I’ve not thought of him in at least 35 years. Probably longer. But when my Facebook feed included high school pictures of him, I remembered him instantly. John Wilkins. Perfectly gorgeous John Wilkins. He was way out of my league and I don’t remember having a crush on him, but I do remember his beautiful blue eyes, his brilliant smile, his infectious laugh.
You’ve seen his type; if not in real life, in afterschool specials or Disney Channel movies. He’s the athletic superstar who is more handsome than anyone should be allowed to be; he’s a super student in all honors classes; he’s every teacher’s favorite and every girl’s dream. He’s the kind of guy who is picked for so many class superlatives, that the yearbook staff limits his award to best-all-around so that other students have a fighting chance. All that . . . and he’s nice too.
THAT is John Wilkins. And that’s why I was so stunned to learn that he passed away this week.
When I heard, I sought out his obituary and found nothing to suggest the cause of his death. I kept checking the Facebook feed for more information and—okay—I did my share of social media research (some might call it stalking). He had a beautiful wife of 28 years and two—or maybe three—kids. He had a successful career and seemed to have a full life of friends and extended family. All of this only heightened my shock when I learned the cause of his death: suicide.*
Now, I can’t begin to know what led up to the moment of his final decision. I do not know any of his story except the cause of his death. I cannot speak to his reasoning, his pain, his relationships. I do not know him that well. I can only say that his passing affected me deeply, the grief of it waking me in the night and bringing prayers for his loved ones—his mama, his siblings, his children, his wife . . ..
I shared my story of depression publicly for the first time in February 2017. I came out on my blog with a post that was shared hundreds of times, many of those accompanied by the sentiment, “She always seems so happy! I never would have guessed.” People with depression can be very good at deception. Even before Instagram started filtering out all human flaws, we learned what to share, and what to keep to ourselves. Here’s the thing: we KNOW we don’t have any real reason to be sad (chemical imbalance aside) so we hide it pretty well. And besides, so many times when we have let our masks slip, the world has let us down.
• “You just take things too seriously!”
• “Don’t let it get to you!”
• “Count your blessings!”
• “Your problems are nothing compared to [Person You Know Who Has a Terrible Life].”
• “It’s not that bad.”
• “Have you prayed about this?” (My personal favorite.)
(For the record, we know. And we agree, which actually makes us feel worse, not better. So just, ya know, don't.)
Having struggled with depression as long as I can remember, I know how often I have thought, “It is just too hard to be me. I really do not want to do this anymore.” I’m better now, but I used to feel this way at least weekly (now it’s a rare and fleeting thought). I tried to explain how hard it can be for me to a therapist once, “The pain of the world is so very near all the time. It’s like I was born without an emotional epidermis.” She explained that some people do have more neuroreceptors than others; those individuals feel the emotions of others more readily and more intensely. When you have only a thin barrier between the pain of the world and your very core . . . well . . . life can get overwhelming fast.
I don’t know about John, I really do not. But I know this: when I was in middle school, I was bullied by a couple of guys who called me names and taunted me daily. On the social food chain, if John Wilkins was a soaring eagle, these two guys were . . . let’s see . . . worms. Those two worms tormented me for 2-3 years, through middle school and the first of high school. But John, beautiful eagle that he was, was kind. Simply and effortlessly, kind.
It is the habit of humanity to deify the dead, but It would be invasive and presumptuous of me to shoulder past those whose knowledge of him is much more personal and immediate. So don’t misunderstand me here: I don’t mean to imply that John single-handedly saved me from thuggish bullies. It was nothing at all like that. John just offered a momentary kindly distraction from the pain of being me.
And so, well, I just can’t help but wonder . . . was he born without an epidermis too? Did he somehow—perhaps even unconsciously—sense the pain I felt? Were his incidental kindnesses to me more intentional than either of us realized? I can’t possibly know. But I know what it is like for the pain of others to seep into my soul. I know how it is to feel far too much. Maybe John did too.
Oh Lord, we know that you heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3) In your infinite mercy, we pray that your love would reach into the hearts of the family and friends who grieve the tragic loss of your child John Wilkins. May they grieve, not as those who have no hope, but as those whose hope is in Christ Jesus.
*Are you having thoughts of suicide? Is someone you love struggling with suicidal thoughts? You are not alone, there are those who can help, and you have no need to be ashamed. Call for help. Do it for you. Do it for me. Do it for whatever reason you can. But just make the call.
Recently I saw a youtube video of an artist illustrating depression. The depressed person would describe how depression felt to them, and the artist would conceptualize their stories in a drawing. Their stories, thus the pictures, varied greatly. I don't have an artist, but I thought I'd try to describe what it is like for me anyway. Here you go.
For me, it’s not so much a color as a sensation. I guess the sensation is a dark one, sort of a muddy black, but mainly it’s heavy. And oozy. It usually creeps up slowly. I feel it pulling on my feet, slowing me down, and I don’t recognize it at first. I kick at it, trying to loosen the hold, thinking it’s something outside myself, rather than the all too familiar internal struggle. (After all these years, you’d think I would recognize all its disguises.) So, I think I can flick it off with a little justification. It’s patient, depression, so it backs off into the shadows, waiting.
I’m fooled into thinking I’ve resolved it, until it starts from another angle—messing with my sleep, my appetite, my mind. By now it has lured me into emotional quicksand. I get pulled under by depression’s Sirens: “What is wrong with you?” “Why can’t you get over it?” “What real problems do you have?” I try to answer and they pull me closer and their voices get louder. The more I search for the answers to their squealing demands, the more pressure I feel, the deeper I fall, the weight of the world pressing me down, down, down.
It feels like I’m wearing pain. Seeking responses to the non-answerables, I envision all those who face life’s most hopeless battles. Cancer, war, divorce, oppression, loss, racism, poverty, inequities. Tragedies loop through my mind mocking me with the reminder that I have no reason to be sad. I agree. And the pain grows heavier.
When depression opts for a more direct attack, I go from feeling like me, to feeling as if I’m caught in a vortex of despair. I sink fast. There’s no slowing it down, no getting away.
And I’m not sure what lifts the weight and allows me to move again. It helps to remember that Sirens aim to destroy me, not to expand my self-awareness. It helps to plug my ears to their false refrains and to answer with dismissal rather than with access to my soul.
And it helps to do what my mama says (as it does no matter what the problem is): “Do one thing.”
I might send a single email, do one chore, write one sentence. I tell myself that after I do that one thing, I can resume lethargy. Then I do just one more thing. And then another. And in time, I’m back on solid ground, back to me.
That’s what it’s like for me.
Over the course of one week, I learned of two individuals who took their own lives. Both were successful people, according to cultural standards. One a lawyer, the other a business professional, both were married with children and both enjoyed the admiration of their respective communities. People would argue that these two "just didn't seem the type."
Yeah. See that's the thing. There is no type. Depression doesn't care one bit who you are or what you do.
Depression creeps in and lies to you about your value as a human.
Depression doesn't shy away from professionals who have been trained to recognize its deception. It gives no exemptions to the social worker, minister, therapist, physician, or life coach. Its lies are raw and uncensored.
Look, I don't know the answers. I just know that depression doesn't care if you are red or yellow, black or white. It doesn't care about your bank account, your social standing, your dress size, or your IQ. Depression is about as selective as cancer is: cancer doesn't sort through a list of traits and accomplishments in order to determine who will be afflicted; depression doesn't either.
I don't know why depression kills some people and lets others--like me--live. There is no equation, no formula, that I've found that makes sense. Until that answer is found, though, let's talk about mental health in a way that promotes understanding, not judgment. Let's refrain from oversimplifying complex questions with uninformed responses that just come off trite, dismissive, or even downright mean. Of course we don't know everything about mental illness, but we know this: when depression ends in suicide, it's a tragedy of inconsolable proportions. Even the most enlightened comments will rarely be welcome in the midst of such devastation. So let's just keep our mouths closed and our hearts open. Because nobody is the type to get depressed. And so is everybody.
When I’m depressed, it’s almost like I feel guilty when I experience moments of cheerfulness. It feels as if I am lying or something because in fact, I don’t feel better. Underneath, I still feel the all too familiar, overwhelming sadness gripping me. So if I have a good day in the midst of a depressive episode, or even a good minute, it feels inauthentic. There’s this nagging emotional pull reminding me that the present moment is fleeting and that the sadness is waiting, lingering just on the other side of the laughter.
Can you relate? If you’ve struggled with depression, I bet you know what I mean. But if you have loved ones who have been depressed, my guess is that this sounds completely ridiculous to you. Why would someone fight feeling better? That doesn’t even make sense.
Nope. No it doesn’t. But that’s not what’s happening.
Think of depression as a separate entity from the person; let’s call it Bob. When Bob is visiting me, my feelings range from flat (best case) to despondent (worst case). When I am feeling flat, occasionally something will make me smile or even laugh. Now you might witness that and think, Bob must have moved on! What a relief for Aileen! Yet I know that Bob is actually just taking a quick nap. When I laugh, my brain—which is a terrible liar when Bob is around—says, “Hey stop that! You’ll wake up Bob!” which, naturally, wakes Bob.
This maddening cycle has frustrated me throughout my relationship with Bob. Recently though, I discovered another metaphor that seems to fit this scenario a bit better.
My epiphany moment occurred in the midst of a coughing fit. I’d had bronchitis, or some proximity thereof, for over a week. This is not unusual for me; I’m prone to bronchitis. If I get even a slight cold, it tends to go right to my bronchi (which I just call my throat, but whatever). Sniffle one day, hacking cough the next. It’s always been that way for me.
Anyway, I was coughing my ever-loving head off, so I did what I always did: I reached for my throat lozenges. Of course these are no cure for bronchitis, but they do offer a temporary reprieve from the constant coughing.
Do you see where this is going?
See, I realized that if I could think of the depression in the same way as I do bronchitis, those so-called “inauthentic” moments of happiness could stand in the place of the cough drop, offering welcome (albeit temporary) relief from a troublesome condition.
Think of it like this. Imagine I’m in the midst of a depressive episode. Still, I manage to get myself together and get out of the house. But just as I find myself enjoying the moment, Bob starts screaming.
“HEY! Settle down! You’re sad you know. This is not real! You actually don’t feel happy. This is a lie. Get back to being sad like you’re supposed to be!”
So I just respond, “Chill Bob! I’m just taking a little cough drop therapy. No big deal. I know you are still here and are not leaving any time soon. It’s just a cough drop. That’s all.”
And Bob relaxes a bit. He’ll get all stirred up again; this is only a temporary fix—a momentary respite as it were.
When I thought of it this way, I found a number of cough drop remedies that work for me, giving me more moments of relief. Also, unlike actual cough drops, the more I enjoy the moment, the longer the moment lasts. Of course, Bob is persistent and refuses to be ignored; but I just keep putting him off a few minutes at a time. It works.
So don’t deny yourself a break from the sadness just because it feels like a lie. It’s just a cough drop. Pick a flavor you like and enjoy it. It’s really okay.
Having battled depression since I was in the first grade, I’ve gotten lots of suggestions and advice over the years on how to “get over it.” Here are just a few of those and the responses I would love to have given.
See, me, I think you just don’t take things seriously enough. Have you given any thought to world hunger lately? Poverty? Abuse? Because I have and it’s pretty serious stuff. You see me getting upset because of one (so-called) minor incident and you think I’m overreacting. What you don’t get is that, I’m not just responding to this occurrence. I was already thinking about the world’s pain and suffering. Then this thing happens and I’m catapulted into a thought process that attempts to take into account all sadness, all pain, all brokenness of all time. You try thinking about that without getting serious.
Oh okay. If you’d just hold my brain for a minute or . . . I dunno . . . a decade.
What you don’t understand is that I do not have an emotional epidermis. Think of me as a hairless cat. Wait no. No one should think about that. Ever. Think of me as . . . well . . . think of me as someone who doesn’t have an emotional epidermis. Best I can tell, my filters are super permeable. More stuff just gets to me.
Also, I’m not consciously choosing to be “too sensitive” as you seem to think. I’m trying to handle emotional difficulties better; but when you say “You’re just too sensitive,” what I hear is, “You are broken. Fix yourself.” Your not-at-all-well-thought-out advice reinforces what I already believe about myself. And that makes me want to curl up and sleep for a week. Which just makes people say, “You take things too seriously.” (See above.)
I promise you, I’m working on it. You can’t imagine how hard I’m working on it. This time, I just didn’t have the energy to use the coping strategies I’m developing. And I’m tired of picking up the mask every time I face people. So when you see me like this, please refrain from giving me your pithy solutions; instead of reducing my depression, they actually inflame the condition.
On it! Thanks for the suggestion. Wow. Wish I could have known you 45 years ago. Would have saved lots of money in counseling and pharmaceuticals. Gosh, really! I’m all fixed now. Thanks!
You are so right. I don’t. That’s why I don’t understand why I feel this way. Nothing is wrong. Except for everything. And also nothing. But everything.
Here’s the way things go down inside my brain:
Brain: You have no real problems.
Me: Then what’s wrong with me?
Brain: Lots of people have it worse than you! You have no reason to be depressed.
Me: You’re right; I’m such a loser.
Brain: Think about all the people who have truly difficult struggles. Victims of assault or abuse, people in poor health, those who are bereaved. You literally have no problems.
Me: You’re right. I have absolutely no right to feel this way.
Brain: Then stop feeling.
Me: Okay, how?
Brain: Ummmm. Yeah, I got nothing. Not my expertise.
So I hear you, I do. I even quote you to myself all the time. As a matter of fact, there’s no need for you ever to say this to me again. I say it to myself plenty.
Is that a question or an accusation? If it’s a question, settle in friend. I’ve got lots to say. Most people, though, don’t really want to hear the “why.” It’s not really a question at all. It’s an expression of frustration and I get it! It is hard to live with or around someone who is chronically sad. But if you really want to help, give me compassion not judgment. Compassion is infinitely more effective in reducing depression’s symptoms. So instead of making the above statement, why don’t you just create a safe place for me where love is plentiful and mercy is abundant, k? Thanks.
Here’s the thing: if someone you know or love is suffering from chronic depression, resist the urge to give offhand advice. Instead, offer grace: because grace, like love, never fails.