It’s hard to believe that funnyman Robin Williams took his life. He seemed to be so full of zest and fun, a comic whirlwind and skilled actor who was loved by multitudes. He was about to film a sequel to his smash hit, Mrs. Doubtfire, and he had an adoring wife and children. His tragic death, pronounced on Monday at 12:02 pm by emergency personnel, proves that depression is no laughing matter.
This is a tough post for me to write. I will never reach the heights of stardom that Mr. Williams did, but still I have something profoundly in common with the late performer. Like him, I suffer from depression.
It’s been a monkey on my back for years. In high school I tried to cover it up by being the class clown and life of the party. It worked for a while, but there was once, in my senior year, when I slipped into a near-catatonic state for a few days. My folks and classmates kept asking what was wrong with me and I would answer with a shrug of my shoulders or mumble, “Nothing.”
But I knew I was lying to myself. There was something dark and scary in my mind, a wolf at the door that would skulk back every time I tried to beat it away.
In college, I remember hunkering down in my dorm bathroom one night, sad and drunk and lonely, holding a razor in my hands, thinking the unthinkable. After the sudden death of my dad in my late 30s, I tumbled into a dark pit, bringing my marriage and ministry to a breaking point.
It’s not something that people like to talk about, but Mr. Williams’ suicide has turned the spotlight on this subject once again. A 2012 infographic reveals that one out of 10 Americans suffer from depression–a staggering 31.5 million people–and that number is growing at an alarming rate.
For everyone who reads this –depressed, happy or somewhere-in-between — here are a few things I would like to share with you:
Depression is not just “the blues”
The doldrums visit us all now and then, but depression is much more serious. It lasts longer than a day or two and slams the victim with unrelenting waves of despondency and feelings of worthlessness. Depression saps a person of energy, sleep, aspirations and appetite. It is a dangerous door that can lead, in the dire case of Mr. Williams and an estimated 32,000 Americans every year, to suicide. It deserves to be taken very seriously.
Keep your advice to yourself
Twenty years ago, when I suffered from my last major episode of depression, people came out of the woodwork with their suggestions. “Have more faith.” “Let me pray for you and cast out the demons.” “Why can’t you just be happy?” Finally, in desperation, I took a month from my pastoral duties for rest and clinical treatment. About a week before I returned to the pulpit, I met with some of my church leaders and gave them a report on my progress. One man looked at me quizzically and said, “I just don’t understand what you’ve been doing all this time. Just sitting around and talking with a bunch of people?”
I don’t know if depression is a neurochemical disease, psychological disorder or spiritual crisis –maybe it’s all that and more. But what I do know is that it can’t be chased away by a quick prayer, pep talk or a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” speech. A person suffering from depression doesn’t need your prescriptions — they need patience, understanding and a compassionate hand to hold as they walk through their shadowy valley.
There Is Hope!
Depression is a battle that can be won. It takes the kind support of loved ones. During my darkest hour, my wife stood by me and urged me to get help. Family members dropped by to offer words of encouragement and acts of service like preparing meals and cleaning the house. I found a supportive, empathetic community when I signed up for day treatment. An understanding doctor prescribed some medication that helped (note: antidepressants are not “one-size-fits-all.” One brand might help one person, but not another. It took several types of medication to find the right fit for me).
Though I haven’t grappled with this demon for some time, I remain vigilant. When I start feeling “bluesy,” I do a gut-check and see what’s triggering it. I apply lessons I learned from counseling to deal with stress. I am eating healthier than I ever have (though I still indulge in Tex-Mex and a greasy burger now and then) and I’m regular exercising, which has been proven to raise the chemicals in the brain that make people feel happy. I do things I enjoy doing, refuse to let my mistakes define me and frequently check in with God to express my gratitude for my many blessings–a simple but effective habit that breeds joy and contentment.
My heart aches to think about the hell that Mr. Williams slogged through before taking his life. I know all about it, but I’m here to say that depression does not have to drive you to such a drastic act. God’s gift of life is priceless and deserves to be cherished. Tragically, it is too late for Mr. Williams. It’s not for you. Seek help. Do not give up hope. Greater things are in store for you.