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On Monday, August 11, 2014 one of our most beloved and treasured entertainers reportedly took his life. Our world has lost a powerfully unique and singular human being. I write, of course, about Robin Williams. Comedian, actor, humanitarian and, by all accounts, a generous and kind individual.

The reaction to this news has largely been stunned sadness. The tributes and salutes and comments have poured in from all over the planet. The analysis and opinions and theories have as well. As I write this, there have already been untold number of words spent on this terrible topic, but I am compelled to include mine. Not because I’m any sort of authority, but because I need to. Because I know what he saw.

I have carried the burden of depression my entire life. I wasn’t formally diagnosed until my late twenties, but that was simply the official recognition of something I already knew. I’ve been in and out of therapy over the years, and have spent the last sixteen on medications after my own step to the brink of that final abyss. Some particularly insightful friends managed to grab me back at the last second and that’s when I realized I needed more help than counseling alone. Medication has allowed me a semblance of sanity. It’s not entirely secure. It never is. But it’s better than where I was, and for that I am grateful.

Much of the commentary following Mr. Williams’ passing included the question “Why?” Why would someone of his intelligence, wit, charm, success take his own life? Why didn’t he reach out for help? Why didn’t someone notice his descent into darkness? Lots of questions and very few answers, because there simply are none. Most people are bewildered by his actions. Some are angry. My own husband accuses Mr. Williams of taking the coward’s way out, of giving up. A very few have spewed horrible invective onto his family about him, proving only that they are sad, hateful little humans who refuse to be part of the better world and deserve nothing from the rest of us. After the initial shock, my reaction was simply a quiet understanding.

Let me tell you a little bit about depression. The clinical explanations barely touch the deep truth of it. It’s more than just a feeling of sadness or chronic fatigue or losing interest in those things you always loved before. It’s a dark, crushing black hole of self-doubt wrapped in layers of hopelessness covered in a gooey topping of what’s-the-point. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing a fat, ugly failure with no hope of redemption, no matter what the actual reflection might be. It’s watching the world pass you by in all its rainbow brilliance while you sit under rain clouds pouring hot acid onto your soul. It’s the blinding loneliness of the Sahara’s dunes in high summer, despite being surrounded by cheerful crowds at the oasis. It’s the voice of a hateful demon constantly whispering in the nooks and crannies of your mind, ever relentless in its demeaning commentary.

What it’s not is a choice. No more than being tall or short, black or white, or gay or straight is a choice. Depression isn’t “just in your head,” it’s a biochemical nightmare storming it out in your brain and affecting every molecule of your body. One who lives with depression can’t just “get over it,” or “cheer up,” or “be happy” on command. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. No, depression – and all other mental illnesses – is an actual, physical assault on the human body by that one thing we all must have to survive: our own brain. And if the brain isn’t working properly, neither is anything else.

Oh, there are treatments. Therapy helps. Medication helps. Eating right, sleeping regularly, exercising – it all helps. Until it doesn’t. There is no predictor for that point. No magic formula or simple test or watching the moon cycles on the calendar. It’s just working, and then it’s not. There’s any myriad of reasons why, as individual as the person involved. For Mr. Williams I suspect there was a handful of reasons, a perfect storm, if you will, that brought him to that point in his home when he knew he just wasn’t going to live like that any more. With the news of his Parkinson’s diagnosis, it makes even more sense to me. Here is a man whose entire life and career has been dependent on his frenetic energy, grandiose physicality and uncanny faster-than-light wit, learning his greatest gifts will be taken from him in a slow and tortuous degradation. Yes, people live with Parkinson’s every day, and successfully, as Michael J. Fox has shown. But what works for some just can’t work for others.

That’s the truly challenging thing about mental illness – there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You can’t just dole out the pills and expect everybody who receives one to just up and get better. You have to look at the individual, examine their physical and mental needs through multiple tests and counseling sessions and come up with a plan that will only work for that one person, and then you need to change it and fine tune it constantly as that person progresses. It is a time consuming, money-sucking endeavor that isn’t supported by our current medical system. As long as “health care” is about actuary tables and statistics and profits instead of people, we will continue to have beautiful lives lost to mental illness.

The irony is, the business of medicine is actually penny-wise, pound-foolish. Take out all the analysts and claims reviewers and paperwork and layers of bureaucracy, and just pay for what the doctor and patient determine is necessary, you’d probably find the “business” even more successful. And there would be a huge upward spike in public satisfaction. We need to make mental health care a much stronger priority, not just in medicine, but also in our society in general. The negative commentary that sprang forth from this most recent news only goes to show us how depression (and other mental health issues) is still widely stigmatized and misunderstood by the public at large.

Our brain controls everything. Separating the needs of our brain from the needs of our body does not help either. Mental disorders can be the root for obesity and anorexia, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence. Want to stop mass attacks like Newtown or Columbine? Don’t worry about gun control – that’s closing the gate after the horse has already run off. Get the funds into the hands of researchers, medical professionals and programs that can figure out what is miss-wired in the heads of the people who perpetrate such actions, and help them before they snap. Neuroscience has come a long way from the days of trepanning and warehousing the afflicted, but it still has a very long way to go.

All the articles I’ve seen this week about “The (X) Signs of Depression,” or “The (X) Things/Foods/Exercises You Can Do to Beat Depression,” or “The National Dialogue on Depression” are fine and well, and help us feel good for now. But they are just frosting on a many-layered cake whose ingredients we aren’t sure about. We need to make mental health care our priority. We need to focus on it and tear into it like we did the journey to the moon in the 1960’s. Our very existence as a species demands it.

As for Robin Williams, he didn’t quit, he made a choice. Not a choice everyone would make, but one that he decided was right for him. Shouldn’t we all have the right to choose how we leave this world? Life should be about quality, not quantity. And the definition of quality can only be made by the individual concerned, not the public. It’s time we gave that the respect it deserves. Then we can remember a man for how he lived, not how he died.

 

© 2014   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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