Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My Two Cents on Depression, Suicide and Robin Williams

(Note: This is kind of long. You might want to grab a cup of tea.)
One of the things about social media that I've never understood is why complete strangers feel obliged to voice their opinions, both good and bad. I guess when you post something and ask for comments, you open yourself up to various thoughts and opinions. It seems weird to me. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE getting comments. I'm grateful the comments I've received on FB and this blog have been complimentary. My feelings would be hurt if someone said, "this stinks."  It's one of those concepts I wrestle with. Inviting people into my world but not wanting to be hurt. 

In the wake of Robin Williams death I've been amazed by the number of people who have posted sadness at his passing, thoughts about why he killed himself and, though I haven't read them, maybe a few that say good riddance.  I don't feel knowledable enough to make any kind of statement about his passing.  I've got to admit, however, I feel like I've fallen off the RIP bandwagon and should say something. If I don't there will be a noticeable empty spot by name.  As if there are FB police who keep track of who says what. 

While I've seen a lot of his movies and been impressed by his acting abilities and range of work, I didn't know Robin Williams.  But I DO know what if feels like to be so depressed you think dying is the only way to end the pain. Like many of the commenters who came out of the "suicide" closet, I've been in that dark place. 

The ads for Cymbalta are spot on - depression hurts. It hurts in your bones. It hurts in your gut. It hurts in your heart. By its very nature, depression kills one's joy, ambition, and relationships. Like Pac Man on speed, depression eats away at your soul. 

I was first diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 15. Though I never fully lost consciousness, when I felt overwhelmed I checked out by rolling my eyes back in my head and staying gone for awhile. My parents hospitalized me so doctors could test me for everything from drugs, to pregnancy to a brain tumor. When all the tests came back negative I was wheeled up to the 7th floor of Baptist Hospital and parked in a room with the other mentally ill patients. Some were stringing beads, others stared into space. I sat quivering in a wheelchair waiting to see the "doctor." The  doctor, who seemed to be channelling Sigmund Freud, proved to be as freaky as the bead stringers.*  

It would be years before I heard that depression is anger turned inward. In my family of origin, we either acted out (broke the rules, drank too much, slammed cupboard door, cussed and carried on) or, like me, acted in (kept all negative feelings stuffed inside). There is a gene on both sides of my family that predisposed some of us to become alcoholics, while others suffer from anxiety, panic attacks and/or depression. One day, while still in the hospital, I traded tears and blacking out for a temper tantrum. If I didn't know it before, I quickly learned that acting out one's anger gets you in big trouble. A nurse on each side of my bed, held me down and strapped each of my arms and legs to the bars of the bed. Remember those cowboy and Indian movies where the Indians stripped a prisoner, spread him eagle, tied him to stakes in the ground and left him to die under a hot desert sun? Well that's how I felt after the nurses left me to calm down, A flickering florescent lightbulb on the wall, took the place of the sun. When enough time had passed that I was no longer acting out, i.e. obeying the rules, the belts were removed. I learned to keep my anger stuffed deep into that place in my gut where negative emotions churn like lava inside a volcano. Depression is shutting down in order to keep the volcano from erupting.

I was lucky. I began seeing a psychiatrist and, before Prozac became a household drug, I began taking anti-depressants. Something I do to this day. It took me a long while to understand that I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. That the medication is not mind-altering or numbing, it simply keeps my brain chemicals on an even keel. I can name off several doctors and psychologists I've poured my heart out to. Each one sat with me, listened to my story(s), handed me Kleenex, encouraged me to feel the whole gamut of feelings. (Who knew there was more than one?)  But not before making a big mess out the family I loved so much, hurting my children, getting divorced, making some really bad choices, and swallowing two bottles of an OTC sleeping medication. 

What I remember of that day is making a very clear decision to end my pain. I thought about my family, wrote love notes to them all, apologized. (It may have looked like a selfish act, but I truly felt  my actions would help my family, not hurt them.)  I laid down on my bed and waited. When I began to have an allergic reaction to the medicine instead of falling into blissful sleep, I called my friend for a ride to the hospital. Did things turn around for me that day? No, I don't think so. I still had lots of work to do. 

Katie Hurley wrote in a Huffington Post article yesterday, "Suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. The black hole that is clinical depression is all-consuming. Feeling like a burden to loved ones, feeling like there is no way out, feeling trapped and feeling isolated are all common among people who suffer from depression."

Perhaps when you think of depressed people, you think of someone lying in bed, crying and sleeping their lives away. Well, you'd be partly right. Depression and isolation go hand in hand. However, for many, lying in bed is a luxury. Most people who suffer from mental illness still have to get up, take the kids to school and soccer practice, go to work, attend meetings, pay the bills, do the laundry, buy groceries …… I was lucky, as a stay at home mom, I spent many days alone in a hell of my own making. ( I can still remember that is was so much easier it was to stay in that hell than to venture out.)

Except for the seriously mentally ill you see sleeping on the sidewalk, many people who suffer from depression hide it or deny it altogether. Me? Depressed?  I felt like two different people. I even asked one of my doctors if I had multiple-personality disorder. The depressed Merry and the Merry who carried on as a military wife, the Merry with anorexia and the Merry, who on occasion drowned her sorrows in shots of Jose Cuervo.  The  day after my suicide debacle, I went to a formal party, smiled and chatted with people who had no clue whatsoever that I was dying inside. I believe this is how someone like Robin Williams could feel like shit most of the time and still earn a living from making other people laugh. Depressed people have their own personal darkness and they rarely share it with anyone else. Often, it's easier to do the unthinkable, instead of holding out hand and asking for help. As Anne Lamott wrote yesterday, "a third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. I sure do. I have both. And you still love me. You help hold me up. I try to help hold you up. Half of the people I love most have both; and so do most of the artists who have changed and redeemed me, given me life. Most of us are still here, healing slowly and imperfectly. Some days are way too long."

Lamott also quoted theologian Fred Buechner, "It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life's story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others' lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling."

There is more to healing mental illness than talk therapy and medication. I learned that depression is a three-fold illness. Like a three-headed monster in a B-movie, depression affects the body, the mind and  the spirit. In order to keep the beast at bay, I had to fight it on all three fronts. I used my pen to get "the stinkin' thinkin' out of my head, and I began attending a 12-Step program. That's where I learned about a higher power who proved to be a lot more helpful and understanding than the fierce, Old Testament God who had turned His back on me. I learned that I was not alone, that there were other people who hurt as badly as I did. I learned to look at others instead of just myself. I learned that it's hard to feel depressed and grateful at the same time. Hell, when one is depressed I dare say it's impossible to even acknowledge gratitude. It's a process. The 12th Step of the program I practiced states, "having had a spiritual awakening, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs." Eventually I came to a place of doing just that. I took responsibility for my feelings, I held myself accountable, I practiced gratitude and I reached out to others. 

My experience with depression has been a cyclical one. Even with all my insight, it comes and it goes. I believe the loss of my mother, son-in-law, and father could easily have drowned me in a great sea of grief. I won't say it's been easy. I will say that I've leaned on others, prayed like there's no tomorrow,  written woeful blogs, taken my meds and known when to pick up the phone and ask for help. 

I started this post by lamenting about the number of people who felt the need to remark about Robin William's death. And here it is a bunch of words later and I am finally beginning to understand something. When a tragedy happens - a school shooting, a suicide, a plane crash - it's human nature to reach out to others. I'm not shy about sharing my story of depression and recovery. I may have repeated myself in parts, but I felt compelled to write it. What I'd really like to do is shout from the top of the Empire State Building "Stop! Don't do it! There is help out there! I promise you can feel better! Call someone!" If the comments, op eds and articles about Robin Williams are to count for anything, may it be in lives saved. 

If you need help please ask for it. Paste the number of your local suicide prevention hot line in your cell phone. Don't be afraid to call. That's what it's there for.
If you are wondering what you can do to help, my suggestion is reach out to the people you love. Ask them how they are, then listen with your heart as well as your ears. Sometimes all a person needs is for another person to listen to them. Volunteer at a local hot line. Don't judge. 

In her post on BlogHer yesterday Elizabeth Hawkesworth wrote: 
"Losing a person to suicide may feel like a waste. And I think it’s fair to react to it that way, especially in the first hard days of grief. For someone looking in, it does seem like a waste—especially in the case of Williams, who was a brilliantly funny man and a talented actor. But imagine, if you will, feeling so desperate, so desolate, so incredibly sad and hurt that you honestly cannot see a way out. The feelings leading to suicide are the darkest a human mind can fathom. It’s like being shut into a dark tunnel with no point of light to guide your way. You can hear voices on the outside, but the walls are too thick to get in. And feeling like it’s closing in, like there’s no way out—well, suicide, for that person, is a blessed release. Life, however, is never wasted. Williams did things in his life that touched people to their core. It is a sad, sad loss, but it is not a waste."

I'm reminded of the Jewish saying, "Sorrow shared is diminished. Joy shared is doubled." 
Thanks to all of you who have shared both with me. I am a lucky girl.
Merry ME

* At the height of my depression when admittance to a mental health facility was a very real option I read an article about an experiment that was done with depressed people. They were given a jar of beads and told to pick out all the red ones. When that was done, someone came along and put all the beads back in the jar. Then the patient was told to separate the red ones again. And so it went. The point being that a person with deep depression sorted beads all day. The ones who weren't so depressed, finally got pissed off and refused to do anymore sorting. I always wondered how I would have fared in that experiment. Knowing what happens to bad girls who don't follow the rules I'm sure there would have been days when I mindlessly picked red beads without a hint of feeling. But I'd like to think that somewhere deep inside a fire burned that said, what's wrong with this picture. I'm glad I never had to find out.  
_  _ _ _
  1. There's Nothing Selfish About Suicide, Katie Hurley,, 08/12/14
  2., August 12,2014
  3. The Death of Robin Williams, And What Suicide Isn't, Elizabeth Hawksworth, BlogHer, August 11, 2014.


terri st. cloud said...

thanks for this post, mar. the red beads at the end brought tears to my eyes...what a road we travel. thank you for sharing yours.

Diane in AR said...

Thank you for this heart-touching posting Mary. . .thank you

Anonymous said...

Thank you Merry, For all the beautiful that is you....

AkasaWolfSong said...

Ahhh Mary...Dammit I'm crying again...depression for me is like a thief in the night, that rapes, plunders and runs off with the goods under its cape. Thank God for good doctors.
And...thank God for your beautiful and bright spirit and soul....