I just cannot believe it. I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes as word of Robin Williams’ death spreads across social media and all the news channels. I’m old enough to have seen some episodes of Mork and Mindy and of course grew up watching the seemingly endless number of movies he’s been part of. He was a great entertainer who brought both hilarity and pure entertainment to our lives. But he was also a human being who suffered the same foibles and struggles that all the rest of us have to endure.
Right now, there are people out there who are hearing that it’s possible that he took his own life. Possibly for the first time, people who have grown up laughing at his antics, are learning that he battled addictions to alcohol and drugs as well as episodes of severe depression. I know that some one, probably a lot of someones, are going to see “depression” and “possible suicide” and immediately scoff. “What could he have to be depressed about?” they’ll ask. “Suicide is just selfishness!” people will declare. Well, if you’re one of those people, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. Horribly, heartrendingly wrong.
I was in my teens when the first signs that I had an emotional problem began showing. I didn’t recognized them then. I wouldn’t recognize them until years later when I was able to look back through the lens of experience and knowledge, but they were there. I was in my late teens when I had my first major depressive episode. It would last more than a year and a half. A year and a half of emotional darkness the likes of which no one who’s never suffered from clinical depression can possibly understand. There are huge gaps in my memory from that one and a half to two years. I mean I have absolutely no idea what happened. People who were there talk about things that took place and I might as well be a complete stranger because I simply cannot remember most of that time. What I do remember, though, is the agony.
There’s a well-known blogger out there called The Bloggess. Her real name is Jenny Lawson and her sense of humor is frequently vulgar but utterly hilarious. She also has battled depression as well as other issues. It was on her site that I first read the words, “Depression Lies.” This was not that long ago, a few years ago only, long after I’d accepted that the emotional issues I have dealt with my entire adult life are major clinical depression, after I’d had that diagnosis confirmed by doctors and a therapist, after I’d begun taking anti-depression meds, and been through a significant amount of therapy, which all came after I’d learned – out of pure necessity – to live with the depression and not allow it to rule my life. All of that experience, wisdom, and knowledge, and the pure, simple truth of “Depression Lies” hit me like a lawn dart to the forehead.
See, depression isn’t just a chemical imbalance that causes someone to feel sad or down in the dumps. It screws with every single aspect of your body. Not just making you feel bad emotionally, but physically, too. It’s the lies it encourages you to tell yourself, though, that are one of the worst aspects. Lies that when spoken aloud to someone not in the throes of a major depressive episode sound, well, crazy. Looking back on some of the things my depression has caused me to believe, I can see how insane they were. Part of the lies it tells revolve around day to day life. It makes you believe small, unremarkable events or mistakes are colossal errors that can and will ruin your life. It makes you feel like nothing you’ve ever done is of value. Worse, it makes you feel like there is simply no hope at all of things getting better. Ever. And that’s when some of us begin considering suicide.
I’ve been there…more than once. I’ve been so deep in the darkness, so overwhelmed by the lies and the mental anguish that suicide began to feel like a reasonable option. Thank God, I never followed through on that impulse. I certainly considered it. I have taken time to think about how I’d do it, where I’d do it, and what I’d want to say to the people I love before I did it. Do you know what I learned from being in that terrible place? I learned that suicide is not selfishness, it’s desperation. It is the most tragic symptom of an illness that plagues more than 350 million people in the world.
The worst thing about depression is how misunderstood it is. People hear someone is depressed and think, “well, just stop it,” or “stop feeling sorry for yourself.” I have heard both of these things from people I care about and respect. They’re wrong, though, and that kind of dismissal is what leads so many people to keep their depression to themselves. It’s hiding those emotions, feeling like you aren’t free to express them openly without fear of being looked down on or treated like you’re being selfish, that makes the whole situation worse. I’ve been there. I’ve had people I adore, people I needed, look me in the face and tell me it’s basically “all in my head.” That is a profoundly painful thing to endure when you’re already in emotional agony. Again, thank God, those people have since learned that whether they understand clinical depression or not, it is real, it is serious, and it is absolutely not my choice to simply stop being depressed.
I’m writing this because when I saw the first alert pop up on my phone telling me the breaking news that Robin Williams was dead at 63 in what was suspected to be a suicide, my heart immediately broke. Not just because he’s a great talent gone to soon. Not because I’m some kind of celebrity junkie who values the “famous” more than the “average” life. My heart broke because I was immediately taken right back to that dark, terrible place in my past where I was so desperate for some – any – relief from the pain that suffused every moment of my life that I too considered ending it forever. I have that flashback every single time I hear of anyone ending their own life. It shatters my heart because I wish so much that they’d had someone there to remind them that DEPRESSION LIES!
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am in no way blaming Robin Williams’ family or friends or the family and friends of anyone who’s chosen that ultimate final solution. Certainly, there are times when those suffering from depression are truly alone in their pain, but just as often they are surrounded by people who love and support them completely, yet they still end their lives. We all have different tolerances, different breaking points. Those who survive aren’t stronger than those who don’t, they’re merely the ones who were in the right place at the right moment to resist the pull of the desperation. Sometimes, even when we are surrounded by those who love us, we are convinced we are utterly alone because we just don’t know how to express what we’re feeling. Sometimes we just need someone to hold our hand and simply be there, to listen if we need to talk or to just remind us we aren’t alone if we are unable to speak.
I had a bracelet made. It’s a leather band with a stainless steel plate into which the words “Depression Lies” have been stamped.
Depression isn’t an obvious affliction. Most mental problems aren’t. It’s easy to become frustrated with people suffering from emotional disorders, particularly if you’ve never experienced one yourself. There are warning signs, though. They are many and varied and change from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, to the elderly. Worse, every person with depression will not have every or even most of the recognized, most common symptoms.
Since we’re talking about suicide here, I’ll include WebMD’s warning signs for suicide:
- A sudden switch from being very sad to being very calm or appearing to be happy
- Always talking or thinking about death
- Clinical depression (deep sadness, loss of interest, trouble sleeping and eating) that gets worse
- Having a “death wish,” tempting fate by taking risks that could lead to death, such as driving through red lights
- Losing interest in things one used to care about
- Making comments about being hopeless, helpless, or worthless
- Putting affairs in order, tying up loose ends, changing a will
- Saying things like “It would be better if I wasn’t here” or “I want out”
- Talking about suicide (killing one’s self)
- Visiting or calling people one cares about
If there’s someone in your life that is depressed and has been so for a long time, consider doing research about what depression is – and what it isn’t – then talk to that person. Make sure they know you are there for them unconditionally. Don’t condemn them or judge them or lecture them, just be there. Once you make it clear that you aren’t judging them, listen. Really listen. And never forget that some of us become very adept at hiding our pain. Like Robin, we mask it with humor, not wanting to burden others, not wanting to seem like a killjoy, not wanting to have to see the annoyance in the eyes of others if we admit that we’re struggling…again.
Believe me, I would give anything to never be depressed again. I wish I could say I’d been cured by therapy or meds or just time. The truth is, though, that I’ve been living with depression for almost thirty years now, and while it is absolutely far better controlled now than it was when I had that first major episode, it is still an everyday part of my life. From one day to the next, I might be perfectly content or find it a struggle to quite the ugly little lies my depression is whispering into my mind. I now immediately recognize the signs of a flare up, even the small ones like restlessness or an uptick in obsessive tendencies. I know there are good days and bad days and that I don’t need to worry until there are several bad days in a row. My greatest goal is to never, ever allow myself to sink back into one of those seemingly bottomless pits of despair where every moment is filled with desperation and hopelessness and pain, so I live in constant awareness of my moods and know to seek help if I feel the need.
Depression isn’t a joke or a choice, it’s a disease just like diabetes or cancer or arthritis. Suicide isn’t selfishness, it is unbearable desperation. That’s why my eyes fill with tears and my heart aches every single time I see another story of another life lost to this evil monster. I wish I could have reminded them that they aren’t worthless. They are priceless. The pain isn’t endless. The world will not be a better place without them in it. Their spouses, parents, siblings, children, and friends will not be happier without them there to “bring them down.”
If you are the least bit concerned about someone you care about, take action. Never, ever view any comment about suicide as a joke.
If you are depressed, please remember that you are valuable. You are precious. Please seek help from someone: a doctor, a friend, a family member, a hotline (National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255). Please remember that DEPRESSION LIES. There is no shame in needing help.