Robin Williams and the Myth of “Battling” Depression

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I don’t really have a great deal to say about Robin Williams’ death, beyond the obvious: it’s tragic, and awful, and I feel terrible for his family and friends and everyone else who knew him. Two people I knew — both friends, at different stages of my life — have killed themselves in the last month, and the feeling is the same: sadness, and a measure of bewilderment, and sympathy, and loss. Suicide is an act that makes perfect, terrifying sense if you’re suicidal, and no sense at all if you’re not. If you don’t understand why someone would kill themselves, I’m happy for you, and I hope that you never do.

I do, however, have some things to say about depression. Williams’ death has been reported the way cases like this are always reported: we’re told he was “battling” depression, that he’d “lost his fight.” It echoes the way we talk about other terminal illnesses — people die after “a long battle with cancer,” or after a “struggle with AIDS,” or whatever else. This is a comforting narrative, I guess — it casts these illnesses as things that you can fight, that you can maybe even vanquish if you fight hard enough.

It’s not true, though. You can treat cancer or AIDS, but I don’t know if you can fight them — I doubt it, to be honest, despite what advocates of relentless positivity will tell you. But I know for sure that you don’t fight depression. You can’t. If you could, things would probably be a lot easier. I suspect people who’ve never experienced depression think that if you meditate and do yoga and think positive and eat healthy and all such things, you can push away feeling bad, and eventually feel OK again. That’d be lovely if it were at all reflective of reality. But it’s not.

Depression isn’t about feeling sad, it’s about feeling nothing. And how do you fight nothing? As Hyperbole and a Half writer Allie Brosh wrote:

The most frustrating thing about depression [is that] it isn’t always something you can fight back against with hope. It isn’t even something — it’s nothing. And you can’t combat nothing. You can’t fill it up. You can’t cover it. It’s just there, pulling the meaning out of everything. That being the case, all the hopeful, proactive solutions start to sound completely insane in contrast to the scope of the problem.

Indeed. You don’t battle depression, you endure it. Or perhaps even that word isn’t quite right — you simply experience it, day after day. You take the pills and try to continue living and tell yourself that it won’t last forever, that eventually the fog will lift, because it always does, sooner or later. But when you’re in that fog, you can’t see anything but emptiness. Plenty of our great artists have done a better job of portraying this than me. Leonard Cohen compared depression to stepping into an avalanche, while Nas once wrote, “I need a new nigga for this black cloud to follow/ ‘Cos while it’s over me it’s too dark to see tomorrow.” That’s exactly how it is.

This might come across as a simple matter of semantics, except for the fact that the whole battle narrative carries some rather unpleasant connotations. The idea that you can fight implies that you should fight, and it also implies that if you “lose your battle,” well, shit, perhaps you didn’t quite fight hard enough. Again, it’s a narrative that mirrors the way we approach other terrifying illnesses. It’s why we read so much into the stories of people like, say, Lance Armstrong (before his fall from grace) — we love the idea that you can refuse to be defeated, that you can prove indomitable. But depression isn’t something you can conquer if you’re plucky enough. Merit is irrelevant here.

Because the worst thing is this: you never beat depression. At best, you come to some sort of fragile, queasy understanding with it, where you go about your life and try to ignore the fact that it’s staring at you from the other side of the river like some awful insect, never really going away, always threatening to come back. It’s a chronic illness, if you want to put it in medical terms. It’s something you hope that you can manage. If you’re in a bad place, the best you can do is hope tomorrow is better. And if you’re in a good place, all you can do is hope like hell that you stay there.

This isn’t to imply that sufferers are powerless: you can work out, to some extent, what might trigger your worst episodes. You can find a good psychiatrist and a medication regime that seems to work, and stick to it. You can trust your friends and family and loved ones enough to tell them what’s going on, and to lean on them when things are bad. You can tell yourself that you’re going to be OK. But the simple fact is, sometimes none of this works. And if that’s the case, it’s not a matter of not fighting hard enough.

I don’t want to haul people over the coals for wanting to think you can fight back. But as a society, if we want to deal with the ever more awful toll that mental illness is exacting on us, we have to understand it first. And to do that, we need to let go of a view that, for all that it seems comforting, ultimately serves only to stigmatize sufferers further. The whole “choose to live” narrative is destructive — at its worst, it breeds the sort of morons who call suicide “selfish” and tell depression sufferers that they’ll be OK if they just take some St. John’s Wort and BELIEVE HARD ENOUGH.

If you really want to understand depression, read this. Read this. Read this. Read this and then order a copy of this. Mourn Robin Williams and remember his legacy. And be terrified, because it could be any of us.