“If someone with a lot of money and access to the best treatment couldn’t be cured, then what hope is there for me?”
I keep hearing this asked in all different ways, and while Robin Williams’ life left behind a legacy full of bright colorful ripples, unfortunately his suicide also has a legacy- a frightening message sent to a population already clinging to hope like a parachute made of sand that the only way to be free from the hell that is depression, is death.
The problem lies in the way depression is understood and the courses of treatment that stem from that understanding. One of the most damaging moments in a depressed person’s journey ironically, is the first time they have the courage to reach out and seek help and they are labeled mentally ill. I spent over a decade in 3 different states seeking help for depression, and I have seen a broad variety of health care professionals from psychiatrists, holistic doctors, life coaches, therapists, psychologists, people who were new in the field, to people who had many years of experience. There is a very clear summary of all of their beliefs: Depression is a mental illness- a nebulous disease, some type of chemical imbalance that we don’t really understand and treatment is more about managing it and learning to cope than actually “getting better”. You are best to accept that you have a handicap and adjust your dreams and the things you try to achieve accordingly.
Who wouldn’t want to die after being handed that fate? And so this diagnosis begins to feed depression with all the things it needs to keep it alive- hopelessness, powerlessness, defectiveness, and a view of the future that is suffocating.
IT IS ALL BULL FUCKING SHIT.
Depression is a suppressed level of functioning caused many distinctly identifiable things. If you resolve these things, the depression resolves itself. Permanently. People who are depressed live in a thick murky soup of confusion over their own truth, anger that has been so stuffed down they don’t even know it is there, pain that they don’t have language for, grief that has not been allowed to evolve to a healed state of acceptance and gratitude, loss that is not so straightforward, trauma that is often complicated and psychological (if not physical), the feeling of a higher calling with no visible path or understanding of their abilities to arrive at those destinations, personality traits that have been overdeveloped while others that are necessary to support the weight of that are under developed, gifts that feel like burdens because they don’t have the tools to manage them, and tremendous sensitivities all sealed inside a pressure cooker of the body with a hefty sprinkling of shame. When you begin to understand this, suddenly a very faint map starts to appear. Routes to freedom appear. A logical progression of the things that must be done to heal. Ways to grow. Suddenly there is room for excitement. Empowerment. Hope.
Well, hope doesn’t sell pills. About $10 billion dollars a year worth of pills. They are selling a cure based on a carefully branded hopelessness. Is anyone actually getting better? Antidepressants are most consumed class of medication in the US, yet 2 out of 3 people taking antidepressants report they are still suffering from depression. Listed side effects include the possibility of suicidal thoughts or actions. People are committing suicide in alarming numbers (currently the 10th leading cause of death in the US) or living heavily medicated and/or in tremendous pain yet somehow managing to serve out their term of life until it’s natural conclusion. Both are equally tragic.
For over 10 years I was completely unaware of the message in my depression, that it was actually a calling to break myself apart, examine all the pieces and build something new. I was repeated told I was mentally ill (with implied permanence) by every doctor I saw, yet somewhere that just didn’t feel right to me. Eventually I concluded that was just another component of the mental illness- secretly believing in my own sanity. All I knew something was very wrong and I had no words for any of it. If it had been explained to me as I explained it above my entire life would’ve opened up. It would’ve been frightening, but with the nervous energy of a new beginning rather than a death sentence.
One of the biggest tragedies of my struggle was that all except one of the mental health professionals I saw didn’t have a fucking clue what depression really is or what to do about it . Overcoming depression requires tremendous growth. Most of the professionals I encountered were only equipped to help me cope. Coping is suffering. They didn’t recognize psychological trauma. They didn’t understand PTSD. I was so good at coping, I had no idea that I even was coping. They sat and stared at me with long awkward silences hoping that I would bring something up in a session that they could work with. I never did. I felt even more defective because after years of therapy I never got anywhere. I blamed myself. I felt more broken, more hopeless. I didn’t know that I didn’t have language for what was going on inside of me and therefore I had no voice. I had no idea that a big part of overcoming depression is finding someone who will reach into the darkness within you, asking the right questions and helping you to develop language that will shed light in some very dark corners of your mind and heart. It is that new voice that will set you free.
The thing people don’t realize is that going for therapy isn’t good enough. You have to find someone who has language that speaks to your wounded soul. You have to find someone that you have chemistry with where your story collides with their energy and special brand of wisdom and lifts you to a higher place. Something about the way the two of you communicate inspires deep revelations. And when you have outgrown that person, you have to recognize that and move on. It is important to understand the core beliefs of the person you are seeing. I had a therapist recently tell me that suffering is a great part of the human experience and I will always suffer to a certain extent. The more I am able to accept that, the happier I will be. No fucking thank you. That’s her truth and so if I had continued to see her since that is one of her core beliefs, she would not challenge me to any higher existence than that. I know enough to walk away from that now, but in the past the fact that she was very experienced, expensive and located in the Hollywood hills would have spoken to me louder than the fact that her version of truth made my heart want to die.
In addition to examining the roots of one’s depression (yes, there was a point when it formed) unraveling and processing the past, and sorting out all the confused feelings in that thick murky soup, another part of overcoming depression is also rehabilitating the present life. When relationships and friendships stem from the toxic soil of depression the dynamic feeds the depression in major ways. This can also be true for other circumstances in life, like aspects of a person’s career. I will never forget the time in my life that I felt like my eyes were slowly opening for the first time to the fact that I had actually reconstructed the emotional crime scene of my entire childhood with frightening precision as an adult. And that is what I woke up to and lived in every single day.
What we are doing to people- labeling them mentally ill, sending them down a dark tunnel of inadequate treatment, taking away the one thing that could save them (hope) and medicating them so that they live a shell of a life experience, is tantamount to practices from the past where we imprisoned people in mental hospitals and threw away the key.
What a tragedy that a person so full of life, love, and brightness suffered so terribly to the point where he saw no other avenue for relief than suicide. Even more tragic is that it taints his beautiful legacy with this dark message of hopelessness. That is my motivation in writing this, dispelling that message. It is not true. And I think he would want you to know that. I wish he could’ve known that.