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Tears of a Clown

It’s so hard here. It’s like Old Yeller meets The Hunger Games; plus the parking is terrible. 

- Anne Lamott

Sometimes I find the thought of writing a new column unappetizing. The sight of my computer makes me tired. When I finally buckle down, I often find my last couple of columns heavy, and realize I’ve gotten into a rut of dispiriting topics, and need to lighten up.

Other times, the awareness comes less subtly, like when a couple of friends get in touch with me to say, “Your last couple of columns sound really down. Are you okay?”

I appreciate the concern, and as it happens, I’m fine. Frustrated with certain things, and in tune with Anne Lamott’s assessment of the world up at the top of this column. (Well, I’d replace Old Yeller with Waiting for Godot, but I’m with her on the The Hunger Games.) But frustration isn’t depression. It’s important to notice the difference. Depression (at least for me) is more like a lack of feeling. There is sadness, of course, and lots of it. Even more, though, there is weariness and fatigue, and a feeling that nothing will ever improve. This summer, I know things would improve if certain people would just get off their butts and do what I want. See? Different.

Shorthand for me: if I’m writing, I’m probably fine. I use the blogs to vent about what’s bothering me, which helps me to let it go. As a nice side effect, readers sometimes sympathize with my rants, and are helped in knowing that they aren’t the only ones feeling irritated or angry just then.

This summer has brought more than its fair share of things to scream and bang my head against the wall about, but it’s also ushered in some great joys. The key to succeeding at this carbonated jungle we call life lies in realizing that the two usually go together, and you have to cherish the good stuff even while you machete your way through the latest sticky tangle of vines impeding your path.

While my friends have brought up the topic of depression, however, let’s talk about it for a minute. It’s important. (Next week, funniest discussions I’ve had with my cat. Promise.) Even if you don’t have it, even if you’ve never had a down moment in your entire life, you need to know something about depression and the people who deal with it.

First thing you need to know – you never know who is dealing with it.

Earlier this month I got together with a bunch of other alumni at PCPA Theatrefest, to celebrate the place’s fifty-year anniversary – half a century of turning out actors capable of pronouncing Shakespearean sonnets correctly and bursting into song at a moment’s notice. I hesitated to go in the first place because huge crowds of people are not my thing, but finally decided a lot of my friend would be there, and I’d regret it if I didn’t go. As it turned out, I had a wonderful time, catching up on people’s lives and correcting my severe deficit of hugs and back rubs.

After I got home, as I looked at all the wonderful pictures other PCPAers had posted on Facebook, I read that one of our fellow actors, Robin Williams, had committed suicide. Suddenly all the pictures looked different.

Robin Williams at PCPA, playing Marcellus in The Music Man

Robin Williams at PCPA, playing Marcellus in The Music Man. Photo from PCPA’s archives.

Robin Williams, the clown and surprisingly good actor in films over the last thirty years, went to PCPA in the early 1970s. I’m not clear whether he was there as a student or a member of the summer acting company. For whatever purpose or length of time, however, he was there. His picture can be found in the conservatory’s 50th anniversary program. The man stood on the same stage that I did, and now he’s gone.

“Apparent suicide” was the phrase everyone kept using. When news stories use words like that, it tells me there wasn’t a lot of room for misunderstanding. Not one article said “under unexplained circumstances” or “awaiting investigation.” From the first, we got the word “suicide.” After that came the people saying, “Him? But he was so funny! How could he want to kill himself?”

For an in-depth explanation of how funny people often mask deep sadness and might in fact top the list of people likely to commit suicide, read this piece from the comic magazine Cracked. In the case of Robin Williams specifically, it surprised me that anyone had to ask. Watch clips of his stand-up gigs. The man flits back and forth from subject to subject at a velocity that makes hummingbirds tired. I remember watching him on TV interviews and thinking, “He’s really, really funny, but being in the same room with him would be exhausting.” Under the surface, something seemed to torment him, and frequently, it wasn’t buried all that deep.

When people discover I have an acting background, they love to make jokes about how all actors are crazed drama queens. While these shallow jibes bother me, I’ll concede, actors tend to have a high degree of sensitivity. It stands to reason. Theatre draws people with ready emotion the way computers draw people with autism. It’s the one place where what others consider a deficit suddenly becomes a strength. You want something methodical that will act the same way on a regular basis? Work with machines. If they do things differently than they’re supposed to, something is wrong and you can fix it. Likewise, if you want a place where it’s an asset that you can imagine yourself as a princess, go into theatre.

High sensitivity, however, comes with drawbacks. Talk to actors, and you’ll find a lot of them have struggled with severe depression. Not because of the acting. The role-playing is a natural antidepressant. Playing make-believe isn’t the road to hell, it’s a way to escape the hell that your own brain is already creating.

I didn’t get lucky enough to know Robin Williams, so I can’t judge what he went through. Neither can the folks at Fox News, who labeled his suicide “a selfish act.” As one who’s had her share of very dark days, folks, let me educate you. When you’re in your own mental desert, taking yourself out of this world doesn’t seem selfish. It feels more like the best decision for everyone. If you have an ounce of perception – and most people with depression have more than their fair share – you know that your depression is hurting others. You just can’t stop it on your own, anymore than someone with cancer can think away those mutated cells in their body. A positive attitude and treatment by good doctors can work wonders, but they aren’t always enough.

I count myself lucky. My parents got me access to good counselors, right from the beginning. Like every disease, depression is more treatable when caught early. I have seen advances in anti-depressants, changes from those first ones that made me sick if I missed one dose. I don’t know if Mr. Williams found his way to good people or good meds, or if he had both and they just weren’t enough. Depression comes in Stage 4, too, even if we don’t have skills to diagnose it that way yet.

Clinical depression is not a problem of attitude. My friend Rosemary likes to say instead of mental health, we should call it brain health. I think she’s right. There’s something wrong in how the chronically depressed person’s brain works, we just haven’t pinpointed where it is or how to fix it. A counselor once explained it to me this way: in most people, when you hit a trying emotional situation, a chemical called seratonin is released into the brain. It calms the person down and helps them figure their way through the situation. Once the crisis is over, the brain cleans up and disposes of the extra seratonin. (“Sends out the garbage truck to take it away” was how he put it.) In the case of my brain, the garbage truck comes immediately after the seratonin release, taking the chemical away just when it’s most needed, so that my brain is left to muddle through the crisis on its own. As a result, a part of it freezes up, to the point where it can’t even figure out when the crisis is over and everything is okay again.

Is this technically accurate? I’m really not sure. Prozac and its antidepressant siblings do fall under the SSRI category, or selective seratonin reuptake inhibitor, which sounds mighty close to the description. But more importantly for me, the description exactly matches what I’ve gone through at my worst. There’s almost always some inciting incident that kicks my brain into the danger zone. The weird part is, the size of the problem doesn’t seem to matter much. Sometimes bigger problems, especially the ones that affect other people, are easier for me to deal with. Long term ones that just affect me are particularly bad, I know that much.

The good news is that help is out there. Talk therapy and medication have made a huge difference for me, as they have with millions of other people. If you are suffering, or someone you know is, reach out and get help. There’s a good chance it doesn’t have to be a struggle to get out of bed in the morning, or to spend time with the people you love. A good therapist does not want to mess with your head. They want to help you listen to yourself, to hear how the things you say in your head would sound if you said them to someone else. (Spoiler alert: usually NOT GOOD.) Anti-depressants are not happy pills. You will still have your up days and down ones, just like you did before. The bad ones just won’t be as severely bad. (I haven’t noticed any dampening effects on the good days, but then, manic up times were never any part of my problem.) If they’re doing their job properly – and several different versions exist, so you may have to try a couple before you find the right kind and dosage – you will find a little more energy on the down days, so things like brushing your teeth don’t sound quite so exhausting. (They won’t make you like flossing anymore than you did before.)

With therapy and meds, I focus less on the fading sun and more on the kitty ready to snuggle.

With therapy and meds, I focus less on the lengthening shadows and more on the kitty ready to snuggle.

When it comes to depression, the biggest problem is shame. Mental health issues (sorry, Rosemary – brain health issues) still carry a huge stigma with them. Nobody wants to be labeled the crazy person. (Depression ≠ insanity. In our world of problems, depression is actually very logical; it just isn’t helpful.) Like alcoholics, people with depression often get quite skilled at faking their way through, hiding the real problem until it seems too big for help anymore, either because they’re embarrassed, or because they don’t want to bother anyone with something they think they should be able to deal with on their own.

We don’t have time for shame anymore, people. Embarrassed to be the parent of the depressed kid? Try thinking of yourself as the parent of the dead kid. Taking your child to a shrink won’t seem like such a big deal anymore. And don’t lie to yourself. Depression is a disease, and left untreated, it can be fatal. As Robin Williams showed us, unfortunately, you don’t grow out of it. You get treatment, or it follows you around like an evil shadow. This isn’t a female or male problem. More women will attempt suicide, but more men will succeed. Older Caucasian males actually have the highest suicide rate.

Clinical depression is something I wouldn’t wish on my very worst enemy, not even the ones who took pot shots at my self-esteem in elementary school or colored on the back of my sweatshirt in junior high. There is nothing quite so horrifying as having your own brain working against you. But lucky us, we live in a time when we have a name for this disease and some options for treatment. I don’t think of myself as cured. More like on permanent maintenance. But I don’t stand on the edge of the abyss anymore, using all my energy to keep from falling in, and you and your loved ones shouldn’t have to either.

Kimberly will talk about happy things next week, she swears. Funny Zoe anecdotes, pretty flower pictures, yummy things to do with peanut butter…good times ahead. Honest.

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