Robin Williams, one of my all-time favorite actors, just died. Suicide, they say. How could this possibly be? How could the man who lit up the screen, who stuffed himself into a dress and danced across the room with a vacuum cleaner as the beloved, laughable Mrs. Doubtfire, possibly be dead? It just doesn’t seem right. Surely, we’ll all wake up tomorrow and they’ll tell us it’s a joke. And he’ll come out laughing, stick a bulb on his nose and say, “Gotcha!” Surely, he can’t be dead.
Two weeks ago, a beautiful 38-year-old mother of two went missing after pumping gas in her Oregon hometown. She bought a bag of trail mix and some sleeping pills and simply vanished into thin air. A loving and devoted mother, they said. Adoring wife. She’d never leave her boys. And yet she did. Days later, they found her – dead of asphyxiation, a suicide note alongside her body. The worst of horrors, unimaginable. Surely, she can’t be dead.
Last year, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church buried his son Matthew after the young man tragically put a gun to his own head. Though his parents tried everything to save him, in the end, they simply couldn’t. The boy who’d struggled since he was a child finally succumbed to his illness. All the best therapists, medication and love in the whole wide world were not enough. Surely, he can’t be dead.
Depression. It’s an icky word. It’s one we like to skirt around. Like grandmother’s soggy yam casserole at the Thanksgiving table, we avoid it as we pile our plates high with other goodies to distract ourselves. Oh sure, we might say it in passing, occasionally. Gained five pounds? Depressing. Vacation was a bust? Depressing. But in reality, depression is real. It’s the elephant in the room no one’s talking about, the monster we choose to not discuss. Why? Because it’s depressing. And scary. And most of all, shameful. Better to talk about babies and wine and movies and football, don’t you think?
Depression is a monster I know too well. I can’t remember quite when it began – the sinking feelings, the anxiety that so often accompanies the darkness, the tears that sprang out of nowhere, the unthinkable thoughts. By 13, I cried myself to sleep nearly every night. By 14, I discovered The Smiths. For those not familiar with the Smiths, don’t start listening now. They are the soundtrack to depression – that sad, soggy melody that fills up a room and a heart, only to drain it somehow. They really are the pits, as talented as they are.
By 15, my mother, concerned about my state, took me to a therapist. I can’t remember what we talked about. I only remember the potted plant in the corner of the room, which I stared at the entire hour to avoid the woman’s eyes. She was nice enough, I suppose. She had red, swishy hair and a kind smile, and I liked her well enough. We made small talk, which I believe is how all therapists start. After a few sessions, she deemed me well enough to function in society and sent me on my way.
But I wasn’t well. Still, I plugged along, forging my way through the awful, terrible years of high school, hanging my head in the halls and caking on Covergirl foundation to hide my zits. It wasn’t the zits that bothered me, really, though they didn’t help matters much. It was this nagging sense that something wasn’t always right, that I wasn’t okay, that the world, somehow, had decided to rage against me forever. The feeling was followed up with dread, the kind that sinks you into your bed for days.
From the outside, I had no reason to be depressed. The oldest of three in a loving family, I knew I was loved and cared for. I’d never been abused. We did not drink booze or do drugs. We went to church every Sunday, and I believed in God. I was a talented writer and piano player, witty and smart and imaginative, with a handful of close friends and a 13-pound cat I adored. But somehow, that wasn’t enough.
Fast forward to 19. I sat in my 12x12 bedroom, complete with green shag carpet and Christian Slater posters on the wall, a single mother rocking a colicky newborn to sleep. Billie and Bo from Days of Our Lives became my best friends in the isolation following my son’s birth. I planned my afternoons around them, making sure I was always home at 2 p.m. to catch up on my soap, afraid to let them down. And I wondered, in those lonely, monotonous days, how I’d wound up watching soap operas while the rest of the world marched on. How would I ever get out of that bedroom and on with real life? The depression was thick. But thankfully, I’d sold my Smiths cassette tapes at a yard sale and moved on to U2.
I did get out of that bedroom, finally. I went to college, married, moved away, landed a great teaching job and had three other kids. Life was grand, for a while. More friends than I’d ever had in my life. The beach five miles away. Potlucks and birthday parties and church services and laughter and family trips and a husband who didn’t mind my slightly stretched out belly. And then my fourth child came along, premature, a NICU baby, a tiny thing who arrived in the middle of the night without warning. He was beautiful –stunning, really. No conehead or baby acne at all. It should have been bliss, once we got back in the routine. But instead, a new kind of depression sank in, this one completely unfamiliar, frightening and black.
They called it postpartum, but I didn’t know it then. The doctors brushed it off as baby blues – very common, they said. This too shall pass. But it didn’t pass. On several occasions, I stuck that baby in his crib and ran into the other room. I ran, because I did not want to hurt him. And I was afraid I might. Instead, I sat on a pile of laundry while my other kids built Lego castles outside the door, and I cried until the tears ran dry.
The anxiety came next, paralyzing and terrifying. It took all I had to stick the key in the ignition of the car. Sometimes, getting to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread was too much. I can’t remember if I made dinner, showered or laughed. I’m pretty sure I didn’t laugh. I have few pictures of that time, but in the few I have, my baby is beautiful and crying, and I am pale and skinny and smiling.
After a year, I finally got help. The hormones straightened out, and life was good again. Until it wasn’t. Until we moved away, and my health went to pot, and my husband lost his job. I spent a lot of time on my closet floor in a pair of baggy black sweat pants, crying and panicking because I thought I might really die. But when I forced myself out of the closet, I put on heels and lipstick and a smile, and most folks never knew.
This is what we do, you see. We, who struggle. We put on the brave face. It is not a mask, exactly, because deep down, we really want you to know we aren’t okay. But it’s too exhausting sometimes, too hard to explain why it is that even though we have the nice house and the cool jeans and the fancy car in the driveway and the well behaved kids, we are just not, not okay. Sometimes, it’s easier to just smile, nod and say, “I’m fine.”
For some, depression comes in waves. For others, it is a dark, ominous cloud that never leaves. It taunts us, day and night, reminding us of all that’s wrong with us and the world. It sends us to the corner when we’d rather dance. It buries us under the covers when we’d rather take our kids to the park. It paralyzes us when we go to a party. It keeps us up at night, thinking and mulling and stewing and wondering. To summarize, it sucks.
I’ve learned I’m not alone. There are many of us fighting the battle. We are not who you think. We are the room mom with the plate of homemade cookies in her hand. We are the soccer coach with the tan and the shiny SUV. We are the successful executive with the beach front property and the best Christmas lights on the block. We are the homecoming queen with the perfect hair and Colgate white teeth. We are the baseball star who just landed a Harvard scholarship. We are everywhere.
Like cancer, depression takes victims of all sorts.
If we find ourselves brave enough to share, we must simultaneously prepare ourselves for the well-meaning words of advice. For the worn-out positivity quotes and Bible verses that come our way. Just trust in God, they say. You have a good life. What all is there to be sad about, anyhow? Get it together already. Look on the bright side of things. Don’t you know there are others in Africa just happy for one hot meal a day?
Yes, we know all this. And we don’t need you to say it anymore. We are grateful you’re trying, but it’s not what we need. What we need is for you to try to understand. We need you to know that we cannot help it. If we could, wouldn’t we be better by now? There are chemicals and dopamine and serotonin and all sorts of fancy reasons why we’re not quite right. For some of us, there is past abuse. Unresolved issues. Pain we’re not ready to share. Personality traits we’re born with that make us a bit more prone to feeling sad. Genetics we curse every day. And that’s just the way it is. If fixing depression was as simple as fixing a leaky faucet, Matthew Warren and Robin Williams and that precious mother of two might still be with us today.
So what can we do? We can be there, for one. We can remind each other we’re not alone. Isolation is the worst sort of demon, but it can be fought. We can start showing up. We can get off Instagram and show up at someone’s doorstep instead, armed with Starbucks and junk magazines and a warm hug. We can stop talking and start doing. We can educate ourselves by asking questions, by asking for the stories. We can stop judging and end the stigma, so vulnerability can thrive. Even if we do not understand this illness, we can do our best to empathize. Even if we cannot put all of the broken pieces together again, we can be one piece. It is a start. A very good start.
These days, I am happy to report I don’t need The Smiths anymore. But I did go to a U2 concert at the Rosebowl a couple years ago. There were 100,000 people in the stadium that night – the biggest crowd that place had ever seen. As Bono danced around the stage, ageless in his usual tight black pants, singing about streets with no name, I just stood there in awe with the rest of the crowd. And in that moment, I looked around at everyone swaying and singing and realized, we’re all in this thing called Life together. And then I realized, at the same time, I’m going to be okay. I’m really going to be okay.
Robin Williams once said, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.” The world loved the man. The world is a lot of people. Yet somehow, he still felt alone. We cannot save Robin Williams now, but maybe we can save someone else. Maybe we can reach out just a little bit and hold someone up before they fall. Maybe we can say the words every person, no matter how strong, longs to hear: “It’s okay.” And then, “I’m here.”
And maybe, just maybe, we can make the world a braver place.