For the last several days I’ve been thinking about what to say in regards to Robin Williams and his recent suicide. I’ve seen a lot of really good things written – things like this article on Cracked, or a piece of writing about how depressed people often don’t know they’re depressed, linked here. I’ve seen some really despicable things said, too, like what Rush Limbaugh said about Robin Williams, which shows a shocking lack of tact or caring for the life of another human being – which is all too often par for the course for Mr. Limbaugh.
As a survivor of two suicide attempts, I know the lengths that depression can drive you to. Depression gets inside your head, and like a computer virus, it starts taking bits and pieces over, but in such a way that the rest of your mind is convinced that everything is just fine. Then, once it’s taken over enough, it tries to destroy the whole system – or, rather, make the depressed person commit suicide. It’s not something we have any control over; as far as I’m aware, there’s no real evidence for reasons why some people have depression and others don’t. And, biologically, it makes no sense – it’s a mental illness that, for the most part, tends to drive those who have it to thoughts of suicide, eventually. It can’t spread or be transferred to another person, so the depression dies with whoever has it.
But it can make your life a living hell, no matter who you are, how much money you make, or what you do. A homeless person living under a bridge is in the same kind of mental hell with depression as someone like Robin Williams, though sadly with fewer treatment options. Being depressed means you feel worthless, useless, hopeless. Nothing you do has any lasting effect to cheer you up or make you happy. It saps the energy from your body, but doesn’t always make people sleepy – just feel like they don’t have enough energy to do much beside sit around. It makes some people overeat, to try to fill a void that can’t be filled by physical sustenance; it makes others just stop eating, because it’s just not worth the effort. It can’t be a battle just to shower in the morning, never mind do something like an actual job. And, once it’s set in, you believe that this is normal – that life is always like this, that there is no other way to be.
Treatment can be tricky, too – there are many antidepressants on the market, and they work differently on everyone. I, for example, am SSRI-resistant, which means I get virtually no effect from most of the big-name medications. And once you find a selection of medications that work, you have to watch to make sure your body doesn’t become used to them, and stop making the medication effective. And medication is only part of it. People with depression often withdraw from social contact, when it can be one of the things most necessary to helping them – we feel like we’re a burden on others, and so we pull away. But having others around to talk to, even about things that aren’t terribly serious, can be a great help. Therapy is important, as well, because most friends probably won’t be able to understand what you talk about with regards to depression like a therapist will, and won’t be able to suggest things to do – or just listen t what you’re really saying. Therapy isn’t limited to just a therapist; there are a number of therapy skill sets, like DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) or CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) that can help to redirect your mind from its depressed state. Even taking care of yourself physically – keeping a schedule, exercising, eating well – can help to manage depression.
But sometimes, everything that can be done just isn’t enough. Maybe the medications don’t work. Maybe you can’t connect with others. Maybe you can’t find a therapy that speaks to your needs, and maybe you just can’t find the energy to take care of yourself. At that point, everything becomes a losing battle, each action a desperate attempt to hold on for a little longer – to maybe find that one thing that works – until you just have no more ability to cope. Then, sadly, many people attempt suicide – like I did, twice – and even more sadly, some succeed.
It’s like having the Battle of the Bulge in your head, and you’re the Allied forces – only there are no reinforcements, the Nazis are endless, and you have limited supplies. You can only hold on for so long, and even if you fight tooth and nail until the bitter end, without help, you lose. And this all takes place inside your head, where nobody else can see it – and where all too many people assume that you can just decide to be happy, to not think about it, to focus on something, to will yourself to be better like you have some sort of Green Lantern ring in your brain. It’s these people who don’t understand what depression is like who can be the worst to be around, because if the scars from your wounds were physical, they’d be amazed at your survival – but since they can’t see them, they assume it’s nothing serious, and that you’re just being lazy.
Everyone with mental illness has to deal with these people, and it’s sad, because they can take a toll on you. How many times can you listen to someone saying that your illness is just made up and if you were a better person you’d just think your way out of it before you believe that somehow, you are just too weak to fix yourself – when, in fact, there is no way to do so? Even all the treatments I noted above are just ways to manage depression, or really any mental illness – they can never be cured, never fixed. Even someone with Robin Williams’ resources can only do so much, because it can take a long time to find a treatment that works for you – and some people never do.
I mourn for Robin Williams. He made some amazing movies and touched the lives of many people. And he did it all while suffering from something that was telling him to kill himself every day. I wish he had been able to find the treatment that worked for him, but sometimes that never comes. Sometimes the battlements of the mind are simply overrun. I can only hope that his death, and the public nature of it, along with his celebrity status, can call serious attention to this. Mental health care needs to be better. Nobody needs to die like this, hopeless, alone, and feeling like there is no value to their life. Much like we can stop the spread of cancer, we need a way to stop mental illness in its tracks. A cure, if there ever is one, is a long way off, but ways to manage mental illness should be something that children being born today can rely on.