The world was stunned Monday night at the news of the death of Robin Williams. They were even more stunned at the news that he committed suicide. Such a funny man was that depressed? In a word, yes, and he hid his depression behind his humor. But this isn’t about that, this is about the true reason he killed himself, and the inappropriate reactions of many people online and in the news.
Depression is a major cause of death, via suicide. What many don’t realize is how prevalent it really is. More people suffer from depression than you probably realize. It is the second most prevalent cause of disability in the developed world according to the World Health Organization. By 2020 it’s projected to be second only to heart disease worldwide. You’d think that with those kinds of numbers that treatment would be readily available, but it’s not. In the U.S., where we have the most research being done and treatments available, only about half the people diagnosed with major depression get any kind of treatment, and only 20% are regularly treated. That’s according to the National Institutes of Health. Even the wealthy like Williams find treatment severely lacking.
I was enraged at many of the comments I saw online and in the media about Williams’ suicide. Things like “how selfish of him!” or Shepard Smith on Fox News calling him a “coward.” Then there was the “nothing is worth taking your life over” or “why didn’t he just change his mindset?” All of these comments uncovered a complete lack of understanding of what it’s like to live with, deal with and struggle with depression.
What many don’t know about me is that I have struggled with the black hole that is depression since I was probably about 11 or 12 years old. I wasn’t aware that’s what it was until about five years ago. The reasons I fell into it, and stay in it aren’t important, and I’m not about to share them. What I am going to share is what it is to live with, day in and day out, the monster of a major depressive disorder.
Someone who is depressed can’t just “get happy.” We can’t think positive thoughts and feel better. It’s not just feeling sad, and it’s not something you just “get over.” If only it were that easy. It’s such an overused word, depression. It’s not just a passing grief, although that can trigger depression. The Mayo Clinic defines depression as:
a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest…it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems…More than just a bout of the blues, depression isn’t a weakness, nor is it something that you can simply “snap out” of
and it lists symptoms here. I urge you to go read through their pages on depression, but read on here first. Even their site can’t explain what it is to live with it.
On a daily basis, I wake up thinking “crap, I woke up” and I drag myself out of bed. I have responsibilities, so I get moving, go to work and to the activities where I am expected. Some I enjoy, to the extent that I can. I manage to accomplish what I have to do during my day. Then I go to bed and pray to God that I don’t wake up. Daily. I feel dull, lackluster. I love my family, but much of the time I wonder if I really feel anything. It’s painful, but blah all at the same time.
There were commercials for an anti-depressant recently that showed an animated person who kept getting swallowed up by a black hole that was following her. No matter how she tried to stay away from it, or get out of it, it kept swallowing her up. Not completely, but it was always there. I remember watching it for the first time and thinking THAT’S IT! THAT’s depression. Some days are better than others, but it is ALWAYS there. Medication only makes it follow instead of eating you up. They aren’t “happy pills” and most of the time made my head feel fuzzy while not making me feel much better. Talking about it doesn’t make it go away. Ridiculous positive affirmations make it laugh at you while it swallows you whole.
So what is it? Blackness. Darkness. It eats at you. It pulls at you. It makes your heart hurt. It makes your head hurt, your body hurt and your soul hurt. You wish that it would stop but it is unrelenting. Crying doesn’t help, so you stop crying. On good days you can think of it less, but one set back, one bad thing and it envelopes you like the blackness that took the bad guy to hell in the movie Ghost. The pain is emotional, spiritual and physical. I have constant headaches. My body aches. I cope and cope and then the smallest thing sets me off and I can’t take another thing. Then I just cope some more. I take on more things than I really should or can truly handle just so I don’t have time to stop and think or feel.
Here is a sampling of my thoughts during the day: “you suck”, “you can’t even begin to be good enough”, “how can you possibly be doing anyone any good?”, “stupid”, “idiot”, “can’t you do anything right?”, “so tired”, “well, I totally screwed that up” and the ever present “everyone is better off without me.” That last one has been on the “tape recorder” in my head for decades, first just as a thought, later a concrete plan.
“But that’s not true!” you say? Well, maybe from your viewpoint, but from mine being a total failure, screw up and letting everyone down constantly just proves that they would be better off without me. That was, I am quite sure, the message in Robin Williams’ head when he put that belt around his neck: they are better off without me. That and “it’s the only way to make the pain stop forever.” Because it is.
I joke and smile through my day because, quite honestly, people don’t want to hear about it or watch me in constant pain. Not even family. I don’t say that to condemn them. They don’t understand, and even the most caring and persistent get impatient with my inability to finally just “snap out of it.” That’s the thing about those who say “find someone who will give you support.” They can only take so much, then they get impatient and stop checking in. The silence only proves that I was right, they won’t miss me for long, and are better off without me.
From a spiritual side, I know why it happens and why it won’t go away. Satan is constantly trying to use it to drag me away from my faith. Intellectually I get that. Unfortunately my intellect doesn’t get much of a say. All the prayer in the world can’t seem to make a dent. I’ve prayed for relief. I’ve prayed for release. I’ve prayed for it to stop. I’ve prayed to die. I’ve prayed to live. Still it torments me.
It comes and goes, but it’s never completely gone. Good days mean it’s just a melancholy in the background. But good days don’t last, and I know they will be short lived. Something always happens to bring it down on me like a firestorm. Because it’s always there, I don’t deal well with things that most people would see as a setback, but handle and move on. Bad news sends me into a tailspin, and recovering from each tailspin is harder and harder. That bad news is also inevitably my fault. Somehow, my depression tells me, whatever happened is because of something I did or didn’t do. It isn’t narcissistic, it’s the message that depression needs me to hear so that I succumb.
That goes back to those who call people who commit suicide because of depression “selfish.” Far from being selfish, Williams most likely thought he was sparing his family and friends. The impatience, the silence, the discomfort in their body language when they are around you, the fighting, the pain they feel because they can’t make you feel better… take that away and they will feel better. It isn’t selfishness at all, and in that state of mind, it’s hardly a choice.
And here’s a thought for all of the “selfish” thinkers out there: how selfish is it to expect someone to live in such utter agony and desolation day in and day out, with no relief? As I pointed out, treatment for depression is haphazard at best. At one particularly low point I had a friend and my mother tell me “don’t you do this to me!” To you? What about me? What about my pain? If it was obvious, if incurable cancer, or some other incurable malady there is a plethora of medication to remove pain, and when that stopped working, most of society would tell me that it was just fine to let go and die. Proponents for euthanasia say that how can anyone selfishly expect someone to continue to live in that kind of pain? Well, some of those same people were the loudest in slamming Williams for his suicide. Because you can’t see it, it’s not real?
So, before you go condemning those who can’t take one more second, stop. Before you start spouting platitudes, stop. And remember no matter how tired you are of “being there” we are even more exhausted. You can walk away, we can’t. If you care, show it, don’t disappear. Pretending it’s not there won’t make us feel better, and might just be the push we don’t need to go over that dark, dark precipice.