In the wake of Robin Williams’s death, we have seen an incredible outpouring of compassion for those who suffer from depression. Suicide, so often met with accusations of selfishness, has instead been met with empathy – with an understanding that it’s the result of unthinkable pain.
I want to feel hopeful that this new ethos of tolerance will last, and will encourage those afflicted to get the help they need and deserve. But deep down I fear it won’t.
We are still suspicious of both mental illness and how it’s treated. We might accept the idea of depression in celebrities, in our social circles, even in our friends – but surely we ourselves are stronger than that. Talk therapy, maybe. But aren’t antidepressants for the weak or unstable, the truly sick?
I understand these biases because I suffer from depression and I hold them too.
I wasn’t ‘that’ depressed
My first real experience with depression was in my early 20s, a typical age for onset. I had an old-school psychotherapist who did not believe in medication. Depression, he said, is a sign that unconscious material is attempting to break free. It is a good sign that we are ready to heal. To medicate away your symptoms would be a kind of cruelty.
And he was right. I learned more about myself in those two years of therapy than I had in my entire life until then. I learned – I hadn’t known! – about the way in which the unacknowledged within us has a way of running the show. I learned that to experience a feeling fully was the only way to release it.
I still believe these things. I know them to be true, because my depression passed. I experienced a long period of peace and ease – I published books, I enjoyed my life. Then the next dark spell hit. I hoped it was just plain old sadness. It was not. This pattern repeated several more times. Was each episode worse? It is so hard to be objective. To be depressed is to be swallowed by a fog. I can say with certainty that each episode made it very painful to be alive.
Still I resisted medication. I didn’t want to banish my darkness at the expense of the rest of my personality – my insight, my authenticity, my sense of myself as an artist. And the fact that I was depressed did not line up with how I perceived myself, with how my life was supposed to be.
My fear is not only personal, but cultural. There’s been a backlash against antidepressants since Prozac Nation came out in 1994. Part of our skepticism is about whether Big Pharma has our health at stake or just their profit. Part of our skepticism is about whether antidepressants actually work. These are valid concerns: According to a report in 2012, 42.6 million prescriptions for antidepressants were filled in Canada that year (our population is not quite 35 million).
But there’s a deeper fear, too, that pills are a kind of cheating, a lazy way to deal with a problem, and that they will muffle our true or “essential” selves.
I spoke with Dr. David Goldbloom, senior medical adviser and staff psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, who called this the “Frankenstein fear” of antidepressants. “This is the fear that medication will change me into something I am not, never was and don’t want to be,” he told me. “In my experience, most people who benefit from antidepressants feel more connected to, or more able to express and enjoy, their essential selves.”
That would be nice.
But still I doubted. I wanted others who suffered to get treatment – of course! – but was I really a good candidate? For me, the episodic nature of the illness means that when I am in the darkness it is hard to remember anything else exists, but when I am well I wonder if I’m making the whole thing up. I have such a good life. I have a family who loves me, financial stability, success in my career.