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Thursday, August 14, 2014

OT: My two cents on Robin Williams, suicide and depression

It's been a sad week, kids. Robin Williams, one of our most beloved comedic icons, took his own life this past Monday. I'm old enough to remember when he first broke into our collective consciousness (on Mork and Mindy) and watched his trajectory from street mime to comedian to TV star to movie star, handling both comedy and drama with aplomb, winning an Oscar in 1997. I saw countless appearances on the Tonight show and Late Night.

It was a horrible shocking sadness. And yet for me, it wasn't a complete surprise. Because I had read for a long time of his struggles with depression and addiction. I'd watched his manic performances and knew there was a very dark flip side to that seemingly boundless energy. I knew, because I know that flip side myself. So I felt very sad for him, for the extreme pain that drove him to ending it.

But nothing prepared me for the next couple of days.

Monday was mostly about reaction and shock and tears. Tuesday brought on the judgments. 

Suicide is selfish. Suicide is the coward's way out. Suicide is for the weak. He gave no thought to his loved ones and how they would suffer. He had all that money; he could have paid for the best of care. Lots of people get depressed; they endure it and they get over it. And so on and so forth, blah blah blah.

And I felt all-encompassing rage.

You know what? Until you have existed in the living shroud that is depression... until you have known, up close and personal, that utter darkness, despair and hopelessness... until you've counted the minutes every day until you could go to bed and sink into oblivion for a few hours of respite from the misery... until the simplest of acts, like putting on your clothes or brushing your teeth, are Herculean feats for you... until you've listened to hours, days, months, YEARS, of negative nattering in your head... until all that and so much more... you do not get to say jack about suicide. You do not get to judge, and you do not get to condemn. If you have never experienced any of this, then more power to you. I envy you. But have a little compassion anyway. And if you can't find it in your heart to feel that compassion for a another's tortured soul, then keep it to yourself. Think your judgmental thoughts if you will. But SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP. You are helping absolutely no one with your intolerance.

No, Robin Williams wasn't thinking about his loved ones, because he'd gone beyond rational thought. Depression isn't about logic. Depression isn't something you can talk yourself out of; it's a brain disorder, a chemical imbalance, and victims of it can't talk themselves out of it any more than diabetics can talk themselves out of low blood sugar. Suicide is born of the worst despair imaginable, a relentless torment.

I know, because I attempted it when I was 19. And one thing I will never forget, as long as I live, was the way I felt the morning I decided to do it. After so much crying and agonizing and fighting, peace descended over me, enveloped me. My crazed mind went blank, I felt calm. Finally. It would be over. I thought of nothing else -- not my family, not my friends, nothing. All I could think of was my deliverance from pain and how relieved I felt.

One of my friends on Facebook wrote a blog in which he compared Robin Williams to Roger Ebert, who suffered for years from the ravages of cancer before he finally succumbed to it. He claimed that Ebert faced his pain heroically, while Williams surrendered and betrayed his loved ones in the process. I did not wish to disrespect or insult my friend, but I had to say something. So I commented that it was unfair to compare the two: Ebert had a ravaged body, and Williams had a ravaged mind. I was respectful, and he was respectful in his comment back to me. But it made me sad. People just don't understand.

But wait, there's more. Wednesday brought yet another type of judgment and condemnation.

Certain members of religious groups were, almost gleefully, saying that because Robin Williams committed a mortal sin with suicide, and because he was blasphemous and profane in his comedy, he was burning in hell for all eternity. The Westboro Baptist Church clan intends to picket his funeral. And so on.

When I read about this, I waited for the next wave of rage. However, it didn't come. Instead, I broke down and bawled. 

I am not a saint. I have felt anger, and yes, even hate, toward certain people, particularly those who have done dreadful things to me or to those I care about. But what the hell did Robin Williams do to any of these people? How anyone can wish eternal misery upon a fellow human being, whose only "sin" was his inability to endure his own torment, is beyond my scope of understanding. 

As I wept, I read further, searching for some sanity. Fortunately, I found some. I am an atheist, but I wanted to find some goodness, some human kindness and compassion, in both realms: the religious and the secular. So I found two quotes, which I will share here.

This one is from Mark Shea, a Catholic blogger:

Robin Williams, RIP
He brought joy to a lot of people.  May he find in death the peace he could not find in life, through Christ our Lord.
And please, if you must comment, prayer only. If you feel a compulsion to make some political commentary, or wish him into hell because you’ve decided God has authorized you to pronounce on his eternal destiny (yes, I’m seeing people do this around the blogosphere), for the love of God just stow it.

And this one is from Michael Stone, a secular humanist:

In the end, of course, there is no heaven, and there is no hell. Death is final, and that is tragedy enough. There is no afterlife. All we can do now is mourn the loss, and celebrate the life.

Pick whichever one works best for you. For the record, I found both comforting.

So I will mourn our loss of a great entertainer and humanitarian, and I will celebrate the good memories and honor his life by enjoying his performances. I feel the need to see Dead Poet's Society again. O captain, my captain, please rest peacefully.

A final note: I don't wish to minimize the death of screen legend Lauren Bacall, who passed away on Tuesday. She was one of the few remaining greats of that era, and it's sad to see her go. She was 89; she had a long and fruitful life. And while I don't believe in heaven, I'm going to suspend that disbelief here just for a minute. Because if there is indeed a heaven, then Bogie has been waiting there for her since 1957. That would be one hell of a reunion. ♥


  1. Bless you Erica. At long last a tortured soul is at peace.

  2. John -- you're welcome

    Don -- thanks.

  3. Wow, Erica, your essay on Robin Williams, and Lauren Bacall, is the reason why I LOVE YOU. You said it ALL, my SPANKO FRIEND. You said it ALL. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. Your wonderful tribute, to these two famous world wide entertainers, is masterpiece of prose.

  4. Six -- I'm glad it resonated.

  5. His wife said he was in the beginning stages of Parkinson's, so that probably had a lot to do with it. One of his friends, Rick Overton, was on a radio show yesterday saying that he hadn't quite been right since his surgery in '09, so that also played a big part.

  6. I have been one of those who, in times past, might have cast a judgement of selfishness on some one who commits suicide. But not any more. And you are right, Erica. Until you have experienced it for yourself, mental ill-health cannot be understood. I was lucky enough to have two brief periods of despair which have taught me to be more humble and accepting. They lasted exactly six days each and occurred a month apart. I went from being a perfectly normal, happy adult to wanting to die, quite literally, from one minute to the next. For six days I was hit by wave after wave of despair. No amount of rationalising, of positive thinking, of talking it over, of counting my blessings could make the slightest bit of difference. I simply wanted to die. I have no idea what caused these episodes but I am fairly certain it was due to some chemical signals being generated by my brain over which I had no conscious control. Luckily, I was blessed to be returned to full health as quickly and as inexplicably as I had succumbed to despair. But it gave me a window on the misery that others may have the misfortune to suffer and the sheer hell of having to live through that misery day after day after day. I don't know what happened to push Robin Williams to take his own life, but if that was what he needed to do, not one of us can possibly stand in judgement. On the contrary, I feel so lucky to have such wonderful memories of all those fabulous performances he shared with us, to have experienced his amazing talent, sensitivity and creativity. I am so glad that he is no longer in any pain and I trust that, if there is a heaven, it will certainly be a place full of laughter where people like Robin Williams are welcomed with open arms. Anything else would be the very definition of hell. So I would join you in wishing our captain peaceful rest.

  7. If I'm outing myself here, so be it. I help people with medical conditions get disability benefits. I explain to them something like this: depression (bipolar, anxiety, fill in the dx) is as real as breast cancer. If we took you (the person I'm talking to) down to Harvard or up to Mayo and hooked your brain up to one of their fancy experimental machines that can look inside the brain, here's what we would find: Something isn't lighting up the way it should or the circuits aren't connecting, or too much or too little of something isn't getting where it needs to be. AND Perhaps in the life time of your son or my daughter they'll have one of those tricorders that Dr. Crusher used on Star Trek that will tell us exactly what's wrong with the wiring ... and how to fix it.

    But, until then, (I say) just remember that mental illnesses are as real as cancer but we know as little about treating them as the Romans did about treating polio.

    I believe that every once in a while I make a convert. No one should have to believe that their depression is any less "real" than someone else's "accepted - should I say acceptable - diagnosis. It may help that, when appropriate, I speak of my own severe bout of depression 15 years or so ago when I didn't care to get out of bed for about a month.

    I am quite surprising by how saddened I've been about losing Robin Williams. I do not believe I've ever talked about the death of a star with anyone before. Williams touched my life; maybe I will have the insight someday to figure out why. Thank you for bringing this up OT.

  8. Jen -- yes, I just read about the Parkinson's today. That was the last straw, I'm thinking.

    Anonymous -- I'm sorry for what you had to go through, and I'm glad for you that it passed. Thank you for your heartfelt comment.

    Jon -- you do wonderful work, and I speak for all depressives, I'm sure, when I say we are grateful for people like you. And yes, the loss of Robin Williams seems to be having that effect on many. There was something -- hell, many things -- special about him.

  9. Erica, great post as always. I envy your way with words. I think great words in my mind but the mind to paper function just doesn't work well. Anyway, I think people confuse temporary, situational depression with the dark depression that Robin suffered. And because they were able to overcome their depression it should be that easy for everyone. And I don't believe in hell anymore and I'm on the fence about an afterlife but I know that Robin is finally at peace in that great beyond.

    An Admirer

  10. You are absolutely right that the only people who can understand the true awfulness of depression are sufferers. My wife has suffered since a particularly bad episode of post-natal depression on and off for over thirty years. It is an awful destructive illness and in my opinion ought to be accepted as every bit as bad as cancer or heart disease which have untold millions lavished on their research and treatment.
    Very very few sufferers of other awful diseases commit suicide no matter how bad the pain.
    However every years hundreds of sufferers from mental health problems choose to end their suffering because 'Pain in the Brain' must be the most unimaginably unbearable pain.
    It is also hardly surprising that many sufferers are driven to self-medicate with alcohol and other substances to attempt to get some relief.
    Depression is a ludicrous word to describe such an awful illness which leads to ridiculous suggestions to sufferers such as to pull themselves together, take a nice holiday, as they mistakenly identify it with normal depressive feeligs which we all have to bear.
    For a truly insightful read I would recommend Darkness Visible by William Styron.

  11. Admirer -- I think your words are just fine. :-)

    Jim -- I'm sorry about your wife. Sadly in our society, it seems that ailments are taken far more seriously once a celebrity suffers from them. If anything "good" could come out of this tragedy, it would be a heightened awareness of depression and just how serious it is.

    Anonymous -- thank you for reading.

  12. Hi Erica -- Thanks for sharing how you feel, you have a way with word's. Being someone who has had depression all my life, I have to agree with you, that no one has the right to judge another, If they never had depression they don't have a freaking clue what it feels like :-( R.I.P Robin Williams, You were the BEST. Much Love and hugs from naughty girl Jade

  13. Erica,

    Excellent post. Thank you.

    I have to agree we should not judge if we have no knowledge of depression.

    I watched Good Will Hunting last night. Huge, huge talent.


  14. We lost two very great actors this week. So sad.


  15. Ronnie -- his dramatic performances were amazing. He was able to tap into a completely different side of himself.

    Hermione -- very sad indeed.

  16. Well written Erica (yet again).
    When I first heard the details of his death, I instantly thought not of anything else; but that perhaps the good that will come of this is the awareness of the seriousness of depression. Sad way to look at it, but optimistic in a round about way.

    A problem shared by us as humans, is our snap choice to judge and compare others struggles to our own abilities to overcome. The fact of the matter remains we forget the simple lessons of the age old proverb of walking in our neighbor's shoes; recognizing that no man or woman carries the same burden as any other.

  17. Enzo -- it is kind of a sad commentary on our society that it takes a celebrity to bring attention and awareness to a serious problem. But whatever works, I guess.

  18. Robin Williams was such an enormous talent and such a funny, funny man (and by all accounts, a very kind and very generous one too). I live very close to his residence and grew up in Marin County where he went to high school and started his career and I'm very familiar with a lot of his charitable work around here. I've noticed in the past that some of our funniest comedians also seem to have a dark side; it almost goes together. Some of his live performances (appearances on talk shows, for instance) seemed to border on the manic and I've often wondered if he had some mental problems. I've been in the hospital recently a couple of times and they always ask how I'm "feeling", if I'm depressed, and I always answer "no more than usual". After all, aren't we all "depressed" sometimes about our lives or our health or whatever? The word "depression" is such an inadequate, pale, banal word for such a serious problem; it almost cheapens it. I'm so sorry he had to deal with such pain and I'm glad (in a way) he's no longer in pain even though his loved ones are. RIP Robin McLaurin Williams. You made me laugh.

    On another note, I'm glad you acknowledged Lauren Bacall too. She was such an iconic figure and talent. I too, hope that she's reunited, somewhere, with Bogey, but she lived a long time after his death and had her own career and other relationships, which she pointed out in more than one interview. I'd like to think she might be reunited with Jason Robards too. RIP Betty, you were a class act...

  19. smuccatelli -- I thought about Jason Robards, whom she was married to after Bogey. But she had divorced him, so that didn't end well.

    There is situational depression, a sadness over a circumstance, a loss, an unhappy circumstance, and then there is clinical, chronic depression. The latter is the one that won't fade with time. People don't quite get that.

  20. I'll just say one thing Erica, because i agree with you 100% on this. Amen. Even though I'm not particular religious either.

    (On an attempt at a more humourous note, an eventual afterlife must at this point be in for one hell of a show, because their ranks have at this point when I'm writing this, been joined by not only Robin Williams, but also 81 y.o. Joan Rivers, another comedic legend. And frankly, the show those two must be able to put on is one I'd die to see...pun intended.)

  21. Kyrel -- my dad once wrote a piece about going to heaven and meeting all the passed stars, so he could ask them questions and see them perform again. It's a fun thought, certainly.