Let me make this clear, before I begin: I don’t think I suffer depression. At least, not the serious, clinical variety. But, while I fully believe the above statement is true, I must admit there are times I have fits of uncontrollable sadness where the reason for the emotion escapes me. It happened a lot after my grandmother died. It still happens, from time to time, now. And I know that does not, in any way, compare to the struggles people who truly suffer depression have, but it has given me the opportunity to witness, somewhat first hand, how people respond to the situation of a happy person suddenly sinking into uncharacteristic negativity.
And, to be very blunt, that response is not pretty.
A month after my grandmother had passed, I was still upset. I was grieving. There were days I felt I was okay—and I was, I think—but then something inside me would shift, like an earthquake or a tremble in the leg of a tightrope walker, and I would spiral downwards, even as I tried to hold myself together. Hindsight has given me the ability to pinpoint the catalyst (the reality of a grandmother gone and, to add to it all, a father recovering from a stroke; perhaps never to be normal again), but in that moment it felt inexplicable, unexplainable, something like madness.
I believed that I had to be okay, because it had been a month already and general advice from well-meaning (but misguided) individuals told me I should just get over it. I’d started a new job; I wanted to rain on my office’s parade as little as possible. I wanted to be the bright and bubbly and amusing Frankie who had signed that internship contract, because it was a Frankie I believed everyone generally liked. But I overestimated my capacity to “fake it until I made it,” and eventually the truth started to show. I was still studying at the time—the evening classes of my masters—so it was usually at school, out of the office environment, that I was most comfortable letting the mask fall.
The first couple of times, I was thankfully ignored—possibly due in part to an already established penchant for being the stereotypical melancholy (read: moody) artist—but as it dragged on I started getting comments like “Smile more!” or “You look better when you’re happy!” One time, I got so pissed I told a girl that I wanted to punch her in the face because “I’m depressed, okay?!” I’m not proud of what I did, but it had been one comment too many that day, so I’d snapped. She responded by asking me if I’d had it confirmed by a psychiatrist, if my problem was real, because she’d known someone who had made themselves think they were depressed only to be disproved by a diagnosis.
In short, she told me it was all in my head.
I bit my lip and apologised—upset or not, threatening to punch someone in the face is never acceptable behaviour—but what struck me most about this exchange, and all the ones before it, was how unacceptable my being chronically sad was to people. Sadness—like death—is something we’ve learned to insulate ourselves from, something we’ve learned to avoid or deny in favor of “living life,” forgetting that sadness is a part of life, as is death, as is illness. And while I won’t claim that my “chronic” sadness (as unexplainable as it felt then) was an illness…depression is.
Depression is a disease. Like cancer. Like bipolar disorder. It’s unique in that it doesn’t only have a physical root—chemical imbalances considered, it takes more than a neural misfiring to trigger full-blown depression—but finds purchase in psychological trauma; a mind-virus taking advantage of existing physical vulnerability. This combination of physiological, psychological, and one could even say spiritual factors make it unique, and uniquely debilitating, able to trickle into a life until it takes it over.
To make things worse, depression exists in varying degrees of severity, meaning that it can easily be confused with the more “terrestrial” type of something-bad-happened-I’m-depressed depression, which is probably part and parcel for why most people react to it the way they do. Add to this the rise of the “emo” movement–where it became cool to be disenfranchised and sad–and you have a recipe for major confusion here.
Still, there are general signs. I’m not a psychologist, and I won’t pretend to be, but from what I’ve been told depression’s number-one symptom is a chronic, or recurring, unexplainable sadness. Every variant–from seasonal, to post-partum, to severe–bears this mark. So if someone has been telling you they’ve felt low/heavy-hearted/down for a while now, and they can’t figure out a reason, then there may be cause to suspect something’s wrong. Usually, it comes after some kind of trauma–death, physical illness, witnessing a crime–but sometimes it can just creep up, a mental virus having incubated and finally taken hold.
Like most diseases, depression has a mortality rate—a fact once again made public recently with the recent tragedy that is the death of Robin Williams. That depression can strike the happiest of us is an “accepted” fact, at least in terms of web articles and other literature, but despite the volley of information available online it remains a condition often misunderstood, something you can just “get over.” And that, coupled with the social pressure to “be okay” has led to many remaining silent about their struggles, many times resulting in very real, very permanent—one could say terminal—consequences.
I nearly lost a friend to suicide, two years ago. Thankfully, that person survived, but in the aftermath it was hard to say that we couldn’t have seen it coming. We did, or we could have–the messages of desolation, hopelessness, exhaustion were there, written out in blogs and stories and occasional too-short, deceptively innocuous status messages. That person wasn’t okay, but we expected them to be, chalked it up to a phase, and that led to frantic phone calls at eleven PM and a hospital stay.
Depressed people choose to commit suicide because in that moment, it just seems easier to give up. The fight is exhausting, they feel they have no hope, that life doesn’t get better, that they can’t be okay, and nine times out of ten it’s because they decide to keep the problem to themselves, self-medicate, cope on their own because they think (and somewhat rightly so) that otherwise people are just going to end up tell them to “get over it.” But the truth is, you can’t just “get over” this. You fight it every day, and you can’t fight it alone. We are not meant to deal with the frailties of our bodies and our souls alone—human beings are not meant to be alone in general—and so when we are forced deal with a struggle this deep all by ourselves, is it any wonder that some decide that not fighting anymore is the best choice?
But it does not have to be this way.
Depression is an illness. Depression isn’t a choice. Suicide, as a solution, is, but you don’t lash out at someone who is mentally ill for their actions (because even if in the end it was their choice, their judgement was more than a little impaired). You don’t judge people who are on the brink or headed there. You don’t tell them to snap out of it. Rather, you tell them to seek help before it’s too late. You give them options. Most of all, you listen–instead of writing it off as a phase or an act or a ploy or a mood, you listen, because there is a risk that something really is wrong. True, the existence of “emo” and suicide-as-drama makes this a bit hard to pick out, but when our initial reaction is to think of those explanations, to think that it’s “all in someone’s head,” we may end up missing out on the moments when it’s not.
When someone is depressed, you don’t tell them to get over it. Ever. Instead, you tell them there is hope to get better because there is. You empower them to get the help to fix what’s broken, and while they’re fixing it you stand with them every step of the way, even in the moments they refuse to believe you’re there.
There’s this trend now to romanticize the idea of depression-induced suicide, to call those who kill themselves out of depression “victims of depression.” I don’t like this term, because it takes away agency from the individuals who are fighting it and are still alive and who are coping. It implies, for them, that the natural course of the disease is terminal. As brutal as this sounds, you don’t die of depression. Instead, you die of suicide, and that is a choice. Depression is the illness. Depression isn’t a choice. But suicide as a solution is. Matt Walsh, in his brutally honest blog post about the recent events, puts it so very well:
…suicide does not claim anyone against their will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice. That choice. Whether you call depression a disease or not, please don’t make the mistake of saying that someone who commits suicide “died from depression.” No, he died from his choice. He died by his own hand. Depression will not appear on the autopsy report, because it can’t kill you on its own. It needs you to pull the trigger, take the pills, or hang the rope. To act like death by suicide is exactly analogous to death by malaria or heart failure is to steal hope from the suicidal person. We think we are comforting him, but in fact we are convincing him that he is powerless. We are giving him a way out, an excuse. Sometimes that’s all he needs — the last straw.
Self-destruction is a tragedy, not just for the person concerned, but for those left behind robbed of the natural consolation that comes with death. When the news broke out that Robin Williams died and it was an “alleged suicide,” I found myself hoping that he’d had a heart attack instead, that the cow valve had failed, that this man hadn’t chosen to end his own life, because while the circumstances of why could not be laid at his door (he was mentally ill, he was struggling, he fought and most days he won), what he did could, even if he wasn’t in his right mind when he did it. And that is what makes it even more tragic, because it makes the last act of a good man’s amazing-inspiring-wonderful life something so very terrible that it leaves us grasping for something to hold on to in the aftermath.
What I hold on to is that there are others out there who are still fighting, fighting a very real battle that many people–even people I know and respect–refuse to see as real. To those who are, to anyone reading this who has even toyed with the thought that “the final solution” is actually a solution, you need to hear this–we know that your struggle is real, but ending it all is not the solution to it.
Positivity is not going to help, and neither is the self-help claptrap we’re thrown (part of the problem, I have to say) about that says we “attract” this negativity and therefore just as easily can deflect it. We can feed depression, yes–not seeking help is probably the biggest way–but it isn’t something we cosmically call to ourselves and cause to happen. Depression is real. It is a real disease. And like any real disease, there are places to get real help for it. You cannot fight it alone, and you don’t have to, because while the bulk of the battlefield is in your own mind and heart…we do not live in a vaccuum, and just as there are people who would be affected by your loss, so there are people who are willing to step in and prevent it.
Depression is real. You are sick. You can get better. There are no permanent “cures”–life isn’t so fuss-free and neat–but it is a way to keep going, a strength that can be built, borrowed from others, shared in the same way as the burden can, in some sense, be spread out amongst a support network. Plug into one. Get help. And remember that fundamentally, even if we can’t feel it, joy exists. Hope exists. It is a rational, logical fact, not one founded on feelings. Hang on to that, if you need a tether.
In closing, lines of a poem I wrote when another celebrity, Cory Monteith, passed away a few years ago. While the circumstances surrounding that death are different from this one, the closing message for all of us, I think, is the same:
…should I lose
In the shadow
Of a cold room
Let no one else
Lose my war.
Joy exists. Hope exists. And you do not need to fight alone.