Posted by: riverchilde | September 4, 2014

Robin Williams, Alex, and Me: A faith perspective

Wow–has it really been a year since I posted here? I guess that’s what happens when you start another blog for your master’s thesis (or simply put all your writing energy into a master’s thesis!).

Blogging isn’t easy for me–the achiever aspect of my personality finds it to be a rather inefficient use of time–and it does take a lot of time and emotional energy to write here. But I’ve also heard from folks who have found this blog to be helpful and useful in their own struggles around depression. anxiety, suicide, death and loss. So now that I’ve recovered from writing my thesis (and graduated with my degree, thank the Lord and all my professors and advisors!), I have the energy and drive to begin again, both here and on my other blog, http://riverchildewonderings.wordpress.com/, which is an exploration of my theological lines of thought.

I came back here today because of another blog I read and wanted to share here: http://theunexpectedpastor.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/some-thoughts-about-depression-and-suicide/

As Pastor Dave notes, the electronic social and news media universes blew up after the news of Robin Williams’ self-inflicted death (if you don’t know about this, just type Robin Williams death into any search engine). Reading my Facebook news feed in the days after this was very therapeutic. Intense, but therapeutic. And affirming and comforting and rejuvenating. (By the mercy of God and my Facebook community, the ugly remarks and statements about depression and suicide only appeared via postings that spoke out against them.) The kindness, support, honest story-telling, sharing of painful truths, brave vulnerability, and helpful resources and comments were validating. Who knew there were so many Facebook pages titled Stop the Stigma? (Check them out yourself to see which one resonates with you.)

I most appreciated those who told their personal stories, who opened the doors on their dark closets so we could peek inside and begin to get some sense of what it looks and feels like to live there, who were honest about mental illness being a constant war of daily skirmishes and battles, and who reminded us that the lonely jail cell of depression is an illusion, because the world is filled with so many others rattling their cups against the bars.

I once thought of my depressive state as sitting in that lonely jail cell pouring thick mud all over my body and rubbing it into my skin to preserve my identity as foul and rotten. I thought I had dispelled of my misery when I envisioned Christ reminding me that I had been washed clean at my baptism, and telling me that the bars only stayed in place because I held them there. When I let go, they fell to the ground and set me free.

But it wasn’t until I was officially diagnosed with moderate major depression (how’s that for an interesting description of a depressive state?) that I found a more accurate image–one that released all thoughts of guilt and responsibility for my depression and anxiety. Prescription medication enabled me to see myself as a person paddling her darndest to keep her tippy canoe afloat to keep from falling into the deep, dark water, but expending all her energy on just staying upright. Medication stabilized the boat, provided outriggers to ensure that stability, so that my paddling energy could move me forward.

Which is why I so appreciated Pastor Dave’s words on this subject, particularly these:
“Another things folks said and wrote after Robin Williams died is this: ‘If he only knew how much he was loved then he wouldn’t have been depressed. He wouldn’t have killed himself.’

Now, I’m never going to preach that love isn’t important, or that God’s love – both directly from God and shared by Gods’ [sic] people – is not the greatest thing in the world. But depression makes it tough for folks to experience that love. The way I think about it is the same way a diabetic can’t process sugar without help, someone who is depressed can’t process positive things in life – including love – without help. Another analogy might be color-blindness – someone who is depressed is like someone who can only see gray, and it’s not their fault or anybody else’s fault.

Not anybody else’s fault . . . Depression is not the fault of family or friends – it’s an illness. We only make folks feel guilty when we imply ‘They should have been shown more love’ or whatever. And that’s especially the case when suicide results from depression.”

Most importantly, this:
“For a Christian to receive therapy or take anti-depressant medication is NOT a sign of a lack of faith any more than it is for a diabetic to take insulin.”

And just like diabetics usually don’t diagnose their own conditions, people who wrestle with anxiety, thoughts of unworthiness, death, darkness and demons of all shapes and sizes often cannot recognize their own conditions for what they are. You don’t have to find a counselor on your own. You don’t need to ask for medication. All you need to do is tell a professional–your doctor, your school counselor, your parish nurse, your pastor, a trusted teacher or professor, your youth director–about your troubling thoughts and behaviors. They will know how to help you proceed. (And if you are one of these people, you darn well better be prepared in advance for how to respond to such a situation.)

If you are a friend, parent, or other confidant who doesn’t know what to do when someone shares that they are having these kinds of thoughts, sit beside them as they make an appointment with one of these by phone or e-mail, go with them to the appointment (or find someone more appropriate to do so), and persistently follow up with them to ensure they get the treatment they need. Because it’s very hard to save someone from drowning when you aren’t trained as a lifeguard. But it’s often the watchers on the shore who point out the swimmer in trouble.

We need to learn to listen and watch for the symptoms of depression and anxiety, not the just the signs of suicidal thoughts. By the time someone decides to take their own life, they may choose to hide their intention–and I worry that “suicide prevention” programs simply give them pointers on how best to do that. Let’s learn to recognize and address the cause, not just try to prevent one particular consequence of this deadly illness. And stop the stigma (but that’s a topic for another posting).

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