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Nadja Geipert
Nadja Geipert

Sadness Gone Mad

Bill Zeller's suicide note illuminates the devastating effects of sexual abuse.

Depression's darkest hour


On the surface, 27-year-old Bill Zeller was on track for a life of success and content. He was a popular fifth-year doctoral student in Princeton's computer science program and had already made headlines for creating software programs such as MyTunes and Graph your Inbox. But in the early morning hours of January 2nd, Zeller posted a 4000-word suicide note on his website and then attempted to hang himself. He died three days later after being taken off life support.

Friends and colleagues, who thought him to be a generous, creative and focused individual, were shocked to learn that he was raped repeatedly as a young child and had suffered from a debilitating depression ever since. It was the first time that Zeller had disclosed this to anyone and now it was too late to help him.

Zeller's letter provides a chilling testament to the devastating and life-long impact of childhood sexual abuse. It also illustrates how an untreated depression can hijack a person's mind into believing that only self-annihilation can stop the pain.

Seldom does the term depression trigger images of a person gone mad and prone to violence, yet, it is the leading cause of suicide—an inherently violent act. The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-IV) acknowledges that a deep depression sometimes triggers a break with reality. It is then called depression, severe episode with psychotic features. By the time Bill Zeller had decided to end his life, his depression seems to have progressed to this stage. While he was not hearing voices, talking to imaginary friends or claiming that aliens had abducted him, Zeller suffered from mood congruent delusions.

Below is an excerpt from his letter:

I actively despise the person I am. I just feel fundamentally broken, almost non-human. (...) There's no future here. The darkness will always be with me. (...) There's no way I can fix this or even push the darkness down far enough to make a relationship or any type of intimacy feasible.

Can depression cause delusions?

While this type of self-loathing is quite common in severely depressed individuals, most of them will talk to someone about their pain. By doing so, they frequently get relief and a much-needed perspective. In Bill Zeller's case, the real tragedy is that he never shared his suffering and, thus closed the door on any chance of recovery. Many wonder why he never sought help or at least confided to a close friend. Would it have made a difference?

Zeller addresses the issue in his letter:

It took me a while to realize that no matter how close you are to someone or how much they claim to love you, people simply cannot keep secrets (...) People don't care about their word or what they've promised, they just do whatever the fuck they want and justify it later. It feels incredibly lonely to realize you can never share something with someone and have it be between just the two of you. I don't blame anyone in particular; I guess it's just how people are. Even if I felt like this is something I could have shared, I have no interest in being part of a friendship or relationship where the other person views me as the damaged and contaminated person that I am.

Zeller's assessment of himself and his fellow humans is tragically false in several respects. First of all, there are plenty of people in this world who can keep a secret. While people love to gossip, most know where to draw the line when a friend shares a sensitive secret. Secondly, when people learn about child abuse, they generally view the abuser as damaged and contaminated not the abused. Zeller could not distinguish between his own self-hatred and the reality of how others tend to feel about child abuse. In other words, Zeller had lost touch with reality.

Bill Zeller was the victim of a heinous crime and a debilitating disease. He deserved nothing but compassion. While his conscious, rational mind knew that he was not responsible for the abuse, he punished himself everyday by staying alone with his pain. His insistence that he was irreparably broken turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, because he decided to end it all without ever seeking help.

His choices are particularly tragic because research and experience have taught us that talking about traumatic experiences can banish some of their effects. As a clinician, I witness traumatized clients fight their way through their depression and break free. It happens everyday and when it does, it can seem like a miracle. They don't call it the Talking Cure for nothing. Furthermore, some of today's anti-depressants can provide additional relief when combined with a solid treatment plan.

We will never know if Bill Zeller's life could have been saved through therapy or maybe even just true friendship. But I wish he could have taken a leap of faith and given someone the opportunity to surprise him.

"Copyright Nadja Geipert 2011."

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To read Zeller's complete suicide note, go to:

About the Author
Nadja Geipert

Nadja Geipert, M.A. Psychology, is the founder of LA Family Therapy in Los Angeles and a science writer.

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