Yesterday around 5 p.m. I turned on the TV. I heard Greta Van Susteren say, “Breaking . . . we are just now learning that actor Robin Williams is dead at the age of 63.”
It surprised me, but then again, it didn’t. As a counselor, I’m used to being around people who are so depressed they could take their own life.
And I myself have struggled with depression that severe. I had survived a whole bunch of traumas in my childhood, but as an adult I didn’t realize I suffered low level depression my whole life. (Unless you have felt good, you don’t know what you’re missing.) I went to graduate school to study counseling psychology in order to help other people—I had no idea how much emotional work I needed to do! I’m glad our program pressed us to deal with our own life stories. I did the hard work for many months and I found myself in a place of grief. Later, I felt myself come alive and experienced deep joy for the first time! I finished my classes but I was not ready for school to end. I had built some close friendships and I had discovered who I was. I had fallen in love with life.
I won’t go into the details—I wrote about it in my book—but when school was over, I was still in a painful spot. I kept trying to tell my husband how bad it felt but he was traveling for work, supporting a family, and just didn’t understand. One day I looked at my friend Charlotte and said, “Charlotte, I can’t figure out how to stay alive. I have this amazing family, and a great life, but…” She encouraged me to call my doctor. My doctor’s office got me in that afternoon and I began taking medication. Within a few weeks I felt normal. Not drugged or overly happy, just normal. These days I feel so good I can’t remember how bad it felt. All I know is I’m glad I didn’t pick a permanent solution for a temporary problem.
I don’t remember too much about that time except how bad it hurt. It’s like your brain has the flu. I heard Larry King discussing newscaster Mike Wallace’s depression and he said something like this: “You could encounter the worst tragedy or win the lottery. When you’re depressed, they both feel the same.” I remember waking at 3 a.m. routinely every night, sad and crying. One evening I was at my friend Karen’s house for a BBQ. I remember the quizical look on her face as I tried to tell her I had just started taking medication for depression. There was no judgment in her eyes, but I felt like Mork trying to get a message to Ork. I remember the guilt and shame.
Here are some depression’s symptoms from WebMD:
- Sadness or depressed mood most of the day or almost every day
- Loss of enjoyment in things that were once pleasurable
- Major change in weight (gain or loss of more than 5% of weight within a month) or appetite
- Insomnia or excessive sleep almost every day
- Physical restlessness or sense of being rundown that is noticeable by others
- Fatigue or loss of energy almost every day
- Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness or excessive guilt almost every day
- Problems with concentration or making decisions almost every day
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide, suicide plan, or suicide attempt
You should read this post to understand what depression feels like for others.
The saddest thing of all is that Robin Williams didn’t have to die. There is so much effective treatment for depression that nearly everyone who has it can get better. The recommended treatment for depression is this:
1. Psychotherapy (counseling) from a licensed practitioner – Someone you trust can help you unravel your story and learn where the pain comes from.
2. Medication – Doctors don’t know which medication will help you because they can’t open your head and look inside to see which neurotransmitters are out of whack, but they do know medication helps. They will choose one antidepressant (the official name is SSRI) and see how it impacts you. Most patients have relief by the time they’ve tried their second medication.
3. Both – If you’re depressed, you might need counseling and medication. If your depression is bipolar (includes episdoes of mania), then medication will likely be the first choice.
From the early news reports, it sounds like Robin Williams waited too long, and left treatment too early, before his depression was under control.
If you are depressed, tell someone. You don’t have to know which treatment to choose, which doctor to see, etc., but unless you tell someone, nobody can help you.
*I am not offering individual advice in this colunm. If you are depressed, see a doctor and/or a counselor immediately.
A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
Lucille Zimmerman is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO and an affiliate faculty teacher at Colorado Christian University.
She is also the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. Through practical ideas and relatable anecdotes, readers can better understand their strengths and their passions—and address some of the underlying struggles or hurts that make them want to keep busy or minister to others to the detriment of themselves. Renewed can help nurture those areas of women’s lives to use them better for work, family, and service. It gives readers permission to examine where they spend their energy and time, and learn to set limits and listen to “that inner voice."