We Are Not Alone

I had an entirely different post planned for today, but recent events have changed that. Sometimes you’ve just got to roll with the punches.

As I wrote on Facebook last night, it’s not often that the death of a celebrity affects me so strongly, I cannot stop crying. It’s very rare that anyone outside of my own personal sphere affects me profoundly enough for their passing to be completely overwhelming. But as I learned that the world had lost Robin Williams – that he had lost his own battle – I was just gutted.

I’ve spent last night and this morning attempting to understand why, indeed, I – like so many others – am so deeply upset by the loss of this particular man. There have been other comedians who have made my sides hurt from laughing. There have been other actors whose dramatic performances have taken my breath away. There have been other celebrities whose demons have overtaken them. Why is this so different for me?

I finally was able to narrow it down to two driving factors: Robin’s body of work, which so strongly impacted me; and the manner in which he died, which hits very, very close to home. Combine these and, well, I’m a mess.

You didn’t ask for a critique of his movie catalogue, so I won’t give you one (you’re welcome), but I still have a few things to say. The first time Mr. Williams really affected me was through the Good Morning Vietnam soundtrack. Not the movie itself (which I wouldn’t see until years later), but the soundtrack, which included many of Robin’s hilarious bits as disc jockey Adrian Cronauer. I listened so often, I could quote him word for word, and was quite taken aback when I finally did see the movie, which was far more serious and tragic than the album suggested.

It’s no secret that I have a flare for the melodramatic. This was probably never more obvious than when I was a teen, filled with typical teenage angst and turbulence, but with a serious bent for things that were “deep” and “moving” and “thought-provoking.” Dead Poets Society arrived at precisely this time and utterly swept me away – except, contrary to the other gag-inducing nonsense I was absorbing, it actually was a moving and thought-provoking film – so much so that one of my best friends and I created our own secret Dead Poets Society. Given that it was, you know, a secret society, I won’t give away the details here; suffice it to say that it was an incredibly important, transformative part of my adolescence – all thanks to Robin Williams.

Ever the Disney fan, I was blown away by Aladdin’s humor. By the time my college roommate and I arrived on campus, we were each more than familiar with Aladdin. Other students would play the movie on their itty bitty dorm-room TVs, which we could see from the windows outside of our own fourth floor room; the two of us would sit in the window wells and watch the entire film. We couldn’t hear a word, mind you, but that didn’t matter, because we’d already memorized the entire script, with the Genie’s lines being our best-loved, of course.

Although I didn’t fully realize it until yesterday, Robin Williams’s film work impacted me tremendously. (His stand-up and interviews – with his appearance on Inside The Actor’s Studio being absolutely epic – were mind-blowing in their intensity, genius, and hilarity. I loved watching those moments, but they didn’t affect me the way that his movies did.) I cannot quite believe that his body of work has ended.

Williams’s death has struck me in a much more personal way, however, because of the horribly tragic manner in which he died. Mental illness is something with which I am all too familiar. I have friends and family who have struggled with depression, anxiety, OCD, and bipolar disorder. I’ve had friends and acquaintances who have committed suicide. But those are their stories; I don’t feel comfortable sharing them. Instead, I will share mine.

It’s often cited that mental illness – or a predisposition toward it – runs in families. For my part, I seem to have lucked out by inheriting the depression and anxiety genes. Looking back, I see now that I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life – nothing crippling (typically), but certainly present. It’s still something that I work to keep in check, something that’s always bubbling below the surface.

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, and I am no exception to that. My first and strongest bout of depression – not just feeling a little down and out, but an actual, diagnosed clinical depression – occurred during the summer of 2008. As with so many people who suffer from depression, there was no single causal factor, no specific trigger. I just gradually stopped caring – stopped feeling anything, really – until it seemed that I was floating through the world without a place to land.

Sadness doesn’t accurately describe it; hopeless comes closer. It just felt like nothing would ever be good again, and then I stopped caring whether or not things would ever be good again. I cried at everything and nothing. I hid behind corners in the grocery store so I wouldn’t have to see anyone. I closed myself behind bathroom doors in my house so that I could cry away from the girls, who were both very little at the time. I had no desire to engage in any of the activities that normally appealed to me. I didn’t care about seeing my in-person friends and didn’t care about communicating with my online friends.. I felt suspended, drifting, lost.

But, despite the bizarre, floaty nothingness, I knew enough to know that I didn’t want to go on like that. I wanted to be the kind of mom who delighted in her children, not one who looked off in the distance, completely disengaged while they played at her feet. I wanted to have meaningful – or even lighthearted – conversations with my husband instead of avoiding him. I wanted to find joy again.

And so I sought help, both through talk therapy and medication. It wasn’t easy; I was embarrassed and ashamed, not to mention that just getting myself out of the house was a feat because I had zero motivation or energy. I knew, though, what the consequences could be if I didn’t get help, if I didn’t make a damned good effort to get better. I wasn’t about to do that to my family or even to myself; when I could see through the haze that had settled in around me, I knew that there were oh so many reasons to keep going. It’s just that believing that, in that moment, was all but impossible.

Thankfully – miraculously? – I never considered suicide, even when I was in the darkest depths. I wanted to feel better. I needed to feel better. It took a good deal of time, but with the help of several professionals as well as medication (which I no longer need, save for the Xanax, amen), I slowly climbed out of the hole and began to see daylight again. The air was cleaner up there; it felt good. Six months later, I felt like I’d regained solid footing. I had beaten depression… this time.

I know, though, that for the rest of my life, I will be fighting. There have been many, many times in the past (now) eight years when I have felt those walls closing in, when I began to feel suspiciously, awfully detached again; and every time, I have steeled myself to push back. Depression likes to lie low but it never goes away; it is always ready to rear its hideously ugly head, often at the slightest provocation – to start another fight. It is a battle that I fully intend to win, but the enemy is ruthless and mean and cunning; it can creep back in when I least expect it. Living with depression – not being depressed, but as a person in whom depression resides – requires a constant level of awareness and vigilance that, quite frankly, is sometimes exhausting.

But there’s no choice, so the fight continues. Forever.

These may seem like extremely personal details to be sharing; they are. But part of why depression is so powerful and devastating is that it makes you feel alone, that you are fighting all by yourself, that no one else understands. It makes you feel embarrassed and ashamed of being who you are. It convinces you that no one else cares what happens to you – or, at its worst, they would be better off without you.

I am here to tell you that you are not alone. You are not fighting by yourself. I understand – not your exact circumstances, but that terrible, bizarre, detached feeling? I understand.

We, as a society, are rocked by the aftereffects of mental illness and addiction (which are so closely linked) time and time again – from school shootings to overdoses – and yet we very rarely talk openly about what it means to suffer from mental illness, nor how to help those who do. There remains a stigma surrounding it, which is largely perpetuated by our continued silence, shame, and lack of discussion. Today, I am breaking my silence.

Depression isn’t a game. It isn’t something to be treated lightly or messed with. It is not made-up and “thinking happy thoughts” does not make you feel better. Admitting that you’re struggling with depression doesn’t make you weak or pathetic or pitiable. Not addressing it can be deadly… in the most literal of ways. And that is why depression is so scary, and why we must connect with one another, why we must reach out to those of us who are in darkness or are hurting. That is why we must talk about it.

I feel tremendously fortunate, and to-my-core grateful, that, while in the throes of depression, I have never contemplated ending my own life. I am devastated that Robin Williams saw no other alternative, and that the demons won. His death is especially poignant for me because… well… there but for the grace of God go I.

If you suspect that a friend or family member may be depressed, talk to them. Show them that you aren’t ashamed to discuss this beast, that you’re there to listen, and that you love them, no matter what. If you are depressed, or if you think you are depressed, or if you just don’t know which end is up, please seek help. There is no shame or vulnerability in doing so; in fact, it takes tremendous courage and strength (which totally sounds like I’m bragging, but after working so hard to kick depression in the face, I think it’s okay to feel a little badass). If it seems like no one understands, please talk to someone; so many people do get it. If it seems like you have no support network, please reach out; nets of encouragement and love can spring up seemingly out of nowhere, buoying you until you have the ability to stand on your own again. I know they did for me, once I finally mustered the courage to extend my arms and legs.

And if you feel like all hope is lost and the only answer is to take your own life – or if you believe that someone else is considering doing so – please, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Like millions of people around the world, I am heartsick that Robin Williams is no longer with us, while I am also profoundly grateful for the gifts he gave us and the ways he touched my life – the ways he made me think, made me cry, made me laugh. At first, I thought that it would be pointless to add my voice to the endless chorus of people who have expressed their grief over Robin’s suicide; I have nothing new to add, nothing unique or special to say. But now I think that perhaps our shared perspective is exactly the point. We are all in this together. We are here for one another; we are not alone.  We can change how mental illness is perceived and treated. We will get through this world side by side – by supporting each other, encouraging each other, helping each other, challenging each other, and loving each other.

And by spreading laughter and joy every chance we get.

To you, Mr. Williams… I’m so very sorry. You were astounding. Thank you, thank you.

In the words of Adrian Cronauer: “Take care of yoursel(f). I won’t forget you.”


* For one of the first times ever, there are no photos to accompany this post – not even irreverent ones of my kids – because none seemed right.

Nick and I do plan on watching Mrs. Doubtfire with them as soon as possible**, however, because Helllllloooooo… that is more than right.


** Update, August 2015: We have watched Mrs. Doubtfire with the girls; not surprisingly, they adored it. Now we can’t wait to show them The Birdcage — in a few years, of course.