We have all been affected by the suicide of beloved comedian Robin Williams. His was a death that touched us as deeply as his life had. We felt we knew him on a personal level, and though we knew he battled demons, we somehow believed he had survived them, and that all was well at last for him.
But if there is one positive thing to come out of this sad end to a beautiful man’s life, it is that people are at last having a dialogue about clinical depression.
This is something I understand on a personal level. My mother suffered from clinical depression, to the point that many times she was incapacitated during my childhood, and my maternal grandmother stepped in to care for our home and for us all. It was the 1960’s and miracle drugs were prescribed right and left–and Mama was on all of them at on time or another with varying degrees of success.
I have fought depression all my life too, and know firsthand that there is no ‘cure,’ no ‘magic bullet,’ no one-size-fits-all pill to solve the problem. Telling yourself to just pull up your socks and get on with your life doesn’t help much either. Because my mother took so many medications, and they often worsened her condition, I have avoided them except at my worst, lowest point.
There is no way to express what clinical depression feels like to a person who has never experienced it. You are not sad–that word is an approximation, but not an accurate description. There is sadness involved, but for me it was more a deep lethargy, a lack of interest in life. I wanted to participate in the world around me, but I couldn’t pull myself together enough to get dressed and go out the door. It was like being stranded at the bottom of a well of confused misery and I loathed myself for that, but there were times in my twenties when I was so paralyzed by this disease, I couldn’t scrape together the energy to clean my house. I had no idea what was wrong with me, or why I was such a failure.
Fortunately I had children. I refused to just stay in bed as my mother did at times. I forced myself to stay involved with them, only booked music gigs for early evening in places like Wolf Haven or coffee shops where I could take my kids, and I wrote short stories, fairy-tales for them. Having to provide a decent life for my children kept me going to work and functioning on a superficial level. For them, I could get up, go to work, and pay the bills, but it was a constant struggle and in the late nineties my third marriage fell apart and once again depression hit me hard.
In 1998 I began having severe panic attacks to the point I was unable to drive across town. I opted to go into therapy, in the hope I could learn ways to cope. Thanks to an extremely caring psychologist who was not afraid to try new ideas, I found the tools and skills I was looking for. He showed me simple ways to physically alter my brain’s chemistry without resorting to medications, and as along as I practice these techniques I do well. For me, this was an answer.
It was not as easy as it sounds, but now I have some way to deal with this. I have sort of gotten a handle on it, and writing is part of my therapy. Interestingly enough, I recently had the indignity of being denied affordable life insurance because of this diagnosis being in my medical record.
The Journal of Psychiatric Research recently published a study, “Mental Illness, Suicide, And Creativity: 40-Year Prospective Total Population Study,” examined 1.2 million Swedish patients from the country’s national registry and compared this sample against the entire Swedish population. The most interesting and surprising results related to authors. Writers were a whopping 121% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population. Moreover, Simon Kyaga, the study’s lead researcher, said that authors had a “statistically significant increase” in anxiety disorders: 38% to be exact. Rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide also increased among writers.
In an interview on the website, Lit Reactor, Portland Oregon based author and psychotherapist, Philip Kenney, said: “It isn’t easy to see oneself, the strengths and weaknesses, the familiar imperfections, without a judgment that often spells, B-A-D. Inferior. I try to remember the beautiful patterns made by the cracks in the sidewalk. Practicing kindness is the best remedy.”
I admit I am obsessive about my craft, and that has been both a curse and a boon. It is a curse, because if I choose, I can use it as a reason to never go anywhere. But it is a boon because through my involvement with NaNoWriMo, Olympia Area Writers Co-op, PNWA, and ABNA I am FORCED to leave the Room of Shame (my office) and through these organizations I have met some of the most wonderful, amazing people you can imagine.
And strangely enough–many of them frequently suffer from various forms of ill health, depression, and anxiety disorders. By staying involved, we raise each other up, and try to support each other when the road is hard.
I am grateful for my blessings, never more so than when someone like Robin Williams, who gave us so much of himself, falls victim to the demons of evil, pernicious, clinical depression.