News came today of the premature passing of acting genius, Robin Williams. Many who’ve been entertained and even mesmerised by his stunning artistic skills will mourn his death. And no doubt his family are distraught.
It’s no secret that Williams suffered from severe depression. Unfortunately, it seems to have played a significant role in his early death.
Depression is a sinister illness. It is not a character flaw. No one wills depression on themselves anymore than anyone wills a disability on themselves. It’s easy for those of us who don’t suffer clinical depression not to grasp just how awful and debilitating depression can be. Its invisibility and lack of external physical symptoms, however, make it no less an illness.
Depression lies to those who suffer from it. As humans, our feelings are our natural innate emotional responses to external influences. They are hard to control, because they are reflex responses.
For those of us who don’t suffer clinical depression, our feelings work with normal reflexes and help us adapt appropriately to circumstances. We feel happy in favourable circumstances, and angry in unjust circumstances. We feel sad at bad news, which is a normal kind of depression. But we also tend to feel better when things change or time passes. We bruise normally, and we heal normally.
Yet for those of us who do suffer clinical depression, the bruising runs deeper, and it doesn’t heal normally. The feelings fall out of alignment with reality and don’t respond positively when things change. This means the feelings actually begin lying to us about how things really are. Usually this produces a profound bleakness, but sometimes it can be an undue euphoria. In either case, since feelings are emotional reflexes, one can’t simply snap out of it. And so the vicious cycle continues.
This makes life very difficult, and often things appear very dark. Trying to function in the midst of depression is like trying to run uphill on blistered feet while pulling a fridge behind you. Others can’t see the blisters or the fridge, so things probably appear normal to them. But the weight of depression is still very much there.
Those of us who don’t suffer depression need to understand better that depression is neither a sin nor a fault. And nor is it a fake illness. Its invisibility makes it no less real.
Depression is an illness that requires treatment, patience, compassion, and care. Those who suffer don’t always need to have their problems solved. Most of the time they just need to be heard, understood, and encouraged. They need to know that things are not hopeless. That they do have options. That they are appreciated and valued for the person they are now, and not just the person they are when not depressed. That although things can fluctuate, and depression may well come again, there are still benefits in persevering and seeking help. That they are not alone. That you will sit with them through the darkness.
In calling us to love our neighbour as ourselves, Jesus urges us to focus on people as people. To bear each other’s burdens, as he bore ours. To go the extra mile, even as he went from heaven to hell. To treat the ill as we would treat him. To seek to serve rather than seek to be served. To be light and life in the midst of darkness and death.
There are no easy cures or answers to depression. If only those of us who suffered could simply flip a switch and turn it off! Alas, that’s not how reality is. Feelings lie to those of us who suffer depression. Those of us who don’t suffer shouldn’t believe the lie that ‘it can’t be that bad’.
Let’s all be real about depression.
Robin Williams’ death is a tragic reminder of just how awful this illness is. Hopefully his passing brings greater awareness and understanding. Depression is just one of those things that makes us long for the age to come. In the meantime, let’s be Christlike to those in need.
Vale Robin Williams.