We lost a great actor and comedian yesterday to suicide. It's heartbreaking. Robin Williams was so full of life that his absence seems like a hole in the world. He left behind three children, a wife and a pug named Leonard.
While we don't know the particulars of his mental illnesses, he was truly sick. If you've never experienced a mental illness, it's hard to understand how someone can feel so hopeless and so deep in a hole that they feel there is no way out. I sincerely pray that if you haven't experienced it, you never do.
I have been clinically depressed for more than a year now. Clinical depression is different than situational depression. And both are different than sadness. We all get sad sometimes. Depression is not sadness. It may look like it, but it's not. Clinical depression is an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. I have no "reason" to be depressed. I just am. Situational depression starts with a sad situation that leads to a change in the brain chemistry. People who have lost a loved one or their job can get situational depression. People with clinical depression usually don't start with a sad event.
I think my depression was triggered by getting whooping cough two Christmases ago. I was very sick for a long time. Just as a diagnosed disease like whooping cough or pneumonia can create changes in the body, it could create changes in the brain. Adding insult to injury, I have had problems with sleeping for years. I am a night owl in an early bird world with a very early bird job (for me). Sleep deprivation can do terrible things to the brain, too.
I used to be called Pollyanna because of my positive attitude. Not any more. I had no patience, even for my beloved pugs. I snapped at people. I got ragingly angry over things I shouldn't. And this is actually an improvement. For eight months, I slept. A lot. Came home from work and took a two hour nap. Woke up, ate dinner, then went to bed. Slept all weekend. And I was still exhausted. It took all my energy to get up and go to work.
I have been on a couple of medications over the last year. I also have migraines, and the medication I take for the headaches interacts with most of the anti-depressants on the market. So I've tried a few different ones. The one that finally seemed to work actually helped me sleep a lot better. But after a few months, I started to get irrationally angry and snappish. That can be a side effect. I've been off the medication for about two weeks now, and I'm doing okay. I've started a different medication just for sleeping that is not really fantastic but better than nothing.
I'm calling it remission. I think depression is a cancer of the soul. I may never get rid of it, only treat it into remission. I'm aware of it, and I know the signs that I need to see a doctor. I'm not ashamed of asking for help or taking medications. I think my trick will be identifying it sooner before it gets so bad. When you are so depressed that it's hard to function, it's very hard to be an advocate for yourself. You don't have to energy to question doctors or push for treatment. Just recently, I've had more energy and pushed to get more answers. It turns out, my thyroid level has also been low. Low thyroid is also linked to depression.
Mental illnesses are just as real and valid as other diseases. Just because you can't see depression under a microscope doesn't mean it's not real. There's not a blood test for bipolar yet. But it is still real.
People who are depressed can't just cheer up. It's not a matter of getting more exercise, doing yoga, drinking chamomile tea. It's not something you can cure with willpower any more than you can cure cancer with positive thinking. Are there things you can do to take better care of yourself? Sure. And if a depressed person can, maybe they do. When I was in my sleeping phase, going up the stairs made me so tired that I had to sit down at the top of the stairs. I dozed off at work all the time. Exercising was out of the question.
If the tragic death of Robin Williams leaves us with anything, let it be that we must stop treating mental illness as imaginary and shameful. We don't want to be depressed. We don't want to have anxiety. We want to be happy and play with our dogs, laugh with our friends. We don't want to let the laundry pile up. We don't want to hurt our family and friends by dying. If we had a choice, we wouldn't choose to be depressed. Nobody chooses to have cancer or Alzheimer's or a stroke. Nobody chooses mental illness either.
We must stop shaming people with mental illness. I think most of the time people don't even realize they are doing it. The media shows us the terrible side of mental illness with stories of school shootings. I know one person who won't see a doctor because they are afraid that their coworkers will make fun of them or see them as dangerous. If you would see a doctor for a broken arm or stomach problem, then see a doctor for mental illness.
If you know someone with depression, be kind to them. Don't try to fix them or offer advice. Just be there. Listen with compassion. Let them know you care. Ask if they need help then help them find a good doctor. Don't tell them to smile more. My grandmother has never been depressed (although she certainly has had opportunities for it) and doesn't understand. I have at least convinced her to stop telling me to cheer up. Telling a depressed person to cheer up makes them feel like their feelings aren't important. She doesn't understand, any more than I understand what it's like to have breast cancer (which she has, again). But she does get that I am not well and tries to be more compassionate. If an 81 year old can do it, so can we all.
Be kind to others. You never know if that smile is forced because someone is too scared to admit they are sick. Being kind doesn't take much effort and you never know how you may impact someone's day.