Yesterday, Aaron Swartz commited suicide. Unlike the many other blog posts on the internet today and yesterday, I never knew Aaron. I never worked with him, emailed him, or read his blog posts.
In fact, the only reason I knew of Aaron before his suicide, was through his anti-SOPA/PIPA website, demandprogress.org. I don’t have any memories of Aaron to share, no stories about how his minimalism approach to code inspired me, I don’t even care that he co-created Reddit, or that he co-authored the original RSS spec. However, at one point in both our lives, we were fighting for the same cause, to bring awareness in stopping SOPA.
The more I read about the memories people had of Aaron, the more sorrow I feel over his young death. Not (completely) because of his contributions and efforts, but because of everyone else’s perception of him. Apparently, Aaron was depressed. He worked towards a free and open internet, and fought for what he thought was fair and right. Having people in power who did everything they could to put a young hopeful into jail for more than 30 years did not help with that depression. Regardless, he continued to fight, invite others to join his fight, until he could no longer fight anymore.
His persistence reminded me of myself, and seeing him take an exit from his troubles and struggles has given me an awakening of sorts. I’ve never had to face anything like what Aaron has faced, but a few years ago, I came close to taking my own life too. I was sick of all the misfortunes that seemed to follow me.
I never had my father in my life. When I was 14, I was hit by a motorcycle while on my bike. I blacked out and landed on my back, but luckily, did not become paralyzed. The metal on the bike was bent out of shape, my right leg was cut open (about 18cms) and dug into by the bike gear, and my arms will never be the same. I had to quit playing baseball or risk losing the use of both my arms. How did the accident happen? I was heading home from school, and crossing the street when from the corner of my eye, I see a motorcycle speeding towards me, ignoring the red light. Next thing I knew, I was on the ground in the middle of the road, with motorcycles and scooters speeding past me, going wherever their busy lives needed them to be. Angry and disgusted that the only “help” I got was the drivers kindly swerving to avoid me and my bike, I limped over to the 7-Eleven in front of me (this one) and asked for help. I was told that I needed to pay to use the phone. I had no cellphone or money on me, and I ended up limping with my broken bike for 30 minutes home, in anger. Even till today, I’m disgusted at the person who hit me and drove away, the drivers swerving past me, and 7-Eleven people who rejected my pleas.
Soon after that incident, I moved back to Canada, and after an incident I cannot remember, I was referred to therapy for depression. I don’t recall ever thinking to take my own life at that point in time, and going to therapy was a chore. The counselor did on multiple occasions, ask me if I had suicidal thoughts, and suggested I take medication. I rejected both and stopped going; I had concluded that it wasn’t helping and would never help. During the year I was in therapy, the one thing I agreed to do was take some kind of depression screening test. I was diagnosed with dysthymic depression.
About 2 years later, the apartment where my mother and I lived was infested with bedbugs. We were the first inhabitants to notice them in our suite, and let the apartment manager know. He was a very fierce and rude man, and did not take the information in kind. The apartment had a bedbug infestation 2 years ago, but it didn’t matter. He threatened to sue us, and almost physically hurt my mother while I was at school. He said we had to pay for all damages, and went to the Residential Tenancy Branch to file a dispute against us. Instead of preparing for AP exams and writing scholarship essays for my graduation, I spent the next 2~3 months collecting recordings, photos, translating (from Mandarin) a diary of events that my mother kept relating to the incident, and filing them to the Residential Tenancy Branch. Soon it was time for the Dispute Resolution hearing. The building manager and the owner of the building had the burden of proof seeing as they were the ones that filed the dispute, but all they submitted were statements accusing my mother and myself of bringing bedbugs into the building, and no proof whatsoever. We presented recordings, photos and more information showing the owner said the building had an infestation 2 years ago, videos of the building manager threatening us and acting in an abusive manner, and neighbors complaining about the building manager asking them to provide false witness. The arbitrator said the videos and photos were not important, and did not allow us to present our complaints. He let the owner, building manager, and their lawyer say the same thing over and over (that we had brought bedbugs into the building) for 20 or so minutes, then sent us out.
After that, the lawyer told the arbitrator that he wanted to use the washroom. The arbitrator told him there was no washroom there, and that he would have to go elsewhere, but the lawyer stayed and spoke to the arbitrator while my mother and I walked towards the elevator behind the room to leave. The elevator took some time, and all of a sudden, we heard both the lawyer and the arbitrator’s voice in the room (they had already left the room earlier). We thought it was strange, but left and hoped for the best. 2~3 weeks later, we received the arbitrator’s decision — we were at fault, and had to pay over $4000 in damages to the owner, for the pest control costs, and furniture discarded by people living on the other end of the building. On top of that, we were to leave by the end of the month. $4000? We didn’t have $4000 to pay. My mother had been unemployed for 2 years, unable to find a job, and I had been working a part-time job and doing freelance web development after school to pay rent. My mother told the owner of the building that we could not pay that much, but he was firm, and after a week or so of pleading, he agreed to split the payment over 10 months. We ended up borrowing money from some of my mother’s friends to pay it all off. We also sought the help of various local politicians during the dispute (such as Kathy Corrigan, Raj Chouhan, etc), but they said they could not help.
I was sick to the stomach. Over the past few years, the things I had believed in, human decency, justice, all disappeared. I had been living in a fairy-tale all along. Justice is where the money is, and human decency is only when it’s convenient. On many occasions, I had come close to taking my own life. What was the point? Why was I studying, working, and doing all this when there clearly was no fairness in the world? Hard work, honesty, and morals meant nothing. If I died, all of the pain would be gone. No one would miss me, I will have just been another person this world never needed.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t commit suicide. My mother needed me, and I didn’t want to know what would happen to her if I selfishly took my own life. Even to this day, no one, not even my mother knows about my depression, or my suicidal thoughts. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve ever written it down. In a way, it’s the first time I’ve acknowledged my own depression. And it will just sit here on my small corner of the internet.
Just like Aaron, fighting every fight I come across, simply because it’s right, simply because I have to “do right by myself” may cause me more harm than I know. And once that harm is done, it may be too late for me too.
Maybe one day, I will look back, having defeated depression, proud, and looking to make a positive change in someone else’s life.
Goodbye Aaron, you will be missed dearly.