Like so many others who have read or heard the news of Robin Williams’ death, I am profoundly sad. I feel as if I have lost a dear friend. Such is the nature of celebrity. We never knew each other. I am simply one of the millions of people around the world who appreciated Robin’s quick (and often acerbic) wit, his genuine care for his family and friends, his creativity, and his generosity of spirit. His death leaves a void.
The circumstances of his death will bring, for the next few days anyway, a focus to the ongoing ways in which depressive disorders of all sorts and conditions darken the lives of people throughout our society. People with and without formal education. People who are employed and unemployed. Regardless of gender, race or age. From the person who lives in the mansion in the gated community, to the person who lives under the bridge and carries his possessions in a garbage bag. And, because by tomorrow (or the end of the week) there will be another Big Story in the media, we will invariably be following, tweeting and posting about something altogether different with a similar breathless urgency. Meanwhile many of our friends, family members, and neighbors will continue the exhausting work of simply trying to get through another day — fighting the demons of darkness with all the energy they can muster, all the while attempting to keep their plight hidden from those around them. For all the progress we’ve made as a society, this is the sort of illness that people still work hard to keep secret.
Beginning sometime in early 1985 the darkness descended upon me. The details of my walk with the demon of depression have grown murky in the mists of memory. There was the day I spent alone with a gun in my parents’ house trying my damnedest to work up the courage to pull the trigger — believing the best way I could end the pain (and the pain I was causing all of my loved ones) would be to take a pass on the rest of my life. There were the ten days I spent in an in-patient facility, doing one-on-one conversations with the resident psychiatrist, getting acclimated to the meds, talking with other patients in small groups, painting ceramic figurines (art therapy they called it), and playing innumerable games of PacMan. There were the long periods of unemployment and underemployment. There were whole days that “went missing,” as I would spend hours upon hours sitting in a chair looking at nothing in particular. Every day, I would begin by looking at my face in the bathroom mirror and saying some version of, “Today, I choose to live. Tomorrow is another story.”
In the midst of this journey, people gave me all sorts of advice. I was told to pray harder. I was told to count my blessings. I was told to pull myself up and snap out of it. I was told to act happy and I would become happy. I read plenty of self-help books in hopes that I could find the 3 step plan to make the darkness go away. I read and re-read the Book of Job, because it seemed the most honest bit of scripture in the Bible. I remember thinking Job’s friends were the most helpful when they simply showed up to silently sit with him. Once they opened their mouths, things went south pretty quickly.
Looking back, I can say that I was very fortunate. I had good therapists. My parents continued to love me even as they didn’t understand what was happening to me. My sister and brother-in-law allowed me to live with them for the better part of two and a half years — keeping me from being homeless. I will forever be in their debt. The darkness which had contributed to the death of my first marriage, cast a shadow over the first few years of my second marriage, and yet, Tabitha tenaciously held on for the bumpy ride as I would make temporary gains only to be followed by lengthy setbacks.
I can’t say that there was a moment when suddenly, the darkness parted and the world had color again. It was much more gradual than that. What I do remember is that there came a day, probably sometime in 1991, when I happened to look in the bathroom mirror, and I realized it had probably been a month since I had given myself the, “Today I choose to live…” speech. I wasn’t cured, but I was better. In the years since, my life, like everyone else’s in this world, has had its ebbs and flows. Utterly fantastic days and other sorts of days. I understand that there are no guarantees. There is no vaccine to eradicate the possibility of depression from my future.
Perhaps the fact that my experience with depression still lurks about in the recesses of my memory and at the periphery of my consciousness is why yesterday’s news about Robin Williams has so impacted me. Or maybe it’s that Robin’s death underscores the reality that there are countless numbers of people who are wrestling with the demons of depressive conditions in silence and shame, afraid, like I was, to acknowledge to anyone but their most trusted family members and friends, the depth of their pain. Or maybe, it’s that his death calls us to recognize there are no “one-size-fits-all” solutions to these sorts of health issues in a culture that demands the quick fix.
Today I am praying for Robin: that he will rest in peace and rise in glory. I’m praying for his family that they will be given the grace and courage to face the days ahead. I’m praying for those who are wrestling with all their might at the edge of darkness: that they find courage in the midst of their troubles to reach out for help so they don’t have to wrestle alone. I’m praying for the rest of us: that we have an increased awareness of the suffering all around us, along with the willingness to take the time to be the friends who sit with our friends and loved ones in the midst of their pain, without yielding to the temptation to posit unhelpful advice or easy answers. It’s a long list, I know. But today, it seems to be the best I can do.