In 2003, I lost a beloved and revered mentor. Much like with Robin Williams, information was initially scarce: all I knew at first was that he had died the night before. A few hours later, I crossed paths with a friend and we immediately started talking about what we had just found out. I shook my head and mumbled, “I just wish I knew how he died.”
My friend stared at me and said, “Abby, he killed himself.”
There were some things I did right in the wake of his suicide. I went to his memorial service and I cried on the shoulders of those who were supportive and I distanced myself from those who weren’t. I wrote poetry and I scribbled in my diary to process the unprocessable. I found little ways to keep his memory alive. I spent hours talking with friends about our favorite memories, his funniest jokes, his most brilliant moments. There’s a sound wave of an American Top 40 Long Distance Dedication floating somewhere out there in the universe, with Casey Kasem’s voice reading my letter about saying good-bye far too soon.
And there were some things I did horribly wrong. I was hurt and I was angry and I didn’t understand depression and I was quick to do what Fox News and others have been doing in light of Robin Williams’ passing: I questioned the act separate from the disease and I labeled it all the things you should never label suicide. In 2003, I had wished for a time machine so I could go back to before his suicide and remind him just how many people loved him and looked up to him. In 2014, I wish for a time machine so I could go back to when I was waiting in line at the wake and thinking “selfish,” over and over and over again to myself and educate 16-year-old me on what depression really is.
We have a saying whenever someone’s life ends due to cancer. We say that they’ve “lost their battle” with cancer. The phrase can be problematic, I’ll be the first to admit: it can potentially put an unfair onus on the patient, as if they succumbed to the disease because they didn’t work hard enough. But we never look at them with disdain, never shake our heads and go, “What a coward. They died due to their cancer.”
Perhaps its time we start seeing depression in the same light as cancer. There will always be differences; the nuances in treatments and behaviors will always vary depending on the disease, the person, the circumstances, everything. Nothing in life is ever that black and white. But maybe people would better understand such a misunderstood illness if we stopped viewing it as the “crazy person” problem and started viewing it on a more medical level, the same way we view cancer.
Because it can strike without warning. It can strike at all levels and with varying degrees of severity. It doesn’t matter how good or bad your life is, how easy or hard you have it, what you’ve done or not done to maintain your health. It’s something that doesn’t just go away with positive thinking. It’s something that might never go away. It’s something that can go into remission, only to resurface years later. And it can end lives.
But, most importantly, it’s something that needs to be treated, and treated without judgment on the moral character of the patient. It is something that requires an intricate network of support and love, but with an understanding that support and love alone is not enough to stop the disease. It is something that we cannot blame the patient or ourselves for, because no one deserves it and no one brings it on themselves.
It breaks my heart every time a life is lost due to depression. Just like it breaks my heart that people can tell their doctors their family history of physical health issues, but remain silent on any potential history of mental health issues – either because they are ashamed to admit that they have “crazy” people in their family, they are ashamed to admit that they might be genetically predisposed to be “crazy” as well, or because such information is kept hidden and unspoken, like the worst of family secrets.
Had I known more about how depression works when I was 16, I might’ve been able to grieve in healthier way. It is not cowardly when depression wins out and that person takes their life. But it certainly is tragic. Maybe we can stop viewing suicide as a “way out” of anything and start viewing it as a sign that someone lost their battle with depression. And maybe people who are uninformed about disorders of the brain can drop the ignorant words and phrases and open up a proper dialogue about mental health.