The world is aflame today with news of Robin Williams' death, which has only just been ruled a suicide.
This one hit me hard, honestly. Aladdin, Hook, and Mrs. Doubtfire are among some of my fondest childhood memories--kicking my feet up with a bowl of popcorn and my family on Family Couch Potato Night. He was a brilliant actor, one that I truly appreciate, and who grew with me as I got older.
I've introduced him to my own children, not only in the films from my childhood, but also in Night At The Museum. Teddy Roosevelt was delightful.
Williams battled depression and addiction. Today, in the wake of this tragedy, there are many people, with many opinions on the situation. One of the loudest is our "friend" Matt Walsh. [That is a Do Not Link]. I honestly did not even want to click on this, because I just knew...
But I did. And here I am, talking to you all about it.
I'm also talking to Mr. Walsh.
Walsh, get your head out of your ass. Depression is more than spiritual, and it takes more than joy to overcome it.
Walsh sums up the situation like this:
We are all meant to lead joyful lives, and the key to unlocking our joy isn’t hidden under a pile of money and accolades.
Also, incidents like this give us an opportunity to talk about depression, and we certainly should. Only we shouldn’t turn the subject into a purely cold, clinical matter. “Chemical imbalances,” people say. “A man is depressed because of his brain chemicals, and for no other reason.”
No, we are more than our brains and bigger than our bodies. Depression is a mental affliction, yes, but also spiritual. That isn’t to say that a depressed person is evil or weak, just that his depression is deeper and more profound than a simple matter of disproportioned brain chemicals. And before I’m accused of being someone who “doesn’t understand,” let me assure you that I have struggled with this my entire life.But there's a problem here.
No one says that depression is only a chemical imbalance. Depression can be triggered by a multitude of issues--grieving, changes in quality of life. Terminal illnesses. These are what we call "triggers", and they can cause an episode in almost anyone. Many people bounce back from these situations, especially if they have supportive people around them and are able to seek treatment.
What Walsh truly doesn't understand is that depression can also be a debilitating illness, one that can plague someone throughout his or her life.
This thought is a common one, often expressed towards people who are struggling through mental illnesses like depression. "Why don't you just feel better?" "You have so much to live for." "You're life is so wonderful, why are you sad?" "You just aren't trying hard enough." "You are bigger/better than this situation." "You can rise above it."
The stigma can be especially strong in religious communities, which makes Walsh's post all the more insensitive.
Growing up, we were involved in fundamentalist independent Baptist churches. I can remember watching someone truly dear to me struggle with mental illness, repeating to herself, again and again, "Get behind me, Satan." My heart broke and I remember thinking, "This isn't Satan. You are sick." I was nine, at the time. But that's the message that was driven home--depression wasn't acceptable. Christians should be joyful, loving, grateful. Depression was the antithesis of those emotions, and thus the individual bore some responsibility for it. It was demonic oppression--you were supposed to fight it off.
And if you couldn't fight it off? I shudder to think of what they would think of you then.
Of course, none of this is true. Depression is an illness. It requires treatment, it requires support, and it requires people to be understanding of people struggling through it.
Brain chemicals aren't something you overcome on your own.
I have suffered from depression for as long as I can remember. I can remember writing a suicide note as young as 10, because I just didn't know how to go on for another day. I didn't even understand the concept of suicide. I had no idea what it meant, or why I was feeling the way that I did.
I was 17 when I actually attempted suicide for the first (and only) time. It was two weeks before my graduation. I had a full ride to a great school. I had wonderful friends. I was the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper.
The bout of depression that led up to my suicide attempt came from nowhere. I suddenly didn't want to go to class--I skipped 21 days. I did nothing during the time that I wasn't at school. I just couldn't stand the thought of being there. I didn't do my schoolwork, something I'd taken joy in before. I quit eating, and lost weight, winding up at a scant 82 pounds by the time I was hospitalized. I slept all the time. I began to live in an absolute pig sty, something that I never did when I felt well.
I found a supportive network in my family, friends and medical professionals. I went on an antidepressant and stayed on it until I found out I was expecting my older son. At that point, I sat down with my support system and I said, "I don't want to be on medication for my entire life. How do I deal with this? How do I get there?"
We agreed to a treatment plan that focused on working on my thinking. I am a reflective person, and I like to think that's why this was successful for me. I am able to take a step back from a thought and really look at it for what it is, really examine where it came from.
Never, ever, EVER would I generalize that experience to others.
For one, I still struggle. There are still days when it hits. There are weeks where I live in a fog. They are fewer now, and further between. I know what can be triggering for me, and I take steps to be extra careful when encountering them. I eat well (but don't stress over it). I face problems head on instead of letting them escalate. I make sure to get enough sleep most of the time. These are all solutions that I fought for, and that I learned over several years of treatment.
But it's still a fight. Day in, day out. My life is full of love and joy...and it's still a fight. THAT IS BRAIN CHEMISTRY. That's the definition of it. Okay, maybe not the definition--but that is certainly brain chemistry in practice.
There are people that achieve the same results through religion and spirituality. Their faith becomes a source of support and strength--and that is wonderful. Every single person should be able to find the treatment plan that works for them.
But never should someone feel comfortable generalizing that to everyone.
The comic at the top of this post is very true. People would never treat any other illness like this. They would never tell someone with diabetes to just enjoy their life, to just feel the love and joy. Why? Because unlike depression, we recognize diabetes as a legitimate medical problem.
Walsh is absolutely correct. We need to have a discussion about depression. We need to discuss suicide and the options and alternatives. What he is wrong about is the tone and the fundamental assumption that people can fix themselves. Depression is an illness, not a choice--and suicide is a symptom.
I truly recommend anyone interested in studying the philosophy of suicide and ways of understanding it read Stay, by Jennifer Michael Hecht. It's an amazingly relatable and accessible look at suicide through philosophical eyes.
I'll finish with what's been a well-received look at depression and suicidal urges, which I wrote up last night. I know I'm cheapening out a bit reposting something, but I can't say it any better:
Some say suicide is the easy way out, the coward's way, and we have already seen those people making assertions about Robin's end. These people don't understand the true nature of struggling with a mental illness, the true weight of it. It shows how we still don't understand well enough. For some, suicide's not a momentary lapse in judgement. It's the monster that they fight every day, that they push into the cage, lock the door and hope that the bars are strong enough to hold it in there. It's a fight, day in, day out, over and over and over again, to the point that it occasionally feels pointless. It's a fight that's never won but that continues. So I can't find fault that someone's strength may have given out--I do not know how long he fought the monster, how many times he shut the cage. My heart goes out to his family and friends left behind.
All in all, it's such a tragedy. It truly highlights that mental health knows no bounds--it can touch anyone, anywhere. It's up to us--this conglomerate of humanity--to support each other. To understand each other. To prop each other up.
This is just a footnote in the legacy of a man who made the world laugh.And I hope a footnote is all it will be.