The depressed creative – formerly known as the depressed artist – is a common cliche. The truth, however, is that depression is pervasive throughout modern society, irrespective of talent, interests, and/or lack of same.
Wil Wheaton’s written something quite wonderful in its way, and inasmuch as he has put it out there to be shared, we’ve decided to bring his experience to our corner of the interweb, hoping that it will carry with it the understanding and hope that so many of us need.
by Wil Wheaton
I’m about to go speak to NAMI Ohio’s statewide conference, Fulfilling the Promise. These are the remarks I prepared for my speech.
Before I begin, I want to warn you that this talk touches on many triggering subjects, including self-harm and suicide. I also want you to know that I’m speaking from my personal experience, and that if you or someone you know may be living with mental illness, please talk to a licensed and qualified medical professional, because I am not a doctor.
Okay, let’s do this.
Hi, I’m Wil Wheaton. I’m 45 years-old, I have a wonderful wife, two adult children who make me proud every day, and a daughter in-law who I love like she’s my own child. I work on the most popular comedy series in the world, I’ve been a New York Times Number One Bestselling Audiobook narrator, I have run out of space in my office for the awards I’ve received for my work, and as a white, heterosexual, cisgender man in America, I live life on the lowest difficulty setting – with the Celebrity cheat enabled.
My life is, by every objective measurement, very very good.
And in spite of all of that, I struggle every day with my self esteem, my self worth, and my value not only as an actor and writer, but as a human being.
That’s because I live with Depression and Anxiety, the tag team champions of the World Wrestling With Mental Illness Federation.
And I’m not ashamed to stand here, in front of six hundred people in this room, and millions more online, and proudly say that I live with mental illness, and that’s okay. I say “with” because even though my mental illness tries its best, it doesn’t control me, it doesn’t define me, and I refuse to be stigmatized by it.
So. My name is Wil Wheaton, and I have Chronic Depression.
It took me over thirty years to be able to say those ten words, and I suffered for most of them as a result. I suffered because though we in America have done a lot to help people who live with mental illness, we have not done nearly enough to make it okay for our fellow travelers on the wonky brain express to reach out and accept that help.
I’m here today to talk with you about working to end the stigma and prejudice that surrounds mental illness in America, and as part of that, I want to share my story with you.
When I was a little kid, probably seven or eight years old, I started having panic attacks. Back then, we didn’t know that’s what they were, and because they usually happened when I was asleep, the adults in my life just thought I had nightmares. Well, I did have nightmares, but they were so much worse than just bad dreams. Night after night, I’d wake up in absolute terror, and night after night, I’d drag my blankets off my bed, to go to sleep on the floor in my sister’s bedroom, because I was so afraid to be alone.
There were occasional stretches of relief, sometimes for months at a time, and during those months, I felt like what I considered to be a normal kid, but the panic attacks always came back, and each time they came back, they seemed worse than before.
When I was around twelve or thirteen, my anxiety began to express itself in all sorts of delightful ways.
I worried about everything. I was tired all the time, and irritable most of the time. I had no confidence and terrible self-esteem. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone who wanted to be close to me, because I was convinced that I was stupid and worthless and the only reason anyone would want to be my friend was to take advantage of my fame.
This is important context. When I was thirteen, I was in an internationally-beloved film called Stand by Me, and I was famous. Like, really famous, like, can’t-go-to-the-mall-with-my-friends-without-getting-mobbed famous, and that meant that all of my actions were scrutinized by my parents, my peers, my fans, and the press. All the weird, anxious feelings I had all the time? I’d been raised to believe that they were shameful. That they reflected poorly on my parents and my family. That they should be crammed down deep inside me, shared with nobody, and kept secret.
My panic attacks happened daily, and not just when I was asleep. When I tried to reach out to the adults in my life for help, they didn’t take me seriously. When I was on the set of a tv show or commercial, and I was having a hard time breathing because I was so anxious about making a mistake and getting fired? The directors and producers complained to my parents that I was being difficult to work with. When I was so uncomfortable with my haircut or my crooked teeth and didn’t want to pose for teen magazine photos, the publicists told me that I was being ungrateful and trying to sabotage my success. When I couldn’t remember my lines, because I was so anxious about things I can’t even remember now, directors would accuse me of being unprofessional and unprepared. And that’s when my anxiety turned into depression.
(I’m going to take a moment for myself right now, and I’m going to tear a hole in the fabric of spacetime and I’m going to tell all those adults from the past: give this kid a break. He’s scared. He’s confused. He is doing the best he can, and if you all could stop seeing him as a way to put money into your pockets, maybe you could see that he’s suffering and needs help.)
I was miserable a lot of the time, and it didn’t make any sense. I was living a childhood dream, working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and getting paid to do what I loved. I had all the video games and board games I ever wanted, and did I mention that I was famous?
I struggled to reconcile the facts of my life with the reality of my existence. I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what. And because I didn’t know what, I didn’t know how to ask for help.
I wish I had known that I had a mental illness that could be treated! I wish I had known that that the way I felt wasn’t normal and it wasn’t necessary. I wish I had known that I didn’t deserve to feel bad, all the time….