The news of Robin Williams’ suicide earlier this week has launched a powerful conversation about a topic that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
For the shock and sadness expressed around the world over the untimely death of the man I consider the funniest who ever lived, perhaps in death he can again be a star by helping to confront the real tragedy that led this talented, much-loved man down a road through repeated fights with drug and alcohol addiction and, eventually, to his dying alone and at his own hand.
I won’t bore you with numbers (although the fact that 1 in 3 Americans are believed to suffer with depression is absolutely frightening) or clinical diagnoses. Instead, I’ll share with you a story of a survivor.
I was first diagnosed with depression 20 years ago, after having gone undiagnosed since my teen years.
Those feelings of worthlessness and loneliness and the social anxiety I had felt much of my life (even leading me to feebly attempt suicide at age 17) were just a fact of life for me, something I could not control but had to find a way to live with. I’ve been on medication on and off since that first diagnosis and have tried therapy, but there is no magic cure.
The social anxiety grew over the years to the point that I don’t call my children or my lifelong friends because I feel like I’m burdening them. I even stopped being a reporter and moved to the copy desk so I didn’t have to deal with strangers as much (Those who know me know what a big step that was because I had wanted to be a newspaper reporter from the time I was old enough to read).
Even today, I suffer through what doctors call major depressive episodes, during which I feel the weight of the world crushing me and seem to be totally helpless to relieve it. There are times where I just lie in bed all day, struggling just to find the energy to do simple things, like eat, shower or go to work. Things I enjoy most, like playing with my 8-year-old twins, reading, watching my beloved Red Sox or listening to music, hold no such pleasure.
I have somehow made it through every day of my nearly 51 years, but each succeeding day comes with the fear that this will be the day I succumb to the pressure of trying to support an extended family, please my bosses at work and try to be a good husband, father and son. I can’t tell you how many times I have seriously thought about just packing a few things and running way, but I know I’m only trying to run away from something that will be with me wherever I go until the day I die.
That is the real face of depression. It is a minute-by-minute struggle to stay ahead of the demons and requires a strength unlike any other. So when I hear of people like Robin Williams finally giving in and taking their own lives, the sadness I feel comes with some understanding as to why they did it.
In many ways, I consider myself lucky. I have never fallen into the throes of addiction to try to self-medicate away the pain (although I have come close a few times over the years). And while I am now in my third marriage, I feel the love of my wife and my three children every day, and that gives me the added strength I need on truly bad days. I still enjoy the career I have pursued for the vast majority of my life, despite the “adjustments” I had to make because of my depression. And I still have many close, dear friends from throughout my lifetime who have been there for me time and time again when I felt I had no one.
Coming from that cold, dark and lonely place, I can only say this: Don’t wait until something tragic happens to confront these demons, whether in yourself or someone you love. While I don’t believe there is any permanent “cure,” there are many things you can do to help yourself or those close to you.
Understanding depression is the first step. The Internet is full of wonderful resources to help explain the physical nature of depression, as well as the signs and symptoms. Take the time to read up, whether about how to help yourself or how to help a loved one.
Communication is next. Don’t be afraid to tell a loved one if you are suffering or if you think they are suffering. Sometimes, all it takes to make me feel better is for my wife or my kids to give me a big hug and tell me they love me. And even by trying to understand what someone else is going through, you’re letting them know they’re not alone in the fight.
And by all means, get professional help. It may not “cure” you, but it can give you the means to fight harder and longer to keep the demons at bay and help others to help you.
But most importantly, whether it is you, your spouse, your parent, your child or a close friend, don’t give up.
I won’t, either.