Like a lot of people who have spent their lives loving his work, I’ve been pretty sad about Robin Williams’ death. He was just a bright light in the world, and now that he’s gone, things seem a little dimmer. He will be missed.
I’m glad that his tragic suicide is being used to shed some light on the very real problems of depression and suicide. It’s not enough to replace his light, but it’s something.
I have been concerned by some of the rhetoric I’ve seen though, even in well-meaning statements. Mental illness is an illness. It’s one that others often don’t know about, because of things like stigma that keep people from reaching out. But it’s an illness, same as any other chronic condition– with something like diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t work right. With mental illness, it’s your brain. You can’t cure any chronic disease just by “knowing how loved” you are. Or by “knowing God.” Or by “choosing joy.”
I know. While I haven’t struggled with suicidal thoughts, I do know what it means to have my thoughts taken over by the darkness. Ever since my near-death experience and subsequent diagnosis with a congenital heart defect, I’ve felt the presence of the darkness in my life. For me, the darkness is more anxiety than depression. For me, rather than seeming welcoming or like a relief, death feels like the enemy. An enemy that creeps into my thoughts and sends me into a panic attack in the middle of the night, terrified about the reality that one day I will die, perhaps sooner than I’d like. While I can’t say that I know what it feels like to be in such pain that death seems like an answer, I do know what it feels like to feel out of control of my own mind.
And for me, that feeling of being unable to control or push back the darkness is actually heightened by knowing how loved I am, by how much I love my family and friends, by how much I really do love life, by how much I love God, and by how much joy I experience day to day. The darkness is crafty. The darkness thrives on juxtaposition. The darkness can show up in my most beautiful moments, like when I’m smelling my babies’ hair as they drift to sleep in my arms, and remind me that if my heart failed again, there would be no more of these moments.
I really loved this essay about how a lie that depression tells is that everyone feels that way. You think it’s normal, so you don’t get help. I did the same. I thought, “Well, OF COURSE you feel this way– anyone would be a little freaked out about dying after coming so close to it! Plenty of people get kind of morbid once they are diagnosed with a chronic health issue!” But eventually I came to realize that no, not everyone finds their thoughts spiraling toward panicking about dying every time they realize they’re happy. Not everyone spends time every single day worrying about their death. Not everyone lies panicking in their bed, clutching their pounding chest, wondering if their heart is going to last them into old age, or long enough to see their children grow up.
I finally realized that what was happening to me, what still happens to me, isn’t normal. I started talking to people about it. I even talked to my doctor about it. If you’re struggling with darkness, know that it isn’t normal. Know that it can happen to you no matter how much you love or are loved, no matter how much you believe, no matter how much joy you have in your life. If you’re struggling, seek help. Talk to someone close to you. Or your doctor. Or someone on a suicide hotline.
And for those of you not struggling, you need to think about how you talk ABOUT these struggles, this darkness. Please don’t pass on platitudes about how if only people like Robin Williams knew how loved they were, or believed in your religion, or had more joy in their lives. You can be loved, love, have faith, and know joy and still be depressed or suffer from anxiety. If you wouldn’t say it about someone’s heart defect, don’t say it about their mental illness, either.