Monday, 1 September 2014

How Robin Williams Helped Me Come Out of the Depression Closet

The unexpected death of Robin Williams got me thinking – once again – just how tragic depression really is. 

It's frustrating that it takes a celebrity suicide to open our eyes and get us talking.
It fills the heads of its victims with crippling despair, distorted thoughts of self-hate, even the most intelligent, seemingly (outwardly) fulfilled sufferers can’t ignore. Oftentimes it targets our society’s most sensible, talented, passionate creators and producers of society. And worst of all, it's a tragically invisible disability many sufferers can't talk about.

In the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram generation of faux happiness, we’re conditioned en mass not to talk about our bad days, because heaven forbid we be the party buzz-kill.

Well that’s too bad, because it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

Yes, if you haven’t guessed it already, I very much suffer from bouts of depression likely fueled by bad genetics and a shitty childhood and a few poor life choices. And I want to get this off my chest if I’m going to understand and hopefully beat it. 

Psychiatrists still don't fully understand the causes of depression, so here's my two cents. 
First off, a tiny confession. I almost published a version of this blog post about a year ago, after the tragic overdose of Glee star Cory Monteith. Ostensibly this talent had the life: as the star of a popular show with a loving girlfriend and a hopeful future. But that’s the picture that’s always painted – especially when you have agents, managers and publicists operating the paintbrush.

But then of course I got cold feet. I can’t remember why. I probably got chicken-shit after my mood took an upswing. I certainly didn’t want to shatter the illusion people may have that I’m totally fun and confident, that I’m actually somewhere on the spectrum, bordering on the edge. Eek. Don’t invite that Negative Nancy to the party.

A year later the news of Robin Williams’ death arrived around the same time I’d sunk to an oppressive low of self-defeating thoughts. Then I watched a Ted Talk about the Power of Vulnerability by author and leading social worker Brené Brown. I slurped up her Kool-aid it finally dawned on me. If I truly wanted to beat this, I’d need to open up and be damn honest about even this kind deep, dark shit if I wanted to see positive change.

Brené Brown's Power of Vulnerability in a Coles Notes Nutshell
Maybe you’re thinking: Wow, how more self-centred and self-indulgent can a narcissist get? A celebrity figurehead dies tragically and somehow he once again finds a way to relate it back to himself? Here's the thing, I routinely struggle with seemingly irrational bouts of negative thinking, and I very much work in the TV / film wheelhouse, a bumpy road of feast or famine where uncertain circumstances only trigger or exacerbate the symptoms. Maybe it’s just my hyperbolic nature, but their deaths struck a major chord.

I knew something might be up when I finally started to get my act together – and I’d still manage to spiral into crushing pits of despair. Survival of the Fabulous gets green-lit but that must be a fluke. I got into the CFC Writing Program, the third time applying, I’d still manage to convince myself that I must be a fraud, they’ll figure it out soon enough. Even when I ostensibly attained my personal Holy Grail – an attractive, wholehearted guy who actually liked me back – I’d still have thoughts that it’s an illusion, he doesn’t really like me, I’m still unlovable – and surprise, surprise, cue the downward spiral into Depression Alley. 

Recently an investigation of my family tree for my documentary revealed an alarming, interesting find. Multiple cases of depression and more horrifyingly suicide. My uncle jumped from a high rise about a decade ago. Two great aunts killed themselves via rat poison and shotgun. Apparently another lumberjack actually felled a tree so it would intentionally crush him (okay that one might be an urban legend).

All those black and white portraits are untimely deaths. 
It just so happens depression, alcoholism and drug addiction have reared their ugly heads all over both sides of my immediate family, so it’s certainly hereditary to some degree, so are my demons naturally going to grow up into all-consuming, suicidal Devils?

I sometimes wonder if contemplating the contemplation of suicide even counts. It’s true I probably am too much a drama queen to go out in a quiet fashion. I mean at the very least I’d want to recreate a kill sequence from my favorite Final Destination and make a trashy posthumous reality show out of it.

I used to think I’d dodged the addiction bullet. I’d never smoked a cigarette in my life. I didn’t start drinking until well into university and I’ve never used it to dull the pain. Maybe my family of felons and addicts acted as reverse role models – and saved me from a predestined path of self-destruction.

But let’s call a spade a spade. I may not be addicted to booze or blow, but I certainly do have an addiction for validation, which I’ve chronicled extensively on this blog – and will recap more in part two of this uber-fun depression series, where I try to get to the bottom of why people like us suffer from depression.  

Some addicts "choose" booze or blow. I prefer the Boys, Body Dysmorphia and Validation cocktail 

For the longest period of denial I tried to convince myself that I was in no way like the aforementioned Tortured Artists of the world. I don’t go on partying binge-fests that result in blackouts and shaving my head.

Some of my friends and family even know I have oscillating super-highs and depressive lows. But they think there’s no cause for concern because I’m really just an attention-seeking Drama Queen, too shallow to raise alarm bells. I’d even convinced myself and got really good at concealing my brooding darker side. If you only see me as a vain, vapid pre-law school Elle Woods, that’s because the more confident, more shallow and all-around funner Bryce is clearly more likeable than the real, tortured deal.

It turns out this is Comedy and Depression 101, as this fantastic article by David Wong about Robin Williams illuminates why funny people kill themselves. The seemingly obvious jist of it? Depressed people use jokes as shields to hide their abused souls.  

I’m not crying for help with this post. In fact, I was going to keep all this to myself. Or maybe sugar coat it for a psychotherapist.

But I want to understand the nature and nurture of depression, figure out how it manifests. Maybe even some of the readers out there – you know, all seven of them – would find it helpful to know just how common depression really is, and that it’s okay, in fact necessary, to be candid about it.

Once I better understand this depression business, I’ll formulate a strategic battle plan, so I can beat the shit out of it. The one thing I do know is it’s life-long war, and one that would require a daily regimen of patience, willpower and commitment.

Teaser: if I could go from Chunky to Hunky, I can slay a few pesky mental health demons. 

It’s a bit terrifying that it’s 2014, and we still don’t know the answers. Doctors prescribe anti-depressants like they’re one-size-fits-all cure-alls and psychiatrists disagree whether we should even take them.

But spoiler alert: I know seeking help is possible – and it very much can and does work with time. But it’s an ongoing battle and when symptoms are their most severe, the motivation to seek help wanes, making the vicious cycle continue and the need to talk about it all the more important.

It truly is a tragic shame that Robin Williams and other formidable artists like him never found their answer. But I will say thank you for giving me the courage to speak up.