Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams, depression and me.

I've been uncharitably irritated with pretty much all the different responses to Robin Williams' death this week. I agree that it is very sad, that people should be more educated about and understanding of mental illness, that everyone should appreciate the love and respect they have from people near to them, and that having suicide hotline information at one's fingertips is a sensible and sometimes life-saving precaution.

And yet. I'm irritated.

I first showed symptoms of clinical depression in high school. They intensified in my young adulthood; I was hospitalized for observation for about a day when I was 19, and for about a week when I was 23. When I was 29, I took a month-long leave of absence from work to deal with a particularly nasty depressive episode. And throughout the first half of my 30's, I became pretty convinced that I wasn't going to live into old age. I have a stubborn and more-or-less all-encompassing sense of personal responsibility, so I figured I would most likely see my son (my one child at the time) into adulthood, arrange my affairs so the people depending on me would be taken care of, and then help establish and enter the equivalent of hospice care for the suicidally depressed.

Which brings me to irritation #1: suicide hotline information. The thing about suicide hotlines is, they work. I can speak from personal experience. But after enough depressive episodes, I learned that survival doesn't actually solve anything. The suffering is still waiting to return. Even today, at 41, when I can easily be described as "happy" by any objective standard--plus my own personal subjective one--it is a very rare day that I don't have at least a few minutes of existentially threatening despair. If anyone ever doubts the nature of mental illness as an actual disease, sit down with me for an hour or so, and I'll tell you all about the effect that varying my meds dosage or departing too much from my daily routine has on me. I am whole, but I'm never going to be healthy, barring some unexpected scientific breakthrough.

Which brings me to irritation #2: "Think of how many people love you and would be devastated to lose you!" I can't speak for every depressed person's experience of depression, only my own. And my experience is that a depressive episode is physical and mental torment. I can only compare it to the experience of bitterly fighting with someone you love dearly, wanting to stop and make up but neither of you able to, but the person you are fighting with is yourself. You can't go to a movie or hang out with friends or take a hike in the woods in order to recover and restore some perspective. There is no escape. And that is tiring. With other diseases, there is some acceptance of the idea that sometimes, enough is enough. The person with cancer decides not to undergo another round of chemotherapy. The person with heart disease decides not to go back for open-heart surgery again. Do they believe themselves to be unloved? Will their loved ones not grieve their loss? No. They're just ready to stop suffering. The analogy is all kinds of incomplete--treatments for depression aren't generally invasive with debilitating side effects, and I have no idea what "informed consent" could actually look like for someone in the grips of a depressive episode--but the principle remains that medical choices belong to the person who's actually sick.

Which brings me to irritation #3: the idea that Williams' death is an ideal opportunity for conversation and education. People have been killing themselves forever. Famous people have been killing themselves forever. The conversational opportunities are always there, and the imperative to be informed has always been there. It feels indecent to me to appropriate a man's death and turn it into enlightenment theater, where some of us talk and some of us listen and In The End, We've All Learned Something.

Which brings me to irritation #4: the shock and surprise at Williams' death. It's unclear whether he was ever diagnosed with a condition that carried a significant risk of suicide along with it, but anyone who ever watched an interview with him knew the man had struggled at many points over the years. In any case, according to the CDC, there are tens of thousands of suicides in the United States every year--and dozens of suicide attempts for every one that ends in death. (Apologies for my unrigorous reliance on a single report from 2012, but I doubt the statistics vary enough year by year to make my vague description of them wrong.) It's not common, but it's not exactly rare, either. Depression is a disease that sometimes leads to people trying to kill themselves, and some of those efforts are fatal. It's heartbreaking, but altogether believable.

Maybe my irritation is just part of my own sadness. I don't know. I do know that church--not simply Christian faith, but the ritual and practice and community of church--is what sustained me and gave me both the motivation and the strength to find the place of wholeness I'm in today. There is a non-trivial chance I would have died without it, and it is not optional for keeping me grounded now. So if one wishes to tie this post in to the blog's topic of polyamorous families in the church, there's the connection. You never know what the cost of excluding someone may turn out to be.

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