Wednesday, August 13, 2014

This Present Darkness: Depression, Hope, and the Struggle Between Them

The sudden and tragic death of Robin Williams has rekindled a discussion surrounding depression and its effects not only on the individual who suffers from it but also what it means to the friends and family members of the individual. Many find it shocking that someone like Williams whose life was spent as a beacon of laughter for millions of individuals could choose to end it all.

I'm not. Because I all too well understand the struggle he faced.

Some have taken to the airwaves and social media to condemn his actions, claiming that he was a coward.

His best film, in my opinion.
I can't, because anyone who has to find the strength day by day to simply get out of bed and keep going is impossible to label a "coward" or "weak." Having the audacity to condemn someone for a battle you know nothing about is the epitome of cowardice and cruelty.

Living with depression is exactly what the name implies: you live with it, just as you would live with a partner or spouse. It is there constantly, always in the back of your mind if not confronting you directly in the eyes when you look in the mirror. It is a state of being, not a phase you're going through, a rough patch, or temporary blip on your emotional radar.

What seems incredulous to many is that Williams, who seemed to be as larger than life in person as many of the characters he portrayed were, had this internal bleakness, starkness, and depth of pain that could not lift his spirits as he did for so many of us. "He acted so happy," "He was funny," and "He always made people laugh" are just a few of the seemingly contradictory actions in his life that make the tragedy of him taking his own life seem that much confusing and difficult to understand.

Again: I all too well understand. Those same sentiments have been said about me.

Perhaps some of us who struggle with depression erect this facade to distract both ourselves and others from what's really going on inside. It's not fakery (Williams was a remarkably gifted actor, but nobody's that good), as the clown and prankster are parts of our personas. We perhaps gravitate towards the other end of the emotional spectrum because to spend all our time where we feel emotionally drawn to would be utterly unbalanced and unhealthy. And there is just enough in us that cries out for peace and wholeness that understands the dangers of living in a perpetual imbalance. We may ignore this voice for seasons in our lives, but it remains as a tether - sometimes through a friend, family member, doctor, pastor, whomever - that gives us a reason to continue to at the very least look towards the light.

There is a wide, wide chasm between being depressed and having depression. Sadness or being depressed is often brought on by an incident or circumstance in your life, and is only temporary in comparison of length. Depression isn't just triggered; that emotional gun remains continually cocked, and the hammer can strike with the slightest jar to your life. And depression lingers, holding a tight reign on you for years, decades, or most of your life.

In high school, I kinda looked like I had it together somewhat: known but not "popular" in school, friends in most cliques, a leader within my youth group at church, moderately academically gifted, and my car wasn't an utter piece of crap. In public, I sang, acted, spoke at debates, and was out there for the world to see and interact with.

But the number of nights I sat alone in my bedroom in the dark with my door shut, alone with my thoughts of how ultimately worthless I was, how if I was gone no one would miss me, and how this sense of loneliness and isolation I felt would be with me throughout my entire life, making the sum of my life worth nothing at all...those nights can't be numbered. There were too many of them.

I never cried. I wasn't sad. It instead felt like a hollowness was in my chest, filled only by the consistent, unending sensation of the weight of me not being worthy of even being born.

Going to college didn't change these feelings. All that changed was that since I had a roommate for most of my undergrad days, there was someone I couldn't hide from. I operated from the presumption that if I acted un-Sonny-like, he would more than likely ask what was up. It was only in grad school when I began seeing a therapist that years of layers of hardened shells began to crack and I started to confront the darkness I carried with me.

I never took drugs to mask the pain (I hate needles). I never drank heavily to numb the pain. But don't mistake my inaction through these mediums for strength or bravery; I simply covered my pain through other actions damaging to my body and mind. Primarily, I hoped that if I ignored it long enough it might go away. I stopped eating. I was tempted to start cutting myself. I shut myself out of friendships and intentionally sabotaged some romantic relationships. I tried to kill myself emotionally, wishing that my physical end would come because I just gave up on everything.

These days, I'm better. Somewhat. Mainly. Mostly. It depends. I no longer physically sit in a darkened room, and I've learned how to keep myself out of one emotionally - but there are days, still, where I find myself sliding back into that mental state (part of which I wrote about here).

Williams wasn't a coward. He was a man whose artistry spoke to untold thousands of us who could connect with the gravitas he gave in his performances. His bravery on and off screen in living through the pain he felt should not be overshadowed by his choice at the end. Neither you nor I know the circumstances that led to his decision, if it was out of fear, pain, or a sensation of loss that could only be alleviated by taking what he thought was the only option.

Williams had a disease. Not a disease in the way some might consider, thinking all he had to do was make a run to CVS for an over-the-counter medication so that he could take two "Get Over It" pills and be better in the morning. Like most diseases, mixing drugs or alcohol into the equation can cause a worse reaction, something he was all to familiar with. But he was making strides in choosing to remove these additives to his pain.

Williams was not alone in his struggle, no matter how he felt.

I am not alone in my struggle, no matter how I feel at times.

You are not alone in your struggle.

Talk to someone. Reach out for a coffee date with a friend, family member, minister, teacher, or anyone you trust. If they don't understand your struggle, reach out to someone else. Don't take the ignorance of one person to be a definitive answer that everyone will treat you that way.

Depression is real. All too real.

But so is hope.

1 comment:

Patricia J Masterson said...

sonny. this one got me, vibrating way down deep where things are secret and lonely. i was staring with incredulous "you too?" eyes as you described me in high school. exactly. and college. i've always waffled about my depression, looking around at my family and saying, surely what i felt/feel is depression since there is so much evidence throughout my family that it must exist in our ranks. it was intellectual acknowledgement without real belief or understanding (we didn't do the whole "mental health thing" in my family).

i take medicine for it, which has helped me immeasurably, but beat myself up for years never allowing for a diagnosis of depression to be anything other than an exaggeration of my feelings and a justification for my less favorable actions. i always feel like "other people have it worse" and "maybe mine doesn't really count as depression," or "it's only because of event A or B, not real depression" or "it's my fault, this is all stuff i've done to my own brain." then i think about those high school and college nights, before i corrupted myself with adult things and guilt...i've always wondered if that was pretty normal behavior or evidence of the onset of this illness. i do know that when i describe those nights, no one really jumps in with, "yeah, me too! weren't those teen years crazy?" no therapist has ever dismissed them either. reading this helps me be more accepting of my own judgement about my condition without judging myself for having it (er....and still my brain echos "or thinking you have it...or whatever"). i'll be thinking about this one for a while. sorry for the rambling comment, and thank you for this post.