Imagine swimming in a cold blue ocean. Then diving down, down, down until there is no blue, no sun, only black. Heavy, oppressive black. And you can’t break the surface because suddenly you don’t even know which way is up. That is the weight of depression and what many struggle with every day.
Like for many, the news of Robin Williams’ suicide has affected me. Not just because the man was such a huge part of our culture and touched so many with his humor and in the amazing characters that he so convincingly brought to life, but also because this genius man, who brought joy to so many, suffered the weight of that oppressive darkness. That the pain he felt was so great the only way he could finally find peace was through death. I’ve been trying for days to make sense of these feelings and had thought I would write about it last night, but was too “tired” to do so. And yes, I was tired, just not from the physical exhaustion of a busy, active, productive day, but from the mental strain of trying reconcile all the thoughts and feelings that I was having.
When I first read the news, I just immediately shut down my computer. I told my mother of his death and said that apparently it was self-inflicted. Self inflicted. And although the words were apt in some ways they were completely false and hollow in others. It is often said we our own worst enemies. Or is it just those of us who struggle with depression or anxiety or addiction or some other mental illness that feel that way. So then are we to blame? After all we are the ones inflicting these wounds upon ourselves even if we feel powerless to stop. We are the ones whom people judge for not being strong enough to “snap out of it”. We are the ones whom people call selfish or crazy or ungrateful. We are the ones that are told to look on the bright side or appreciate all the blessings we have or that it could be worse. We are the ones who know it could be worse and despise our weakness and fatigue from fighting this invisible assailant. It’s our own fault. Right?
I once read the words of a man describing his alcoholic mother on the incredibly brilliant Humans of New York. He said he separated his mom from the disease and imagined there were both an alcoholic and his mom living in the same body and that he knew his mom loved him and that she hated the alcoholic. It was so insightful that this man could recognize this about his mom and it touched me greatly because I think that this is the way many addicts and those struggling with other mental illnesses feel. There are two people struggling for occupancy in one body. And it is difficult to fight against yourself. And it is even harder when people don’t understand or try to understand what this battle is like.
When someone as amazingly talented, and by all accounts kind and generous and sensitive, as Robin Williams loses that battle, or is so tired of fighting against the darkness that they feel the only possible way to bring peace to themselves and to the people around them is by killing themselves, the world grows a little dimmer for everyone. The darkness that is depression, addiction, anxiety–diseases, all of them–has claimed another soul. And for those of us who can relate because we’re either surviving through it or because we love someone who is or because we are currently embroiled in the same battle, it can be scary. A scary reminder that the darkness can come upon us at any time. That we need to continue our meditations and our meetings and our medication and all the other things that we do to survive and thrive. That we aren’t ever totally out of the woods and must be vigilant and light as many candles in our lives as we can to cast out the darkness.
There are many people throughout my family and within my circle of friends who have suffered with some form of addiction, depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other mental illness. Perhaps this gives me more compassion for these conditions than others seem to have, but it is truly mind-boggling to me and breaks my heart to realize how many people are ignorant about these illnesses and cast blame on those who suffer. People who can’t understand why others who lead such “charmed lives” or appear to “have it all” can “throw it all away”. That people actually presume to know what is in another human being’s heart or mind and that they don’t seem to believe that mental illness is an affliction. They believe those who suffer actually choose to do so. I know I wrote about my reaction to these ignorant thoughts and feelings when reading comments people left on the Internet after Phillip Seymour Hoffman died, but in the shadow of Robin Williams’ suicide people’s attitudes and comments have left me feeling colder, sadder, and more scared.
Perhaps it is because I, too, as a younger version of myself had to fight the good fight against depression. Not just “the blues”, not just being negative or failing to see the good things in my life or wallowing in self-pity (as all have been suggested to me at some point), but the true black, oppressive weight of depression. I was terrified when I was pregnant that I would have to deal with post-partum depression on top of taking care of the twins on my own. I was concerned enough at one point about 3 months in, when I seemed to be crying a lot and one day I just let out a scream; a long, loud, horror-movie scream that just erupted from me and seemed not to have been prompted by anything in particular. It was then that I thought I should probably see a doctor. I’m pretty sure I have told the story before about dragging myself to a psychiatrist with my ginormous double stroller and my fussy infant twins and relaying my story while trying to feed one child in one arm and rock the stroller with the other hand and the psychiatrist sort of gently suggesting that it probably wasn’t post-partum, but that I was likely just experiencing some adjustment anxiety due to my new situation. She gave me some pills and sent me on my way. I was able to fight against the depression and avoid being consumed by it, but for anyone who has ever been there you know that it is never conquered, only managed or tamed and too often it is simply hidden or ignored. But although I know that I am in a much better place, I also know that if I don’t continue fighting, the black can find me again. I assume that is why this has hit me so hard and why I find people’s callous comments about his death so difficult to bear. So many people are fighting these invisible battles. We would do better as a society to offer some loving shields, some empathy and and understanding with which to arm these warriors rather than casting stones of judgement and ignorance and aligning with the enemy. The enemy is the illness, the scorn and derision of people should be wielded against it,not those who are fighting it every day.