Behind the Brightest Smiles
It is a gloomy morning as I write this. Rain clouds as far as you can see. Soggy shoes and a gray outlook. This fits my mood perfectly.
Robin Williams died this week. His apparent suicide and long battle with depression are plastered all over the news. People are talking about how sad it is, how selfish it is, and gosh what a surprise. Who would have ever guessed that behind the man who made so many people laugh, there was such darkness?
As I walked into work the morning after his death, I passed a few small groups of people, huddled and whispering about him. As though they knew him. As though they should have been able to see his pain through his well-developed public personae. And I found myself wondering. If they looked at me right at that moment, someone face to face, someone like them, would they know? Would they really be able to see what so many people who really know me never do?
I doubt it.
And if they thought they caught a glimpse, a winking of something not quite right behind my smile, would they care? Would they want to get involved? Would they have the right words, the magic formula that would make it all ok?
I doubt it.
I have suffered from clinical depression and general anxiety disorder since my early 20’s. And like many who suffer from these brain diseases, I learned early on to conceal my depression behind a smile. It was too difficult to answer the simplest question – what is wrong? I don’t know what’s wrong and I don’t know what caused it – hormones, heredity, seasonal changes, weather, chemicals in my food. But I know it is real and I know it has proven to be a powerful force.
See, depression is an insidious enemy. Depression doesn’t need a bad day, financial or emotional set back, or illness to come a-calling. Depression loves to drag you down in its clawed hands when everything seems to be going well in your life. It takes the joy, the zest, the hope and buries it deep where you can no longer find it.
It took me a long time to work up the courage to admit to myself and my husband that my depression had gone beyond what I could handle on my own. My doctor prescribed an antidepressant and I actually carried the prescription around for a month before showing it to my husband. I felt like such a failure. Why couldn’t I just be happy? I remember standing in the drug store staring at a bottle of St. John’s Wart and trying to talk myself into at least trying it. The mere thought of giving in and taking something, even something natural, brought me to tears. It felt like I was giving up.
I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense to anyone who has not suffered from this disease. But I was torn between the societal stigma of depression equals weakness and the fear that I would take antidepressants and they wouldn’t work. What if nothing worked? What if I never felt better? Is this as good as it will ever be?
Thank God, my husband supported me and urged me to try the prescription. My doctor also recommended a wonderful therapist who I have been working with for years. I have seen brighter days and know there are more ahead. But that is the thing about depression. You can’t just talk about it, pop a pill and have it go away. It is always there, under the surface, and it still rears its ugly head.
As comedian Kevin Breel says in his TEDxYouth talk, “Depression isn’t chicken pox. You don’t beat it once and then it’s gone forever. It’s something you live with. It’s something you live in. It’s the roommate you can’t kick out. It’s the voice you can’t ignore and the feelings you can’t seem to escape, and the scariest part is, the scariest part is that after a while, you become numb to it. It becomes normal to you.”
My husband knows that when I get to the point where I tell him I am in a bad place, that it must be bad indeed. I have come to this bad place again – not as bad as some, but definitely darker than others. I know that if I put one foot in front of the other, check things off my to-do list one by one, take some deep breaths and hold on, it will pass. I am counting on that. I know that I can do little things to help rid my mind of this darkness – I can meditate, exercise, eat right, rest, do things I enjoy – in other words, fake it til I make it.
Society has labeled the depressed as weak. But what people who have normal brain chemicals do not realize is that you have to be strong to battle depression and live a normal life. You have to get out of bed, feed and clothe yourself, succeed at work, support your family and friends. You have to pick yourself up again and again all day long when all you really want to do is curl up in a ball and cry.
I am sure that Robin Williams had whatever therapies he needed. I am sure he took his meds, and saw his therapist and tried anything he could to stop feeling bad. But this illness, especially wrapped up in his Bipolar Disorder and addictions, was too much for him to handle any longer. He was exhausted from a long battle and he finally laid himself to rest.
It breaks my heart that his laughter has died. I feel as though we have lost a comrade in this battle. And as I read each article and tweet and tribute, I take a deep breath and say to myself, there but for the grace of God go I. I have never reached that ledge where I thought of suicide and I am so grateful for this. I used to vehemently declare that suicide was a coward’s way out. But since being diagnosed and treated for depression and anxiety, I have come to understand that for many it is simply a response to being exhausted from the struggle.
As Sally Brampton wrote in her memoir Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir Of Depression, “Killing oneself is, anyway, a misnomer. We don’t kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive. When somebody dies after a long illness, people are apt to say, with a note of approval, ‘He fought so hard.’ And they are inclined to think, about a suicide, that no fight was involved, that somebody simply gave up. This is quite wrong.”
Let’s all remember this.
Robin Williams did not commit suicide because he was selfish or because he did drugs. He lost his battle with his illness.It is no different than if he had lost his battle with cancer.
She goes on to write, “Imagine saying to somebody that you have a life-threatening illness, such as cancer, and being told to pull yourself together or get over it. Imagine being terribly ill and too afraid to tell anyone lest it destroys your career. Imagine being admitted to hospital because you are too ill to function and being too ashamed to tell anyone, because it is a psychiatric hospital. Imagine telling someone that you have recently been discharged and watching them turn away, in embarrassment or disgust or fear. Comparisons are odious. stigmatizing an illness is more odious still.”
That is what society does with mental illness. That is why millions of people who suffer from depression are too ashamed or afraid to ask for help. The only way that this will change is for people to talk about it. Let it out in the open. Shine a little light on our own darkness.
As comedian, Harvey Fierstein tweeted after learning of Robin Williams’ death, “Please, people, do not f— with depression. It’s merciless. All it wants is to get you in a room alone and kill you. Take care of yourself.”
If you or someone you know suffers from depression or has thoughts of suicide, please get help.
National Depression & Suicide Prevention Hotline 800-273-8255 http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
International suicide hotline listings
Families for Depression Awareness
Depression and BiPolar Support Alliance
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