Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams, Depression, and You

Like so very many people, when I heard that Robin Williams had died I was shocked and wondered how that could have happened. But as details began to come out and I heard that he had been struggling with depression – severe depression – I didn't have to wonder any more. I knew all too well how someone with depression could make the decision to end their life. You see, my family has been dogged by depression for years.

I began to hope that this awful tragedy would open a dialog – a real, honest dialog – about depression. Then I started hearing “experts” and pundits alike saying that if you have depression, know that it will get better tomorrow, next week, or in the next season of your life. One doctor even ended with, “I promise.” I am now officially fed up with all of the trite, “think happy thoughts and you'll be better” BS that professionals and laymen alike are condemning people who have chronic, clinical, even hereditary depression with. These platitudes only make someone with depression feel worse, as if they are fundamentally flawed because they can't just “snap out of it.” These platitudes could actually lead to a deeper depression, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, and, yes, even suicide.

I lived through a period of depression. It was brought on by a neurological collapse stemming from complex post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that had persisted for over 35 years. My brain had rewired from being in a state of perma-trauma for so long and couldn't go on like that anymore. After the collapse even smiling was difficult for me (and at the time I had no idea what had happened. I just knew it was very bad.) As my brain began to rebuild I saw improvements. This event happened eight years ago and I am still recovering. Looking back I can see that I was depressed for well over a year due to the brain damage caused by the PTSD. It was crushing and only by God's grace have I made it this far.

About three years ago my husband was diagnosed with depression. He had been trying to tell me for a very long time that he was depressed. Being the caring soul that I am, I told him – in a nutshell – to get over it. I had no clue what was really going on. As it turns out, my husband has hereditary depression. His father had it, my husband has it, and our son has it. When my husband was diagnosed, he was put on an SSRI – selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. This medicine allows the brain to utilize the serotonin (a hormone that gives us a sense of well-being and happiness) that's in the brain more efficiently, which helps lift the depression. Within two weeks he showed marked improvement and I thought all was well.

Then, about six months ago, our son, who is severely gifted (has a very high IQ as well as neurological disabilities that go along with that) and is a mild Aspie (Asperger's Syndrome), was also diagnosed with depression. While I was a bit hesitant to put him on medication, my husband reassured me that it was the best and right thing to do. He has been on the same medication as my husband and has responded very well. I thought that that was the end of our family's depression problems, but I still had a lot to learn.

I began to notice that there were times when my husband or our son seemed to be down, even though they take their medication religiously. I had been under the impression that the pills were basically a cure all and that the depression was gone. When I mentioned this to my husband we were able to have a very educational discussion about the realities of depression. For those who suffer from chronic, clinical, or hereditary depression the depression is always there. Medication and therapy are helpful, and in some cases vital, but the underlying depression never fully leaves. The reason that I had brought this up was that I found myself starting to feel depressed again, but I couldn't figure out why. Then it hit me. Depression is like a black hole that sucks the life out of the person who has it and those around them. With the information my husband gave me I started doing a little research.

I then learned that Winston Churchill suffered from depression. To help him keep the depression separate and distinct from who he was he referred to it as “the black dog.” I very much liked that and use that terminology when I notice that the dog has escaped it's cage and is trying to cause trouble. I think it's helped all of us to keep things in perspective and know that while our family has to manage depression, it is not who we are nor does it need to be the defining factor of our lives.

Depression is something that has to be addressed and managed every single day. Our family has now made it a priority to do things every day that help keep the dog in the cage. Eating well, keeping up with personal hygiene, and getting in exercise all help. We also try to make sure to get in some laughter every day and to do things that we enjoy. Some days that's more challenging than others, but we try. Our cats have also been a great source of comfort and love for all of us and have helped us all in our continued recoveries. Simply knowing what's going on and being able to talk about it is an enormous benefit.

Unfortunately, for people with depression or other mental health issues, it can be very difficult to talk with others about what's going on. Most people are too busy with their own lives to take the time to really listen or to bother learning even a little bit about what's going on. They hand out the usual “think happy thoughts” advice and move on. It doesn't take long before the one suffering from depression learns that if you want to keep your friends and acquaintances you'd better keep your mouth shut and pretend all is well. This can start the cycle I mentioned earlier, where the person with depression starts feeling worse, worthless, and hopeless. It's not a pretty thing.

People need to understand that there is a huge difference between feeling blue for a day or a week, and chronic depression. At some point, everyone will have a time of feeling blue, but chronic depression never goes away. Depression eats up your will to do anything besides the most fundamental things (like eating and going to work) and it steals your desire and ability to enjoy life. It will crush you. It will isolate you, and if it has its way, it will kill you.

If you know someone who has been feeling down for a prolonged period of time, they just might have depression. Encourage them to speak with their family, with their physician, or with a therapist. Offer to take them to their appointments so they don't feel isolated. Offer to listen, even if you don't understand everything that's going on with them. If they are in very desperate straights, give them the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 800-273-8255. Remind them that there is no shame in reaching out for help and working with their doctor they can find a course of treatment that is right for them. Become part of the solution. I'm not joking when I say that you could save a life.

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