Depression is one of the most insidious diseases there is. It recently took the life of former actor Andrew Koenig in Vancouver. He is the son of actor Walter Koenig, better known as Chekov of Star Trek fame. Andrew had some acting credits to his own name, specifically as a minor character in a television series about teenagers some time back. When you look at photos of him over the years, you see a chameleon-like visage that changes appearances quite radically every few years. It gives you a hint that he may have been a troubled soul.
We now know that Andrew faced a lifelong battle with depression, which he finally lost up in Vancouver last week.
I fortunately don't have experience with that kind of lifelong agony, but I have twice in my life had extended episodes of very serious clinical depression, the kind that required hospitalization. The first episode lasted almost two years, the second only a couple of months. It was many years in the past, but even now it's not something I talk about other than with very close friends, because mental illness in general, and depression in particular, makes people exceedingly uncomfortable. Some people make nervous fun of people suffering from emotional disorders, which I suppose is evidence of how frightening it is to them. In many respects, our attitudes toward mental illness have barely evolved at all from the days when we viewed it as a sign of demonic possession.
I remember once at a cocktail party, though, finally getting fed up with someone who was poking fun at depressed people, defining them as emotionally weak——the Prozac nation. First, I admitted that I had myself suffered from depression 20 years earlier.
"So, tell us about it," he said, blushing just slightly but not really honestly regretful of his arrogance. "What are we missing?" He gestured to some of his friends who were listening and trying not to smile at their buddy's wit.
"Well," I said, "Did you ever have one of those days where you just wake up on the wrong side of bed, where you're a little grumpy and just "off" for the whole day? Kind of like having that mental achiness that goes with a bad cold, but without the sniffles?"
He nodded, and there was a trace of a smug smile on his face. "Yeah, I know. That's what I mean. What's the big deal with being depressed. People should just get over it. You obviously did."
"Now, think for a minute about what it would feel like if that bad day lasted not for a day or two, but three or four months at a time. And if you started to think that maybe that's really how it was going to be forever."
He kept nodding, the smug smile softening only a little bit. "Well, yes," he said. "But plenty of people have real chronic health problems, arthritis for example, and they get by just fine. Life is tough all over."
"Right. But what I've described to you is a very, very mild depression. So mild you almost wouldn't even call it that. I mention it because its the only thing you might understand. But if you took that sensation I'm talking about, made it 100 times worse, so that it felt like you were wading in thick molasses up to your neck, extended it for years at a time, then you'd have some idea about what real depression feels like. You wake up with it, you eat with it, you go to your kids' soccer game with it, you work with it, you shower with it, you sleep with it, you dream with it. Then you wake up with it again. Day after day after day. Pretty soon, it seems clear that it will never, ever change. This is now your life."
His face blanched then, visibly, and he took a tentative sip of his scotch and water. "Well, if that really happened to me, just like you describe, I'd probably blow my brains out."
"Exactly," I said. "I wonder if you'd have the courage not to."