I’ve no doubt this blog post will be one of the many thousands written today, motivated (because I hate to use the word inspired here, after all, it doesn’t seem quite appropriate to be inspired to write following somebody’s death) by the passing of the great Robin Williams. And I’ve no doubt that the web is being inundated with an outpouring of affection for this funny man, who it turns out didn’t feel quite as funny on the inside as we all saw on the outside.
I never met Robin Williams. I didn’t know him personally. I, like many others, was a fan, having been raised on a diet of Mork and Mindy, Hook, Good Morning Vietnam and many more, but I did not know him. I did not know that he was a man plagued with depression and afflicted by addiction. And yet today, I found myself looking at pictures of him in a very different way. I found myself feeling a connection with this man that I never knew and probably would never have met, even if he had not made the tragic decision to take his own life.
My brush with depression was fleeting compared to Robin Williams. In fact, my experience of this horrible illness was brief compared to the many thousands who have battled with it for most of their lives.
I spent the first two years of my son’s life struggling with this ‘other person’ that I had become, the one that I hid behind smiles and constant reassurances of ‘I’m fine, I’m just tired‘ or ‘I’ll be okay, I don’t need help.’
If you have never suffered from depression or have never been close to someone who has or does experience it, none of this will make much sense to you. You might even think, of someone like Robin Williams, ‘he had everything anyone could wish for. He had wealth and he had fame, what right did he have to feel a bit sad’. I can even understand why you might think that, which might sound a bit strange, but if you’ve never experienced it for yourself, you will think it’s a case of someone feeling sad or down in the dumps.
Of course, I can’t talk for Robin or any other sufferer of depression, but I can try to explain it from my own personal perspective.
Imagine if you will, waking up one day and feeling like a completely different person. Imagine thinking completely differently, most of which is totally irrational (although you convince yourself otherwise). Imagine convincing yourself that everyone around you is against you. Imagine starting to think you are against them, some of them you might even start to hate a bit. Imagine getting in your car everyday and thinking about just putting your foot down and driving somewhere, anywhere, as long as it is far away from everything and everyone you know. Imagine getting up each day and planning your escape, where you will go, what you will do, how you will change your name so nobody can find you.
You can imagine that, but for me, that was my reality and it was my reality every day for at least two years.
And yet every day, I got up, I ironed my husband’s work shirts, I made his lunch, I looked after our young son, I did the grocery shopping, I met friends for lunch, I did the laundry, I chatted to neighbours, I went for walks in the sunshine and I smiled. Sometimes I even laughed out loud. To the outside world I was the same as I ever was, and yet I knew I wasn’t. I was somebody else.
And that’s just how it is. That’s depression, in a very small and very simple nutshell.
Just by coincidence, I bumped into an old friend today. If she ever reads this and realises I am talking about her, I hope she forgives me for writing this, but after I saw her, I thought about her all day, mainly because it had some connection to what I had been feeling since learning about Robin Williams and the memories stirred up by his death. This friend, who I haven’t seen for maybe four or five years, was always the friendliest, bubbliest girl, someone who could talk ten to the dozen without barely coming up for air and who could light up the room with her funny stories and lighthearted chat.
When I saw this girl today, she was sat on a park bench in a children’s playground as her kids played happily around her. Everything about her seemed different. She sat, staring into space, her hands clasped tightly together in her lap and I think if she could have made herself invisible, she would have done so. I watched her for a couple of minutes, in fact, I almost wondered whether I had got it wrong and it wasn’t even her. Maybe I was mistaken? It didn’t seem like her and yet it was.
As soon as she saw me, her whole face changed. The grin appeared, her body language changed, she jumped up and gave me a hug and then she began talking again, ten to the dozen, chatter, chatter, chatter almost as if I were the first person she had spoken to all day. Maybe even all week. We talked about life after children. She mentioned she had been ‘ill’ and didn’t go out much. She didn’t say the actual word at that point but I knew what she meant. I had heard from a mutual friend that maybe she had been suffering since the birth of her children and had become somewhat reclusive. When I looked at her and listened to her talk, I realised she was the person I had been three years ago.
Now I don’t mind talking about having depression, it’s not anything I’m ashamed of, but I know it makes plenty of people uncomfortable when I talk about it. That doesn’t bother me either, that’s more their problem than it is mine. In fact, I think it’s vitally important to talk about it. Because you see, for the most part, people don’t talk about it. They’re scared to talk about it. They’re ashamed to admit they’re not quite coping with life. They’re afraid people will look at them differently.
I get that. I really do. The simple facts are that as a society we don’t cope well with people who don’t cope well. There’s still a huge stigma attached to any form of mental illness and the less we talk about it, the longer that stigma will remain.
And so, I somehow slipped into the conversation with my friend that I had suffered from depression after my son was born. I’m not sure what she thought about that. I’m not sure whether she walked away feeling a little less alone. I’m not sure whether by saying it out loud it made her realise that it was actually okay to say it out loud. I hope so.
Because it is okay. It really is.
And it’s okay to say you’re not coping. Say it to whoever you feel comfortable saying it to. Say it to you parents. Say it to your brother or sister. Say it to your best friend. Say it to your doctor. Pick up the phone and say it to the Samaritans or Mind.
Just say it to someone. Please.
RIP Robin Williams, your smile will never fade.