The majority of the sentiments regarding the news of Robin Williams’ passing have been positive. We all remember laughing at the Genie in Aladdin…and seeing the extreme love of a father in Mrs. Doubtfire. And being moved to tears while being taught by Dr. Keating. It’s important in the aftermath of any death, whether a celebrity or a relative, to remember the good times. Many of the comments have been more serious…encouraging others to seek help if they’re hurting and lamenting the devastating toll that mental illness takes. However, some of the more callous comments have indicated that suicide is an act of a selfish coward who takes the easy way out. Or that he should have just “manned up” since this was somehow his choice.
Looking back through my childhood, adolescence, and college years, I can see signs of something dark blooming in me. Despite what most people know about me, my very early childhood was unstable, violent, and frightening. How my mom survived the things we suffered early in my life is beyond me. I felt by adolescence that I had made peace with it…and to some extent, I was right. But loneliness and the effects of trauma manifest themselves in strange ways. I remember taking a trip in middle school to go snow skiing. It was my first big trip away from home. I got so homesick after the first day that I just wanted to hole up in my room and cry. From the age of around 7 through leaving home, life was fairly stable and there were no major traumatic events that stick out. But I still felt the darkness manifest itself in small things like being nostalgic or homesick.
In college, it manifested itself in stress. I worked mostly full-time to pay the bills and took a somewhat full load of classes (some semesters anyway). But if a class was especially hard or if a job had crazy demands, I would quit the job or drop the class and I was able to escape. Then came adulthood. My son was born right as I was finishing at UGA and shortly thereafter, I got my first real job in Atlanta. I had a new family, a good job, and plenty of things to be happy about. And mostly, I was happy. But some days, sitting at my desk, the stress overwhelmed me. And driving home from work in heavy traffic, I felt nostalgic and longed for the simpler days of childhood…when I didn’t have to spend 3 hours in traffic or get yelled at by my boss for things I couldn’t control. I wanted nothing more than to just disappear and be back at my grandparents’ house during the summer without a care in the world. Then it progressively got worse. As the months passed by, I found myself sneaking away to the bathroom stall to cry for no apparent reason. I couldn’t get anything done at work or home because my own overwhelming sense of ill-health impaired me from doing anything about it. Normally, at this point, I would just quit my job, give up some responsibilities, and move on to something less stressful. But here I was with a family to provide for and a very real, very heavy burden to provide for them and be a good husband/ dad. My coping mechanisms were overloaded. I was surrounded by people, but I felt so alone.
After about a year, I saw my doctor and I was prescribed an antidepressant. At the time, this made a world of difference. The depression and anxiety were mostly under control and I felt like I was able to not only survive, but thrive. For 3 or 4 years, I felt great and optimistic about the future. Then in the span of a few years, we lost everything we owned in a house fire and I went through a heart-wrenching divorce. Suddenly, the darkness was more overwhelming than I had ever experienced. Once again, I felt useless and ill-equipped to fight against it.
I feel fortunate that I have never struggled with addictions or thoughts of suicide (I’m also fortunate that my dark passenger is not the same as Dexter’s). Some of my closest friends fight these demons every day and I’m amazed at their courage. I am a father, son, brother, boyfriend, colleague, and friend. I’ve been successful in my career and I feel like I’m a pretty good dad. However, I constantly struggle with guilt. I feel like I could be more if I didn’t feel sick every day. Most of the people around me don’t know that it takes a fiery pep talk inside my head for me to get out of bed every morning. And I have to repeat this to myself several times a day to keep going. I strain myself to the point of exhaustion just to muster the willpower to perform daily tasks. There are days when getting a shower, brushing my teeth, cooking supper, and washing the dishes feels like running a marathon. I get anxious about the most inconsequential details. The anxiety leads to depressed behavior. Which leads to more anxiety and it creates a vicious loop. It’s also difficult to enjoy things I used to love. I rarely experience joy or pleasure from doing things that would typically lift my spirits. It’s an overwhelming numbness that just wears you out. Even on the good days, I feel like my dark passenger is still waiting around the corner, ready to pounce.
9 years ago, my medical diagnosis was Major Depressive Disorder with Agorophobic Panic. The first 5 years of treatment were fairly successful, but the last 4 have been a mixed bag. I never stopped taking medication, attending therapy, or trying to get better. But all my efforts haven’t been able to quite get me back and sustain my health at baseline. Ironically, many of the things I need to do to feel better are things my dark passenger works hard to discourage me from doing. Don’t get me wrong—there have been a lot of very good days. But I haven’t felt well for an extended time in years. Every day is a battle. A fight against the darkness that distorts my view of every other facet of my life.
I’m speaking out now because I’ve read and heard so many misguided viewpoints about mental illness recently. There is an unfortunate social stigma that exists with admitting it or seeking help. It makes people uncomfortable, causes them to question faith, and some people that I highly respect otherwise give their non-medical opinion that I don’t need medication. Enough is enough. If you haven’t lived with the darkness or have a half-informed opinion, please keep it to yourself. It’s a matter of life and death for some people that you do. Your snarky comments and judgement help maintain the stigma associated with the treatment of a very real disease. It may cause someone to avoid treatment and internalize their pain until it becomes too much to bear. You would never ridicule someone for accepting medical treatment of kidney problems or a broken bone, so why should a mental medical condition be any different?
I often wonder why I feel depressed. I have a great career, 2 amazing kids, a caring family, great friends, and I’m in a relationship with the most wonderful person I’ve ever met. But what I think I’m learning is that depression isn’t a reaction to circumstances, necessarily. It’s like the weather. I have listed a few traumatic events that served as triggers for major depressive episodes for me, but sometimes I’m depressed for no reason at all. It just comes and goes. That’s not to say that I can’t fight it or learn to cope with the symptoms. But many days, I feel like the fight is just wearing me out. So to say that Robin Williams was a selfish coward is ignoring the mountain of courage that he had to muster every day to fight his demons. From what I’ve heard, he won the battle most days. For 30 years he fought. But it only took 1 lost battle for his demons to destroy him. RIP, Robin Williams.
If you are hurting, don’t be ashamed to seek help. 1 in 4 Americans are affected by mental illness. There are a lot of us out there. Despite the social stigma, you are not alone and there are resources that will help you get better. Call your doctor if you can. If you can’t afford a doctor, go to www.nami.org and find the resources to get help. The National Suicide Hotline is 800-273-8255. If you’re stuck or frustrated, message me and I’ll help you find help. If you’re not hurting, keep an eye on those around you. Even if things seem alright, get to know them deeply. Learn their struggles. Be there for them to come through the other side. Also be aware that typically, in the wake of a celebrity suicide, some people are at a higher risk for copycat suicide. This risk is especially high for young people. It is difficult and not rewarding at all to be a friend to a depressed person, but it is unbelievably kind and noble.