Finding Our Own Path Through the Darkness: A Reflection on the Death of Robin Williams

I didn’t know Robin Williams.  Further, in an overabundance of honesty, I will say that he wasn’t particularly my favorite anything.  I like some of his roles, I disliked others, and the two main television roles that I observed, Mork and Mindy, and The Crazy Ones both irritated me.  When I read on social media of the people lamenting the loss of his talent, I am left largely unmoved.  Plenty of people cease their professional creative lives by their 60s.  We would not be lamenting the loss of Mr. Williams talent if he had chosen to retire from public life at 60 to take up birdwatching.  I don’t even know if we would be lamenting it in quite the same way if he’d had a heart attack, or been hit by a truck.

Rather, I think the unique pain that I, and perhaps many others, feel at his death is the idea that this symbol of joy, beacon of good humor and, by all accounts, all around good guy, who read for dying children and snuck in the hospital rooms to see injured friends, was himself in so much pain that he took his own life.  A piece in Slate magazine yesterday closed by noting “Mostly I wish that his lifetime of sharing himself with us had somehow nourished him as much as it fed us all.”

A Facebook friend with whom I am not close commented that she only wished that Mr. Williams had understood how valued he was by his fans.  Frankly, I’m sure Mr. Williams did know.  By all accounts a smart man, he had won numerous awards for his talent, and sold millions of copies of his movies.  The point is that this recognition, perhaps even adulation, did not provide him the nourishment that he needed.

As someone who struggles with depression, and someone who has more than my fair share of promoters, supporters, and partisans, I empathize.  I have read descriptions of my life that have left me overwhelmed and sheepish in equal measure.  I have received such kind words that, verbose as I am, I have been bereft of speech.  I have known people to fly around the world to celebrate with me, and have once or twice been hugged by complete strangers with the simple explanation that they had heard much about me and simply had to express their affection.

And yet, as a depressive, I am often alone in my pain.  For me, the best that I can describe it is a wall or a distance that all of the love and affection in the world feels unable to breach.  I won’t pretend to know how it felt for Mr. Williams, because I think we each experience this in our own way.  (Lest anyone be worried, I am not suicidal.  As psychologists have observed, I am “lucky” enough that on my worst days, the paralyzing fear of death created by my other mental illness diagnosis, anxiety, completely overwhelms any inclination toward self-harm) I have my truth, he had his, and ultimately his led to a decision that most of us cannot fathom, and that those of us can wish we could not.

Why do I write this?  Well, if I succeed in nothing more than addressing the apparent misconception that a person suffering depression must be unaware of the value that they represent others, then I suppose that that is a public service.  More importantly, though, I seek to dimensionalize and deepen the way people look at this issue.

There is a vast toolbox in the fight against depression.  From therapy and psychopharmacology to faith, lifestyle alteration and the love and support of families friends and communities, the best combination for each person must differ, even as each person’s depression differs.  For me, social interaction, comfort, purpose and lack of stress are key factors.  For someone else, adulation and a recognition of value might be critical pieces in the ongoing fight.  Only trial and error on the part of the person with depression and attentive receptivity to preferences on the part of those wishing to help can determine which tools will be of best use in each person’s individual battles.  All we can take from the tragedy of Mr. Williams passing is that he was unable to find a combination that worked for him, and that is a tragedy.

It may be empirically possible, as the Slate article does, to observe that sharing of himself was not sufficient to leave Mr. Williams feeling fulfilled, though even then I hesitate to make any judgments about the relative value of a particular experience simply because he ultimately lost his fight.  It is surely not possible to presume that he was unaware of his value to the many who valued him greatly.  We know only that this awareness was insufficient, in his case, to give him the strength to continue the fight.

So, don’t take from my words a particular prescription.  Rather take from my words the knowledge that this is a grueling battle and the path to victory is long and uncertain.  If, as me, you suffer from depression, the best I can advise is to try to avoid giving in to a feeling of failure or hopelessness when a particular treatment or strategy does not resolve your pain.  (Far easier said than done, I know.)  The strategy that works for you may be around the corner.

If you wish to help someone who is suffering, start by jettisoning the conviction that you know what it is that they need.  The same hug that is a lifeline for one suffering person is a nonevent for another, and an unwelcome invasion of space for a third.  Rather, be willing to give whatever it is they do need as it reveals itself.  I have no magical prescriptions.  I am far from victorious in my own fight many days.  All I can offer in the wake of this tragedy is my point of view, and maybe a little bit of perspective.

Mr. Williams, the stories that are coming out about your life are truly amazing and your memory will be for a blessing.  Your pain has ended now, and, maybe, just maybe, as such a wide icon with such a successful life that nonetheless ended tragically, you will be the catalyst that starts the discussion that helps a few others find a path through their pain that leads to life.  May it be God’s will.