It feels somewhat appropriate to be discussing this topic in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide. He was one of the most astonishing actors I’ve ever seen, both in the versatility of his roles and the emotions he portrayed. More than that, he was the funniest human being I’d ever seen, both on camera, and on the stage as a comedian. And yet, all the time, his face was filled with a powerful sadness and solemnity, even whilst he made those around cry with laughter. It wasn’t as great a surprise to me as for others that, behind the persona he gave off, there was an ordinary, scared man, screaming into the abyss.
When you scream into the abyss, does it echo? If it doesn’t, you’re alone with your misery. If it does, you’re still alone with your misery, only now it’s screaming back at you.
I can’t claim that I’ve ever been more than mildly depressed. I’ve never contemplated a suicidal thought, nor thought about hurting myself or others. But even mild depression allows you to clarify one misconception about the human mind that others, who haven’t experienced mental illness, believe to be true.
You find out, for certain, that the human mind is not a rational creature. If it was, you could go up to a depressed person and say, “You’re just not thinking positively! Snap out of it!” and they would. Why? Because that’s the rational option. It’s the one supported by reason and evidence and logic. But the human mind does not respond perfectly to these things. Rationality does not hold ultimate power in the mass of neurons and synapses that we call a brain.
Mild depression also makes you believe one thing to be true, which is not.
Any time I’ve gotten into that state of mind, I’ve always used one mantra to pull myself out:
“Happiness is a choice.”
Forgive the language, but disguised in this statement is the following:
“You fucking dumb piece of shit. Get up off your whiny little arse, quit feeling sorry for yourself and enjoy your life. The only reason you’re like this is because you let it get this far. The only reason you’re sat here alone is because you chose to, rather than finding the people who care about you and spending time with them. So shut the fuck up, and start being happy because, and only because, you can. Idiot.”
Bet you didn’t think all that would fit, right? In any case, you understand my mindset. Being happy, for me, comes when I allow myself the privilege of being happy. And once I get this into my depressed mindset, it works its magic. I can and do just “snap out of it.” Those four words, and the implications of them, the idea that I am responsible for my own happiness, get me out of my mental state every single time. Nowadays, I intercept that vicious cycle of self-pity so soon with this phrase that I rarely ever slip too far into it. It really is a wonderful thing to realise that the only reason you are unhappy is because you’re choosing to be unhappy.
The misconception I got from this, of course, is that this works for all stages of depression.
It doesn’t. And the reason is simple: Humans minds do not have unbounded control over their brains. Mild depression may, in some people like myself, be cured by the mind simply choosing to be happy, because the mind was previously choosing to be unhappy. But with moderate to severe depression, the prior cause is not the mind. The prior cause is the brain, influencing and controlling the mind. By the laws of complex organic chemistry, enough chemicals in the brain will always completely overwhelm the will power of the mind.
This is why it is irritates me when people look at people like Robin Williams and say, “He had so much wealth, fame, and loads of fans and a family who loved him! How could he possibly be sad enough to kill himself?”
The mind cares for wealth and fame and love. The brain does not. You may have come away from the paragraph two above with the notion that the mind and brain are two separate entities. If so, allow me to correct it: The mind is a subset of the brain. It’s an interface between the real world and the neurons that has grown more and more complex over time. Ultimately, the interface yields, in totality, to the operating system.
Happiness is a choice, but only up to a certain limit. I hope that I never allow myself to pass that limit, because for the life of me, I wouldn’t be able to fix myself. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that others can’t.
If you are depressed, seek out people who can help you, even if it’s just some guy on the street. Speak to someone who knows you. When depressed, one thing you I tended to do was remove myself from the company of my friends and hope that someone would come after me. It was a silent call for attention. I was just screaming into the abyss, at no one in particular. Why was I surprised when no one came after me?
Surround yourself with people. Never let yourself be alone with your own thoughts. Never let yourself get into a state where your mind can’t beat your brain. Intercept yourself at every given opportunity, and let others do the same for you.
Finally, as a tribute to an utterly unique actor, I created this very simply image. Some say he was one-in-a-million. I say he was quite clearly one-in-seven-billion. When he died, he left a legacy to share laughter in the world.
Thank you, Robin. We’ll take it from here.