“So don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?” —The Work Being Accomplished Within You; Letters to a Young Poet August 12 1904 by Rilke
Robin Williams has died, by his own hand. Why? He was so happy, so funny. How could anyone that happy be so sad? He wasn’t sad. It was greater than sad. Sad is a moment in time. Happy can be fleeting, too. But depression? No. That’s different. And reading now about Mr. Williams, we know he didn’t suffer from sadness.
He fought depression for two decades. But not alone. He went for help. He knew to ask for help. And yet, he succumbed. Depression is deep and dark, all-encompassing, and overwhelming to the point that it can be debilitating. Paralysing-emotionally, spiritually, physically. It’s been a long time since I had that kind of depression. I was in bed for 24 hours. Didn’t move. Couldn’t move. Didn’t speak. Imagine that over say, weeks or months.
Depression can be accompanied by a sense of emptiness, hopelessness and helplessness-which I find more debilitating than hopelessness. How could this incredibly gifted man feel helpless or hopeless? Perhaps that is the mystery of mental illness. Mental illness affects one’s thinking. You experience the world through a prism that distorts reality. Mental illness takes over, like an alien being. People who are mentally well do not take their lives. It goes against every instinct that we have as human beings.
Mental illness sucks the oxygen out of a room. It snuffs out all light. I remember one of my therapists – one of them – I have had four; three doctors and my Rabbi, who provided spiritual care (that saved me) say to me in one of my darker moments: “You just have to hold on. One more minute and know that the sun will rise, that light will return to your life – Just hold on.” Mr. Williams just couldn’t hold on. He had the best of care and he had great self-knowledge and self-awareness yet he could not hold on. Perhaps he had fallen too deeply into the abyss and was exhausted from the battle against the darkness that he had been fighting for so long. He told a reporter in 1989, “You look at the world and see how scary it can be sometimes and still try to deal with the fear.” Comedy was his coping mechanism to “expunge” what he called the “demon.” His mental illness, his fear, his depression were perhaps, as Rilke wrote, the place from which came his great accomplishments.
But Mr. Williams suffered from more than depression. And I am surprised that in all that I have read, no one mentioned concurrent disorders. Mental illness combined with addiction. There is a unit at CAMH, The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, in Toronto, that helps people with concurrent disorders. Too many people with mental illness, depression and anxiety, self-medicate with alcohol and /or drugs. They take away a little of the pain. The question that one must answer is which came first? The alcohol and/or drugs that might have triggered the mental illness or the mental illness that needed the alcohol and/or drugs to make it bearable, just a little longer, help get over that “rough patch.”
I would hope that the death of this great man, a man who brought so much joy into our lives, who brought crazy into our living rooms, will open a door to the world of darkness that too many inhabit. Too frightened to speak up, too fearful of being shunned. I have lost track of the number of times people have said to me that they fear the mentally ill.
Did Robin Williams frighten you?
His suicide speaks to our inability to spot those with mental illness or appreciate how deadly it can be. We are right beside you. And so often we are the ones you would never expect to be mentally ill. Like Mr. Williams, we hide it well, too well.
I am ending this piece with Mr. Williams’ words which were quoted in The Globe and Mail article, today.
“You have an internal critic, an internal drive that says “Okay, you can do more” Maybe that’s what keeps you going. Maybe that’s a demon…Some people say, ‘it’s a muse’ No, it’s not a muse! It’s a demon. DO IT, YOU BASTARD! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! THE LITTLE DEMON!!”
Do it! do it! And he did.