People, Hell and Angels
I wasn’t sure if I would publish this . . . it’s been a few days, after all. But after hearing that Zelda Williams was pushed to eliminate Twitter and Instagram because so many “trolls” blasted her with hate messages for her father’s death I felt I had to post something.
I didn’t know Robin Williams but I know something about what might have gone on in his household. I lived with a person diagnosed with clinical depression for a very long time. There are so many things that the speculators, commentators and entertainment “news” don’t understand in an effort to tell the story of Robin Williams’ depression in a minute thirty.
I can tell you what things were like in my house, though. It’s not easy to relive and it’s particularly difficult to share.
As a spouse, I noticed the woman I fell in love with and married slip away. When she finally broke down, mentally, I wasn’t home. My oldest daughter was there and forever has the memory of being the most stable person in the home. For a 12-year-old that’s horrifying. After that my wife began relying on our daughter to try and keep her grounded in reality. This was totally unfair but she did it anyway.
Andrea, my wife, was periodically replaced by another woman with the same face. The other woman would obsess over things that she never talked about before. She would insist on making all my kids pray the rosary while they drove in the car. They don’t dislike the rosary but they couldn’t understand why the Mom who sang James Taylor songs off-key while driving them to the store was now talking about people, hell and angels (Sorry, Jimi Hendrix’s record has the same title but it fits) – in a bad way. She grew lethargic, sitting at home. She began calling my office over and over and over. When one of our boys would throw a temper tantrum she couldn’t handle the tone . . . so she called me. She hated working and being away from the kids yet being home with the kids seemed to throw her over the edge more and more frequently. So she would call me, at work, in the middle of interviews or at my desk for help. My frustration would break through when I would say “I cannot parent them from 35 miles away, what am I supposed to do?”
It sounds harsh, and I forever feel guilty for it. So where was I, her husband, during all of this?
When Andrea broke down I raced home. For the next several weeks I was there, by her side. Every minute. She was in the hospital first and then home, with daily then weekly visits to the doctor.
They tried medications, then multiple medications. I couldn’t leave home until they got it right. In spite of all the drug ads saying the contrary, getting someone suffering from depression the right drug or combination of drugs isn’t easy. It’s really hard, in fact. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Others it only works a little. Sometimes a drug choice makes things worse.
There came a point, after the medication started to take effect that I had to return to work. With her out of work making only a partial salary on disability one of us had to retain full-time employment. That, however, made for more phone calls asking when I’d come home. Many were insistent that I come home. On a good day my schedule is unpredictable. On a bad it’s nigh impossible. So I’d be stuck between a rock and a financial hard place.
My daughter would call in tears because her mother would be “unfair” or mean. Often she was right. My having to make a living resulted in my daughter parenting her mother in many ways. When the boys would throw a tantrum and want some new toy she’d buy it, even if we didn’t have the money for groceries, just to get rid of the noise. We owned every . . . single . . . Thomas train. Even rare and overseas-issued-only trains.
When Andrea smiled, before the depression hit, she had a brilliant sparkle in her eyes. You may think that’s romantic claptrap but it’s true. Her eyes had a brightness, a twinkle that was hypnotic. After the breakdown it was gone. Even her smile was dimmer and less bright. It was as if another body had eclipsed the light. It was there but just not visible, hidden from view.
The reality of the situation is that we lost her for a very long time. She alienated people. I still loved her and tried everything I could to live with the woman who remained. The heartbreaking part was the fact that the Andrea we remembered had come back . . . and then pneumonia took her away.
The hard thing for all of us to come to grips with is the fact that life returned to a strange normalcy for us. Andrea was gone for good but so was the dark cloud that surrounded our home. We hated ourselves for feeling that way and secretly breathed in relief – not just for ourselves but for the woman we knew was suffering. That’s what people with depression face, by the way. Not sickness, not illness, but suffering. No matter how small the matter may seem to you or me it is still a terrible and intense thing for them.
Worse, you try everything you can to fix it and you simply cannot. You have to be supportive, loving, and present, even when you don’t want to be. That isn’t just hard it’s almost impossible.
“Suffering from depression” is the proper phrase. These people are, indeed, suffering. The thing to remember, though, is that the people around them suffer as well. Not a suffering of hardship but suffering because the person they love is hurting and nothing you can do will help it.
My wife would have moments of clarity and fall apart because she couldn’t stand what her depression was doing to her family. When that would happen I would assure her that we all loved her. There was no animosity against her for something a chemical had affected in her brain. She was, after all, my wife. “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health” is the oath. We both gave it. It would be ignoring the seriousness of those words if I’d brushed them aside and left her to fend for herself. That wouldn’t have helped. It certainly would have made it worse.
I see the criticisms, the hate, the words thrown around that Robin Williams was “cowardly” in his actions. There is no cowardice in depression. There is suffering. There is imbalance and darkness and fog. Reality is skewed, not just for the person suffering but for those around them. Criticizing the person who suffered so much they thought the world – their family – was a better place without them isn’t cowardice. It’s deep sadness. Those actions darkened the world for the Williams family.
I only hope that, once the dust settles, they’ll be able to remember the laughter, love . . . and again see some light.