You are in the middle of training for your new job, when the trainer needs to take a break for a few minutes. You pull out your phone to check for news about your son, who has been sick. Instead you discover that Robin Williams has died of an apparent suicide. You share the news with the trainer when he comes back and you share a moment of shock and sadness. Then you get back to work. But the knowledge hangs in the back of your brain, nibbling. It’s there when you drive home with music turned up loud to drown it out. It’s there when you get home and eat dinner and drink wine and keep eating and drinking to drown it out. Because nothing drowns it out. Not petting your dogs. Not thinking of your kids. Not trashy television or equally trashy novels. You know depression, that black dog, is stalking and it can take you down. Even with money and fame and everything that goes along with that, even knowing the pain suicide would cause those you leave behind, it can take you down. You aren’t in that bad place now. You believe in better living through chemistry. But sometimes, even with the meds and the therapy and the writing and art and music and eating and drinking, even with friends and family, the black dog whimpers and growls at the edges of your mind.
I have lived with, and struggled against, depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. Even before I can remember. There are stories about the horrible attempts at taking me to preschool, where I would cling to my mom’s legs and sob and sob. I wasn’t one of those kids who would cry for a minute until my parent left, then get sidetracked by other things. No, I was determined. I cried the whole time I was there. The teachers finally told my mom that I probably wasn’t ready yet.
As I got older, I learned how to cope better. I was able to go to school, to overnights with friends, and finally to sleep-away camps. It was at one of these camps, during the summer before I started high school, that I met one of my best friends. She came up and started talking to me and we just stuck together. Later, she told me she’d approached me because I looked confident, and like I knew what was going on. I busted up laughing – I’d barely been holding it together. Stumbling along, trying to find my way around a huge new college campus, across the country from my family, telling myself not to cry. Finding her helped me immeasurably. Not only did I stop crying, but I found someone to laugh with, and to commiserate with when I started failing a class for the first time in my life.
In high school I found more friends, and I met Tom. I kept it together, mostly. I transferred some of my separation anxiety stuff onto him. As long as he was with me, I was okay.
It wasn’t until late in college that I learned from internet friends that my anxiety had a name – emetophobia. It’s the fear of vomiting, and when I was a kid it affected me so strongly that I often couldn’t eat much if I were around lots of other people or if I were away from home for fear that I would throw up. When one of the kids in my second grade classroom threw up in class I had such a severe panic attack that I ran out of the room and refused to go back. Eventually I was reassigned to the other second grade classroom. I circumscribed my life into a tiny little circle to keep from being afraid. My mom pushed me to widen my circle, though I hadn’t been able to tell her exactly why I was afraid. It wasn’t all doom and gloom – I had fun with friends. I traveled some. I went on a cross-country trip with Tom. I moved to San Francisco and found where I belong. But in the back of my mind, always, the anxiety and depression lurked.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I discovered that medications could help. I found a good psychiatrist and found a medication that drove my anxiety into a small enough corner that I could ignore it. At one point, figuring that maybe I was fixed, I went off the meds, with the assistance of my psychiatrist. It took a couple of months, but pretty soon I was crying on my back stairs, for no reason, barely able to eat, nearly unable to leave the house. Needless to say, I went back on the meds.
There have been some dark times. Times when I was so anxious and lost that I thought I would try anything to make it stop. Times when I thought about killing myself, and the only thing that stopped me was being more afraid of death than I was about never feeling better. Times I thought I could never have kids, because how could I deal when they threw up? Times I worried about passing my anxiety on to my kids.
One of the worst times was after my daughter was born. Her birth was physically hard on me, and I needed surgery unexpectedly right after she was born. I ended up with a catheter for several weeks, housebound and mostly bed-bound for a week, and the pain combined with post-partum hormones kicked my ass. I thought I ruined Tai’s life by having Miriam. I thought I was ruining Miriam’s life by being so mentally absent. There were times when I thought that maybe having no mom would be better for them than having a crazy mom.
I have been beyond lucky that those times pass, for me. I keep walking, putting one foot in front of the other, and gradually I break out of the isolation I tend to withdraw into when I’m hurting most. I reconnect to friends and the world. I remember that music sounds good, the sun is bright, and life can be sweet. I try to remember to reach out to people who love me when I’m hurting, even though the idea of being vulnerable like that is horrifying.
I’ve seen lots of reminders to seek help if you’re in that dark place. Call a hot-line, call a friend. Know you are loved and not alone. Don’t feel ashamed of taking medication for your brain, as you would for any other body part. Those reminders are true and spot on. But I’d add one more thing:
If you know someone who struggles with anxiety and or depression, ask them how they’re doing – and ask for the truth. Tell them that you are there. If they have withdrawn, give them a poke in whatever way works for you both (email, text, phone, smoke signals). Just sit with them. Because sometimes we can’t reach out ourselves, but if someone comes in after us, it helps. And as someone else on my facebook feed said, know that suicide isn’t an act of selfishness, it’s an act of desperation. I believe it’s an action taken when you get too exhausted to keep fighting it, when the black dog catches you too many times.
Today I’m feeling okay. I’m going through some difficult stuff, but I’m still moving forward. My heart hurts for Robin Williams and his family. And I hope that wherever he is, he has found some peace.