Warning: uncharacteristically serious, and maybe a little personal
The news about Robin Williams, by all accounts, sucks. Lots of people loved the guy’s work; I wasn’t what you’d call a super-fan, but I really liked and respected a lot of his performances, particularly the more dramatic stuff – you know, the bearded roles. For all the comedic, spastic antics he was known for, the guy could really play serious, even dark, effectively. I think it’s because he actually had a lot of darkness buried in there, which he covered up with the comedy and schtick.
That sort of thing feels familiar. Reminds me of my dad. And of me.
According to the publicist statement and all that, Williams’ death is pretty clearly a suicide, sparked, primarily, by depression. Again, feels familiar. Really familiar. Williams even kind of looked like Dad.
Clinical depression’s really a strange, unfortunate thing. It’s a disease; an actual disease with with it’s own entry in the DSM-IV and everything, but it’s one of those diseases that society doesn’t always treat like a disease. People are sympathetic to things, but don’t understand that it’s not a thing that can be cured by simply *cheering up* – chemical imbalances in the brain just don’t work that way. It’s a frustrating thing, and this kind of “helpful advice” can actually be pretty detrimental, because people with depression don’t always get it either. If you don’t have the information, trying to take that at advice, and being patently unable to actually cheer up, can actually aggravate things and make it worse.
It’s a hard thing to address. John Roderick tweeted something overnight that captures the situation better, or at least more succinctly, than I can:
Talking about depression is hard primarily because you have to endure helpful responses from people that don’t understand.
And there are a lot of people who don’t understand. For the longest time, I didn’t understand. Even people with the proper factual medical knowledge who haven’t actually experienced it still don’t understand, because the societal pressure to just “cheer up” (and if you can’t, to fake it), and encourage others to do so is so deeply ingrained in us, and those sorts of unspoken social contract things can totally overwhelm actual factual knowledge. It’s just he way people’s brains work.
And that’s why so many people don’t get help, or don’t get help soon enough. They bury it, hide it under a veneer or geniality, humor, whatever, and suffer in silence, until it eats them up inside so much that they can’t handle it anymore.
That’s how you get situations like Robin Williams. Or in my case, situations a little closer to home.
About twenty years ago, one of those situations hit about as close to home as is possible to do for me. It was, as they say, a defining moment, one of those that totally changes one’s perspective on life, and points one in an entirely new direction. It didn’t happen right away, but over the course of years of life and self-reflection, I recognized some things about myself, and made a decision about the way I was going to deal with things. I noticed a lot of the same things about myself that I saw in people like my dad, but decided that I wasn’t going to deal with them by burying stuff because of the societal pressure to do so, or because there was some perception of shame for feeling a certain way.
This manifested itself in a lot of ways, but the main one to talk about here is the fact that I got over the stigma (which, let’s be honest, was a tough thing to do), and got help dealing with depression. I made a few changes to the way I live my life to avoid ending up in one of those bad sitautions. Among other things, I talked to my doctor about things, and we came up with some stuff that works, and makes this weird chemical imbalance of mine a lot easier to deal with.
So folks…if you’re struggling; get some help. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Talk to someone. Don’t get so far down the path that you can’t find your way back.