In the wake of his recent death, I completely understand why Robin Williams’ family is asking people to remember how he lived and not focus on how he died. His work is worth celebrating, as is his humanity, kindness, wit, and intelligence. However, I truly believe we need to talk about both.
My favourite comedians (Milligan, Cleese, Williams, Fry to name a few) have all struggled with mental illness and some with self medication. Here’s the thing. You can be joyful, hilarious, intelligent, loving and still battle with feeling like you’re tumbling in a dark hole and that the world would be better without you. There are many of us who have felt this way – myself included. That is depression’s influence. It doesn’t matter if you have success, a family, a partner, and a million things to live for. For some, the darkness is completely overwhelming.
If someone with all the resources, support, money, admiration (as evidenced by the outpouring of love and grief upon his death), and a so-called ‘perfect’ life feels he has no other option than to self destruct, it becomes even more evident how much more we need to talk about depression and share our experiences. I’ve been relatively open about my own battles with depression but not open enough. I’ve felt ashamed or scared to say out loud (to family, to friends) just how low I’ve felt at times. And yet when people have been open with me about their own struggles, I feel like it’s helped me immensely. Reading books (like Andrew Solomon’s incredibly well written and insightful The Noonday Demon), therapy, writing, nature, my ridiculous dog – these all help too.
Sometimes when I do open up, I feel like people want to know why I’m depressed. There’s no easy answer. It’s been a combination of things – the change in weather here in Canada from sunny SA and some definite Seasonal Affective Disorder, work uncertainty, the overall stress of immigration, feeling lonely in a city where lots of people say it’s hard to make friends – but also things you can’t really put a finger on. People seem to think there has to be a catastrophic event to make you feel depressed; that isn’t true. Sometimes it’s a multitude of things. Or one thing. Everyone of us is different. Some of my issues have to do with the effects of hypothyroidism, too. If there was an easy answer, there’d be an easy fix.
And then there’s the question of medication… I have to take medication every day so that my thyroid functions. I didn’t hesitate when the doctor told me that’s what I had to do. And yet, the process of going on anti-depressants was an agonising one. I felt like I was giving up or that I was weak or that I was turning into a total North American 🙂 I did research, I talked to friends, I decided no for a long while. And then an ex-boyfriend said to me “But we expect alcholics to accept the fact they need help. Depression is no different. It’s a question of quality of life.” He was so right. I had tried everything I could think of, but some days just felt like I had zero energy or capability to get through anything or even begin to do the things I know would help me feel better. SO I took the plunge.
Anti-depressants have been a life saver, and I’m a million times better but it’s an every day process. You can bandy about words like self care, but it’s easier said than done. It’s like when you want to lose weight and people tell you “oh you should eat less and exercise more.” No shit. Really? I had NO idea! Whatr a revelation! People will say “oh you should try x” or “do y” – yes, many people suffering from depression know what they need to do to feel better; they are just physically and mentally incapable of doing so. It’s like trying to climb up a kid’s slide from the bottom. You can sometimes get momentum and run all the way to the top and feel amazing because you can happily slide down again and then find the ladder (it was there the whole time!) to get to the top again. But many days, you just get part way up and then slide right back down again. Some days the ladder just isn’t there. Other days you can only just sit in the sand at the bottom of the slide, watching with envy all the kids sliding down and having fun. Each day is different, but each day I make progress.
So if Robin Williams’ tragic death at his own hands has taught me anything, it’s that we need to talk more about this. We need to talk about depression. About suicide. About mental health. About what we can do to help others. I need to talk more about this. It’s not a weakness. It’s not something to be ashamed about. It’s not who I am. And if you’re feeling the same way, you’re not alone and it will get better.
Sometimes we just need to tell someone how we feel and hope someone will light a candle in the dark for us to find our way back.