Since the death of Robin Williams on Monday, there’s been a lot of talk in the media and online about depression and suicide, so I thought maybe now would be the time to jump on the bandwagon and give my two cents about it. It’s something I’d been meaning to do already anyway, especially when the subject of mental illness comes up on pagan mailing lists or blogs. Especially when people seem to be romanticizing it in some way. That always bugs me.
I do sometimes get sad about celebrity deaths, if their work was significant in my life in some way. Of course, it’s a lot different than if someone I know personally dies, but I still appreciate what they contributed to my life, even if we never met. I’m a huge Beatles fan, so I took George Harrison’s death hard, and I’m sure Paul and Ringo will be hard as well (I was born a month after John died). Even though we never met, my life is better because they existed.
With Robin Williams, I honestly never really thought of him that much before, but when he died, I just started remembering all those movies he was in that I liked. I guess I was just about the right age to see a lot of his movies in the 80’s and 90’s, not to mention watching Mork and Mindy on Nickelodeon as a little kid. I’m not sure if that makes me a “fan” of his, but he was definitely part of my childhood. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more.
But what’s really getting to people is that he committed suicide. Why would someone like that kill themselves when it seemed like he had so much going for him?
I’m reminded of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, since I was a kid when it happened. People also wondered why he would do that when he had become so rich and famous. Not to mention serving as a poor role model for us teenagers who may also be depressed. I was a depressed teenager myself, and after Kurt Cobain died, I became a bit obsessed with him, and read books about him, and thought about suicide quite a bit. I was already depressed. Kurt’s death didn’t cause the depression, but it might have put the option in my head more than if it hadn’t happened. I came really close to it when I was 17, but didn’t go through with it, and thankfully have not come quite that close ever again.
I assumed that it was teen angst and hormones, and maybe I had grown out of it. I mentioned to my therapist a while ago that I’m doing better now than I did back then, but that’s probably just because I’m older and more mature. He said he didn’t think so at all, and said I’m getting better because I’ve been fighting it, not because I just grew out of it.
I thought about that when I heard about Robin Williams, because he was 63. Maybe my therapist was right and it doesn’t have to do with maturity after all. Depression has become something I can work around, or work through. I can get up in the morning and at least get the stuff done that I absolutely have to get done. It comes and goes, so when I’m feeling good, I try to get as much done as possible so that when I feel bad, I can take it easy and wait for it to pass without getting too behind. I still have a lot of room for improvement, but it’s not life-threatening anymore.
But it’s still a hindrance. I am absolutely sure I would be better off without it. My therapist has compared depression to a parasite (knowing I’m a biologist), and I think the comparison is very good. Most of the time parasites don’t kill their hosts, but they do weaken their hosts, and make it harder for the host to deal with other stressors. If a hard winter or drought comes around, the animals with the largest “parasite load” are the first to die. Recent reports have said that Robin Williams was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, and that could have had something to do with it. I know I have no idea what was going through his mind, but I do know that if you’re already prone to depression, it can make it harder to deal with the other things life throws at you.
That’s why I know I still have a lot of room for improvement, because even though I can still drag myself to work when I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, it would still be nice to not have that burden to carry with me at all.
But let me get back to paganism. There’s this annoying tendency among mystical types to romanticize mental illness (and perhaps physical illness too). Some kind of “wounded healer” archetypal stuff maybe. I don’t know, maybe it’s different for others, but I don’t think my illness helps at all. Depression sucks all the joy out of everything, so it makes it hard for me to even enjoy the company of my husband or friends, let alone gods or spirits. When it’s hard to get up the energy to take a shower or cook a healthy meal, I certainly don’t have the energy to do any kinds of rituals or devotions. Really, it makes it so I don’t even think the gods exist. Without depression, I am absolutely sure I would function better in every single aspect of my life, including spiritually.
The only thing that it may help is in the sense that any hardship might make a person stronger. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” they say, which is a very Odinic way of seeing things. I think hardships can also make a person more compassionate towards others who are going through tough things as well, so that’s good. But I don’t think mental illness or depression is unique in this regard. The same effect might happen if I had to deal with any other hardship, mental or physical.
Maybe one of the reasons why romanticizing mental illness worries me is that it may make some people reluctant to get help. I know I was at first, because depression was such a big part of my life, I didn’t know what I would be without it. I was afraid I wouldn’t be myself anymore. But really, when the depression gets better, I just become a better version of myself. I gain much more than I lose.
I’m afraid mystical-type people might think that if they get treated for their condition, they will lose their connection to the gods, or something like that. But if your connection to the gods is based on an illness, what does that say about your relationship? Shouldn’t they be able to still connect with you when you’re healthy? If not, I think something must be messed up here.
I don’t think Odin or my other gods want me to stay depressed. I think they want me to fight it. They want us mortals to live our short lives to the fullest, and depression prevents you from doing that. It’s sad that not everyone wins the battle, but that doesn’t excuse you from fighting.