The recent death of Robin Williams has hit the media like a small shockwave. Particularly the implications that he committed suicide have surprised and startled people, along with the revelation that he suffered lifelong Depression. “How could it happen?” we ask. Nobody saw it coming.
Actually, yes, people who knew Williams probably did see it coming. Perhaps they just didn’t want to see. It’s too painful. It’s easier to turn away. And, to be fair, mental illness such as Depression often requires a considerable force of will on the part of loved ones to not turn away, indeed, to not run away entirely. I know this, because I’m there.
I have Depression, along with a couple other potential diagnoses it’s not worth going into. I have been in and out of therapy my entire life and have tried every medication there is to try. Some work better than others, but none of them have had significant, long-term benefit. So I just have to manage it. Let me tell you what that’s like. This is not based on any sort of psychiatric research. It is merely my own perspective. Take it for what it’s worth.
Depression means seeing the worst in things, especially yourself. Depression magnifies every little setback and inflates it to disaster proportions. Depression makes you quit before you start. Depression makes you resent the things that should be helping you, preventing you from reading books in your genre because you are seething with jealousy that this author got published and you haven’t. Depression clings on to every scrap of pain, bringing it back again and again. Things that other people simply “get over,” whether it be the rise of violent content in teen fiction or a polite rejection from an agent who wasn’t even on the top of your list, magnify and stay with you, and every mention brings on just as much anger, sadness or frustration as the first time. It doesn’t get easier with time. Small challenges become insurmountable barriers. Fear and doubt consume you.
Depression is to be your own worst enemy. When you have Depression, you know how you get, and you do your best to control it. Some do so with greater success than others. Success is a key element. Some channel their pain, as Williams did into comedy. This is common. Others write or paint or create music. And some do so to a degree that actually allows them to find real success, again as was the case for Williams. But for the majority, this is not the case.
Success might give you something to use to reassure yourself, a tangible validation, but your symptoms impede success. When you have Depression, you can’t trust your own abilities. You are full of self-loathing. Even when others tell you you are good enough, you just can’t believe it. Eventually they give up, and you see this as proof they didn’t really mean it.
Except it’s not that simple. You do know they meant it, and when that doubt manifested, you wanted to remind yourself that there are people who believe in you. But you can’t help yourself. That’s the worst part: knowing how you get and feeling powerless to stop it.
Now let’s take a moment and address the obvious reply. Those of you who have not experienced real Depression are no doubt saying, “So when you get those feelings, just remind yourself and don’t let them pull you down.” Even therapists offer variations of this attitude. But it’s like telling someone with cancer to just stop having tumors. Or telling an infertile woman to just get pregnant. She can’t. Neither can someone with Depression. You can’t just “feel better.”
But it’s tiring for people who don’t understand that to feel like they have to keep propping you up. They get tired of being encouraging over and over again, only to have you blow it off and keep going on your downward path. They may well take it personally, and tell you your attitude is hurtful. And eventually they withdraw.
But you know your attitude is hurtful. Your pain is increased by the knowledge that it is affecting others. That’s what drives you to pull away, and even to contemplate, or actually attempt, suicide. “They’ll be better off without me,” you think. And that’s based on knowing with utter clarity just how unpleasant you can be to be around.
Even worse, for most of us living with Depression, it may well impede us in reaching our fullest potential, but it’s not enough to keep us from basic function. That’s why people are so shocked when you suddenly take drastic action. “I had no idea,” they say. Because you go up and down. Not in a bipolar way, but simply because some days are better than others. You find those things you can hold on to, that make you feel better, at least for a time. It might be music or nature or exercise or games or any number of other things. Some of them don’t always meet with approval, such as gambling or thrill-seeking or pornography or meaningless sex, but you cling to them as some sort of lifeline.
But inevitably the darkness returns. You can feel it coming back. You don’t want it to. You wish with all your heart that you could keep the tiny positive you had claimed. Even in the depths of despair, there’s a tiny piece of you standing on the outside, begging the rest of you to please stop. Yet at the same time, in some strange, indefinable way, you also almost welcome it back, like a comfortable old friend, albeit a toxic one. You find a perverse pleasure in the darkness. And sometimes you wish it would come on even stronger, strong enough to give you the motivation to overcome your fear and really do something to end the pain once and for all.
But you don’t. So you pretend. To avoid losing what little support you have, you learn to put on a happy face. Sometimes it slips, in bursts of anger or cynicism or dark sarcasm that goes too far. Other times your game face is good, but the pain is still there, and comes out in other ways. Keeping it down doesn’t make it go away, it just increases your sense of isolation, your resentment that you have to pretend, you have to put a lid on your intense pain so that the people around you don’t get slightly bummed. That thought increases your anger at the unfairness of it all. So you let it out in some different forum. Social media has been a real problem, allowing you to say things on line you would not say in the real world.
It’s a cry for help, but it’s an odd one, because it sounds like “The hell with you all, don’t help me!” But you just want someone to understand, so that you don’t feel all alone, and jealous of all the people around you who really are happy. Yeah, you know their lives aren’t perfect, they have their own struggles. But you resent the fact that you know that on some level, they are mad that you keep going on about it. They have a hard time too, but they deal with it and don’t keep acting all miserable, so why the hell can’t you? “None of us have it easy,” they say, “But when you go on about how you’ll never make it, it just makes us feel worse about ourselves. Don’t give us your problems, because we have problems of our own.” True. But one of them isn’t Depression. Again, putting it in medical terms, it’s like trying to climb a mountain while dealing with a collapsed lung. Your companion has no such condition. You are in pain as you labor your way up, but you dare not say anything, because he’ll just say, “Hey, I’m short of breath too, but you don’t hear me complaining!”
Of course, you can reject the analogy as flawed, because someone with a collapsed lung has no business climbing a mountain. But that simply proves my point. A person with a collapsed lung has no business trying to climb a mountain, so a person with Depression has no business trying to _________. What? Go ahead, fill in the blank. Take your time. What do I have no business trying to do? Be happy? Be successful in life? Maintain healthy relationships? Continue to be alive? Guess what, if you said any of those things, the Depressive person will likely agree with you whole-heartedly.
In my case, I have to keep myself from feeling like I have no businesses trying to break into a competitive industry like contemporary publishing. More than one of my fellow authors has told me that, with my negative attitude, I’ll never make it. They are right. The industry has no room for negativity. This wasn’t always the case. Many of history’s literary and artistic giants had psychiatric disorders, making them very difficult people. The internet is full of inspirational anecdotes about people ranging from Lincoln to Einstein who struggled, yet managed to achieve greatness. The long-standing assumed connection between genius and madness has in fact been confirmed by recent research. There is a proven correlation between creativity and mental illness. This is strong enough that there is a rising movement to stop prescribing mood-stabilizing medications to kids with ADHD as it may be destroying the spark that makes them special. A whole meme has popped around Bill Watterson’s Calvin going on Ritalin, with the result that Hobbes ceases to exist.
But today’s publishing industry is all about results. Agents and editors say they want to nurture a brilliant talent, but in fact they want someone low-maintenance, someone who will produce. Even if the results are mediocre, the important thing is that there’s something being delivered. And anyway, all the literary subtleties will get erased when they make the movie.
True, there are exceptions. Veronica Roth suffers from severe anxiety disorders, yet has managed to become very wealthy in her early twenties. But she’s an exception. When agents look up queriers on line to make sure they are stable and happy, how many great talents are they passing over? I’m not saying I’m one of them. My Depression won’t allow me to think that. And it also keeps me from sending out those queries because I’m sure I’ll just get rejected, so what’s the point? A self-fulfilling prophecy. As I said, my own worst enemy. But I’m also cognizant enough to know that, if I do generate interest, if I do get picked up by an agent, if I do get a lucrative book deal, if my book does become a best-seller turned into a series of blockbuster movies, it won’t matter. I’ll still have Depression.
RIP Robin Williams.