The invisible cloak

Last night, I had a dream about Robin Williams.

He was sitting at my desk chair in my bedroom. There was a smile on his face, but there was no laughter in his eyes. It was a false smile; one that he had spent years perfecting to hide the misery underneath. I rushed over to him, and knelt down before him to hold his hands. “Am I too late?” I asked him, because I was supposed to be bringing him food ‘for the journey’. He gave me a sad, slow nod, and I knew that he was already dead. He was a real physical thing that I was touching, but he had already gone, already departed. I reached up to hold his face in my hands. “You know everyone adores you?” I said, “You know that the whole world loves you?”

“I know,” he said, “but it is not enough.”

It’s a dream that has me tearing up as I remember it, because I don’t often have dreams like that. I’m a lucid dreamer. My dreams are under my control. When I have a dream where I am not in charge, I know that someone or something wants me to pay attention to it. I don’t claim that Robin Williams himself spoke to me, that he decided I should be the one to tell the world how he felt.

But I do believe it’s a dream that needs to be shared.

It may be fictional, it may make little sense, but it is a perfect representation of depression, and, if I may be so bold, of why people kill themselves. Here was a man who was adored by all. Here was an award-winning comedian and actor with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He appeared in everything from goofy cartoons to thrillers to Shakespeare. Here was a man worth millions, who presumably had access to psychological help beyond the realm of us common folks.

But it wasn’t enough.

I thought that I wasn’t ‘qualified’ to talk about Robin Williams, since I have actually seen very few of his films. While I loved him in all of them and his talent is extraordinary, I cannot truly call myself a fan, when I’ve seen so little of his work. Then it occurred to me: that in itself might make me more qualified. I didn’t hear the news of his death and think of Robin Williams, The Entertainer. I thought of Robin Williams, The Man, and the private struggles he faced that are beyond the realms of our imagination.

We have a problem with mental illness, not just in this country, but in Western culture. We trivialise it, by saying things like “ugh, I’m so depressed now my favourite show is over”. We stigmatise it, by saying things like “that bitch is crazy”. We underestimate it, saying things like “you just need to think positive”.

2013-11-21-Helpful Advice

Image credit: Robot Hugs

But by far the worst thing we do is we don’t talk about it.

We talk about depression and mental illness when there is a suicide, or a shooting, or a high-profile criminal case that shows cruelty we didn’t think anyone could be capable of. When these tragedies happen, for a brief while, sufferers of depression are brought into the spotlight. While we all share news stories and thought pieces, sufferers are reminded that they are not alone. Then something else grabs our attention, and the conversation stops. The door is closed again.

Depression is like being covered in a cloak that no one else can see. Depression robs you of all the joy in your life. It can make you want to do nothing but lay in bed for days; it can sap away all your physical energy; it can make you seek relief in a bottle or a knife. It can even make you want to die.

What depression feels like is hard to put into words. When you are depressed, you are not just a bit sad. It’s not enough even to say “you can’t find happiness anywhere”. You wake up in the morning with a sense of gloom, like maybe it would have been better if you hadn’t. You don’t want to do anything: don’t want to get up, don’t want to eat, don’t want to go to work or clean your house or talk to anyone. You might try to soothe yourself with things you enjoy, only to find that they aren’t fun to you anymore. You force yourself to do these things you don’t want to do, and the physical energy that it takes to plaster on a fake smile and to be polite when you just want to tell everyone to leave you alone – that energy has to come from somewhere. It leaves you like a shell. All that you once were – all your joys, your passions, your love – is gone from you. Then, yes, you might start to wonder if you would be better off dead. If heaven or hell or just the cold ground would give you peace from the pain that you carry with you everywhere that you go.

I’ve seen things you’ve only seen in your nightmares. Things you can’t even imagine. Things you can’t even see. There are things that hunt you in the night.

Although that quotation is not about depression – it’s Robin Williams’ Jumanji character Alan Parrish, talking about life inside the game – it is hard to read with hindsight. What he says is so like how depression feels. Watching his deliverance of those lines now, you can see sadness in his eyes, and it makes you wonder whether he really is just going from a script.

I wish that this problem – the way we treat mental illness – had an easy solution. I wish I could say “donate here” or “sign this” or “join this group”, but I can’t. This problem is one that requires action on all our parts.

The truth is, we are all responsible for Robin Williams’ death. We laughed at his jokes. We showered awards on him for his comedy. We didn’t kill him with our laughter, but we killed him by laughing at his comedy while at the same time stigmatising the mentally ill. We taught him “this is the man we love: the funny man, the persona; not the real you, the deeply troubled and depressed you”.

And so I urge you all: make a change.

Keep the conversation going. Mental illness should not be shushed, or hidden away. When we treat it as something shameful, sufferers internalise that shame.

Treat people with compassion. A stranger is rude to you. A friend becomes distant. Yes, it could well be that they are rude people, or shitty friends. But they could be suffering from something you cannot see. There are stories of people who had plans to end their lives, but a smile from a stranger stopped them. Whether these stories are true or not, be that stranger. Be the person that makes others see that there is beauty in the world and that they are valuable.

For goodness’ sake, be careful. Like in that comic above, would you tell someone with the flu that they need to just not have it? No. So do not tell people “just don’t be depressed”. Would you tell someone with cancer “I know how you feel” ? No, you would not. Recognise that there is a difference between sadness and depression, and that you probably do not know what depression feels like.

Recommend help- cautiously. We have stigmatised mental illness to the point that many people feel seeking treatment is a sign of weakness, or a show of being “messed up”. It is not. But at the same time, CAUTION is key. Don’t tell someone “I think you need help”, which could all too easily be interpreted as “jeez, what is wrong with you?”. A gentle reminder that there is no shame in seeking help is enough.

Offer love and understanding. Ask a person with depression “what can I do?” and they’ll likely say “nothing”. That is, in a way, true. Depression is not like a cold, where you can show up on someone’s door with cough medicine and chicken soup and they will feel better. It’s not something that is solved by company. This is why understanding is so important. Talk to a depressed person: don’t just offer a Hallmark-card “you do know that I love you, right?” every now and then, but actually talk to them. Tell them about your day, and ask about theirs. Talk to them normally. Showing love is about so much more than stating it: it is about showing that person that they matter to you, not through your words, but through your actions. If they are the person who you just have to share this funny anecdote or bit of gossip with, you just gave them value. Above all, understand. Understand that on some days, they may not want to talk. On some days, they will be sad. Be patient. Be kind.

Don’t stigmatise. This is possibly the most important point, and, sadly, the one that will take the longest to have an effect. Stop calling people “crazy” when they show behaviour you don’t like. Stop saying you’re “depressed” when what you mean is you’re a bit sad. Don’t be this fuckwit. Stop reacting to tragic events by saying things like “he must have been mentally ill, no normal person shoots up a school”. It will take time, it will take effort, but we need to build a world where mental illness is treated correctly.

Above all, remember this: depression is an illness, not a choice. It is a silent killer; a cloak that can cover anyone, regardless of their age, gender, economic status. or success. It kills regular people, and it killed the funniest man in the world.

Robin Williams had millions. He had a family. He had adoring fans. He had success, and fame, and fortune.

But when faced with this illness, it wasn’t enough.

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