Trigger warning for discussions of mental illness and suicide.
There is really no good way to word this. This weekend, Robin Williams took his own life after a long struggle with depression/bipolar disorder. On the one hand, he and his family have been very open about the impact the disease had on all their lives, which has opened a dialogue for people who may have been suffering in loneliness. On the other hand, not only are celebrity suicides often followed up by “suicide clusters“, but details about the method of suicide can also contribute to an elevated suicide rate for a time after. Of course, this hasn’t stopped scummy news rags from publishing the details anyway.
In addition to visibility to an often-invisible illness, however, these kinds of events have a tendency for people – both those who suffer from mental illness, and armchair psychologists – to air out their shameful, harmful narratives about coping with mental illness. There’s the “we’re broken and we don’t need your fixing” one, the “people who commit suicide are selfish” one, the “have you tried mindfulness instead of medications?” one. I mean, there’s a bunch. it’s like doing a tarot reading where all 78 cards are the Happy Squirrel.
And I get it. Being depressed, and being around depressed people sucks. It’s why a lot of us are class clowns. Carrying the burden of being “on” all the time is usually a lot easier than carrying the burden of my depression along with everyone else’s pity or sorrow or anxiety about my depression. For the people who are close enough to know me, I’m not a good person to be around when I’m “off”.
I’ll agree that depression is about being broken, to a certain point. Your brain is broken in the same way that diabetes is about broken pancreatic function, or cancer about broken cell division. It’s not the way a brain is meant to function, and it needs support or correction or both. Mental illness increases the chance of other brain problems, like dementia, just like diabetes can lead to other health problems like poor blood circulation and gangrene. Similar to diabetes, even the best support and the best care can’t guarantee a problem-free life for a depressed person. The best you can do is get by day by day.
Go straight to hell with the narrative that we don’t need fixing. As a creative person who suffers from depression, there’s nothing I loathe more than this continued and troubling narrative that mental illness enhances your power as an artist, that all the best artists had problems, and that’s why their art is so powerful. Sorry my mental illness isn’t quirky and fun, my characters don’t talk to me, I just stop writing and sleep for weeks. There’s nothing wrong with having depression. There’s nothing wrong with saying “wow, this disease is total horseshit”, either. Depression doesn’t have to have a “love yourself” narrative. It is, by its nature, negative. (People with depression not only experience more negative thoughts, but also struggle with conceptualizing positive ones.)
That doesn’t mean I want to be broken. How many cancer survivors have talked about the concept of the nobly-suffering cancer patient, the Lurleen McDaniel heroines of page and screen, and how much that trope sucks, on a scale from toilet to black hole? (the people I’ve spoken with seem to point to black hole more often.) There’s nothing noble or heroic about living with depression. It’s gross (when was the last time I showered, pooped, changed my bedsheets, cleaned the cat box?), it’s anti-social, it’s mind-numbingly BORING to not want to get out of bed, but be too exhausted to read or watch tv. It’s the life equivalent of running over a pool filled with non-newtonian fluid.
If someone walked up to me and said, “Do this one thing, and you’ll be cured of your depression forever,” tomorrow, I’d be like hell yes, sign me up, do you need a notarized copy of my soul? Depression isn’t me, it’s not my identity. It’s something I choose to identify because the stigma around not talking about MI is still strong, but I would write off being depressed in a heartbeat, in a way I wouldn’t give up being a woman, even though it’s hard.
In a way, Robin Williams (and others like Chris Farley, or Kurt Cobain) show us how depression is outside of reality. You can have fame, or money, or family and friends helping you, or therapy, meds, a job you love, or any combination of those things and sometimes they won’t matter against the sounds of seven demons giving you endless and constant hell. (And sorry but aside from Mary Mags, Jesus can’t do much against them.) If they can’t hack it, what chance do I have? Not exactly hopeful – but not hopeless. In a way, the nihilism is comforting to me. Meds, therapy, support networks aren’t nothing – but they’re the chalk, the fancy shoes, the carabiner and harness against the rock face you’re stuck on. in the end, it’s down to you and gravity. Some people can monkey up the cliff without a lick of gear, and do a moonwalk at the top (and I hate those people a little. Sorry! You’re lucky and talented and I hate you a bit.) Sometimes people take every precaution and fall anyway. It’s a new roll of the dice every foothold you find, and it’s comforting to know if my toes slip, it’s not my fault. It’s physics.
That doesn’t mean that if someone came and installed some stairs, or a nice elevator, I would stick on the wall.
Williams climbed for 50 years. That’s incredible. The cliffs are higher than anyone knows.