Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Depression Lies

Robin Williams passed away yesterday.  I am not one to be overly emotional about the passing of celebrities, or even those close to me.  (My mother passed away last week from Alzheimers', and my emotions are still a bit more muffled than I anticipated.)  But Williams' notable struggles with substance abuse and depression are generating a lot of thought-provoking articles from those who knew him well and those who only saw him on the screen.

A short piece in the The Guardian by Simon Jenkins particularly struck a chord with me:
Physical illness is something the medical profession understands. It knows what to do when the human body malfunctions and what not to do. Mental illness, if illness is the right word, seems lost in some dark age. Otherwise healthy people with every reason to be happy are found wrestling with private demons. Therapists wander the scene like surgeons on a medieval battlefield, at a loss for what to do. [emphasis mine]

For the longest time, I was That Person: the one who felt that depressed people just weren't trying hard enough; that if they chose to, they could lift themselves out of their funk and get on with having a better life.  I thought that lots of them were just attention-seekers, or were using their supposed depression as an excuse for [insert bad thing here].  And so unbeknownst to me, I was adding to the problem.  Because I wasn't aware of people around me who were struggling with depression (including, as it turned out, my own father), my attitude, mostly unspoken but probably made known one way or another, was increasing the stigma under which my depressed friends were struggling.

One way in which I now feel more like an adult (and indeed, more like a human[e] being) is having dropped that attitude.  My eyes were opened by many friends, acquaintances, and Internet personalities who have come forward to talk frankly about what it is like living with depression.  Thank you all, for your courageous efforts to educate clods like me.

This new awareness and perspective on my part is why I added the emphasis to Jenkins' quote above: "if illness is the right word".  Is it?  I'm not sure.  It strikes me as implying that mental illness is something that can be remedied.  But as Williams' death makes sadly clear, that is not necessarily the case even when one has the money, time, support, and resources he had available.  But is there a more suitable term?  Mental "condition" sounds too vague; "malfunction" sounds too mechanical; "dysfunction" seems inaccurate (e.g., my dad worked, played, worshiped, and served his whole life while carrying that burden without seeming dysfunctional).  "Imbalance"?  "Handicap"?  I simply do not know what word might be better suited than "illness" because they all bring with them some associated semantic baggage.

But I do know why even a recovering That Person such as myself struggles with how to treat our depressed friends.  If someone we know has a broken leg, we can help them maneuver around.  If they have the flu, we can bring them food and make sure they drink fluids.  We know to do these things because our friend's condition is visible and will last a known length of time.  The things they need at that time are relatively obvious.  But a friend living with depression may not give any visible clues that The Black Dog is shadowing them that day/week/month.  They may not say anything about what they need because the depression is lying to them, telling them that nothing can be done and nothing will ever get better.  This makes it difficult for us on the outside to help.  We feel impotent, stymied.  That feeling on our part can makes us hesitant to reach out.  Which makes us feel like jerks.  Double whammy for us, and leaves our friends even more isolated.

So it is my hope that the courage of Allie Brosh, Wil Wheaton, Jenny Lawson, and others is changing social attitudes, and that will have a feedback loop that makes it at least a little bit easier for those who battle depression to let us know what we can do to help and support them.  Because we do want to help.  Always remember, my friends: depression lies.

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