Thursday, August 14, 2014

Depression and Suicide

There has been lots of discussion about Robin Williams taking his life.  I've seen lots and lots of supportive messages - how he was an avid cyclist (winner in my book); how he was a geek who played WoW with his fans, and named his daughter after Zelda; how he had a heart of gold.

And how he hid his depression by being completely open about it, yet most of his audience was blissfully unaware of the darkness he hid inside.

Even with these positive messages there's still the comments, sometimes innocent and sometimes intentionally downright cruel, ringing ignorant and haughty perspectives about a very real, very difficult problem some people face.

Like me.  I have a deep and personal understanding.  I've been there, I've seen the darkness, I know what the pain feels like.  Everyone's circumstances are different.  I would never compare my experience with Robin's, or others, but I do appreciate them, I do understand them.  The demons I've fought, while no less real, are different.

So, I want to set a few things straight.

Depression is not a lack of confidence.  It is not dwelling on problems.  It is not allowing oneself to be swept up by events.  It is not failing to see the bright side of things.

Depression is not a choice.

Read that again: Depression is not a choice.

There is a lot yet for us to learn about what depression really *is*; by saying that, we admit we're sure we know what it's *not*.  There is a tremendous amount of research going into psychology, physiology, biochemistry, and combination fields like physiological psychology, brain chemistry, in an attempt to understand the underpinnings of depression.

For me, it's chemical; or, at least, that's what it seems like.  I can "see the storm clouds on the horizon"; I have a sense when it's going to get really dark.  I can't do anything about it, it really is like seeing the storm on the horizon and knowing it's going to get really rough for a while.  Eventually, the storm will pass.

Even harder for many people to understand is this: Suicide is not by choice.

Look at it intellectually.  Humans, as animals, have instincts designed to ensure our survival.  We may take liberties with survival, unnecessary risks, and even misjudge the likelihood of death from those risks; but when faced with clear and present mortal danger we will do everything we can to survive.

There's a reason (most of us) can't jump off a building.

Depression can dull that response, even overcoming hard-wired instinct.  It can, quite literally, turn off that will to live, replace that signal, or overwhelm it with an unendurable, indescribable pain.  The fear of death vanishes, replaced by a sense of comfort, a sense of possible peace.  The final escape from the demons that gnaw on our minds, our hearts, our very souls.

It's the salve for our wounds, one I'll feel so much better after applying.

Again: Suicide is not by choice.

There are a lot of well-intentioned people out there, with well-intended questions, hearts in the right place trying to help people in need.  Truly, these people need to be recognized, supported.  (Most of them) know what's really going on in a depressed, or suicidal, person's head, and know that it's not so simple to solve as picking up the phone.  They know that few have the will to do so, and some that do will still succumb.

So they don't judge.  They reach out, try to provide a ray of light to a soul in darkness, and hope that soul will follow the beam.

For the rest of us, it's incredibly easy to be accidentally, or purposefully, flip about this reality.  These are a sample of the statements I've read in the last few days.

"It's not that bad."  Yes.  It is.  This shows just how naive you are; you've never experienced pure, unadulterated depression, and such don't know how heavy it truly feels.  That weight is real; it can mean we can't get out of bed, the weight real and palpable in our minds.

"You should call someone, or call me."  Sometimes innocent, when said by someone who truly wants to help; other times, said only as transference to further place blame on the victim.  So, while there is a grain of truth, you must begin to realize that we're perceiving inches as miles; once you understand that, you can begin to understand why we can't move to the other end of the couch - let alone pick up the phone resting on the end table.

"I've been sad before, too."  If you've never been on the wrong side of the depression line, you don't know what true depression feels like.  If you have, you'd never use the word "sad" to describe it.  In short, you're ignorant.  Don't ever begin to assume that you have the first idea what it's like to be truly depressed.

"Suicide is a sign of weakness."; or "You need to toughen up."  These truly piss me off.  Take every single bad experiences in your life, count them up, stack them on top of each other, and experience them all simultaneously.  Then multiply by two.  Four.  Ten.  Do that, and you'll start to get a sense what being depressed is really like.  You want strength?  Survive that feeling.  Every.  Single.  Day.

Robin, I respect you.  I respect what you've done, how you ended it.  I respect everyone who ends up in a place where suicide is the only recourse.

I'm saddened that we, as a society, are failing every one of these people.  

So what can we do?

1) Stop stigmatizing depression and other mental illness.
2) Collectively learn, and accept, that depression and other mental illness are not choices.
3) Collectively learn, and accept, that the effects of depression are not choices.
4) Learn how to be "a ray of light" instead of "the scale of judgement".
5) Continue to push for greater understanding of our brains, and how our environment, physiology, chemistry, sociology, and many other factors relate to our psychological heath.

As for Robin - thank you for being you.  Thank you for sharing. well.  Rest well and, finally, in peace.

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