Sunday, August 17, 2014

To Be or Not to Be

If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.
                     —STEPHEN FRY

Last night, we watched “World’s Greatest Dad,” a black comedy starring Robin Williams. He plays a teacher (and frustrated writer) whose teenaged son accidentally hangs himself. Guilt-stricken, the father stages the scene and types a suicide note that will make everyone feel terrible for the way they treated the kid—even if he was awful. In death, the jerk becomes a saint. As the story grows, Dad “finds” his son’s journal, which lands on the bestseller list. Dad, now a celebrity, tells a talk-show audience, “Remember, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Robin Williams
ROBIN WILLIAMS
(July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014)
You can’t laugh for crying. In the most painful scene, when Williams finds his son hanged on a doorknob, the actor’s horror and grief are all too real. It’s almost like a dress rehearsal. He would have had to shoot several different takes: shock, screaming, collapsing to the floor in tears. Cut.

I can only imagine how alone he must have felt at the end.

Reaction to his death this week ranged from the eloquent to the heartless: “Cowardly.” “Selfish.” “Not a disease, a choice.” Is it any wonder that those of us who struggle with depression are afraid to speak up?

If you’ve never known the feeling, well, God bless you. I don’t mean a sad mood that lasts for a week or two and goes away. We’re talking months or even years. (I lost part of the ’90s.) The dark clouds descend. The music stops. You can’t remember the point of getting out of bed in the morning.

Here’s the thing: I have an amazing life. Wonderful family and friends—people who love me. Surely Robin Williams would have said the same. The worst part about depression is that you know you have no right to feel that way, hence the shame and isolation. Nobody likes a whiner. Cheer up! Quit feeling sorry for yourself! Happiness is a choice. Plenty of people are a lot worse off than you. Think of all the things you have to be grateful for!

It’s sort of like yelling at a diabetic whose blood sugar is low.

And if you’re like me, you yell at yourself all the time. Hopelessness doesn’t begin to describe the feeling as time wears on, and the pep talks aren’t working. Especially if you’ve been there before. You can work hard, get healthy again, be strong for ages, and boom—you’re back to square one. Pushing a boulder up a hill.

In time, you get really good at keeping up a front. You become a pro at seeming “normal.” Happy, even. God forbid you let anyone see how lost you are. People might worry. A glass of wine always helps to get you talking. Otherwise, you’d sit there like a stone. After a visit with friends, you’re wrung out for days. The effort is exhausting.

The tragedy of depression is that it feels like forever, but it isn’t. With help—therapy, medication, whatever it takes—the darkness lifts. You find out there’s joy and laughter on the other side, more life to be lived. Sadly, some sufferers don’t last that long. They make a desperate decision, borne out of fear or pain or loneliness (often compounded by drugs or alcohol), and at the funeral, friends say, “We had no idea he was that bad off...”

We often think of suicides as planned, with warning signs that can’t be missed. Research shows that as many as 80% of suicides are impulsive, a reaction to short-term crisis. In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, 153 survivors of nearly-lethal suicide attempts were asked, “How much time passed between the time you decided to commit suicide and actually attempted it?” For one in four responders, the answer was less than five minutes. Fully three-quarters of the group said it was under an hour. Change the scenario a bit—say there wasn’t a gun in the house or a bottle of pills in the bathroom—and they might wake up on the couch with nothing worse than a hangover.

Here’s a list of people who attempted suicide and went on to great things, including Halle Berry, Greg Louganis, Mike Wallace, Billy Joel, Elton John, Clark Gable and Walt Disney. They thought the world would be a better place without them. Imagine what we would have missed.

Lest you worry that I’m preoccupied with self-destruction, well, you’re probably right, but in a way that keeps me from doing it. Years ago, my dear friend Brian put a bullet through his brain. He was bright, funny, gifted—had his whole life in front of him. All who knew him were shattered. To this day, I still wonder what might have happened if I’d called him that night. The arrogance, to think I could have talked him out of it, but still...

Regret is a thing you live with. I couldn’t do that to the people I love.

Which tells you how much Robin Williams must have been suffering. There isn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind about the size of his heart. He loved his family, maybe more than life itself. We’ll never know the demons he wrestled with, but we have no right to judge him. None.

If you’re experiencing depression, be brave and ask for help. Don’t try to go it alone. Talk to a doctor, a minister, a therapist, a friend—someone who can walk you through it. Depression isn’t a moral failure. It’s a complex product of genes, environment and neurotransmitters in the brain, a condition reported by one in ten Americans. If you know someone who’s struggling, Stephen Fry said it best:

“Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”

And trust me, we will love you for it, always.

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