The news of comedian Robin Williams passing and the flurry of pithy memes about depression and anxiety on Facebook have inspired me to share a personal perspective with you. I share from the perspective of someone who at the age of 21 was almost diagnosed with manic depression (now termed bi-polar disorder).
To explain why “almost”, I was fortunate enough to be referred to an excellent GP who was also trained as a naturopath/dietician. When presented with my symptoms and story, she explained that had I gone to a conventional doctor I would have been labelled as manic depressive and put on long-term medication. She however saw the opportunity to support me first through her naturopathic and dietary expertise and asked for my total commitment for a minimum of 3 months to work her way. I had been plagued with bouts of inexplicable “black cloud” days, every 4-6 weeks, ever since my mid-teens. I had managed these moods simply through conventional methods of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), psychology sessions and well- intentioned love and support from friends and family. Whenever I reached out grasping straws to gain an understanding of why I was feeling so wretched, it had seemed the only way. So when she asked for 3 months of commitment, I really had to dig deep to find the reserve to truly give her approach all I had. Suffice to say, it was an approach that started me on a thankfully non-mainstream approach to taking responsibility for what was occurring in my life rather than a diagnosis which disempowered me and made me believe that I was at the mercy of life and victim of bad luck or bad genes, rather than my own head with its thoughts and emotions.
With this weeks news, I just can’t see the long-term value in simply “managing” depression and I was reflecting on my own past experience of depression and anxiety and realised that if the best I could do in my life was to “manage” it , I really would rather not be here at all. It’s like I would be living my life as if there was a wolf by my door and that just isn’t a way to live for me. It would take up my space and be constantly draining of my energy which in turn would add to the cycle of heaviness and depression. I don’t believe the current way of looking at depression actually supports people to move through what is happening but rather labels them as damaged and broken people. Even worse, in more recent years with the advent of Prozac and other similar drugs, normalizing it in a way by handing out anti-depressant pharmaceuticals as soon as anyone displays any sadness or imbalance of emotions at all. It’s as if we are all supposed to go around feeling happy! happy! joy! joy! all the time regardless of what is occurring in our lives and independent of the often self-sabotaging and unconscious choices we are making.
I don’t deny that some people appear to have more challenge around their emotions than others and that it isn’t an arduous and seemingly impossible task to build up your own emotional resilience (something that seems almost to be being bred out of our western society). By emotional resilience i mean a person’s ability to know and feel grounded and safe within, regardless of the thinking and emotions and external circumstances surrounding them. Instead it seems we are breeding a generation for whom pain isn’t a natural part of living – I’m often reminded of the fabulous futuristic animated movie, Wall-E where humans, after exhausting the earth and it’s resources, live in a space station where they have machines waiting on them hand and foot and don’t even get out of their chairs and are unhealthy and over-weight and being told what they should think and feel by media… sounds scarily familiar doesn’t it?!
This continual cycle of making the external things easier on the emerging generations seems to give a more and more divided response. The ones who relinquish their responsibility and therefore weaken their emotional and physical resilience and the ones who choose to stop avoiding the challenging and painful situations inherent to being human and use them as opportunity to dig deeper to their innate power and resilience within.
The latter approach is why I was drawn to do and love what I do today. If I hadn’t experienced the extraordinarily challenging emotions and head-games in my earlier life, I truly believe that I wouldn’t have found who I truly am and be doing what I love, certainly with as much awareness and depth as I have now. I couldn’t be authentic in my support of people moving through the challenges of their own limited judgments, sad,angry, ‘not good enough’ thoughts and emotions that flood their body if I hadn’t been through that challenge myself and carved a pathway through to the other side.
Strange logic as this may seem, but my feeling is that Robin Williams, like so many of the people we collectively hold in such high regards (Whitney Houston, Marilyn Monroe etc) and give responsibility to for making us happy and entertained, had been ‘managing’ his depressiveness for a very long time. Resulting in so many of our public figures simply self-combusting, self-sabotaging, numbing with alcohol and drugs and food and sex all to try to keep that metaphorical wolf away from the door. And my feeling is that after giving so much to the world, as testified by so many messages from his fans of how he helped them through tough times, is offering his one final gift of showing the world that managing doesn’t work. And not to be fooled by the smile on a clowns face…
“We heard a joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says his life is harsh and cruel. Say he feels all alone in a threatening world.
Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go see him. That should pick you up.
Man bursts into tears. “But doctor…..I am Pagliacci”