I was shocked and heartbroken to read about comedian Robin Williams’ death. I’m not a big celebrity follower, but I’ll gladly admit that whenever a movie starred Williams, I made a point of watching it. His talent was larger than life, and his death is tragic — even more so when it appears that his death was a suicide.
I’m no stranger to suicide. I had a high school friend who took her own life at age 14. I worked with a young man who had attempted suicide because of the isolation and depression caused by being a gay teen in a rural and religiously conservative area. I have friends and loved ones who deal with depression every single day of their lives.
I’ve also struggled with depression. A lot. I’ve experienced a lot along the spectrum — from passing thoughts that death might be a release from my suffering to actively planning how I was going to take my life because I just didn’t think I could tolerate the aching emptiness in my soul any longer.
Even knowing my human family would miss me wasn’t enough motivation not to kill myself. I knew that even if they mourned and grieved, they could take care of themselves and each other. In fact, I was sure they’d be better off without me.
I’m sure that sounds horribly selfish, and if you’ve never been suicidal it’s just about impossible to understand how someone could even think such a thing. But when you’re that far down, you can’t think clearly. I certainly couldn’t. I felt as though everything I’d ever liked or appreciated about myself was a sham. I couldn’t figure out why anyone could even like me, let alone love me, and I knew there was never going to be any relief from the pain I was feeling.
How could my cats save me from this when the thoughts of my mother, my brother, my nieces, and my friends couldn’t?
I looked into their eyes and I knew I’d been given a sacred gift when I was entrusted with their lives. They needed me in a way that my human relatives didn’t. I’d promised to take care of them for their whole lives, and there was no way I could justify breaking my promise to them.
I also knew a cat who had witnessed her owner’s suicide. The cat had been in the home with the man’s body for three days before anyone came to check up on her. That poor cat had been so traumatized that no matter how much conventional and holistic therapy her new caretaker gave her, she never did make a full recovery.
I couldn’t do that to my cats. They didn’t deserve that.
So what did I do? I gritted my teeth and asked for help. I started taking antidepressants, which made me worse at first because, as I found out later, I have a variant of bipolar disorder. Antidepressants given alone either make bipolar individuals manic or thrust them into what’s called a mixed state — severe depression combined with agitation and relentless anxiety — which can be even more dangerous than straight-up depression.
I had both of these experiences, numerous times, before I received the correct diagnosis and was placed on appropriate medication. My cats walked with me through all those dark and crazy places, their beautiful eyes showing me that light does exist if I can just hang in there.
I’m fortunate to be in a place of privilege when it comes to talking about mental illness: My employer has made it very clear that it does not and will not fire someone with a mental illness who is trying to get a handle on it through appropriate means. My editors here at Catster have also been really supportive of me during the times I’ve struggled, too. Because I don’t have to worry about risking my livelihood by being public about my struggles with mental illness, and I have the support of compassionate friends and family, I believe it’s crucial for me to speak up.
People shouldn’t have to be afraid of losing their jobs and their friends or family if they speak up about mental illness. We need to talk more about depression and other mental illnesses. I wish it didn’t take the suicide of one of America’s greatest comedic talents to shine a spotlight on one of the most harmful — and hidden — epidemics in the modern world.
How about you? Has your life been saved by a purr? Please share your stories in the comments. It’s time to break the silence, so let’s talk!
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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.