Last month, I was sitting on my sofa with my laptop when I saw the headline “Robin Williams Found Dead.” I was shocked and deeply saddened by the news and the loss. It seemed like such a conundrum as to why someone with his persona would commit suicide. As more information was revealed about his addictions, his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, and his dealing with severe depression, I totally understood how this unfortunate incident could occur.
Of course, the naysayers had to emerge and utter incoherent ramblings about cowardice and his leftist views that made him unhappy. All of the unintelligent garbage that gets reported needs to be tossed away promptly. Suicide is not an act of cowardice, but a result of depression or other mental illnesses. Robin Williams’s death is a tragedy, but if it can help start a national conversation about depression and mental illness then something positive can come from an untimely death.
It seems that many people view mental illness through a stereotype of straitjackets and padded cells. Mental illness encompasses many forms and can be as blatant as someone with agitated, incoherent behavior. It also can have very subtle signs, which makes a person appear to have nothing wrong with them. I understand the symptoms and the impact, because I suffer from severe depression and anxiety. It is a hard condition to understand because it affects emotions. This makes it difficult for those unfamiliar with the disease to comprehend as a real illness.
Believe me, it is just as real as diabetes, cancer, hypertension or any other disease that hides beneath the surface. It requires treatment just the same as diabetics require medication to keep their condition stable.
Depression is as old as recorded history. Years ago people thought of it as melancholia. The prevailing notion would be “he just needs to pull himself up by his bootstraps.” It was an uneducated thought that if you were sad, you would just get glad again. It was a self-inflicted pity party. The more the condition was studied and as medical advances were made, clinicians realized that there are many factors and conditions involved with the illness. Depression has many causes and can stem from genetic predisposition, life events, faulty mood regulation by the brain, and medical problems.
Whatever the specific cause for depression, there are always chemicals in the brain involved. There are many drugs available for treatment, but each person can react differently due to internal chemical reactions to the medications. The complexity of the illness is daunting for practitioners. They can’t simply review similar symptoms and think that the treatment will be the same for each patient.
I have taken many of the medications prescribed for depression and anxiety. It can be simply a trial and error procedure to find the right drug. It appears that anxiety and depression go hand in hand in most cases. A doctor once told me that most sufferers are what he refers to as “anxiously depressed.” It can be hard to separate one from the other when the disease takes hold. Most people can have a day where they feel down, and there is nothing wrong with being sad. Grief can certainly bring emotions to an all-time low, but most people recover, and don’t get stuck in a spiral that can become all-consuming. The inability to control those feelings of helplessness and despair are what individuals with depression experience.
For people to think that suicide is a coward’s way out is like thinking that someone who succumbed to cancer didn’t fight hard enough. Both outcomes are the result of a disease. Suicide and thinking of death are serious symptoms of depression. Talking about suicide is a cry for help – don’t ignore it. Be aware of the signs of depression so that you can help yourself or a friend.
Common symptoms of depression and suicide are:
- Loss of interest in daily activities
- Irritability to almost everyone and everything
- Sleep changes (insomnia or oversleeping)
- Apathy, hopelessness
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Talk of death or dying
- Calling or visiting people to say goodbye
- Acting recklessly as if having a death wish
- Expressing strong feelings of being trapped or feeling hopeless
Only through a dialog and a clear understanding of the disease can we help those who deal every day with depression. Compassion, not complacency, is the key in helping sufferers fight to remain in control. Medical professionals should be contacted for therapy and treatment just the way a cancer patient receives chemotherapy and radiation.
I want individuals who just don’t get it, or can’t understand how suicide can seem to be the only way out, to hear firsthand what the disease is like. I want them to know from someone who suffers from depression how it can feel to live inside the illness.
My depression is definitely genetic. I think in some form I have always suffered from its effects. It is an ominous shadow that follows me. Sometimes it kicks at my heels and I feel it peripherally, and other times it wraps its arms around me and pulls me down into darkness. For lack of a better term, I can call it “my dark passenger,” a term used in the Showtime series Dexter.
It is a feeling of complete hopelessness where there is no escape. The voice in my head is my enemy, and there is a nonstop monologue of negativity. It destroys self-esteem and hints at a future of gloom and despair. It speaks irrationally, but the nonstop propaganda becomes my reality. It is a hateful form that steps inside my body and takes over. The evil puppet master wants to force you into that dark cave where you huddle under blankets and want the world to go away. It wants me to grab for that extra cocktail to ease the pain. It wants me to take that additional Xanax to numb the constant mental knife stabs. It wants me to eat that extra cookie as comfort food, and then berates me for gaining an extra pound. It wants to consume me.
The twenty-four hour a day internal monologue is tiring, and sometimes I just want to shut my brain off. So you see, I can understand the depths to which a person suffering from depression can reach. A few months ago, I found myself parked in my garage, my car running and the garage door closed. My iPod was playing my favorite tunes. I suddenly felt like this could be the time to just lie back and let the carbon monoxide lull me to sleep. I would be stopping the nasty demon inside, the grief from the loss of my mother, and the feeling of being a burden to those who were trying to support me. What a perfect way to escape my dark passenger. Throw him out of the car.
The music soothed me and a sense of calm would stop his voice. I relaxed for about fifteen minutes waiting to feel sleepy. “Shouldn’t I feel something by now?” The voice in my head was growing impatient. “Maybe you should have planned this better. You should have done research to see how long carbon monoxide takes to have an effect. You’re stupid!”
In that moment, I realized it was the evil voice urging me to end my life. My ongoing psychological counseling, medication, and learning about cognitive-behavioral therapy gave me a moment of clarity. I shut off my car. I knew it was the irrational stranger inside trying to push me off the ledge. It was a power struggle and I had won the round.
I realize there will always be a fight against the ravages of depression. I consistently work to arm myself against the unwelcome voice that distorts the truth. With practice, I can develop a stronger rational voice that sheds light on the dark one. It is like flinging open a window on a vampire and watching him smolder. It can be diminished. Communication and support help me realize that depression doesn’t mean the end of the road.
It continues to be a journey. I need to find different paths where I can bury the darkness. For me, I have great professionals helping and strong support from family. I have learned to communicate my feelings and not keep them inside, as my nasty inner voice has always advised me. I am working on managing stress and reinventing myself. I am finding my life’s calling. My treadmill had been dusted off, and I am working on that endorphin rush. I am trying to make myself resilient and build a stronger armor.
People who are dealing with depression need to ask for help. They can’t go it alone. There is nothing wrong with admitting to being overwhelmed. Finding a strong support system is very important. Open up and confide in someone and contact mental health professionals. Therapy and medication can help one cope with symptoms.
Recovery from depression can be affected by the choices that are made. They don’t have to be difficult, but they can have a significant impact:
- Regular exercise and sleep
- Developing a schedule and routine to keep you on track
- Stress management
- Journaling – put your thoughts on paper and out of your head
- Relaxation techniques – yoga, meditation
- Diet changes – healthy eating
- Reading for relaxation or education about the disease
If I can help someone with depression find comfort in knowing that there is help, or educate those who are trying to understand the disease, then I am stronger for the effort. I will not carry a stigma or be afraid to speak of the illness. To remain silent feeds the negativity and increases the isolation. I want people to know that while suicide ends a life, it is depression that kills.