Finding the Face of Depression in a Mirror

Then came the Robin Williams news, and a profound sadness as I pictured him in his final moments, believing that the darkness of the world was too much to bear. He gave me hours of happiness for so many years. The least I could do to repay him is to not let his tragic death be in vain.
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silhouette of teenager standing ...
silhouette of teenager standing ...

I was not going to do this. Ever. I've written about a lot of things over the years that, in hindsight, I probably shouldn't have. Freely offering up how many years... yes, years... it's been since I'd had sex, for instance. And I still cringe thinking about the number of times I've openly discussed bad dates without asking the women if they minded me writing about them.

I justified the sharing of these and many other personal, painful tales by believing people might relate to them. We could all have a big, cathartic laugh/cry together. However, at least to some degree, talking about myself was a way of purging the negativity in my life without ever actually dealing with it.

Then I heard that Robin Williams died. I had no personal connection to him, other than enjoying much of his work over the years. I'd interviewed him a couple times, and while 10 minutes at a movie junket isn't quite enough time to get a glimpse of someone's soul, he did strike me as a very thoughtful man who was skilled at purging elements of his life in public while keeping his real struggles very private.

All the media reports have said (with an alarming degree of authority for people with no actual knowledge) that Williams' battles with depression led to his apparent suicide. Which has in turn led to roughly 19,983 solemn news anchor pronouncements, celebrity reminiscences and Facebook postings, all expressing not only sincere sadness over Williams' death but also over the circumstances. Depression, everyone is saying, is a silent killer that we all really need to take another look at.

Don't get me wrong. I'm certain that everyone is sincere about finally treating depression as an illness and not as if it's that quiet, sad-looking guy hovering by the food table at parties with whom you share a strained 90 seconds of conversation before moving on to the happy people. Still, I have to wonder, how long will all this generous sentiment really last?

I wonder this for a very selfish reason, and one that I had no interest in sharing until Williams' death. Here's the thing (and in the interest of full disclosure, I have now gotten up seven times as I contemplate this sentence, leaving the room for such distractions as petting the dog, getting water, watching some "SportsCenter" and checking for mail). Williams passed away exactly two weeks to the day after I was diagnosed with chronic depression and prescribed an anti-depressant to deal with the problem.

There. I said it. I realize I'm certainly not the first person even this afternoon to go public with his bouts with this illness. However, as those who deal with depression every day know full well, part of our problem is the shame in having the problem. My depression helped earn me a divorce. It's ensured that my son gripes that I'm a downer. It means I spend many weekend nights alone on my couch, watching movies where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks get over things that make them sad and find love, because I'm so deathly afraid connecting with others would reveal my inner Eeyore.

Despite all this, depression convinces you that you can keep faking your way through life. You never realize that makes as much sense as a zombie taking a Zumba class and figuring nobody will notice. I had become a master at wearing my "normal" mask, until I started seeing yet another woman I quickly fell for. I'd been down this road a dozen times before, with nothing ever going past a third date. Yet this time, I made it all the way to date six... when she told me that I was a great guy but I didn't enjoy me. And no woman is going to go out with someone like that.

Handing rejection like this to a depressive person is like handing a matchbook to an arsonist. It fuels our self-criticism, torching what's left of our self-esteem. Depression hit me harder than it had in years. I didn't shower for a week. I eventually got out of bed, but it was hard to tell judging by the way I acted. I talked to even fewer people than I usually do.

But this bout was different. It was the first time anybody had actually explained my failings to me -- at least anyone I hadn't paid $175 an hour to -- and I knew she was right. I saw the therapist, who sent me to the psychiatrist, who prescribed the anti-depressants. Which I still hesitated to take, not just because of side effects like weight gain, diarrhea and loss of sexual desire (when you've had sex once since the invention of the iPhone, this one admittedly seems pretty irrelevant).

I couldn't get that prescription filled because, for all the bold talk now about understanding and caring for the depressed, let's face it. Culturally, this illness is still not accepted or understood. If you're seeing someone and that person says he/she is on anti-depressants, you're going to at least briefly see him/her as damaged goods or, at the very least, not the best bet for a long-term relationship.

I spent hours over the course of three days just staring at the prescription on my kitchen counter. What got me to finally get and swallow my first pill? If I didn't see depression as a real illness that required real treatment, how could I ever expect anyone else to? I am now two weeks in, and truth be told, nothing has really changed. It takes the drugs a while to kick in, I'm told, and I'm willing to be patient. What I wasn't willing to do, however, was let anyone know what I was doing.

Then came the Robin Williams news, and a profound sadness as I pictured him in his final moments, believing that the darkness of the world was too much to bear. He gave me hours of happiness for so many years. The least I could do to repay him is to not let his tragic death be in vain. Like every third Facebook posting right now, I want to take depression seriously. It's hard to do that without putting a face, or millions of faces actually, to the illness. I'm still not sure this is a good idea, I admit, but here I am, getting things started. Here's my face. Here's my story. And here's hoping going admitting all this will be at least slightly less damaging to my reputation than that whole thing before about iPhones and my sex life.

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