Depression has a way of wringing you out, but somehow, you never get to dry. It can take so much from you – motivation, effort, and sometimes the will to live – and it doesn’t give anything back but emptiness.
And yet, in my experience, people with depression are some of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met.
In retrospect, it makes sense. Who better to understand something horrible and bleak than someone who lives through such thoughts on a regular basis? It’s difficult to imagine yourself in the dark unless you’ve been through it yourself.
When depression takes hold, it’s typical – at least for me – to want to do just about anything to escape the nothingness in your head. For a lot of people, including me, this can mean taking on friends’ problems as your own or throwing yourself behind a cause. Anything to ignore what’s wrong with your own life and mind.
I’ve left pieces of my heart with so many people and places. It makes me wonder if my depression feels like it’s been getting worse because I’ve spread myself so thin and rarely get anything back. If you have a friend who also has depression, it can feel a bit like going in circles.
And yet, you can’t help but continue to give them your attention, all while neglecting yourself.
It’s easy to be the one who says, “I understand,” because sometimes, that’s really all you can do. But in doing so, you leave a little piece of yourself with them. You always do.
That’s why when I heard this line from Kesha’s song “Rainbow,” I immediately burst into tears:
“What’s left of my heart’s still made of gold.”
Depression takes everything out of you, and yet, it’s hard not to reach out to someone and tell them that you get it. Or perhaps you do everything you can to help people, even if it’s just to distract you from what’s going on in your own life.
Maybe everything in your mind is dark and endless, and depression feels like it’s turned your heart to stone – but what’s left of it is made of gold and if you can, use it to reach out and let someone know that you understand.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.
Long before I knew I had an autoimmune disease, I had a diagnosis for bipolar disorder II. I received treatment with meds and periods of counseling during challenging episodes. Although managing my life with this undesired companion was at times exhausting, I felt we had developed a mostly successful partnership.
My unwanted companion taught me some important things, like what I do to my body has a drastic impact on my mind, that procrastination is a symptom of my depression and that depression lies. This knowledge gave rise to a set of practices and choices, some of which seem obvious and others only I truly understand.
My practices included getting eight hours of sleep, reducing my pot-a-day coffee habit to two 6-ounce cups and cutting my alcohol intake to a glass of wine or a beer on special occasions. Knowing procrastination is part of my depression and that depression lies meant coaxing myself to do the most basic activities. “If you get out of bed, you can have coffee. If you do the dishes and tidy the kitchen, you can watch some TV. If you finish the assignment, you can phone a friend.”
During rough times, getting anything done, even taking a shower, involved having a conversation with myself. “You’ll feel better once you don’t have greasy hair.” When I felt too awful to do something, I reminded myself how much better I would feel once it was done. It led to one of my fundamental survival principles: Don’t take your emotional temperature before you do stuff, and it’s corollary: you can do some of your best work on your worst days.
If you enjoy good health, it’s unlikely you have to tell yourself this on a regular basis. And if your health is crap and you’re able to tell yourself this, you are in what I call the “miserable functional zone.” You may not be well. If you were, you probably would not have to talk yourself into putting on pants and eating breakfast. That said, there’s a point when you can no longer talk yourself into anything, even ringing a magic bell that would restore your life to what it was before any of this happened. Please talk to someone sooner rather than later. No one should have to talk themselves into pants and breakfast, which is why my mood stabilizer got boosted with an antidepressant.
I also made some significant choices to accommodate my unwanted companion. I decided not to live alone, as much as I loved the privacy. Having roommates meant I couldn’t isolate myself completely, even if I did choose to stay in. I learned there’s nothing like physical activity to take you out of your head, so as I progressed through school slowly, with a lighter course load, I worked as a retail merchandiser. Whether I was off-loading freight or carting shelves up and down ladders to build displays, my days were physically demanding. It became clear this was positive for my health, if not my bank account, so I kept doing it, even after I graduated.
Eventually, I grew too sick from my undiagnosed autoimmune disease to keep up with the physical demands of my work. I took some time to rebuild my strength after my diagnosis, thinking I would soon be able to go back to life as I knew it. I did go back to work for a short amount of time, but soon I needed to take more time off. Rinse, lather, repeat. It was a humiliating cycle. I recently learned my diagnosis was part of a boxed set, and I have finally surrendered to the reality that my body can’t do everything it once did — even the things that were for my health.
Instead of telling myself to forget about how I feel because I know I will feel better once the task is done, I now have to assess how I feel so I can count my spoons and figure out what I can get done. I have spent my share of time being angry about this, but I’m beginning to learn to co-exist with my newest companion. I have a good track record in the department of unlikely partnerships. I will find new practices that sustain the combined demands of mental and physical illness. It shouldn’t be so difficult to reconcile this. At its core, self-care is about gentleness and respect. Respecting your own limits, as they vary from day to day and moment to moment, as opposed to the limits others place on you.
But right this minute, I am finding it difficult because all those years I struggled with mental illness, I lived with a single goal: Show up. I told myself I didn’t have to smile, be brilliant or pass the exam. I just had to show up. Punch the clock. Meet my friends. Write my name in the top right hand corner.
Now I’m trying to figure out what showing up looks like when you can’t leave the house to go to work in the morning and you have to sit down for a break part way through the dishes.
It isn’t true anymore. I don’t feel better when it’s done. I feel exhausted before, during and after each task I undertake. The sense of victory over small accomplishments eludes me, except on the best of days.
Here is what I know for sure: Today, showing up means opening the document and facing the blinking cursor on the screen. And for now, my job is to find the practices that will help me thrive in this next phase of my life.
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Clearly, for better or worse, Emojis are here to stay. The word “emoji” has entered the dictionary. The little faces and symbols have begun to undergo social and linguistic study. This year, they even came to life on the big screen.
This time last year, Emojis were also inspiring me with an idea for a mobile app promoting mental health by facilitating user-friendly emotion identification.
You see, one day a therapist asked me (as therapists tend to do!) how I was feeling about something. And I was stumped.
You’ve been there, haven’t you? Those moments when you say you feel “blah” when you mean sad, “meh” when you mean tired or “fine” when you mean any number of things.
According to psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, it’s important for our mental and physical health that we identify our emotions as specifically as possible or, in psychological terms, that we practice “emotional granularity.” Barrett writes: “Emotional granularity isn’t just about having a rich vocabulary; it’s about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely. This can make a difference in your life.”
To help with my emotional granularity, the therapist I was talking to pulled out a piece of paper containing a chart of 30 cartoonish “feeling faces.”
“That’s used for kindergarteners, isn’t it?” I asked suspiciously.
“Well, yes. But it can be used by anyone…” he replied.
As I adjusted to using the feeling faces chart, I started thinking that not only can anyone use feeling faces but perhaps, without even realizing it, a large portion of our culture already does — in the form of Emojis.
So, I set to work replicating a fairly standard feeling faces chart into the language of Emoji, and suddenly it didn’t look all that childish. It looked like something meant for me, for my Insta-happy teenage cousins, for my technology-professional father or for anyone, quite frankly. I wondered what it would look like to load up that chart into a mobile app with the following simple instructions (excerpted from the product’s website):
1. Once a day EMOJI CHECK sends you a friendly mobile notification.
2. Open the app and select the Emoji that best represents how you’re feeling.
3. Feel free to write an explanatory note in the textbox if you want. Or not.
4. Go about your day – just a little more in tune with your mind, body and soul!
The 30 Emojis in the chart provide enough options to get some emotional granularity going — but not so many options as to be overwhelming. Not to mention the feelings in the chart have a history of proven use in the mental health care field.
I’m happy to share that in January 2017, EMOJI CHECK was released to the public.
And, I’m happy to share that it’s helped me — a person living with chronic mild-moderate depression and anxiety myself — on my journey of health and happiness as well.
When I had a hunch I was hitting a rough patch, I was selecting “overwhelmed” and “exhausted” in EMOJI CHECK on a daily basis for at least two to three weeks. That tipped the scale for me to make some calls and get some help. Now, some months later, the act of honestly selecting “hopeful” and “happy” in the app most evenings for at least two to three weeks tells me I’ve experienced improvement and may be ready to talk to my therapist about terminating treatment.
Whether or not EMOJI CHECK has such direct decision-making effects on its users, I’m confident we can all use more emotion identification. Each time we identify our emotions with more specificity than a shrug and a “fine,” we build habits of self-awareness into the very fibers — and, yes, the phones! — of our lives.
With much love, compassion and a sense of sisterhood, I want to reach out and say thank you.
Thank you for being brave and sharing your pain. Thank you for being human and allowing your vulnerability. Thank you for being so powerfully emotional and empathetic. You have gifted the world with your amazing words and your beautiful voice.
I also want to say I’m sorry.
I’m sorry you’re in so much pain. I’m sorry you feel so let down and ostracized. I’m sorry you feel so alone. But you are not alone.
I watched your video and I see you. I listened to your words and I hear you. I feel your pain. You have touched my heart. To me, you are family. The millions of us who do, have or will, experience mental illness in all it’s glorious brokenness — we are your family.
I believe true family weather the storm of fiery words and angry emails, and say, “Are you OK?” “What’s going on?” “How can I help?”
Family never say, “I love you but…” They say, “I love you anyway.”
When the pain you’ve tried to hide so long is seeping out and staining your face, I believe family should gently say, “Talk to me.”
Family doesn’t have to be DNA. Family is not defined by blood or ancestry or the person who knew you the longest time.
Family is forgiveness and acceptance. Give and take. Understanding. It is about love. And love is not an easy path to walk. It is a path fraught with mishaps and misunderstandings. Failures and fears. Then forgiveness.
Family see you screaming at the world, while inside you’re tearing apart, and they wrap their arms around you and say, “It’s OK. You will be OK. I am here for you. You can weather this storm.”
Some are blessed to find their family in the people who raised them — the people who just happen to share blood ties with them. Many more people find family outside that very small circle. Sometimes, searching for family in the wrong places, will break your heart.
The beautiful people in the world are just waiting to hug you. To love you. To accept you. To watch you make a mistake, say the wrong thing, fall over and get back up again. And to say, “I love you anyway. You’re my friend. You’re my family. I see you.”
Sinead, your raw shout to the world is heart wrenching, and I am so truly sorry you feel so isolated. I want to send you a huge hug and say thank you for exposing your vulnerability and not turning inwards, to take the pain out on yourself.
With every ounce of my being, I hope your true family have reached out and wrapped their arms around you and said, “You’ll be OK,” because you will be OK. You have made a difference. You will continue to make a difference. You are a beautiful soul and that beauty is etched in every tear you shed.
Last December, while scrolling through submissions from our Mighty contributors, one headline stuck out: “An Angel at LAX,” from writer Kate Lyon Osher. On what happened to be a difficult personal day for me, I selfishly jumped to edit what I assumed would be a light, act-of-kindness story.
Turns out, that “angel” was Robin Williams, who, after watching Osher go through a heartbreaking altercation with TSA while grieving her husband’s suicide, approached her and offered the kind of condolences only a person who truly gets it could give. I won’t retell all of Osher’s story (seriously, go read it), but it gives us a glimpse into the kind of person Williams was — one who, despite his own pain, wanted to make everyone around him happy.
This is a quality people with depression know all too well and why Williams’ death has had such an impact on the mental health community. Though the comedian did talk openly about his depression and addiction, he was better known for making us laugh. For that, we’ll always be thankful.
Though we all don’t have the experience of meeting him in an airport, at one point or another, Williams probably inhabited our living rooms or movie theaters. His films have continued to comfort us all, especially when we are struggling. To commemorate this, we asked our mental health community to share the Robin Williams movies that help them when they’re struggling with depression. We hope he knew how much he meant to us.
So often, depression convinces us no one cares if we are here or not. Please don’t believe this. If you are struggling, reach out. There is help. If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
We miss you, Robin. Thank you for the films below:
“The scene where he is counseling Will (Matt Damon’s character) and he tells him, ‘It’s not your fault’ over and over again. When I was struggling so bad, that is all I wanted to hear from someone. I got so much reassurance from that scene.” — Madison T.
“I had always covered up my emotions with humor or tangents, too afraid to get close to someone, and pushed them away. It took my therapist and my fiance to help me, find me and accept I needed help, to know it wasn’t my fault. I’m doing better now, but still fight with demons daily.” — Kimberly T.
“The movie had so much depth, and Robin Williams portrayed his character so well.
This movie has stayed with me, maybe because it touched on the big life questions about love, grief, betrayal, abandonment, hope, death, etc.” — Brenda N.
“Very underrated because many look at it as very dark and sad, but I see it as a testament to all that you can overcome if you never give up believing. That things are not always what they seem but rather the way in which you choose to see them.” –Jennifer T.
3. “Patch Adams”
“Patch Adams has always been a favorite of mine. It has its ups and downs (and always there for a good cry), but the lesson about living life and laughing whenever you can is a great reminder.” — Liz T.
“Having a doctor care about more than just the ‘science’ of an illness… them treating the patient’s emotional needs as well… it stuck with me. It’s actually what I look for in a doctor now. I need someone to see me as a person and not just as a mental illness.” — Lisa M.
“He spent so much time spreading joy. Even after a patient takes the love of his life he ends up returning and continuing his work. Did his heart break? Absolutely. Did he want to stop? Bet your ass he did. But he got up and continued to help people. He taught me: even broken people can make a difference.” — Angela B.
4. “Dead Poets Society”
“He was unconventional but inspired his class to be unconventional, too. To look at life differently. I love that unconventional can inspire and do good. It inspires me to try even though my mental illness makes me unconventional.” — Martha W.
“It was probably the first movie that dealt with mental health (specifically depression/suicide) that I ever saw, and it helped me understand some of those feelings within myself. It also was a huge inspiration for me to seek out the arts and poetry as a way to find connection.” — Jen L.
“No matter what, he just wanted those boys to find their voice and become independent. He didn’t care what happened to him. As long as he knew he made a small difference, he was happy. Knowing there are people out there who have that exact mindset eases my mind when trying to find the good in this world.” — Christa M.
“When Genie made the big speech about how he longed to be free — that resonates so much with me because isn’t that what we all want? To be free from our illnesses and to be able to control our own lives and our own feelings? It’s one of my favorite childhood movies so it also has the nostalgic side as well.” — Charlotte H.
“I can relate to the part about wanting to be free all too well. I have severe depression and anxiety along with bipolar disorder, and I never feel in control of my own life, I never feel like I am my own. I always feel worthless and don’t understand how people put up with me, but there’s another quote when Genie says to Al that he ‘is always going to be a prince in Genie’s eyes.’ And to me, I may view myself so low, but to others they still see me through my mess and value every part of me.” — Heather B.
6. “Mrs. Doubtfire”
“‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ will always make me laugh so hard that my stomach hurts. But any movie with Robin Williams is guaranteed to make you live in somebody else’s world instead of your own for a little while.” — Lyssa C.
7. “The Bird Cage”
“Despite how bad my depression gets, this movie always makes me laugh. It reminds me to accept myself for what I am and to be proud as hell of that.” — Clara B.
“When I was growing up, my family used to watch that movie every time it came on, and it stuck with me. It’s my favorite Peter Pan story to date. I’ve always loved the idea of a place I could fly off to and fight pirates and swim with mermaids. Watching him rediscover his inner child while I was growing up has helped me keep mine thriving.” — Alex H.
“Everything about his character in this movie was raw and emotional. There is such a magnificence and wonder that erupts when he discovers he is indeed Peter Pan. That feeling of being trapped as an adult and wanting that rush and excitement of being a kid again (before depression) makes me happy in ways I thought were long gone.” — Jennifer S.
“One scene at the very end keeps me going…
Wendy: So your adventures are over.. Peter: Oh no, to live — to live will be an awfully big adventure.” — Christopher G.
9. “The Fisher King”
“‘The Fisher King’ really resonated with me. The mistakes we make, the price that others sometimes pay for them, but the possibility of finding redemption in each other. It’s the first film I can remember where the mentally ill character was not a parody or a caricature.” — Shaun S.
“‘The Fisher King’ explored the realities of the mentally ill with humor, drama and deep compassion. I can think of no other movie that explores the interactions and the fine lines between ‘normal’ and ‘madness’ with more humanity. Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges embody the ongoing struggles of a society fractured by a need to improve understanding. The grace and message of this movie has been sadly overlooked, but it gave me hope that the world can change its broken attitudes.” — Kay W.
“Jack, because though he faced difficulties on an emotional level, he finds the right support system, helping him live a fuller happier life. Just like those of us who go through dark times.” — Chris S.
11. “Night at the Museum”
“‘Night at the Museum’ because he knew that even though he was stuck during the day (like a depressive episode where you can’t move), he knew that it wouldn’t always be that way.” — Mikayla M.
12. “August Rush”
“It is one of the only movies where he didn’t pretend, and you could tell he wasn’t. This movie made me realize, even the greatest struggled.” — Devin H.
“I can’t really explain why, but I feel he was most like himself in that movie. He portrayed a lonely man with no real connection to anyone, but he put his heart in his work and his success brought him joy. In the end, he was lighter and more free with a better ability to connect to people other than his patients. He was trying so hard to be a part of something. That’s what I want for myself.” — Noreen A.
14. “The Angriest Man In Brooklyn”
“‘The Angriest Man In Brooklyn’ was possibly the most unlikely of his films to give me hope during depression… but it really did. His character was a man who was constantly angry at the whole world, and he was told by a doctor that he was dying. That same doctor follows him to try to convince him to get treatment and helps him to reconnect with the family he had alienated. It gives me hope that there are strangers out there who care that much and that no matter the reason you lost touch, you can reconnect with friends and family who have drifted away.” — Jenny B.
I also wanted to include a few answers from our community members who said they couldn’t pick just one film. Their words seemed too powerful not to share:
“I want to say only one of his movies affected me. I want to say one truly stands out… but that isn’t the case. He was my role model, my icon. From my lack of a fatherly figure in my life, he was the one I looked up to. My first chapter book I read was ‘Flubber,’ which he starred in. I’ve seen all his movies multiple times, I have connected with each of them, his passing affected me tremendously. He even met my dying nephew in a San Francisco children’s hospital. He connected to my family, I remember placing my feet in his prints at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. I saw all his video-taped beginning comedy, I watched this man through his whole career. So no, it wasn’t just one film or one moment of this man that I connected with, it was him entirely. He impacted my life in such a way that any star hopes to reach with his fans. I’m not some starstruck fan though; he inspired me in my life. When he died, a part of me went with him. So in essence, all his films were relatable for me.” — Kristina C.
“At first, I wanted to follow the rules and give you one answer. Then I realized that was an impossible task for me. I grew up watching his films, and as an actor myself, I admired his fearlessness, his authenticity, his energy, his creative genius. We can mask our mental illnesses by acting, but being an actor requires you to take off your masks. Any actor worth their salt will tell you that creating a character is a cathartic experience; you have to bring truth to your roles if you want to connect with your audience and that’s what Robin did best… We share an anniversary; I woke up alive… he didn’t. I don’t ever envision an August 11th without commemorating the day with a Robin Williams movie marathon. He shows me not that my bipolar disorder will be my death sentence, but that despite the manic depression, I can use my talents and live a full life. ‘What will your verse be?'” — Leah T.
“No one film, but a characteristic of all his roles. He always was able to truly show sadness. Seeing glimpses of what I perceived as true sadness made me realize it’s normal to feel sad and alone. It also made me feel that it’s acceptable to show raw emotion, which has helped me in life as well as therapy.” — Rebecca S.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
As someone struggling with depression, there are many lies I tell myself to get through each day. I tell myself I believe things will get better. I tell myself I believe life is worth living. I tell myself I believe someday I will be happy. All these lies I tell myself in the hope they will eventually ring true and I will come to believe them. But there are some lies I tell myself without even being aware, and it wasn’t until the suicide of Robin Williams that I discovered I had been telling myself the greatest lie of all.
When I learned Robin Williams had died by suicide, I was devastated. Not because I knew him personally or because of some mistaken sense of starstruck familiarity. I knew I would never have to carry the burden of grief his close friends and family would bear. His sudden absence would not alter the course of my daily routine and I would not mourn the missed intimate conversations we would have otherwise engaged in. The truth is, I was devastated because he was 63.
Robin Williams was 63 when he killed himself. After all that he had accomplished, all that he had challenged, survived, learned and conquered, it appeared to me that he couldn’t move beyond the ghosts that tortured him. Success, no matter how you measure it — whether by money, fame, accomplishments or family — none of it seemed enough to chase away the nightmares that doggedly pursued him throughout his life. It seems he never discovered the secret to conquering his inner demons so they would remain in the dark and let him live unencumbered. I was devastated because if Robin Williams, with all his age and experience, could not beat the odds, what possible chance did I have?
Somewhere in the back of my mind, in the fragile, sheltered box of light I keep tucked beneath the oppressive darkness that is my depression, I realized I had been falsely clinging to the desperate notion that some day, perhaps with the help of medication, meditation, self-awareness and therapy, I would eventually get a handle on my own demons and, once in control, I would sweep them aside to live the rest of my life in a fiercely negotiated peace. I wasn’t so naive as to believe I could erase my depression completely, but I would build a cell strong enough to keep it bound, cornered, out of sight and literally out of mind. Once I had paid my dues and learned my lessons, my life would be mine to live as I pleased.
This was the greatest lie I told myself about depression. I had believed that some day I would find a permanent solution to my plight, but I realize now that no fortification can bar its return and hold it at bay while I live the idyllic life I deeply desire. There will always be a need to maintain vigilance, like a keeper at the gate. I can build a cell but from time to time, but when it is least expected or I am least prepared, the despair inside me will leach through the cracks and force me to drive it back or lose myself forever. Just as I imagine it had done with Robin Williams.
It is not my intention to suppose what had been going through his mind in his final days or to make assumptions regarding the inner workings of his life. I have no privilege to information beyond what was presented in the media and I will never claim to personally know who he was or understand his unique struggles. But I know depression and I find myself thinking about him almost every day. I can’t help but imagine his loneliness and the heavy heartbreak which likely traced his every step. Whether in fact or only in my mind, I can’t help but feel connected as only someone who has experienced the hopelessness of despair can, and at the same time, I thank him. He will never know the impact he has had on my life but I like to think if he did, it would bring him some peace to know he had helped someone — he helped me. He opened my eyes to the lie I was harboring and gave me a chance to find a new truth for myself.
I try to lie less and less these days. I still tell myself what I need to in order to survive, but I also look for reasons to prove myself wrong when I can. I try harder to recognize the things that make my life worth living and I pursue the things that will make me happy. I don’t always catch them but sometimes, just the chase is enough. Most of all, I look forward to the day I turn 64 and I can raise a glass to Mr. Williams, sharing with him my gratitude, as I blow out the candles on my cake.