Sixteen years ago my brother sat in a cozy chair in front of a picture window that allowed him a view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and ended his life. He used a gun. The bullet tore through his brain and his family’s hearts. We stopped breathing for years. We told ourselves that he chose this because he was in constant pain. His spine was beginning to stiffen; he could not raise his head. He went sock-less, because it was too difficult to pull them on.
It wasn’t just physical pain. My brother suffered from depression long before the arthritis that immobilized his spine set in. Like the color of our eyes or the set of our jaws, depression, anxiety, and addiction are characteristics that run in my family on both sides.
And, for the most part, we don’t talk about it.
I was a teenager the first time I thought about dying. I took a fist full of aspirin, hoping it would — while also hoping it wouldn’t — be enough to send me to sleep for good. My ears rang for days and my stomach burned. Sometimes I felt so inexplicably sad and so utterly weary that I would simply start to cry. If someone asked me why, I couldn’t give them a reason. I didn’t sleep well. Especially on nights when my father was particularly restless and drinking a lot. I knew there were times when he thought of dying as an escape. In the dark I stayed awake to listen, fearful that if he went, he’d try take the rest of us with him.
After high school I moved half-way across the country. I made friends. I drank too much, I still cried, but only when I was alone. I laughed like hell with my friends; I was charming and fun. My eyes darted around the room as I wondered whether anyone would guess how miserable I really was. I felt like my feet were encased in cement — if I fell in a river, I’d drown.
I wanted just to be happy, to be normal. I wanted to know what was wrong with me. I kept those wants to myself. I thought that in thinking about my unhappiness, I was wallowing in self-pity. People wouldn’t want to be around me, if they knew.
Eventually, stress and the struggle drove me to the third story edge of an open floor on the house my husband and I were building. I was alone there that afternoon. I knew that if I let myself go, my family would assume I’d fallen accidentally. I was afraid of heights. There would be no shame.
I chose therapy instead.
Today, I am an ongoing work-in-progress. I don’t know that depression ever completely goes away. Even after years of therapy, and many more years of taking antidepressants, I sometimes still get blindsided by a cavity of despair so dark and deep, it seems never-ending. Other times depression hits me with a flip-flop of emotions, wildly fluctuating from bleak despair to . . . Okay, I’m coping . . . wait . . . nope . . . going dark again. Often, in the space of 30 minutes or so. I have to talk to myself a lot.
Sometimes, I just want to hide. I want to go into my room and not answer the phone or answer emails. Mostly, I don’t want to tell anyone when I’m depressed. Generally, they don’t understand. People seem to want an explanation as to why.
I’ve learned when I need to ride out the storm. I know that when I’m tired and overwhelmed by things my husband and others take in stride; when I get so busy I don’t eat well (or enough), or when the damn world is just too much with me, I have to retreat for a bit and simply be quiet.
A great deal of the time I am happy with where I’m at, content with how I got here. I laugh a lot and mean it now. Managing depression is work, but so is living, even in the best of times. We all struggle with something.
Several months after my brother’s suicide, my family got together, still raw and hurting from our loss. We went to see What Dreams May Come. I think we must have thought it would be cathartic. It wasn’t. The vision of Hell reserved for the woman who took her life horrified me.
Robin Williams’ suicide makes me crushingly sad. It’s the kind of heavy sorrow that weighs me down. He was the brother/son/father/friend we all wished we knew. A rapid-fire wit with a thousand different characters, the genius of which we are unlikely to see again. We all knew about his problems with alcohol and cocaine. Addiction is flashy and loud and calls attention to itself. Depression is a quiet little liar and a sneak. It whispers in your ear and tells you lies that no one hears but you. Robin joked openly about his battle with addiction. He said little publicly about depression.
I hope that we start talking more openly about depression. About how quiet, but debilitating it can be. It won’t be easy. I have a difficult time talking to anyone other than my husband and a few friends about it. When I do, I feel awkward and whiny and I end up changing the subject.
For my brother, for a sweet prince of laughter, and for all the other voices stilled, please keep talking about depression. Keep listening. Listening without judgement, without asking why. Be kind. And if you or someone you know feels worthless and depressed, you can find someone to talk to here.