We’ve been talking a lot about suicide and depression since Robin Williams’ death. Writer Frank Hagen has been thinking about it since he was six.
In the wake of Robin William’s highly publicized suicide, there has been a lot of discussion in both the commercial media and social media about depression and suicide. When these kinds of events occur, I’m always struck by the lack of insight into depression and mental illness that’s prevalent in our culture. Otherwise well-intentioned people say and do things based on faulty assumptions and misconceptions about depressed individuals.
There is still tremendous stigma attached to mental illness, generating shame and anger that generally stifles the sort of proactive dialogue that could potentially help bring clarity to much of this misunderstanding. As someone who has had to deal with my own biological depression as well as that of family members and close friends, I have a strong desire to reverse this situation by speaking out.
I am a writer from South Jersey who makes a living as an a consultant in the IT industry. As a systems engineer, I have provided support to clients in various fields, including financial, retail and government. I have a degree in philosophy; I focused on Chinese and Buddhist disciplines. I also have bipolar II disorder, and experience long periods of extreme depression and anxiety.
This has been the case since I was a young child. I would say that by the time I was six years old, I was feeling overwhelming emotions. I was aware of death as something that was coming, that could not be stopped. The anxiety that comes with the fear of annihilation is with me at all times.
Depression has disrupted my ability to have a “normal” life with “normal” relationships from kindergarten through until today. It is a factor that complicates everything. Dealing with typical stress is difficult, and dealing with unusual levels of stress is sometimes nearly impossible. When unavoidable events occur in life that, for someone without depression, would likely cause situational depression, it becomes very dangerous for me.
Growing into an adult with a mental illness has required me to develop specific skills to be functional, mostly through the process of trial and error. It has been difficult to create stability for myself.
The first time I went to college, I wound up in the third semester no longer attending classes and walking the streets to mitigate the pain that kept me from being able to sit still. I walked easily over 20 miles a day, and I slept only when I was too exhausted to torment myself any further. My father was dying, which was terrible—but many people have loved ones die without their own lives crumbling.
This happened to me again when I went to graduate school for the first time. I was attending school in Hawai’i, where I could ride my bicycle to Waikiki every day. The landscape and climate were obviously beautiful. I had a job as an assistant to a faculty member which waived my tuition and payed me a salary. Even in this idyllic situation of being paid to live in paradise, I wound up not going to classes, staying up all night, and sleeping all day. I tried everything I knew, which by this time involved anti-depressant medications and meditation, but I could not get myself to focus on the work required. I wound up dropping out and going home to New Jersey.
I’ve missed innumerable opportunites in my various careers, artistic successes, and relationships. I had to leave an admirable job working overseas making a good salary because I was overwhelmed by panic attacks and a horrible dysphoric sense of the world that was beyond hopeless. During the time I spent with the client, my work was great, and no one noticed, but I simply could not take the pain—and so made a career-devastating decision to come home. (Because it was a government contract, I could not be shuffled somewhere else in the job, and I could not continue to be on the project.)
Despite several decades of therapy, despite personal effort to develop tools to deal with depression and anxiety, and despite being on very strong medication, I have consistently found myself in the same struggle.
I lost my marriage as a result of this illness. Yes, she knew who I was and what I suffered from before agreeing to marry me, and yes, we had different concepts of what it means to be successful. Do I now think I am better off having been divorced from her? Sure. But the reality is, if I wasn’t completely derailed by depression and overwhelmed by anxiety, our differences would have been less likely to become issues. And it was devastating and shameful for me to have my marriage fail.
It’s too easy to say that the loss of our marriage was merely due to differences in perspectives and to ignore the reality that living with me—dealing with heavy emotions on a daily basis, despite whatever other qualities I have—was a cumulative burden that materialized in ways that my ex-wife did not expect and could not cope with. I was a caring husband who adored my wife, but given the circumstances, it was obviously not enough.
Ultimately, my personality has been muted by this disease. Because I am constantly in my own way, I have been unable to present to the world my true voice and the talents I value the most, which lie in writing poetry and novels and in making music. People who know me will say that I am a very funny person who makes them laugh, which is great—but I have more to offer than humor, as much as I love to laugh. Most of the projects I plan never make it beyond the preliminary stage, existing as fragments that remind me of my aspirations and failures.
This is the disease I deal with, and it would be naive to say that it does not contribute to who I am as a person. But depression is not the totality of who I am. Like with any other disease, I do what is necessary to deal with it, but I am an otherwise capable adult with normal goals and responsibilities. Suffering from an ailment is not the same as being destroyed by it. Not everything is a tragedy, and I want to live my life. Personally, I have never been a stronger or more focused person than I am today; I’m optimistic for the future, while conscious that setbacks can occur.
In the mass grief following Robin Williams’ death, one of the things people have asked a lot is: “How can someone so funny be sad enough to kill themselves?” In this regard, I think people are suffering from a kind of adaptive ignorance, in which their observational skills only report to their brain what they want to see. For my part, the great magic of Robin Williams’s comedy, as well as his dramatic roles, was that his pain was tangible in every performance. It was always there, for everyone to see. The transformation or channeling of this pain is what made him sublime.
Am I projecting this onto Mr. Williams, given my own background? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Even his beloved character Mork was more than a clown from outer space. Mork wrestled with the isolation of being from outside of this planet and trying to fit in—to translate those aspects of culture and thinking which are not in common with average human beings. In my marriage, and many other relationships, I, too, may as well have been from outer space and laid a giant egg with Jonathan Winters inside.
The sense of isolation for me under the influence of depression is very powerful. There are few things harder to communicate to people than the phenomenon of feeling completely alone at parties where people are having fun, or when surrounded by people who love me.
The hardest thing to explain is when a tremendous amount of love comes my way and, instead of lifting me up and away like a wave, the way you might expect, it simply dissipates, and not a drop of that love has an impact on the way I feel.
When I am feeling this kind of isolation, people rarely seem to notice. It is an experience in my mind alone while I otherwise seem involved and enthusiastic. It is a disconnection from the events playing around me, and it it is an example of how someone can be so funny, or appear productive, and still be deeply depressed.