Like many other Americans, and indeed many people around the world, I was stunned and saddened by the death of Robin Williams, an extraordinarily gifted comic and straight actor, as well as a wonderful person by all accounts. But unlike many others, I was not surprised to learn that he was destroyed by depression. In public, he appeared to be just as effervescent in person as he was on screen (I crossed paths with him a few times, and even met him once). But that was his public persona. In private, people sometimes have a grim side that the public does not see. I know this as well as anyone.
I, too, am a professional entertainer in a comic vein, though of a very different sort and certainly not as successful at it. And in part because of this comic persona, most people would never guess that I also have a long history of severe depression, starting when I was 13. (At about the time I started to unravel, I was plagued by headaches for several months. I suspect there’s a connection.) I’ve told very few people about this, and most of them were mental health professionals. I’ve never written about it before — oddly enough, I don’t recall ever even mentioning it specifically in the extensive journals I’ve kept my entire adult life. But maybe the time has come to step out of the closet — or dungeon — and clear up some of the misconceptions that drive depressives into it in the first place.
I am saddened, and more than a little disgusted, by some of the media comments about Williams’ suicide: comments to the effect that he ended his life because he was a “coward”, and that he deliberately chose to do so. Nobody can presume to know for certain what ran through his mind as he reached the end, but in all likelihood, he was far past the point of being able to decide anything. All he could do was make a desperate bid to get rid of the demon in any way he could. Such misperceptions about suicide go hand-in-hand with misperceptions about depression itself. Many people regard depressives as either “crazy” or lazy or pessimistic or introverted or timid or wimpy or stern or humorless or self-centered or passive or emotionless or just plain “weird”. The truth is that we may or may not be any of the above. Just like anyone else.
On those occasions when I did mention my affliction to someone, the typical response was something like, “What do you have to be depressed about?” The implied meaning, it seems, was, “What right do you have to be depressed when you have so much going for you?” This type of query puts things ass-backward. Rather than events creating my mood, the mood came first, and colored everything I looked at, making every event appear much worse than it really was. Asking some depressives their reason for being depressed is like asking what reason someone has for being tall.
There are at least three main flavors of depression — not even counting syndromes like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — and just to make things even more confusing, they can overlap. When someone asks why someone else is depressed, they’re probably thinking of the most common type, often referred to as situational depression. An abrupt trauma like the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, or a grave medical diagnosis can certainly send you into an emotional tailspin. Almost everybody experiences this at some time or other, in some degree or other. The good news is it tends to be temporary, and you have the benefit of being able to point to the exact cause of your distress.
No such comfort exists, however, for sufferers from chronic depression, which can drag on for a lifetime, and is brought about by unidentified internal, rather than external, factors. The chronic variety overall might be milder than the situational variety; but it also can be accompanied by periodic bouts of major (or clinical) depression, which can be quite severe indeed. The combination of these two is sometimes called double depression. And that’s where I come in.
I’ve had no real tragedies in my life, and few real traumas — very little that would give me the “right” to be depressed. But I’ve had years and years of utter bleakness, days upon days when it took all the strength I could muster to drag myself out of bed, nights wandering the streets because I couldn’t sleep, hours of staring at the wall, many episodes of bursting into tears for no discernible cause, many times when everything felt pointless and the whole world appeared flat and unreal.
I couldn’t focus on schoolwork — I skipped my senior year in high school to escape the excruciating tedium, and went to college, where I made A’s the first semester, and then started flunking. Sitting through classes was such torture that I gradually just stopped doing it. I couldn’t hold down a job of any kind; I was fired more times than I could count, and would have been fired even more often had I not quit first. I went on welfare, but was finally cut off for being uncooperative and not making an effort to fend for myself. I became well acquainted with the bottle, which helped for a few minutes, but not in the long term.
I lost many great opportunities because when they presented themselves, I was not a fully functional human being. I missed out on half my son’s childhood, most of my own adolescence, half of my entire goddamn life because I was so preoccupied with wrestling a demon that wouldn’t let go.
Still, I consider myself rather fortunate. Not only have I avoided the fate of Robin Williams, but for the first time ever, I feel that I’m finally, finally winning the battle. It’s been at least 5 years since I’ve had a relapse (a major milestone for me) and many more years since I needed — and obtained — professional help. (Bless you, Gail, wherever you are.) In fact, I feel better than I’ve ever felt. I may even be experiencing what people refer to when hey talk about happiness.
If you are suffering from depression, please don’t give up hope. Be willing to try anything you can that might help a little bit: medication, meditation, healthier diet, exercise, hobbies, change of scenery, whatever. It’s unlikely that any one thing (except medication) will make the difference, but many little steps eventually might. My own process of putting myself together piece by piece was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle on a sailboat in the middle of a hurricane. But I’m proof that it can be done.
Depression is not a character flaw. It’s not intellectual or spiritual weakness. It’s not a moral failure. It’s not something you choose or wittingly let yourself slip into. And it’s not something you can just “snap out of”. But it can be defeated.
If there’s anything positive that may come from the death of Robin Williams, perhaps it’s this: it might help foster awareness about the illness he succumbed to. Funny thing about this American cult of celebrity worship. On the one hand, Americans idolize movie stars for creating a fantasy world to escape into; and yet whatever celebrities say or do or experience somehow is viewed as more vibrant, more vital, more real than what happens to one’s next-door neighbor. Just as the death of Rock Hudson nudged many Americans (notably President Reagan) into a realization that AIDS can, directly or indirectly, impact anyone anywhere, perhaps the loss of this comic giant will drive home the point that depression is a very real disease with a very devastating toll.
One can only hope.