This post is probably going to come across as incredibly narcissistic, but I don’t care.
Last night I was getting ready for bed when my wife told me that Robin Williams had died, but she hadn’t heard the cause. I had my laptop, so I looked it up and read that it was probably “suicide by asphyxiation.”
That hit me hard, as 7 years ago last month I attempted suicide by asphyxiation. Things were very bleak in my life at the time, and one evening after my wife cried herself to sleep, I decided it would be better for everyone if I weren’t around anymore. I got out of bed, walked into my closet, and tied one end of a tie around the clothes rod and the other end around my neck. Then I relaxed my knees and let all my weight pull on the tie. Just that quickly I went from feeling depressed to wanting to die to actually trying to kill myself.
I like to think that I stopped myself short of “success” because I realized I didn’t really want to die, but it was more just that it was a lot more painful than I had expected, which probably means I didn’t want to die enough to be willing to endure that much pain. So, I got back on my feet, untied the tie, and went back to bed.
I’m telling that story because I realize that for someone to go through with that and endure that much pain, it means they really want to die.
Since last night, just about every news item has been about how Robin Williams must have been hiding a lot of pain under the “mask” of his comedic performance. That’s bullshit. He was pretty open about his problems with depression, mental illness, and addiction. It’s true that, more than a lot of performers, Mr. Williams always seemed to be “on” when in public, and I used to think he was probably more interesting when he stopped performing. But we’re all performing, to some extent. Every human being must of necessity get up every morning and try to project normality, even though there’s at least a little crazy in all of us. We have to look like we’re functioning at least at a minimal level; those who can’t project that image end up in an institution or on the street.
But depression is something way beyond everyday problems. It’s not a problem of being sad all the time. It’s not a lack of self-esteem. It’s not feeling hopeless or worthless or dead inside. It’s all of those things and much more, and it almost always seems to come from no reason. It’s like a shark in a feeding frenzy, mindlessly and efficiently tearing apart everything that makes your life worth living. If you look into the cold, black eye of depression, you see no emotion, no compassion, nothing but a machine designed to kill you.
And depression isn’t something you can “beat,” like going into remission with cancer. You learn to cope, you take medication, you get therapy, but it’s still there. Like many people I know, I did very well with a combination of therapy and drugs, but I got overconfident and got off the drugs. I did fine for several months and then earlier this summer, I was fortunate enough to recognize the signs that the depression was creeping back, so I’m back on the drugs and doing fine again.
The reason so many of us think we can beat it and do without drugs or therapy is that, despite knowing it’s a medical condition with known biochemical causes, we still believe somewhere deep inside that it’s “just sadness” or some kind of personal failing. We think we should just be able to suck it up and deal with it. And we can’t.
Suicide is an extraordinarily selfish act, but in that moment, it is impossible to think beyond yourself. The shark circles in ever-tightening rings until you can’t see anything beyond your own misery. When you most need help, it’s beyond your capacity to even think of reaching out to someone else. It’s self-centered not because you have an inflated ego, but because you feel totally empty, totally alone. You just want it all to stop.
Whatever you think of Robin Williams, he was a very gifted man. I have to admit that, although I liked his humor much of the time, I thought it was better in small doses. But it was his dramatic roles that I found amazing. My favorite is the obsessed film developer in “One Hour Photo,” which to this day still creeps me out. And his work in “The Fisher King” and “Good Will Hunting” were brilliant and heartbreaking.
On NPR this morning, they said that he occupied a huge part of our culture and touched countless lives. I know that’s true, but in the end, he was probably like me, believing that it would be better for everyone if he were no longer around.
I wish there were some brilliant thing I could say that would help people who are struggling with depression. There isn’t. I just hope people learn to recognize its symptoms and get help before it becomes a crisis.