State of Mind: A Personal View on Depression in the Wake of the Robin Williams Tragedy
by Anthony Swanson
The moment the email came in, emotion overwhelmed me. Glowing in front of my face as I sat back wide-eyed on the couch in the dark in a pair of tired gym shorts, there was a note saying I was one of a handful of people nominated by my company’s leaders for a national trade journal’s “Rising Stars” award. What luck! Completely taken aback, you can probably imagine all the feelings racing through my head… things like desperation, hopelessness, panic, anger, and shame. Wait, what?
Outwardly, luck has appeared to be kind to me, though underneath there was a dark secret lurking. I was raised by fantastic parents, in a safe middle class neighborhood with a great school district. Their involvement and support helped me excel in school, even if I was a bit awkward. After growing into a solid athlete and winning multiple high-school state titles, an athletic scholarship to a top tier D1 school came my way. After a rough start at college, things fell into place, and I ultimately graduated as an NCAA Athletic and Academic All American, Big Ten Medal of Honor winner and Olympic Trials semi-finalist, with admission to an engineering PhD program on a full scholarship and stipend funded by an NSF grant.
Adulthood looked similarly sunny on the surface. My graduate school work produced a patent; I started a successful small business, and was able to make the jump from engineering to a Top-5 management consulting firm. I married my beautiful college sweetheart, and had an adorable young son. Then there was the “Top 35 Under 35” award that I ended up receiving. However, while I’ve been known for many things in my life, the ones that seemed to define me most were a great secret, from everyone, in some ways even from myself.
Early on, I learned that I had to be very careful about how I shared my thoughts and emotions; they were dark and pessimistic. I was an amazing critic, and was particularly skilled at criticizing myself. For some reason, every negative thing anyone ever said or inferred about me made perfect sense, while compliments and positive feedback were incomprehensible. So many things that seemed easy for other people were incredibly hard for me. The only thing that brought me fleeting reprieve was achievement.
That achievement came at well-timed points in my life, pulling me away from thoughts of suicide once while I was a teenager, and again more recently. Somehow, despite my terrible acting skills, it was possible to hide all this even while working alongside some of the world’s foremost experts in the field for over a year to start a neuroscience non-profit – people like prominent advocates for advancing treatment of mental health disorders, researchers that invented the very anti-depressants that help me so much, and scientists that created the first MRI machines. Breaking out of the downward spiral seemed impossible at the time, when the world was closing in on me, and thinking beyond the next five minutes was downright painful.
Thankfully, I had a helping hand, one that reached through the dark curtains and guided me to a doctor who helped me see that these thoughts weren’t normal, and most importantly, that I didn’t cause them. I realized just how much my family and I had to lose. Suddenly, things looked better, a clear answer emerged: I had been having multiple major depressive episodes, along with persistent depression (previously called dysthemia), and ADHD. I had made it this far in life by medicating with an addiction to achievement, using the anxiety from my depression to spur my ADHD mind into a hyper-focused state every time I needed a new goal to reach.
With all that’s happened, and the greater perspective that came from diagnosing, understanding, and successfully addressing my ADHD and depression, I actually consider myself luckier than ever, even though these illnesses will always be part of my life. The power of healthy thinking is apparent to me now, in addition to the otherwise healthy lifestyle I already understood as a former athlete. Instead of feeling weak or broken, I understand my capabilities. I’m excited by the strength these experiences have given me, and the understanding that in addition to their burden, these lifelong conditions have some benefit, like drive, resilience, and increased accuracy in worldview that I can actually use to my advantage. Instead of feeling burdened, now I look forward to using these skills to explore exciting and difficult things, like clarifying the intersection of Understanding and Belief, and identifying ways that healthy habits and constructive behavior can be achieved at scale, using mechanisms such as open science, competition, constructive thinking, and inclusive action.
I feel such gratitude to all those that helped me, along with those in the Orion Alliance and elsewhere who are pursuing such noble endeavors to help the many who continue to suffer in silence. And what is really important, translating these things to an individual level, helping those who want help to see the value in addressing and embracing these conditions, rather than hiding them. After all, I’m living, breathing proof.
Depression truly is a disease of the walking wounded; we hide everywhere in plain sight, suffering in silence. The stigma surrounding mental health is astounding. Even those who have suffered with depression in the greatest positions of power, speaking in a safe forum, still tend to discuss it in a very dismissive and distant way, as though these disorders were long in their past, far outside their body and being. It is discussed in a way eerily similar to cancer 50 years ago, or HIV/AIDS 30 years ago: both diseases that were feared largely for lack of understanding. Worst of all, is the belief that something biological and chemical is actually a weakness or a character flaw, and that people suffering from mental health disorders deserve to be ridiculed, or harassed. It’s no wonder the depressed want to hide.
In the wake of Robin Williams’ untimely death there has been much discussion about depression and suicide. Perhaps now is the time to start actually listening to the individuals that are still here. It’s easy to fear what we don’t understand, even simple things like actively listening to someone talk about their depression. We must know and remember that talking is a good thing. Silence is far more dangerous. So, let’s keep the discussion going: here and wherever it’s welcome.