The news of Robbin Williams' tragic death by suicide caught me off guard. It took me far back into my own life and my experience with severe depression.
When I was in college and for many years after, I had severe recurring depression. It always went away, but it inevitably came back. I felt like I was in the midst of a horrible swamp. It was as though my legs were tied up and I could hardly move in the thick muddy water. Sometimes I just sat silently on the couch for hours at a time -- staring at my arm and feeling like it wasn't connected to my body. The mental anguish was searing.
During those times I felt like a total failure. I felt that no one loved me. That I was unlovable, ugly, hateful. That I should be dead. I didn't want to see anyone. Or go anywhere. I would sleep until 5:00 p.m. on the weekends and have trouble getting up even then. I let my studies lapse. I got incredibly behind in my classes and didn't see how I'd ever catch up. So I just let my studies go even more. It was a vicious cycle.
There was no logical reason for my depression. Life was good. I was getting straight A's in school. I had won a full-tuition scholarship to the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. I was a clarinetist and was extremely successful. I was first clarinetist in one of the school's two orchestras and had won a coveted seat in the other, more advanced, one. I'd even been selected from all the clarinet players in the U.S. for one of only three slots in a nationwide orchestra made up of college students that met and performed concerts during the summer months in Colorado.
But I still felt like a total failure. I spent a lot of time thinking about suicide. I composed suicide notes in my head time after time after time. I felt really sorry for any people who might love me - if anyone really did. It would be a terrible thing to put them through. But it seemed to me that death was the only way to escape the pain.
I think the only thing that stopped me was the realization that I'd experienced untold pain from depression for many years. Supposing my life might get better down the road somewhere? Supposing I had endured all that anguish and then missed out on a good part of life because I'd killed myself? How ironic that would be.
I fantasized about possible life events that might make the depression go away forever. I thought maybe someday I'd be selected as the first clarinetist in the New York Philharmonic. Maybe that would end my agony forever. Maybe I'd meet and marry a wonderful man. Maybe that would do the trick.
Yet the pain was not endurable. I knew that if it didn't stop, the time would come when I couldn't stand it any longer and I would kill myself just to escape. I asked myself how long I thought I could hold out. I vividly recall staring out the window of my student apartment and thinking that maybe I could last for several years. Maybe 10 years I told myself.
Then at one point I realized I didn't really want to be dead. I just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up until the pain had passed. But I knew I couldn't do that. So I was back to square one. Back to thinking about ending my life. It was only my tiny bit of hope that things might get better that saved me. Kept me from doing it.
It turned out that the depression kept coming in waves for more than 20 years and I did tolerate it. I lasted way more than 10 years. Then finally, in a desperate attempt to find relief, I went to a psychiatrist who put me on an antidepressant. It didn't help. So he tried another one. That one didn't work either. After years of trying every new drug that came out we finally found one that did help.
Now in my 60s, I've been "cured" for decades. I can't remember the last time I was really depressed. It's foreign to me. In fact I can hardly remember those early years. I do have the periodic "normal" lows that everyone has when there's a sad life event, but no more agonizing, inexplicable, unendurable pain.
I'm so glad I made it here. So glad I didn't choose the "ultimate, irreversible" cure. If only Robbin Williams could have had the same experience, the world might not be missing one of its funniest, most beloved, cherished people forever.
Marie Marley is the award-winning author of Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy, available on Amazon. Her website, ComeBackEarlyToday.com, contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.