Robin Williams has been on everyone’s mind for the past couple of days. It’s fresh and raw and the media is running copy about his death and depression. He touched the lives of people all over the world. His performance in Disney’s Aladdin was what inspired me to become an artist, storyteller, and animator, even though the animation part didn’t get off the ground. I performed the first spoken word track off the Good Morning Vietnam soundtrack for talent night when I was a freshman in high school. How I got away with that in a parochial school is beyond me, but the kids, parents, teachers and even the priests were laughing so hard they couldn’t catch their breath. That’s the Jesuits for you.
Along with the outpouring of grief and love and contemplation, I’ve also seen posts and tweets about getting help for suicidal feelings, encouragement to talk it out, and incomprehension about why someone would commit suicide. None of this is surprising, but the incomprehension is wrongheaded at best and harmful at worst, and I’ll explain why. Along with all these social media posts commiserating with victims of depression, sharing their experiences, and collectively mourning, are those that have utterly no concept about depression and suicide and write articles that victim blame the person who died, or say that depression is not a disease, or both. This way of thinking is dangerous.
I like small words. I like short sentences. People have short attention spans these days and brevity is the soul of wit. I’ll take this in phases so that you guys can stay with me.
I have direct experience with depression. I’ve dealt with it most of my life and without going into gory details, it’s only been in the last few years that I was able to seek help for it. It’s through this first-hand knowledge that I can speak, at least from my experience, about what it does and what it looks like. Talk therapy has helped me greatly and I’m eternally thankful that I didn’t need medication for it in the long term. There was a stint where I was lightly medicated but that was during my darkest hour. I’ve also had suicidal thoughts and feelings. The closest I came to acting on it was one night sitting by the river. It was all I could do to keep myself on the land side of the fence. I had to call my husband to come and get me or else I wouldn’t be here right now. That was during the time I was getting professional help. Help is not always a guarantee of life preservation.
Others have different experiences, but there are common markers.
Common factors that I’ve noticed:
- 1. Depression can’t be cured.
It just hides or goes into remission like cancer or an eating disorder. Like a lot of things, once you break the seal on something it’s never the same. You can find ways to manage it, but a cure is not realistic.
- 2. Depression is way more than sadness.
Living means you’re going to be sad as well as all the other emotions. Sadness has an expiration date. Depression drags on for weeks, months, or years. Sometimes things that make you sad can make you depressed, that’s where understanding gets tricky. A lot of times people mistake depression for sorrow which makes them frustrated with those people who are depressed. Sometimes depression isn’t sadness, it’s the absence of feelings altogether. When everyone around you is happy, and you should be happy, and you know you should be happy, but you can’t feel it.
- 3. Depression is stigmatized.
I’ve heard people make insensitive comments to and about depressed people: drama queen, wallowing in it, get over it, don’t take it personally, Debbie downer, whiney, sour puss, wet rag. The list goes on. I remember clearly, it was six months after my father died and I was told to get over it. I was 14. I watched him die for months before the cancer won. Yes, I got depressed. After hearing things like this lobbed my way I was not encouraged to seek help.
- 4. Depression is ignored by those closest to us and misunderstood by most people.
Some of the people I love and call friend or family added to this depression or caused it to flare up. I look back at my pictures and I clearly see the deadness in my eyes, the well of hopelessness in some of them, even with a smile on my face that really read as a grimace. Yes, I would joke around and laugh or make others laugh, because when I tried to talk through what I was feeling, people usually reacted by trying to fix me as fast as possible, because I scared them. Trust me, no one was more scared then I was. Most people with depression are scared. Maybe not about dying, but they’re scared of something.
- 5. You’re not going to cure it or control it from following bullet points on WebMD.
Depressed people don’t want to make a fuss because of the way they get dismissed by those who can’t be bothered. They are also ill-equipped to deal with the panic and anxiety from loved ones who can’t be calm. These two groups have one thing in common: they are thinking of themselves and not the depressed person. So what happens? We turn to web sites with a check list on how we can beat depression. Here are the self-help greatest hits from a quick Google search. Guys, if this actually worked do you really think depression would still be an issue? The answer is clearly ‘no’. If any of this lifts your depression in the long term, that means you were not depressed, just really sad – and that’s ok! It’s just not the same.
I’m glad you stuck with me this long. It shows me that you really want to understand, even if you’re a little scared of the topic. You’re supposed to be. Living things, for the most part, crave to keep living – bio 101.
So what would make someone want to commit suicide? Lots of things can give the person a reason to act, but the real reason – the raw, gut clenching fact – is that the person feels like there are no other options. They believe they are facing indefinite, crushing, debilitating pain in a nightmare they can’t escape and no temporary relief will take that away.
- 1. Depression lies to the person feeling it.
It says we’re weak, worthless, and meaningless. It says we’re stupid and people hate us. It’s the bully that no one in the physical world can stop because it’s trapped in our minds whether by mental disease such as bi-polar or mean spirited people feeding us lies and our brains repeating it so they don’t have to. Depression tells us that no one will miss us. It says there will be no end to the pain. It lies. It doesn’t sleep. It tells us the only way out is to die and then there will be peace where no one can get us, not the pain, not the bully, not the disease or horrifying memories that chase us.
People who are sad don’t feel this. They feel terrible, but they don’t feel hunted or abandoned. They know they can reach out and someone will be there, so they seek help.
- 2. Depressed people hide because they think their fears will be founded in rejection, apathy, revulsion, abandonment, ridicule, and shunning.
And they’re not wrong. Two seconds of internet searching, being told “get over it” on various occasions after my father died, and being ignored by friends, family and administration when I was bullied to the point of a mental break by one of my employers gives strong evidence that there is a real apathy and victim blaming patterns of behavior that people show when the depressed try to reach out for help.
- 3. Traditional support structures often don’t pay attention.
These are the same kinds of people who are shocked when they hear someone kills themselves. They’re the people who blame the victim, or claim they never knew something was wrong. I wonder how much they tried asking. I wonder how much they listened to understand what was going on with the person rather than listening to toss out some piece of advice that made them feel smart. They are self-centered, which brings me to my next point about suicide and what it is.
- 4. Suicide has nothing to do with anyone except the person who dies.
There’s a difference between mourning the loss of someone you love and blaming them for hurting you by dying. Point #1: Everyone dies – it’s the timing and method that is variable. Point #2: It’s not about you. Killing oneself is only about that person and their pain. The pain blinds them to love of everyone – child, spouse, sibling, parent, friend, pet – none of it matters because they are in an abyss from which they can’t pull up. I don’t expect children to understand because they’re children. It’s our job as adults – the ones that brought them to this planet without asking first – to try to help them through this and explain it. Let them make up their own minds. Besides, getting angry at someone who committed suicide only makes you miserable (they’re dead, they can’t hear you) and it convinces other depressed people not to seek help.
- 5. Telling suicidal or depressed people to “get help” is NOT helpful.
Maybe they want to talk to you and be reassured that you love them, or care for them, or feel SOMETHING for them. If you meet them with apathy, or anxiety, or a bunch of clichéd quick fixes, why should they believe that a total stranger who charges them $500 an hour gives a wet slap about them? You’re supposed to be part of their support system.
Maybe they have a chemical, physical, or mental disease and depression is a symptom. Many schizophrenic and bi-polar people don’t think they need help. Mental afflictions lie to people, telling them it’s fine, everything is fine, you’re fiiiiiine, you don’t need help! So they won’t look for it.
Maybe they don’t want it. They could have been running for a damn long time and they’re just tired of fighting. Even with all of Mr. Williams’s support and popularity and money (that I’m assuming he had) he got tired of running. If what people say is true and kids, family, friends are all amazing reasons to keep on living, can you imagine how much darkness and pain he would have to be in to give that up?
- 6. Not everyone who commits suicide, or wants to, is “crazy”.
I’ve heard this line a lot. Suicidal people are not in their right mind. I don’t think that’s always the case and in my experience it wasn’t. I was clear minded when I thought about it. I knew it would stop the pain. I also knew it was permanent and I have commitment issues. I also had someone very close to me pull me back and show me that there are things worth fighting for and I wasn’t alone and they would help me. They wouldn’t let me miss all the time that I could have. They did it for me, not because they would miss me or mourn me. They did it because they wanted me to be happy. You know who you are, and I will always be grateful.
- 7. Health care in America doesn’t take mental health seriously enough.
I believe this is self-explanatory. Health care is stupidly expensive. Mental health care is even more so, but because you’re not bleeding from the eyeballs or having a chest popper from Alien making a nightly appearance, mental wellness is often passed over. And since people can’t see the injury they don’t think there’s a problem. BTW cancer can have that same hiding manner – until it’s too late.
So what do you do? You don’t have depression, but maybe you’re not so sure about your loved one. You came this far because there is something off in their behavior and you want to check in with them. Maybe you do have depression and you’ve read all this way with me to find something, some truth, because you’re not ready to go yet. All I can offer is what I know and lived through.
- 1. In the right hands, you can beat the episode, but probably not alone.
As I said, talk therapy and changing my environment saved my life – literally. Sometimes you have to put a little trust in a stranger and open your wallet. It sucks. It does. It can also be a tremendous help. Yes, there will be ignorant and insensitive assholes that will comment and jeer, but that is their problem and says way more about them than it does about you. There will also be people who learn how brave you are and how strong you are for reaching out especially at a point where everything is painful and you can’t see the forest for the trees.
- 2. If you know, or think you know someone with depression YOU have to help them.
They might not be able to get help on their own. If you love them and you want them to stay on the earth, it’s your responsibility to help them. Remember, they may have already made a permanent choice based on bad intel – lying brain, feeling abandoned, hopelessness. They’re good with their game plan to die. You have to help them get the professional help they need in order to see that there is potential for more good life instead of the long road of pain they think it inevitably is.
- 3. Don’t head shrink – leave it to the professionals.
You can do a lot of damage trying to psychoanalyze someone, even if it’s well intentioned. There’s a span of belief that each person has. Telling a depressed person that they’re good enough, strong enough, and gosh darn people like them, falls way outside their span of belief. Try convincing an atheist that there is a god and Jesus loves him. That makes for a fun show down at the microbrewery, even the gluten free ones. Professional psychiatrists, psychologists, and other people in the mental health field are really the only ones that should be doing this anyway. They have the skills and years of training to handle it. Reading Depression for Dummies, or having seen that one episode of Dr. Phil are not where you should start.
- 4. Never, ever, ever threaten them with the hospital or psych ward.
This is a death warrant for some people. “I’ll lock you up.” “I’ll have them shove medicine in you.” “The ambulance is on the way.” These are the possible outcomes:
- They stop talking
- They commit to the death plan
- They cut you out of their lives
- They sink deeper into depression
- Their depression is compounded with terror at the threat of being locked up
You don’t ever do this. Ever.
- 5. Be there, but be calm!
If you ever saw a stray cat you’ll know that they bolt at the first sight of a human, dog, or loud sound. The same concept applies here. If you’re going to talk with/support your loved one you have to chill out. I get it. This is scary shit! It’s literally a matter of life and death which makes being calm way more important. If they see you get upset, freaked, nervous, agitated, whatever, they are going to stop talking. THIS IS BAD!! You never want a depressed or suicidal person (passive or active) to stop talking.
- 6. Shut the hell up and LISTEN with your BRAIN (and your ears).
Most people listen to respond. Don’t do that. Listen to understand. Even if what they say is a gibbering mess that ends in tears, *shut up and listen to them*. You don’t have to fix it. You don’t even have to speak! A lot of the time they just need to get it out, like vomit or poison. They need to expel the demon chasing them so they can start to heal. A short while ago, when I was seriously on the edge, being heard derailed a potential mess. Just knowing that I was heard and loved and safe stopped it in its tracks. I can’t stress enough how important it is for the person to feel like they were heard. When this happens it shows them that they matter. Writers say “show, don’t tell.” This is what that looks like in real time.
That does not mean help them along. That’s a whole other topic, one that I am nowhere near qualified to comment on. When I say let them go I mean you have to trust them to make the decisions they want to make for themselves. Yes, it will devastate you to lose someone you love, but maybe it’s devastating for them to be in constant torment. There has to be quality of life, not just quantity. You also have to respect that they are an adult and can make their own decisions – taking into account reason, severity and type of mental disorder. If you’ve done all you can for them, let go. This is out of your span of control. What you’re really trying to control is the disease and threat to life that it causes, and no one can do that. If someone really wants to go, they will. They just won’t talk about it which is why making sure they keep talking is so vital.
Everything has an expiration date: milk, vacations, our lives, even reality TV shows. What we should be doing with the time we’re given is help each other, offer unbiased support, love and a safe harbor. Life is hard! We all know it but many of us bring more children into the world because we know that it can be amazing too. We fall down on taking care of each other and in a world so fraught with harm and sadness we should be kind to people or at least civil. It’s easy enough to get a check list of what can cause depression, but to fully understand it will take more than bullet points. All that text above is just the tip of the iceberg for trying to understand it and it’s from one person’s experience. The best way you can help is to listen with an open mind, love with an open heart, and give support with no strings because you want the best for your loved one and not what is only right for you.