Like many people around the world, I was shocked and heartbroken over the news that Robin Williams was found dead in his home yesterday, probably as the result of suicide. It’s well-known that this brilliant actor and comic genius had battled substance abuse problems and severe depression for most of his life, and yet the news still stunned. It was as though someone punched you in the gut and you’re struggling to take the next breath as you process what just happened.
The outpouring of sympathy has been huge. Robin Williams’s work has touched the lives of so many people and nearly everyone I know had something to share about a favorite memory. One of the things many people have said was how sad it was that a man who brought so much laughter to so many people was in such pain he felt he had to end his life. Many people expressed stunned disbelief that a man who had accomplished so much and was beloved by many could take his own life. For many others, this was not as senseless as it would appear, however. Not for anyone who has ever truly suffered from clinical depression.
I make that distinction here because I truly believe there is a world of difference between being depressed and dealing with depression. They are two entirely different beasts. I’ve posted about this before, and discussed it a bit further last night on Facebook, too. For many years, I’ve lived with depressing circumstances, but 99% of the time, I would not consider myself as having depression. Being discouraged, yes. Disheartened, disillusioned, frightened for my future, exhausted by my present–all of these things. But there have been times when I slip into real depression, and believe me, it’s completely different. You can have a fantastic life–a successful career, people who love you, the respect of your peers–but when you are depressed, it is all dust and ashes. Not only does it feel like nothing you do matters, but it feels as though nothing will ever matter again. You look at everything you’ve achieved and think it is utter shit. People tell you otherwise–they tell you how brilliant you are and how much they love your work, and you simply don’t believe them. You don’t believe them because you know your work is crap and that everyone around you is so much better at what you want to do. All you can think of is the times you’ve failed:as a professional in the workplace, as an artist, as a lover, as a human being.
You look at the people who love you and you think they are only there out of pity. You can’t enjoy the things you love–just looking at them brings you to the brink of tears. You mourn the loss of things YEARS before that loss actually occurs. You beat yourself up for every failing, real or imaginary. You truly see no point in continuing to try. You can’t muster the energy to connect with friends who love you no matter what. You know you should get help but you can’t overcome the inertia of your depression. Why? Because it tells you that nothing will make a difference, and that you will always feel this way, and worse, that you probably *deserve* to feel this way.
But here’s the important thing: DEPRESSION LIES TO YOU. You cannot, must never, ever listen to the lies it tells you when you are in the darkest moments. You aren’t utter shit. The people who love you do so because you are YOU–the person they love. And this black cloud hanging over your head, constantly misting lightly with misery, won’t last forever. Depression is as ephemeral as Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol, and could just as easily be a bit of bad beef or a transitory biochemical imbalance.
For many people it is completely biochemical, for some it is deeply ingrained self-loathing reinforced by negative life experiences; for others it is a combination thereof. I’ve seen it onset as a result of trauma, due to illness or surgery, due to birth control pills, or just simply just because. I lived with people who were depressed and I thought I got it–but I didn’t *really* understand it until one day I slipped off the tightrope myself. The important part is to recognize it for what it is (as J. K. Rowing so aptly depicted them): A Dementor that will suck all the joy right out of you. You need to find your own Patronus spell to combat it–and it’s different for every person.
Many artists struggle with depression, and I think it may be more common in the creative/artistic personalities because the very thing that allows our imagination to take flight in wondrous, marvelous ways is the same that can bind ourselves with chains that drag us down.
Fellow author Elin Gregory had this to say about depression on Facebook (reposted with permission):
I feel it’s like having a broken leg in your brain. If someone put a lovely cuddly puppy in your arms you’d smile sadly and think “best not get too attached, they only live about 12 years” and you feel that’s perfectly reasonable. Then there’s also an internal commentary that’s saying ‘could you be any more pathetic?’ and piling on the guilt and self loathing. But unlike a broken leg with a nice big cast covered in drawings of dicks, if you’ve got the right sort of friends, so nobody will expect you to run upstairs or a marathon or whatever, depression doesn’t show. There’s nothing to indicate that the barista who smiles as she gives you your coffee woke up this morning and thought ‘dammit I didn’t die in my sleep’. The only thing to do with it is to keep on carrying on because one day you hope it will go away and you can start enjoying life again.
I can completely sympathize with her words here. I find myself saying, “This will be my last horse. This will be my last big dog. When the cats go, I won’t get any more.” In part because I’m conscious that I am getting older and I need to be thinking of scaling back but in part because I’m not sure I can take the heartbreak of little losses anymore. Of wasting the years that I have with my beloved pet right there in front of me crying over the losses to come. My dog doesn’t say, “Hey, my muzzle is turning gray and I’ve got cataracts, I’ve only got a short time left with you.” He says, “Can we go on a walk now? It’s stopped raining! Well, okay, maybe it hasn’t stopped raining but we can walk in the rain, so can we go on a walk now? It will be fun!” But that isn’t how I see things sometimes.
I would highly encourage everyone to read The Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino. This blog post isn’t about depression per se, but it is about having an invisible illness and having to choose how much energy to expend on specific tasks on any given day. “You don’t look sick” is something many people with depression hear all the time, and I’ve found the post to be an excellent explanation of what living with a chronic illness is like.
My good friend Finn Wightman, the author of such insightful pieces as A Letter To My Son on Consent, had some illuminating things to say on the subject of depression when soccer phenomenon Gary Speed committed suicide in 2011.
I was on twitter when the news broke, and his name became the top trend almost instantly. In the first hour, when no cause of death was known, the tributes were fulsome (as well they should be). Then the confirmation came that he had taken his own life. Tweets took the expected turn: “we saw him yesterday afternoon – he wasn’t depressed!” “He didn’t look ill!” And of course, the perennial favourite, “he had everything, why would he take his own life.”
He did, he had everything you would think a person could want in life. Everything. So if that’s true, how much uncontrolled despair must have overwhelmed his mind that night for him to decide the world would be better off without him?
We think we’ve come so far in the way society understands mental illness, and then we see the open, honest, unfiltered thoughts of individuals and realise we haven’t come far at all. Why can’t we see that something desperate must have been going on in his mind that night? As someone who lives with unipolar disorder, takes medication to control it every day, and has suffered through suicidal thoughts and desires in the past, the comments that failed to understand were deeply upsetting. Then came the abusive, critical comments calling him a coward and a fool. That was the point that I decided it was better if I turned off the tv and got off twitter. I felt triggered, and was shaky and weepy for most of the next 24 hours. In fact, it’s upset me so much that I had to let it out of my head somewhere.
It’s scary enough to see how cruel and quick to judge the public are when they’ve never been there themselves. It’s worrying that there have been a plethora of campaigns, newspaper articles, books and TV programmes aimed at expanding the public’s understanding of mental illness, and yet so many can’t grasp that mental states are still physical states, and that the illness part of mental illness is not something to be shrugged off by an act of will. Asking what a person ‘has to be depressed about’ makes as much sense as asking a diabetic what they have to ‘be diabetic about’. It’s not something we chose; it’s something we manage.
So why did Gary Speed’s tragic death shake me (and a number of fellow sufferers) up so much? It’s because he had ‘everything to live for’. It’s because he smiled and laughed and joked on my TV screen and then went home to his family and their beautiful house – and then the black dog came in the night and not one jot of the everything-he-had-to-live-for could fight it off.
It’s the chill of recognition that shivers across you. You’ve come home at the end of a day that was soft with smiles only to find yourself suddenly in the dark. You’ve sat under the same roof as everyone you love and wondered if the world wouldn’t be better of without you. So far you’ve fought the black dog off by daylight – although some nights it’s been a close run thing.
Then you wake up one morning, turn on the news, and you’re confronted with the awful truth of living with a mental illness: a lot of us don’t survive. And you can’t help but wonder what was the final straw? And you can’t help but think ‘will the night come when that voice inside that says, “the world would be a better place without you” will be too loud to ignore’? And most of all, you feel a leaden dread in the pit of your stomach.
Because if it can happen to Gary Speed, with Everything To Live For, then why not you?”
At the time that she wrote this, I was one of the people shaking my head and saying, “But he had everything to live for!” After I read her post, I got it intellectually, but not emotionally. Not until someone I care deeply about looked at me with all expression removed from his face and said, “You don’t understand. It’s not about what you have. It doesn’t work like that.”
Even then, I didn’t really get it until I found myself in that dark pit for the first time. I get it now. I wish I didn’t. Moreover, I wish with all my heart that the people I love didn’t have to struggle daily with battle not to give in to the voice that lies to them. I don’t want to lose anyone else.