While the country is reeling from the loss of Robin Williams, we find ourselves asking the same question over and over---what would drive one of America's most beloved comedians to end his life? On the surface he had everything: a unique brand of humor that brought him fame, a loving family and a multitude of adoring fans. How could he have been so unhappy?
Only those who have a personal experience with depression can understand the scope of pain from this form of mental illness. It is a debilitating disease that robs a person of the simplest joys in life. It carves a hole too deep to fill in the hearts of those who wrestle with the inner demons of this acute, medical condition.
Depression is a nondiscriminatory disease that strikes every age, race, gender and class. It manifests itself in the form of physical pain, lack of self-worth, shame, helplessness and hopelessness. It is an invisible wound that is often misdiagnosed and in some cases, difficult to treat.
Those afflicted with the disease view the world through a warped lens where everything is distorted and emotions are muted. Even when surrounded by a loving family, they feel utterly alone. And while others marvel at the sun's glorious rays as it rises over the ocean, they can only feel the weight of their emptiness. It's not as simple as choosing to be happy. Depression traps people under a numbing layer of ice and leaves them gasping for air.
How do I know this? Depression has shadowed me since childhood. I never felt comfortable in my own skin, but I was too young to understand what caused me to feel that way. I only knew that I was different. No one ever said that it was unhealthy for a six-year-old to wake each day with a sense of dread, because they never had the chance. I was too ashamed to tell anyone how I felt.
There was a negative stigma attached to depression when I was growing up, and I learned to mask what I considered my "abnormality" with humor. It went beyond hiding what was tearing me up inside. The shame I felt was carefully concealed under the long-sleeved shirts I wore to cover the self-inflicted wounds on my arms. Cutting was the coping mechanism of choice for the unexplainable, inner turmoil that plagued my life.
It took decades of battling depression before I realized I needed help in waging the war against losing my sanity. The onset of menopause only intensified the depressive symptoms I felt, stranding me in a bleak landscape of hopelessness. Thankfully, I was able to find a treatment that worked for me, but not everyone is as fortunate.
There is no quick fix for depression, as each case is unique. It is a dark and frightening disease that cannot be cured with alcohol, drug abuse, or sex. In some cases, intense therapy and even love can't save a patient from the inner demons that haunt them. Antidepressants work successfully for some, while for others, it functions as a temporary patch over a leaky valve that threatens to burst. Once the seal is broken, a storm of uncontrollable emotions is unleashed, driving many to the brink of desperation.
In the aftermath of Robin Williams' apparent suicide, there will be critics who view his death as a selfish act of cowardice that has inflicted unimaginable pain on his family. This is an unfair assessment of a disease that society still knows so little of. Depression is not a choice. It's a mental illness associated with an immeasurable depth of despair that leads far too many people down the dark path to suicide. From their perspective, it's the last option left after trying all other forms of treatment to escape the intolerable pain of living. They mistakenly believe they're a burden to their loved ones and view the finality of suicide as an answer to end all suffering.
The irony of William's death is that it took the loss of a comedic genius to shed light on our inability to recognize the difference between sadness and major depression. Society as a whole needs to be educated on these differences and set aside any preconceived notions of depression.
Our job is not to judge or blame. It's time we promote awareness and help those suffering from depression find the inner peace they deserve. Compassion and understanding are the gateway to hope and finding the courage to change. Only then can the people we love begin to heal.
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