I admire the (temporary?) openness about depression that is being displayed in the media and online in the wake of Robin Williams’s suicide, and I want to add my two cents. My credentials are that I am a fellow sufferer, and have experienced depression (and its knife-wielding twin, anxiety) since I was an adolescent. I have been hospitalized for it, medicated for it (with both licit and illicit drugs), and I’ve had various therapies as well. Like cancer, depression kills a certain amount of its victims; like cancer, it’s an illness, not a weakness. Even so, I am ashamed to admit that I am a sufferer, which means I find it easy to internalize as well as somehow externalize – through my own silence – the attitude that depression is a failure of strength or character.
I am not an expert in the causes of depression, only an expert in the experience of it, and after four or so decades living with the illness, I know a few things about it:
There’s no cure, only remission. People who suffer from depression (not “normal unhappiness,” which was the goal of Freud’s talking cure), are never fully out of danger because it is depression’s nature to recur. Sufferers of depression have “episodes” the same way those who suffer from multiple sclerosis do. It comes, wipes the floor with you, and then somehow returns you to the world. But it comes back.
Depressives don’t make themselves sick. They don’t choose depression. They may have a cognitive leaning toward interpreting events and feelings in a certain way, but they don’t choose to get or stay depressed. The fact that it runs in families should indicate to fair-minded people that it has a genetic aspect as well. You may get your blue eyes from your father and your blue feelings from him as well. Recent research even suggests that ancestral trauma may be coded genetically, thereby passing a predisposition for mood disorders down through the generations.
Depression is a surfeit of empathy – a killing empathy – that makes depressives great friends to everyone but themselves. Having a self is a rough business and depressives can empathize with others who have to deal with it, but not with themselves. Fundamentally, people who suffer from this illness can give love, but when suffering from it, they can’t accept it. That doesn’t mean they don’t need it, only that they believe they don’t deserve it.
The only treatment is exercise and work. Many depressives become expert walkers. Solvitur ambulando – Latin for “it is solved by walking” – has profound application for depression. I think therapy would be more effective if the therapist and the patient had their sessions while walking, briskly, around a park. Work equates to purpose, something that depressives think they lack. Working gives lie to the feeling of purposelessness and combats it.
Suicidal thoughts become suicidal action when the thought of your loved ones arranged around your grave is no longer a deterrent. When a depressive who wants to die thinks of the suffering it will cause others, it’s a restraint, but it also feels like a trap. It’s the last barrier between them and eternity, which the depressed person longs for. Once the idea of others’ pain is trumped by their own, a peace descends and suicide is often inevitable. I’m not arguing for suicide, only acknowledging its draw. In a terrible way, self-murder is an act of self-love. It ends someone’s suffering.
The only thing you can do for someone who is depressed is to be around them and love them despite their illness. Living with a depressive is a bloody nightmare. They say things they don’t mean, about themselves and others. They cancel dinners. They won’t look you in the eye. They use the words “always” and “never” liberally. The symptoms of depression often seem like they’re directed at you. But it’s not personal. If you can accept this, you’ll be doing the most you can for the sufferer in your life. Be silent and useful and remember it’s not about you.
Touch helps. Get a massage. Give a massage. If you can, make love to a depressed person. Touch is primitive. Your reaction to it is in your reptile brain, but your thoughts are happening somewhere else. Touch creates some distance between the body and the self. Depressives are excellent in bed if you can convince them to take off their pyjamas.
The culprit is the mind. I think, therefore I am, said Descartes. Therein lies the problem. Some depressives conclude, as Robin Williams did this past week, that not thinking and not being is preferable to the alternative. I’m shattered that he lost his battle, but I’m also glad he’s free of his pain. If you have lost someone to depression, or another mood disorder, be aware that your love was enough. You couldn’t have prevented their death and there’s nothing you should have done differently. The suicide’s logic has nothing in common with yours. In the end, death makes mad, perfect sense to them.
Depression is a byproduct of consciousness, and addiction is a byproduct of depression. No one is depressed when they’re asleep, which is why being in bed is such a safe place if you’re really down. The reason so many intelligent and creative people suffer from depression is that when you take the risk of being fully conscious, you open Pandora’s box and you can’t close it again. Alcohol, drugs, and addictive behaviours are a bulwark against what’s in the box. They say people with addictions are escaping pain as if that’s a foolish or illogical reaction to pain. It isn’t. As the comedian Doug Stanhope said, “There’s no such thing as addiction, there’s only things that you enjoy doing more than life.” If you know depression, you know what he means.
To all my fellow sufferers, then, slainte. Your depression exists not because you did something wrong or because you’re a bad person, it exists because you’re you. Remember the last time you survived it and how it cleansed you, and hold on to that if you can. That is the gift of depression: When it leaves you, it leaves you flayed but vividly alive. Dante’s Inferno (an archetypal rendering of depression) ends with Virgil emerging from the seven circles of hell, reborn into life by a holy grace. The depressed person wants to live and wants to love and it is always a surprise to rediscover the pleasures of the world after despair. The final line of Dante’s poem is a talisman to be held dear by anyone who has experienced depression’s pervasive darkness: Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.
Michael Redhill is a poet, novelist and playwright. His most recent work, Saving Houdini, is a novel for young adults. This essay, at the request of The Globe and Mail, was adapted from a Facebook post.