|Robin Williams and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting (Miramax, 1997)|
i’ve wrestled with how to write this one, but it needs to be written. so here it goes.
Robin Williams gave a lot in his life. he gave laughter, he delivered powerful performances, he supported our troops and advocated for St. Jude’s. but in his death, tragic as it is, he gave one more gift to us: a chance to have a serious talk in our culture about depression.
after all, our materialistic culture “gets” why people who lose their jobs and pensions commit suicide; these scenarios – sadly – make “sense” to us. what we don’t understand is what Solomon has been telling us for 3000 years: that even the rich end up in the ground. and so this week, our culture’s focus has been on depression – how could a man with everything end his life?
if all we take away from the tragic suicide of Robin Williams are some good movies and trivia, then we’ve lost a golden opportunity to really understand depression. but that does mean having to talk about it. so…
like many others out there, i was never clinically diagnosed or medicated or hospitalized for it. it was not the result of an abusive or broken home – in fact, i have wonderful parents who loved me well, taught me truth, and are a great model of marriage. my depression is not a result of a specific trauma – i was born with it.
so this is very hard for me, especially knowing that family will read this. i’ve never made this public to more than twenty or so people, but am forcing myself to write this. i’ve always been a better writers than speaker, so can communicate here more clearly than i could in a face-to-face.
i’ve found a silver lining in my own struggles, as over time i’ve been able to counsel others who are struggling. depression looks different in different people, and yet it is strikingly the same person to person.
i want to get to my main point sooner than later, but i’ll detail my own struggles with this affliction as quickly as i can.
around high school was really when it kicked in for me, which is no surprise to anyone who knows anything about human development. there is a lot of change happening in those adolescent years – biological changes, spiritual changes, mental changes, family changes – and any one of those things can trigger what was latent all along.
i only recently learned from a psychological assessment i had during our adoption process that i have a proclivity to put all stress around me – not just my own – onto my shoulders, and that i’ve had a habit of doing so my entire life. again, this is not the result of a major trauma like many who suffer from depression, but is just part of how i’m “wired.” anyway, this caused my cortisol levels to spike around the time i was in high school, triggering my depression. which explains why this became a comfort to me.
but this past week – with the suicide of Robin Williams – has shown me that there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand depression.
i think the first – and possibly biggest – misunderstanding people have about depression is that they think it’s just a synonym for “really sad,” and don’t understand what the big deal is. but there’s a huge difference between the two.
it’s actually emotionally healthy to get sad, and everyone gets sad at some point. a loved one passes away, your dog passes away, your favorite baseball team has an awful season.
but it’s not healthy to be depressed. and not everyone gets curled-up-on-your-bed-hard-to-breathe-tears-for-hours-hyperventilating-mumbling-to-yourself-clawing-at-your-own-skin-your-friends-have-to-drag-you-out-of-bed-and-force-you-to-eat-because-you-haven’t-in-days depressed.
and it was this misunderstanding that kept me from even recognizing my symptoms as depression.
so i kept my feelings carefully hidden – especially since i didn’t understand what was happening, and therefore was unsure of how to talk about it. and i was a good enough actor to put the mask on and cover it up from pretty much everyone i knew.
while i never attempted suicide, i certainly thought about it a lot and even made plans. i would’ve made it look like an accident, because, of course, even in death my depression would have to be kept secret. there would be no note, because then my family might just beat themselves up about it and i didn’t want that. it wasn’t their fault.
ironically, one of the things that saved me from ever attempting this was knowing that my plan wasn’t foolproof. “what if i survived but lost the use of my legs? then i couldn’t run anymore. oh yeah, i love running – i should stay alive so i can keep doing that.”
there are certainly spiritual aspects at play with depression, too. that’s why finding a small group of guys in college encouraging me to be honest about my struggles was a huge breakthrough as well. mind, body, and spirit are all inter-connected, after all, and one does affect the other.
writing also became a coping mechanism for me, a way to vent my feelings in a productive way.
but for creative types like myself and the late Williams, creative pursuits can be a blessing or a curse. sometimes, it is the tool that helps someone open up about their struggles. for some, though, their creativity is a way to conceal it from the world, a mask. just because something is a coping mechanism doesn’t make it good. illicit drugs can be a coping mechanism, after all.
i was reading just the other day that when Robin Williams was overweight as a child, and because of this, he was ostracized by the other kids at school. so his coping mechanism was to come up with silly voices to entertain himself. this made me profoundly sad to learn.
another misunderstanding is that those suffering from depression are still in control of their emotions and just need to get it together. but true depression makes it difficult to process emotions the way we are supposed to.
for example, it is rare for me to cry in front of people – i don’t like showing that side of myself even if i am internally very sad or upset by something. but put me in front of the right movie, the right scene, and the tears will flow. i can read news stories and see images that make me sad and SHOULD make me weep, yet i don’t. but a totally fictional movie with a talking dog? oh, the tears, the tears, why won’t they stop? this is not a healthy way to process feelings.
in our marriage, Christa has seen me suffer through two depression-induced anxiety attacks. the first was about two years into our marriage. and i wish i could say the last one was a long time ago, but the truth is that it happened just three Sundays ago and lasted for about two hours.
it’s not something you can predict when it will come. it’s usually triggered by moments of high stress, but it’s hard to know when those are coming along. otherwise, we’d all just rather avoid them.
another big misunderstanding is that those with depression are making 100% conscious choices 100% of the time.
the idea that suicide is completely a personal choice is a flawed one based purely on opinion and is not supported by actual neuroscience. did Robin Williams take his own life? yes. was this a choice? well, that’s more complicated.
so to quote this Psychology Today article that breaks down the science for us laypeople:
“Brain imaging studies using MRI scanning show that … depression symptoms are associated with abnormalities in specific areas of the brain, including the hippocampus (the memory center), the anterior cingulate (the brain’s conflict-resolution area), and the prefrontal cortex (involved with planning and executing activities).”
so, tell me – if depression affects the memory center – meaning it can disable any good memories you have – the brain’s anterior cingulate – meaning you can’t coherently resolve conflict – and the prefrontal cortex – meaning your plans and acts are manipulated – then does that sound like that person is really in control of what they’re doing?
when i’m having an anxiety attack, it’s hard for me to perform certain tasks. in my most recent one, Christa had to coach me in my breathing and doing something as simple as turning over on the bed.
likewise, those who decide to end their life feel so out of control of their life, that they don’t even feel in control of ending it. their hands may be the ones holding the gun, the knife, tying the noose, but these actions are substantially motivated and enabled by their depression. i won’t go so far as some people to call depression a “disease.” i think people like that word because it sounds “nicer” than “mental affliction.” but that’s what it is.
but neither should suicide be glorified. to say the person is “free” is a lie. i’m not saying you can’t celebrate the good that was in their life – by all means do so. what would be the point in demonizing them? i myself have celebrated Williams’ life by watching a flick or two. but that’s the key – celebrate their life, not their death. those who glorify suicide as a release defeat their own purpose, because despite their good intentions, they end up celebrating the person’s death. in short, Robin Williams didn’t escape his depression – he was defeated by it. not exactly a feel-good moment.
honesty about struggles helps, but it’s not everything. after all, Williams had been very open about his struggles with addictions and even his depression. but openness does not equal healing. after all, you can be honest with others and not with yourself.
therapy can help, but not everyone can afford it, and improvement can come slowly. and medication can help, but it can also become a crutch, so that’s hardly a perfect solution either.
so is this an unsolvable problem? on this side of the Kingdom, probably so.
but vast improvements can be made in our culture and how we view mental afflictions, specifically depression because of how insidious it is. it hides itself well and is easy to justify as a mere “mood.”
for believers, this is especially important. sanctuaries are filled Sunday after Sunday with people suffering in silence, seeking hope, wanting a way out of the darkness. we can’t give it to them, but Jesus can. He has given it to me. i have not conquered my depression, and i don’t need to. He will do that for me as i continue to trust in Him and find my joy and identity in Him and not in my broken self. it may take until the day i die, and that’s okay. suffering has been ordained for all of us, in one form or another.
i don’t normally write blogs as long as this and actually trimmed it down quite a bit from the original version. but this is a very important topic to me and countless others, so i felt it merited a more thorough and personal approach. as this new week comes and our newsfeeds and blogs fill up with new stories and new controversies, i hope this particular conversation won’t stop, but that our culture will become more sensitive and educated about depression and the devastating toll it takes.