Ted and I returned home from Cozumel on Sunday, both feeling exhausted and sick. Though eager to share my experiences with whale sharks and sea turtles, I figured it wouldn't hurt to extend my blog break until my immune system had kicked some Mexican microbe butt. Between sipping on ginger ale and napping, I barely mustered the energy to unpack and start some laundry. Tuesday would be a good target for blogging…Turtle Tuesday maybe?
Then came the news of Robin Williams' suicide.
Robin Williams straddled the so-called generation gap with his always-contemporary humor of the baffling genius kind. But young ones, you had to be there in 1978 for the debut of Mork and Mindy, or for his first Tonight Show appearance, when Robin Williams was mind-blowing new and deliciously bewildering. He was electrifying. PET scans were decades away, but if they'd been around they'd have shown our brains lighting up like Times Square, frantically connecting neurons across hemispheres, regions, cortices…and that was just his facial expressions!
Robin Williams had a career that firmly established his brilliance as an actor and comic. He seemed like the happiest star in show business, but that was not the case, as everyone knows now. He privately (sometimes publicly) fought depression and substance abuse. A few days ago the darkness swallowed him.
The tragic death of Robin Williams might knock a big hole into one of the worst obstacles to getting help - the stigma of depression. It is long past time for sufferers of depression to stop being ashamed of a condition that is not a character flaw, but a disease. Easy to say, but very very hard to do. I know, because I also am a survivor of depression.
My own illness began very early. I almost can't remember a time when depression wasn't a shadow in my life. I got treatment, but not until I was forty. Sometimes I get depressed thinking about how much happier I could have been if I'd been treated at twenty… (*cue laughter*) So why didn't I?
For starters, I'm the wrong generation. It was unthinkable to admit you were "crazy" in the mid-twentieth century. That was a label that never went away and that you seriously had to be nuts to take on. Depression could be romantic for 19th century poets and Impressionist painters, like absinthe and the language of flowers. For that quiet girl slouching in the back of Junior English it would have been more like social death.
Then I was married to a career military officer. Seeking help for a mental health problem of any variety was never ever under discussion. Some perspective: my decision not to join the Wive's Club was discussed with my husband, because it had the potential to derail his career. Promotions could, after junior officer ranks, depend partly on the spouse's unofficial but important role as hostess, ambassador, and mentor of other and younger spouses. Fortunately for me, the role of the military spouse was evolving; my husband was superb at his job, and the promotions came on schedule. Would that have happened if I had sought treatment for depression on base? We'll never know, but today's statistics on military suicide and anecdotal evidence suggest that there is still a perceived stigma attached to mental health issues in the military.
I became a teacher after finally being treated for my depression. There is no question that treatment gave me the confidence and mental focus to return to school and become an educator. As a teacher I made a special effort to empathize with and reach out to withdrawn and less popular students. They reminded me of myself in those years. But never, ever did I reveal that I took an anti-depressant or had gotten counseling. My history with 'darkness visible' stayed firmly invisible throughout my teaching career.
The fear of being stigmatized runs very deep, as my racing pulse is telling me. But here's the thing. Maybe if enough of us speak up about our struggles and victories, others who are still hurting will be empowered to seek help.
If a genius as kind and smart and talented as Robin Williams can succumb to depression, is there a reason for any of us to be ashamed to ask for help, or admit that we have needed it?
|Thank you Robin Williams. You will be missed.|