This is not a funny post. It’s about depression, and depression isn’t funny. Since Robin Williams’ suicide this week, and the not-so-surprising news of his battle with depression and substance abuse (self-medicating for the depression, I’d wager), I’ve read some pretty strange comments. The one that sticks in my craw is that Williams is somehow “cowardly” and “weak” for taking the suicide route and not just bucking up and getting himself together (by gum!).
I cannot believe that in 2014, there is STILL this kind of stigma and ignorance about mental illness. It’s brain CHEMISTRY, people. It’s not something a person can think away, will away, wish away, or work away. And the rest of us can't guilt someone out of it. If any other part of a person’s body goes rogue, and he or she develops psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, lupus, diabetes, cancer, etc., we don’t expect that person to simply “get over it.” So why, when a person’s brain chemistry runs amok, do we expect them to keep quiet about it, laugh it off, plan a vacation, take up a new hobby, or get a little more sun? Holy frickin’ dopamine-starved neurons, Batman!
I suffered from bouts of clinical, certifiable, whacked-out chemical depression (and possibly bipolar disorder) beginning in my early 40’s. My theory is that my body at that time became a giant peri-menopausal Vita-Mix of surging (or disappearing) hormones, and that started the depression ball rolling. There were times when all I could do was close my office door, lie on the floor, and sob, with a school-marm sweater over my face to muffle the noise. There were times I wanted a divorce. There were times I couldn’t get out of bed. I had panic attacks so bad sometimes that I threw up and thought my heart would explode. Shadows made me cry. Happy people made me cry. Sunlight made me cry. I couldn’t speak sometimes. I could barely breathe sometimes. There were times I wanted to die. I was NOT SAD. My brain was a swirling chemical cauldron. I was GONE.
Then one day I’d wake up, and I’d feel so good, that all of life was endless puppies & kitties & sunshine & possibilities. I couldn’t remember what I had felt like for the previous days/weeks/months (however long the bout lasted). I couldn’t IMAGINE ever feeling bad. I had my life back. Until the next time.
Most people never knew. Poor Ray patiently and lovingly bore the brunt, but I got VERY good at smiling, laughing, and joking in public. I became an Oscar-worthy actress.
After the stroke, I finally had to ask for some help. I figured, “Hey, I had a stroke…I have an excuse now.” The stroke whacked out my brain chemistry even more and damaged parts of the brain responsible for emotions, which made the depression worse. And one of the side effects of antidepressant treatment in stroke patients is better brain recovery. So I’ve been taking a low-dose antidepressant ever since, and OH. MY. DEAR. GAWD. If only I’d known 15 years ago that one little tweak—a paltry 10 mg of Celexa—to my brain batter was all it took to feel NORMAL! And by normal, I don’t mean silly and euphoric 24/7. I mean a normal distribution of reasonable highs and lows—sad, happy, bored, restless, anxious, tense, melancholy—rather than my previous bounce between the sulpheric fires of hell and jellybean rainbowland.
Depression affects poor people at higher rates. It affects women more than men (you know what James Brown says). Depression can also have a genetic component. My mom suffers from it. My grandma had it, I’m sure, although they called it “agoraphobia.” I can see signs of other kinds of mental illness in my immediate and extended family. But unlike red hair or musical talent, no one ever discusses THIS family trait. I want my children to PAY ATTENTION. NOW.
Many people still think depression is just feeling a little blue, and really, don’t we all sometimes? And can’t you just eat some cheesecake or watch some Three Stooges? And haven’t you been maudlin and self-indulgent long enough? And only helpless, overly dramatic weaklings need help for “depression.” And get outside and do some hard work, dammit, and you won’t be so hung up on your own “feelings,” dammit. And really, what do YOU have to feel bad about? Do you know how many people have it worse than you?
To those people, I say, SHUT THE F$*K UP and join the 21st century.
And to you, if you even THINK you might be one of the 120 MILLION people in the world whose brain CHEMISTRY is out of whack, call me. Stop by. I will listen ANY TIME. Better yet, call your doctor. And if your doctor is one of those people who still thinks you just need some cheesecake, call ANOTHER doctor. Keep calling until someone LISTENS to you. And if one medication doesn’t work, try another. And another. And another, until you find the one that works.
If you had cancer, and someone said, “Here’s medicine that will fix it,” would you feel like you had to hide it and “tough it out” on your own? No, you wouldn’t. Because you’re not an idiot. Don’t be an idiot (like I was) about depression (or any kind of mental illness), either.