Today’s post was supposed to be about registries and preparing for bringing home baby. But the passing of Robin Williams by his own hand has left me feeling a heaviness that I can’t shake. The world just seems a little less funny today.
Many of you know I studied at Second City. I did it as a hobby. It was never to be on THE stage. I was new to Chicago. My first apartment was just a few blocks from the school. I signed up on a whim thinking it would be an easy way to meet new friends and spend a few nights a week having a great laugh. I loved every minute I spent writing, laughing and performing with all of those gifted, hilarious, amazing people. But I soon learned that many of them were deeply troubled. Depression, addiction, anxiety and tragic lives weren’t simply common. It was as if they were a prerequisite to achieving brilliance. The stage at Second City is a glorious place. But it is the keeper of this tragic secret. It knows that depression, addiction, and anxiety are often invisible. Those who laugh and love and bring joy often live in very dark places.
So it came as no surprise when I learned that the final descent into the kind of depression that makes a person suicidal is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The wailing, emotional outbursts, and angst-ridden existences that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life. There are people who choose to end their lives because of terminal illness or chronic pain. There are those who have a psychotic break. There are those who are unable to deal with traumatic or devastating loss. I am not being dismissive of their stories. But their stories are far less common than those of the troubled artist, suburban mom, or the well-adjusted teen who take their own lives seemingly out of nowhere. They are far less quiet. Those who are quiet are quiet until the very end. Robin Williams was Instagramming photos of a happy family 2 hours before his suicide. Mary Kay Bergman voiced Timmy in a South Park Episode and contributed to a script the day before hers. Alexander McQueen invited a photographer to his studio to preview a new season’s line 2 days prior to ending his life.
I’ve struggled with cycles of depression off and on since my teens. I was well into my 20’s by the time I sought real help. I’ve had modest success with managing it. However, pregnancy changes everything in a woman’s body. So when my OB suggested I seek help from a specialist, I did just that. Because of the guidance of a maternal-fetal psychologist and support from WTFather, my pregnancy with Birdy was uneventful from a mental health point of view. I was pleased that I’d been so proactive. And I felt safe in my doctor’s care. Looking back, I was probably a little too confident with my level of awareness and ability to self-manage.
I went to my 6-week postpartum appointment feeling great. But by Birdy’s 6th month, things were pretty bad. This time, the depression manifested as anger and apathy. I was moody, inconsistent, and unreliable. But I was ready for that, so back to the doctor and back on medication I went. It helped for a while. Then we lost 2 babies back to back; one of them in the second trimester. I was devastated. By the time I became pregnant with The Professor, it was difficult to discern between what was a natural grieving process and the warning signs of what was to be an alarming, rapid acceleration in the severity of my depression.
No one I knew had ever talked about peripartum depression. I had never even considered that women might get depressed during pregnancy. I was never asked about my mental state. But things began to unravel quickly. I began believing that someone was coming into our home while we were gone. I was fixated on the dangers of simply driving with Birdy in the car, terrified that we would go off of a bridge or careen into traffic. I stopped sleeping because I was sure Birdy was going to die in her sleep if I didn’t keep watch. WTFather assumed that I was simply pregnancy hormone crazy. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know how sick I was. I was working very hard to make sure he thought everything was fine.
And then one day, as casually as someone decides what to cook for dinner, I decided that my children would be better off if they didn’t have me as their mother. The only thing that stopped me from harming myself that day was that I couldn’t think of a way to do it that wouldn’t have harmed The Professor. So I became fixated on my due date. If I could only make it until then, I could deliver The Professor and then be rid of all of the struggles and pain of mental illness. My children would be saved from being burdened with a mother who couldn’t care for them. And WTFather would be free to find someone more deserving of him. I started doing research and making plans. But I wasn’t sure how to best plan for the kids. I wanted to make sure that my death made as small of an impact on them as was possible. So I asked a friend who works with troubled children how kids are affected by the suicide of their mothers. She was alarmed by the casualness with which I asked the question. She immediately assessed the situation and put me in contact with professional help. Because of her, I’m still here.
Had I not gotten help or had friends and family who were invested in my well being, I wouldn’t be here. And the reactions from those who heard news of my passing would have been filled with shock and sadness. Anyone who knew and loved me would have told you that I was getting better. I was acting like I was feeling better. And that’s because I was. But I wasn’t feeling better because I was healthier. I was feeling better because I had a plan that was going to save me from the torture of an unquiet mind. There is a peace that comes with the promise of the pain ending. I’m sure someone would have called me a coward. But to be a coward, one must be afraid. I wasn’t afraid. And I’m sure someone would have said I was selfish. But in my mind, I was doing what I thought was best for my family. I was unburdening them from having to care for a mom who couldn’t take care of herself.
People who commit suicide leave behind a lot of questions for the living. How does it get that bad? Why don’t they ask for help? How can they not think of their families? The simplest explanations are that it gets that bad because depression is a progressive disease. It’s a medical condition, just like cancer or diabetes. Sometimes people get better. And sometimes people get worse. Sometimes they are able to manage the symptoms. And sometimes they are not. Fear and shame are common early signs of major depression. But with fear and shame come reluctance. Often, by the time someone realizes that they need help, the disease has progressed too far for them to be capable of taking the steps to ask for it. And finally, they often are thinking of their families. They see no way of unburdening their families and friends of the weight of their disease. People with major depression don’t hate life or joy, or their children. They have just lost the ability to feel love and joy. And they have lost the ability to hope that they ever could again.
It’s been 3 years since I began my recovery. It hasn’t been easy. But it’s been worth it. I laugh now. I enjoy my children. (And have a WTWhammy to boot!) The relief that came from medication, therapy and support was almost instantaneous. But the clarity that comes with wellness is sometimes difficult to navigate. Recovery from a major depressive episode isn’t linear. You get better, and then sometimes you take a step back. Like anyone with any chronic illness, I have to be vigilant about my health and treatment plan. I’m nearly 40 years old, and my mom still texts me every. single. night. to remind me to take my medicine. It’s her way of supporting me and it’s become a ritual that I now see as an “I love you.” WTFather asks direct questions. How are you feeling? Your behavior in XYZ situation was similar to behavior you’ve had in past relapses. Should I be concerned? I’ve made pacts with my friends to be completely honest about my moods and feelings. It has taken a lot of practice, and is at times still uncomfortable, but I’ve overcome the hesitation that comes from fear and shame in the beginning stages of a downward swing. But most importantly, I feel good now. I even have days where I feel great.
The lesson I want all who read this to know is that, if you are in contact with someone who is struggling, remember these things:
Depression is not always sad.
Depressions is often subtle.
Depression is the difference between not giving a shit and not being able to give a shit.
Depression is lonely.
Depression is sometimes loud and angry and irritable.
Depression goes through the motions.
Depression is not finding joy in your children.
Depression is resenting your family.
Depression is rage.
Depression is being on and then turning off. She laughs at parties, tucks in her children, leads the PTA fundraiser, and thinks about dying while driving home from PreSchool drop off.
Depression is sometimes inappropriate comments and poor social interactions.
Depression makes excuses to not talk to friends and family.
Depression is short tempered and quick to fight.
Depression is afraid to be alone.
Depression is afraid of being with others.
Depression is overwhelmed.
Depression is more comfortable with strangers than with friends.
Depression is most dangerous when it appears to be getting better.
Don’t be afraid to say something. Don’t be afraid to ask tough, direct questions. In this situation, it is always better to risk being wrong than it is to be proven right. For tips, assistance, and immediate access to professional help for a friend who is struggling, please see:
Call 911, 1-800-SUICIDE, or 1-800-273-TALK
If you are suffering, please reach out for help. The shame, fear, hesitation or denial you are feeling is the disease talking. It’s not you. You can’t just will yourself to get better. You can’t simply decide to not have depression. If you are lonely. If you are scared. If you are thinking that your children would be better off without you. If you are tired, and afraid. If you are nonchalant. If you feel guilty for not caring enough. If you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, please, please, talk to someone. Anyone. Here are some hotlines if a stranger is more appealing than someone you know.
Need Help Now?
Text Telephone: 1-800-799-4TTY (1-800-799-4889)
Military Veterans Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (Press 1)
Suicide Hotline en Espanol: 1-800-273-TALK (Press 2)
Ayuda en Español
LGBT Youth Suicide Hotline: 1-866-4-U-TREVOR