Robin Williams was born just two years after my father. My father grew up in a generation when the words “mental health” held an incredible amount of stigma, even more so than today. Mental illness was largely feared and misunderstood.
Crazy. Demented. Unstable. Nervous. Dangerous.
In my father’s generation, these, among other descriptions were often used in tandem in conversations regarding the mentally ill.
For as long as I can remember, my own aunt, my father’s sister had suffered from varying degrees of mental illness. She suffered extreme anxiety that was compounded after the tragic death of two of her children. My family often referred to her as “frail” and “sickly”.
Over the years I was growing up, I remembered seeing her at family holidays and functions. She was often seemingly intoxicated and impaired, under the influence of various medications.
She suffered. For years and years. And even though my family never really talked about it, we all noticed. We all knew. She was unstable. Unwell. Abnormal. She passed away several years ago from medical complications.
Many years after she passed away, my mother shared stories of my aunt’s extensive battle with anxiety and depression. Doctors exhausted extreme measures to treat my aunt’s mental illness. She was institutionalized and heavily sedated after she was released. At one point, she was administered electroconvulsive treatment, otherwise known as electroshock therapy in which electrical current is passed through her brain to intentionally cause a seizure. This procedure was used because all other methods of treating her depression had been unsuccessful. I try to picture this in my mind, my aunt strapped down on a bed, rubber paddle in her mouth to prevent her from biting her own tongue off. The procedure is reportedly safer and less cruel today than it was in the 1940's and 1950's. However, the very thought of it invoke images from One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest.
For the past six years, I myself, have struggled with bouts of depression off and on. I have always been prone to anxiety, however I had never struggled with depression until my mid-thirties. The onset of my depression seemed to begin sometime after my husband accepted a job in another state and we uprooted and relocated our family hours and hours from home. Shortly after, I gave birth to my second child and struggled with postpartum depression even more so than after the birth of my first child. Following later, I miscarried our third child. This time, the symptoms of depression lingered on.
I look back at that span of time now, after treatment and medication. It felt as if a heavy shroud of gray was weighing on me. I was not my usual optimistic, cheerful self. I struggled every day to get out of bed and go through the motions for the day. The very thought of daily life was overwhelming. Life just took too much energy and I simply wanted relief from the feelings of suffocation and darkness.
I began seeing a therapist. After several trials of medication, we found one that helped me. You should know that I am not in any way, suggesting that all treatments will work for all people. I can only tell you what helped me.
My father grew up in a generation when you didn’t talk about many things. You held it in. “Toughed it out.” You pulled yourself up by the bootstraps and kicked your problems in the ass. “Pills only mask the problem,” they would say.
Through the course of my therapy sessions, I worked through many of the unhealthy thoughts and behaviors that were contributing to my poor mental health. I began to recognize patterns of untreated mental illness in family members on both sides of my family. No one ever talked about it. And they rarely, if ever sought treatment.
Slowly, I began to confide in my parents about my suffering. I wanted to share my journey to help them understand and support me. There is no shame in suffering from depression and I had absolutely no reason to hide it and I wanted to combat the stigma of it head on. I was completely open about my medication and therapy.
My father is a survivor of a devastating accident that left him handicapped. He rarely talks about his pain or mental state. His mantra for as long as I can remember is that “mind over matter” will triumph. “It could almost always be worse,” he would say. Only I simply did not have that control over my own sadness.
One day, we were having a related discussion. And he said this to me.
“You know, depression is all in your head,” as if to say I could simply flip a switch and feel well again. I was speechless.
And now today, we mourn the loss of one of the world’s finest artists, comics, and gentle human being. Whether or not Robin Williams succumbed to the smothering feelings depression can bring about and therefore chose suicide as a means of relief, we can never know.
One thing I do know is this. Depression is an illness of the brain. So when my father said to me, “Depression is all in your head,” he was absolutely, one hundred percent correct.
Yes. Yes, it is.