My Brother, My Self

     Like millions of Americans, I’ve spent hours laughing at Robin Williams. Stick that guy alone on a stage and you saw the greatest comic genius of a generation.
     Unfortunately, I know why Robin did it. Depression is a deadly disease. It damn near got me too. The only reason it didn’t is a good doctor who wouldn’t let me get away from him, and a couple of friends who kept calling.
     It is difficult to explain a long, deep depression to someone who has never had to suffer through it. Much to my misfortune, I have become a sort of connoisseur of depressions. The third one would have killed me for sure if I hadn’t been through it before and known what it was.
     Because I have had to deal with it, I educated myself about it. For my fellow sufferers, I recommend above all Kay Redfield Jamison’s books: “An Unquiet Life: A Memoir of Moods and Madness,” “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide,” and the textbook she co-edited, “Manic Depressive Illnesses.”
     Also good are Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” William Styron’s short memoir, “Darkness Visible,” and Peter Kramer’s “Listening to Prozac.”
     Reading about it might help if you suffer from depression. If you do not – thank the Gods, and be glad.
     I traveled quite a bit in my youth, and picked up a number of loathsome diseases: dysentery, hepatitis A, food poisoning, pneumonia, pleurisy, broken bones.
     If a cruel god offered me the choice of going through any of that again, or another bout of depression, I believe I would choose any of them before depression.
     It is not so much the absence of hope – though it is that – as the inability to feel joy, and the incorrect assumption that you will never feel joy again.
     I wrote a long short story about depression. Here is how it began:
     “Start with an impossible situation. There is a world like this one, where breeze comes at sunset and stirs trees’ leaves, and slanting light illuminates ninety shades of green; insects buzz at tiny yellow flowers, and hummingbirds with iridescent throats hover and dance – everything in that world is like this one, but there is no sickness of the blood, no imbalance in the brain, no train of poor choices or circumstances that combine to bring to the people who live in that world to what we call depression. Well? I told you it was impossible.”
     In depression, nearly everything becomes impossible. There is no sense in saying, Oh, no it isn’t. Buck yourself up. Snap out of it.
     There is no more sense in telling a seriously depressed person to snap out of it than there would be in saying that to someone with malaria.
     Depression is a disease. It’s a horrible disease, and it can be fatal. It can be treated, but it takes a long time, and it takes some guessing – which drug will work? How much of it? What else?
     Doctors, scientists and the public at large know a lot more about depression than we did a generation ago. But the way insurance companies deal with it is an outrage.
     My own insurer – Anthem Blue Cross of California – recently refused to approve my doctor’s prescription for an antidepressant that helped rescue me from suicide.
     Blue Cross decided I didn’t need it, so it approved only half the dose – which didn’t work. Blue Cross refused to approve it even after my doctor called them up and personally hollered at them.
     This is a company that reported $71 billion in income in 2013 – nickel and diming a guy on the edge of suicide.
     Fortunately, I can afford it.
     But this is obscene. Millions of Americans can’t afford to see a doctor every other week. Millions of Americans can’t see a doctor at all. Millions of Americans can’t afford the drugs they need. Millions of Americans do not even know they have depression.
     Poor Robin Williams. He had good doctors. He had access to all the medical care he needed. But it still couldn’t help him. I know just how he felt.

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