Depression, Success, And Lies Of The Mind

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

spirit animalYesterday I bemoaned those who would turn Robin Williams’ death into a mandatory mass therapy session. But that isn’t to say I don’t appreciate some of the conversation his suicide is provoking. If you’ve never been clinically depressed, the idea that someone like Williams could possibly find life wanting tends to seem absurd.

But depression is a “lie of the mind,” to borrow an old Sam Shepard title. It cares not for your comedy-god status or your loving family. It cares not that plenty of people have it worse. “Depression is a skilled liar, using what you know is true as basis for a massive fraud,” wrote journalist John Tabin yesterday. “If you’re suicidal, you’re where I was five years ago,” he tweeted. “Please read”:



I got teary-eyed reading that, and not just because Tabin is someone I know and like. There’s also the pain of recognition: I could have written nearly every word he did here. This is my depression story, too.

But then again, it is almost all depression stories. That is what will strike you if you read very many of them. The building blocks of depression are always the same: hopelessness, isolation, pain. The absolute, iron-clad conviction that nothing will ever change. Then (if you’re lucky) come hard-won coping tips. An uneasy peace between you and your biology. But it can all be illusory, as Tabin mentions—you are fighting to overcome a brain that wants you to die using that same brain. You will often have to keep coming up with new tricks.

Can you imagine doing that for a lifetime? I don’t think it speaks ill of anyone who eventually decides the tradeoffs aren’t worth it. As a Dish reader lamented via email:

…when someone dies after a lifelong battle with severe mental illness and drug addiction, we say it was a tragedy and tell everyone “don’t be like him, please seek help.” That’s bullshit. Robin Williams sought help his entire life. He saw a psychiatrist. He quit drinking. He went to rehab. He did this for decades. That’s HOW he made it to 63. For some people, 63 is a fucking miracle.

People unfamiliar with how depression works think Williams’ wealth and success should’ve been an antidote. Dave Weigel deconstructed this myth yesterday at Slate, with rare help from personal anecdote:

If you’ve never suffered from depression, or had a public career, the suicide of a successful person makes no damn sense. It’s the same reason why an artist quitting or breaking his band up makes no sense—you wanted something, and you’ve finally grabbed it, so why would you ever give that up? What’s wrong with you?

Depression is what’s wrong with you. I’ve been medicated for depression since 2001. In 2002, after a particularly low episode, I was taken in by campus police that marked me as a risk for self-harm. I then voluntarily checked myself into a mental hospital.

I like seeing men like Weigel and Tabin sharing their stories right now. Too often, depression is still viewed in a gendered light. And because women are expected to be emotional, I don’t think our stories resonate as strongly with those who don’t understand depression. That it really isn’t a disease about emotionality falls on the proverbial deaf ears.

But perhaps the hardest thing for people to understand is that depression doesn’t respond to rational incentives. It doesn’t matter if you have a new, awesome job or a new, awesome baby. It doesn’t matter if you’re a world-famous actor or a successful political journalist. Here’s Weigel again, explaining how the depression-brain tricks you:

One: You earned none of what you have. You’re a fraud. People are going to find out. Everything your critics have said about you, from the guy who lobbed dodgeballs at your head to the hate-mailer who hated your Iowa story, is completely right.

Two: All that other stuff you feel, the negativity and the screw-ups? You definitely earned that, because you’re meant to fail. You’ve succeeded, and you still feel this way? Why, that’s proof that you won’t possibly feel better.

Three: Nobody truly likes you. They can desert you at any moment. They’re succeeding, and you’re not.

It’s contradictory, and pointless, and bears very little relationship to the reality of what you’re going through. It’s unpredictable in a way that makes you feel callow; I’ve been sad but functional after the deaths of family members, then horribly depressed while walking home on a random Wednesday.

The random-Wednesday bit is one of its most insidious parts. And it also makes it tricky to calibrate your response. Is this afternoon funk just an afternoon funk? Is there something secretly bothering me? Or am I once again spiraling into a totally irrational and unprovoked cycle of hate and emptiness that will last for months? Only time will tell! 

Any sort of conclusion here feels pat and forced, so I’ll just say that I’m glad people are sharing about and discussing this right now—and in ways more nuanced than “depression is bad, get help!” Thanks, Tabin. Thanks, Weigel. Thanks everyone who is sharing stories (I’d be amiss not to mention these very good takes from Helen Rosner, Molly Pohlig, Chris Gethard, and Jim Norton). Oh, and thanks GlaxoSmithKline! Wellbutrin is my spirit animal…