Robin Williams, Suicide and the Effect on Others

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the few days I spent in my friend’s basement suite in April 2011. I don’t know why that time keeps coming to mind, but I think about it as I walk up the stairs, as I sit at my desk at work, when I walk the dog. I don’t remember much about the period of time when I hit rock bottom, but I remember exactly what those days felt like.

alarm clock

I remember sitting on the couch until 2 or 3 a.m., writing or watching movies or just sitting in the dark trying to breathe. I (not a night owl) stayed up as late as I could, then took the pill that knocked me out cold for 12 hours straight. I know a lot of people find nighttime really hard when struggling with depression, but for me it was easier than being awake during the day when everyone else was functioning like normal human beings and I couldn’t. I remember seeing people walk around the grocery store one day as if everything was completely normal when it so clearly wasn’t.

I don’t know what has caused those days to be so present in my mind lately. Maybe it’s because life hasn’t been entirely easy lately and I remember when it was so much worse. Or maybe it’s because at that point every moment was devoted to getting out of that horribly dark place and these days the struggle is just an item on the agenda between commuting and putting kids to bed, between brushing my teeth and thinking about what to have for lunch. It’s there, almost all the time, sometimes less, sometimes more, but I don’t have the luxury of focusing solely on what to do about it.

The thing that’s different between that time and now is that then I thought the struggle was temporary. It was an enormous, pothole-laden hill that I had to get up and over, but if I got over it, I thought, I’d be in the clear. Now, I know it doesn’t work that way. At least not for me.

Lately I am reminded, on an almost ridiculously regular basis, that this is my lot in life. I’m fine! I think, and then I wake up one day and observe I’m a little bit less fine than I thought. I find strategies to feel okay, and then realize those strategies are fine when I have the house to myself for a weekend but a lot less realistic when there are three other people and a dog there. I rail against the permanence of this struggle in my life but figure I’m making it through and one day things will probably be easier.

And then a celebrity dies by suicide after battling depression for years and all those things I think I believe seem a little less true.

I saw the news about Robin Williams as soon as I got home from work yesterday, and suddenly it was hard to breathe. I cried a lot last night, and this morning, and I know I’m not the only one. But as much as I loved him as an actor, I’m not really crying for the loss of the man; I’m crying because I know how he must have felt and the simple truth that I could very well end up feeling that way again is staring me straight in the face. And it’s not wearing a red clown nose to soften the blow.

I didn’t go to work today, because I needed to not be sitting at my desk trying not to cry and having to explain that, no, I’m not that sad about Robin Williams, it’s just that it makes my ongoing strategy of just treading water feel a little bit hopeless.

I think I have more to say about this, but there are already so many posts about what this all means and how we should react to it. I don’t know that I can contribute anything useful to that conversation, so while I think about how my story—and all our stories—can best help keep this conversation going, I’ll leave some links to perspectives I especially appreciated:

Be The Light – Finding Walden

When Reaching Out Isn’t Enough – Truthfully

We Lost One of Our Own – Learned Happiness

Put On Your Happy (Yet Sometimes Really Depressed) Face – That Tam I Am

A simple but true graphic: Nest (Because honestly, sometimes this is the only thing we can think of that will help)

And Huffington Post put together a piece called What Facebook Statuses Would Say If We Were Honest About Mental Health. They asked me to contribute, and I did, gladly.

What if you’re not better?

I’m responsible for content on Postpartum Progress this week and I’ve shared a post to follow all the celebrations from last week:

What if you’re not better?

 

I just figured there are some moms out there who needed to hear this.

 

winding path through trees

Postpartum Progress: 10 Years of Magic

“Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy. But remember this – you have friends here. You’re not alone.”

- Dumbledore in Harry Potter

postpartumprogress10

This week, a group of Warrior Moms and bloggers is celebrating the 10th anniversary of Postpartum Progress. I’ve written about the site and its founder, Katherine Stone, before, because this site, and by extension Katherine, was an integral part of recovering from my experience with postpartum depression. It wasn’t the first source of help I found, but it was one of the most important.

Looking at things now, as we celebrate this milestone anniversary and all Katherine has done, it’s perfectly clear to me: Katherine Stone is basically Dumbledore.Katherine Stone compared to Dumbledore

This is no simple comparison. She’s not merely magic (though certainly there is an element of the magical about her). Like Dumbledore, Katherine isn’t afraid to say it like it is while at the same time providing much-needed reassurance.

The struggle with PPD (and other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders) is a dark time in any new mom’s life. Time and time again I’ve seen Katherine reach out to a new mom and acknowledge her experience, saying Yes, this is a horrible thing. It feels dark, and it will continue to be difficult for a little while yet. But you are not alone.

There’s a reason Katherine refers to struggling moms as Warrior Moms. Fighting PMADs is tough, and it involves choices that are sometimes difficult and definitely not always easy.

It would be easy (relatively speaking) to ignore your distress and try to carry on. I tried that and it didn’t work. It wasn’t the right choice.

It would be easy to choose blind trust that a small, white (or orange or blue) pill will make everything better without doing any of the hard work that must go with it.  That was another choice I made that was the easy, but not the right, path.

It was when I finally realized I wasn’t alone and that I did, in fact, have friends in that dark place that the hard choice to fight became easier.

These are more words of Dumbledore’s that I find inspiring, and that I think link him to Katherine and her work with Postpartum Progress:

“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

Katherine, thank you for being the source of that light for so many. Congratulations on 10 years.

This Is My Brave

“I wanted share a bit of my story with you and say thank you for sharing yours.”

The best emails I get start this way.

I’m always honoured when someone shares her story with me, and when I get a note of thanks for sharing my experience with postpartum depression it reinforces that the hard parts of sharing a tough story are worth it.

Today I’ve shared a guest post on This Is My Brave about why I think it’s important to speak out about mental health. And it is important – the emails I get tell me so, and I know it firsthand from those I’m thankful to.

I’d love for you to come and read, and while you’re there take some time to read about This Is My Brave the show. Jennifer and Anne Marie are doing a really good, really important, and really brave thing.

PPD: Wandering Wombs & Hysteria

Postpartum depression has been misunderstood for centuries. Today I’m happy to share a guest post from Lissa Cowan, whose novel “Milk Fever” shares a perspective on postpartum depression from the 18th century. 

 

Milk Fever is set in the eighteenth century at a time when women were viewed as inferior to men both intellectually and physically. The familiar historical expression “the weaker sex” helps us to understand how men and society in general viewed women during the Enlightenment. Medical textbooks portrayed women as emotionally sensitive, high strung and morally inferior. Armande, my main character, is a wet nurse who, after she has her baby, is struck with postpartum depression.

The next day, a feeling of foreboding drifted over me. Margot said this sometimes happens to new mothers. As an antidote to my melancholia, she instructed me to walk in the garden and meditate on God. These quiet times only caused me to be prey to my own distressing chatter.

At the time, women with postpartum depression had no language to describe their feelings and no support network to help them deal with their emotional difficulties. Today, we know that support is a key factor to recovery, yet back then not only did women not have any support, they were also shamed by others for their inability to mother as they should after giving birth. In my novel, Armande, an educated woman with a strong sense of self, is still swayed by the culture and society she lives in.milkfever_frontcover_small

That woman is naturally committed to her offspring, that motherhood is a gift from the gods who bestow upon the fairer sex the most delightful experiences, is a philosopher’s flight of fancy. The fact is, though I would not admit it to a living soul, a part of me longed to be relieved of my shrieking and odorous destiny. I washed the child and no sooner did I replace the napkin with ties at the side than she soiled herself again. I held as truths Rousseau’s ideas about motherhood being the equivalent to bliss, yet I now felt that my existence was an illustration of despair. I know I am not the only mother who feels this way.

Let the truth be known: sometimes we mothers are sad, worse even. Sometimes we are nothing at all and are told we have no earthly reason to be thus. You’re a woman. And woman must bear fruit and be glad for it. How could I express sentiments of sadness at being a mother? I’ve nobody to turn to but the extension of myself that I rock back and forth, this bit of breath that clings to me for survival.

Armande has the support of her midwife who encourages her to take care of herself, allows her to rest and doesn’t make her feel that she is a bad mother. Yet in the real world of the 18th century, depression in women was seriously misunderstood and misdiagnosed. As an example, in “D’Alembert’s Dream,” written by 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot, a fictional Dr. Bordeu presents a woman’s symptoms as he sees them following the birth of her child.

There was a woman who had just given birth to a child; as a result, she suffered a most alarming attack of the vapors—compulsive tears and laughter, a sense of suffocation, convulsions, swelling of the breasts, melancholy silence, piercing shrieks—all the most serious symptoms—and this went on for several years.

The doctor goes on to describe how she supposedly cured herself because she was afraid her lover would tire of her moods. For her consciousness to maintain the upper hand, she took on a conquer-or-die attitude, engaging in several forms of physical exercise until she was cured.

Whenever the rebellion began in her fibers she was able to feel it coming on. She would stand up, run about, busy herself with the most vigorous forms of physical exercise, climb up and down stairs, saw wood or shovel dirt.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that medical science first recognized postpartum depression as a disorder. Before that, abstract terms such as “wandering womb,” which dates back to Hippocrates, made it seem as though a woman’s body was betraying her and leading her emotions astray. This term referred to when the uterus was displaced and would lead to certain pathologies in women. A century later we would hear about women who experienced depression as being neurotic, and the familiar term “wandering womb” was re-coined as “hysteria.” Women who divulged their feelings of depression were often susceptible to strange experimental treatments and widespread ridicule. During the 1950s, electroshock therapy became a popular way for the medical establishment to treat depression in women and keep their so-called neuroses in check.

Today, we know there is no one trigger for postpartum depression, that it is very serious and that early detection is key to women eventually overcoming the disorder. Yet, even in the early 21st century the disorder continues to be under-diagnosed and some of the age-old archetypes, such as women being emotionally unstable or unfit mothers, still persist. Hopefully with increased awareness, education and outreach, women will no longer feel shame and alone in their emotional struggles. Like the midwife Margot who provided love and support to Armande at her time of greatest need, women need to support each other, to hear each others’ stories of pregnancy, birth, depression, and to be there—as sister, mother, therapist, doctor, social worker, psychologist, friend—no matter what it takes.

 

Lissa M. Cowan is the author of works of non-fiction, and her writing has appeared in Canadian and U.S. magazines and newspapers. She speaks and writes about storytelling, creativity, work-life balance and creative spirituality. She has received awards for her writing and “Milk Fever” is her first novel. Visit her novel page or find her on Twitter or Facebook.