I think it’s time we sat down and talked about depression. Not just because Robin Williams’s death is bringing it forward, but because there’s entirely too much out there that is giving people the wrong idea about what it is and what it isn’t. And, having first-hand experience with it, I can’t not talk about it.
Fair warning that a lot of this will get very personal. I’m writing this so you can learn this, and share with any Well-Meaning Wilma in your life that just plain doesn’t get it. I have had my own fight with it, and trust me when I say it’s not something I’ll soon forget.
That and all those Well-Meaning Wilma people just plain piss me off because they do more damage than they realize.
What it is – and what it isn’t.
Depression isn’t a stretch of ‘the blues’. Let’s get that out of the way. When you’re depressed, you’re not in a sad state of mind that you can sleep off. If there is a single expression that would best explain what depression feels like, it would be oppressive quagmire of involuntary indifference. It’s not what you feel – it’s a lot of what you don’t. In my worst bouts of depression, the only thing that could describe what I felt at the time was numb. I didn’t feel anything. Considering I am a passionate personality – obviously – and I thrive on creativity, to not feel anything was definitely, wholly, completely, not right.
Clinically, depression is an imbalance of brain chemicals, which in turn affects your mental and physical well-being.
You don’t feel sad, so much as you feel as though you don’t see the point in doing the most basic things. You get up in the morning, you get your cup of coffee, and you just don’t see the point in it, even if you love that part of your morning ritual. You go to the park to sit down and read a book, but you don’t go into the park – you just don’t feel like you want to anymore. You have aches and pains where you didn’t have them, and worse, you can’t attribute it to growing older; you know your knees didn’t make that sound three months ago. You think, “I can’t get up this morning” – no reason, just that thought, just that feeling – and it stretches into a week…the a month…and next thing you know, it’s a half a year gone by before you wonder why you don’t like to go to the park anymore.
Worse thing is, you have no control over it.
This is one of the biggest misconceptions about depression: that the sufferer can control it or manage it at will. They can’t. They simply cannot turn on the “happy switch”; such a thing simply doesn’t exist. They can’t think happy thoughts unless they’re constantly medicated. They can’t shake it off. This isn’t something to ‘shake off’ – it’s something to battle through, and that battle will wrangle every little last bit of everything you’ve got before you so much as make ten feet worth of headway out of that quagmire. There is nothing that the depression sufferer can do, on their own, to climb out of it.
It may be a copy-pasta from the prior post, but here you go. I’ve written about depression being like a heavy coat, and it seems to be a fitting description. So here goes.
Think about depression as a very heavy coat that has a mind of its own, and its sole purpose is to confine you and to stifle you until you collapse under it. It’s a coat that slinks up onto you and buttons itself up tight when you aren’t looking, and certainly without your consent. It confines your movements until you struggle to so much as get up. You can think of nothing but the world outside the coat, but because it’s interfering with your line of sight, you can’t participate in it. You know you can remove this coat, but it’s so heavy that you struggle to so much as move a hand towards the buttons. It’s hard for you to breathe wearing this coat, but it won’t get removed on its own and you know it. And you can’t take it off and put it back on at will – the coat won’t let you take it off without a struggle, and you know that you will never want to wear it again. The coat confines your mind too, until you think only within the spectrum that it allows you to think in, confining you to just the inside of your head.
And eventually, your world shrinks. You can see nothing and know nothing but what the coat allows you to see and know. That’s when you don’t see the point in trying to take off the coat anymore. And it only grows heavier. You know there’s a world outside, but you have accepted the weight of the coat, and though you never forget your life before it, you struggle all the more to remember when the coat got onto you, and what the motion is to take it off.
And your body never forgets the coat. Even if you do succeed in ripping it off, and it falls with a dull thunk into a corner, you remember what it was like to carry that weight on you everywhere. You never forget it. You never forget how it feels. And you always have that little smidge of fear in the back of your mind, what if one day you wake up and the coat is back on you? You have no say whatsoever in whether or not you put on the coat – you would never wear it voluntarily, and you’d never wish it on anyone else. You always keep an eye on the coat in its corner, because it never fully disappears. It haunts you, even when you do regain some sort of a normal life after it, it’s never quite the same, because when you look into that corner, there it is, and you are reminded of what it was like to wear it.
In summary, depression confines you to the inside of your head, and it’s never from one’s own doing.
The Well-Meaning Wilmas – and the damage they do.
I have to go there, because I’m pretty sure that most people reading this who had suffered through depression have had at least one Well-Meaning Wilma in their lives. A person, who likely has never gone through depression or has absolutely no real understanding of what it is or what it means, who likes to give their “advice” on how to break free of it. I’m sure a couple of us have been guilty of saying, “Snap out of it!”.
Here’s the thing: none of those well-meaning adages ever work. Not a single one. Never has, never will. In fact, for all of you well-meaning folks out there, if someone around you is depressed, trust me when I say that every time you open your mouth, you’re making things worse.
I’ll explain how, in detail, so there’s no confusion about why that doesn’t work.
“Snap out of it!”/”Shake it off!” – let’s get this straight: you can’t ‘snap out’ of depression. No one ever asks for it in the first place. It’s never a ‘snap-out’ when and if it does lift. It’s more like a very, very slow sunrise that lasts weeks. You know it’s lifting, you know it’s getting brighter, but it has to happen on its own time. You saying to ‘snap out of it’ only demonstrates to the depressed person that you have no understanding of how they feel.
“You have so much to live for!”/”You have such a great job/friends/lover!” – in your opinion only, turtledove. The depressed person doesn’t necessarily agree. How do you know their depression hadn’t cost them their job? How do you know that the depressed person didn’t have a friend turn on them, and that triggered the downward spiral? Again, you’re only showing that you have no idea how they feel. Moreover, you’re making assumptions about their situation. Two strikes in one, and both of them tell the depressed person that they can’t confide in you. This doesn’t help in the slightest.
“Can’t you just…not be depressed?” – quite obviously, no, and thank you for showing your ignorance of the condition.
“Well, God says [insert Bible verse]” – …no, just no. Shut up. God has nothing to do with it. If God was so great, then He wouldn’t have given the brain the capacity to do this to itself. Think about that for a second. Keep your religion to yourself when it’s not you going through it.
“You’re just doing this for attention.” – If I could only encompass in words just how angry I get when someone says that to a depressed person. And yes, I’ve heard that said multiple times. This completely and wholly devalues what they’re going through, which is the single worst thing anyone going through depression can experience on top of the condition itself. You have no right to devalue their feelings. If you don’t understand what they’re going through, that’s fine, but you have no right whatsoever to claim their experience isn’t real because of your own ignorance thereof.
“Think of your family/friends!” – Really? The depressed person already does – they’re wondering how to leave them so they wouldn’t have to deal with what they’re going through. They’re wondering how they would be better off without them. Selfish? No. Not at all. Trying to keep them safe from the quagmire? Yes. Bet you never thought of it that way.
“Be positive!” and “Be more positive!” – again: shut up. Seriously, shut up. This is the single least helpful thing you can say. There’s no way to ‘be positive’ in depression that doesn’t involve heavy medication, drugs, or alcohol. Depression is not, I repeat is not, something a person can control. Trust me, if it were, there would be no depressed people in the world.
Before you ever judge someone for drinking, etc., ask yourself if you know why they’re drinking. Alcoholism isn’t a disease in and of itself, it’s a symptom of something else. Alcohol is a depressant (as in, opposite of stimulant) that dulls feelings, inhibitions, and perception – it’s the perfect self-medication for someone who doesn’t want to be inside their own head. Addictive personalities gravitate to anything addictive, but a depressed person is that much more likely to gravitate to a anything in the depressant spectrum of pharmacology – anything, really, if it means they won’t spend any time inside their head for some time. In short: never, ever tell anyone to be positive/more positive/cheer up. Unless you have a bottle in your hand, cheering up is just simply not possible. Know what it does for the depressed person when you say that? It tells them you don’t understand how they feel. It tells them you’re judging them. It tells them that they can’t trust you. Which in turn makes the depression worse.
“Well, I was depressed too, and I’m fine, so you can be too!” – if you’re saying that, chances are you were never depressed in the first place. In my experience, as both a depression survivor and as someone who had held more than a few hands of those going through it, absolutely no one who ever experienced genuine clinical depression ever says that. It’s not a one-size-fits-all condition, and not a one-size-fits-all treatment. Again: you’re not helping.
You may read this and ask, “Well, what can I say, then?”
And this is the thing: you shouldn’t say. You should listen. The only words out of your mouth should be, “Talk to me.” No more. Nothing else. Because the depressed person doesn’t need to hear anything. They need to be heard. Because by the time they’re reaching out for help, they just want a reminder that there’s at least one person on the other side who will listen to them.
And how can you listen if you’re giving platitudes?
The Public Eye – and how depression makes actors of us all.
This is something that I also touched on in the prior post. I know that Robin Williams’s death had taken us all for a shock, and I have seen quite a lot of wholly ignorant statements on what it looked like from the outside.
Let’s not forget that Robin Williams was a public figure. Moreover, he was an actor. Putting on a performance was his livelihood. He was a master at putting on a show for the public; he thrived on making people laugh by putting on a show. But as I wrote about the suicide of L’Wren Scott, there is a gilded shell, and the more public a person is, the more focused they become on appearances, the more disconnected the shell becomes from the real person underneath.
Robin Williams had to keep putting on the show. He had to keep putting on the mask that said everything was okay. He had to make people laugh, because while they were laughing, they wouldn’t see that he was not okay. And the truth is, people in the public eye are a lot more likely to suffer from depression, and due to the money they earn from their work, they are a lot more free to self-medicate than others. What’s absolutely horrifying is that tabloids eat this shit up and make a show out of documenting someone’s breakdown for people to point and laugh at, and as a result, the people who eat this up forget very readily that the person on the other side of the page and the camera lens is every bit a real human being, and that the newspapers are publicizing something that, if it were happening to someone who wasn’t a public figure, would be seen as an unmistakable sign that that person needs help.
We as a voyeuristic celebrity culture have created a pressure cooker for the very people whom we admire/ogle/look at/hear. The pressure to put on the happy faces and appear as though nothing is wrong has grown immensely ever since the media has gotten the idea that public figures aren’t entitled to privacy – as though they stop being human when they start being a public figure.
One of the scariest photos I’ve seen was of Kate Middleton – Princess Kate as she is now, I should say – walking down the street…and behind her was a veritable wall of paparazzi camera lenses. I wish I could say I was joking. That image was honestly terrifying. I have to hand it to Kate for having the fortitude to keep going with that sort of a magnifying glass trained on her for the benefit of the gawping public. But it also told me the kind of people that we have become. We think nothing of a single person having to walk past a wall of camera lenses dedicated to their every move, as long as we the viewers get our fill.
But in truth, we are not so different from those in the public eye, especially if it’s us who suffers from depression. We too put on a show. We put on a show for our friends, our coworkers, our families, spouses, children if we have them – we put on an incredibly convincing show that tells them that everything is okay. We laugh and joke and hold court and talk on the phone like we used to, and we hide it. We hide that in the morning, we have to psych ourselves up to get out of bed. We hide what’s really inside our minds, all to keep the Well-Meaning Wilmas in our lives at bay. We don’t want to hear the platitudes, we don’t want to hear the tropes, but we’d love someone to listen to us. Just listen. Nothing else. Or even just let us park our heads onto their shoulders for a stretch.
The trouble is that we don’t always have someone who will listen. In our viewing, voyeuristic, entertainment-hungry culture, we are a lot more likely to attract a slew of people who’d love to watch us struggle through the quagmire than we are likely to find someone who will offer a hand, a shoulder, and an ear to help us out of it.
And that’s how we learn to act when depression comes knocking. It’s a self-preservation impulse, and it is strong enough to make Oscar winners of even the plainest of us all.
As you can probably surmise, I had my own battle with it. I heard all the Well-Meaning Wilma platitudes I listed above, and then some. To say that it wasn’t an easy path might be an understatement. I don’t want to jinx it, but I can tell you that my time with the coat is, very likely, the absolute worst I’ve been in my life, and if I can survive that, then I can survive anything.
Thank all the lucky stars out there for the awesome friends I had at the time. Thanking my lucky stars for the ones I have now. Really. Without them, this struggle would’ve been exponentially worse.
But what I want to talk about in this segment isn’t myself or my own time with the coat. Plenty enough for that. What I want to talk to you about here is what it takes to climb out of it. If there is someone who is depressed in your life, or you yourself are wearing the coat now, then this will give you the idea of what getting out of it entails.
As the title of the section says, it’s getting personal. And getting through depression to find your way out really is. A huge part of getting out of depression is acknowledging, and fully feeling, the weight of the coat, and revealing that to someone on the outside. Everything you hide, everything you don’t want other people to know – it has to come out. This involves feeling everything that the condition has numbed down. You have to feel the entire spectrum of everything that the condition brings before you can say, “I need help”.
And I will warn you in no uncertain terms: it will hurt. It will hurt like a motherfucker. Part of depression is that it suppresses a normal emotional spectrum, but once the dam breaks, you will feel everything at once. Your emotional spectrum will go into a complete tailspin once that happens. But…that is also how you know that right now, if you reach out for help, you will be able to receive it.
That last bit is important. Too many times, depressed people cannot receive help. Not that there isn’t any available, no. They can’t perceive as such, and they can’t absorb it. It’s all part and parcel of what depression does to the mind. The numbing extends to how you perceive the outside world. Even if someone is right there waiting for you to reach out your hand and grasp theirs, it still depends on whether or not you are actually able to lift your hand to do it.
Self-medicating may seem very self-destructive from the outside. And I’ll make no bones of it: it is. However, there is always a point where self-medicating won’t work anymore. One fine day, you’ll be staring at the martini glass, and wondering, “Why did I get another refill?” And this is a very important point in a depressed individual: this is actually the point where the depression reaches its peak. It’s also a very dangerous point. At this stage, one of two things can happen: the person decides to reach out and get help, or they look for a stronger method of self-medication.
It wholly depends on two things: the individual…and whoever is around them at the time. This is why you keep a close eye on the people around you. Don’t judge, just listen to your own gut, and ask, “Is there anything amiss here?” Someone whose maximum is 2-3 drinks does not all of a sudden start downing shots. You will know: your gut doesn’t lie.
And once you are ready to say, “I need help” – always look at the people who have been around you the longest before you open up about it. Chances are, they already know something wasn’t okay. Chances are they may have caught on. But you will know very well who the real friends in your circle are those who will stick with you through the “I need help”. You will lose people as a byways of coming out of the quagmire. But don’t dwell on the ones you lose: dwell on the ones who will see you through the end of it. These will be the people who know you best, and these will be the people who will be there for life.
This is something I cannot easily write. I can only link you to this post as to what suicide isn’t.
The period leading up to suicide is honestly one of the darkest journeys through one’s own head. Ending one’s life is seen as the only relief from that pain. So many times I’d see something like, “Suicide is a permanent answer to a temporary problem” as a way to convince someone to not do it. That doesn’t work. Why? Because a suicidal person doesn’t see it as a temporary problem, and worst is that it might be too late for them to see that it’s temporary. When someone is in the prison of their own head, they don’t see what the person on the outside sees. Worse, they can’t.
To end one’s own life is tragic. It’s a loss to mental illness – and make no mistake, that depression is an illness, one that no one invites or ever seeks out – and it’s a loss of the will to live first. We have a powerful survival instinct, us humans. To want to end your own life is that survival instinct tipping its hat, breaking its rapier, and surrendering it to the coat. “I give up,” it says. “I can’t continue this fight.” Suicide is the person finally crumbling under the weight of the coat.
It is not selfish, regardless of what you may believe. Why? Because the suicidal person genuinely believes that the people around them are better off without them there. Illogical? Possibly. Unnecessary? Likely so. But selfish? No. Never. Because the suicidal person is not thinking of themselves apart from being a burden on those around them.
It’s a scream for help, but if no one hears it, or worse, they go Well-Meaning Wilma on that person, that would be the tipping point for that survival instinct to say, “I’m done.”
This is why the absolute worst thing you can ever say to someone is, “You’re being selfish, think of the other people.”
They already do think of the other people. And calling them selfish only pushes them further towards the edge.
Don’t rail against Robin Williams. No one saw the coat on him, and no one saw how heavy it got until he just couldn’t handle another minute of it. Never call him selfish, not after he had given so much of himself to the arts and, through the arts, to us. Remember him for what Herculean effort it must have taken him over the years to have made us laugh the way he had. Think of what it cost him, through wearing the coat, to get up and do his job as a public figure keeping the spark alive in all of us.
Yes, there is an afterwards to depression.
As you may have grasped from this post, depression never goes away completely.
That is the other insidious part of it all. There’s no such thing as over for good with depression. There just isn’t. You will have bad days. You will have more than one bad day in a row. You will fight with everything you’ve got to keep steady through those bad days, and they pass, eventually. They will pass.
I’ve been there. I have bad days once in a while. I have days where I wonder why I bothered getting out of bed. I have days where my shoulders and back ache in a way that reminds me of being curled up on a couch with no inclination to move. I have a memory like a hard drive; once in a while, a moment will come back to me, a moment that I tried to format out of my brain.
How do I deal when I get like this?
By going out with friends. By going out to walk in a tree-lined neighborhood with my music on. By choosing a city on a map and looking up when there’s a good show to go to there, and getting the hell out of dodge for a weekend. By photographing something, anything, really. By looking at the books I’ve written, the pictures I’ve taken, the achievements, the travel list I’ve been crossing off, by reminding myself that I had clawed my way out of the quagmire before, and that I was able to accomplish everything I dreamed I could. By reminding myself that there’s still more to do, still more people to meet, still more music to hear, still more stories to write.
Because I know that it could get much, much worse than that one bad day, and that I’ve survived worse than the bad day…and that I can survive anything.
Even the coat.