Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. This post is written from personal experience with my own mental health issues, and is not intended to advise others on treatment.
August 11 will mark the second anniversary of Robin Williams’ passing. Although his suicide apparently was due partly to factors that weren’t known until later, Mr. Williams’ misfortune prompted a public discussion of depression.
I hope you won’t mind if I post an essay I wrote for a private social media page immediately after hearing about Robin Williams’ death. It’s a description of how one person can react to emotional or physical conditions beyond one’s control. It isn’t a generalization, but a reminder that we may be most helpful when we recognize the distance between people and remain aware of what we don’t know.
A few changes have been made, but most of the August 11, 2014 essay is in its original form:
Ordinarily I don’t like to post anything too personal on social media, but today’s tragic news about Robin Williams has brought up an important topic. I won’t try to address Mr. Williams’s situation because it would be both naive and an insult to impose my own frame of reference on him.
Depression can be fatal. Often, it’s caused or aggravated by a chemical imbalance in the brain, whether or not a person is abusing drugs.
For some people, suicidal depression is a surreal, isolated, frozen-in-time state which ruins perspective and causes indifference to things a person normally cares about. The outlook can change so much a person actually believes loved ones, and even the entire world, are better off without him or her.
Depression can include debilitating physical symptoms. Your muscles and joints can hurt, and you might feel sleepy all day. Then the insomnia kicks in at night.
Depression can affect eating habits. Some depressed people binge on comfort food, and then feel worse because of the overdose of rich food and the weight gain.
For many people, it’s impossible to maintain good personal hygiene or stay on an efficient schedule while in a deep depression. Try to imagine yourself feeling too lethargic to carry out a normal routine. Your hair is oily and you smell awful because you haven’t showered in days. Then think of supposedly well-meaning people demanding to know when you’re going to clean up your act and get a job, when you lack the energy to tell those people to go to hell.
During my junior year in high school I went through all of the horror described here, with no drug abuse to contribute to it. I drank occasionally, but due to unpleasant allergic reactions to alcohol I dodged the proverbial alcoholism bullet. There were other bad stages in my life, dominated by anxiety, depression and miscellaneous stuff, but the above information describes symptoms experienced during the 1976-1977 school year.
I have never actually attempted suicide, although when I was young I gave it plenty of thought and went through the formalities of writing suicide notes and holding a razor blade to my wrist without actually cutting. When the depression was at its worst, I couldn’t write the notes or even reach for the razor blade.
At the time, I thought “failing” to carry out suicide was a weakness. Now I know I didn’t carry it out because I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted a better life — and I got one, later.
By chance, the worst of the depression lifted after several months, and then creative releases, flaky-but-cheerful pop music and other comforts allowed me to hang on for years before external conditions in my life improved. Family issues and sexual harassment from acquaintances were big problems for a long time, and those people didn’t dial back their abusive behavior when they saw I was right on the edge. They just figured my impaired state was something they could use to their advantage.
Now I sometimes refer to myself as a recovering alcoholic, but not in a very committed way because most people would say I was never an alcoholic in the first place. I haven’t had a drink since 1980, and haven’t experienced the same misfortunes as many people who go to Twelve Step meetings. However, the fact that I drank occasionally in spite of an allergy suggests I have whatever element makes a person prone to alcoholism. The fact that I remember the exact date of my last drink is also suspect: Saturday, June 21, 1980. I was still hungover (after only a half glass of wine on Saturday night) the following Tuesday, during jury duty.
To this day, I don’t claim to have an answer to depression. I got through the worst of it in time, and received some outpatient treatment. Fortunately, the legitimate treatment which has worked best for me isn’t unpleasant. However, I’ve met a few abusive charlatans who constitute everything that is wrong with the mental health field.
We can learn through experience which people have something to offer, and which don’t. The process of learning through experience can be dangerous, though. If you’re suicidal, that’s the worst time to see an arrogant psychiatrist ironically named “The Best” by his colleagues and a scientific journal. Those doctors are out there, and there’s a chance you’ll be referred to one by a healthcare provider who means well. Some bad therapists have “earned” their reputations through high profile research, and others have just spread money around to the right institutions. When you’re in a confused state, it’s difficult or impossible to recognize when a person with “credibility” just wants to exploit your pain.
If you have support from an enlightened friend or family member, that can help you recognize whether or not your therapist is behaving professionally. It’s likely you’ll meet with the therapist alone in a confidential setting, but sharing your concerns with an intelligent person might offer some insight if the therapist is gaslighting or doing other manipulative things. Google the word gaslighting if you don’t know the definition.
The gaslighting paragraph is written from experience. I spent hours “troubleshooting” before appointments with one particular psychiatrist, thinking I was in a normal therapist-patient relationship. I was careful with my words, and in some cases brought documentation into his office to prove I was telling the truth about certain events. In spite of that, he continued to tell me, “It’s all in your head.” A third party who knew what I was going through told me, in effect, “Your shrink is nuts. He argues with everything you say.”
Some personal issues can’t be overcome without help, and if the people we trust to help us are qualified and decent we can avoid a lot of setbacks.
This afternoon I blocked a Twitter user who began a post with “Fuck you Robin Williams.” She added that someone with his money didn’t have real problems. I don’t know her personally, but can guess she hasn’t been through the type of proverbial dark tunnel I’ve been through. Being ignorant is one thing. Ignorant and cruel gets a Twitter user blocked from my account.
Never assume you can see anything from a suicidal person’s vantage point, even if you’ve been suicidal yourself. We all have our own personal demons.