What Robin Williams’ Death Teaches Us
“And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain.” -Robin Williams, The Fisher King
Robin Williams’ death has caused shock waves to reverberate around the world. The hardest thing for people to seemingly comprehend is how someone as loved and admired as he was, found it so hard to live in this world. But that’s the insidious nature of depression. That a universally beloved entertainer like Robin Williams could commit suicide speaks to this fact. Like cancer, it doesn’t care who you are, rich, famous, or funny – once it gets its grip on you, it never really lets go. At times it can seem you have overcome it, but it is always there, an unseen dark presence in the background. I know, because for the past few months I have been in its grip again. My mask, while not Williams’ mask of a clown, is nevertheless a mask that hides an inner pain. I can still function, and in my case function well, but the color has been leached from life. It is like operating on auto-pilot; you do what needs to be done but it takes a huge effort of will and is without lightness or joy.
I don’t presume to know how Robin Williams was feeling when he took his own life. Like cancer, depression is a complicated illness and not easily labelled; not that this fact will stop people who have no experience of the illness making ill-informed and misguided comments. There is still a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of depression as evidenced by those commentators who express surprise that someone who “had it all” would throw it all away. The English actor Stephen Fry, himself no stranger to depression, has spoken about how it isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation “depression just is, like the weather”.
Depression arrives like a stealth bomber out of the blue for many cancer survivors – unexpected feelings of depression and loneliness can surprise us after treatment is finished. Cancer survivor Lara Huffman captures this so well on her latest blog:
Depression hit me after cancer treatment, which caught me by surprise. I had never experienced depression before. For a long time, I kept thinking I could will myself out of the despair I felt. I couldn’t understand why I felt the way I did after treatment, like I just went through hell, so why couldn’t I escape it?
One of the most common things you feel when you are depressed is that you are completely alone, isolated by your feelings, that no one could possibly understand how you feel because you barely understand it yourself. Since opening up about my own experience of depression on this blog, I’ve found that more people than you can imagine have experienced depression at one time or another in their lives. People are often relieved when you admit to it as it gives them the courage to do the same. Staying silent about it feeds the depression and adds to the isolation and loneliness. Many, many of us have been where you are and have come out the other side. By obtaining the correct medical intervention and learning better coping skills, you can not only live with depression, but live well. Please hold onto that.
What can you do for a friend who is depressed? Keep reaching out to them. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but in the words of Stephen Fry “it is one of the kindest, noblest and best things you will ever do”. It may even save a life.