About twenty-four hours ago I opened Facebook and found my newsfeed flooded with the news of Robin Williams’ death and the reactions to it. The deaths of famous people are strange events, bringing out the deepest emotions because we felt we knew them, and also, in some people, a kind of judgementalism, a kind of assumption that it’s all right to comment and speculate.
And so, this evening, I saw a post refuting another post by someone called Matt Walsh, whom I had never heard of before, but have just discovered is a blogger and talk show radio host. According to his own Facebook page, he is a ‘news personality and sayer of truths’, and since a post he wrote about Robin Williams has gone viral, it seems he is getting very shrill indeed about people reading what he wrote and interpreting it in a way that doesn’t suit him.
I have read his post, and it has made me very sad, because he clearly doesn’t understand depression, and is fortunate to have never suffered from it. He writes of having bad days and feeling down, apparently assuming that this is how depression is, but that is not depression. He states, “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice’. He goes on to write that suicide is ‘a complete, total, absolute rejection of life’. He also writes that ‘joy is the only thing that defeats depression’ and that depression is not just a chemical imbalance, it’s not just clinical, it’s spiritual. As you can probably imagine, his views have brought a hail of criticism and howling disapproval.
But as I already wrote, his views don’t have me howling disapproval at him through cyberspace, but rather I am very sad that someone who clearly has quite a voice (apparently he’s on Huffington Post) is perpetuating these misunderstandings. He’s repeating clichés and myths about mental illness, and in doing so maybe making things harder for other people suffering from depression. Ironically, in the middle of his post he does make a good point about the media coverage of Robin Williams’ suicide and how this might affect others contemplating killing themselves. This is an important point, since when there is extensive media coverage of a suicide by a famous person there is a spike in other people killing themselves. I’m glad he made that point. I’m just sorry he didn’t think that his own words might have an impact too.
So once more for the record, I was clinically depressed at university and therefore feel I can say with some authority, I know what it feels like. I saw my doctor every week, I took anti-depressants and I talked through all the things that had got me to that place. I never tried to kill myself, but I often had the ideation, the thought that it would be so good if everything would just stop. It was so wearing to wake up every single day to feel a heavy weight like a cold stone where my heart should have been. It was exhausting using up what small reserves of energy I had presenting a functioning appearance to the rest of the world. It was comforting, in a way, to know that I had that option, even though I also knew that I wasn’t going to do it.
I lived, or existed through that reality for two years, but looking back on that time I can’t remember much about it. I got through it, that’s all I can say with any confidence. I remember a doctor saying to me once that I had been taking anti-depressants for over a year and ‘that was a long time for a first depression’. I don’t think I responded at the time but know I thought, I don’t intend this to be my first depression. This is my only depression. I am going to deal with this stuff and never come back this way again. I was fortunate that the depression I suffered was a reaction to family dynamics and it could be worked through, dealt with.
But even over twenty-five years later I am still afraid of it. Not afraid of it like I was in the year or two after I recovered, but still, it casts a long shadow. Today, not every bad week, run of bad luck or season of grey, miserable weather has me fearing that the depression is coming back, but I think the echoes of what I lived through will always stay with me.
While I was in the middle of it all, my closest friend was not very helpful or supportive at all. At least, that is how I remember it, because the strongest memories are of the times when she told me to snap out of it, when she pointed out someone blind or in a wheelchair, and pronounced me more fortunate than him or her. Her comments didn’t help, didn’t snap me out of anything, but did leave me feeling a little more disappointed in myself, guilty that I was so pathetic and miserable that I was so hard to be with.
In the end, joy didn’t defeat my depression. Anti-depressants, counseling and time did that. I was lucky I had time. The joy came after the depression lifted. Some people don’t have time and don’t recover. For many people, their depression is not a reaction to the awful things other family members throw at them, but an imbalance in their brain’s chemistry. There are medicines that can help if the right balance of drugs can be found. Some people live with that cold, dark stone where their heart should be, for years, decades.
Surely no one ever watched Robin Williams being interviewed and didn’t realise that here was a man who had some personal demons, some mental pain, however you choose to describe it. His genius came at a high price. From what I have read today he struggled for many years to find a way through.
In the end, I am reminded of what a friend wrote to me when her brother killed himself. He had lived with depression for many years, but in the end, she wrote, ‘He just couldn’t make it any more.’
Of course, suicide is a reflexive verb. Robin Williams killed himself. Many more tens of thousands will kill themselves this year. But to call it a choice, I feel, ignores or denies the reality of clinical depression. By the time someone kills themselves, I don’t believe they are looking at a range of options and thinking, I’ll choose that one. Looking at that person’s life from another perspective we may see all kinds of options, but that doesn’t mean they can.
Leaving aside the suicides connected with economic reasons, there are huge numbers of people suffering from depression, and they need support and understanding. They don’t need to be stigmatised or dismissed with clichés. They need patience, support and compassion. And sometimes, when someone completes a suicide, instead of trying to make sense of the desperate thoughts of a deeply troubled mind, instead of trying to pigeonhole what they did so it suits us, maybe all we can think is, they tried as hard as they could, but in the end, they just couldn’t make it any more.