As you may know, prolific American actor and comedian Robin Williams was found dead in his California apartment last night on August 11th, 2014. The man was 63 years old. The exact details as to the cause of Williams’ death and his life leading up to last night are a bit fuzzier, but so far the consensus seems to be the cause of death was suicide by asphyxiation, specifically self-hanging with a belt. Given other circumstances surrounding the actor’s death (cuts along his wrist from a nearby knife) and the fact that Williams had been seeking professional medical help for depression and substance-abuse problems in the months prior to the event, it seems likely that Williams was suffering from some form of emotional disorder, deteriorating mental health, and was obviously suicidal.
My purposes with this newest page are twofold: One, I want recognize what a tragedy this is that such a talented man as Robin Williams has gone too soon and in such a painful, tortured way. I grew up with the man’s acting and enjoyed many of his films. They are a part of me as much as any film I’ve ever watched. Second and more emphatically, I wish to analyze the actual alleged cause of the actor’s demise, including and especially the man’s personal demons and his eventual end at his own hand. I wish to confront the issues of depression, mental health, and suicidality in a way that hopefully spreads awareness about the murky and misunderstood nature of those problems.
First of all, any time an artist of such fame and magnitude passes away, we all feel a great deal of loss and confusion. People like Robin Williams are public figures that most everybody knows in some way, and the idea of their passing is unsettling. Many of us grew up with his classics like Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, arguably the best modern use of actor cross-dressing), Jumanji (1995, one of the most ambitious family adventure-comedies of the 1990s) and especially Good Will Hunting (1997, an introspective feelgood story to end all feelgood stories). Particularly that latter film exemplified Williams’ status as a father-figure to us younger viewers. Many of his adolescent fans who came of age in the 1990s and 2000s saw him as an extension of our own familial male role models — the loving father, the experienced mentor, the wisecracking, wise-ass, the wise uncle, and so forth.
I try to think of another famous figure or actor who’s passed away recently that’s affected or saddened me the way Williams’ passing has, and I can’t think of one that comes close. The recent passings of Paul Walker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Michael Jackson were sad, but speaking to my personal upbringing I wasn’t connected to them as I was with Robin. This may be the most “personal” celebrity death that has occurred in my lifetime so far, and even being so far removed as “a fan” and not bearing any close familial or friendship relationship with the man, I feel a heavy heart reminiscing about Williams fighting mutant plants while trying to save his friends or giving peptalks to a youthful Matt Damon. I can only imagine how his immediate family, friends, and colleagues feel.
That brings me to my second and equally important point with this essay regarding the nature of and circumstances surrounding the man’s death, circumstances that make his passing hit even closer to home for me. Like other public figures before him, Robin Williams passed away at his own hand. He chose to “opt out” as they say and take his own life, ending everything once and for all. He will now become yet another statistic in the increasingly recognized data files of mental health victims, suicide causalities, and yes, emotionally tortured celebrities whose fame and talent were in the end little comfort to face such mental anguish and despair.
My Empathy Regarding the Circumstances of Williams’ Death
While I can never hope to relate 100% to Williams’ exact life situation for obvious reasons, to a large extent I can empathize with the man’s plight and circumstances leading up to his death. If Williams went through what I’m willing to bet he went through, than I — and many others, both famous and “ordinary” people — can relate to his situation. We relate to his situation and also refrain from passing judgement on the cause of his death. Those of us who have experienced extreme depression, emotional problems, mental health issues, etc., or have known those who have suffered as such, can in this crucial way walk a mile in Robin Williams’ shoes.
I will be frank on this issue: I have experienced years of severe depression, emotional instability, and exhibited the erratic and destructive behavior that so often accompanies such emotional disorders. While I never succumbed to substance abuse in the way Williams allegedly did, my physical and mental health deteriorated due to my emotional instability. Like Williams I sought professional medical help along with assistance from family and friends after long suffering in silence. I attended weekly psychological therapy sessions with numerous counselors, I saw various psychiatrists and took countless cocktails of psychotropic medication, I attended group counseling meetings, and so on. Many things helped, but many things didn’t. Often times I felt I was treading water. I felt I was doing enough to survive and function on a basic level, go to classes, do homework, and not fall apart, but that was about it.
Sometimes counseling sessions and medications were effective (one of the few things I did well during my treatment was attend therapy and take medications consistently, which is crucial for recovery), sometimes they weren’t. One counselor might relate to me and speak to my problems, offering helpful advice and guidance on how to deal with my problems, while another might be borderline useless. Often times the drugs I took didn’t do anything to help stabilize my mood, other times they worked but also came accompanied by a myriad of debilitating side effects (increased tendency toward weight gain, sexual dysfunction, extreme lethargy and drowsiness, etc), while still other magical pills and tablets fit somewhere in between.
Despite seeking treatment, I became suicidal and had to leave school for two years. I exhibited the typical, some would say “stereotypical” behavior of a depressed, emotionally compromised individual. I slept most of the day and spent most of my waking hours in my room in the dead of night. I avoided contact with other people when I could and was often despondent, down, or worse, aggressive and hostile when I did interact with others. My exercise routine, diet, and general physical health went to shit; I became sedentary and out of shape. In the time before I left school, I had at least been eating well and exercising (things that are as critical to maintaining mental/emotional well-being as any medication or therapy session), but once I was turned away from school repeatedly, I mentally threw in the towel. I gained much weight and had trouble sleeping. I ate tons of junk food and “comfort food” to get by, all of which just made things worse in the long run. I became increasingly depressed, hostile, and even violent.
The problem with mental illnesses or emotional disorders or whatever you want call them, is that people still in this day and age largely don’t understand them, and thus don’t understand those who suffer from them. The general public’s level of misunderstanding with regards to things like depression, bipolar disorders, or substance abuse is amazing given how prevalent these issues are in society. Many people suffer from severe emotional problems (even rich, talented, intelligent, famous people like Robin Williams), and yet countless more still can’t begin to comprehend what we go through, or even worse pass condescending, inappropriate judgement on those who suffer.
The big issue with mental disorders is that, unlike a “typical” physical injury such as a broken leg, a torn ACL, or even some non-emotional disease like cancer or the flu, mental disorders affect your personality. Where as a broken leg sucks and leaves a person fairly incapacitated (I would know, I’ve had three), you still behave around others the same as you would if you had two good legs. Most people grow frustrated and bored with having to hobble everywhere on crutches, and not being able to play sports is a pain in the ass, but you’re still the same person as you were before your injury. With something like depression that’s not the case at all. When you’re depressed or suffer from severe emotional “angst” let’s call it, your mood changes, your personal feelings are altered, your perceptions of the world and the behavior of other people are warped (usually for the worse), and you start to not act like yourself. Extroverted people can become reclusive, happy people become lonely and sad, friendly people turn hostile and rude, and even generally peaceful, harmless folks can turn violent and scary. The problem with emotional disorders is that they change how you act as a person, they can alter your personality, and thus the way people see you as who you are changes. Because depressed people seem like they metamorphose into different people, namely strange, reclusive, asshole-y versions of their former selves, but at the same time don’t show any obvious physical wounds, other folks see those suffering from mental problems as self-absorbed, jerky weirdos. They blame the victims because they think those victims are choosing to be hostile, weird, or rude. After all, normal mature people can control their behavior, so why can’t these people? Mental health disorders are tricky, complex issues that are hard to diagnose by the uninitiated, so most folks who haven’t experienced emotional health problems or don’t know those who have don’t understand them; they dismiss the depressed as rotten people who choose to be jerks — when the actual reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
I could write all day about the emotional reality of depression, so I’ll try to be as brief as I can. When you’re depressed, you’re sad and “down,” yes, but there’s more to it than that. You become sad, but you don’t bounce back to being happy — your melancholy becomes your base state. The things you used to feel good about, the activities that used to fill you with joy, don’t do much for you anymore and it becomes hard to get excited or be happy about most anything; what’s worse is that you don’t understand why. If your condition worsens as it often does without outside help, your feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression deepen and your personality changes further. You tend to see things in a constant negative light, you grow paranoid and fear the worst in people. You feel people judging you constantly and judge yourself harshest of all. As all these feelings compound and make you feel glummer and darker, you start to feel more isolated from those around you who appear normal, content, and most insufferable of all, happy. Life just becomes one long, sad, depressing, and incredibly un-fun movie that repeats itself ad inifitum.
If personal situations further degrade, a new set of emotions arise: Frustration at your loneliness and isolation, and then resentment at your fellow human beings for not understanding you, for not bothering to help you. Then comes the most dangerous feeling of all: Anger. Not everyone who experiences depression exhibits feelings of anger the same way of course, but everyone who becomes severely depressed experiences intense feelings of frustration, resentment, and anger to some extent. You become mad at yourself for feeling sad all the time, you become mad at the world and other people for making you feel bad, and most of all, you become pissed that you’re the only one who seems to feel this way, that everyone couldn’t care less about how you feel, and worst of all, seem perfectly happy and content regardless of your suffering.
It’s usually at this point where depressed individuals go from suppressed, quiet recluses to becoming irritable, hostile assholes. Relationships with families, significant others, and friends are tested. I myself hurt many family members, my girlfriend, and my friends repeatedly. I destroyed multiple friendships through my harmful destructive behavior. I became a monster at times and said horrible, hurtful things and even turned violent. In light of examples such as myself, it’s understandable in retrospect for those close to the emotionally compromised to blame the victim. We depressed individuals can be incredibly mean, toxic, and violent to those around us. It’s not uncommon for those close to us to cut ties because, quite frankly, we become more trouble than we’re worth.
On the Public’s Misunderstanding of Emotional Health Crises and Suicidality
Depressed people are difficult to feel for because we act so hostile to those around us, and it’s often unclear to the uninitiated what is going on. Even if those near us understand that what we’re going through is a mental health issue, it’s rare for those people to know how or want to deal with us if they haven’t dealt with emotionally compromised people before. Most folks steer clear of the depressed. They pass judgment on us as jerks or label us as too far gone, or they plain wash their hands of the whole affair even though active compassion and attention are what we need to recover. At the risk of stating the obvious, the “tough love”, “suck it up,” or “just snap out of it”-methods don’t work.
I do not mean to say that people who are depressed or are mentally disturbed should not be held accountable for their often appalling actions, whether mild or severe. We should be held responsible. However, the general public’s attitude toward and gross misunderstanding with how to approach and solve mental health crises stems from the public’s inability to understand the influence and power of emotional instability. When you’re emotionally compromised, logic and reason or threats of punishment mean little to us. If you are in fact of a healthy state of mind, then logic dictates that compromised individuals are not going to be swayed by logic and are instead almost entirely fueled by emotion. Humans are illogical and emotionally driven animals to begin with, so take a depressed, possibly suicidal character, and you have no hope whatsoever of reaching them through reasonings of responsibility or long-term consequences. That shit can come later when everyone’s thinking clearly; by and large, people who are depressed aren’t thinking clearly most every moment of their waking hours, let alone when they feel ready to take their own lives.
This is one of the big reasons why people blaming suicide victims or labeling them as “selfish,” or “cowards,” or say they “took the easy way out” pisses me off to no end. Even a famous, beloved, and respected artistic figure like Robin Williams has received his fair share of suicide-victim-blaming hate, with people using the logic that since he ended his own life, we shouldn’t feel that sorry for him, or that in fact those close to him at his time of death are the real victims of this tragedy.
I beg to differ. If people as rich, famous, and respected as Williams and Cobain get hated on for “taking the easy way out” (I’d like to see those same hecklers attempt such an “easy,” painless, nonchalant act of will so carelessly), you can only imagine how ordinary, non-famous people are derailed and spit upon for succeeded or attempted suicide. Yes, we do act selfishly, yes, we do act rude, and yes, we can be insufferable at times. However, to dismiss the incredible, genuine emotional anguish we feel that influences us to act that way is an act of hubris, ignorance, and utter lack of compassion and empathy.
People often assert themselves as mentally tougher and more resilient than those of us who have suffered depression and attempted/completed suicide. I dare those same individuals to experience the same lifetime situations, emotional blows, and torturous mental grind that occurs day in and day out that I went through —- or that Robin Williams went through, or that Kurt Cobain went through, or that millions of other emotionally wounded individuals went through, or are still going through on a daily basis. When you’re life feels like a Nine Inch Nails album for more than two years, trust me, you will start to see an end to it all as entirely plausible, however great and horrific an act of will it actually is. Everybody, no matter the original cause(s), no matter their intelligence, creativity, personality, social class, race, or gender can only stand so much emotional pain and isolation before too much becomes just too Goddamned much.
And to those of you who think that the real victims of suicide are the dead one’s surviving family and loved ones, think again. I do not dismiss the horrible suffering of those around emotionally compromised people, including suicide victims, assuredly. One of the horrible, long recognized facts of misery is that it does indeed love company; one of the twisted side effects of depression is that you can’t stand to suffer alone, and thus if you cannot be in the company of others in their happiness, at least you can make them join you in your own suffering. However, the notion that the greatest victims of suicide are those that survive is such a gross incompetence of understanding of human life that it baffles the mind. Yes, those close to Mr. Williams and countless other suicide “success” stories are indeed suffering, and they should be comforted in their turmoil. I do not envy their situation, and the anticipated guilt of one’s family’s (or friends’) suffering in light of their suicide is often the best (short-term) deterrent of suicide completion, but the fact of the matter is that those family and friends are still alive. If we agree on the logic that, where there’s life there is always hope, and that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, than logic dictates those who survive are better off than those who are dead, for whatever reason, regardless of the current happiness level of those still living. People who suffer a loved one’s or close friend’s death by their own hand have it bad, yes, but not as bad as those who are dead.
What We Must Do to Curb the Emotional Suffering of Others
In light of all this, all that has happened to such a great man like Robin Williams, what has happened to so many others, and will no doubt continue to happen to many good folks in the future, I have a proposition to make: People need to be on the look-out for those suffering from depression and similar emotional disorders. The only ways to effectively combat emotional suffering is with compassion and, if not empathy, then sympathy. I know it’s not easy much of the time. People who are depressed are a pain to be around — they’re rude, self-absorbed, and irritable, and the more depressed they are the more rude, self-absorbed, and irritable they are. I also understand that one can’t be there all the time, everywhere, for everybody. However, if you think you notice someone suffering from emotional instability (and it gets easier to spot the more you look for it), don’t pass judgement on them. The least you could do is be nice to them, offer them compassion instead of disdain, offer words of sympathy instead of cheesy, condescending pep talks. If they are obviously suicidal or severely depressed, it still doesn’t take much effort to urge them to seek help. It may not do much, but it’s better than nothing at all.
If a loved one or close friend is suffering, then I assert that is your duty to go the extra mile, above and beyond, for those people. If you love a person, either as a family member, a romantic partner, or as a friend, then you owe it to them to help them out. I understand it can be hard even if you love them — Lord knows I’ve treated my family, girlfriend(s), and friends like crap throughout my time as an afflicted personality — but the thing is, that’s what loved ones are for, not just for the good times, but for the bad times as well — especially the bad times. A friend in need is a friend indeed, no? If you love somebody, you stick with that person through thick and thin, not just when it’s most convenient. Again, that’s not to excuse the often tiresome and frustrating behavior of depressed individuals (including my own), but the time for assuming responsibility and making amends comes after people have stopped wanting to kill themselves, not before. You will never convince a person so wrapped up in their isolation and more or less addicted to their own sadness to willingly own up to their actions. Wounded people need to be made whole before they can come to terms with others.
And this plea goes double for those who have suffered from emotional disorders in the past. I myself am largely recovered from the utter darkness and Trent Reznor-esque rage of the past few years, but I’m still close enough to that bad period in my life that those horrible feelings of sadness, depression, and frustration are as fresh as this morning’s corn flakes. I no longer suffer from them for the most part, but I know damned well how they feel. I wouldn’t wish those experiences on my worst enemy, let alone the average person on the street or God forbid those I care about.
No one who has gone through emotional turmoil and recovered did it on their own — most of us had massive amounts of help from either our family, friends, significant others, medical professionals, or some combination thereof. Moreover, those of us who have recovered know the horrible feelings of abandonment when those you loved refused to help you when the perceived personal cost to them became too high. Imagine how much easier things would’ve been if everybody (or at least everybody close to you) reached out to you and was always there right from the start. Maybe things would’ve been much less painful and your suffering wouldn’t have lasted as long.
What I’m trying to say is that those who were depressed and recovered are obligated to help those suffering now and in the future. You can’t solve everyone’s problems, and there’s little any one person can do to change another, sure, but you owe it to your own survival and to those who helped you (or didn’t) in the past to offer support for those in similar need. Those of you who have looked darkness square in the face and lived to tell the tale possess one of the most powerful, world-changing, and perspective-altering abilities on earth: Empathy. The power to put oneself in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, to relate to them on an intimate level, is a power that few people have, let alone use to their advantage. It’s a community-benefactor power; it’s an invaluable tool of a good Samaritan; it’s a necessary requirement for true human understanding, and it’s what the best of friends have.
And this leads me to my final point: In my experience, those who have suffered depression rarely look back upon it with resentment or shame. They didn’t enjoy their time with life’s worst demons, nor are they proud of the bad things they said and did, but they don’t believe what they went through was just a speed bump that temporarily sidelined them from healthy personal growth. The view that I and many like-minded people hold is that our throes with emotional angst, sadness, and desperation made us stronger people. We are not weaker because we went through the darkness — we are stronger for it. People who have suffered emotional turmoil have wells of experience and an ability to relate to others that is hard to come by. Like education in general, knowledge of the human condition makes people more appreciative of life and their experiences therein.
Given that this is (mostly) a movie blog, that this whole conversation and post were initiated by a film figure in Robin Williams, and that I love films in general, let’s draw one last connection to a film that raises an similar point. The 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook did a terrific job illustrating the tumultuous personal and interpersonal lives of those affected by mental and emotional disorders. The film paints a vivid honest portrait of how emotional disorders can shake up lives and ruin relationships, but also showcases the redemptive capabilities of familial, friendship, and romantic love, how mutual understanding fosters personal growth. The film acknowledges that most “normal” people deride and look down upon the officially, medically diagnosed emotional headcases, all the while sporting plenty of destructive, nonsensical personal behaviors of their own. Bradley Cooper’s main character asks the intriguing question whether emotionally wounded folks are, in fact, weaker, or perhaps have a deeper understanding of the human condition itself — specifically, an appreciation for the hardships that life can bring.
People can suffer mental and emotional anguish regardless of their material wealth, standard of living, race, gender, nationality, or personality. Robin Williams was a masterclass comedian and a great actor, he had millions of fans and has starred in some of the most beloved films of all time, and he found life to be too unbearable to live any further. Kurt Cobain was (and still is) a rock ‘n roll legend, leader of one of the greatest rock bands of all time, had droves of women lining up to be his groupies, and he ended up pulling a shotgun trigger with the barrel in his mouth. If depression and suicidal acts can strike our most creative, talented, and most popular citizens, it can strike anywhere. No one is weaker for suffering from these debilitating conditions, nor are they lesser for having the courage and self-awareness to seek help. If anything, people are more compassionate, more socially intelligent, and far more empathetic for experiencing these extreme emotions; those who suffer as such often do so because they dare to think more, do more, and challenge social expectations and rules more than most.
While I am saddened by Robin Williams’ fall to his own personal demons, I will never blame or think less of him for taking the HARDEST way out possible, suffering till the very end until he could stand it no more. Maybe if things had turned out a little different, I would have met the same fate. Who am I, or are any of us, to judge without understanding his plights and walking a mile in his shoes? The next time you see someone acting out, who seems “depressed” or disgruntled, or is even contemplating suicide, don’t look down upon them or, even worse, ignore them. Reach out to them and let them know that you care, that they matter, and that there are so, so many of us who have felt the same way or do feel the same way, right now, at this very moment.
You may change that person’s life, save it possibly, and affect them in ways you can never fathom. Perhaps they will go on to do great things, however big or small. Maybe you could encourage them to even start a blog, perhaps beginning with a few angry pages on pop culture, patriotism, and getting those five pounds of shit out of that four-pound bag — something that might entertain a few people with his rants and ravings that are also a healthy way of expressing one’s anger and frustration. Who knows? You might even save the next Robin Williams...
Amazingly well-put. Very clinical view–but so personal (if that makes sense). It’s hard to share what people perceive as a weakness in such a revealing way, and I truly applaud you for that.
Thanks a lot, Lori 😀 I’m really glad that you and so many others think the same way. Most of the stuff I write on this blog is first and foremost for me, but I think that this was more for everybody else out there who went through the same stuff I did. We’re all in this together. Cheers 🙂
I think this was brilliant; well-written and insightful. I have to admit that I spent most of my 50+ years thinking that depressed people should just suck it up and look at the bright side of life, etc. I now have first-hand experience with depression and know how simplistic and insulting this approach is. As a society, we are very prejudiced against those with mental illness. The mentally ill are bad people, weak people, odd people, ‘crazy people’. We (the mentally ill) are sometimes described as “the face of evil”. I agree completely that those of us who have been lucky enough to have recovered from mental illness need to push for better understanding and better treatment options for those still suffering. Thanks for the essay.
Thanks so much for reading and for the comments 🙂 I wrote this a lot for myself as a sort of retrospective look back on the past four years of my life as well as how Williams’ death hit really close to home, but more importantly as a means to spread awareness for those still suffering. People fear and ridicule what they don’t understand — it’s the sad fact of life, I’m afraid — but the more we can spread knowledge and understanding, the more that fear and ignorant criticism can be replaced with empathy and compassion. People who have experienced mental illnesses or emotional disorders may indeed do some of the strangest and most off-putting things, I’ll agree, but a lot of that stems from an ability to feel more than the average person, for whatever reason.
I wouldn’t trade my years of darkness for anything, because I met some great people along the way and those people and those dark years made me who I am today. I think that goes the same for most people 🙂