Update: This essay is new to me, but it’s actually from June of last year. I’m sorry for the confusion on this!
Wil Wheaton is known as an early celebrity user of social media and for being funny, clever, and accessible to his fans. I remember how much of an impact he had in the early years of the Internet when social media wasn’t invented yet. He’s maybe best known for his work as a child on Stand By Me and Star Trek The Next Generation. Becoming famous early was not easy for him. Wheaton writes in a powerful new essay published on Medium that he has suffered anxiety and depression since he was young. It’s actually the prepared notes for a moving speech he gave to the National Association for Mental Illness. He didn’t get help until his wife suggested it to him in his 30s and it made a huge difference in his life. Wheaton wants to reduce the stigma of seeking treatment for mental illness, especially for young people. Although the following segment is long, it’s only a portion of his article. It’s detailed and moving and well worth reading in its entirety:
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…
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.
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…
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.
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 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.
One of the primary reasons I speak out about my mental illness, is so that I can make the difference in someone’s life that I wish had been made in mine when I was young, because not only did I have no idea what Depression even was until I was in my twenties, once I was pretty sure that I had it, I suffered with it for another fifteen years, because I was ashamed, I was embarrassed, and I was afraid…
I have to tell you a painful truth: I missed out on a lot of things, during what are supposed to be the best years of my life, because I was paralyzed by What If-ing anxiety.
So I let my doctor help me. I started a low dose of an antidepressant, and I waited to see if anything was going to change.
And boy did it.
My wife and I were having a walk in our neighborhood and I realized that it was just a really beautiful day — it was warm with just a little bit of a breeze, the birds sounded really beautiful, the flowers smelled really great and my wife’s hand felt really good in mine.
And as we were walking I just started to cry and she asked me, “what’s wrong?”
I said “I just realized that I don’t feel bad and I just realized that I’m not existing, I’m living.”
At that moment, I realized that I had lived my life in a room that was so loud, all I could do every day was deal with how loud it was. But with the help of my wife, my doctor, and medical science, I found a doorway out of that room.
I had taken that walk with my wife almost every day for nearly ten years, before I ever noticed the birds or the flowers, or how loved I felt when I noticed that her hand was holding mine. Ten years — all of my twenties — that I can never get back. Ten years of suffering and feeling weak and worthless and afraid all the time, because of the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
I both appreciate and feel bad that Wheaton had to explain that he knows his difficulty level is set on easy as a white CIS man and a celebrity but that it doesn’t matter. This disease affects everyone, and it remind of what James Middleton wrote about his depression, “I know I’m richly blessed and live a privileged life. But it did not make me immune.” Also I could relate to feeling happy for once and only then realizing how miserable you’d been before. This has happened to me a few times in my life, where I’ll have a moment where I feel “normal” and happy and think “Oh wow, I was in a dark place for a while.” Those times stand out and I remember them years later. I think I’m ok now but I do have a lot of anxiety, likely made worse by perimenopause. He gave some suggestions for self care like to take a walk, do a guided meditation, or cuddle with your dog. Exercise helps too and sometimes in the winter I’ll go to a tanning bed. (I know this sounds weird but I swear it helps.) I’d also like to recommend and older book that helped me, which I still consult sometimes, The Feeling Good Handbook. It’s just cognitive behavioral therapy, but it’s explained so clearly and it does help.
Let’s look at his good dogs now!
Photos credit: WENN and via Instagram/Wil Wheaton