A comedian has died.
The death of Robin Williams has gripped the American conscience, if not the entire world. No one can deny that Robin’s death is devastating. I am still in shock, and I’m finding it hard to describe. He was, by far, the funniest man in show business. This sentiment has been expressed countless times by his fans, his peers and contemporaries. With a career spanning 40 years, it seems that there’s nothing that man couldn’t do to entertain the world. Whether it was as a stand-up comic, an actor, a dramatist, or a humanitarian, Robin Williams did it all and gladly did so. But as we look back over the last 4 days, we, the world, have come to realize it came at a heart-breaking price. And his death is giving the world a wakeup call about the true face of depression.
Robin Williams was a man who brought joy to people all over the world through his shows and movies. Being a child of the late 70s and 80s, a treasured childhood memory of mine is the show “Mork & Mindy”. Although I can’t recall every episode, the few scenes that stand out in my mind are, of course, “nanu nanu”, Mork sitting on his head, his suspenders, the egg he came from and his child, played by Jonathan Winters. At 4 years old, it was comedic gold. When I heard of the news of his passing the other day, one of the first things I remembered was a Mork from Ork sticker that graced the back of my bedroom door when I was 5. I can now look back and see how children adored Mork. He was loveable, laughable and carried so many childlike qualities. Freshly hatched on the planet earth, he was a child navigating through the world of the late 70’s, reporting back to his superior about the oddities of earthlings. What child didn’t experience the same wonderment and confusion of the world around them? And what child didn’t secretly wish to simply go back from where they came from? I know I did.
From the moment Mork entered our lives, nothing Robin Williams touched ever turned sour. It’s hard to pinpoint his greatest movies. My personal favorites are Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage and of course, Hook. He played a grown up Peter Pan who had forgotten his life in Neverland. Perhaps I have a particular fondness for that story, because after all, Peter Pan is the first piece of published literature to feature my name. I can’t help but think that without that book, the popularity of Wendy would never exist – and surely the legend of Wendy, whose affection for the boy who never grows up never wanes, although she leaves him and all childhood things behind. I can identify with this in so many different ways.
The key theme in Hook is that Peter, having decided to grow up, as an adult lost his one happy thought. And that’s the kicker right there. One happy thought. Anyone who’s ever suffered depression understands the struggle of finding that one happy thought, in a world where everyone is so apt to tell you what your one happy thought should be. We can’t escape it. Everyone seems to believe they hold the answer: find your happy thought in God, find it in your family, find it with your friends, find it in your career, or find it in your hobby. Just find it. But demanding someone to “just find it” is sometimes as detrimental as not being able to find it. Because at the end of the day, you’re filled with everyone’s opinions about how to find happiness, and none of them are close to the real solution. That is depression as I personally know it. And although Peter Pan found his one happy thought at the end of the film, there are countless numbers of people out in the world still struggling to find that happy thought. And unfortunately, the struggle never ends until the day you have to say “no more.” Sadly enough, no more really means no more.
It is really hard to describe depression to someone who has never suffered it. And I mean truly suffered it. And even worse, it’s hard to describe depression that accompanies suicidal thoughts. Right now, I’m seeing the internet flooded with explanations, theories and toll-free help numbers for those who are depressed. Without a doubt, it needs to be out there. But at the same rate, I’m afraid it will be at the risk of a fad-like celebrity cause, something that’s taking the limelight right now, but after the initial shock wears off, it will quietly go into the night never to be taken seriously again. Or worse, it will turn into a catch-all diagnosis for everything that ails the world. I am frightened of what this will become, I am frightened for those who this condition truly affects and I’m frightened for those who will be objectified, while ignored. Robin Williams’ death might bring about some good, but all I can see is the bad.
If I had to pinpoint the first moment I recognized myself as suffering depression, it was when I was eight years old. It was definitely the first time I contemplated suicide. I can’t remember what prompted the thought. It could have been a number of things, from my brothers not wanting to play with me, to my parents getting a divorce, to whatever third grade drama was happening at school, to a variety of different other things. I just remember sitting in my bedroom, crying and thinking, “I wish I had never been born. Why can’t I just die?” Yes, harrowing and frightful thoughts coming from an 8-year old. It’s no secret I believe in reincarnation. I’ve been a believer since I was about three years old and the topic of all my dreams were about drowning. I never viewed death a final, but more of a do-over. I suppose then I didn’t view death as a greatly scary thing. But whatever it was that made me feel that way that day, I overcame it. However, those thoughts and the depression that accompanied it returned. It came back as a teenager several times and cumulated into something I finally recognized as dangerous when my oldest brother was killed in a car accident. For the next three years after that I tethered from periods of manic depression to thoughts of suicide and back again. I found comfort in friends. And truly, it’s the comfort of friends that get you through some of the darkest hours. And to this day I still find comfort in friends that share a like-mindedness with me. However, it’s not the end-all cure. At the end of the day, I was still just coping from one manic bout to the next.
I was finally diagnosed with depression and put on medication about 6 years ago. I found myself struggling with the outside world, compounded by struggles with work and a few toxic relationships I had at the time. I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t move. After three days a coworker finally convinced me to go the doctor. It was on that day that I finally stopped pretending and told my doctor the truth about how I was really feeling. My doctor officially diagnosed me with depression and put me on medication. However, it came with a price. All the horrible side effects you’ve heard about antidepressants are true. I was a zombie, I slept more than when I was depressed and don’t get me started on the sexual side effects. Yet, I could concentrate a little better and my mind didn’t obsess about things I had no control over. After a year of the medication and with the help of my boyfriend (who is now my husband) I took myself off the medication. It rates up there as the worst 4 days of our relationship. Taking yourself off antidepressants without a doctors help is not recommended, but we made it through it. I wanted to find my happy thought without being medicated. I wanted to be sure the happiness I felt wasn’t just an act of self-medicating.
Depression is hard to describe to others. It’s almost as hard to describe art to someone who has never created. At any given time, I exist in two different worlds. The first I was born into. It’s the reality I share with the other six billion inhabitants of this planet. The second is of my own making. My second world is filled with the past, present and future. It’s filled with people who are my best friends, my children, my creations, my words, my dreams, my actions, music, laughter, hardships and rewards. It’s thoughts I can never verbalize in world #1. Existing in two different worlds is a phenomenal gift and ability. And I credit God for this gift. If you ask any artist about this, I’m sure they can tell you the same. Yet, at the same time, existing in two worlds is sometimes the loneliest existence given to the holders of this gift. It’s solitary at times, it’s maddening at others, and more often than not, it’s depressing. Extremely depressing. Whenever I want to escape (which is sometimes several times a day) I can transport myself to this world of my creation. I can live in it, breathe it, and thrive in it. The depression comes in when I have to come back to reality and witness the hopelessness of the real world, the devastation humans put each other through, and the heartache of loss and regret. It’s hard to find your happy thought in all the madness. But as humans, we struggle to find it. Some do, some do not. And in the end, those who have struggled with it for years and years finally say “enough!” They seek out their do-over. They resign themselves to the one thing that will remove the pain. The unfortunate aftermath is that it brings to light the pain and doubt of those who are left to wonder what made life so bad that they couldn’t endure it anymore. And it’s a question that will never have an answer.
Personally, I’m not sure if there will ever be a cure for depression. I sometimes think it’s hardwired into the brain, or a deficiency your body is not capable of producing. When I was first placed on medication for my depression, I was talking with a cousin about how scared I was about taking pills. She explained it in a way I was able to understand at the time: “it’s about a chemical your brain isn’t producing that levels out your moods. It’s the same as a child who is unable to produce insulin to level out their blood sugar. It’s not something to be ashamed of; it’s just that your body needs a little help with this chemical.” It was the greatest piece of advice I had ever received.
Today, I am on antidepressants again. I went back on them about a year and a half ago when I was struggling with my job again (the one I quit six weeks later to focus on writing). I was given a much milder dose and one without the side effects. I’m happy with the medication for now. I still struggle though. Even three weeks ago after an argument with my husband, I went into a strange downward spiral and those thoughts I hate to name at the moment suffaced again, and I ended up having a very bad three days. Getting my family, and now my husband, to understand depression is still a struggle. One that I am afraid they will never understand. But I still seek out my happy thought. Sometimes it’s in writing, sometimes it’s in the anticipation of our upcoming anniversary trip, sometimes it’s when I close my eyes and spend time with my characters in my latest WIP. I do know where my happy thoughts are. Having the ability to spend time with them is what I need more than anything. And if it means me shutting the door to the outside world until I am finally centered, until I can breathe unaided and until I can look at the faces of other humans in World #1, it’s what I need and require to survive. Just don’t make it hard on me when I have to hang the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.
I am truly scared right now, and not for myself. Robin Williams’ death has touched everyone. And I’m not quite sure if it’s a good thing or bad thing. If anything good comes from it, it will be depression and suicide awareness. It’s the bad that scares me: the media claiming to know what depression is, news sources trying to convince sufferers of a one-step cure-all; theorists claiming to know what truly prompted Robin to kill himself, and the blame game that will come of it makes my personal darkness dim even further. Already I’m seeing things on Facebook that are trying to profit off of Robin’s death. His family has had to go into social media hiding (it’s the only way I know how to describe it). I cry and it pisses me off. He was a tortured soul who needed the pain to go away. How can I not identify with that and take it personally?
The only way I know how to end these thoughts are this: don’t get swept up, don’t get swept away. Happy thoughts are real, it just takes a little time to find them. Happy thoughts do exist, but sometimes it means leaving others behind to find them.
Goodnight Peter. Goodnight Robin. You truly brought me happy thoughts. May Neverland embrace you and bring to you the happy thoughts you struggled a lifetime to find.