When the news broke that Robin Williams had died, as a result of a suspected suicide, one of the things that struck me was how many people were choosing to focus on the fact that such a funny, outgoing and happy guy – would choose to end his own life. Media looked to the ‘sadness behind the smile’ to try and find answers, overanalysing everything in the quest for clues, trying so hard to pinpoint exactly where the catalysts for this man’s misery could lie. How could someone who seemed so happy be – underneath it all – so unhappy and so alone?
No one knows what happened to Robin Williams. No one. Despite the rabidity of the rumour mill, the over-analysis and the concerned speculation, we will never know what drove him to take the action that he took. Furthermore, we do not have any right to know. Williams did not belong to us. So please, let his family grieve in peace, and spare us the speculation about how someone who seemed – on the surface at least – to be so happy, could also be someone who was suffering from severe depression. Above all, let us stop being surprised that happy people get depressed too.
The truth is there are many people who suffer with depression who choose to try and disguise that fact as best they can. They might be the bubbly ones, the outgoing ones, the couldn’t-give-a-fuck ones, the comedians, the extroverts, the smart ones, the class clowns, the one that everyone looks to for a joke and a giggle, the one that is just always so fucking cheerful. But underneath it all, they are drowning. Beneath the bravado, there’s self loathing. Beneath the bubbly, there’s despair. Beneath the sunshine, it’s fog.
They might go through their entire life thinking that this dual existence is perfectly normal. They might tell themselves that this is life, that life is struggle, and so living is struggling and that is that. They might choose the ‘laugh or you will cry’ approach and so will seek the laughter at any cost. They might break down, they might not. They might choose to go to the doctor, they might not. Whatever they do, they will seek to do it behind the curtain, propping up the façade, anything to live up to everyone else’s expectations of sunshine. Depression is, ultimately, deemed by the sufferer to be their own failure, to be their own weakness and their own doing. I am one of millions who can attest to this, because I have felt it.
But I am not speaking on behalf of everyone who has had or will have depression. I can speak for myself alone.
I went to the doctor almost eight weeks ago because I felt like I could not go on living another day the way I was, in a permanent state of fear, always teetering on the verge of tears, on the verge of what felt like true madness. The progress I had made with my OCD two years ago (following a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) had, somehow, become undone and, here I was, going steadily backwards. At least that’s how it seemed. This time, unlike five years ago when I had no idea what OCD really was, I could see the signs for what they were – symptoms of the disorder. One of the consequences of this, of realising what was happening, was that, as the OCD monster gained momentum, I gradually sunk into a deeper and deeper depression. It was so gradual that it was, to the untrained eye (like mine), undetectable. I dismissed periods of hopelessness as just that – specific episodes that were unrelated and incidental. I would tell myself that I was hormonal, or that I was letting the OCD get to me; that I was temporarily stressed because of [insert life/work/whatever here]; that what I was experiencing was nothing more than a period of low self esteem or melancholy.
Imagine my surprise when the doctor told me that, in addition to the OCD, I was also depressed. I had spent most of the appointment talking about the OCD, I didn’t use the word ‘depressed’ once, it was she who said it first. And it went off like a fucking firecracker. Depressed? No. I am feeling down because I have OCD and it is beating the shit out of me. Depression? No. Why the reluctance to use the label ‘depression’? I don’t know. Perhaps I just don’t want to add another dysfunction to my already dysfunctioning and dysfunctional brain. Perhaps I am just so sick of not having my own brain on my side. I am sick of it letting me down, time and time again.
But I think mostly because it feels like a betrayal of myself, or at least to the myself that I am to everyone else. To outsiders, I seem like quite a happy-go-lucky and positive person. I love nothing more than to laugh so much that my stomach literally aches. I love putting headphones in my ears on the way to work and imagine that I am Beyoncé on stage at Glastonbury, gold jacket and black boots, fuck you Monday morning. I will walk with a strut if I have music in my ears, smile on my face, and I don’t give a shit who can see or hear me. I am the person who will bound into work late with an excessively elaborate account of a mundane non-event that occurred on the bus that morning. I’ll wax lyrical about the fact that the bus driver wouldn’t let me on board with my hot drink – oh the injustice of having to choose between catching the next bus or throwing my cappuccino away before I’d had a single sip! I won’t mention that I had several showers this morning, just to ‘decontaminate’. I’ll spend most of the day humming and clicking and randomly singing verses from an eclectic back catalogue of who knows what. I’ll randomly burst out laughing when I remember something hilarious that happened ten years ago. To them, I am happy.
But – and this is what gets them – all of the happiness, all of the bubbly, all of the sunshine, is also a mosquito net. Because it shuts out the noise, it blocks out the OCD, it blocks out the constant fucking fighting in my brain, the constant obsession about contamination, about blood, about HIV, about death, dying, don’t let them die. It blocks out the YOU ARE FAILING that is the undercurrent of everything. It mutes the YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH that is always there, like a creepy wind-chime at the bottom of your neighbour’s garden that catches the breeze at the worst moment. Catches your heart, announces the doom.
I don’t like scary movies, not at all. I cannot watch them. I already spend so much time being scared, so much time living in fear of my own mind, that if I find myself at a cinema weighing up my options, you can bet every penny in your wallet that I will not be watching a film that exists for the sole purpose of making me feel afraid. I’ll take the ‘chick flick’ any day – and I can’t stand those films – because I would rather laugh at something ridiculous for a little minute, than be forced to experience physical distress at the hands of an over zealous film director. If I find myself channel-hopping late at night and happen across something that contains scenes ‘that some viewers might find distressing’, I will always seek to rectify this by jumping onto the nearest comedy channel. I am thankful for the endless re-runs of various American sitcoms that slow the racing inside my mind, replacing it with the soft chuckles of the studio audience. What a wonderful sound that is.
When people wonder how I can sit and watch the same episode of Friends so many times over, or how I can watch the same films, on a loop, without feeling anything close to boredom, I understand why they might find such a habit slightly strange. After all, what they are seeing is someone who is being entertained in a passive way; they see someone transfixed by images, by sounds, duped into believing that what they are watching can be real life. Ultimately, they see someone who is transfixed by the doing of nothing. But that’s not quite right. I am not transfixed by the doing of nothing but by the thinking of nothing that can happen for brief moments when I know what’s coming and I know I’m going to find it fucking hilarious and isn’t that beautiful. There is nothing passive about my laughter; I am laughing my arse off because it helps.
Similarly, when people ask me why I am always singing, I want to tell them that my voice – as tuneless and keyless as it truly is – does a pretty good job of drowning out the intrusiveness of the thoughts and the accompanying physical symptoms of anxiety. And that is all. I can force myself to be happy on the outside, because it helps me to deal with what is going on inside. I get to trick my bastard mind into thinking that everything’s ok, and that the power is all mine really, that any time I want to, I can start singing some stupid pointless nursery rhyme about an egg that fell off a wall (although really, whoever said he was an egg?), and all of the shit – the OCD, the doom, the bleak, the YOU ARE NOTHING – will have to get to the back of the queue for a while. I have a song about an egg to sing.
But it’s a temporary fix, a uniform donned to get through the moments. Right now, I am unable to do this. I am too tired, too exhausted, that I cannot see how I will get past this phase of my life. I wonder if I have said goodbye to that person forever who can find respite in eccentricities, I wonder if I will ever be happy again. I feel hope that I will, and I know that I am so lucky for that. Some are not so lucky.
So next time you read an article that falls into the trap of looking for the ‘sadness behind the smile’, be that article about a celebrity or not, remember that a person’s happiness and their sadness are not necessarily opposite sides of the same coin, nor are they the opposing ends of some metaphorical seesaw of emotions. It is not necessarily the rule that this person must be either happy or sad, but that they are happy precisely because they are also sad. These are intricately linked emotions, and their incestuous relationship is less a case of when one is up the other is down, and more a case of doing everything possible to prevent the tip-over. Theirs is an ever trembling tightrope of momentum that seeks always to maintain the illusion of balance, of equilibrium and of something that sounds like normality.
If you have taken the time to read this post, I would ask one small favour: that you also take the time to share information about mental health awareness via your blog/Facebook/Twitter etc.; that you post one link to a mental health charity anywhere in the world and encourage others to do the same; that you donate £1 to a helpline that will reach out to those people who are facing the darkest hours of their life.