On Robin Williams, depression, and the very real struggle to stay alive

On Robin Williams, depression, and the very real struggle to stay alive

To paraphrase a Patton Oswalt tweet from Monday, it’s almost unbearable to think about legendary comedian, actor, and good guy Robin Williams “being that sad,” so sad, in fact, that he chose to kill himself. It doesn’t make sense that someone who brought joy to so many couldn’t have found happiness and serenity himself. And yet, like so many people who struggle with depression, I get it.

I’ve gone days, weeks, and months without being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that, even with family, friends, and admirers around me, I still didn’t think it would ever get any better—no matter how many times people told me to buck up, or that they’d felt sad sometimes too.

Depression is more than that. As comedian Chris Gethard wrote in a post on his Tumblr yesterday, being depressed is being mentally ill, spending days in bed, “scared and crying, feeling alone and hopeless and completely desperate.” To think of anyone like that, let alone Robin Williams—Peter Pan! The Genie! Robin fucking Williams!—is heartbreaking.

Comedian Rob Delaney also expressed the extremes of his own struggle with depression in a piece he originally wrote in 2010 but reposted to Tumblr yesterday, saying:

Over the past seven years, I’ve had two episodes that were severe and during which I thought almost exclusively of suicide. I did not eat much and lost weight during these episodes. I couldn’t sleep at all, didn’t even think about sex, and had constant diarrhea. The first thing I did each morning was vomit. My mind played one thought over and over, which was “Kill yourself.” It was also accompanied by a constant, thrumming pain that I felt through my whole body. I describe the physical symptoms because it helps to understand that real depression isn’t just a “mood.” These two episodes were the most difficult experiences of my life, by a wide margin, and I did not know if I would make it through them. To illustrate how horrible it was, being in jail in a wheelchair with four broken limbs after the car accident that prompted me to get sober eight years ago was much, much easier and less painful. That isn’t an exaggeration and I hope it helps people understand clinical depression better; I’m saying that I would rather be in jail in a wheelchair with a body that doesn’t work than experience a severe episode of depression.

Delaney also goes on to describe his battle with suicidal thoughts, saying he “began fantasizing constantly about suicide. The images of my head being blown apart by a shotgun blast or me swimming out into the ocean until I got tired and drowned played over and over in my head.” We can’t know what Robin Williams went through that led him to do what he did, but we can know that he’d struggled with depression for years thanks to both the excellent interview he did with Marc Maron on WTF and a posthumous statement from his publicist about how he’d recently been dealing with a severe bout of the disease. That he thought he’d never get out of it is crushing, but to someone who’s dealt with that level of depression, completely understandable.

I never tried to kill myself, but at my lowest point, I was absolutely sure I was going to die. Every time I got in a car, I knew that I was about to face down a fiery crash and never return home. I couldn’t swim, because I knew I’d never end up back on shore. And I wasn’t afraid to die. Rather, I accepted its inevitable reality. It wasn’t that I didn’t deserve to live because I was so depressed, but rather that I couldn’t really see a way through life that ended in happiness, even as my dad pleaded with me to just “be happy.” It wasn’t that easy and isn’t that easy, and the only way I got out of the yards-deep hole that I was in was through medication, talk therapy, and lots and lots of time spent with others.

It might not have been that simple for Williams, though. We may never know what kind of therapy he went through, though if his empathetic performance in Good Will Hunting is any indication, he must have at least known therapists in his life. He could have even been through everything and still felt like he had no choice. In the wake of his death Monday, a lot of Twitter eulogies noted that “if you’re sad, you should say something,” and while that’s probably true, for so many people who are depressed (one in 10 Americans), it’s not that easy. You’re constantly crippled with sadness, unwilling to burden those around you, or unable to ever pull yourself out of it, even with that help, even with that shoulder to cry on. Once someone gets so depressed that they really dig themselves into a hole, it’s nearly impossible to ever fully get out without real long-term work, and even then, they might still remain a little muddled, a little muted, kept under glass and without a real way out into the world.

Like Chris Gethard says in his post, it’s ridiculous to ask whether “comedians have to be depressed to be funny.” While we thankfully haven’t seen many “tears of a clown” headlines related to Willliams’ death, we also haven’t seen many frank discussions of the many forms depression takes. Fans are confused over why he’d do something so dire, and how someone so funny could also be so sad. (Maron makes a good point in the updated intro to that WTF episode about how Williams may have been a great comedian in part because he was so in touch with his emotions.) The 10 percent of us who struggle with depression—and I mean struggle, not just “get depressed sometimes”—realize that there are bad days just as there are good, and that, like Williams, we’ll battle every single day to stay alive, to stay with our families and friends, and to convince ourselves that we’re worthwhile and loved. And while we might see versions of ourselves among both our friends and heroes and on television and in movies, we have to actually talk about those representations and those tarnished icons if we really want to know them or know ourselves. If nothing else, maybe Williams’ death can encourage the world to talk about depression, to talk about mental illness, and to realize once again that, like Gethard says in his piece, it’s only when we talk about those issues openly and honestly that anything changes.

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