Treading Darkest Waters: on death, depression and other happy things

dark waterI met her in my fourth year of teaching.  A gifted young actress, musician songwriter, artist.  Able to communicate emotion through her talents with the kind of sincerity, depth and honesty that you cannot learn.

She was loved.  Oh dear me was she loved.  By friends and family.  Loved like crazy.

Later, I had to explain to some people who loved her—to my own students—that their beloved friend was in hospital because she had tried to take her own life.

She has been on my mind and in my heart recently.  Like Robin Williams, she was an artist.  Like Robin Williams, she suffered from mental illness (bipolar).  Few people knew it.  Fewer people saw it.  I know she tried more than once to take her own life. I am guessing Robin William’s final suicide attempt was not his first either.

I’ve been thinking too about my former teacher David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in almost the same way as Williams.  Struggles with depression, struggles with substances but ultimately the struggle was in themselves.  And their struggles were widely misunderstood.

I remember breaking the news of my student’s hospitalisation to a classroom of young people who knew her well.  After the shock wore off, they had questions.  The answers were difficult.

‘What happened to her?’ one asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well something really awful must have happened to push her to this.’

‘Nothing awful happened to her really.’

‘Why’d she do it then?’

I had to think about that.

‘She was sick.’

‘When did she get sick?’

‘Always.  Maybe.  A long time.’

My answer was pretty lame and I was losing my audience.  But how do you explain to someone who’s never been at the bottom of a well?  If you’ve never felt yourself drowning in darkness how can you empathise with someone who constantly treads black water?

‘It’s like having a broken leg,’ I said.  ‘If someone breaks their leg, you notice.  They limp.  Maybe they have crutches.  Or someone has a missing arm or finger.  You can see it.  And you know that person will have to do things differently.  Make allowances for their missing limb or digit.’

‘She had a missing arm, only no one could see it.  Every day she had to make allowances for that and worked three times harder than anyone else to go about her daily business.  Just not in a way anyone could see.’

And that’s the thing about mental illness.  It’s hard to see.  Because we can’t see it we struggle to understand.

Reading various on-line posts and messages about Robin Williams’ death, many are sympathetic, heartbroken.  Some use it as an opportunity to draw attention to the issue of mental illness and the quiet tragedy of depression which so many suffer from every day.  And there is confusion.  He had everything.  He was so loved.  He was so talented.  What a waste.  Some expressed anger that he would selfishly take himself out of the world that needed him.

But if you have depression, you cannot see any of that.  All you can see is the darkness around you and no way out.  Like the bottom of a well.  Your head can’t escape from the well.  Your body certainly won’t co-operate because all it wants to lie back, float, let the dark water lift your burden.

People with depression live like this–always treading darkest water.  Medication can lessen the symptoms.  Therapy can alleviate the helpless loneliness.  And sometimes it gets better.  Good days.  Better months.  But it’s not something you can snap out of.  It’s not simply a matter of shaking off the blues.  Depression is illness.  You treat it.  You cope with it.  But you can’t shake it any more than you can tell your sinuses to stop running because a cold is not convenient just now.  You can’t will a severed limb to be whole again.  You can only learn strategies for coping without it.

I have experienced depression in small doses on two occasions in my life: after the births of each of my children.  I struggled to bond with my daughters.  I felt useless.  There were many times I convinced myself both children would be better off if I gave them to someone else to raise.  I even had a plan for this that seemed totally reasonable at the time.  Breast feeding was particularly awful.  This reached a high point—or rather a low point—when I took a pair of scissors to my favourite t-shirt and shredded it just over my breasts.  At least it was my shirt and not my skin.

If I spoke to anyone about my feelings, people would almost always say the same thing: “your babies are beautiful, healthy and they are going to be fine.”  My babies were never a question.  I always knew they were fine and would be fine.  I was the mess.  I felt like I was slowly dying.

I vividly remember when I finally felt like a mother.  Or felt the way I thought a mother should feel.  My first born daughter was seventeen months old and we were on holiday together in New York City.  That was the first time I had fun with her.  It was just as bad with the second one, though I recovered faster.  I still have moments, rare though they are, when I make plans.  Plans that seem totally reasonable for about an hour.  I can’t image how it would feel to live in that dark place full time.

Some of my favourite authors have written about depression.  Matt Haig is one of the most honest.  Stephen Fry the most vulnerable.  David Foster Wallace the most eloquent in his own way.  Robin Williams spoke openly about his struggles.

She wrote about it too.  And I have written about her.  She was my primary inspiration for the character of Rowan in A Circle of Lost Sisters.  She is still here.  Everyday managing to tread darkest waters.