I thought maybe I was going to make it through this week without writing about depression. So many other people are speaking far more eloquently than I possibly could, there seemed to be no point to adding my voice to the chorus. Then I read a re-post, by a friend of mine, of a blog post which essentially said “Depression did not kill Robin Williams. He died by his own choice.” The original blogger went on to say that it was unfair to people suffering from depression to tell them that they had no control over their illness, that medication and therapy and spirituality were useless and that it was their neurochemistry that was going to determine whether they lived or died. That telling them this was taking away their hope. And that Robin Williams had chosen to ignore joy and hope and offers of help. Had chosen to let his illness win. The implication being that he had been free to choose otherwise. I knew in my heart that while there were certain points of truth in that post, from my perspective, it was basically, fundamentally wrong. But I didn’t want to post anything until I had in my head a clearer idea of what was wrong about it. Now I do.
First, I guess it’s kind of obligatory to establish my credentials, to be speaking about this subject at all. That’s hard to do, because to fully explain myself would require me to tell several stories that aren’t mine to tell. So I’m going to have to ask you, dear readers, to trust me a little, here. My part of the story, I can tell you. I’ve suffered from depression since the age of 17, had what I think was a nervous breakdown at 29. I was off antidepressant medication for most of my forties (kind of a miracle, given that my forties were also The Entire Freaking Decade of Perimenopause) but had to go back on for a while when my father died unexpectedly, three days before I turned fifty, and I found myself staring off into space during a dance class I was supposed to be teaching, wondering why the hell I should bother getting up out of my chair. As for the rest, yes, I have been affected, deeply so, by the suicide attempts of several people very dear to me. Affected to the point where my therapist tells me I have most of the symptoms of PTSD. So I think I can speak from the perspectives of both the depressive and the ones who are (nearly, in my case) left behind.
Addressing the original blog post: It would be wrong, yes, to tell someone with depression “This illness is going to kill you.” Just as it would be wrong to say the same thing to someone with cancer. But that’s only true when you’re talking to the living. It’s another matter entirely when you’re talking about the dead. To tell someone with depression who is still living, “You have control, you have a choice,” is at least arguably true, and may be helpful, may give them strength. (Although it could have the opposite effect, more about which in a minute.) But to say of someone who has taken his own life (I’m sticking with the male pronoun here for the sake of simplicity and in deference to Mr. Williams) “It was his choice, not his illness,” is passing judgment, when we have no idea what was in his mind in his final moments. I know there are people out there who call themselves Christians who have no trouble with that notion. But my Christ is the one who said “Judge not,” and I try to honor that. Yes, even though I was nearly left behind twice.
We don’t know what kind of pain Mr. Williams was in, in those final moments. We’re slowly starting to come to some kind of societal consensus, I think, that someone who is in unbearable physical pain and sees no hope of respite may be justified in choosing to end that pain. Why do we assume that emotional, spiritual, mental agony is easier to live with? Or that there’s some kind of special moral imperative that emotional pain can never be too much? Might it not be true, at least in some cases, that we are the ones who are being selfish, if we sit in judgment on someone who is suffering, emotionally or spiritually or mentally, beyond what he can bear, and tell him that he is being weak and cowardly by not staying alive for OUR sakes? And if it’s true in some cases, then it stands to reason that we can’t know for certain whether it was true in the case of any particular individual who takes his own life. Judge not.
And I mentioned earlier, it might NOT always be a good idea to remind a living person with depression that he has control over his illness. Every person with depression is different, at least in some ways. And purely from my own perspective, when I’m at a low point, nothing makes me feel like more of a failure than the thought that I SHOULD be controlling this, I’m ABLE to control this, I’m just such a total fuck-up that I CAN’T control this. I’ve failed at everything else, now I’m failing at being in charge of my own thoughts and emotions. It’s just one more judgment against me, one I’m entirely ready to believe when I’m that low. Not all depressives think like I do. I know this. And if someone has let you know that this sort of reminder is helpful to them, then go for it. But please, don’t sit in judgment on the dead.
Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD is, to me, the most perfect description of depression ever written. The blasted landscape through which the father and the son travel in that book is a pitch-perfect externalization of the internal landscape of depression. Bleak, hopeless, colorless, a world in which the most valuable piece of wisdom a father can pass to a son is the proper technique to blow one’s brains out with a single shot before the cannibals turn you into meat on the hoof, and in which finding a place of rest and respite is a terrible thing because you know it will be stolen from you. Yet, ultimately, it speaks of hope, a hope that the reader has to accept because it’s not a pretty hope, a unicorns and rainbows hope, it’s a hope almost as desolate as the despair that came before it. Because (spoiler alert!) the father dies. But… he brought his son to a place where he would be taken in and cared for before he died. Ultimately, his best was good enough. Everything he had was enough.