On Invisible Illnesses

Robin Williams

I was on the subway home when I heard the news of Robin Williams’ passing. The loss of the sweet, wise, and beloved funny man has been a shock followed by a wave of sadness. While it is unfortunate that it takes a loss of someone so acclaimed and illustrious for these topics to be picked up, I have at least been glad to see the conversations that have since been happening online. For example, Facebook statuses saying “We need to talk about depression” and articles like this one, and this one.

Depression is a mental illness, and suicide is a heartbreaking possible side effect. There are different types of depression, and severity can vary, as can causative factors. This means that what a person needs to get better is also going to vary, but there are solutions. And asking someone to get it together is not one of them.

As much as I am continually striving toward brighter, more thriving health through everyday choices I make, I cannot snap out of having Crohn’s disease or this annoying summer cold that’s going around. It’s not a matter of “pulling up my socks” and “getting it together” to be feeling perfect by tomorrow. It’s a journey. And it’s the same with depression. It is an illness that can be overcome with compassion and dedication, time and effort – and it can also be deadly. It is not less serious or less real.

Look at that smiling face above. We all know that face as being visually synonymous with laughter and the feel-good warm-and-fuzzies. Yet depression took him. Many types of illness do not seem apparent.

It is interesting to note how differently we view people when we assume that we know what is going on.

A personal story to illustrate this:

There have been times that I have been too weak and/or in too much pain to walk very easily. This ain’t no pity party, so stick with me for a minute. Many years ago I had required a rollator to walk (a walker on wheels), and when in a bad flair-up at a later date, I refused to use it out of stubbornness – while it would have helped, I didn’t need it. I had found it too frustrating the first time (another enlightening experience in many regards, primarily to do with accessibility issues; try taking the bus with one of those suckers). So instead, this time I walked along the street verrrrrry slowly, wavering side-to-side slightly. I was bestowed with an alarming number of dirty looks wherever I went. I realized later that I probably looked drunk or high to many people passing by. Or maybe they thought I had a developmental delay of some sort, or a mental illness. Too often, all of these things tend to be looked down upon socially. I was scorned. While in this condition, one day I decided to use the rollator and walked the same route I had met so much disapproval on so many times, and suddenly was flooded with an outpouring of sympathy and concern. Sad smiles and doors held open for me, questions of what could have happened to someone “so young”. My prop had suddenly given visibility to my illness. Regardless of what that illness was, I was suddenly identified as someone with a health problem, rather than someone who was abusing substances (which, by the way, can also be an illness – addiction is also a serious problem).

My point? There are two main ones.

One: non-visible forms of illness, and any sort of mental illness, including addiction, are just as legitimate as the visible, physical forms of illness. They are just as serious, and just as real. If I had been stumbling as an addict, I would have been no less worthy of support than I was as a person stumbling with sore intestines.

Two: You cannot see into someone’s life by looking at their face. You do not know what another is going through, and it is never safe to assume much of anything. So when in doubt, why not offer compassion? Why not just be kind? Who on earth has so much love that they would be hurt by the excess of receiving more?

peter pan

If you know someone who is depressed and are struggling to understand what they’re going through:

Here are a couple different explanations of what it’s like to be depressed. There is no one way to experience it, but if you like videos, maybe watch this one. Or if you like poignant, potty-mouthed cartoons, check out this one (and if you like it, then part two of the comic is right here).

Without ever meeting him, Robin Williams could make you feel like he was a close friend, there to pick you up when you’re feeling down. That’s how I’ll remember him. Thanks for all the laughs, friend. Bangarang and nanu nanu, my Captain.

Be kind, friends.

Candace and the FGF team

candace - thefeelgoodfoodies.com

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