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Robin Williams dead: CNN columnist discusses her depression diagnosis

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By Stephanie Gallman

Editor's note: Comedic actor Robin Williams died at his Northern California home Monday, law enforcement officials said. Williams was 63. His representative said, "He has been battling severe depression of late." Stephanie Gallman, a CNN assignment editor, was diagnosed with depression last year despite being a frequent exerciser, a fairly healthy eater and an avid fan of Hula-Hoops.

(CNN) -- In August, after several months of seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with depression.

The news came as a shock.

"I'm not depressed," I said defiantly, shaking my head when the doctor deduced that must be what was ailing me.

"I hate depressed people."

FULL COVERAGE:  THE DEATH OF ROBIN WILLIAMS

She laughed at my strange reaction, but I was serious. I don't want to be in that category of people. Everything they take in and spew out just breathes negativity, and they are difficult to be around. I despise these people.

But as she went down a list of symptoms, they were all there -- loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, waves of irrational anxiety, crying for no reason, loss of interest in work and hobbies, isolation and seclusion. I had nearly every one of them.

We went over my personal history, which included severe bouts with anxiety as a child, teenager, college student and young adult. I told her I assumed all kids were scared of dying, all teenage girls struggled with weight and eating issues, all college students struggled leaving the nest and everyone had a quarter-life crisis. My severe highs and lows that spanned a long period of time were all red flags.

When I told her my family history of mental illness that included at least one suicide, she threw her pen down on the floor as if this years-long mystery had finally been solved.

"It sounds to me like your body just doesn't produce enough serotonin," she said, matter-of-factly.

Her diagnosis sounded quite clinical. We'd only talked for an hour, but she seemed certain, based on our conversation and the briefing she'd had with my therapist, that my body's chemistry was simply off, causing me to feel down. She threw in slight OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) for good measure, to which I scoffed, thinking of the clothes strewn about my house.

"Your OCD is in your thoughts -- you think about things to the point of obsessing about them."

Well, that's just awesome.

I agreed with her that I had been going through a slump but wondered if her diagnosis was a bit dramatic. I've always been a firm believer that happiness is a choice. I'm an optimist, so if I'm not happy, there has to be a reason for it. Could these feelings be the result of job stress? The on-again/off-again relationship I'd been fighting to make work for almost a year?

She nodded as I posed these questions and then said, "Sure, it's possible that all of these things could've contributed to how you're feeling. But it's also possible, and quite likely for you, that none of them did."

She advised me, as a frequent exerciser and fairly healthy eater, to continue those activities before she said what I'd feared the most.

"I think an antidepressant might help stabilize some of the chemicals in your brain."

I continued to challenge her, wanting to know how long I'd have to be medicated. She could tell I was anxious and looking for a solution to this problem that didn't involve drugs. But she was already writing a prescription and scheduling our next visit.

"For some people," she explained, "happiness isn't a choice. You wanting to be happy and expecting it to just happen is the equivalent of someone with brown eyes wanting blue eyes and expecting that to just happen."

I wasn't thrilled with the diagnosis, but her explanation made sense to me and made me feel better.

Still, I refused to let myself completely off the hook, and as I left her office, I set forth on a path of self-discovery to identify how my actions might've contributed to how I felt -- a path that quickly brought up the ever-confusing chicken and egg game.

Did I isolate myself from my friends because I was depressed? Or did I become depressed because I isolated myself from my friends?

I was more hesitant than usual to keep what was going on to myself, telling only my family and those closest to me at the time what the doctor had said. Soon it became clear that I needed the support of more than a select few if I was going to get through this. Plus, it's not like me not to share what's going on in my life. And isolating myself, I suspected, was partly to blame for being in this situation in the first place. So, at the inappropriate places and the most inopportune times I could find, I began dropping the "D-bomb."

That's usually how I'd open the conversation, "Um, I have to tell you something. It might feel like a bomb, but I'm OK and everything is fine." As I started to open up about it -- I started to feel more like myself -- the Stephanie who isn't embarrassed by life's setbacks, who tackles difficult situations with humor and honesty.

No surprise, the wonderful people in my life have all been very kind and sympathetic, offering words of comfort and support, but reaction and willingness to talk openly about the disease has varied.

I was raised in a "pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps," kind of a family, so while hurtful that some people immediately discounted that I was actually sick, it was those people who don't believe depression is a real thing that I identified (and still identify) with the most.

The sadness that comes from depression is not rooted in anything real. I'm not sad because of anyone or anything. I don't know why I am sad. I just am. I don't know why I worry about things that are so far out of my control. I just do.  And I so wish that I didn't.

Most people who don't believe in depression also don't believe in being medicated for it. Their warnings to me ranged from mindful caution to downright fear that I'd become addicted to pills and turn into a zombie.

Instead of drugs, they'd say, why don't you "do more of the things that you enjoy?"

"Tend to your garden."

"Find a project, something to focus your attention on."

"Read, 'The Secret.' "

Bite me.

These patronizing ("The Secret"? Are you serious?) prescriptions infuriated me, as if the reason I wasn't happy is because I hadn't tried hard enough.

A lot of the people reacted to the D-bomb the same way I did -- "You're depressed?! You?  Stephanie Gallman? But you're one of the happiest people that I know! You Hula-Hoop in Walmart!" (I really do Hula-Hoop in Walmart -- every time I go.)

These are the people I wanted to reach out and hug; they made me feel like I hadn't turned into Debbie Downer.

It's true, to the outside world, I do appear happy. And I realize this is hard to grasp, even for me, but I am happy most of the time. I am fully aware of how blessed my life is and express gratitude for it daily. I have worked hard not to let what's going on with me on the inside affect the way I present myself on the outside.

I guess you could say, I've become a Hula-Hoop in Walmart on the outside, want-to-crawl-into-bed-on-the-inside kind of gal; depression, until now, was my dirty little secret.

My happy-go-lucky cheerful attitude is the element of my personality that I am most proud of. This other part -- that obsessively thinks about things I cannot control, is self-loathing and uncertain -- is also a part of who I am; unfortunately, it's the part that has been screaming the loudest lately.

The third, and perhaps the most popular reaction to my dropping the "D-bomb," has been the barrage of friends divulging their personal connections to mental illnesses.

"My mom has bipolar. ... My uncle has been clinically depressed for years."

I was dumbfounded. I wanted to scream like Adam Sandler in "The Wedding Singer": "Gee, you know that information ... really would've been more useful to me yesterday!" Why isn't anyone talking about these illnesses that affect our most important body part -- our brain?

Last summer, I bought a poster that said, "Everything is OK. Maybe not today, but eventually." I framed it and hung it near my bed where I wake up every day and see it.

On my best day, I believe that quote to be absolutely true. I am attacking this diagnosis with every bit of energy and every resource that I have.

On my worst day, I feel like a different person -- tired and unfocused and desperate to feel like the real, fun, positive Stephanie I know is somewhere trapped inside me. I feel let down by the world but too exhausted to go out and change it.

Admitting I suffer from depression and anxiety has, at times, made me feel weak -- like I'm admitting defeat. I am hard on myself for no reason. I'm pissed that despite having every reason to be happy, sometimes I'm not.

My relationships have suffered -- some ruined completely -- because of this disease; some are of my own doing, not trusting those dearest to me and asking for help when I needed it. Others bowed out, not interested in riding this difficult and often unpredictable journey. I can't blame anyone for making that decision, but I'd like to think that even at my worst, I'm worthy of honesty, compassion and understanding.

Anyone who would judge me for this weakness that I've identified and am treating probably isn't someone I would want to work for or date anyway.

I am someone who struggles with her brain the way that others struggle with their heart.

I love deeply and laugh loudly.

I work hard; I play harder. And I always Hula-Hoop at Walmart.

For information on depression and treatment, go to the National Institute of Mental Health website.

30 comments

  • j avolin

    Ma’am I’m the same way and it is hard to understand and deal with. And I’ve had it through most of my military career and it’s just hard enough. Especially with that career.

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  • SonnetCeles

    Well I get exactly what Robin was saying because frankly I’m the same way. I hate being around or becoming a debbie downer. I love lifting people up, making people smile. But deep down I’m afraid of becoming just like him.
    It’s a tragedy and I wish we were able to keep him here with us…because he was such a beautiful and magnificent soul…. I know what people say about suicide and that it’s selfish but you know I think in his case it was different. I think he knew what had to be done, but depression gets to the point where the person feels the world is better off without them. It just highlights how much of an issue depression is. It really needs to be better understood.
    Wish everyone, including Williams soul and his family love and healing. Today was a very very sad day.

  • Gina

    Talk about trying to cash in on someone else’s tragedy. What kind of person “hates” and “despises” people with depression? Oh, now YOU’ve been diagnosed, now you’re one of us. This writer is going to need a whole lot more insight and empathy before she has any right to write on this subject.

  • Erin

    Some of the kindest and most caring people on earth are the severely depressed. They are NOT all negative and horrible to be around. Many times they put their own feelings aside to help and listen to others. It is impossible to explain to anyone what it is like.

  • Ra Ha

    Having been abused as a child (beaten up and yelled at daily by my brother including broken bones) and suffered depression due to that circumstance but more importantly that my parents refused to believe that I was being beaten up, I would say that depression can be caused by circumstances. I am insanely happy now and am very rarely even remotely depressed.

    However, I also feel like the dx of depression is a kind of cop out. Analyzing what is going on that makes you depressed is important. I was able to do it myself and without medications. During that time, I almost knifed my brother (had the knife in my hand raised) and a few months later beat him up like a crazy person, which ended the abuse. Before those incidents happened, I had to convince myself that I was not the problem, that he was, and my parents were wrong to ignore the abuse. They even told me that if I told the doctor he broke my shoulder, the police would take ME away not take my brother away.

    Point being, don’t let your diagnosis define you. At the time I was depressed and cutting myself as well as suicidal thoughts, I was getting great grades and even when I would sit in the closet after school in the dark, I felt there was something not right with someone else, NOT me.

    I’m concerned that your doctor was taking personality traits and facets of your upbringing and throwing dx’s at you. Isn’t there a chance that you are you, and that whether or not you have a “documented illness”, you just need to cope with how you are? Like whether someone is born gay or not – does it really matter, do you live your life differently if you were born gay or became gay at some point? I don’t feel I was born straight, I feel that when I was in my teens, it became clear I was probably straight, and confirmed in my very late teens. So I don’t care if I was born one way or another in terms of sexuality, or one way or another in terms of being prone to depression. It is what it is, and I am wary of depressive symptoms.

    • buffy888

      What you are describing is not the same as clinical depression. You were responding to specific situations in your life. True depression does not tend to work the same way. Your words are an example of the reason many people still feel there is a stigma about depression and/or anxiety. You know nothing about it yet you feel it is a “cop out” because you personally were able to deal with a completely separate issue on your own.

      Not everyone with depression is on meds. It is a choice the person makes based on what is right for them. Depression — true depression — is real, and neither you nor anyone else is right to judge whether their medical diagnosis meshes with your worldview or not.

  • Warrior

    You say, “anyone who would judge me for this weakness …”
    Depression is not a weakness. It is an illness, biologically rooted, and it takes much strength to face it. You do yourself and others a disservice by labeling this disease as a character flaw.

  • Jessica

    I’m someone who watches news programs and reads articles daily, but this is the first time I’ve ever been compelled enough to comment.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. Hearing similar experiences is always comforting. Though considered young by most, I’ve been struggling with (and sometimes conquering) severe depression for over half my life. Your experience with initial reactions to the diagnosis are nearly verbatim to my own. I, too, despised the notion of my diagnosis: 1) I was young and unlearned in the vast realm of psychology, therefore I shared much of the stigma 2) I was also brought up to “pull yourself up by the boot straps” and just “walk it off.” It’s been 10 years and I do still struggle reconciling biology. There are many shapes and shades to mental illness, one so happens to include extreme over awareness and critical analysis. So for those of us raised with a certain mentality, it’s not far off from addiction recovery. Despising the disease, not wanting to be “like them” etc is all apart of a mentality of defeat; thus, accepting that there is something other than what we “think” ourselves to be is sometimes seen as a defeat. For me, that was the diagnosis on the chart: Depression.

    I would think a community sharing in a struggle would have a bit more empathy…. If not kind words of support.

  • Steve McCrea

    It is unfortunate that the author and her psychiatrist continue to perpetuate the “low serotonin” myth about depression. The idea that depression is caused by low serotonin was disproven back in the 80s, and these days, even mainstream psychiatrists like Ron Pies have called it an “urban myth.” Of course, it’s a very culturally accepted concept, due to pharmaceutical company promotion, but it bothers me that doctors and journalists aren’t understanding this basic scientific fact.

    Sorry to lose Robin, he was an awesome performer. But I don’t like the implication that if some kind of “treatment” had occurred, this could have been prevented. He seemed to me like a very sensitive guy who perhaps saw too much of the ugliness this world has to offer. Our world today is pretty depressing, and despite his own struggles, Robin did his best to ease that sense for the rest of us, for which I am very appreciative.

    —- Steve

  • Ann Blake-Tracy

    What your doctor did not tell you, and I personally think it is criminal that doctors are not doing this, is that every symptom you mentioned are symptoms of hypoglycemia which is epidemic in this country today. And to prescribe an antidepressant for that is so wrong because antidepressants disrupt blood sugar via their impact upon serotonin making the symptoms worse in the end which is the most likely reason so many end up with worse depression after using antidepressants. And since alcoholism is hypoglycemia I do believe this is what happened to cause the suicide of Robin Williams – a prescription for an antidepressant which dropped his sugar levels even lower. The cravings for alcohol produced by these drugs are what first caught my attention to them.

  • Ann Blake-Tracy

    What I should add is that coming down off an antidepressant too quickly (we found early on that withdrawal must be extremely gradual – taking months or even years to wean off) can drop the sugar levels even more leading to serious reactions. Patients really need to watch their blood sugar levels closely (worse in the mornings) to avoid feeling of severe depression and suicide.

  • Lilu

    Stephanie, a shortage of serotonin or a chemical imbalance is a scientifically unproven myth that continues to be perpetrated by pharmaceutical companies, who are the ones “educating” psychiatrists about their drugs. Antidepressants are highly addictive and as hard to get of off as heroin. Doctors are uninformed and do not inform their patients about the dangers of using these drugs. Despite of your symptoms, you are the perfect candidate for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which has been shown in clinical studies to be more effective than antidepressants long term. Antidepressants have been shown to work in only 50% of participants as compared with a placebo. There are thousands of us out there now, who have been put on antidepressants by ignorant doctors, who have struggled for years with the debilitating effects of withdrawal from antidepressants and other psychotropics. The longer you take an antidepressant, the harder it becomes to get off of it. What these drugs do, is down-regulate the receptors in your brain, in essence they physically alter your brain. It takes a very long time for these receptors to start functioning properly, if at all, even after a long careful taper. Never ever quit a psych drug cold turkey. I am speaking here from 10 years of personal experience. If you want to get better, you have to be willing to work on yourself, instead of just employing the easy fix of popping a pill. For help and resources on SAFELY getting off of antidepressants, please visit a peer supported site survivingantidepressants.org For free cognitive behavioral therapy workshop visit: http://www.allaboutdepression.com/workshops/CBT_Workshop/index.html

  • Before Dying

    Robin Williams, like many others, was a victim of Big Pharma and psychiatry quacks pushing antidepressants like girls scouts at a cookie sale. The author here says “it makes sense” she has a chemical imbalance. Are you serious about this, or are you being paid to push this hokum?
    Were there any tests done to determine your low levels of serotonin? Blood test? Brain scan? Something? C’mon…

    Like all of these school shooters in the past (and I mean ALL), they were all on or had just come off SSRI drugs. Maybe there is a link there? Maybe we should be blaming something else?
    Mr. Williams was no different. He was also on some SSRI drug that gives you murderous thought and/or suicidal ideation.

  • fateBeito

    Witam, mam problem, znalazlem ciekawy zbior plikow, ale nie umiem tego pobrac, jak to pobrac?:
    android
    Wczesniej nie bylo tego problemu, chodzi mi o gre na androida, ale zamiast jednej wersji jest kilka.

  • realist

    Depression is what happens to rich white ppl. It is a cool new disease and psychiatrists are making shitloads of money….. Get over it… Don’t wuss out and be on drugs….. It is like telling kids that youare fat and it is genetic….maybe if that Potato acutually worked out rather than having to call his mom to pull his underwear out of his butcrack he would not be so fat. Happiness is a choice, you can be sad due to reason and it is natural to be when stuff is not going right… But clinical depression is big time BS

  • Jasmine

    Great article! But as you can see from the idiotic comments, depression is not easily understood by many.

Comments are closed.