As everyone has most likely heard now, Robin Williams has died. Police have now come out and said he hung himself.
Not too long ago, Phillip Seymour Hoffman overdosed on a cocktail of heroin, cocaine and amphetamine, used to treat ADHD. That overdose resulted in his untimely death.
These incidents, naturally, shake our culture to it’s core. Both deaths came as a surprise to most, but they shouldn’t have. Both had a history of substance abuse in conjunction with severe depression.
Depression is not a feeling. It is a chemical and medical condition. It is, in fact, an illness. It also carries a stigma.
In a separate set of circumstances in relation to alcoholism, a person pointed out to me that when you go to the hospital with chest pains, and it is determined that you have a coronary, no one is lining up at the door to tell that person that the person has done something wrong or that they have to clean up their act. Yet with alcoholism (and depression), everyone seems to be an expert.
It’s no wonder that these cases go untreated and that the person suffering feels the need to contain their symptoms.
I know. I deal with constant depression.
Let me explain that more, because some reading this will automatically think that makes me suicidal. I want to be clear what depression is and what it is not. Robin Williams passing has, as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s overdose did, created an atmosphere, if only briefly, where our society looks within itself to try to understand. This, unfortunately, will pass within a week or so. That’s why this article, and others like it right now, are critical. They help us understand. Hopefully, it compels us to action. Hopefully, it captures our imagination and makes us a better society.
Depression can be crippling. There have been days where I have sat frozen, unable to move… unable to decide… unable to take any action. It’s terrifying. This is not most days, but it is some.
It is often bi-polar… the term, itself carrying a stigma that is unfair. In one moment, you live in a euphoric moment (without substances!). Nothing can stop you. You’re on top of the world. You are the victor. In the next moment, you are a scared child, huddling in your home, unable to move or talk to other people. You are grouchy and removed. When your significant other asks what you’re thinking for dinner, you can’t answer or even think.
On your best day, you are truly at your best. You’re the class clown or the creative genius. Your mind doesn’t stop. You are constantly evaluating your life, your friends, your life and what you want to achieve. At your worst, you feel unsafe, insecure, scared, paralyzed.
Traditional approaches, when your friend is suffering, is to tell them to suck it up. As if that’s a mechanical task that can somehow be done without mental interaction. As if it’s a light switch to simply be flipped. You see, when you are not paralyzed with this illness, you are not confined to the chains that bind us. In other words, it’s easier said than done.
That’s not your fault. You just don’t understand.
Some of the greatest minds in history, not to mention many of the not-so-great minds, have suffered with depression. Some mild. Many severe. In most cases, depression is not something that is dealt with every waking hour of every day. Often, someone who is depressed can go days, weeks or even months without any manifestation. Others can’t get out of bed.
Ludwig Boltzmann is a name you may not have heard of, but in the middle and later part of the 1800s, this man was peddling controversial scientific ideas that we know to be true today. For instance, he was the guy who pushed the idea that molecules, the smallest building block of the universe known to scientists of the day, were actually made of smaller building blocks – atoms. His work in the area of mass and atomic mechanics paved the way for some of the greatest inventions and advances in human history.
Some of his ideas, of course, are not proven and remain controversial. One of these was the idea that, like a deck of cards sufficiently shuffled enough times, the probability of the deck returning to it’s ordered state exists. This flies in the face of the accepted 2nd Law of Thermodynamics which states, in summary, that entropy is the process of every matter dissolving over time into disorder.
He hung himself on September 5, 1906 after a lifetime of combat with fellow physicists and mathematicians. He suffered from bipolar disorder.
The point of this? Throughout our society, people who are top of their game, who live in the spotlight, who invent things, make things… or don’t… they are great family people, they volunteer at their local church, they spend weekends coaching little league… these are the unseen victims in our midst that no one knows about because… we as a society have told them they can’t be vulnerable, they can’t ask for help, and they cannot be weak.
This is especially true for men, in regards to the last part. We, as men, are taught from a very early age that there is no room for weakness. There is no room for vulnerability. There is no reason why we, as men, should ever rely or ask for help from anyone else.
I am a testament to this.
Please don’t let me, or people like me, go. Don’t ignore us. Don’t assume we’re okay. Text us. Call us. Drag us by our collars and make us sit down at a ballgame, at a restaurant (avoid the bars!) or in another way. Give us the human connection we need but we won’t ask for. Help us. Don’t let us be a victim.
I’m okay talking about this because I’ve reached a point in my life where being vulnerable is something that is difficult, but I can do. I have people around me that I know care about me. When I suffer my depressive episodes, I am exactly as I described earlier. I feel lonely and am withdrawn. I hide (which is hard to do when you live with someone!). I get off the interwebz. I can’t focus. When I’m not, I’m engaged. My wit is sharp. My social acumen is excellent.
Learn the patterns of the people around you and, to quote the TSA, if you see something, say something. Don’t be rude. Don’t be aggressive. Help your friend, your wife, your husband, you friend find their way.
And of course, there are resources for those in need, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States is