Robin Williams, a bright, successful, talent, was one year older than my current age, and he has committed suicide.
The death of Williams has affected me in a most profound way, not because of his celebrity, but because I also share a lifelong struggle with depression. This is a disease that touches several thousand in the United States alone, resulting in 30,000 deaths each year. I was coming to hope that my age, years of experience, including counseling and other treatments, and a trusted group of people would inoculate me against suicide. Surely Williams had much the same experience and safeguards in place for himself.
Many people tell me to just choose to be happy. They believe happiness is simply a choice. Abraham Lincoln is often quoted, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Looking at the temperament of my brother, sisters, children, and grandchildren I notice different reactions to the same events. You would not think any of these people have anything in common, certainly not DNA, upbringing, nor values. Their reactions to events are as different as night and day, and their emotions range from easy-going and cheerful to anxious and distressed. Telling the later group to just be happy about what is going on does not change their behavior.
Personally, I am tired of being told to chose to be happy when I have some real difficulties, and am struggling with putting one foot in front of the other. This is not depression. This is coping, but coping is not easy when you are dealing with the death of loved ones, financial difficulties, or a host of other life problems. You know it won’t last forever. You are making all the correct moves. Sure, prayer doesn’t hurt, but neither would a phone call or card saying, “You will get through it. I’m pulling for you.”
People have a remarkable ability to make the most of whatever situation they find themselves in. No one has the choice of where or what circumstances they are born into, Many things can happen to us in life that we have no control of: financial reversals, life changing accidents, personal tragedies of all kinds. I was stunned to learn that a paraplegic is just as happy six months after his/her accident as he/she was before the accident. People bounce back!
Depression takes away the ability to bounce back. Depression takes away the ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Putting on a mask of happiness for the world only intensifies the isolation that is felt. No one can understand what you are not sharing. You do not share, because you are protecting those you love. But they see your negativity anyway, and you feel like a burden. The choice to be happy becomes harder, as the feedback loop between brain and body becomes stronger.
What does depression feel like? It feels like a severe case of the flue, or a really nasty hangover that never goes away. Your head and body aches. You have nightmares. You can’t sleep. There is no pain reliever. It is no surprise some like Williams turn to drugs or alcohol. You lose hope. There seems to be no way out. The struggle seems constant and impossibly hard. The most dangerous time for suicide is often after you start taking medication, because you finally feel well enough to take an action. Depression wins.
If you are lucky, like me, a family member or friend will break the spell at a critical moment and you will come back to yourself. My biggest fear is that next time depression might win.
Being a friend isn’t about providing a solution, but about just being a friend. That is all there is to it.
I’m sure Robin Williams is saying, “Wait. Can’t I get a curtain call!”