Robin Williams And Depression
People the world over seem astonished that a person like Robin Williams — famous, beloved, hilarious, wealthy — could be so despondent as to take his own life. The only people who are not surprised are the people who have suffered from major depression themselves. And perhaps the mental health professionals who have seen major depressives up close and over time. This is no time to judge anyone. I hope Williams’s death has started a long overdue nationwide conversation about depression.
The classic tome on depression is supposed to be William Styron’s “Darkness Visible.” I read it. It does not come even close to describing the Slough of Despond that is depression (which, despite the reference to “Pilgrim’s Progress,” has nothing to do with sin). It’s a disease I know I have had since third or fourth grade, an age at which we are all considered relatively blameless. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed, unable to move, watching the world go by in shades of grey (no, not those “Shades of Grey.” I was only nine years old and it was 1969). When my brilliant friend Leah in sixth grade showed me the word “depression” in the dictionary, I was relieved. There was a name for it, feelings of despair that were sui generis, coming from seemingly nowhere.
I prayed that I would die before my 12th birthday, because the Church of Christers in my family told me that my sins would not be held against me if I died before my 12th birthday. If I felt that bad, I must be that bad. I also thought I was a Lesbian because I had kissed a girl while playing. “Bewitched.” Some girl had to play Darren. “Hi, Sammy. I’m home!” Smooch. Therefore I must die. Young gay children are not the only ones to suffer because of vicious lies fed to us about homosexuality. I’m pretty sure now that my relatives made up that stuff about being blameless before my twelfth birthday and, in any event, I lived to sin on for at least another 42 years.
Remember the Dark Ages when Thomas Eagleton had to resign as George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate because he had been treated for depression? Well, the ball toward enlightenment has moved about three inches since 1972. To confuse matters further, every creepy politician and adulterous celebrity caught in a bad act goes immediately to rehab, on the advice of their publicist, thus trivializing life-saving treatment for addiction and mental illness as a dodge for the famous and well-connected.
Nobody really knows what causes depression, unless it is situational depression, like when a loved one, human or otherwise, has recently died. Often a bad event can kick off an episode of severe depression in someone with a history of major depression. Major recurrent depression seems to have a genetic component. Bad childhoods, probably populated by other people suffering from depression or worse, do not help; but the “nature versus nurture” debate on this disease is not, nor can it ever be, I suspect, fully settled.
Why would a Robin Williams, or a David Foster Wallace, or a Freddie Prinze, Sr., or anybody else in a privileged position kill themselves? Because every cell is their bodies down to the bone is screaming that the only possible release from this excruciating, unbearable existential pain is to end their own lives. The brutality of this disease cannot be fully understood by someone who has never had it. I thought Harvey Fierstein summed it up beautifully when he tweeted: “Please, people, do not f— with depression. It’s merciless. All it wants is to get you in a room alone and kill you. Take care of yourself.”
Sometime you can feel it coming on, and you feel yourself swirling down a drain, unable to catch on to anything to stop yourself from falling inexorably into a Hell you know all too well. Then you are in a place in which the smallest things — getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, showering — seem like Herculean feats well beyond your capacity to even attempt. Even lifting your head off the pillow is challenging. I read something the day before Robin Williams died: Dick Cavett said he had not been able to get out of bed for six months due to depression. I knew the moment I read that that he had been there. You truly feel like the only release from this misery is your surrender to your own death. You do not take pleasure in anything. If, for example, you are a lifelong lover of books, reading, if you can manage to do it at all, will give you no joy. And, as Cavett notes, telling the depressed person to get up and go do something or get out of their own heads just compounds the pain. When depression is at its worst, all you can do is lay there and suffer. If you were capable of doing any more than that, you would. Every morning when the sun rises again and shoots horrific, mocking bolts of light into your eyes, you think, “Oh, God, no; here comes another day in Hell.”
Fortunately or unfortunately, I am a veteran of depression. I know that there will be a day when I will start to feel better, and then move on from that to experiencing real joy again. And, with proper treatment and medication, years can go by without me experiencing a severe episode. So even though my brain is telling me my death is the only possible end to this searing pain, another part of my brain tells me that this, too, shall pass. Possibly the worst and most effective thing I have ever been told, at the emergency room at the Mayo Clinic, is that my committing suicide would vastly increase the chances that my only child would do the same thing. And I would suffer a whole, whole lot to avoid harming my beloved son, now an adult. It was dirty pool, I thought at the time, but my child suffering is one thing that, in my mind, is far less tolerable than my suffering any amount of pain for six months or more. I am glad someone told me that.
That is not to say that I am beyond being defeated by this deadly disease, the only disease I know of that tells you that ending your life is the best thing you can do for yourself. I am lucky in that I live two blocks from the Mayo Clinic and have a great psychiatrist who pulled me through the worst depression of my life, which was triggered when my husband moved me, at age 51, from my home town of Austin, Texas, to Scottsdale, Arizona, 1000 miles away from everyone and everything I had known my whole life. But mental health care in most of America, the “real America” the Fox News crowd always talks about, is terrible. Insurance does not treat it as a real disease or want to cover it. I’ve had many doc-in-the-box encounters in seeking my own treatment. One time I showed up for therapy and my psychiatrist was dead stinking drunk, an empty bottle of vodka on the floor. At least she was a terrific therapist otherwise; but therapists are human, too. I would not be surprised if she suffered from secondary PTSD because of the suffering she worked her whole life to alleviate. So many other mental health professionals are just incompetent hacks. One therapist I had was a real clown who believed in group therapy for everybody and, strangely enough, he had every single person in our group on Abilify, which shuts down your metabolism and causes rapid weight gain. You want to really depress a group of already depressed people? Give them a drug that causes rapid weight gain and tell them it doesn’t.
Finally, a word to Shep Smith of Fox News, who called Williams a “coward” for killing himself: Fuck you. And Newscorp, too. What a mind-numbingly, unspeakably glib response to what Albert Camus recognized was “the ultimate question of philosophy”: Whether to live or to die. In the grip of a horrible disease you did not cause and did not ask for, it still takes balls of steel to work up the courage to end your own suffering like that. God knows I’ve spent hours thinking up ways to do it that were foolproof and not too messy for the ones I left behind; but I never worked up the nerve to do it. Depression is so terrible that I would never judge anyone for taking themselves out. But if you are thinking about killing yourself, please do NOT do it. As a veteran of many depressive cycles, I recognize that, “Tomorrow is another day.” Even the worst bout will end at some point, regardless of what your brain is telling you. If you have to, you can say out loud, “Shut up, part of my brain being hijacked by this crappy disease!” I have literally done that. A lucky few of us are able to hang on to that slender thread of hope. For some of us, as chronic depressive and many-time failed suicide Dorothy Parker said:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramps.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.