I Was Tired
It doesn't usually affect me when celebrities die, other than in an abstract way. It's sad, because dying is sad, but it doesn't affect my life. I don't mourn, I don't feel grief.
But Robin Williams was special. I really do feel a deep and genuine sadness that he has left this world. And it's all the more tragic because he took his own life. He, who was such a beacon of love and light and hope for so many. The internet is awash with stories of his kindness, compassion and generosity. His comedic genius was a true gift; one he shared with the world without hesitation. To know that this beautiful soul was so deep in despair that the only conceivable solution was death...that hurts me.
Nobody should feel that alone. Nobody should feel that hopeless.
But many people do.
And because depression is so insidious and so sly...some don't even know why.
A lot of my readers know that I lost 75lbs. I became a Zumba Instructor and a Weight Watchers leader. Five years later, most of the weight is still gone. I exercise daily. I am fit and healthy. They call me an "inspiration". Which is nice to hear. But sometimes it feels a little disingenuous to accept the praise.
Because nobody knows how I got so fat and out of shape to begin with.
Basically, I spent two years sleeping.
I would set my alarm to get my children up for school, feed them some cereal, put them on the bus, reset the alarm for 2:30, and go back to bed until the afternoon bus came to return them to me. Then I would go about the business of being a Mom; homework and play dates and baseball practice, while in between racing around trying to create some order and cover up the fact that I had frittered away six and a half hours of my day sleeping. My husband didn't catch on for a long time. I was that good.
Every single day I would tell myself I wasn't going to back to bed. Even as I said it, I knew I was lying to myself. But I said it anyway. And then I went back to bed. I couldn't resist the lure of my soft, warm bed and the dark cocoon of my room. I was just, so, tired. And I didn't understand why. Why I was so tired, and why I couldn't just "buck up" and stay out of bed the entire day like normal people. It slowly eroded my self-esteem as a person and as a mother. I was an abject failure. Weak. Useless. Pointless.
It never occurred to me that my problem was depression. Ever. Because I didn't feel sad, exactly.
Oh sure, I was lonely. I lived 900 miles from my family and had never, ever lived up to the Southern standard of acceptability. I was Atheist, for a start. And further, just...different...from the ladies who were part of my peer group. I wasn't sweet or genteel or spiritual. I was direct and bawdy and irreverent. I didn't really fit in. So I found acquaintances, but no really satisfying friendships. I didn't know how to find people like me, if they were out there.
And yes, I felt a little lost once my babies started school, having devoted so many years to being "Mom" and forgetting me in the process. I really had no idea who I was or what I wanted or what to do about it. And true, I resented that the only thing I had to look forward to each day was cleaning this, or scrubbing that, or organizing the other. I resented that my life was just one day after another of paralyzing tedium.
It was thoroughly disheartening. But that was just stuff. And everybody has stuff.
I never felt that I just couldn't go on. That I would be better off dead. That I should just end it all. I was just chronically disappointed in life, I guess. That's how I characterized my emotional state. I never tied it to the pervasive and sometimes overwhelming fatigue and the need to just escape into sleep.
It could have been worse. I could have turned to alcohol or drugs. I had plenty of them. Plagued with chronic migraines, I always had an arsenal of narcotics in my bedside table drawer. But the thought of battling one more demon kept me honest with those. I could have turned to food and eaten myself into morbid obesity. I did have poor eating habits, but the fact is I really didn't eat that much. When you sleep fourteen or fifteen hours a day, it doesn't leave much time for noshing. But my constant sleeping had ground my metabolism to a screeching halt and turned my muscles to mush, so that anything I did eat just turned to fat pretty much the moment it hit my stomach. My migraines increased dramatically, I was sick constantly. I had no energy for even the simplest of tasks.
I was a mess.
And then I had a stroke.
Well, three, actually.
One day I experienced a bout of severe dizziness that sent me to the doctor, whom I mostly avoided. She did some basic neurological function tests; touch my nose with my eyes closed, stand on one foot, resist her pushing my arms down...etc. I couldn't stand on one foot. I fell over almost immediately, no matter how hard I tried. And when I tried to walk in a straight line, one foot in front of the other, like a sobriety test, I drifted to the left every time. She ordered an MRI, just to "cover all the bases" and it came back showing three areas of stroke damage and "diffuse speckling" which is consistent with chronic migraine. I was stunned.
More tests were ordered to determine the cause of the stroke; an insane number of tests to which my insurance company objected strenuously. None was ever found. I did not have blood clots, or other blockages, no heart valve problems or holes, no weak blood vessels that would indicate an impending aneurysm...nothing except startlingly high blood pressure.
She was blunt, but kind. These small strokes were a warning, and the likelihood of suffering another stroke in the next year was 50%, unless I changed some things. I needed to modify my diet, start exercising and lose some weight. At 5' 4", I weighed 232 pounds; almost 100 pounds over the recommended weight for my height. My blood pressure was 140/160.
That's where two years of sleeping had left me.
I tearfully broke down and confessed what I had been doing. She knew right away that I was suffering from depression and said so. "Depressed?" I asked. "No. I'm just really tired." She was gently adamant and put me on a mild anti-depressant, as well as anxiety medication, blood pressure medication, blood thinners and low dose aspirin therapy. She referred me to a neurologist for follow up care and stroke rehab.
I should have felt better, but I felt awful. The blood pressure medication made me feel even more tired. Everything was a struggle. I felt dizzy every time I stood up. I began to feel recognizable depression at the thought of living this way forever. I felt the familiar pull of my bed.
The neurologist was also very kind. She could see clearly that I was scared to death.
"Listen..." she said, "It's going to take some work, but you can change this. You were lucky. You could have lost your ability to walk, to speak, to function independently. But you didn't. And you don't have to. It's up to you. You can do it if you want to."
And for some reason, she got through to me. It was time to take the bull by the horns, goddammit. I joined Weight Watchers and I began walking every day. It was a slow start. I couldn't even complete one lap around the track at the park. I was red faced, sweating profusely, and every muscle in my lower body burned in protest. But I kept going. It sucked, but it was better than lying in bed letting life pass me by. It was better than having another, possibly devastating stroke and needing someone to wipe my ass for me the rest of my life.
I saw her every four months for a year, and each time I was significantly smaller. The second visit I was 30 pounds lighter and she was amazed. She praised me effusively. It made me feel like a little kid, but I ate it up.
Slowly, I began to feel like myself again. I got off the blood pressure medication after just three months of dieting and exercising. Physically, I felt better immediately. The anti-depressants and the exercise began to lift me out of the fog. My migraines became much less frequent and I began to feel strong. My journey had led to career possibilities and I found I had a reason to get out of bed every morning. I had a life to live.
Looking back, I can see what a very dark place I was in. I can recognize now that I was dangerously depressed. But I could not see it at the time. And that's why depression is so insidious. It sneaks up on you, cloaks you in denial and pulls the wool over your eyes. I was just tired, I thought. I wouldn't have sought help if it hadn't been for the stroke. And who knows what might have happened? In a strange way, suffering those strokes was a stroke of good luck. (pun intended).
I got off antidepressants two years ago with my doctor's permission and most of the time I feel good. But I'm always vigilant. Maybe too much so. I get a little anxious when I start to feel that old apathy creeping in; that clinical blahness that seemed so harmless at first. People say..."It's normal, everybody has those days!" But you see, for me, those days can turn into weeks and weeks into months and months into years. I can't let that happen. If ever I can't jolt myself out of that place with some brisk exercise, some great music, or some other kind of self prescribed therapy, you can bet I will be back at my doctor's office, begging for some therapy in a bottle.
What I've learned is that it's not just a "bad mood". I can't just "snap out of it". I'm not being "lazy". It's brain chemistry, not a moral defect. A person can't regulate the complicated cocktail of chemicals and hormones in their brain through simple positivity and strength of character. Depression is a disease and it has to be treated medically, just like any other chronic illness. That doesn't make it any more acceptable these days, sadly. Mental illness is still stigmatized and poorly understood. But it doesn't matter. I understand it and I understand what I have to do.
The other reason Robin Williams' passing affects me like no other is that it's scary. I never felt like I wanted to die. But I didn't really want to live either, which is why I slept all the time. I see now that I could have easily slipped past the point of apathy to actively seeking an end. I didn't. But I still could.
He got tired of the struggle I think.
I get it.
Rest In Peace, Robin. You were such a bright light in this world. I don't believe in Heaven, so I don't know where you are now, but I know that wherever it is...it's a brighter place than it was before.