By now, you’ve probably heard about Robin Williams’ suicide. There have been a variety of reactions to it. For me, personally, it hit hard. Every time I hear about the suicide of someone with depression, it hits hard. Not because suicide is tragic – although it is – or because depression is a horrible disease – although it is. It hits hard because I know it could be me.
This fall is my ten year anniversary. Ten years ago this November, I walked into a doctor’s office and asked for help, because I knew if I went home that night, I was going to harm myself (I was planning to start cutting). I didn’t know what was wrong, but I was able to recognize that what I was thinking wasn’t something other people thought about. Even then, it took the encouragement of an acquaintance to get me through that doctor’s office door. After talking with several doctors, I learned what was wrong – what had been wrong for many, many, many years.
I have clinical depression.
It is not my fault.
My depression has a very physical cause – genetics. My brain is wired a little bit differently than most people’s brains. My DNA tells my body to make too much of one chemical and not enough of another. It has always been this way. It always will be this way. Most of the time, I can live a completely normal life. Sometimes, though, those biological differences cause me to get sick again. By learning to recognize the symptoms and by developing coping mechanisms, I can emerge on the other side and go back into what I call “remission” – a time when my depression falls silent and lets me live normally once more. I know, however, that it is only a matter of time until I become sick again. This is the nature of the disease.
These days, most people have no idea that I’m sick. Even when my depression re-emerges, I’m quite skilled at hiding it. Most people will never know unless I tell them. This is where things get complicated. People recommend that I not talk about my illness. It “makes people uncomfortable” or “suggests [I’m] weak.” And maybe people are uncomfortable when I talk about depression. Maybe people (wrongly) believe I am weak because I have an illness. My staying silent, however, isn’t helping anyone – not others and not myself.
Mental illness comes with a huge stigma. There is a pervasive belief that depression is not a real disease, and that anyone can overcome depression if they just “suck it up and deal.” I’ve even had someone tell me that my depression was caused by me “not loving Jesus enough” and that if I prayed, it would go away.
Normally, I ignore these types of remarks, because I know they’re wrong. However, I felt compelled to write this – to speak up – after a friend linked me to an article by blogger Matt Walsh. Mr. Walsh wrote several pages in which he argues that suicide is a choice, and that Mr. Williams made a fully informed, fully capable choice.
People who have never lived with depression have no idea what it’s like. They’ve never experienced what it’s like to look at the world and see it as a lonely place in which there is no love and no hope. They don’t know what it’s like to believe that they have no one who gives a damn whether they live or die. They don’t know what it’s like for there to first be pain, and then for there to be nothingness.
When you’re in the throws of depression, when you’re contemplating suicide, you are not capable of seeing the world as it actually is. That’s what makes depression so dangerous. Severe depression removes a person’s ability to appreciate what that “decision” means.
This is not a new concept. We have long recognized that a person suffering from mental illness may not be capable of fully appreciating their actions if they commit a crime. This is why we have the defense of “not guilty due to mental disease or defect.” We recognize that, when the mind is impaired, one is not capable of forming a legal contract or consenting to sexual activity. These are legal principles that have been understood and enforced for decades. We know that an impaired mind is not capable of making an informed choice. By that same logic, suicide is not a choice.
I recognize that Mr. Walsh and those who say the same things as him think they are helping. That is why I have to speak – so there is a chance they might see that they could be harming those they are trying to help. Someone struggling with mental illness who is told that they are to blame for their contemplations of suicide only has the stigma accompanying mental illness reinforced. They feel judged and worthless, which only forces the depressive cycle deeper. I know this is the effect these types of words have on people with depression, because people said these same things to me. It made it worse. I didn’t get help for years because of people in my community saying these sorts of things. I believed those people. I believed I was weak. I believed it was my fault. It wasn’t. I can’t control my genetics. I am not my depression. And I am a remarkably strong person. I know this now, but I didn’t know it then.
I don’t want those who are depressed to feel the shame of the stigma, to believe that something out of their control is their fault. We need recognition that depression is a disease. We need to stop blaming those who suffer, and start focusing on finding cures.
EDIT – I want to add a link to http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html, which is a blog article where the author tries to explain what her depression is like. It does a good job of explaining what it’s like to go from pain to nothing and then be in that hopeless, nothing world that depression can cause.