There’s nothing I can say about Robin Williams’ suicide that hasn’t already been said. I can’t mourn his loss, celebrate his talent or rage against the demon that is depression any more eloquently than has already been done. But one of the crazy things about depression is this: even though people who suffer with it generally experience the same symptoms, it is a very individual and very personal disease. There are few experiences that are so universal yet so isolating. Depression, thought it might manifest in the same or similar ways, grabs us and keeps us and affects us very differently, which is why I believe that sharing our experiences (without comparison or judgement) is so important.
Mental health is a tightrope many people walk every day, and depression is often triggered by a major life event. For me, it was an ovarian cancer scare followed by pulmonary emboli, surgery and recovery. (Sorry to make light, but anyone who’s given themselves needles in the stomach and been forced to wear a horse-sized maxi pad for weeks knows these aren’t things you easily recover from. I can’t even see a white surfboard without breaking out in hives.)
After hearing those amazing words – “there’s no cancer” – and being sent on my way sans left ovary, everyone around me celebrated (except for the right ovary, who was very lonely). But returning to normal life and trying to put my body and mind back together quickly became an insurmountable task. Some people describe depression as “the black dog” (sorry Austin) or a dark cloud. For me it felt like being trapped in quicksand (now that I have kids I would describe it as silly-putty on steroids.) It was a persistent pressure that smothered me from all sides every minute of the day. It made getting out of bed or off the couch feel impossible. I cried over everything and couldn’t feel happy, let alone ecstatic, that I was going to be okay. I had terrible nightmares about being told they’d made a mistake in surgery and that there actually was cancer but now it was too far advanced to treat.
Predictably, the people around me didn’t understand this. How come I wasn’t happy? How could I be sad when I’d just received the best news ever? So what if I hadn’t pooped for 17 days and my bedtime ritual was a needle in the stomach … there was NO CANCER.
I was emotionally drained, exhausted, sore, mad and VERY hormonal. All before noon. I was like an angry hornet: pissed off because I wasn’t invited to the party and determined to ruin it for everyone else. I didn’t want company but I didn’t want to be alone either. The things that always gave me pleasure, books, my dogs, my favourite TV shows, FOOD…. I didn’t enjoy any of it. Intellectually I saw my emotional state as ridiculous, but I couldn’t do anything about it which only made me feel worse.
The missing ovary and resulting hormonal instability (“hormonal instability”, THERE’S an understatement) probably deserve some of the blame, but whatever the cause I was a MESS. I tried counselling but that got off to a rocky start when my therapist left the office early the day of my first appointment. Apparently she forgot I was coming.
Even before the surgery I’d been taking a low dose anti-depressant. Depression and mental illness lurk among the branches of my family tree so I’ve always been a bit obsessive about my mental health. I told myself taking anti-depressants was just being proactive but in truth they made me feel like a different person. I was less irritable and emotional and better able to manage setbacks. Minor disappointments were no longer the end of the world, and I was now able to enjoy myself and my relationships with more of an even keel.
In her amazing book “Twenty Things Adoptive Parents Need to Succeed”, Sherrie Eldridge wisely counsels parents to “Evaluate Your Emotional Health” during the adoption process. Often, the stress of infertility, the waiting for a child, the setbacks, the multiple disappointments can all lead to depression. And then when you actually get your child, there can be challenges you were completely unprepared for and ill-equipped to manage. It’s a cruel fact that the thing you’ve yearned for and waited years for, can be the thing that sends you down that rabbit hole. When you realize that the serene fantasy you’ve spent years envisioning is never going to happen, it can be a real shock to the system.
But we soldier on. We all do. Each of us finding ways to manage our demons and our stresses. Some work and sadly some don’t, but as long as we’re trying and hoping, I think there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Even at my worst, I never even contemplated suicide and for that I am incredibly thankful because I know that place exists, and I can scarcely imagine a hell any more real than that.