This week, the world mourned the loss of the irrepressible genius actor, Robin Williams. Typically, the death of celebs leaves me a little sad because I know I will miss their gifts. With Williams’ death, however, I grieved. Not because I knew him personally, although his acting made all of us think we did. I grew up loving Mork & Mindy, learned to seize the day, and saw the beauty of flawed humanity in his movies.
Mostly, though, I grieve Robin Williams’ death because I am like him.
I have a mental illness. It’s called depression.
I grieved for Robin Williams’ death because I understand his struggle. I know all too well the feeling of drowning in a sea of emotions whose pull drags you to the depths of despair and won’t let you breathe. I understand how easily your thoughts and feelings can become warped by a combination of brain chemicals and difficult circumstances, leaving you unsure of what is true and what is the myth told by your feelings.
I know I’m not alone. The CDC estimates that about 1 in 10 people report a depressive episode at least once in their lives. My symptoms started showing up in seminary. I’ve taken medication for it the majority of my adult life. Like millions of others, I take the medication because my brain is just wired differently. It’s a brain disease, just like epilepsy or ADHD.
When you see me on a regular basis, you’re not likely to see any signs of depression. That’s because, like epilepsy, it doesn’t shout out its presence. For me, depression can be managed with medication, therapy, and self-care. However, like epilepsy, depression can be triggered by any number of factors, but for me it’s usually a combination of them—stress overload; loss; sleep deprivation; poor eating and exercise habits; working too much and playing too little; having no margin in my life for stillness and quiet; ignoring my needs and emotions.
Unlike epilepsy, when depression is triggered, it doesn’t wave a red flag and say “Hey! I’m here! Deal with it!” The slide into depression is insidiously deceptive. Slow. As imperceptive as a decline down a low-grade hill. If you are not vigilant to notice the signs, some of which are unique to each person, you can find yourself being pulled toward that black hole of despair, and it feels impossible to resist its gravitational pull.
Sometimes the fog of depression is too thick to be able to find our way out. And so we get help. We see a therapist (mine rocks, by the way, highly recommend her) to talk things through. We adjust the medication. We try to take care of our bodies by getting adequate rest and exercising.
At times, though, giving in to your feelings and thoughts—as misinformed as they may be—feels much easier and less exhausting than fighting back.
And on Monday, Robin Williams stopped fighting.
I’m taking a risk in writing this blog. It may not be received with grace, especially in the Christian community, I’m sad to say. I fear the backlash from fellow believers who wrongly assume that I don’t have enough faith or am not relying on Jesus enough (you’d be surprised at how many people think that). Unfortunately, depression goes largely misunderstood. It’s not just a matter of having a rough few days. It’s not a ploy for sympathy or an excuse to lie around the house. It’s not a lack of faith or a sign of sin. People who suffer from mental illness—from depression to anxiety disorders to anorexia—still love Jesus and find their hope in Him.
It’s hard for us to reach out to family and friends. We think you’ll judge us; we think you won’t understand (and you can’t completely unless you’ve been there); we worry that you’ll look at us funny and treat us as if we have ebola. And so we suffer in silence. Talking helps us but we can’t talk. It’s a nasty irony.
Why am I writing this blog? In all truthfulness, I’m not sure. I think maybe because I’m tired of hiding this part of me from my family, friends, and colleagues. I think partly because I am weary of the stigma attached to mental illness and want to destroy its stereotypes, even if just among the few people who will read this.
Mostly, though, I am telling my story because I seek to be authentic and real in my faith journey, and doing so requires that I be transparent about all of my struggles, not just the socially acceptable ones. You know, the fears and worries that are safe to share as prayer requests in church—a sick uncle, a job interview, traveling over the weekend. I want to challenge my fellow believers to stop playing church and start living like authentic Christians, and that means I must model it first.
I struggle with depression. And I love Jesus. The two are not mutually exclusive.