Mental illness is often treated like some kind of character defect or moral failure. How do I know this? Because I’ve been the asshole doing that.
I’ve stood up in front of a classroom of students deriding meds for depression as manifestations of a society that couldn’t handle sadness. My first response when a close friend committed suicide was to be pissed off at him, not understanding why he would do such a thing. And a friend of mine recently responded to someone’s suicide with, “How dare you!” Maybe it’s easier to be angry than to dip into the darkness that some people live in for too long.
Realizing that I had developed a dependency on the prescription drug klonipin was humbling. After all my disparaging remarks about people on drugs to treat anxiety and depression, I was one of them? Shit.
Then the shit did indeed hit the fan; I withdrew from klonipin and was face to face with all the stuff I’d been numbing for years, and it was not a happy face.
I fell into an anxious depression that I felt would kill me. I completely, viscerally understood how someone could really believe that the world would be a better place without them and how dying was better than feeling so awful. I understood how while external life could seem wonderful, misery persisted. I kept asking, “What the fuck is wrong with me?” And the last thing I needed to hear was “Get over it.”
Several people have gleefully shown me the viral clip of Bob Newhart telling a troubled, phobic girl to “Stop it.” The message is that someone suffering from a mental illness is annoying. She just needs to stop it. She is wallowing in some irritating angst that a decent or smart person would just stop. I think that clip is a way for nice people to say what they really feel: “I think you’re an annoying loser. Just get the fuck over it.”
There’s a grain of truth here. Talking endlessly about one’s troubles doesn’t help anyone. But pretending to be happy so that others won’t be bothered is deadly.
In the book Darkness Visible William Styron describes how he got help for his near fatal depression when he went to a mental hospital where he could finally stop pretending that he was feeling fine. He could finally be truthful to himself and those around him; he was ill. And it was a big relief and a point from which he could start to deal.
I’ve heard good folks call depressed people “Debbie Downers,” describe someone as “mentally ill” with disdain. And I probably did that, too.
Being angry, disdainful toward someone who is struggling mentally bleeds into how many old people are treated. Their dementia often angers their loved ones who respond to lapses as though the person needs to focus more, try harder, stop it. I’m sure a lot of that is fear – fear of our own mortality and frailty and of losing someone we love to a mental disease.
I would love to learn compassion without having to experience the thing I’m not compassionate about, without racking up some nasty karma for my own callous stupidity.
Some people will never get suicidal or addicted or mentally ill, just like some people will never get pneumonia or MS. Would we shame someone for getting pneumonia? Would we tell someone with MS to just get over it?
On the other hand, would it be good or helpful to talk on and on about symptoms of pneumonia or MS with friends and family? No. Nor would it be good to feel ashamed of having those symptoms.
Shame is the worst kind of suffering when put on top of an illness – any illness. I wish those who are so shocked when someone commits suicide would consider that they didn’t know how bad off the person was because he or she was ashamed to admit it.
One of the most important things for people suffering from depression and anxiety to do is to find some confidence in themselves and their ability to get better, some way to love themselves with their illness. If nothing else, we can get out of the way of such people – most importantly by not shaming them or deriding them; they’re doing enough of that stuff to themselves. We can drop the attitude that they’re just trying to get attention or that they’re weak.
Some of the strongest people I know have been through searing mental illness. I admire them, even when they have lapses.
CarterJuly 14, 2015 at 10:43 am
shelby BrandonJuly 14, 2015 at 12:40 pm
Impressively candid. Well written. And it is so hard to walk that walk. There are days we do and days we don’t. But, we keep on going. And we keep on going on.
sara s.July 14, 2015 at 1:27 pm
thank you, Kate.
Howard FallonJuly 15, 2015 at 7:56 am
Be kind to yourself.
Donna SellJuly 30, 2015 at 5:29 am
Hi Kate, I read your blog infrequently but am a huge fan of your writing. I’ve read several of your books and think you are an incredible writer. Having just read your July 14 post though I want to point out an error you made attributing Wallace Stegner as the author of Darkness Visible (A Memoir of Madness) – that was William Styron. I double checked myself because the two men did look similar in their older years and I had a hard time telling from the picture you posted if it was Stegner or Styron. Even wondered if Stegner could have written a book with such a similar title? …I became a Styron fan with Sophie’s Choice in 1980, as well as Stegner (love Angle of Repose). After reading Styron’s daughter’s recent memoir, Reading My Father I picked up Darkness Visible from the library and read it. Mental illness runs in my family so I have a particular interest in Styron’s battle with depression.
Keep blogging and writing. I love reading your stuff.
KateJuly 30, 2015 at 6:13 am
Thank you so much for pointing out the error — I’m so relieved to know that I could correct it.
JudiNovember 29, 2015 at 8:53 pm
My brother’s son suffered depression and died a few years ago, shortly after his father. I felt guilty that I did not go up to Buffalo to try to help him, although I did try to counsel him over the phone for about 6 months, and I did tell him straight out several times that he needed to get professional help because it was beyond me and this was a very dangerous situation. He told me that he would be okay. Then when he died, I contacted a medium who said that he said he did not try to kill himself (by drinking), but that he “fucked up.” I forgive David and I forgive his mom, and I forgive myself; I forgive his dad who rejected him and his wife who left him and wouldn’t let him see his kids. I always thought he had it much easier than either I did or his dad did–he grew up with 2 parents in a middle class environment instead of having an uneducated, bitter single parent in a violent ghetto like we did. So I’ve been told that my feelings are all about me and not him. If this world is an illusion as the mystics and physicists say, then it never really happened– we’re in a false time/space universe that only appears as real, and we are home in perfect Love with Source as One. Just need to wake up. Thanks, Kate.