The suicide of Robin Williams struck this country hard. First, because he was so beloved. Second, that his suffering from depression, to the extent that he would take his own live, was unimaginable. The latter reason isn’t a reflection on Robin Williams, but on us. When it comes to mental illness, things like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and bi-polar disorder, we have maintained a national stupidity bordering on disgrace.
Robin Williams suffered from his own private demons. That we don’t get it is because we suffer from ignorance. And to be frank, it’s outrageous and unacceptable that we can perpetuate this national disgrace. It’s time to grow up.
We persist in this inexplicable image of people who suffer from mental illness balled up in a corner, shaking, maybe drooling, with wild unkempt hair and crazy eyes, until they finally drop dead. We do this because it gives us a visual image of how those people look, so we can distinguish them from the rest of us who aren’t crazy.
It comforts us to know that we’re not drooling, and our hair is combed, so that we can believe we’re not crazy. We grasp as tightly as possible to this image born of ignorance so we can sleep at night. We do a lot of things for that reason.
Michelle Hynes, of the Scottish Solicitors Inksters, responded to my call for someone who suffers from depression to write about it, to try to give a clue to the clueless what it means to suffer from depression. And she did.
Walking around in their normal lives, smart suits, smiles with deadlines met, clients happy and colleagues supported. To look at them it is not possible to see what lies beneath the suit. What lies beneath the façade of normality is a silent, deadly and unacknowledged illness that makes everyday life, more of an effort for some.
If I had broken my leg I would have a cast on it. I would have a visible message for the world that I was injured. People would take care to walk carefully as they go about their business around me. Yet there are many facets to being human.
Unseen illnesses and disabilities are a part of being human.
How do mentally ill people behave? How do they appear? Do they have times when they’re doing better, and times when they’re completely incapable of negotiating their life? But Robin Williams didn’t look depressed, did he? Shouldn’t he have looked depressed? Should we have been able to see something?
There are far better voices to explain this than me. I learned the brutal burden of trying to explain the unfathomable years ago, when I had to explain a child with an unusual learning disability, dyscalculia, to a group of teachers. Oh, they understood all about learning disabilities, I was told. They didn’t. They didn’t really have a clue.
Dyscalculia can manifest as a complete inability to perceive numbers, quantities, math. It’s a tough one to grasp, as someone suffering from severe dyscalculia can look at a pile of things and, in answer to the question “guess how many are in the pile,” respond, “One? 567? 10 million?” It’s all the same to them. Whatever connection ought to exist in their brain doesn’t.
Their solution was to try harder, practice, work at it. Would you tell a blind person to try harder to see? Would you tell a deaf person to try harder to hear? It’s absurd, but there was an innate refusal to grasp the existence of something they couldn’t see, couldn’t easily wrap their heads around.
Mental illness is a medical diagnosis, not some guessing game to play with the neighbors based on what your brain trust thinks it ought to look like. You don’t get to make up how they should behave, how they should feel and function, based on whatever bit of stupid pops into your head. Would you do that with cancer? It’s a disease. You don’t play guessing games with disease.
Welcome to the wonderful world of mental illness. It’s the bane of the criminal defense lawyer, as so many people arrested suffer from some form of it, most of the time undiagnosed. It affects every aspect of their lives, and yet they don’t look mentally ill. They don’t appear “depressed,” in the sense that they’re unhappy, moping around the room, incapable of talking or smiling.
For some the demon is so powerful that it chains them to their bed. Isolates them from their friends and makes the sunrise a powerful reminder that they have not slept all night, again.
As others wander through a life dotted with joyous intervals of weekends, nights out, celebrations and fun they are consumed with an internal battle to beat the demon just an hour at a time. It is a hard task. It is exhausting.
Nothing to see here. Just a struggle with demons happening within a person’s head, while they keep on keeping on because they haven’t yet lost the battle.
As a society we label our people with various labels all the way through life. The crazy ones, the loose canons, nut job, fighter, evangelist, book worm, recluse just a few labels that we use but is there anyone who can honestly say that they have no problems at all?
The unseen illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, Heart Disease, and Mental Illness have visual effects on your body often unnoticed but the psychological impact is destructive on the soul.
Michelle lapses into argument here, that people who suffer from mental illness are no worse than anyone else. While that’s true, her argument is rationalization, not rationale. Is there anyone who can honestly say that they have no problems at all? Of course not, but this isn’t about having “no problems at all,” but about suffering from unseen and intentionally misunderstood illness.
We all have problems, but that doesn’t mean we suffer from depression, turning problems into a debilitating, soul-killing, unseen illness. You may not be able to see it, but it’s all around us, people who do suffer from mental illness.
Some function fine. Some don’t. Some can’t. Some can manage the façade, at least some of the time, while others can’t continue to fight the battle. When they lose the battle, they can end up like Robin Williams. Is that what has to happen to someone before you get your collective heads out of your asses and grasp the reality of mental illness?
If you have someone you love, suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or other mental illness, you might be able to get it. Many of you do, but don’t know it. That’s because people who suffer from mental illness hide behind the façade so you don’t despise them for being “defective” and make them ball up in the corner and drool. And yet, we continue to bask in our ignorance about mental illness rather than make the effort to understand it.
Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.
In simple language, this is a core dilemma that few can recognize, no less rise above. It’s genius.