After feeling the heartache of the loss of Robin Williams and then hearing and remembering myself how much joy he brought to the world, I have been impressed by the impact he had on so many people who like me never met the man. I have been contemplating what it is about his death that is hitting so close to home for us. I have been reading many posts about his death and people sharing how they feel like it is having a much stronger impact on them than the death of a celebrity typically would.
I think it is partly due to the fact that his death is in such stark contrast to what most of us saw of his life. It is the opposite of laughter. It is pain that became too great to fight against or to bear any longer. It is pain that makes you truly believe that the world, including your family, is better off without you. It is feeling as if there is no other way, that death is the only place of relief.
Are these things true? No. That is the trickiest part about depression; the truth is distorted in your mind. Those things feel 100% true to a person who is severely depressed. And there are so many of us.
I think that the huge impact of Robin Williams’ death is, of course, because of the ways that he brought joy and laughter to so many of us through his work but also because so very many of us can relate to his battle. Many relate to his battle with depression. Many relate to his battle with addiction. And many relate to both battles.
If anything can come from this horrible loss to our world, I hope that it will be a recognition of the struggles so many people have and hide so well. A favorite quote of mine is “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
That brings up the fact that Robin Williams’ death has apparently brought up some unkindness in us enough that his daughter deleted her twitter and instagram accounts stating her reason was due to “cruel and unnecessary” messages.
Then there’s all of the hullabaloo on Facebook about Matt Walsh’s blog post. I was trying to avoid reading it because of the anger it has apparently raised among many. I just wanted to avoid anything that would make me angry and focus on the way people are reaching out and sharing about mental illness and addiction. But I finally read it tonight after a post by a friend saying he did not understand why there is such a strong reaction to Walsh’s post.
The post did not make me angry. It make me sad at the ignorance that is perpetuated by it. It made me wonder if it is even possible for someone who has not struggled with deep depression to ever truly understand depression in such a way as to show real compassion to those who do. It makes me sad that his response is the very thing that keeps people struggling with mental illness and addiction quiet and alone. Thankfully at least for addicts there are tremendous support groups where people are fully accepted where they are and are made to feel that they are not the only ones broken.
The words that seemed to cause the most anger are the thoughts that he made a choice. In a black and white world, yes, Robin Williams chose to end his life. But our world is rarely black and white. Anyone who has ever struggled with severe depression or thoughts of suicide know that it is not that clear cut. (Matt Walsh admits in his blog post that he has struggled with depression but it is obvious by his remarks that he has never struggled to the extent that I and others have.)
Ann Voskamp as she so often does has the words that express it best in her blog post entitled “What the Church and Christians Need To Know About Suicide and Mental Health” which begins:
Cancer can be deadly and so can depression.
So can the dark and the shame and the crush of a thousand skeletons, a thousand millstones, a thousand internal infernos.
We could tell you what we know.
That — depression is like a room engulfed in flames and you can’t breathe for the sooty smoke smothering you limp — and suicide is deciding there is no way but to jump straight out of the burning building.
That when the unseen scorch on the inside finally sears intolerably hot – you think a desperate lunge from the flames and the land of the living seems the lesser of two unbearables.
That’s what you’re thinking — that if you’d do yourself in, you’d be doing everyone a favor.
That does not sound like much of a choice to me, stay inside and burn or jump out of the burning building. It does not feel like much of a choice either. But the reality is that is exactly what it FEELS like.
I have examined the causes of my depression for years and years ad nausem. Things I believe that I have learned from my own experience and those of my friends who struggle with depression include:
- People who struggle with depression are often more sensitive souls. I recently discovered that I am an empath when it comes to personality. Basically it means I take on the pain of others to the point that I emotionally and too often even physically hurt. Sometimes I have to pull the plug on the various media I receive from organizations dealing with things such as poverty, slavery, etc because I cannot handle the pain anymore. On the positive side, we are the people you want to call at 3am when it feels like your life is falling apart. We are the ones you want as friends when you need someone to really see and hear what you are going through and most often without judging simply because of what we have experienced ourselves.
- Some people can go through life by shutting down their emotions to a certain degree. They take life in stride and never seem to struggle. Nothing really ever impacts them too very much. Or if it does they are able to work past it fairly easily. I am frequently envious of those people.
- I cannot be one of those people. I have tried. I have learned the hard way that shoving down my emotions only solves the problem temporarily. They will eventually reveal themselves in the form of depression.
- Pretending to have it all together, pretending that things are fine, and pretending that I am someone that I am not in order to please other people somehow causes such conflict inside of me that it also reveals itself as depression. This is closely related to the point above because pretending involves shoving your feelings down.
- You cannot think your way out of depression by positive thoughts. I have tried. LOTS AND LOTS. Most of the times I have been depressed I think to myself, “My life is good. I have beautiful children. I have a supportive family. I have a job I love (most days). I have the most loyal and supportive friends in the world. There is no logical reason for me to feel unhappy.” But there is nothing logical about depression. The feelings feel very real and very overwhelming, even consuming, and even when logically you know what you are feeling is not true.
- The key to helping people who are depressed is connection and support with other people which is why people acting like it is a choice is completely unhelpful and even detrimental to finding help. Instead, a loss like this one should help us become more in tune and ever more aware of what those around us are going through and sensitive to how we talk about this subject to people.
- It is the unconditional love and support of the people in my life (I am talking about the ones who know the real me, the good and the bad.) that keep me from getting too close to the edge of the abyss. I am so very grateful for the friends and family I have in my life, some of whom do not really understand depression never having experienced it themselves, but who have stood with me, listened to me when my thoughts are irrational and spoke truth to me, and loved me when I have been at my least lovable.
- Creativity and genius often stem from deep pain.
- Even seemingly “minor traumas” such as emotional or verbal abuse can take years to heal from and can cause depression. Also, spiritual abuse, which I was initially skeptical of but am now a firm believer in its reality, can take years to heal from.
The older I get the more and more I come back to the fact that we are all, every one of us, broken somehow. No one here is perfect. We all need kindness and love and empathy and grace. We all come here with something to offer to the world. Often we learn what it is we have to offer through pain.
Sadly, Robin Williams’ creative genius likely was the result of much internal pain. But he brought so much joy and laughter to the world in spite of his pain. Matt Walsh also had a problem in his blog with people “glorifying” suicide by saying things like he is “free.” The fact of the matter is that he is free. Anyone who has ever severely struggled with depression (and I have little experience here but likely addiction as well) knows what it is like to long for freedom from it. For too many it will be a lifelong struggle that may not be relieved until death; it is a constant battle. To say that Robin Williams is free is not a glorification of suicide. It is a celebration of his life and the fact that he offered what he could to his family and thankfully to the rest of us for as long as he was able.