about it for the reasons you’ve mentioned.

I used to take large doses of vitamin C (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berocca - can’t believe theres a wiki entry for it!). It definetely helps with the colds! It also seem to have some sort of physical effect on how your body feel, very slight, more energy, slighly light headed. For the first few days you can kid yourself that this stuff is awesome and it’s a panacea for your depression. But after a while you realise that its all just placebo and if you try (or under the right circumstances) - you still can’t get out of bed and face the day.

Does it help that I told you that? Probably not - but you would have found out soon or later :(

I’m not says vitamins are completely rubbish - a good balanced diet is important. But I think a bit of councelling is also useful. Or takes the other Aarons advice: do the opposite of councelling, take you mind of your life by meeting new ppl. I’ve found that helps a lot (but I’m often too lazy to keep in touch and the bed just calls to me, like a warm and cozy womb to crawl back too, away from anything that can hurt me… its a lie… but I dont care)

Also (my last 2 cents, for what its worth) if you can - try to control your ruminations. If anything in life, they can make or break you.

posted by N on November 28, 2007 #

What you label as “upset stomach” sounds like it could be IBS to me. I used to get that sort of thing (though with slightly different symptoms) when I was younger, though it’s gone away with a move to a much healthier diet (specifically, a lot more fiber, fruit, and vegetables). Lack of fiber tends to make any digestive issue worse (for most people - some people get worse with extra fiber).

I suffer from migraines as well - in my 20s if I got home and got to sleep when the aura was still around, I would be okay. If not, I’d be throwing up and out of it for 5 or 6 hours.

I only get one or so a year now that I’m old(er), and those usually resolve with an OTC migraine remedy, or something with caffeine in it.

Finally, regular exercise can have a good effect on all the things you listed…

posted by Eric on November 28, 2007 #

Hi Aaron!

I just read the comments ( first time, I was really courious) and had to laugh:

Outing first: I am not interested in my illnesses, work like hell, can’t feel my left hand since about 7 days, (it started with the little finger) - and do not want to know what it might be (besides a brain tumor due to 13 years of addiction to coke light. Sometimes unrequested information just jumps into a surfers face.) But obviously I know more thanks to self-experimenting than I thought:

If you have a problem with your stomach - I would not really recommend the combination of megadoses vitamin C (which by the way will give you some creepy experiences of hot and cold added to the ones you have) AND magnesium (especially no overdose in this case, this will drive your stomach mad) while only eating a piece of bread and thinking of that you have reached most of what others do in all their life as a teenager and the big plans of saving the world or making it a better place seem so logic and are realizeable- but are simply not wanted somehow - @ “Q” : I was not really sure if you seriously wanted to help him or ;-) …but the essay is great :-)

I do not really want to give you advices, but maybe you want them. I recommend an adventure - and to invent a trick, in order to be able to have and realize plans and goals that are considered and experienced as impossible, but live happy though. When I tried to dismiss mine, I found myself falling into depths my great experiences of black holes had not even touched gradually. (I am sure I would live happy, if I my day had about 72 hours (maybe a little more) – only my day, while all the others go on with 24 )

posted by Lilo on November 29, 2007 #

I’m not a huge fan of the traditional medical system, but I’d hope you’d be open to trying all sorts of stuff to see if anything helps. Have you consulted a doctor?

If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.

posted by Dan Connolly on November 30, 2007 #

Wanted to add, that I hope you will soon get well and that I wish you all the best.

posted by Lilo on December 1, 2007 #



I found that when I was coping with what I didn’t even know was depression, the worst thing was that I felt nobody understood or could understand what I was feeling. I accidentally ran across a book in a Cambridge MA bookstore called Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison that showed me that people DID understand, and that was my first step to becoming free of it.

Also, as others note, this is the time for Seasonal Affective Depression, especially if you are in the Northeast; get a lamp.

I also recommend a daily walk, hopefully in the sun. Just do that one thing.

I am so sorry to read this post; obviously you’ve been making all sorts of interesting and wonderful contributions.

All the best.

posted by lambert strether on December 8, 2007 #

Hi Aaron,

Thanks for writing about your sickness, for sharing it with us all. As a depressive I know how difficult it can be to talk about, to admit - a kind of shame on top of the sense of hopelessness or dread. I found what you have written very interesting and moving.

I thought I might mention a book I found very interesting: “Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression”, edited by Nell Casey - a perspective you may appreciate.

I know all of this is something that you can only go through in your own way. But I just wanted to add my voice in saying there are many of us who get a lot out of what you write, who care about how you are doing and who wish you all the very best.

posted by amy on January 7, 2008 #

You have stolen many words which were locked up in my head. Or that of many others.

There is an interesting line in The Great Gatsby about how a sick man (not only feels but also) looks very very guilty, ‘as if he had just brought a girl with a child’ (may not be exact words).

The relation between sickness and guilt has long fascinated me.

Actually, depressed me is more correct.

posted by Anil Eklavya on January 16, 2008 #

You can also send comments by email.

Email (only used for direct replies)
Comments may be edited for length and content.

Powered by theinfo.org.