While clinical depression was a topic that I never intended to talk about here, it’s already come up once, and with the passing of Robin Williams yesterday by his own hand, I feel compelled to speak again. Those of us that have been there are members of a secret cadre that speak of it almost never in public, it can impact your relationships, your employment, your health insurance, everything, with devastating effect. A few of us have recovered, and it can still be a day-to-day thing, you’re always watchful for changes in eating or sleeping habits, and if you had a good therapist, their phone number is still in your contact list.
Robin Williams was one of my favorites, as he was for so many. He could render you speechless with laughter, yet to me, he ultimately appeared as terribly fragile. The incandescent ones–their midnights can be deep indeed. And where there is despair, there is no god and no tomorrow. Those who have not been beaten down by its mighty fist cannot imagine what this is like.
There are still many mysteries involved with this illness, why it happens, how to treat it, if it can be treated effectively over the long term at all. Since I know little of the circumstances, I can’t say anything as to the cause of his illness, although I do know from personal experience that alcohol exacerbates its effects.
Certainly it’s a matter of a neurotransmitter imbalance, but recent research is suggesting that it may be a bit more complicated than that. If it were that simple, then just prescribing the correct antidepressant (that’s a battle in itself) would correct the issue. But the most recent research is indicating that the causes are multifactorial, with everything from family dynamics to baseline interactional skills playing into the mix.
“A nut is a suicide whose rope broke.” Most of us who have been caught in this trap have either strongly considered ending it, or have tried to kill ourselves. Some of us, the lucky ones, got stopped by someone near to us, a professional or a friend or family member, or even by fate. The really unlucky ones tried and half-way succeeded, those are the truly horrifying cases. They are trapped in a twilight that lasts for decades until their deaths from medical complications. The brain-injured, the anoxic-damaged and the crippled. Robin Williams finally turned away at last, looking to escape the unrelenting hammer, and there was no one present to stop him. A friend of mine who works in mental health told me this once long ago, “We have few tools, most of the time it’s just a waiting game of keeping them safe from themselves, and hoping they find some ray of light to grab onto, despite all of our drugs and locked-door institutions.”
When I worked as an EMT long ago, attending a suicide was always a dismal affair. Even if it wasn’t a mess from a gunshot wound, say like a drug overdose or a carbon monoxide poisoning, a heavy pall of despair always accompanied the scene. Someone had turned away and walked through that door, seeing no hope. Many of us are just feet away from that door.
Despite my aspirations of spiritual evolution and cultural maturation for all of us, I’m not so foolish to think we’re all going to get there by a straight-line, ascending horizon of understanding, as Gadamer might say. It’s still a perilous trip, all sweetness and light all the time is a myth, and only true in advertising.
I hope that the “stink” of mental illness can be lessened by better awareness, but it’s going to be a long, slow climb. Getting thrown under the bus here, particularly when you look basically unscathed, is a hard hole to climb out of. Some never make it.
I like to think that Christopher Reeves was waiting for him when he crossed the threshold, and that God is now enjoying an impromptu improv show.
Godspeed, Robin, Laugh at Last.