I’ve been putting this off for many years now. I never wanted to write another “woe is me” post, not since some troll suggested I give up writing. Another troll (or maybe it was the same one) went so far as to e-mail screen grabs of my sales rank, just to rub my failures in my face. Now, I know the kinds of people who get off knocking me down are probably suffering from mental health issues themselves. I’m sure they suffer from depression and low self-esteem and this is their way of fighting it. You won’t see Stephen King telling me how much better he is at writing. Still, my not wanting to “feed the trolls” put me off from expressing any negativity online. Everything is awesome, thankyouverymuch! But I am starting to think this was a wrongheaded approach, because it feeds into the myth that people dealing from anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, and other mental health issues, are somehow weak, that they’ve somehow failed at life. Hell, I used to believe this myself. Decades ago, whenever I’d read about some celebrity committing suicide, I’d say, “If it were me, I would fight!”
What I didn’t understand at the time, is that the people struggling with depression are fighting. They are fighting, in fact, all the time—and it’s losing the fight that ends up killing them. When Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, it came as a tremendous shock to almost everyone, especially me. How could someone so full of life, so full of humor, have been suffering with thoughts of suicide? But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me. If you watch Williams in an interview, you’ll notice he’s always “on.” He never looks comfortable acting like a normal person. Every second of his life had to be a joke, an impromptu comedy sketch, because that was his way of battling his demons. I imagine at some point, when he could no longer keep up the act, his demons finally got to him. We are all, on some level, battling invisible demons. Mine are constantly telling me I am not good enough, I am not loved, and the world would have been better off had I never lived. I make counterpoints in my head, remembering that, actually, my wife loves me, and my kids need me, and I have a small following of readers, and hell, even if I didn’t, that’s still more than a lot of people can say. Some days, I manage to argue my way out of that pit. Other times, it doesn’t matter what I think or do. Life is meaningless and there’s no point in suffering it any longer. It feels true—so goddamn true—and I am convinced that depression is nothing more than the realization of that awful truth, a truth nobody has the courage to admit. That happiness is just a short-lived delusion.
Most people are dismissive of depression because matters of mental health are invisible. I always feel like, if I bring it up to friends or family, that they’ll be suspicious of me, they’ll think I am just craving attention, greedily trying to steal sympathy from them. The paradox is that, in a lot of ways, I am seeking attention, because depression feels like drowning, and the love and attention I receive from those closest to me is like a life preserver. My parents were raised in Greece in the 40’s. Having almost no education, they know nothing about mental health, and don’t even consider it a real problem. As a consequence, my mother suffered from a lifelong battle with OCD, a sickness that kept her from forming healthy relationships, and prevented her from ever getting a decent night’s sleep. Even when, in high school, I managed to diagnose it, she refused treatment, because, as she put it, “I’m not crazy.” She simply could not accept the fact that the brain is an organ like any other, and that sometimes it breaks down. Ironically, a big part of her OCD involved a fear of germs and disease, but only diseases she could see. So, if I started to cough, she’d freak out (she did this even before COVID) thinking I’m about to die of pneumonia, but when I used to tell her how mercilessly the kids at school bullied me, she’d always laugh it off, telling me, “Don’t be so sensitive. Just ignore them.” Once, she joked, “What are you gonna do about it? Kill yourself?” Of course, ignoring bullies only seemed to encourage them more. If I had been raised to believe that mental health problems are real and not signs of weakness, maybe I could have gotten the help I needed sooner. Ten years ago, when I turned thirty-six, I flat out admitted to her, on my birthday of all days, that I was suicidal. Her reaction? Disappointment. Anger. “Why would you tell your mother that?” She just assumed I was trying to hurt her feelings. I couldn’t possibly want to kill myself. I wasn’t a “crazy” person, as far as she understood. So I never brought the subject up again and neither did she.
People mistake depression with sadness, but these can be very different feelings. Sadness typically involves something you care about. You may feel sad about losing your job or losing a friend, but life still matters to you in some way. When it comes to depression, nothing seems to matter at all. The will to live, the urge to seek out happiness, simply isn’t there any more. It’s like a crucial component of yourself has gone missing, and you go through your daily routine like a robot, not because you want to but because you are expected to. At least for me, not everyday is like this. Thankfully. But when depression hits hard, I find it impossible to think, to focus—my brain is in a fog—and this is when my writing suffers, and why it takes me so damn long to get my books out.
As a blogger and a storyteller, I like to wrap things up neatly, after reaching some dramatic epiphany, some moment of clarity and understanding. But life isn’t like that. There’s no plot to reality, no overarching theme, no inherent meaning. That is what, I believe, storytelling is for. We tell stories to make sense of our lives, to give it the narrative we so desperately need. If life did have a plot, if my demons were tangible things I could actually, physically fight, I think they’d be much easier to handle. If you could simply throw a ring in a volcano or destroy all of Voldemort’s horcruxes, we might all live happily-ever-after, but the truth of the matter is, life just is, and there are good moments and bad, and sometimes it feels we’ve got it all sorted out and other times we haven’t got a damn thing figured out and life makes no sense. So, yeah, I wish I could end this post with some clever quip, to make it seem all worthwhile, but I can’t. Truth is, I don’t have the answers and don’t want to pretend that I do. Are drugs the answer? Therapy? Love? Maybe. I had a year of therapy and I find that just being around friends and family, playing D&D, or writing a good chapter, works just as well. Certainly, society plays a major role, because our world is broken in many ways. I often feel that I cannot really talk to anyone, without pretending, and I do not doubt that with more compassion in the world, with greater understanding, we’d see fewer cases of suicide.
So this is me, fighting the only way I know how, using words the way Robin Williams used humor.
Hi Nick! I recently discovered your website from your Olympia Publishing post from a few years ago and now I’m binge-reading your entries. I’m a writer myself (children’s picture books) and I enjoy reading about your experiences with our writers’ disease. It makes me feel less alone.
Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience about mental health and your family. I’m 39 years old and I grew up in an Asian family. The description of the conversations you had with your mom is reminiscent of my attempted conversations and the feelings I have about sharing my mental/emotional journey with my parents. I have since given up on connecting with my parents emotionally. It hasn’t stopped me from loving them fiercely, but I now recognize that during their formative years, they didn’t have access or the knowledge and information that we do in the present day, and I don’t expect them to change. I am fortunate to have a very emotionally-mature partner and have since learned to deal with my demons and grow.
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Hey Maria, thanks for stopping by and writing to me! I always appreciate comments like these. I actually wrote a kid’s book with my seven-year-old daughter (she’s 16 now) called “No, Sophia.” It was mostly for fun. Feel free to drop a link to your content if you have one.