Today I share a more personal tale than perhaps I normally would. Blame the sun, the sea or a vacation frame of mind - but this tale has been part of my life in Fort McMurray, and so I choose to share it here today. Thank you for indulging me.
It is with tremendous sadness that I read the news of the untimely - and tragic - death of Robin Williams. He was an actor of renown, an unparalleled comedian, and, perhaps most importantly, a human being who struggled with depression, a form of mental illness that is far more prevalent than we like to acknowledge. His death, which appears to have come at his own hands, sent shock waves through the world, a world struggling to reconcile the legacy of a man who made so many happy but who experienced such personal darkness.
I sat in the middle of the Caribbean ocean while it all unfolded on social media. On a gently swaying cruise ship I read the sad story and I cried, because depression is a journey I know.
After my mother's death I travelled through a very dark period in my life. Although I had a significant family history of mental illness, including my mother's battle with anxiety and paranoia and her father's death by suicide, I believed I was immune to the disease. And a disease it is, as mental illness is not an ailment one chooses. It is not something you can simply choose to "get over" - how I wish it was.
After Williams' death I read so many beautiful tributes to him and reminders of the frailty of the human spirit. I also read some comments that troubled me deeply as they displayed how little we understand depression, mental illness and suicide.
Suicide is not a selfish act, although on the surface it may seem to be as it creates so many who suffer in its aftermath. When you know someone in intense physical pain, from cancer perhaps or another illness, do you consider their desire to die to escape the pain as selfish? If not then why do we feel this way about those who suffer intense psychological pain, as if their pain is a choice while physical pain is not? Why do we differentiate between these types of pain unless we still cannot acknowledge that mental illness is a very real disease?
When my father had terminal lung cancer on occasion he expressed a desire to escape his suffering through death. While it hurt me to hear this it also told me his level of pain was reaching unbearable levels. Had my father chosen to take his own life I would have been devastated, but I could never say it was selfish as I did not have to feel the pain he bore, and yet when someone commits suicide we accuse them of selfishness. The desire to escape pain isn't selfish. It's human.
Yet another comment was that there should be no sympathy for Williams, a rich and successful person who took his own life, as if mental illness respects the borders of economics and success. How sad it is that we think of mental illness as somehow affecting only those who are not rich and successful, as if having money and success acts as an inoculant against depression and sadness. And yet if we understand it we know that mental illness knows no borders, not of race or gender or nationality. It is an equal-opportunity disease, with no respect for the artificial boundaries we hold so dear like our bank accounts and our fame.
Finally the comment that troubles me most perhaps is that if somehow the outpouring of love that happened after Williams' death had come the day before he may not have taken his own life.
When I was a young adult I lost someone I knew to suicide. The guilt of the family and friends left behind was immense. They were a close group, loved each other intensely and freely. They had tried to get the depressed person in their midst help, but despite their efforts that person took their own life. Afterwards several of them expressed to me their wish that they had fought harder and done more - loved them more - in the hopes that it would have prevented the sad ending. And while perhaps it might have and while we must express our love for those close to us and help those in need we must also understand that love in and of itself will not cure depression or prevent suicide. It may help, but I know from personal experience that when depressed you may simply not believe the love others express for you, or you may feel unworthy of it.
Depression isn't about not having other people love you. For me it was about not really loving myself enough to believe other people could or did love me, and until I loved myself I could not accept their love and let it help heal me.
To say that perhaps that outpouring of love we witnessed could have somehow prevented his suicide likely only increases the pain of his family and friends who may always wonder if they could have done more or simply loved his pain away. It misleads us into believing that we can cure depression with love or somehow prevent suicide with enough love. And while love and kindness and support is so vital to all of our lives I am living proof that you csn surround someone with love and they can still journey through the darkness of depression and even contemplate that very final way to escape the pain.
Today I write this on a beach in Labadee, Haiti. I sit in the shade of a fiercely hot Caribbean day as a warm tropical breeze blows and a Haitian band pounds out an island rhythm. Beside me is my daughter, a creature who I now know has the genetics to suffer mental illness just as generations of my family has done. I watch her carefully as she grows, loving her to the best of my ability but knowing my love alone - or the love of the entire world - cannot protect her from any disease, including depression.
A few short years ago the thought of being on this beach today was far, far away from me. I was instead on an island of my own, surrounded by those who loved me trying to reach me. My island of depression, though, was a Castaway Cove with only enough room for one. It took almost a year for me to realize I was depressed and needed help, and until that realization no amount of love could save me from the darkness, a painful realization for those around me, too.
Robin Williams left a legacy of laughter. Now, in his death, I hope he helps us to truly understand the nature of depression and mental illness. I hope the awareness his untimely death brings will help more people to understand mental illness and depression, although I know that I did not - and could not - understand it until I travelled it.
This post isn't meant to be the definitive narrative of depression. It is only my narrative, as personal to me as every narrative is personal to each of us, and every single person who travels into the valley of depression will have a unique experience. Some of us will one day find ourselves on an island in the Caribbean, reflecting back to dark days we spent alone even when surrounded by people who loved us. And some of us will never leave that Castaway Cove, entrapped forever on the island all alone.
I will always be forever grateful to have found a way off that island, but I know that it is always there, and I have been a visitor, too.
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