I was so sad yesterday to hear of Robin Williams’ death, and especially sad to hear that he’d been suffering from serious depression and that his death was the result of an apparent suicide. I can’t say I know what it feels like to have serious depression or to battle lifelong mental health issues, but I do know what it feels like to have simple, low-grade depression and that’s bad enough. And I know what it’s like to love someone who suffers from mental health disorders and that’s bad enough, too. I am so sorry for anyone who feels the way Robin Williams must have felt and thinks death is the only escape. I am so sorry that depression isn’t something we openly talk about very much in our society and that, on top of feeling so desperately sad, for lack of a better word (and I know it’s more than sadness), people who suffer from depression often feel alone and ashamed and like they have to hide what they’re going through.
I was depressed for a short period when I was 13 years old. I’ve never really talked about it with many people — I don’t think my family even knows — but when I was 13, I thought — very briefly — it might be better not to be alive. I remember taking a few — like four or five — Tylenol I found in the medicine cabinet and feeling very dramatic about everything. I wasn’t trying to end things. I was just trying to feel something. I think I was trying to feel like I had some kind of control over my situation.
My parents and sister and I were living in a hotel at the time. We’d just moved from Seoul, Korea, to Bremerhaven, Germany, and we spent nine months in a small hotel suite before we found a house to live in. I was homesick and lonely, and I missed my privacy. I shared a tiny room with my 6-year-old sister with a small bathroom that separated us from my parents’ tiny room. I didn’t have any friends yet, but, even as I met people, I couldn’t very well invite them to my home to hang out. So, I spent a lot of time alone. I had books, and I had movies. The front desk of the hotel was stocked with a bunch of VHS tapes, and one of my favorites from their selection was “Dead Poet’s Society.” I probably watched it on a weekly basis until I just about had it memorized. I loved Robin Williams’ character in the film and felt like he was speaking directly to me, through the TV screen in my little hotel room: be something. Find meaning in your life..
Summer came, my family moved into a house, and for the next two years the darkness was at bay. I was happy and had a lot of friends. And then we moved again and I felt that same sadness return. This time it was more like a soft buzzing sound. It didn’t paralyze me or anything, and in retrospect I can see that it was a low-grade depression. I was still productive — I played sports, was in school plays, made good grades, was active in a variety of school clubs, and had some friends (though not as many as before), but that buzzing was there.
In college, there was no buzzing. At least, not of the low-grade depression variety. I was happy and busy and stimulated and had lots of friends. Life was good. And then I graduated. And I couldn’t find a job and I didn’t really even know what I wanted to do with myself and most of my friends moved away and I was in my first serious relationship, which quickly became more complicated than I was emotionally prepared to handle. He broke up with me in the middle of January following my college graduation. I still hadn’t found a permanent job yet and I felt so… lost. It was the loneliest, darkest period of my life to date. I never considered suicide, but I could understand the appeal to someone who might feel all the time the way I felt in those few months. I could — and can — understand how someone might crave escape any way he or she could get it when escape from those feelings seems so elusive.
In retrospect, I wish I had gone to therapy. I wish I had spoken to someone. I know it would have made me feel better faster. But, I was lucky. Even without therapy, the darkness was very temporary. Winter ended, the fog lifted, my heart healed, and I moved on. Mine was more of a circumstantial depression, and not that kind that paralyzes a person. When my circumstances changed, so did my my mood and emotional well-being. People who suffer from clinical depression aren’t healed in the same way. They can’t just will themselves happy. They can’t just take a daily kickboxing class like I did and let all the endorphins do their thing. It doesn’t work like that.
Growing up, my family didn’t discuss things like depression or mental health disorders. I suspect that’s the truth for most families — even families who have cases of mental illness, like mine did. I didn’t know there was mental illness in my family when I was young and I’m not sure how much even the adults understood (we didn’t talk about it, remember). To my knowledge, there was never a diagnosis, but it was clear to me even as a child that a couple older relatives — my Grandpa Jack’s sister and their mother were… different (my great aunt especially).
My great-aunt Dee Dee and her mother, my great-grandma Eleanor, lived in a house together in a way that was very similar to Big and Little Edie Beale from “Grey Gardens,” minus all the cats and the fur coats and the rich and famous relatives. I remember visiting them as a child and not knowing where to sit. Where could I sit? There were stacks and stacks and stacks of magazines and newspapers and sweepstakes submission forms and just junk everywhere. There wasn’t a square inch of floor visible. And yet, when my great-aunt came to my grandparents’ home, I remember so clearly how upset my grandmother, who kept an immaculate home!, would get when Dee Dee would rub wet bars of soap over the toilet seat before using it. And then, when Great-Grandma Eleanor died, it got so much worse for Aunt Dee Dee. It got really, really bad. And still, there wasn’t a name for the bad. We didn’t say that she was mentally ill—at least, I never heard that term in reference to her—though by then, we must have all known she was.
Years later a very close younger family member was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and so much of my great-aunt’s behavior (and to an extent, her mother’s behavior, though I remember less of it) made sense to me. And seeing how much various treatments have helped this family member of mine has been revelatory, and, as grateful as I am that such help exists, I can’t help feeling sad for my aunt and for everyone else who doesn’t get a proper diagnosis and proper treatment (and even for those who do, because it’s still hard). How would my great-aunt’s life have been different if she’d gotten the help she needed? (And for the record, other family members tried to help her personally, and to get her help, for many years but they were unsuccessful). And even now, how would the life of my close family member with bipolar disorder be different and better if there was less stigma around mental illness and more understanding and acceptance and open dialogue? (It’s telling that I was asked not to refer to this person by name or specific relation to me to protect job security). How would your life be different? How would the lives of people you love be different? How would Robin Williams’ life have been different and better?
Because there is history of mental illness in my immediate family, I worry about my son. I have analyzed his behavior probably more than is healthy, trying to determine if he’s showing early signs of mental illness or if he’s just being a typical toddler. Having seen first-hand how challenging mental illness can be, not just for the people who suffer from it but also for the people who love them, I pray Jackson—and any other offspring in my extended family — will be spared. But I also hold out a lot of hope that those who suffer from mental illness now and in the future will have more and more resources to help them through it—that they will feel less alone, that there will be more research conducted and discussions had and treatment made available.
My family member shared this article with me this morning saying, “This describes depression pretty well,” and I’m sharing it now with all of you in case it helps someone. There are links at the end to additional articles and essays that may be helpful.
If you are someone who is suffering from depression or what you think could be a mental illness, or if you’ve had thoughts of suicide, please, please seek help. Here are a few resources:
You aren’t alone. Help is available.