Like so many this week, I’ve felt saddened at the loss of Robin Williams. Maddened, actually. Super-peeved at how oppressive a glitchy brain/unhealthy mind can be. The fact that his death was self-inflicted felt like a punch in the gut. Everything about it has made me re-evaluate the straight-up realness of depression, how it manifests, where it hides, who it looks like.
A few weeks ago we double-featured Hook and Jumanji for our kids, thus introducing them to the legendary actor. Twenty-five years ago I watched him in Dead Poets Society and, as a sophomore in high school, I remember being shocked at how the story ended. The main character taking his own life? I couldn’t believe it. NOT the outcome I expected. I could not comprehend how someone could do such a thing. But then, I was only 15. I had lived a peaceful childhood under a quiet roof with loving parents and experienced no major trauma in my decade-and-a-half of years. I had no INKLING of the curveballs life could throw at a person. Fifteen years later I would give birth to my first child and be diagnosed with postpartum depression. Then…I would begin to understand.
Adjusting to life as a mother sent me through the wringer. I had all these…expectations of how I thought motherhood would be, SHOULD be. Within weeks of my son Rowan’s birth – maybe even days – those expectations took flight like Dorothy Gale’s house in a twister and landed in some far Technicolor country. Even so, I devoutly did the mom thing, as moms of newborns will do…nursing, changing diapers, trying to figure out when to put him down to nap, reading books and blogs with all their conflicting opinions. Should I let him cry or nurse him back to sleep? Should I be talking to him more? Singing to him? Signing? (Yes, SIGNING!) Is it ok to put on a Baby Einstein DVD while I take 30 minutes to breathe or will it fry all his brain cells? Should I feel guilty for having had an epidural? I don’t think it makes me less of a woman but some of my friends who birthed epidural-free seem to think so. And on and on. AND ON. That right there is enough to turn any woman’s world upside-down but to make matters more interesting, the tiny tyke refused to take a bottle and nursed every two hours for the first three months of his life, feeding practically around the clock. Which meant I spent a whoooole lotta time planted on the sofa cruising the tube and terrifying myself by watching The Ring (there was nothing else on!!!). Most of my friends were still in the workforce, not home alone all day long with a wee eat-sleep-and-pooper. And my only sibling was getting married (a pleasant occasion but a transition all the same). Plus I still had laundry and grocery-shopping and meal-prepping and staying-in-touch with grandparents and thank-you notes to write – an endless list of Things To Do – all squashed in between hour-long sessions of baby boy sucking the life right out of me.
So, one Saturday morning, when Rowan was three-months-old, Brandon offhandedly mentioned that he wanted to purchase a water hose, and all I heard was: “So you can add one more thing to your to-do list, Jana.” Buying a water hose implied someone would need to be watering the landscaped plants around our condo, and for some reason I interpreted that responsibility as falling to me. I would now have to add ‘watering outdoor plants’ to my list of Things To Do. And I promptly lost it. Because I couldn’t DO anymore. I was completely tapped out. The mothering thing – and all its expectations – were sucking me dry (quite literally via my breastages). I distinctly remember sitting on the patio off our condo, staring across the asphalt parking lot at the lush summer green of the Tennessee trees. Weeping. For an hour. Because I couldn’t handle ONE MORE THING. Not even the idea of watering some shrubs.
When the tears slowed and calm descended, I pondered how horrid I was feeling so much of the time anymore, and how there was just no way possible that I could be helpful to my husband and child in this condition. And suddenly, an idea: I’ll just LEAVE. It made complete sense. I sat there, working through details of how I could scrape together some funds, leave our home, and not be tracked down. BECAUSE BRANDON AND ROWAN WOULD BE BETTER OFF WITHOUT ME. I thought that. Lucidly. As plain as day. They deserve better than this mess of me, I thought. My condition as wife and mother is dragging them down. Life will be easier for both of them if I’m NOT HERE. My tricky trickster of a mind – riddled by undiagnosed depression – convinced me that my husband and newborn son would live healthier lives without me around. Depression has a cunning ability to make otherwise reasonable people believe things that aren’t true.
Suicide never appealed to me but I did seriously contemplate running away. Until that moment on the patio, when I would hear about someone abandoning their family, I thought what most of us probably do: What a jerk. Leaving your children in the lurch like that. How SELFISH of you. But I GUARANTEE YOU, there are parents out there abandoning their families – via suicide or simply speeding off into the horizon – because they are convinced of the lie that depression whispers: “Your family is better off without you. No one wants to deal with your crap anymore.” I would never have believed this…until it happened to me. And I’m not excusing the behavior. Just explaining that the mind – in an unhealthy state of clinical depression – has the power to convince a person of untruth.
When my parents were visiting us in the midst of my postpartum funk of the suck-most variety, my dad mentioned that he didn’t think he had ever known anyone who had struggled with depression, and my mom, without missing a beat, replied, “Yes, you have.” Before my own meet-and-greet with depression, I most likely would have said the same. Depression is insidious in how well it knows how to hide. People with depression don’t look like the mopey animated characters on the antidepressant ads. We don’t have a cloud floating over our heads signifying our approach (though we feel cloudy on the inside). We don’t drag around a metal ball chained to our ankle (though we feel weighty on the inside). It’s just not that obvious. Depression can look like world-famous comedians who get paid to makes others laugh…like the mom with the kid-filled minivan who appears to have it “all together”…like the gentle giant of a farmer who sells tomatoes and cantaloupe at the market…like the neighbor who always shouts a friendly hello when you’re out in the yard…like the gorgeous classmate voted homecoming queen…like the wildly-successful-at-age-22 techie with his cutting-edge company…like the captivating guest who tells the best stories at a dinner party…like the elderly bookstore cashier who makes the most fantastic literary recommendations…like the preacher who speaks of God’s grace on Sunday mornings. Depressions looks like all of them…and more. With certain stats reporting 1 in 10 people in the US suffering from depression – and unless you’re a hermit living in the distant hills somewhere – YOU KNOW SOMEONE WHO IS STRUGGLING WITH DEPRESSION.
If you suspect a loved one might be depressed, PLEASE reach out to them; those suffering from depression often lack the energy or motivation to reach out themselves. My circumstances landed me at the doctor when, shortly after the water hose incident, two close friends (one a pediatrician, the other a postpartum nurse) and my mom urged me to set up an appointment. Tell your friend what you’ve observed that concerns you and ask them about it. Dig a little if you have to. Most people – including me – do NOT want to talk about our overwhelming sadness, about how depression can be so inwardly antagonistic, because IT FEELS LIKE WE ARE BURDENING our spouses, children, parents, friends…and that’s not a good feeling. So please…ASK. Then LISTEN. And even if you don’t “get it” – if you look at your friend and all you see is the abundance by which they’re surrounded (dozens of adoring friends, skyrocketing success in professional endeavors, healthy children, a supportive spouse, financial stability) and you don’t GET IT – and you feel like you want to tell them to “be thankful” or “count their blessings”, I would ask that you please keep that to yourself and listen MORE. Practice compassion. Offer to drive them to their doctor, accompany them to a counseling session, or go on a walk with them in the sunshine.
A decade has passed since my postpartum depression diagnosis. My personal everyday struggle tends more toward anxiety, but depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. Spending long periods of time feeling intensely anxious can be, well, depressing. (Understatement.) Since my mad go-around in 2004 – when I lost 20 pounds in a month’s time, and which took me almost a year to pull out of after weekly counseling, medication, regular reading of the Psalms, and a calendar wiped free of commitments – depression has visited me still, but with less intensity. I’ve had minor bouts here and there: when we moved from Nashville to Abilene, over the past two years because of several relational losses, and this summer as I’ve begun my spelunking self-examination expedition.
If we live long enough, overwhelming sadness taps us all on the shoulder and waves hello. For some of us, it lingers longer and engages us in superficial small talk. And for some, it is a constant companion, wrapping its arms around us in suffocating measure. I’m not 15 anymore. I know there are outcomes to stories that I will never comprehend. Still, I was stunned at how Robin’s journey ended. The experts – and non-experts too – could debate all day long about where exactly depression stems from…some say it’s a result of genetics, inclinations of certain personalities, the voice of Satan…some say it’s a physical illness, mental disorder, spiritual deficit. But no matter which slimy hole depression crawls out of, its consequences can be deceitful, disabling, and – evident this week – deadly. It had the power to snuff out the life of a man who exuded joy, who spent his life spilling out joy to others. It’s had the power – most likely since the beginning of time – to convince us that we have no business partaking in this precious Life.
Depression is real. It looks like me.