The sudden absence of Robin Williams from this planet has shaken several generations in a surprisingly severe way. No one’s holding back this time, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it; we’re all suffering, and we’re all reliving the childhood memories that wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for him. With some exceptions: those who think he deserves no sympathy because he chose the “selfish” and easy way out.
Robin was never that insensitive about suicide. In fact, the movie that caused him the most pain during filming, What Dreams May Come, shed a beautiful light on the darkness that depression causes, and the inability for even a soul mate to break through its barrier. Robin was magic in that role, and when I found out last night, it’s the first thing that came to mind. That hopeless, violent underworld of bottomless misery. But instead of picturing him in it, I pictured him leaving it for good. Finally.
Robin performed for the troops overseas five different times, and he was regularly spotted in homeless shelters and parks, surprising his fellow community members with meals and jokes and love. He hosted Comic Relief specials and built homes with Habitat for Humanity. He even helped one of my favorite comics, Jamie Kilstein, through his own debilitating struggles with depression and addiction. I can’t bring myself to listen to the latest Citizen Radio podcast (which Jamie co-hosts with his wife, bad-ass journalist Allison Kilkenny). I know how much Robin meant to both of them, supporting their careers both emotionally and financially… and their pain must be so palpable right now.
Basically, Robin was one of the good ones, and his own pain brought him even closer to the people he helped (there were so, so many).
And Robin Williams was the polar opposite of “selfish”, as a flood of anecdotes have repeatedly and overwhelmingly proved. In fact, I’m positive the entertainment industry has never had a more selfless member than Robin, and I don’t think his heart will ever, ever be equaled.
What does feel selfish is grieving his loss, like I’m latching onto the catharsis of it all when I didn’t even know him… but isn’t grief always selfish, anyway? And doesn’t this sweet, sensitive man deserve for some good to come out of this? That’s how he lived his life, after all; his struggles with depression and addiction allowed him to understand and help other people; his own lonely childhood helped him harness the power of laughter; and the dangerous depths of his emotions created complicated, full-blooded characters who made us think harder and smile bigger and grow up with at least one good celebrity role model.
So I didn’t hesitate to post a status this time, well aware it might be self-serving but unable to ignore it. It said, in part:
More movies keep coming to mind; there were so many and they were so life-affirming, even the dark ones… Nothing is more powerful than depression or addiction at their worst. Not talent, not family, not fame, not wealth, not privilege, not anything. Let this at least spark a very necessary dialogue, and destroy some very dangerous stigmas.
I wasn’t alone at all. After my Facebook and Twitter feeds filled up with suicide hotlines and calls for awareness and understanding, I had such hope that this awful, awful news actually would make people a little more compassionate. But I always forget that the majority of my friends don’t resemble the majority of the country/world… and as soon as I hit the mainstream news sites and celebrity gossip blogs, the evil came out.
“He didn’t give up; he passed his pain onto his loved ones.” “I’m sad he’s gone, but this wasn’t a tragedy, it was preventable and selfish.” The same thing happened when addiction won its final battle with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. “He chose heroin over his kids.” “We should mourn people who lost their lives, not people who threw theirs away for a temporary high.”
Clearly, the world still doesn’t get mental illness. So many privileged people have no idea what depression or addiction actually does to the human brain. They use reasoning skills to evaluate a decision that had nothing to do with reason (and nothing to do with the character of the person who made it).
So I need to say this.
If you happen to be (or know) one of the millions who think “suicide is selfish”, please hear this and remember it:
Depression isn’t sadness.
Depression isn’t pessimism or disappointment or low self-esteem.
Depression isn’t a bad mood that eventually passes.
Depression has a depth that’s impossible to understand if you’ve never experienced it. So if you haven’t, consider yourself lucky and hold your judgment.
Depression is a monster that replaces your personality.
Depression is a deafening scream that silences your fight-or-flight instinct.
Depression, at its very worst, turns every family member and accomplishment and privilege into another reason to die.
I don’t claim to understand completely, either. I’m still here. This isn’t about me, and my 27-year-old struggles are pretty much invisible compared to Robin’s decades of pain.
But if I can explain how depression affects me, maybe it will help. So this is what I do know:
I know what it’s like to self-destruct because my brain tells me that I should, and it’s so loud I can’t hear anything else. I know what it’s like to have friends and family members express their love and concern, then immediately translate it all into, “you’re a burden and they’d be better off without you.”
I know what it’s like to hear about my potential or my talent, then twist it into, “I fooled them for so long, but I’m not fooling myself anymore, and all I’m going to do is disappoint everyone who ever believed in me. I should just stop before I do more harm.”
I know what it’s like to have a perfectly normal day of running errands, then close my eyes at night and be flooded with the fear that I offended everyone I encountered, failed to appreciate the beauty around me, and made selfish decisions that should be punished with physical pain.
I know what it’s like to get exactly what I wanted — what I worked so hard to earn — and then throw it away because I can’t even bring myself to walk to class or drive to work. Not for any reason, not because I’m lazy, not even because I fear failure or rejection. My brain simply refuses to pass along the signals that my body needs to sit up. So it’s obviously impossible to stand up, let alone shower and get dressed and eat breakfast and walk outside.
As I type these words, I try and fail to simulate the sensation of truly believing any of that. I can’t.
In fact, I’m actually judging myself for self-pity and stubborn cynicism, and for giving up on myself and my potential so many times. In retrospect, I look ungrateful and lazy. Not sick. It all seems so clearly delusional and even defeatist right now, but at least my memories tell me it wasn’t at the time. I know the thoughts multiplied until there was no room for anything else… but right now, I can’t completely understand that process. If I didn’t live through it, I might not believe it.
So I can’t imagine how hard it must be to process something like this if you’ve never even experienced depression at all. And I can’t fathom losing a family member to suicide, or coming to terms with the pain and guilt and anger it must create.
I have close friends who suffered this extraordinary loss, and every day I admire them for their unimaginable strength. I would never, ever claim to understand their pain, and I won’t judge them for any thoughts or feelings it creates.
The rest of us — those of us who haven’t attempted suicide, and haven’t lost a loved one to it — don’t have to understand. It’s not our right or our place, and it’s not possible anyway.
Instead, we can sympathize. And if possible — if we’ve struggled with depression or fantasized about dying or self-destructed and regretted it later — we can also empathize.
Even if you believe in heaven and hell, all evidence suggests that you shouldn’t view suicide as a mortal sin, or fear for the soul of this comic genius. Robin Williams succumbed to a disease, period. He no longer had the ability to value his life or himself, just as diabetics no longer have the ability to regulate their own blood sugar. The only difference between the two: no treatment was effective enough to alleviate his depression.
No medication or counselor or relationship was powerful enough to counteract the effects of that depression on his reasoning skills.
That is what we need to remember today. And in Robin’s honor, we should never, ever invalidate another human being’s pain. Even if you can’t see it or understand it, believe that it’s real. No one would choose to let depression win, and if that’s how you interpret Robin’s life and death, you’re the one being selfish. Your loss has nothing on the pain he endured through no fault of his own.