I’ve lived on the periphery of depression for most of my life. Personally I am more familiar with its cousin, anxiety, but many of those I have known and loved have experienced depression.
Depression has received a lot of coverage in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, ranging from beautifully written essays to well-meaning-but-ignorant posts to downright cruel tweets. All of this has caused me to rethink my own opinions about this often debilitating condition that grips so many people. What I’ve come to realize is that I cannot find any rational way to address it.
Depression is not a problem to be solved, at least not by those of us without the tools and experience required to understand and peel away its many nuanced layers. From the outside, depression looks simple to diagnose and fix: we so often appreciate another’s strengths and worthiness more easily than they can see it in themselves. But the disconnect is in our perspective: one person seeing another’s situation in a positive light, while the person who is being observed sees their own situation — the same set of facts, but with a deeper understanding of the details — through a filter of emotional darkness.
In my experience, whenever rationality meets emotion, emotion wins. Perhaps the greatest challenge we humans face is our ongoing attempt to align the two: to live our lives in a way that satisfies both our hearts and our minds, metaphorically speaking. More often than not, there is some level of dissonance within us that causes at least a mild sense of distress — some sort of feeling that our actions are not aligned with our values, or that we are not living the life we are meant to. Perhaps even that is an oversimplification… another attempt to rationalize the irrational.
What I’m really saying is this (yes, Mark, it’s time to get to the point): I can’t “fix” anyone else, and it would be arrogant to believe that I could. Recognizing that I cannot truly know the full extent of anyone else’s feelings and thoughts, all I can do is observe people with as little judgment as possible, and hope that they are doing the same for me. And I can be there. Be there for them when they need someone to talk to, rant to, cry to… just as I hope they will be there for me when I need them most.
I believe that people can heal themselves — physically, mentally and emotionally — and there are amazing people out there who can help with this process. I’ve seen people close to me overcome huge challenges — including depression — and that has made me want to scream out to the world, “It will all be okay — if you let it be!” But I know it’s not that simple… and I know that not everyone will be okay. Depression’s grip is strong — too strong for some to overcome.
It is also important that we don’t paint people who suffer from depression — or from anything, really — with a broad brush. Depression isn’t a label; it’s a state of mind. Just because somebody experiences depression, we must not think of him as a “depressed person.” We must think of him as a person who, like all of us, faces challenges as he tries to carve a unique path through this wild ride called life. Anyone I’ve known who has experienced depression has also experienced great joy — and every emotion in between, I’m sure. To see someone only in their most vulnerable state is not to see them for the whole of their being.
One of the reasons that Robin Williams’ death has had such an effect on so many people is the irony it presents: that a person who most of us associate with joy suffered so greatly from depression. Although I didn’t know him, what I’ve read about Robin Williams tells me that he experienced a wide range of emotions in his very human life. When we look at his time on Earth as a whole, rather than focusing on how it ended — when we focus on the thoughtful children he raised and the countless memories he left behind for all of us — then we can see that he was much more than a troubled state of mind. He was an extraordinarily talented man with a gift for making people laugh and cry (the latter often, but not always, caused by the former)… but he was every bit as human as the rest of us.
When I look to those around me, to my family and friends and even the friends of friends who have found their way onto my Facebook feed, I see many people who — openly or otherwise — exhibit signs of depression. It saddens and worries me, and I feel a sense of futility in their company: futility at my inability to flip a switch and make things better for them. But then I realize that I am helping them in my own small way, by accepting them without judgment… by not trying to fix them… by simply being there.