“Just remember that I love you.” That was what my 11-year-old son said to me as he got out of the car at the bus stop this morning. Right before, he had responded to the news about Robin Williams committing suicide by grabbing my hand and saying, “Please, don’t ever do that.”
My son recognizes that I have depression, and he’s seen me at times when I have been very low. However, neither of my children knows that—before they were alive—I tried to kill myself on three separate occasions. Actually, most people don’t know that about me. For my children’s sake, I’m glad they don’t have to carry that burden around. As for everyone else, I guess I was protecting them and me from embarrassment. I am ashamed, although I wish I weren’t.
Still, after my son’s hand squeeze in the car, I tried to emphasize that I was not a suicide risk (today). I reminded him that I have doctors and medicine and therapies to help me. He reminded me—and, I think, himself—that his dad is also good at helping me when I am “sad.” “Yes,” I replied. “I have lots of people who can and do monitor my mood to make sure that I stay safe.”
When we arrived at the bus stop, it looked and sounded the same as it did yesterday. Rowdy campers clad in backpacks, bathing suits, and water shoes were shouting and laughing, eagerly awaiting their counselor’s word to climb aboard. As we pulled up to the curb, a couple of chipper kids greeted my son, shouting something about storming the bus and inciting a ruckus. My son smiled when he saw his friends, as he always does. Today, though, as he opened the door to join them, he stopped for a moment and turned back to look at me before urging me to “just remember…”
My son does not fully understand that depression and suicide are not choices that people make. He wants to understand, but the weight of that reality is just too much for him to bear. Still, before I dropped him off, I tried to think of a good analogy to gently illustrate how little choice is involved when you are ill. So, during our eight-minute car ride, I tried to tell him about two different experiences of mine with swarms of insects.
The first happened only a month ago, while I was on vacation. I was walking by myself on a long, twisting, uphill road when a mob of insects suddenly attacked me. Just as I was trying to figure out why they had chosen to descend at that moment, I reached the top of the hill and was pleasantly surprised to discover a serene but eerily desolate bog.
After identifying the bugs’ source and seeing this broad expanse of shiny, unmoving, black water shot through with dark, branchless tree trunks, I wanted to relax and enjoy the strange but lovely scenery. Except, with a cloud of insects buzzing around my head, I couldn’t. I didn’t even stay long enough to take a photograph. Instead, I quickly turned around and headed back down the hill, and the bugs soon left me alone.
The other experience happened in 1993, when my husband Jay and I went mountain biking in a national forest in northern California. While I was riding alone, trying to catch up with Jay, I inadvertently rode over an underground hive. Instantly and seemingly out of nowhere, a huge, whirring mass of wasps flew up and began stinging me all over. I tried to turn my bike around so I could escape downhill, but the wasps did not let up, and I panicked. Not knowing what else to do, I dropped the bike and tried to run away.
I only managed to stumble 40 or 50 feet from the hive before I went into shock. I didn’t pass out or collapse. I just became unable to register any sort of emotional or physical sensation. My body and mind could not take anymore. So, until Jay was able to find me, I stood frozen in place, my head in my hands as the wasps continued to attack.
Depression can feel like a swarm of wasps endlessly stinging you, or like a barrage of emotional and physical strikes coming at you from every direction, or like a torrent of negative emotions and ideas raining down on you and flooding your mind. Depression limits your ability to access rational thought, and pessimistic and critical thoughts get stuck. After a while, when your mind cannot absorb any more self-loathing, those feelings start to condense and gel. They form a sort of depression-sludge that coats all of your experiences and clogs most of your thinking. If you try to use logic or reason to dilute or escape from the viscous gunk, those ideas often just buckle and drown under the opacity and density of the sludge.
Finding a viable exit strategy is not impossible, but what works for some people some of the time won’t work for everything or everyone. At the bog, I ended my discomfort and distress by simply turning around. In the forest, that didn’t help.
I really tried my best to escape those wasps. But the stings kept coming, and despite my efforts to protect myself, my mind overloaded. Frankly, when I went into shock and didn’t have to feel any more of the pain or fear, I was grateful for the reprieve. Still, I had not planned that defense. Believe me, if my shock-response had been under my control, I would have called it up and welcomed it a lot sooner. But, of course, people don’t choose to go into shock; it simply happens. Just as people don’t choose to be depressed.
Most of us can understand that there are chemicals in our brains that spike or ebb in response to stress, pain, and fear. When we talk about an obviously traumatic event like a bombardment of wasp stings or a car accident, we get why people go into shock. Maybe we even appreciate these mechanisms that send our systems into overdrive.
Somehow, though, some of those same people believe that abrupt attitude adjustments and carefully reasoned thoughts can reliably cure depression. These people assume that depressed people would be “happy” if only they would choose to think positively, approach things with a smile, or refuse to wallow in sadness.
I wish I could have promised my son that “just remembering” his love will always be enough to protect me. I won’t lie to him, though, and unfortunately it just does not work that way.
I don’t mean to imply that there are no ways to address mental health, that there are no treatments for depression. That idea is certainly not true. In fact, with the right kind of help from professionals, friends, and family, people with depression can and do get better.
Still, most people with Major Depressive Disorder cannot cure themselves, and suggesting that we can is unreasonable and cruel. Most of us need some help. People who are severely depressed feel awful. Do we really want to add to that by telling them that it is their fault, too?
My son is only a child, so his wishful thinking about his mother makes sense. For the adults out there, though, callowness, blind desperation, or lack of imagination are not legitimate excuses. If you can admit that doling out platitudes is an ineffective and illogical approach for treating blunt-force trauma or for evading an assault by wasps, then you should be able to see that slapping contrived, positivity Bandaids on depressed patients is just as unproductive.
Perhaps, for the few days following the suicide of a famous, successful, and talented man, people will be able to open their minds and hearts to the gravity of the situation. They may even want to advocate for better interventions and treatments for people with depression. And that would be great.
When all of this attention dies down, though, I hope people will remember that those of us with depression aren’t “choosing” to be sad. Those of us who have tried to commit suicide—successfully or not—were not “choosing” death. At those times, we were just unable to “choose” life. If everyone could accept that idea, then maybe more people would be willing to acknowledge their struggle, fewer people would have to suffer in silence, and no one would be embarrassed about seeking or asking for help. If, however, we continue to blame patients for their illness, we will tacitly deny them access to nonjudgmental treatment, and in so doing, we will risk their lives.