Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Not to be

There are plenty of tributes to the recently deceased Robin Williams out there that are no doubt better written. I was definitely a fan of some of his work, and even though he turned up in a lot of dreck, he'd still surprise me every now and then and remind me of what a talent he is.

Instead of a tribute, I'd like to add my voice to the growing list of people who are trying to spread awareness about depression, as it's clear that he suffered from it. Some people seem to be under the impression that the man needed to change his outlook, or he needed the people in his life to be there for him and remind him of how loved he was.

The problem is that neither of those things solve depression.

I have only had brief tastes of depression myself, the most recent being a massive mental crash that overtook me at the end of the school year. When I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me, I couldn't pinpoint anything that was making me sad. My wife is great to me. I have a wonderful, healthy, hilarious son. I had a good school year, and through the magic of Facebook, I'm able to keep in touch with many of my favorite students. I had recently officiated my sister-in-law's wedding, and I was overwhelmed by the positive response. I was starting to feel exhausted with everything coming to a close, and instead of coming down for a smooth landing, the plane smashed into the side of a mountain.

I'm much better - even looking forward to getting back in the swing of things in about a week. But I also took the precaution of setting an email reminder at the beginning of June to prepare myself to ease into next summer lest I go through that again.

It's hard for people to understand other people sometimes. Our brains don't all function exactly the same way. Maybe a bunch of compliments make you feel good, and you can hang on to those for months, but it just doesn't work that way for me. When students thank me for doing a good job, my initial suspicion is that they probably don't know what they're talking about, as I'm just moments away from everybody figuring out that I don't know what the hell I'm doing. When I was complimented on my officiating, my mind instantly went to thinking that they probably have pretty low standards and/or they would have said the same thing to anybody.

In other words, I was riding a wave of good feelings and love, but I still felt like the world was crushing me down, and everything was making me sad. I couldn't just shake myself out of it.

I don't know the full story of Robin Williams, but I suspect it's safe to say that his bouts of depression were far worse than mine. I've felt like I was losing the will to live, but I've never started to plan how to actually bring about my demise. In other words, I was a lot like Hamlet in Act I, where he expresses his wish that his "solid flesh" would "thaw and resolve itself into a dew" since the whole world had become "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable" to him. What I've never done though is actually start to plan out how I'd end my life.

In other words, I've felt myself losing the will to live, but I've also never found myself having the will to end my life.

People talk about mental and physical problems as though they're two different things. There's something about human psychology that makes us feel like our personalities and our bodies are completely distinct from one another. Yet we all know that's demonstrably false. You don't even have to do anything drastic like remove bits of your brain from your skull to see a fundamental difference in who you are as a person. Have a few beers/glasses of wine/shots of tequila. You won't be exactly the same person anymore, will you? Seriously, imagine if you were to feel the effects of alcohol for the rest of your life - minus the vertigo/dizziness/vomiting/etc. You wouldn't exactly be you, now would you?

Your brain is a physical part of your body, and its workings are a physical interaction of your body chemistry. Just as you can have something wrong with your heart that will make it not beat right or something wrong with your lungs to not make you breathe right, you can have something wrong with your brain that can make you not THINK right.

Anything that would make you take up arms against that sea of troubles that we call life and finally bring about the end of it all is your brain not doing the one thing that it's supposed to do - keep you alive.

We need to start being honest about this if we're going to help people who suffer from depression. I'm not saying that there was nothing that could have been done for Robin Williams. I don't know enough about his situation one way or the other. I do know that if we think that he just "gave up" or took some sort of cowardly way out of his problems, then we're not going to get anywhere near the solution to this problem.

If you want to read some other (probably better) articles on the subject of depression and suicide, I recommend the following:

"Only the Lonely" by Stephen Fry - I share this with my seniors when we read Hamlet.

Matt Fraction's blog, where he addresses a depressed fan.


Tricia Quinn said...

"I've felt myself losing the will to live, but I've also never found myself having the will to end my life."
This sentence is perfect. It is exactly how I have felt countless times, but I have never been able to find the right phrasing for it. I'm sure that many people can identify with these words.

Lance Johnson said...

Glad I could put it into words for you, Tricia - hope you're not going through that now.