Micheal Phelps has high functioning depression. He has become the poster child for it.
Nobody could be closer to the Lancelot ideal than he. Eight Olympic gold medals in swimming. Rich from endorsements and his place in history secure, the world was at his feet. Women wanted him. Men wanted to be him.
And he was profoundly depressed. In a recent series of television spots done with Talkspace -an online therapy site – he has come out about his depression. “Coming out” is the right term. Depression has its own closet. Everyone wants to appear perfect and depression is a really big imperfection. Perhaps an athlete of his magnitude could change the public perception of depression.
I am extremely happy I did not take my own life.
If I extend my own private experience of depression to him, I see what a remarkable thing he has done. A rich man’s depression is no less daunting than a poor man’s. It is just as real, just as hard to admit and just as potentially lethal. By acknowledging it, he gives ordinary people cover. Somehow in our ape’s brain, whether something is ok is mediated by what high status people say and do. And then we emulate what the Alphas and Betas do because we want to be like them. Just like an endorsement for a breakfast cereal.
I learned early on that there are roles to play in life. When a person of High Social Status reveals something deep about themselves, it is Profound and Important and Full of Meaning. People sit up and pay attention. The omega person reveals the same thing and gets laughed at and bullied even more. And probably can’t afford therapy even if they can find it.
How the messenger is perceived is often more important than the content of the message. People like Phelps are needed to crack the shell around depression.
I wonder if there will be trickle-down.
“Smiling depression” is a very real thing. Putting up the happy facade so thoroughly that it replaces depression as the new reality doesn’t work. It is something where “fake it until you make it” never makes it. Forcing a smile over and over again is probably not a good choice. At first, you are only lying to other people but soon you may be lying to yourself.
But still… most old wives’ tales have a grain of truth hidden somewhere.
The act of smiling by itself will put some people in a better mood. One should not hide continually behind a false smile but at the same time, smiling really is good for you. It doesn’t cure depression but it can smooth interactions with others and lighten your mood for a little bit. When I put on a smile, take a deep breath, and exhale I do feel better. Without a smile, it is just another sigh. The feeling and the facial expression are linked. You can stimulate anger or sadness in the same way.
One should not hide continually behind a false smile but at the same time, smiling is good for you. A paradox.
OTOH, I really don’t care for people who radiate “happy” like a hundred-watt light bulb. It does not rub off onto me. I leave so as not to rain on their parade. The brightest lights leave the deepest shadows.
Not every person with depression is as lucky as Mr. Phelps. Kate Spade was a beautiful, rich, and successful woman with a 13-year-old daughter, a husband and a new venture just being launched. She hung herself and left a desperate message for her daughter not to blame herself.
Anthony Bourdain, world-famous food critic, also took his own life by hanging, just 3 days later. He was also rich. His show was a celebration of the best things in life, food, drink, culture, and adventure. He appeared quite happy on his shows and gave the impression of living the perfect life. He seemed to be a very wise man.
Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.
Bourdain and Spade had instant access to the finest doctors and therapists money could buy. They had families and friends who by all accounts cared for them deeply. The specific events that triggered the suicides don’t matter. What matters is that they were depressed enough to be vulnerable to suicide yet unwilling or unable to call for help.
If it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone.
Nobody had a clue that Spade or Bourdain had fallen so deeply into despair. They may have been hiding their depression to avoid causing pain to their significant others. They may have hidden it to protect themselves from shame and embarrassment. Or maybe they didn’t think anything could be done to help or maybe they thought they could tough it out or were in denial about it.
We will never know.
There may be times when you are too far down to pull yourself up again. You may need assistance to get out of a blue funk. Don’t go down without a fight!
You may not have money for a live therapist. There are free and affordable online therapy services. They can help you work through depression or stress or just coping with the wild ride that life is.
The FCC recommended that 988 be designated as a national crisis hotline. It ain’t there yet. Until it is, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. The first step towards overcoming depression is staying alive.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-TALK (8255).
I haven’t seen any numbers but there was likely a small uptick in the numbers of suicides nationally because of prominent people killing themselves. It is called the Werther Effect, after a book by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe titled, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” Young Werther falls in love with a girl who is engaged to another man who she eventually marries. After a long and depressing novel, Werther commits suicide in a way that irreparably breaks the woman’s heart.
It is credited with a wave of suicides across Europe. The fact that he also destroyed the object of his love seems to have been lost on the readers. (Or maybe they were selfish enough not to care.) Goethe regretted that for the rest of his long life.
The Werther Effect is often used in forensic psychology to try to understand any widespread copycat behavior, not just suicide.
The first line of defense against depression when a person does ask for help used to be therapy. Today it is drugs. They are cheap, quick and often work.