“I’ve often felt that Robin’s blinding speed and flash of wit was an effort at concealment rather than revealing,” said Robin Williams’ friend Eric Idle to The New York Times in 2009, an astute observation that foreshadowed the beloved comedian’s suicide in August of 2014. Williams numbed his pain through alcohol, drugs and the laughter of audiences. His death sheds light on an interesting facet of how we, as a society, understand both happiness and depression.
I too have been in a darkness not unlike the one Williams’ spent his life trying to escape. After an unexpected break-up, I fell into a depression so black that it surprised even me. My friends and family were alarmed by the all-consuming sadness that blanketed my heart, mind, and soul.
“Marwa, you’re not a happy person anymore. You used to be always smiling and carefree…what happened? All this for a guy?”
When I was diagnosed with depression, I threw myself into a jam-packed schedule, spending weeks outside of the house, surrounding myself with the noise of people and activities so that I was never alone with my thoughts or my grief. I even dropped out of school for the semester, hoping that traveling and socializing would prove healing. This, I assumed, was my tonic, my solution. After all, falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning to the unrelenting heaviness that weighed down my heart was already more than I could bear.
I could not have been farther from the truth. Not until many months later did I realize that by focusing all my energy on avoiding the pain, I was not allowing myself to digest my loss. The endless distractions were doing me a disservice, providing temporary relief while the grief continued to compound in the recesses of my heart and mind, becoming harder and harder to barricade. I was not improving, but rather further descending into depression.
Our culture teaches us to live life dodging any obstacles that may prevent us from being happy. We must avoid conflict and steer clear of loss so that we remain in a perpetual state of happiness, but this concept of a life free of pain is a farce. It is simply not possible. It is not our purpose in life to always be happy; our purpose on this earth is to grow in character and strength. Tribulations and pain are necessary and unavoidable parts of life, and it is these ugly periods that are the most fertile grounds for growth.
What lesson did I learn from my depression? Once I sat down and gave myself the time and the quiet to process my emotions, I realized that my happiness will always be precarious if I tie it to someone or something outside of myself. External sources of contentment, for example a promotion, a love interest or the approval of another, can disappear as quickly as they come. The loss then leaves us reeling and empty. Instead, a happiness that comes from within is far sturdier. If you feel at peace with who you are and satisfied with what you do or don’t have, you stand a far better chance of weathering a loss with grace and resilience.
People typically identify happiness as a state in which you have it all and you manage to avoid loss of any kind when, in fact, happiness is a state of mind in which you feel content and satisfied no matter the external fluctuations in your life. The first step after an incident of pain – following the initial resentment, anger, and anxiety- is to accept what is happening to you. Embrace what you’re feeling. Know that depression is an inescapable part of life and it is an experience that has the potential to transform you from someone who chases after happiness to someone who sees with fresh appreciation what you have and feels perfectly content with it. Satisfaction is key to being happy.
Photo Credit: Nabil Hasan
Marwa Abdelghani is the Community Outreach Fellow of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.