A light inside the depths

Isn’t it funny how I can bring great happiness to all these people, but not to myself.
-Robin Williams

While every year I taught a unit to my high school psychology class on mental illness, every year I hid my own. There were times I would stand in front of my students and speak about depression, despair, the suicide rates, when my own depression, despair, and suicidal thoughts breathed silently in the room. One year I reached a turning point. The depression had become so bad it was outwardly noticeable. I sometimes stopped silent mid-discussion, lost in anxiety. My hands trembled at the board. I had lost 15 pounds and my face was slack. A rumor began to circulate on campus that I had cancer. For years I had lived in fear that the kids would discover my truth. Now, at the depths, already half-exposed, I began to wonder if it wasn’t worse to walk around paranoid than to reveal my condition. I didn’t deserve to wear a veil of shame. At that point I underwent a small, quiet paradigm shift away from believing I had to maintain secrecy toward a belief that openness might be freeing. And as a teacher who strives to model integrity I wanted to normalize mental illness for my students, demonstrating that sufferers like myself can cope with and accept it, that none of us is alone. So I stood up in front of each of my five classes and said I have depression. I said I’m going to be who I am in this room. I told them teenagers need to see that teachers, parents and adults everywhere suffer psychological hardship as much as teens do in their turbulent adolescence. I reached out to the anonymously lonely, depressed students in the crowd. Knowing I understand depression, I said, those among you who also suffer, be assured you can rely on me. And indeed in the next several days certain students privately approached me about their own depression and sometime battle with suicidal thoughts.

Although our culture has in recent years become increasingly sensitive around issues of mental illness and depression in particular, the stigma of mental illness remains strong, evidenced by the vast numbers of sufferers who never speak about their condition, young people especially. It is telling that Robin Williams, who spoke openly for years about his substance abuse struggles, never said anything publicly about his battle with depression. We have reached a point where even in the image-fixated world of the entertainment industry being an addict approaches social acceptability. In fact addiction, while obviously destructive, can signify attractive intensity, edginess, and reckless freedom. It is ostensibly glamorous. Depression, meanwhile, remains decidedly uncool and disturbing. We don’t know what to do with depression.

We like to believe that as a culture we are coming from a place of compassion and acceptance. We consciously profess understanding, but behind that in many corners lies subtle and not so subtle judgment, the perception that those with depression are deficient and weak. I’ve lived with depression for over two decades and I still hold that attitude, having internalized the outer culture’s unconscious judgments. Anyone who believes that depression signifies a deficit does not understand that depression is an illness. Though a depressed person can in many ways treat the condition with diligent effort, depression isn’t really subject to individual will anymore than leukemia is.

Despite its frequency, depression, when severe like my own has been, inhabits the realm of the alien. It’s untouchable. Coming out remains an ongoing issue for me. I remain afraid that if I reveal my illness to the clients of my education business, they will drop me, fearing that I will be less than competent. Indeed that appears to have already happened. And what if they read this blog, which is the first public statement I have made of my depression?

The flat clinical word depression is painfully inadequate to capture a sense of the agonizing consciousness that characterizes this affliction. The official medical description of depression is in the diagnostic manual of mental illness known as the DSM-V that catalogs nine separate symptoms with a facile inexactitude. Depression transcends these symptoms. Describing the symptoms of a body is one thing. Describing the symptoms of a state of mind is quite another. The feelings of depression are a shifting constellation of fear, anxiety, guilt, despair, sadness, lethargy, numbness, self-hate and the shadings of many others. The conventional view that depression is merely low mood or deep sadness is an extraordinarily limited one. Depression can be a saturated darkness, an abyss, a gaping blankness where a song once loved becomes a faraway echo and one is untouched by the midnight expanse of stars. In my own case, I awake every morning in an oppression that evolves each day to a thin, livable despair. I withstand it.

It may be nearly as difficult for me to empathize with another’s experience of depression as it is for a non-sufferer, for depression is as varied as the individuals who have it. While one person weeps in the middle of the night, another can never cry. While one person has anxious racing thoughts, another has a mind that feels like it’s operating on a single weak piston. I know depression profoundly from the inside and deal with suicidal thoughts, but I doubt I could truly understand what Robin Williams experienced.

If we really want to understand depression we have to go beyond clinical public education, public health statistics and descriptions of standardized symptoms and treatments. We need to take a humanistic approach and look into the inner experience by hearing personal testimony. I encourage everyone open to learning to read a memoir such as William Styron’s Darkness Visible or Katherine Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind. When I was a classroom high school teacher I called my unit on mental illness Pain and Healing to emphasize the struggle and hope of the individual rather than the mere psychological and pathological facts.

I want to add some reflection here about suicide because suicide has an even greater stigma than depression. It is bewildering to the living, horrifying, the ultimate negation. How could he or she do it? The world of the suicidal is often a remote inaccessible realm that those of us left behind cannot comprehend. Perhaps our foremost expert on suicide, Professor Jamison of Johns Hopkins, recognized its fathomless reality last month in The New York Times, saying that “suicidal depression involves a kind of pain and hopelessness that is impossible to describe- and I have tried.” Difficult as it is, especially for those personally touched by suicide, it is important not to pass judgment. Many people blame suicide victims as selfish for inflicting pain on others when in fact those who choose suicide may be profoundly agonized by what their loss may cause loved ones. Some have judged Robin Williams’ choice because he had so much to be happy about in his life. Others, including psychologists, label suicide as an aggressive act designed to get back at the world or a grandiose and romanticized gesture. And many times I have heard suicide called cowardly, an easy out. On the contrary for suicidal people to endure horrific psychic torture, battling the demons and the sense that death is inexorable, it requires courage. Bromides such as suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, may neatly reassure the undepressed but deny the truth of the suicidal for whom the unrelenting pain can be anything but temporary.

The death of Robin Williams may spur us to destigmatize depression and suicide and inquire more deeply into their reality. Statistics that show a sharp increase in suicide rates for men in his age group over the last 20 years do not have as much impact on public response as one prominent tragedy. Looking ahead, we can perhaps soften in our compassion for the suffering and harden in our resolve to address mental illness. We should take heed, though, that when the shock and memory of tragedy fades amidst the ongoing deluge of developing news, we struggle to maintain our focus on pressing issues. Our wounds cannot afford it.