I learned of the tragic death of Robin Williams the way a lot of you did: on social media. My friend from college, Pete, posted the news while folks were still denying it—it obviously must be a hoax—but within minutes, the news was confirmed and it was all over face book.
And it was suicide.
Included with the stories was a statement that Williams had been depressed.
Of course. Happy people don't usually take their own lives.
…and then they all came out of the woodwork. ‘There’s no such thing as depression.’ ‘It’s a liberal problem.’ ‘I shook it off, so he could, too.’ ‘He couldn’t have been depressed; he had lots of money.’ ‘How could he do that to his kids?’ ‘He was selfish.’
Here’s what I will tell you about my experience with mental illness: (such a scary phrase, “mental illness.” No one wants to use it…no one wants to hear it.)
It is real.I have often talked about how I lost my mind when I went through menopause. You thought I was joking. When I said I poured myself into a bottle of gin and stayed there for an entire summer, you thought I was exaggerating. But Depression is a cold-hearted bitch who drives with a wingman named Self-Loathing, and she wanted to take me for a ride.
It is as real as any other chronic illness: diabetes, asthma, hemophilia…
…except we want to ignore it. As if by acknowledging it, we make it more real, and we accept that it can happen to us or someone we love. If a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, we tell our friends and they bring casseroles. If a loved one is diagnosed with mental illness, we hide it…like Mrs. Rochester in the attic.
In many respects, I was very fortunate. My sweet DL continued to stay married to me, despite my erratic and self-destructive behavior. I had a job I loved that forced me to step away from the bottle from 5 am-3:30 pm, at which time I was so tired I didn’t have the energy to twist the cap off a beer. I had a doctor who listened to me and took my depression seriously. She did not dismiss it as a symptom of menopause or as a case of “the blues.” When I told her I was thinking about investing in a gas oven and pulling a Sylvia Plath, she was willing to write a script that began to help after two weeks. I started to feel “normal”—and my husband said he was happy to get his old Kirby back.
But my story is NOT typical. Most folks who battle depression have a lengthy battle—not one that is easily won. They battle longer and harder than I did. Self-Loathing calls in his step-brother, Addiction, and things get messy. I was able to win the battle before it got bloody. Don't get me wrong...I have to be on the alert, because Depression might try to come back to beat on me again, and I try to be pro-active. I watch my intake of adult beverages. (Despite the persona I project in this blog, I’m pretty much a lightweight. One and done, unless it’s a special occasion.) I do not take any prescribed medications that have any possibility I may become dependent (the PA who tried to prescribe Oxycodone for my shoulder? He got an EARFUL!) and I exercise almost every day. These things won’t keep my illness from coming back, but they can’t hurt.
My depression is not a big beast, and she didn’t dig the hole deep enough to keep me in. I knew immediately that I was in trouble, I knew I needed help, and I wasn’t scared to get it, making my scramble out rather quick and painless. Again…not typical. I am seeing a lot of conversation on social media regarding depression, and some of it is incredibly productive. People are sharing their stories, and folks who have famously battled the bitch and her co-conspirators have told of their experiences. Almost singularly, they say that they are lucky. They admit that this time, they were lucky. That they had enough light to see a way out. Next time? Maybe not. Think of it this way—if you are the person who, after learning that a friend who had a long, painful, debilitating illness finally passes away, you say, “He’s in a better place now…” or “It’s a blessing…” then think twice before you judge someone who can’t live with debilitating pain anymore and chooses to take action.
So, I hope that before folks post something insensitive about depression or addiction, they look at it a different way. Think about it as you would any “acceptable” disease—a disease that no one is locking in the attic. And be thankful that this time, it wasn’t you or someone you love.