I’ve been sitting on this post for a couple of days now. I always know I need to write when something niggles at me, nudges me to speak out. Goodness knows that there has been more than enough written about the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams this week. Some of it seems written in tribute to his body of work, which is fair and just. Much of it speaks to how we deal with depression and mental illness as a society. What has struck me most, though, is the multitude of voices that seem to speak of mental illness, depression, and suicide as a “choice” that is “selfish” and even more about a person’s “need to escape.” I find all of this reprehensible.
I’m not a therapist or psychiatrist. I don’t pretend to know the clinical terms. I do, though, deal with depression on a day-to-day basis. It’s a black dog that I know all too well. It’s forced me, at times, to take medical leaves from my work as a teacher. It’s broken me, baptized me in new ways, and made me, somehow, more thankful for the small moments of grace in my world and life. It is, though, nothing to make light of in conversation or writing. It is a torture. It is a trial. Often, it is about clinging on to small moments of grace so that you don’t feel you’re going over a virtual edge.
All of this social media buzz, about how some people say that Robin Williams made a “choice,” makes me feel angry and ill inside. If people knew the depth of depression, of that void of emotion, they would not make these generalized, whitewashed assumptions. When you’re in such a dark space, as I have been in my life, you know that it becomes so dark, so devoid of light, that you cannot imagine there being a place in space where you will feel even content or peaceful again. There is no emotion there, not even the supposed sadness that people speak of so casually. The mental anguish is intense. It offers no respite, when you are at your worst with a disease that does not give you a moment’s rest. Sleep is disturbed, which often means that you aren’t thinking clearly. Most likely, you already aren’t thinking clearly, which is why you can’t sleep. Thoughts are repetitive, your own self-talk intensifies and becomes very negative. You pull into a hermit-shell, avoiding friends, losing friends, unable to stand being around large groups of people. You isolate yourself because you cannot handle anything else. In fact, anything else, outside your small space of home, takes too much energy. Those who battle with severe depression or other forms of mental illness often use every little bit of energy pretending to be okay. Being with others drains you. Pushing energy outwards, to look as if you’re okay in public, ultimately means that you end up making yourself worse at home, where you are truly alone. It’s a vicious cycle.
And here’s the kicker. It doesn’t go away. Whether on medication or not, in therapy or not, it haunts you, in true black dog fashion. I’ve had three major episodes in my life thus far, that I’m aware of, but I know the warning signs of when I’m at risk of encountering a new wave. It’s then that I have to do the most work, being more and more mindful of my every thought and action, questioning my motives and mind, wondering if my brain will do a two-step on me and crush me with heavy boots. Even when you’re out of the dark shadow of depression, it still lingers, so that you are constantly monitoring your own mental health. It is, to be frank, absolutely exhausting.
There is, always, the link between creativity and mental illness. It’s unavoidable. At a recent writing retreat, I had a brief conversation with a couple of other writers regarding the connection. We all found some truth in that premise. When you are creative or artistic, you see the world in a different way. For a poet or writer, the world seems ripe for the taking, images and characters painted in your mind transport themselves to page in ways that even you can’t explain, as a writer. In fact, one of the other conversations I had at Sage Hill revolved around the notion that if writers were to think too much about the creative process, too often, it would drive them a bit around the bend. We recognize, I think, that the act of writing is a gift, but also a craft and art. You may not know how you get these ideas in your head, but you know that it takes a lot of time shaping them into something worthy of sharing with others. Besides all of that, though, writing, as a creative act, requires you to spend a great deal of time on your own. Friends of writers must know that we are not always the most consistent of friends. It is not because we don’t love our friends and family, but because our heads are almost too busy inside themselves. Maybe this is why creative types are more apt to deal with mental illness. Again, the academic literature is out there, and I know there is great debate among creative types, but this is sort of how I view it all. I personally don’t create well when I’m dealing with an episode of depression. It usually shuts my creative side down, so I don’t subscribe to the “I’ll be a better writer and creator if have to struggle and suffer” school of thought. It’s too simplistic. It’s also too damning. Found this little interview online, and it speaks to the complexity of the relationship. Interesting to consider, if nothing else.
My dance with depression is sometimes elegant and balanced, but at others, when things get too intense, it looks like a mad tango with the devil. No one in their right mind wants that.
So, when people write that Robin Williams “chose” to do something “selfish,” to “escape” and “unburden his family” of his pain, I shake my head and get very, very angry. Of course that is how some must view it, but restating such nonsense only serves to reinforce the stigma that mental illness arrives with in our lives and in our society. I don’t think I’ve ever written more honestly about my struggle before, on my blog. I may have alluded to it in small ways in previous posts, but I feel it’s crucial that we speak up and out, to banish that stigma that — at times — seems even more dangerous than the very black dog that torments us. I had thought that Clara Hughes and her cross-country tour of Canada this year would have helped to decrease stigma, but from what I read online, I’m not so sure anymore.
I am saddened that mental illness and severe depression has taken another victim. He walked in darkness, tried to fight the black dog, but left us with a legacy of light and joy. If anything this week, I wish all of my fellow friends, seekers, and creators, those who are walking within the shadow of the ancient black dog….I wish you peace and contentment, at the very least.