For Robin Williams.
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”― David Foster Wallace
I spent much of my late twenties and early thirties in agony. Sometimes, it was low-grade dysthymia; sometimes full blown clinical depression. I am empathic and highly sensitive. I had plenty to be happy about, but I wasn’t happy. Everything looked beige. Everyday was overcast.
Oddly, for me, sadness felt normal. It was the landscape I lived in. I didn’t know what it was like to not feel sad, to not cry at poignant commercials, to actually feel like getting out of bed, or changing my clothes, or showering. I wore the same pair of leggings and underpants for weeks. I would change my top so no one would notice.
I ate my anger, sadness, and grief.
I packed on the pounds and insulated myself from a world that burned at every turn. An intuitive, I could sense the sadness and bullshit others were masking. I wasn’t buying their song and dance.
Their eyes told another story.
The Family Tree
My grandmother was an impressively cowed depressive. My father had the blues more often than not. So did my aunts (on both sides of the family) and several of my cousins.
I joined the cement boot brigade in full regalia after I broke up with my high school sweetheart in 1991. Astute at pretending everything was just fine, I continued to work part time, going through the motions like a good soldier.
However, inside my head, the wind howled ceaselessly. I railed and wept and cut myself down to size.
That room in my head – with the black walls and the pin hole in the locked door – settled around me. For years.
The changes were subtle. I slept. First a little. Then, more. Then, pretty much any time I wasn’t at work.
I don’t remember what prompted me to seek therapy. Maybe it was the fact that my ex was a radio disc jockey and, seemingly, whenever I went anywhere in my hometown, his god damn show was on. Imagine hearing the voice of the person you loved most, everywhere you went.
Still, if memory serves, Caytie, one of my closest friends (and a co-worker) was the one who suggested I use my health insurance to, well, take care of my health. (And, god bless her for that intervention.) I made some calls and interviewed a couple of therapists. I chose the one who didn’t want to sign me up for psychoanalysis for the remaining years of my life.
Once I landed in said therapist’s office I learned that just because I still recognized the sublime ridiculousness of my predicament, and could occasionally laugh about it, didn’t mean I wasn’t supremely fucked up. (My terms, not those of my therapist.)
What’s up with the weather?
Up to that point, I assumed that a bleak landscape in life was a given. If you live in hurricane alley, you sort of expect it to storm.
However, my therapist informed me that there were possible treatments for what ailed me. Color me surprised. Not a single soul in my family believed in therapy (or in asking for help of any kind).
We’re a stalwart, stubborn, stoic bunch. We bootstrap our way through life. After all, we aren’t a bunch of pussies.
Down the Rabbit Hole
As you can imagine, therapy itself was a big step for me. A huge step. Sort of like drinking the Pacific Ocean with a straw.
Actually using medication – well, that was going too far.
So, I white-knuckled it for another year before I would accept help.
Who Turned On All The Lights?
In 1993, after two years of darkness, I started taking medication.
Within about ten days, the whole world lit up. I swung my feet over the edge of the bed and started my day without two pots of coffee and a round of blasting caps. The light around me was blazing and beautiful. Everything – everything – glowed.
Clear-headed and hopeful, for the first time in years work and exercise appealed to me. I stopped drinking diet soda and eating a dozen donuts a day.
I slept at night, but didn’t need to nap all afternoon. My brain fog and lethargy virtually disappeared. I lost weight.
It was a miracle.
And for a while it was the lifeline I needed.
Eventually, though, I needed to understand the mechanics of the subterranean gunk that caused my depression. So, I read everything I could about the illness. I even went to work for a mental health advocacy agency prior to going to grad school. I screened people for depression in Seattle, and helped those who needed it, find help. I read memoirs by Kay Redfield Jamison, Jennifer James, and Martha Manning. I worked on discovering what triggered my depression.
For me, it turned out to be a confluence of things like genetics, poor gut health, allergies, and eating foods that made me sick.
I need exercise – and in particular – I need to get enough sunlight, or my mood plummets precipitously. So, I moved to the Southwest, got off of gluten, lightened my carb intake, stopped drinking alcohol (except at Thanksgiving and Christmas), and – most importantly – I stopped postponing my life out of fear. If I failed, so be it. At least I would have tried to actually live.
Living the Life I Imagined.
14 years ago, in a great leap of faith, I left the corporate job that was killing me and I started to write, teach, edit and create.
I allowed myself to exist as a sensitive, intuitive, empathic weirdo. As the person I’d always hidden and sheltered and starved.
I built an authentic, crazy, creative, truthful life.
In fact, my messy, unfettered creativity saved me.
Yesterday, when I heard about Robin Williams’ suicide, a tidal wave of sadness hit.
In tears, I searched for images of him to look at his eyes.
It was difficult to find a single photo where he didn’t look completely bereft. He’d made millions laugh, but he himself was clearly in agony and had been for quite some time. He masked it well with his antics and his mirth and his extraordinary talent. But as anyone who has walked the halls of hell knows, it’s easy to recognize a kindred, troubled, fellow inmate. His eyes reminded me of those days when I’d look at myself in the mirror with a single-minded self-loathing that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.
I saw hell there — and even though I felt such grief over his death — for me, there was solace in the knowledge that his agony had ended.
“Let us be kind, one to another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” ~ John Watson
So let’s start treating mental health issues like illnesses, instead of character flaws. Let’s stop the shame spiral associated with being awake and incensed over the bullshit going on in the world. Let’s stop pretending that ‘being normal’ is something anyone should aspire to be.
Let’s stop blaming people who hear voices or feel acutely the very wrongness of most of what’s considered acceptable and inevitable and OK. (Things like genocide, war, starvation, greed, ecocide.)
Let’s stop assuming that the status quo is worth preserving.
Being sensitive, empathic, and caring is a gift. Those of us who refuse to drink the Kool-aid are actually acting from a heightened sense of awareness, not complacency.
The fact of the matter is, the world needs us. It needs our gifts, our voices, our very essence in order to heal.
We are change-agents because we are awake. Sometimes that’s a gift, and sometimes, it’s a curse.
Robin knew that all too well.
May he rest in peace.
© 2014 Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved
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