So Robin Williams has died, suicide due to depression, and for awhile it seems like it’s all anyone is talking about, and although your heart breaks for him and his family and although you’re glad the tragedy can at least raise awareness, you also can’t help but be a bit irritated that it takes the death of a celebrity to get people talking about the disease that you and millions of others around the world battle every day in silence.
You are also puzzled by how many people are saying things like this: “But he was a comedian! He was so funny! He made everyone laugh! How could he suffer from depression?” You can’t believe that in the year 2014 there is still so much embarassing ignorance about what depression is. Actress Lauren Bacall died of a stroke the same week as Robin Williams, yet no one said, “I can’t believe Lauren Bacall died of a stroke! She was an actor!” One has nothing to do with the other. Depression is a random, arbitrary, chaotic illness that can strike anyone at anytime for no reason at all. There are comedians with depression just as there are comedians with eplilepsy and comedians with diabetes. You know this. People in the health sciences know this. Educated people know this. Most people, sadly, are neither in the health sciences nor educated.
Yet you also know that even the most knowledgable among us know frustratingly little about depression. In some ways depression is a lot like cancer: we don’t really know what causes it and we don’t really understand the pathology, but we do know that there are genetic factors, and environmental factors. You also know, better than many people, that, like cancer, there is no cure for depression. But you also know that, like cancer, depression can, in many cases, be treated, and managed. Life expectancy can be increased; quality of life can be improved.
You find it strangely amusing how utterly baffled people are who look at suicide from the outside. “But HOW? And WHY?” they ask. They are completely astonished by what Robin Williams did, by what 3,500 Canadians and ten times that many Americans do every year. Yet you know something that all depresssed people know extremely well: death is never far from the thoughts of a depressed person. You know how unhelpful family and friends can be where depression is concerned because so many of them, even today, consider it an attitude and not an illness, a choice and not a condition, an emotion and not a pathology. You know that if there is one thing depressed people hate, it is happy people who have never suffered a day of depression in their lives yet presume to pontificate about how to deal with it when it strikes others.
Your perspective fluctuates between optimism and pessimism. Sometimes you think that every tragedy such as the story of Robin Williams moves our society closer to understanding, and compassion. Sometimes you think it’s all futile, that this disease will never be understood by anyone, including those who suffer it.
In the meantime your own battle continues, unnoticed and unheeded by the seven billion people with whom you share the planet. On good days you delight in the world around you and consider every experience to be an absolute feast for the senses. On bad days you find life to be an utterly exhausting chore with no redeeming qualities and the years that stretch out before you seem like a dreadul prison sentence. The good days far outnumber the bad, so you carry on.
You’re reading George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. You can’t help but admire Bran, the young crippled boy prince. As he watches his home, Winterfell, burn, he makes the following observation:
“The stone is strong, Bran told himself, the roots of the trees go deep, and under the ground the kings of Winter sit on their thrones. So long as those remained, Winterfell remained. It was not dead, just broken. Like me, he thought. I’m not dead either.”
These words mean more to you than you can explain. But the good news is, you don’t need to explain because it doesn’t matter if anyone else understands. You understand, and that is enough.