I was talking to a client about her depression and she said, almost sheepishly, that the death of Robin Williams had made it worse. It made sense to me. I miss Robin too, not least because I knew he had struggled with two of the most difficult mental illnesses– addiction and depression– throughout much of his life. And despite carrying these burdens, he was able to show so much love and give so much to us. Locally in the Bay Area, his family was fondly known for giving out full sized candy bars on Halloween. Someone who had occasion to see him in the stands at one of his kids games said he was “like a regular parent” or words to that effect. And, of course, there were the gifts of laughter and imagination that he so widely gave. He is sorely, sorely missed.
And then, there’s you. And me. We’re nobody, right? If I vanished, the world would be no different. Right? Well, that’s what our depression tells us. Maybe it’s even so cruel as to tell you the world would be better without you. But depression lies. It’s a cold-hearted lying bastard of a killer.
This is idea that the world would be no different without us is the theme of the classic Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Through Hollywood magic, Clarence the angel shows George Bailey how different the world would have been without him. Returning from this purgatorial other world, George is secure in knowing he’s a valued part of the the town.
Well, I don’t know about you, but if I have a guardian angel, it’s kept a much lower profile in my life than Clarence did for George. But I do know something about people who have killed themselves. I worked in an outpatient alcohol/drug treatment program for nineteen years. The clients were predominantly poor, male, suffering from both mental illness and addiction as well as a variety of medical problems, and many were socially isolated as well. If you go to http://www.sprc.org/sites/sprc.org/files/library/srisk.pdf and look up the risk factors, our clients had most of them. And what happened every time someone died from suicide was that people came out of the woodwork, grieving, asking why, saying “Why didn’t he tell anyone? I would have been there for him.” I’m not being unconsciously sexist; the victims were mostly male. There was no one who wasn’t missed. Just remember, next time you pass someone in the street who is visibly intoxicated and/or having major mental health symptoms– they have friends, family, connections– they are us, and we are them. And when you pass people who look perfectly fine, think of all the times you have “put on a happy face” when you felt like dying.
One of the symptoms of depression, in my opinion– though you don’t read much about it in clinical discussions– is that inability to feel connection. By the same token, we all can bring to mind people, places, and things from our own lives that we didn’t realize were important to us until they were gone. Perhaps it is an incredibly important person, like a parent; perhaps something less obvious, like the old tree in front of the neighbor’s house that gets cut down, or perhaps a co-worker or classmate who simply moves on without tragedy. But we do miss it, or them, and we do realize that it (or he, or she) was important. So let’s not get ready to condemn people for hypocrisy in not coming to the rescue when they didn’t know a rescue was needed. We have to admit that something that is both a cause and a symptom of depression is isolation, and it’s in our power to do something about that, although that lying bastard killer, depression, will tell us our efforts are useless– they are not. And if you, too, suffer from depression, remember that you and I are connected, however remotely. And you have closer, more important connections. You don’t have to die. You will be missed.