Living with Depression — Wil Wheaton Is My Spirit Animal Now
The fainting goat has long been my spirit animal. They are sweet little creatures with a congenital neuromuscular disorder that causes their muscles to seize when they get startled. Also called wooden-leg goats, the younger ones tend to topple right over. I too have gotten better at shaking off the panic as I age. But animals that survive in the wild utilize their fight-or-flight survival mechanism. The goats and I? Faint or freeze. This has been true in my personal life as well as my professional life. I’ve used these kindred spirits to illustrate my anxiety problems to friends, acquaintances (as needed) and supervisors. I even had this written up in an annual performance eval: Heather will work on fainting goat episodes to find constructive solutions to problems. Heather will ask for help before deadlines become crises. The image of the myotonic goats succinctly describes the effect of anxiety but no one wants to talk about the cause, a lot of which is rooted in depression.
But then Wil Wheaton decided to bear his whole beautiful soul on the internet, ragged and reborn, in a selfless commitment to help strangers. He is neither celebrity spokesperson nor patron saint for all those depressed and anxiety-ridden people who couldn’t admit they had either disease until adulthood. He isn’t responsible for us. But it’s comforting to learn that he is a fellow traveler. With a platform. And because of, not in spite of his depression, he is using his powers for good.
Depression is like a carbon monoxide leak. It slow-builds for days, weeks, longer, before we realize anything is wrong, has been wrong. But an anxiety attack is the orange-blue ghost that bursts into flames when a gas leak catches fire. I didn’t know the former makes you more susceptible to the latter. In fact, I didn’t know anything about either. Nor did I know I have both. Welcome to the Information Age.
But long before the internet there was Gordie Lachance. Of course my first crush was on an aspiring writer from Oregon. He was the deepest sweetest character I had seen on TV in my young life. I told my blonde sister that he would like me better because we were both brunettes — flawless logic in my young and selfish mind. I felt sorry for her but didn’t think she should get her hopes up.
Decades later, he had become a man who would voice so much of what I’ve struggled to understand, let alone articulate, for decades.
It’s taken me since then to quiet the many voices telling me not to write this — shame, vulnerability and pride all bristling at the idea of publicly describing the darkest days of my life and admitting that there are things beyond my control, beyond my strength to deal with.
But if a celebrity with an uncannily parallel journey and much more to lose can contribute to the conversation then I should add one more voice to the choir until depression and anxiety are socially regarded the same way chronic migraines or diabetes are. That’s not to say that the stigma will vanish but if the lens we view it through is more biomedical, more physiological, those who suffer from it might feel less stigmatized, less weak. We already feel like failures and fear exacerbates the blame we punish ourselves with. We don’t need anyone else telling us we’re overreacting or being hypersensitive or that we need to manage our stress better. Believe me. We’ve been beating ourselves up for that all along.
“I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what. And because I didn’t know what, I didn’t know how to ask for help.” — Wil Wheaton
That same vague sense of wrongness that I couldn’t articulate got wronger as I was growing up. Al Gore hadn’t invented the internet yet so I couldn’t search by symptom what might be wrong with me. A label would have helped my own self-awareness as much as a diagnosis might have helped me to do something about it. Whatever “it” was, maybe I could have course-corrected my trajectory. Had I the access to all the information the world has ever known the way we do today I might not have felt so … wrong. Something was definitely off. And the vast datasphere that we can now access for free — and privately — would have changed the life of a scared and confused girl, who despite having a loving family and a charmed life, was very much suffering alone.
“I wish I had known that the way I felt wasn’t normal and it wasn’t necessary.” — Wil Wheaton
What I try not to regret too deeply, now that those closest to me seem to think I am safely on the other side of depression, is that all that suffering wasn’t necessary. I knew it wasn’t normal. I could see that when I compared myself to everyone around me. But I didn’t know that it wasn’t necessary, per se. Because I didn’t know any other way.
I try not to wonder too long or hard how different my life could have been if I had gotten the help I needed sooner. There’s no point in obsessing over the what-ifs.
But back then, not only was depression heavily stigmatized, so too was getting any kind of help.
- Going to therapy was shameful proof of weakness and a codependent need for others to solve your problems for you.
- Taking medication was a weak-ass shortcut regarded as “cheating” at life by taking “happy pills.”
So the only socially acceptable solution for depression, besides just not having it, was to willpower your way through it. You know, like how diabetics do rather than take insulin.
When prozac came out the anti-pill rhetoric was so mainstream I even expressed stern concern to a friend of mine who confided that he was on medication. I was 20 at the time and had bought into the anti-pill disdain wholesale. I didn’t know any better. He was also self-medicating with copious amounts of alcohol. Years later he told me about the cocaine and meth.
He died of liver failure last year. Writing that sentence still astonishes me. I tried to write a eulogy of sorts for him.
Had I understood back then that I was likely suffering from depression just the same maybe we could’ve chipped away at the stigma together. Before he passed. Or better yet, whether I was depressed or not perhaps I could’ve just been a friend and a decent human being. I should have said I love you. And, How can I help? I should have said I’m proud of you for exploring options to improve your quality of life. Sterile though that may sound it would have been profoundly, lovingly better than the hand-wringing I did about paying doctors for synthetic feelings via cheat pills.
Guilt is one of the many spears we throw at this charging bull. And Wheaton addressed every contingency in his speech, including the guilt family members tend to feel when they find out. Especially in retrospect when they realize we have been reaching out all along.
I was 14 when I told my mom I needed help, that I thought I needed to see a counselor. This would have been in the early 90s when therapy was in no way seen as a healthy part of self-care. The term “self-care” wouldn’t even exist for another twenty+ years.
“And it’s not like I never reached out for help. I did! I just didn’t know what questions to ask, and the adults I was close to didn’t know what answers to give.” — Wil Wheaton
“You’re just tired. You need to get more sleep,” my mom was also exhausted. She was exasperated with me that night and stormed off to bed. She was working a stressful job and had struggled for as long as I can remember to sleep well. And before you judge her, know that I was a furiously angry teenager. I fought with her with a vitriol that shames me to this day. It took me until I was 36 to apologize for the heinous person I was back then.
Families are complex. And the effects of sleep deprivation weren’t really understood or appreciated back then either. Only sleeping beauty divas demanded consistent high-quality sleep. Insomnia and poor sleep in general were also seen as issues the strong can willpower their way through. No need to medically prioritize it as a crucial health issue. Of course it wasn’t until I was an adult working full-time with bills that I understood a fraction of her exhaustion. But having had the one door shut in my face that I tried to be brave and open as a scared girl didn’t help. Wil Wheaton addressed his own mother with the same perfect love and understanding I feel for my mother:
“Mom, I know you’re going to read this or hear this and I know it’s going to make you upset. I want you to know that I love you, and I know that you did the very best you could. I’m telling my story, though, so someone else’s mom can see the things you didn’t, through no fault of your own.”
But I couldn’t sleep my way out of depression and anxiety and I haven’t outgrown it either.
I didn’t get the help I needed until I was 30. Most of my twenties were a blur of alcohol, the partying I wasn’t popular enough for in high school, and a generalized arrested development. But I didn’t realize everyone was growing up faster than I was. I was too busy making self-destructive decisions. Nothing catastrophic enough for anyone, myself included, to really notice. But an inertia that kept me from accomplishing what I now know I was capable of all along.
It wasn’t until a trifecta that was beyond my control coalesced at once that I was stripped down to my absolute weakest. I fell apart. My body and its ability to process chaos betrayed me.
And I learned that we as a society fetishize “strong” in a way that does more harm than good.
Ten years later I can comfortably say I don’t want to be strong. And I don’t have to be in order to be valuable. Strong is overrated. It is ok to fall apart when you’re the shipwreck and your life is the wreckage around you. Just like bravery is more important than fearlessness, resilient is more important than strong. Elitsa Dermendzhiyska says it well:
“ … even at our most fragile, we are more resilient than we imagine ourselves to be. We hold on, we change, we heal.”
I was 30 when I had a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t hold on any longer. My partner was deployed to Afghanistan with a construction battalion building command outposts and forward operating bases.
A month later my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. My sister and I had had a falling out and weren’t speaking except to talk about surgeries, chemo and radiation.
And I was afraid every single day that I would lose my job. My performance was tenuous at best. Every day on the freeway to work I wished I were any of the truck drivers I shared the road with, that I could just stay in my car where I was safe and keep driving until the workday was done.
“It was the middle of the night, and I drove across town, to my parents’ house, to sleep on the floor of my sister’s bedroom again, because at least that’s where I felt safe.” — Wil Wheaton
More than just validating it is extraordinarily normalizing to read about another adult, riddled with anxiety, creeping back to his childhood home for any semblance of safety he might be able to find during the searing immolation of a panic attack.
I am not the only one. A grown man did it too.
My parents had turned my childhood bedroom into a home office and my sister’s bedroom into a guest room. Some of her stuffed animals were still on the shelves above the bed.
I was on my second iteration of depression medication as the first kind had given me terrifying hallucinations and one eerily serene suicidal vision. But I didn’t want to die. I knew I didn’t want to die. I was actually quite hopeful for the future. I just wanted the chest-crushing pain and caustic panic to stop corroding me from the inside out. But one night it slowly took over my body. I have never felt more scared and helpless in my life. Not when I was assaulted. Not when I was in a head-on collision on the freeway. Not when a last-minute change of plans kept me from being at the Hagia Sophia when a suicide bomb killed two people.
There is a profoundly physical difference between a fear of external things and the geothermal panic that rises from within during an anxiety attack.
Everyone’s symptoms vary but stress IS NOT the same thing as a panic attack.
PSA: when you use the terms “panic attack” or “anxiety attack” to describe a really stressful day, were you actually worried you were having a heart attack? Or a stroke? Did you go to the ER afraid you were going to die? Did you call an ambulance? If not, please kindly refrain from using the terms panic attack and anxiety attack. You dilute the severity of a very serious and very misunderstood condition. Then the people actually suffering a panic attack can sound hyperbolic when attempting to get help.
When I went to urgent care I described the initial symptoms as shards of glass turning in my chest. And the chest itself felt like it was being hydraulically crushed like one of those cars being flattened in a junkyard. I couldn’t breathe evenly. Then the shards of glass started to feel like they were soaked in gasoline. What I can only describe as a tearing more than a searing pain, the ligaments, I would later find out, felt like metal screeching apart. I didn’t have a last will and testament. I didn’t have much but I wanted what I did have to go to good homes. My books. My grandmother’s art.
If that sounds melodramatic, don’t worry. I felt melodramatic too. And ashamed. I feel ashamed just remembering this, let alone writing it for strangers to read. But I was afraid I was going to die.
That’s one of the reasons we don’t “reach out” despite the proliferation of memes telling us to do so after every celebrity suicide. In addition to all the fear we’re already feeling we’re afraid to be called drama queens or be accused of exaggerating for attention. We’re also afraid of being blown off for being melodramatic. We’re afraid confiding in people might push away those few that we can actually trust. Depression, after all, is contagious, right? And no one wants to catch this disease.
The doctor told me I had costochondritis and sent me home. I also got to keep my EKG printout, a long flat line that cracked me up because some part of the machine was unplugged or turned off when they first hooked me up to it to see if I was having cardiovascular problems.
See? Depressed people still have a sense of humor. In fact, many of them become comedians — Robin Williams, Trevor Noah, Neal Brennan, Sarah Silverman and Jim Jefferies are likely just some of those who talk openly about it.
After a few misspelled google searches I finally found ‘costochondritis’.
- “An inflammation of the junctions where the upper ribs join with the cartilage that holds them to the breastbone, or sternum.”
- “Common in children and adolescents.”
- “Causes unknown but possibly related to increased arm activity.”
Increased arm activity? What the?
It didn’t get better. I called my best friend and tried to calm down while chain-smoking. But the panic started spreading and rising like lava or an oil spill and I tried to come up with accurate metaphors while fighting the growing urge to call my dad. I had always confided in my friends about my private life, not my family. But for the first time ever I was physically scared in a way that made me feel small. All I could think was, “I need my dad”. Creature comforts like cigarettes and conversations were like pebbles pinging off an MRAP. I was hyperventilating and I knew I needed help. It wasn’t stopping. It was the first time that my emotions had become so physically unbearable that I was scared.
But my mom had cancer. How could I worry her with something I couldn’t even explain? I should’ve been over there every week helping her around the house and making her meals. But I had been slipping deeper into the quicksand. If I wasn’t making her life any easier the least I could do was not make it worse. I didn’t want to exacerbate her suffering so I tried to catch my breath and sound normal, chatty even. I called home around 11pm on a weeknight as though that in itself wouldn’t immediately sound the alarm. My mom picked up. Dammit.
“Oh hey, What’s up? Is Dad still awake? Just needed to chat with him for a sec,” I felt like that Japanese kid who wins all those hotdog-eating contests. I was trying to swallow all my panic as quickly as possible without choking to death. It didn’t work.
“What’s wrong?!” My mom is no dum-dum.
They came over around midnight and my dad helped me finish a report that was due for work the next day. It was my “impossible task” but time had run out and the consequences of not doing it were far worse than the borrowed-time relief of procrastinating.
My parents took me back to their house. I stayed at my childhood home for three days. I couldn’t breathe normally. Even cigarettes, my longtime anti-anxiety medication seemed impossible. My mom made me cream of wheat just like when I was sick as a child. I was able to eat part of a small bowl here and there.
And here is the most embarrassing sentence I have ever written in my life: My mother slept with me every night. In the same room where I told her I needed help 15 years earlier. Because at 30 years old I was too scared to sleep alone. Terrified, actually. Like those dreams where you’re falling and you jolt awake. But that free-fall sensation was all I felt. For three days. It wasn’t a quick startle that woke me up. It was a sustained agony that made my whole body feel like it was soaked in gasoline, not just my chest anymore. It only allowed my brain to consider terrifying possibilities — the endless number of ways my partner could be killed in Afghanistan, the unspeakable possibility of cancer, all of the things I was likely fucking up at work and the impending likelihood that I would be fired, that I couldn’t pay rent and if my partner did come home, we’d have lost our beautiful place near campus and he’d never finish grad school. Because of me.
Imagine how physical your terror has to be for it to seem like your survival depends on your mother’s physical nearness. And imagine how guilty you would feel every time you thought about all of those who aren’t lucky enough to have a safe place where they can fall apart. At least I had somewhere to land while my body writhed with whatever the fuck this was.
My dad took turns keeping watch with her. He sat on the edge of the bed holding my hand while I rocked back and forth. I could tell it unnerved them but they were my guardian angels.
They stayed on guard duty, watchful sentries, while I paced in circles around the house, the same circle my sister and I used to chase each other around the fireplace that separated the bedrooms off the hallway from the living room. One time my mom decided to chase us too. But she still had pantyhose on and her slick feet went out from under her and she wiped out around the kitchen. We all collapsed, laughing in a pile, unable to breathe.
I tried to remember that image. Her little feet and her body crumpled in a laughing heap. But my mind was only capable of entertaining worst case scenarios. Each one with consequences worse than the last. It was like the panic was demanding I keep feeding it with my biggest fears.
“I have run out of space in my office for the awards I’ve received for my work, and as a white, heterosexual, cisgender man in America, I live life on the lowest difficulty setting — with the Celebrity cheat enabled.” — Wil Wheaton
I’m no successful actor but I knew I had a good life. Nothing bad had ever really happened to me. And we grew up with an abnormally large number of friends with a deceased parent — cancer, suicide and natural causes. I felt like there were people whose suffering was merited and made sense. But mine didn’t.
Writing about depression is not doing my anxiety any favors, conjoined twins that they are. But it is my hope that fewer people will unexpectedly stumble upon relief and normalcy in a celebrity confession. We should be able to access that without famous people baring their souls.
I am eternally grateful to the celebrities who are sharing their vulnerability with us. But it is my hope that these early adopters, the first ones contributing to the collective conversation, will change the social discourse enough that someday no one will have to “admit” that they have depression. They will just be able to mention it the way diabetics or epileptics do if/when a situation warrants that information.
But as long as it feels like a shameful confession, we take solace in knowing that even those who have “everything” can still feel like nothing. And the more people who get help, the fewer who will die from their disease.
“ If you suspect that you have a mental illness, there is no reason to be ashamed, or embarrassed, and most importantly, you do not need to be afraid. You do not need to suffer.” — W.W.
I read that suicide is the final symptom for those suffering from the disease that is depression. In the days leading up to the nervous breakdown I called a suicide hotline. I told the nice guy who answered that I didn’t want to die but I was tired of being terrified. I was tired of being trapped in a body on fire. We talked. My panic ebbed a little. I couldn’t believe how humanizing the voice of a stranger could be. And he could hear me calming down too, “Your voice sounds better. Are you feeling better? Clearer?”
There is no need to be ashamed of reaching out. When I came to after the car accident my first thought was, She sounds scared.
Just like in the movies I actually had an out-of-body experience. I heard a terrified woman screaming Somebody help me! I heard her scream it twice before I realized she was me. And I felt my spirit come back to my body, floating forward from the backseat. My most basic unconscious instinct was to scream for help. And I cannot tell you the joy that filled my heart for the good Samaritans who risked their own lives to run to me while I was still trapped in the car. I still have the blanket a Canadian woman put over me. “You’re in shock. You need to stay warm.” She reached through all the broken glass and smiled. She didn’t give her name to anyone and disappeared before the ambulance came.
When you are feeling like your body is the wrecked car you can’t escape from try not to be afraid to ask for help. And don’t think that calling a hotline means that your friends and family have failed you. Calling professionals for help proves that your suffering deserves the skilled attendance of those professionally trained to help you.
And now, ten years after that nervous breakdown, after all the help I’ve received from my doctor and two therapists, the loved ones I finally opened up to, I’m strangely excited to be sharing this. To know that maybe some other 14-year-old girl will recognize her own torment in someone else’s story and know that she can stem the tide. And she doesn’t have to suffer anymore.
And neither do you. You can find treatment just like people with chronic back pain or asthmatics with inhalers. Talk to everyone you love and trust until you find your true confidantes. Don’t expect them to have all the answers or to solve this complex condition since it’s not a problem with a quick fix but an intricate set of chemicals and circumstances. But ask them to keep you company on this journey. And talk to the professionals too. Find a therapist that aligns with your personality and your goals. As Wil Wheaton said, they want to help. They actually went to school just to learn how to help people like us. In fact, there are so many different kinds of crisis lines you can choose an organization dedicated to helping specific groups of people. How beautiful is that? There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for depression and anxiety. But we do have options to choose from.
Here are just a few of the good Samaritans ready to help. If you’ve already given up you have nothing to lose, right?
Even when nothing feels like it’s worth anything, I promise you your life is worth saving.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273–8255. They also have Spanish-speaking counselors, as well as options for deaf and hard of hearing people
- And here are some folks you can text! The Crisis Text Line (crisistextline.org) is the only 24/7, nationwide crisis-intervention text-message hotline can be reached by texting HOME to 741–741
- Check this out, these folks are actually called The Samaritans
- Are you a Veteran? 1–800–273–8255, Press 1
- Are you a military family member? Military OneSource is awesome. I know because I called them for help: 800–342–9647
- The Trans Lifeline can be reached at 1–877–565–8860
- The TrevorLifeline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth can be reached at 1–866–488–7386. They have some texting options too: text TREVOR to 1–202–304–1200 (available M-F from 3PM to 10PM ET)
Godspeed, my friends. You are not alone. We’ve got this.