Katy Bourne

The Scariest Post I’ve Ever Written

POSTED ON August 13, 2014 | POSTED IN: My Blog | 21 Comments


We’re all reeling from this week’s heartbreaking news about Robin William’s suicide. He was a ferocious soul with a soaring talent. He grabbed our hearts with the first “nanu nanu” and his mad unpredictable genius delighted us for decades. Oh how we loved him. And now in the wake of his death, we collectively grapple with this crushing loss and with the hard truth of Robin’s long battle with depression. Obviously, I don’t know any details about his life or the events leading up to his death. But I can shed some light on the beast that is depression. I’ve battled it my whole life.

Depression came around very early for me. From the time I was a kid, there was always this ache. I was eight-years old when “Sweet Baby James” came out and I remember listening to it again and again, especially “Fire and Rain,” and identifying completely with the pain of those lyrics. I was a spunky kid with a lot going on. I rode horses, blew saxophone in the school band and played on the softball team. I can’t say that I was an unhappy child. To the contrary, I was a bit of a jolly weirdo around the neighborhood. But there were big waves of sadness that I didn’t entirely understand. I tried to find solace in food and was a chubby kid, which certainly didn’t help. I was still in elementary school when I first told my parents that I thought I needed some kind of counseling. Looking back, I’ve got to hand it to that little girl. She knew something was amiss and she stepped up to take care of herself.

As has been reported, Robin William’s depression was worsened by his problems with drugs and alcohol. This was true for me too. I was the youngest of four children in my family. By the time I was in middle school, my siblings were, for the most part, out of the house. At the time, my father was traveling a lot for business. I think I was around 12-years old when I started drinking with my mother. I believe that I was a full-blown alcoholic by the time I started high school. Throughout high school and college, I drank and used like a wild animal. It was hard to really think of it as problematic because everyone around me was doing it. It was “normal” for a person my age. But my drinking started causing problems for me, especially in college. And the depression intensified. While alcohol was my main substance of choice, there were many other drugs on board at one time or another. There was one period, in particular, when I was pretty heavily into LSD (Side note: That’s the one drug I don’t regret using in excess). In 1987, I checked myself into rehab at a place called the Turquoise Lodge in Albuquerque, NM. I’ve been clean ever since.

They call early sobriety the “pink cloud” period. You’re clean and free and seeing the world in an entirely new way. But you’re also starting to feel all of your feelings at full-strength, without the anesthetizing buffer of alcohol. The depression crept back and worsened. At different points along the way, prior to sobriety, a few therapists had suggested that depression was the culprit of my struggles. But I didn’t buy in or get formally diagnosed until I was in my early 30’s. At this point, I was the mom of two very young kids. I started to observe that even when life was going really well, this darkness would roll in, in varying degrees of severity, and cloud everything. I also started thinking about my family history. At least a couple of generations of women in my family had struggled with depression. My cousin committed suicide and my aunt and another cousin attempted it. Several of us, again women, were alcoholics and/or drug addicts. It occurred to me that I might be dealing with something biochemical and possibly genetic in nature. A friend at the time, who happened to be a psychologist, set me up with a great doctor. He made the “official” diagnosis and I began treatment.

In my experience, depression has a range that runs from a mild nagging melancholy, to a hard deep ache and all the way up to a suffocating full envelopment that I call “the abyss.” I believe the medical term for that is a “depressive episode.” During the abyss, an unrelenting anguish takes over. No matter which direction you face, all you can see is a bleak landscape. There’s a physicality to it; a cumbersome quality and literal pain in the bones. The simplest tasks, such as getting dressed or taking the trash out, feel gargantuan. In the abyss, there is no hope and no light. You feel like you are drowning. I have fallen into and crawled out of the abyss several times in my life. Interestingly, I am pretty high functioning during these periods and have managed to slug through my days; showing up for work, taking care of my kids and so on. The worst of it is that I sleep a lot, significantly more than usual. Just because I’m able to function, it doesn’t mean that the pain is any less. I’m not exactly faking it during these periods. I’m just muddling through with a boulder on my back. Other depressive people aren’t so lucky. To be clear, the abyss is just one end of the spectrum. Fortunately for me, it doesn’t happen often. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say once every couple of years.

Depression seems to be cyclical but with no predictable timetable. It can blow in at anytime, no matter what’s going on, good or bad. Of course, situations can definitely exacerbate depression or bring on an episode. Life piles on a lot of hurt sometimes: divorce, financial struggles, losses, etc. This summer, an unexpected situation with a family member has created some very deep heartache. A lot of days, I feel like I can’t breathe. But I’m getting through.

There may be some who would argue this, but in my experience and opinion, depression isn’t really something you cure entirely but an illness that you learn to manage. A holistic approach works for me. It involves a good diet, regular exercise, solid sleep, a kind support system and in some cases, therapy and medication. I am not in therapy currently but have been at points along the way. I am on medication. Working with my physician, it took some time to find the right medication for me, but we did get there. And I’m grateful. There have been a few occasions when I’ve tried going off medication and it’s just not worth it. It’s an almost instantaneous ticket to the abyss. Modern pharmacology saved my life and I feel no shame or embarrassment about that (And I also have no interest in arguing with anyone about it). The holistic approach works really well for me and I can say without hesitation that my depression is kept to a very low level most of the time. Sometimes, it’s not there at all. This is especially true after a good workout. My depression-free days almost always involve dance. Movement and music are everything.

One thing that can be a challenge is that some people don’t understand the complexities of the illness. I can’t tell you how many times well-meaning friends have suggested that I just need to “think positive” or “be grateful for what I have.” I do not dispute for a second that these are important attitudes to hold. But for someone struggling with depression, it’s not that simple. For a friend or family member who is having a hard time with his/her depression, better questions might be: “Have you worked out today?” “Did you eat?” “Do you need to adjust your medication?” Or the most helpful of all: “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”

At different points throughout my battle with the beast, I have had suicidal ideations but I have only seriously contemplated it once. It was in 1992, after the stillbirth of my first child. Prior to that–even as someone who had suffered from depression–I could not have conceived of emotional pain as intense as what I was going through after my baby died. Grief was brutal. It was an all-consuming agony that ravaged my days. I very seriously considered suicide partly to escape that pain, but even more because I thought that by jumping into death, I could somehow find him. Obviously, I didn’t make that choice. I stepped away from the brink. To survive depression, I believe that we have to find a spark of meaning every single day, even if it’s the tiniest thing like the wiggling butt of a puppy or the toothless smile of the old lady next door. Meaning anchors us. And the hardest thing to do is to look for it even when we’re not feeling it. Throughout my life, my sister Martha has provided that meaning and, in the past couple of decades, my kids (now adults) have also. Writing and music also play an enormously important role. I can’t tell you how many times a fun gig or a satisfying piece of writing have radically circumvented a downward spiral. My family and creativity tether me to this world.

My older brother is of the opinion that I am too candid on my blog and that this might be robbing me of potential opportunities. I disagree with that. I’ve always figured that to some extent, the blog serves as a vehicle for vetting. If someone doesn’t dig me or what I write about, then we probably shouldn’t work together. And frankly, anymore, I just don’t have time for bullshit. I can’t pretend to be something I’m not. I can’t dilute myself. I have no patience for it. But all that said, this is the scariest post I’ve ever put out there. I can’t throw the doors open any wider. And I’m trembling. But if I shy away from writing about this, then I am complicit in perpetuating the stigma around depression.

I suffer from depression but I am not a victim. I’m a survivor– a god damn, fucking warrior. I’ve got a rock & roll heart, a plucky spirit and a defiant streak that runs from here to the moon and back. Underneath it all is a well of tenderness that is both a curse and a blessing. Depression may have given me some hard edges but it has also cultivated a profound compassion that I wouldn’t trade for anything. While I may not ever know what it feels like to burst with optimism, I can and do know happiness and gratitude. I have depression but I am OK. As I’ve said a million times before on this blog, multiple things can be true at the same time.

Robin Williams did what he had to do. I have no judgment or opinion about that. Only compassion. I don’t know what his life was, nor do I have insight into his particular demons. But I do know this much: He fought a hard fight.








21 responses to “The Scariest Post I’ve Ever Written”

  1. john paynich says:

    this was an incredible act of bravery. thank you.

  2. Patti Helton says:

    Your words, your vulnerability and your truth continually inspire me Katy Bourne. Thank you for sharing your experience and your heart. You are beautifully courageous. With you. P.

  3. admin says:

    Thank you both for reading and commenting. My hope is that if we share our individual stories, we somehow ease the collective burden.

  4. Laurel says:

    Hi Katy,

    I’m friends with Martha after we met on a website. [I’m sure you know why]

    I too have suffered with depression most of my life. I think it might’ve started the first time my father beat the shit out of me when I was three. He’s long gone and I’ve had years and years of therapy.

    Thank you, thank you for having the courage and strength to get this out there! I have two young adult sons. One with severe ADHD and one with autism. They’re both musicians. We’re all in the arts. I have long wished for the stigma of mental illness to go away. Or any mental or neurological disability.

    8 years ago was when I first found out about my husband’s double life. It was the beginning of a very dark period. But it’s not like you go… “okay, I’m going to go into a deep depression and I’m going to stop working and I won’t be able to do anything but write shit on my laptop all day long.” Oh, I still made dinner and took ballet classes and looked and acted perfectly normally otherwise. I just couldn’t work. [it was the height of the recession, in addition] It wasn’t until later that I could see it. It was just this dark cloud hanging over my head.

    But, I’ll never forget… one day, I was watching a show about “how things are made.” I was watching a woman who made rag rugs. I thought— how does she do that? I don’t mean literally. I mean, how does she get up. Get dressed and go and do a JOB? How does anyone do anything? I knew that people worked and accomplished great things, but it was like slogging through mud. It took a while and the right meds, but now… I can’t wait to get up and work. Meds don’t make me happy. But, they help me to FOCUS. And when I feel like I’m doing what I need to do, I am content.

    D-day #2 came 3 years ago. It shattered me— at first. But, I found a way out. I can be alone with my precious kitty for days, but I don’t usually feel lonely. I rarely feel depressed. Or if I do… it’s fleeting.

    Thank you again and tell big bro not to worry. You are right. The people that matter will understand and the ones that don’t, you don’t want to be around them anyway. xo

  5. Karen Stuhldreher says:

    Thank you Katy for being courageous enough and willing to tell your story and share your experiences and insights about depression. As I struggle to understand and come to terms with Robin Williams’ death, this helps me so much. I am grateful to you; this honest and effective piece of writing is a valuable contribution to the world..

  6. You are a brave and immensely beautiful human being, Katy. Congratulations on releasing this vulnerable post into the world. I don’t think we have officially met in person around Seattle yet, but I sure would like to. It would be such a pleasure to make music with you sometime. ~With Love

  7. Jeanne Wiestling says:

    Thanks so much for your openness, your bravery, and your acting on your desire to share despite whatever potential backlash you may get. I admire you and your natural instinct to survive, to grow,and to help others do the same. God Bless you, and please continue to share if and when you feel so moved.

    Much Love,

    Jeanne in Minneapolis

  8. becky balli says:

    I admire you for being so candid. You are a beautiful soul. Peace be with you my friend

  9. Claire Scott says:

    Thank you Katy!!! That took amazing courage to share your story. I have never shared mine and probably never will. I am certain you realize that depression played a huge role in my brother’s suicide. That along with the drugs and alcohol was just a miserable life for him. He was never able to totally defeat his demons. I, like you have things under control for the most part and life goes on. I do so admire your strength and beauty. Best wishes to you always!!!!!

    • admin says:

      Thanks so much for reading and replying.

      I did not know about Dave and am so terribly sorry to hear of his death and struggles.

      I’m glad that you are managing your life and hanging in there. Peace to you!

      • Claire Scott says:

        I certainly thought word about Dave had gotten around to everyone by now. The date was April 2, 2005, my son’s 13th birthday. This was exactly 6 weeks to the day after my mother passed away. He never could beat the drugs and alcohol and add in the woman in his life and there you have it. He had tried various things over the years and nothing ever worked. This time it did. In a way it was a relief because we wouldn’t have the turmoil and stress in our lives any more. But, it was such a tragic loss. He had so much potential and could have been successful at so many things, but it was not to be. Now, my dad and I have only each other and my two lazy kiddos. Life could be much worse and it could also be much better. Research shows that many diabetics fight depression and I could name several reasons why. For the moment I am on an even keel and finding some success with some new treatments, so I am doing just fine. I try to stay involved at church and that helps as does being in the Ponca City Noon Lions. You are a beautiful lady and have many talents. Thanks for sharing with the rest of the world. Keep on hanging in there!!

  10. Dena in Ks says:

    Thank you. I heard myself speaking as I read your words.

  11. Reema says:

    Dear sweet Katy, thank you for your honesty. I think part of the struggle people feel, generally speaking, is not feeling safe to be totally honest about their emotions, demons, whatever because others want them to keep it in for fear of “looking bad.” Honesty and bravery look beautiful to me.

    I am glad to know you. I am glad to understand you a little more now. And I am especially glad to be part of your wellness plan. Believe it or not, your presence in my life and in my classes is part of my wellness plan too.

    You ARE a warrior.

  12. admin says:

    Thank you all for reading, sharing and commenting. I am truly touched by all the kind words here. Mine is only one story. I don’t presume to speak for other depressed people. I also know that we all have our individual burdens to bear. In the wake of Robin’s suicide, the time felt right to tell my story. I hope that others will also share theirs. Love and peace to all.

  13. Mike Harris says:

    Thanks for the transparency and sharing such private thoughts. I truly admire brave…and you are that. I wish I could give you a hug…

  14. Reggie says:

    Great post, Katy… I just now found it. I once wrote a long, free-associative poem the night I heard about John Lennon’s death…
    I am lucky, I don’t suffer from depression. But I’ve known many people who have. Some find ways to cope, and I’ve known some who could not.

    Side comment: I liked the part about the LSD. I was big with that, from 16 to 26. I don’t do it anymore, but have always thought my experiences gave me great insight, and also helped to “steel” my mind and my nerves.

  15. Dina Blade says:

    Thank you for your valuable insight. You put the BRAVE in BRAVO.

  16. Cyndee (Schwab) Rust says:

    Wow, Katy! Just wow. This is fantastic and what a story that absolutely NEEDS to be shared. So many people suffer these days in silence thinking that they are crazy or alone in their thoughts. It took an emergency trip to the psych ward to get my family’s attention and to realize that this was who I was and who I am and who I will always be. My depressive tendencies were not because I was lazy, mean, aloof, apathetic, sad, down, negative, sick, or passive aggressive. They were simply me…untreated. No amount of therapy helped. No amount of retreats, extensive evaluation of my psyche, etc. mattered. It’s a chemical thing. After 10+ years of the wrong medication and multiple threats of divorce, my husband and daughter finally understood that this condition was not self-imposed and that I needed to be treated as if it was a “normal” medical condition, such as asthma or such. A few years of finding the right combination of medicines and I am a much more balanced person today. Most of my family knows and understands. They look out for me and let me know (kindly) of any changes they see in my behaviors. I am not shy to let people know about my depressive tendencies. I don’t shout it out but if I feel like I’m in a safe place, I let them know and I have always received positive feedback and support. I applaud you for detailing your journey. I wish you the very best in your daily efforts to manage this sometimes unmanageable disease.

  17. […] or practice.  As such, my productivity has tanked to a troubling low. This feels different than depression. Still, I’m not sure what’s up. I’m curious if other artists are experiencing this […]

  18. […] Depression never goes away completely. There’s not a cure. You just learn to manage it. But being afflicted is not a deal breaker for a good life. It’s just a different path to grace. […]

  19. […] as long as I can remember. I’ve shared about it openly here on the blog. (For the full story, go here.) In a nutshell, I know what it’s like to move through my days in a dreary malaise, seeing the […]

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Katy Bourne is a Jazz Singer and Writer.