We all know about the funny man, the comedic genius, the defining roles, the legendary acting making him a household name synonymous with laughs; likewise we knew something of the humanitarian, the man willing to give his time and his talent to entertain troops overseas, grant wishes through organizations like the Make a Wish Foundation, his work with St. Jude’s Cancer Research in fundraising, making sick children laugh. He was also candid about his struggles with addiction, substance abuse, stints in rehab and living a sober life, incorporating it into his comedy routines, making them all the more real. We will remember him for such iconic roles as Mork and Mindy, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, Patch Adams, ranging from humor to heartfelt; even psychological thrillers like One Hour Photo and The Night Listener, lending his ability to do voices to now classic cartoons such as Aladdin’s genie showcasing the depth of his acting prowess. But what we didn’t know is perhaps just as profound if not more so; beyond mirroring other comedians struggling, some lost to us through things that eventually took Williams, how does that saying go, comedians don’t get into comedy because of a happy life, usually the opposite, beyond the grizzly details surrounding his death, suicide by apparent hanging, how he was found, the chemicals, substances in his system, the Parkinson’s diagnosis he wasn’t yet ready to share with the world. Still he held lasting and true friendships in Hollywood, a place better known for backstabbing and enemies, only being now uncovered, notably with Christopher Reeve; Robin’s steadfast friendship and antics allowing him to laugh after his accident. Surpassing the glitz and glamor of fame, the efforts to bring joy to ordinary people despite the suffering clouding his own heart, the pain inside he could no longer fight; people coming forward to share messages he sent to them, time spent with them, their children through organizations granting wishes for sick persons, willing to go above and beyond their simple, humble requests to see the actor, going all out for people who needed just a little happiness. Robin Williams’ other lasting legacy may well come from his death, as tragic as it is; his other lasting legacy just might be, for the better of the world, changing the face of depression, deepening our awareness of clinical depression and its realities.
So many of the public shocked to hear Robin Williams had died, shaken even more to learn about the manner of his death, taken aback that such an obviously happy, gregarious person we know on camera as so bombastic, so alive, so wildly funny could be in such deep, dark despair. So many people sad they will never see Williams grace the TV, movie screen again, sad they were not able to help someone who had helped them through his films, his activism or just lend a hand to someone who clearly needed it. Hoards wondering how this could happen, one close friend recounting all his friends’ worries for him, describing him as fragile lately; members of the public across the country looking at the outpouring of love, well wishes, hopes he rests in peace wondering if he could feel any of that love while he was alive, while he was in his deepest, darkest moments so few knew about. Easily characterized as a man who gave that much to his work, his family, to help make others feel better there was nothing left for himself, perhaps it wasn’t that he couldn’t feel the love, didn’t think he had enough to live for, only that like other great ones, like other artists with such intrinsic gifts, he gave of himself until there was nothing left to give. This is by no means romanticizing his suffering, painting a picture that to do great work in Hollywood, film, art, poetry, painting, pottery or even social work, advocacy you must suffer; but rather, acknowledging that we are most moved, most changed, most effected by those things, heart wrenching to wonderful, that touch us directly. From medical advancements to social change they are often spurred by one person’s tragedy they are determined to turn into triumph, determined to spare others their torment; they become the catalyst to individuals becoming doctors, scientists, researchers, grass roots organizers. Williams was known to have said his day job allowed him to do his most important job, making people feel better, indicating he too was driven by this human imperative. Maybe it explains the up, the happy, euphoria, the high he felt on stage, performing and the low, how quiet he got off stage, a phenomenon exhibited in performers across the spectrum, highly noted in comedians. Perhaps he couldn’t feel the love the same way you and I might because being so open, wearing his heart on his sleeve, as he seemed to do, like all apparent pure hearts and sensitive souls he had shielded his heart to protect it from things the rest of us automatically shake off, bruising his very soul, that to give what he gave to the world the way he gave it, for it to be the authentic thing it was supposed to be he had to live bearing that sort of open wound keeping him honest, keeping him real, keeping him in touch with the emotions that make us all truly human. Could it be like others before him, being the pure heart anyone can see he was, he could only hold on so long, only stand the cruel world so long and thus saying gave to it while he could?
Or more apt in medical, psychological terms, this was the cloud, the hold, the power depression had over him, because as media reporters were quick to point out when it is depression, particularly clinical depression, these people can’t just get happy, stop being sad; their brain chemistry literally doesn’t allow it. Yet that remains the chorus of friends, family and coworkers, acquaintances often prone to telling people to snap out of it, admonishing them to get a new perspective, to be grateful for what they have, people who look at individuals like Robin Williams and wonder with his fame, fortune and success how he could possibly be depressed at all, people who think you’re still pinning over a lost love, are still reeling from the old cliché of childhood issues, abuse and don’t you think it’s time you stopped being a victim, even if they understand you went through something traumatic, their response; you’re still freaking out over that? Why, the myriad of misconceptions held by society about what depression really is, ignorance as to the varying kinds of depression, their multi-faceted, multi layered symptoms and a host of social mores, values, customs, and let us not forget stigmas, surrounding mental illness, especially the much maligned depression. We are apt to confuse clinical depression, what he had, with Dysthymia the least severe, but still very diagnosable, no less real form of depression that responds well to the cognitive/behavioral, “talk” therapy we so clearly associate with mental health treatment, equally likely to respond to do it yourself mood boosters like exercise, diet changes, yoga, a vacation or writing in a journal. However, even here experts warn not only is treatment needed, in some form or fashion, but the presence of Dysthymia could lead to bouts of major, clinical depression. We are apt to interchange the terms clinical depression with situational depression, the perfectly normal, to be expected depression felt after death of a loved one, a beloved pet, loss of a job held for many years, adjusting to retirement, trauma related to natural disasters, events like 9/11, the Boston bombing; unfortunately removing the latter two, the majority response is almost identical to details above. Worse ignoring it; exactly what those in the psychiatric, psychological community say not to do, in fact, if symptoms persist, to be on the lookout for major, clinical depression, be sure you, your love one receives professional help. It doesn’t help that in the last 25-30 odd years depression has become a social buzzword, depression has become casually bandied about by all ages, particularly the younger, to denote a sad or foul mood, to elicit sympathy or give them an excuse to go on and on about their current problem(s), guilt trip people into listening, at least therein lies the common perception. Depression has evolved from a serious diagnosis to a single word explanation for the mopey blues, things causing you to sit on the couch in your pajamas eating a pint of ice-cream, a bag of potato chips; depression has morphed into another word for teen angst and teen angst is a feeling everyone that age went through to varying degree. You’re not special, unique, certainly not in need of treatment for an illness; regardless of if symptoms surpass the normal spectrum of teen behavior, reach the level to be recognized by clinical diagnostics, regardless of whether individual teens could benefit from help. Neither is it helped by our notion, there we go with perceptions again, interpreting someone’s need to talk as whining, someone’s, no matter their age, genuine attempt to reach out, really open up as drama, as self-absorption as falling apart, freaking out over every little thing.
But these people, people like Robin Williams couldn’t just get happy, be upbeat, be satisfied and content with what they have, bask in the love and joy of family and friends, because that wasn’t his problem; no amount of thinking positively, exercise, sunlight, keeping busy, calm to lavish vacations, do it yourself remedies was going to alter his faulty brain chemistry, was going to normalize it or the neural pathways responsible, at least in part, for his depressed mood, suicidal thoughts, the “fragile” state his close friends described. Doesn’t help he was born in a decade of psychological dark ages here in America punctuated by shock treatments, unethical government experiments and a national public growing up, raising their kids to believe you don’t talk about your problems, you suck it up and deal or you are a wuss, a decade that normalized the harsh treatment, if not abuse of children, spouses, alcoholism was rampant, even somewhat acceptable particularly for specific groups of people before we had a name for that too. Is it surprising someone as irrepressible as Robin Williams turned to humor to cope with that? It doesn’t help we live in a society, in recent years, gone completely the other direction, obsessed with both self-help and turning shocking stories of individuals overcoming harrowing odds, devastating diseases, accidents into more than a guide for others, more than an inspirational spring of hope, rather a mandated way of life. They overcame it, whatever it is, you should too, and if you don’t, you’re wallowing in victimhood and I don’t want to be around you. Persons are so busy either managing their chaotic, over scheduled lives or their own self-help journey shrouded in eliminating negative thoughts, motivational mantras, removing toxic people from their lives, they have no time to listen to you, and why should they, it is no longer ok to talk to friends, family, coworkers about things that seriously bother, disturb us, it’s no longer ok to talk to our closest friend about the horrific childhood abuse that makes us fear being touched or why we have “dysfunctional” relationships, the nightmares that remain with us, why we are such an emotional wreck. We intellectually understand the impact of a traumatic event, a death, but unless we’ve actually experienced it, we haven’t any earthly clue what a person who feels they’ve lost the other half of their soul, the one individual in life who understands them, the father they had yet to reconcile with, the mother they adored, needs, is going through. Should we register the acceptability of the negative emotions radiating off person X in our lives, we continue to be unable to grasp grieving is a process, the time it takes to heal from any horrible thing endured be it abuse, a death, a bad breakup; too soon it’s you’re still dwelling on that, you haven’t gotten over that? Also not helping, news stories, study findings released talking about the over prescribing of anti-depressant medications, misunderstandings throughout the scientific, psychological community about combination therapy in treating depression, using drugs in concert to talk therapy, art or music therapy, all 3. Adjacent numbers of headlines detailing maleficence by psychological practitioners only serves to perpetuate the misconception psychology and its findings are a scam, a bunch of hooey designed to bilk money from healthy people, hop them up on medication giving billions to pharmaceutical companies producing the drugs; insurance companies dangerous practice of only paying for either or, medication or therapy leaves sufferers only half treated and the public thinking see I told you so. Today in the era of RitalinandAdderall,medicate bad behavior in kids rather than control, discipline it, we think the same applies to significant mental health disorders, or medication and treatment are mere mechanisms to dose up to the gills, control societies undesirables as opposed to looking at hard truths about ourselves and our long held social structures. Outcome, an ingrained sense therapy is to be feared, is overwhelming, horrifying, something to be avoided at all costs even knowing you have problems, need help; contrastingly to embracing it if and when necessary. Robin Williams being a person of means had no concern regarding care, the cost thereof; he did however need the proper treatment environment until his symptoms could be assessed, treated and hopefully greatly alleviated, hindered in part by both past bouts, treatment regiments and being Robin Williams, a celebrity, a known famous person.
It should be noted too, people may want to reach out, may want to tell you how they are actually feeling, their struggles today or the bad thing that happened to them in the past still haunting them in the present, as opposed to the stock answers we expect to receive when we ask how someone is, may even want to share their diagnosis, but they can’t. Not only because they know we really don’t want to hear it, we asked how they were out of politeness, social grace, rather than interest, genuine care but compounded by the stigma that is mental illness; seeking treatment is a sign of weakness, a character flaw, a sign of low morality. Being diagnosed with a mental health issue, though regularly based on neuroscience, instead of just cataloging symptomology, is viewed as having those same origins, a personality defect or trait, just part of who they are, overly dramatic, overly emotional, often nervous, not bipolar, depressed, having an anxiety disorder; you just deal with it, the favorite saying: they didn’t have all these newfangled “diagnoses” in my day. Linking serious medical evaluation with fad diets, fashion trends and ever available self-help methods, utterly dangerous for sufferers; being diagnosed with a mental illness and being open about it is equivalent to announcing you have bubonic plague, some other contagion. Loved ones, friends and family suddenly treat you as if you are tainted, as if they can catch the “madness” you have simply by being near you, talking to you, communing with you in any way; attempt suicide and survive, acquaintances, coworkers disappear, interactions are immediately awkward, individuals you thought were friends, your family suddenly treat you like a 3 headed alien, a stranger they don’t know how to relate to, comprehend. Magnifying a bad situation, those same people, the ones who managed to stick by you, haven’t gone running scared off into the social ether now tiptoe around you, are afraid to talk about their own problems, are wary of giving you potentially stressful information, keeping you in the loop on significant family events should they be negative, when all you really need them to do is treat you like a normal person. You have a doctor, probably a shrink, could be taking medication, no matter how temporary; what you need is the support of your friends and family, your friends and family acting as they always have, yes acknowledging what happened, but still being by your side, still joking with you, still being who they’ve always been to you. Scenarios that often don’t happen, detrimental to the long term recovery of the person; imagine you’re Robin, double burdened by societies attitudes on mental health and housing a persona labeled the quintessential funny man, always a barrel of laughs, telling jokes, playing to the point of driving those around you to distraction, good or bad, being honest about how he really felt to anyone outside immediate family. Many would laugh it off as a joke, respond with a joke, remind him who he is and come on man, failing to understand he was completely serious in that moment; he said it in interviews years before, you can’t always be on.
Similarly addressing addiction, we for the most part, as a society, have moved passed thumbing our nose at people who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, prescriptions, collectively recognizing it for the brain disease it is, supportive, compassionate. That doesn’t rule out being born into a family clinging to old beliefs, pockets of people in pockets of places around the country who will inevitably blurt out the worst things you could say to a recovering addict, look down on them asking how the hell you could have been so stupid, gotten involved in drugs, booze to begin with. Relapse and no one wants to know you, friends, colleagues distance themselves from you whether it’s a very public meltdown, train wreck scenes Hollywood style; think Lindsay Lohan, racist rants by Mel Gibson, or more private, ordinary battles Williams was ironically able to keep out of the major spotlight, despite it taking sometimes several stints in varying rehab programs over a span of years to achieve long term sobriety, to maintain life clean. Major life events, happy or sad, can and do propel people back into the throws of addiction; a death, a loss of a job you loved, saying goodbye to the dog you had for 10-20 years could trigger a recovering individual to drink or use again, give in to the voice saying just one drink, just one pill, just one hit, sending them down that dark hole. Landing that promotion, winning that award, staring that new job, seeing your book published, making employee of the month, achieving the company bonus can be so exhilarating the identical little voice saying just one drink, just one pill, just one hit is back only in a different mood, telling you it’s ok it have just one of the above or to try something new because it’s not the same as the stuff you were addicted to, it tells you, you are stronger now, one won’t hurt you, you’ll go back to being sober tomorrow; still, relapse and people no longer seem to care, the message received is call me when you get your life together, if you’re lucky. Williams had at least one failed marriage derailed largely due to his alcoholism; his case, though hardly uncommon either in the effects on his personal relationships or his propensity to relapse, further points to their being something different about addicted persons’ brains, more than the skewed definition members of the public, society at large conger up when they hear the diagnosis, the words addictive personality disorder. Distilled down to something affected persons can correct exerting effort, work, combined with the right tools, the same way they might consciously try to be less grouchy, pessimistic, an endeavor to be more outgoing, less shy instead of it being a legitimate psychological disorder containing a complex set of triggers, causes and manifestations mandating professional, guided mental health treatment. Oddly enough attitudes held by a supposed majority who has never been addicted to anything a day in their life, forget they can’t commit to use their gym membership, can’t put down the cheeseburger, their new year’s resolution to clean out the basement has been the same for 3 years and only more junk has been added to said basement.
Finally, we know there is a link between depression and addiction related to brain chemistry, we know there is a link between depression and heart surgery Williams had undergone in recent years; what Dr. Drew and the world didn’t know when he laid out this information is that Robin Williams likewise had a recent Parkinson’s diagnosis also a source of potential depression. And not solely from learning the knowledge you now have a progressive, debilitating disease, but changes happening in the brain, body of someone with Parkinson’s. Now it’s easy for the latter piece of information to over shadow his obvious depression, explain it away, spawn the notion he did this because he couldn’t live with the prospect of what the latter would knowingly do to him, not that this was a lifelong battle with mental illness, but the truths hold, all of the above contributed to an ultimate tragedy. Perhaps the lesson of Robin Williams death is to dispel the social myth surround the fact we think we understand depression, routinely oversimplify it due to seeing endless commercials for anti-depressant medicine, leading to the pop a pill and you’re fine mentality. Perhaps the positive is eradicating the social stigma once and for all eliminating what one news anchor described thus, we would support someone who said they had cancer, diabetes (ALS is getting renewed awareness and funding thanks to the popular ice bucket challenge), but when it’s depression… reminding us that, when we hear those words, when we hear that diagnosis support drops off, we expect people to handle it on their own, to just get over it, think they are just mopey, sad, have the blues, forget if they were accurately diagnosed with major, clinical depression. Yet the silver lining remains the less talked about response to his death, people reaching out, people utilizing suicide hotlines, lifelines for persons in crisis, people reaching out, seeking help, coming forward, getting real about their own feelings, emotions, need for treatment, confronting their diagnosis. The silver lining is people are once more being made aware, possibly looking a little closer at a loved one in trouble, learning how to help and what to do if they think someone is in crisis, might try to take their own life. Elsewhere people are being reminded not to take those in life they value for granted, to tell the people that matter to them exactly that, to hold them a little closer, to connect with those we haven’t seen in years who we always thought we would at some point, assuming the opportunity would present itself. It has been brought home once more clearly not to put off till tomorrow what can be done today, that there might not be a tomorrow. Resonating is the power the impact to be made with a simple phone call, email, text, thank you letter, the words good job, a pat on the back, a show of gratitude; things we hope would make Robin smile, wherever he is.