On Depression

(I don’t generally do this, but… trigger warning for suicide attempts.)

(When posted on Facebook, this was originally was titled On Robin Williams and Depression, but I decided I didn’t know enough about his case to feel completely comfortable about tying his suicide to this.)

This has been said by a number of people, and much better than I’m going to now but the attitude with which we treat depression and suicide in our society is killing people.

Some of it is in seemingly helpful words:

“You’ve got nothing to be depressed about. Buck up.”

“Yes, but why are you depressed?”

“You know, if you just did this, you wouldn’t be depressed.”

In the 90’s, I spent two years at a therapeutic boarding school that had a poisonous attitude towards depression. I was told, told by authority figures who I trusted absolutely, that my depression was caused by my weakness, and that I didn’t need medication if I had strength of character. I would feel paralyzed with despair and when I couldn’t articulate why, the therapists, yelled at me that I was rebelling somehow, and the other students/patients, under their instructions, joined in, telling me that they were repulsed by me and that I was the worst person they ever met.

I told school officials that I was near suicidal and rather than give help, they called more confrontation groups on me. Once I ran to the kitchen to cut my wrists. Luckily, my best friend was there to talk. After another group, where I was told I was “lower than whale shit,” I walked into traffic, hoping to be hit. I wanted to trip and fall so it would look like an accident. My survival instincts kicked and I ran across the street, and cursed myself for lacking the guts.

I internalized what I was told and eventually preached it to others, and I wince now and again at the things I said.

It wasn’t until years later, when I read Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon,” that I understood what was going on, and sought real help. And even since then, with a lot of therapy, love and support from my family and friends, and working with a number of different medications, it’s been very up and down. I’ve lost jobs, relationships, and years of my life to this. I’ve taken a lot of pills and alcohol and gone to bed hoping I wouldn’t wake up, several times, mostly recently two years ago. I think I’ve got things well balanced at the moment, with both a medication regimen and DBT therapy. But I know the depression is still there, and I’m going to be dealing with it for the rest of my life.

If you’d like to help someone you know is depressed, do it gently. Don’t pressure them to talk. Don’t try and “solve” their problems. And especially, don’t give them “tough love.” Don’t tell them all they have to live for. Just be there.

And if you are living with depression, you are strong. You’ve got a thing in your head trying to poison you and every minute you stay breathing is a victory. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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