So many have been shocked by the news of Robin Williams and what appears to be his self-inflicted death. For years, he was to me a poster-child for depression. Laughter became his shield, as it has for many who suffer from mental anguish, but he still was internally haunted. I know in my own struggles with depression, comedy was exactly what I used before discovering the toxic cocktail of food, sex, and booze (really, just don’t do it). A little secret of mine is that my first real writing gig was a weekly satirical column in the Eugene Comic News and I got to meet a lot of comedic writers through that. All of them struggled with some form of mental anguish.
So it is that many wonder how a man who is so funny, so full of life, and with so much adoration, could be depressed. When I hear people asking that, I swing between having no answer to wanting to hit my head against a book case. The same question was asked again when Mother Teresa was “outed” as having dealt with some heavy dark nights of the soul. No one could figure out how a holy woman could feel God’s presence, act in great charity, and yet feel the pains of depression.
Then there’s my personal life. One of the most jovial friends I ever had killed himself after his wife left him several years ago, and just a week ago another close friend attempted to take his own life. I’ve recently been public about my own struggles with MDD and how many times I stared down that abyss where death seemed like it would be the only relief. At one point, medication and a lot of counselling is the only thing that made me turn away from it, along with some deep religious experiences that I can only call miraculous. Yet, you’d never guess that from meeting me in person.
The Depressed Look Nothing Like That
The average depressed person is not wearing black eye-liner and writing emo lyrics for a crappy band. Sure, I went through a phase of listening to a lot of punk and metal, but I generally don’t wear all black. Instead, those who deal with depression are, in my experience, folks who can be quite charming and even seem to be always happy. This would, to some minds, seem to point to an overall good mood. In private, though, it’s a living hell.
My particular form of mental illness is defined by an over-all low mood. Most days I can function normally, but there are those days when getting out of bed seems like the hardest thing in the world to do. On the worst days, I’ve had to check myself into a hospital because all I could think about was ways I’d like to die. That part is hard to explain to people who have never been there. It’s not so much a desire to no longer exist, but a wish that whatever this is that is clouding my judgement would just be gone.
The worst of it, though, is the loneliness. The feeling that even God has abandoned you to your sufferings and that relief is not coming.
I’m much better now than I was even five years ago, but trust me that those feelings rarely go away. Even though I have a job I love, good friends, and a loving family, I am always having to worry about the day that the bark of the black dog will be too loud to endure.
That’s the point of depression and all other forms of mental illness: it clouds the mind and impairs judgement, you are literally unable to think straight and sometimes reality looks like a hazy dream. My mother once described it as seeing the world through a thick blanket. You can’t reason with it, you can’t negotiate with it, and even if you understand that your thought process is not normal or healthy, it’s easier to make out with a grizzly bear than to try to keep your mind from repeating that inner dialogue.
I don’t expect this to make sense, because it barely makes sense to me and I have to live with it every day. Throw in the fact that I, like many depressed people, keep a persona bon vivant, it becomes alienating when my mood reaches a low where I can’t even stand my own company. We want so badly to have some companionship, but we’re so afraid of our own minds that we’d shiver at exposing other people to our inner darkness.
That, above all else, is why I write. I don’t like writing on this subject. It takes just about every once of energy I have to write about depression. But, if one person can understand that they’re not alone than I can hope that my mild discomfort can help them.
The world though, especially most Catholic media, is lousy at offering the help we need. In the months since I started writing openly about depression and faith I’ve received the kind of cheap email messages that drive people crazy; things like, “have you tried avoiding gluten or taking Omega-6 oils,” (because, holy crikey, I just needed Dr. Oz, M.Div all along) or “maybe you should pray more” (because depressed people don’t pray, ever). Depression is hard to understand, I get that, but we could be better at explaining it and helping the many who endure it find some form of healing or at least enough grace to go on. Depression does not sell conferences or books, but we need to see how many people it touches and do what we can. Lives are on the line.
Arise from the Darkness!
I wanted to point out that depression touches many lives, whether we know it or not. Even my worst days I can fake being happy for a few hours before I collapse in exhaustion. If someone is depressed, you may never know it unless they feel comfortable enough to let their guard down. Then, it’s up to you to do what you can to be a friend, mother, spouse, or whatever part you play in their lives.
Unlike many illnesses, it does not always show outwardly. The person in your life suffering mental anguish is probably barely aware of it himself. Dig, though, and it’s there. Like all conditions of the Fall, we cannot let it fester in darkness but there needs to a light to shine the truth and to give hope to those who feel like all hope has abandoned them.
Depression doesn’t give a damn about your status, vocation, race, or financial situation. Yet, neither does Christ. If we want the mentally afflicted to find the peace that surpasses all understanding, we need first to open the doors and to let it in, and that is what Christian charity ought to do.
If someone in your life is suffering mental anguish, I can tell you from experience what works and doesn’t work. Don’t try to cure them unless you are a doctor or a real wonder-worker, and for heaven’s sake do not try to tell them, “But how can you be depressed!” Instead, let them know that they do have a friend, who is willing to carry a lot of their pains if necessary, and accept it if silence is their only response. Then, pray for help and that grace will be sufficient to get them through, but be aware that you probably are called to be an instrument of that grace. It means some work, but love demands it.
Also, if you are reading this and have been exhausted by your own black dog, know that it is not all there is. I’ve found some peace, but it doesn’t mean my burden is gone. Seek help, go for a walk, do whatever you can to come back tomorrow with the determination that you shall live. Also, know that God did not take on our nature and defeat death just to leave you alone. It may sound cheap, I know, but sometimes that is the only assurance I have and it is no small thing.
To end, here’s a little poem by one man that few knew struggled with depression, Mr. G.K. Chesterton:
The Catholic Gentleman.
THIS much, O heaven—if I should brood or rave,
Pity me not; but let the world be fed,
Yea, in my madness if I strike me dead,
Heed you the grass that grows upon my grave.
If I dare snarl between this sun and sod,
Whimper and clamour, give me grace to own,
In sun and rain and fruit in season shown,
The shining silence of the scorn of God.
Thank God the stars are set beyond my power,
If I must travail in a night of wrath,
Thank God my tears will never vex a moth,
Nor any curse of mine cut down a flower.
Men say the sun was darkened: yet I had
Thought it beat brightly, even on—Calvary:
And He that hung upon the Torturing Tree
Heard all the crickets singing, and was glad.