The recent sad loss of Robin Williams, one of the world’s most talented, kind, generous and funny souls, reminds me of how fragile so many of us are. The deep, unrelenting loneliness, despair and hopelessness many of us feel, is not easy to explain to someone who’s never suffered from the disease of depression. But these are feelings I and millions of others live with everyday.
I’ve read some beautiful heartfelt tributes honouring Mr Williams and all he was as a wonderful and talented human being. I’ve also seen plenty of comments along the lines of “How could he do that to his family?” and “You’d think a guy with everything would be happy”. I’ve even read one comment sprouting about how God will forgive him for his sin. I understand that these types of comments are made by people who don’t understand depression and how it messes with the psyche. As someone who lives with depression, I try to pass over their ignorance and rather, choose to regard them with love and acceptance.
I wrote about my depression and my suicide attempt in my book ‘The Constitution of the United States of Being’, and yes, I have considered it since. In our darkest moments of despair, those of us living with this insidious disease seek nothing more than relief. No matter how much you love us, or how much we love you, you can’t relieve our pain. No one can. Our suffering, and the pain we put our families through as they watch us suffer is, sometimes, too much to bear. We try so hard to fight it; we use every ounce of inner strength we have, but sometimes we lose the battle. And its a long battle. The disease can bring us to our knees over and over again until we have nothing left inside us to fight with any more. In the end, for some of us, the only thing we can do is release ourselves from the pain.
Depression is not the same as feeling sad or a little ‘down’. We all have these feelings as part of the normal range of emotions based on the experiences we have in everyday life. Depression is different. It is a serious mental illness that forces its way into one’s psyche, making it a dark and lonely place – all the time. It sucks away at hope, joy, passion and enthusiasm, leaving only self-loathing, hopelessness and black despair in its place. The idea that victims of depression should be able to simply talk themselves out of it, or use affirmations, or take pills, or just ‘get over themselves’, is so incredibly naive and ignorant. Yes, these things help, and many of us, including myself, use positive affirmative processes and/or medication to help manage our disease. But though we may appear happy and content, what you see on the surface is often a far cry from what’s going on underneath. We tend to lead ‘smoke and mirrors’ lives, wearing our ‘happy’ masks around others. Sadly, in the midst of a bout of depression, our ‘public’ mask tends to make us feel even worse underneath and we despise ourselves even more for the fraudulent life we are compelled to lead. It can be a vicious cycle. We often try to ‘medicate’ ourselves with drugs, alcohol or food – sometimes to fill the void, sometimes to punish ourselves.
When someone has cancer, family and friends rally around and show tremendous support and concern. No one ever told a cancer victim to “pull themselves together and get over themselves”. If someone with cancer survives, everyone is happy and relieved, and they celebrate the person’s victory over the terrible disease that threatened their life. If the cancer victim dies, it’s because the cancer killed them. No one says it was because they were selfish, inconsiderate, weak-minded or didn’t fight hard enough.
When someone has depression (and assuming they can overcome their fear of the stigma attached to their disease and tell their loved-ones), family and friends tend to rally around initially and be supportive. Depression is a life-long illness, a constant life and death battle. It often comes in ‘waves’, so after periods of wellness, when a person with depression finds themselves spiralling into the abyss once again, those around them start to approach it with dread and an “Oh great, here we go again” fed-up-with-it attitude. Sometimes they just feel helpless. As the depression victim survives each wave, there is no celebration that they survived the latest battle against the terrible disease that threatens their life. And if they lose the battle, they are not honoured because they fought as hard and valiantly as they could with all the strength they had against a deadly disease. No. They simply ‘gave up’. They killed themselves.
Suggesting someone is selfish, inconsiderate or weak because they died due to mental illness is abhorrent. No one would say that of a cancer victim who died. Where is the compassion? People don’t suicide if they are mentally or physically healthy. People suicide because they can no longer withstand the pain of their illness (physical), or because the illness compels them to do it (mental).
People with depression are often strong of will and mind so when we fall, we fall hard, and we can be extra hard on ourselves for falling. If you know someone who is living with depression, regardless of how they appear to be handling it, please, please, please keep them close to you. We need to be reminded how much you care. Our disease makes us feel we are all alone, even though that may not be true. Ask how we’re doing and seek an honest answer. Its incredibly hard for us to admit when we are not doing well but if we know we can trust your reaction, we will turn to you for help.
If we know we have gentle, loving support from people who care, it helps us maintain our balance. There are some wonderful organisations like Life Line and Beyond Blue in Australia, and similar organisations around the world that support sufferers of Depression and their loved-ones, so use them when you need to.
Some of us will survive this disease and some will not, but either way, know that we fight as hard as we can. Your support and compassion make a huge difference to us as we battle those relentless waves. It really does.
Thank you, Robin Williams, for sharing your talent and making us smile for so long even when you were hurting behind your mask. Thank you for for trying so hard and for having the courage to hold out as long as you did. You are an inspiration. Your battle is now over – may you rest in peace.