Robin Williams died yesterday. An "apparent suicide". I read somewhere that he was battling depression.
When I was a kid, I loved my Mork from Ork rainbow-striped suspenders. I wore them nearly every day in second grade, when the hugely popular TV show "Mork & Mindy" premiered.
My family had moved to a new house in a new city the previous year, one month after first grade started. I hated it. I missed my old friends. All my teacher had to do was just look at me and I'd cry. Half of my family, three of my high school and college aged siblings, stayed behind in our hometown. My whole life, my relationships with people I loved, were crumbling and I didn't know what to do. I felt sick all the time. I slept a lot. I ate a lot of junk food. It was the third-most miserable year of my life, behind only the year I starved myself in fifth grade, and the year my family moved again the summer before I started seventh grade, when my last sister moved out of the house for good. Alone with just my parents who should have divorced when I was four. No friends. No siblings. Nothing to buffer me from my parents' marital gloom.
I wasn't diagnosed with depression until fifth grade. I had passed out in school. Mom took me to a doctor I'd never seen before who also diagnosed me with anorexia nervosa. I was eleven. I had been sent to Weight Watchers in third grade. Our daughter, Katie, started third grade today. I can't imagine making her drink Tab while everyone else drank Pepsi in front of her, making her pay attention to her daily carb intake while her friends played hide-and-go seek outside.
I loved dieting. I felt alive when I didn't eat. I felt strong when I ignored my hunger pangs. I felt in control of my body. In control of my life. It's a powerful thing for a girl to feel in control of her own body. Someone who has been told by others that she needs to let them manipulate her into being a proper lady. Quiet, obedient, and pretty. A sex toy.
Another great big empty hole in my life, probably my biggest check-next-to-the-box of risk factors for depression, is that I was sexually abused as a young child. It's taken me decades to feel comfortable in my own skin. Like my body is beholden to nobody. Not any lover or husband or friend. Not any social norms, or customs, or experts. My body is mine and I get to decide what I put into it, how I dress it, how I present it to the world.
I used to be much more trendy.
Those dorky Mork from Ork suspenders made me feel popular in second grade. It had been a year since I was the new kid at school. I felt more comfortable in my surroundings. I was starting to make new friends. I remember standing outside on the blacktop during recess, my thumbs resting underneath the suspender straps so I could snap them against my body. I had buttons on them. Buttons with funny sayings. Kids would read the buttons and laugh. Then we were friends. It was as simple as that. Soon, I had lots of friends. I felt happy much of the time. But it wasn't enough.
By fourth grade I had outgrown my Mork from Ork suspenders, both physically and psychologically. I no longer felt the need to use trendy gimmicks to win over people and make friends. I had become a friendly person. As if it were natural. I discovered I could be who I am and people like me.
Problem is, I don't always like myself.
Something went horribly wrong by fifth grade. After a couple of popular years, I turned into a recluse. I stopped wanting to be around people. I didn't like to leave my bedroom. I didn't want to play with my friends. I didn't want to go to school. It didn't matter how popular I was at school, how much my natural friendliness had popped out like my budding breasts. I felt empty inside and I wanted to be alone and do nothing.
I was diagnosed with depression, anorexia, and mild OCD when I was eleven. I was briefly treated by a clinical psychologist and then released when I started eating again. As long as I looked healthy on the outside, I must be fine.
But I was not fine. I was still sick with depression. I missed a lot of school. I fought with my dad. I alienated a lot of friends. I battled a full array of eating disorders, from starving myself to binging on junk food to becoming obsessed with healthy eating. I didn't understand romantic relationships, and when I did finally convince someone to date me, my rages burned whatever ties we'd made.
In all those years of suffering with depression, I wanted to run away. Everyone would be better off if I weren't around, I told myself. But I didn't want to die. I wanted to flee. Something about this amazing and mysterious planet kept me wanting to stick around longer. I can't explain it. A curious mind? God's grace? Mother Earth's smiling gaze upon me? A highly evolved survival instinct? Or plain dumb luck? Who knows.
I got help by my late teens. I started seeing a string of therapists. I read self help books. I tried different kinds of medication. Exercise. Diets. Supplements. Anything I thought would help. Anything my doctors and therapists recommended.
After several hard relapses, especially when I struggled with post-partum depression right after Katie was born eight years ago, after many false starts and experiments with various treatments, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression and told by my current doctor that it's probably best that I stay on meds my whole life. She said:
I'd tell my patients with high blood pressure the same thing. Sure, eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise help, but some people need medicine too. You are one of those people. Your brain didn't develop the way other people's brains developed because of the childhood trauma you experienced as your brain was developing.
That made sense. I've been back on my meds for nearly a year now and most days I feel like getting out of bed. On good days I even feel like making this world a better place. Changing people's minds, helping people feel less alone. Sharing my story.
My doctor's not just a pill pusher. She encourages me to eat right and exercise, practice breathing exercises, and calming techniques. Mostly, my doctor tells me to keep expressing myself, whether through talk therapy or in my writing. This blog has saved my life.
Another thing that helps stave off symptoms of my depression is finding the right balance of alone-time and social-time. I need a lot of quiet, alone-time to process my thoughts and emotions. I like to write things out before I decide how I feel about something. That takes time. But too much time alone, and I start to feel depressed and anxious. I feel unmotivated to get dressed and leave the house, do the dishes, present my social face to the world. I just want to be left alone to the churning thoughts in my mind.
I think I do, anyway. But then someone I love, someone I trust, someone who makes life worth living breaks through and I realize how much I like to be around people. How sometimes when I'm left alone my thoughts get to me and start making me think I don't need other people.
Last night my husband Will and I walked with our eight-year-old daughter Katie to school for an ice cream social. Depending on whether or not I'm treating my depression, I either hate these kinds of things or I love them. The crowds. The small talk. The having to shower and wear pants.
Since I'm back on my meds, last night was an "I love them" experience. I enjoyed meeting Katie's new 3rd grade teacher. I enjoyed walking around to see all her previous teachers going back to kindergarten. I enjoyed seeing the same moms and dads and kids I've been seeing walking through those halls for going-on four years now.
When we got to Katie's classroom, her teacher instructed the students to pick their own desk. Whenever I get a choice, I always pick the side, or the back. Never the front or, even worse, the middle. So which desk did our child pick? Right smack in the middle of the front row. She must get it from Will.
Katie said, "Mom, do you know why I picked my desk in the middle of the front row? So I can see all the learning!"
"Who is this kid?" I said to Will after we got home.
"What?" Will asked.
"She must get it from you!" I exclaimed.
"Get what from me?" Will asked. I honestly think he didn't know. My husband does not have depression. He's extremely empathetic and caring, so he tries to understand me, but he honestly has no idea what it's like to be a neurotic mess.
"Confidence. You two both are so comfortable in your own skin. Not worried about what other people think of you. Sitting right there in the middle of everything where everyone in the room can see you. You two are show offs!"
Will looked annoyed. "Just because we're comfortable being around people doesn't mean we're show offs."
Later, Will and I were talking again. It was getting late and he was feeling romantic. He said, "You look so sexy in that dress."
I squirmed. Will knows I feel anxious when people compliment me, especially my sexual nature. He also knows I trust him.
He smiled at me. I blushed. He said, "And I love your personality."
"What?" I asked. That seemed like a stretch. Like he was trying too hard to backtrack from his "sexy" statement.
"What what?" He asked.
"You love my personality?" I asked, cocking one eye and biting my lower lip so I wouldn't laugh.
"Yes. I do." Will said, firmly. Confidently.
I rolled my eyes, but I felt butterflies in my belly. "What do you like about my personality?" I asked, honestly not knowing.
"You're so bubbly," Will said, without hesitation.
"Bubbly?!" I said, shocked. It felt like the time one of my co-workers compared me to Molly Ringwald's popular character in "The Breakfast Club". How could they not know I was surely Ally Sheedy's basketcase character?'
"Yes. You're very friendly and open. You make people feel comfortable."
Who is this person my husband is speaking of? How can he so not know me?
Depression plays tricks on your mind. Depression can convince you that you're unfriendly, uninteresting, unlovable. Depression is a big fat liar. Depression is a foggy mirror. Sometimes you need someone you trust to wipe the fog away so you can see yourself the way they see you.
People with depression need help. They can't fight it alone. It's ironic that an illness that makes you want to hide away from the world is best treated when you reach for help. And because it's so difficult to reach out to someone when you're at the bottom of the pit of despair, we must rely on other people to extend a hand.
If you know anyone who suffers from depression, please help them. Accompany them to the doctor so they don't feel so overwhelmed with all the information and instructions. Encourage them to talk about how they feel. Remind them that they are not alone and that they don't have to suffer in silence.
Don't think just because someone has riches and fame and tons of friends that they are not vulnerable to this awful illness. Robin Williams, a brilliant comedian and dramatic actor, spent his life helping other people laugh and feel good. It's sad he was unable to help himself.
From the Lifeline website:
No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.
Who should call?
If you feel you are in a crisis, whether or not you are thinking about killing yourself, please call the Lifeline. People have called us for help with substance abuse, economic worries, relationship and family problems, sexual orientation, illness, getting over abuse, depression, mental and physical illness, and even loneliness.
What happens when I call:
When you dial 1-800-273-TALK (8255), you are calling the crisis center in the Lifeline network closest to your location. After you call, you will hear a message saying you have reached the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You will hear hold music while your call is being routed. You will be helped by a skilled, trained crisis worker who will listen to your problems and will tell you about mental health services in your area. Your call is confidential and free.