Saturday, June 9, 2018

Depression is not the "common cold" of mental illness...

This week, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two much beloved, highly successful, incredibly talented people, suddenly decided to end their lives.  The news of both suicides came as a total shock to me.  I was especially blown away when I heard about Bourdain.


This was Bourdain's show about Armenia that aired just a few weeks ago.  It made me one of his many admirers.

There's a trite saying that depression is the "common cold" of mental illness.  I usually cringe when I hear that, though, because most people don't die of the common cold, which can cause temporary misery, but usually goes away without any lingering effects.  Depression can be serious enough to cause death.  When depression is a factor, I don't think of suicide as someone selfishly taking their own lives.  I think of it as a terminal event, much like people who have cancer or diabetes have terminal events that kill them.  What's more, depression can go on for many years unabated.  It doesn't necessarily clear up in a week or two like a cold does.

At this point, I don't know why Anthony Bourdain committed suicide.  Kate Spade's husband has publicly come out to say that his wife had struggled with depression for many years.  Maybe Anthony Bourdain was also depressed.  I hesitate to assume I know why Bourdain decided to end his life.  The truth is, at this point, I really don't know.  Most likely, he also suffered from the so-called "common cold" of mental illness.  Except depression is not really like the common cold at all.  

When Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, many people were angry and outraged.  Initially, it was said that he'd had terrible depression, and he most assuredly did.  Many people felt he was simply weak and gutless for taking his life.  Then, some weeks later, it came out that Williams had been diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia.  A lot of people don't know anything about Lewy Body Dementia.  It's not one of those diseases that gets a prominent face in the media.

My father had Lewy Body Dementia with Parkinsonian features.  I watched it take him from being an independent man with a sharp mind and a strong body, to a frail shadow of himself.  My dad was in his 70s when he was diagnosed with it.  It was devastating for him and for my mom, who spent at least six years taking care of him.  In the weeks before his death in July 2014, he was getting so debilitated that my mom was considering putting him in a nursing home.  It was becoming too hard for her to take care of him, even with the home health aides she had helping her.

Robin Williams was 63 when he died and, according to his wife, his case of LBD was very severe.  Although Williams died by his own hand, it was really the LBD, co-morbid with depression, that killed him.  Perhaps Bourdain was also facing a health situation that led him to kill himself.  Or maybe not.  Maybe he was just very depressed and simply decided that living was too painful.  I don't know.  I actually couldn't blame him in any event.  I have no idea what he was dealing with in his personal life and could never fully understand it even if I did.

I read that Bourdain died in Kaysersberg, France.  Bill and I were in Alsace two weeks ago and had made tentative plans to visit that town while we were there.  We didn't end up going, but resolved to visit on a later trip to France.  It's strange to think that this man, whose innovative food and travel journalism I only recently discovered, was just a mere two hours away from me when he died.  The area where Bourdain exited this existence is absolutely beautiful.  Given that he had very French roots, it almost seems fitting that he chose to die in France, even if I'm sorry it happened the way it did.

I only recently-- like within the past three weeks-- started watching Bourdain's show, Parts Unknown.  I started watching it because he had visited Armenia and I was curious about what he thought of it.  I was so impressed by the show he did on a country where I spent two years of my life.  If I'm honest, my years in Armenia were pretty difficult.  In fact, my own issues with depression worsened significantly when I was there.  However, twenty-one years beyond my time in Armenia has left me with mostly good memories.  I don't think as much about the profound feelings of worthlessness I experienced there... and so many years hence, I realize that my time there was not at all wasted.  It only seemed that way at the time, partly due to my life inexperience and partly due to the distorted thinking that comes from being depressed.

One thing I've noticed all week is that some people are sharing their own stories about depression.  Other people are imploring their friends and loved ones to "reach out" if they feel suicidal.  Many people are also sharing the suicide hotline.  I'm going to be frank and say that the repeated posts about the suicide hotline kind of get on my nerves.  It's not because I don't think people should know about and use the hotline.  It's more because simply sharing that phone number is about as effective as offering "thoughts and prayers".  Besides, not everyone who is depressed actually realizes they are depressed.  I didn't know I was depressed until it had been going on for years.

Clinical depression causes a host of symptoms that make "reaching out" extremely difficult.  Depression robs people of their self-esteem and energy.  You might encourage your withdrawn friends to "reach out" and remind them that you're always there to listen.  But in the mind of a depressed person, you're not really talking to them.  Even if you were specifically talking to them, reaching out takes energy and courage.  And sometimes people say they want their friends to reach out, but then they aren't actually available or interested.

Sometimes, instead of really listening and empathizing, well-meaning people try to cheer up their depressed friend by telling them about all the "good" things they have.  Folks, let me just say that telling someone who is depressed to "buck up" and "get over it" is pretty much the worst thing you can do.  It's very likely to backfire.  Someone who musters the courage to reach out, especially to someone who has encouraged them to do so, does NOT need to hear about all the apparently awesome things they have to live for.

Please don't tell your depressed friend that they are being selfish, overly dramatic, or self-centered, either.  Shaming doesn't help.  It only makes things worse.

What depressed people really need is someone who listens to what they have to say and assists them in finding their way to a person who is qualified to help them.  Listen to your friend without interrupting.  When they tell you what's on their mind, say something that validates their feelings and indicates that you understand that they need help.  You could say something like, "It sounds like you're very overwhelmed right now."  If you can't help them yourself, you could say,  "Let's find someone who can help you with these problems."  That's certainly better than, "I can't believe you're depressed.  Look at all this cool shit you have!  I'd kill to live in your house with your hot wife (or husband, as the case might be)."

On the surface, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had everything to live for.  They were both very successful in their careers.  Both were parents of young daughters.  Both had achieved financial success and had friends who adored them.  They were adored by strangers, too.  Still, somehow they both still made the decision to commit suicide.  They aren't alone.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is on the rise in the United States.  Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain no doubt had access to medical help that too many people in the United States don't have, yet they still died by suicide.  Common colds don't usually end that way, at least not in people who are basically healthy.    

I may have to watch more of Bourdain's shows.  I'll have to read at least one of his books.  He left behind so many gifts.  I can't say that even though he died by his own hand, he wasn't a very generous person to share his talents with the world.  While I don't own any of Kate Spade's quirky creations, I've seen a lot of pictures of handbags my friends own.  They've been sharing those pictures all week, letting everyone know that Kate Spade mattered to them.  Sadly, when you have depression, you don't notice that you matter to others... and when they tell you that you do matter, you don't necessarily believe what they say.  Depression is a major mind fuck.  It's really nothing like a cold.  And getting over it takes time, effort, money, and the ability to give a damn.

4 comments:

  1. Depression should not be underestimated by any means, and it's hard for someone who has never experienced it to understand. I went through a depression that slowly crept up on me several years ago, and it felt like I was trapped in an unescapable despair that I just wanted to end. I'm thankful for my parents and doctors who were there to support me to successfully get me out.

    I realize now that many people out there aren't so fortunate, and I just can't imagine how one can get out of depression on your own. So if someone is stuck in a rut, I won't hesitate to be there and help out.

    Thanks for sharing this post, @knotty, and I'm terribly sorry that you and your family had to suffer from depression and LBD. They are most definitely NOT like a common cold.

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    1. Thanks for the comment and for reading. I’m grateful I got through my depression and I’m happy that you got through yours. I think a lot of people just don’t understand it unless they’ve experienced it. The thing that made me realize that depression is a real illness was the process of feeling better and the rational thinking and mental clarity I finally had. It was like someone turned on a light.

      I still have my blue days, but nothing so far like what I experienced twenty years ago. I hope I never feel like that again.

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  2. It's interesting that you mentioned the "common cold of mental illness" analogy. A psychiatrist lecturer I heard in my second year disputed that analogy, saying that if a physical illness metaphor were needed or in any way beneficial, that depression would more correctly be described as "the 'lupus' of mental illness." As with lupus, some people with depression mostly manage to function with medication. Others are never well but aren't quite terminal. Others with either lupus or depression will lose their lives to the conditions. Depression is far from being a mostly self-limiting condition.

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    1. Very true. One writer also called it the diabetes of mental illness.

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