Robin Williams’ suicide understandably generated an intense immediate reaction, both because of his place in popular culture over the past four decades, his performances that stayed with people and, perhaps most of all, because of the nature of his death. It’s clear that Williams touched and influenced a great deal of people with his work in film, stand-up and TV, as well as in his personal life. I can’t say I ever considered Robin Williams a significant personal influence but I recognize his importance to the culture at large and and, of course, I enjoyed a good deal of his stuff.
It rattled me like most other suicides do, because, well, basic humanity. But also because that was almost me. Just, y’know, without the legions of tributes.
I’ve been to therapy several times over the last 15 years and diagnosed with severe depression on multiple occasions. I’ve had months-long stints where I was either on Lexapro or Prozac. Though I haven’t taken medication in the last five years, I continue to struggle with depression. These days, I mostly self-medicate. On the whole, though, I have a much better handle on it than I did, but for a long time depression motherfucking ruled my life.
There were years I thought about suicide a lot. Like, at least some every single day. I had countdowns in my head about when I would kill myself if I didn’t perceive my life getting better. There was one time on Facebook in, I think 2007 (I try not to revisit it), that I even announced publicly I was going to do it (spoiler alert: I did not). Some people made fun of me for that and to be honest I can’t really blame them. Here was a writer on a dick joke website that makes cruel jokes about others revealing personal vulnerability. Plus, it’s the Internet. Assholes abound.
I was self-loathing and angry. I acted erratically and lashed out at people and ultimately withdrew from friends. I spent a long time mostly just being alone. Hell, I got comfortable being alone. I had frequent panic attacks about things completely outside my control yet still blamed myself. I was an absolute mess.
The worst it got for me was probably in my junior year of college. I was living off-campus, about equidistant from both the campus and my parents’ house, and generally not having a great go of it. That my family life was falling apart certainly didn’t help.
When I was growing up, my parents fought frequently, loudly and sometimes destructively. During my last year of high school, I saw my dad strike my mom in the face. It wasn’t what I would describe as a full-on punch, more of an open-hand strike, but still done with enough force to send her head recoiling backwards. I immediately called the cops, which only enraged him further. He promised he was going to “kick [my] ass up the block” for doing so. When the cops arrived, my dad slunk out to the backyard and pretended to have been gardening the whole time. The cops believed him and left.
A few years later I was sitting in my apartment watching the second half of a divisional playoff game between the Colts and Chiefs. It was pretty exciting! At least from the recaps I watched later on, it was. My clearest memory from the game was getting a phone call from my terrified mother who was convinced that my father was about to seriously hurt her. Again, my parents fought a lot, so if she felt like a threat was realistic enough to call her son for help, she was absolutely serious. I drove to their house, grabbed a bat from the garage and chased him off.
I felt ashamed that I didn’t injure him. I still sometimes do, even if I know it would have only made things worse. A few weeks later, one of my closest friends shared the story with another friend of his (thanks bud), who promptly and self-assuredly told me that he would have definitely killed his dad in that scenario and asked what was wrong with me. Oh yeah, because killing your father is the easiest thing in the world, jackass.
That was last time I got one of those calls from my mom. She and my father have been to counseling since. They’re still married. I wished for a long time that they weren’t and communicated that, but what are you gonna do? It’s their life and I can’t live it for them. My dad has never owned up or apologized for either incident. At least I haven’t heard it. Suffice it to say, I’ve lost a lot of respect for him.
There are some who romanticize the idea of depression as an essential rite for those in creative fields. It’s an association that has persisted through the ages, even dating back to classical literature. Every once in a while in online writers forums, you’ll see this John Dryden quote from “Absalom and Achitophel” proudly displayed:
Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.
It’s a horseshit sentiment. Yeah, you heard me, John Dryden. I know because I used to try to convince myself of that in my worst times. “I feel like shit because the world sucks and other people have done this to me. At least I’m smart enough to realize that. One day all this misery and wallowing will make me stronger, better!” Depression is a good self-promoter like that. That isn’t to say creative types haven’t mined the subject to great use. There are many great works that are solely about depression and its effects on people. For the most, part, however, depression is stultifying and isolating. I wouldn’t describe any depressive episode I’ve had as useful or inspiring or productive in any way. I have trouble even remembering the long stretches of my life when my depression was at its worst. I feel like I lost years of my life.
I don’t have catch-all advice for beating depression because I still haven’t. I’m not entirely sure how it didn’t defeat me. It felt like it got close. I’m thankful mental health issues have made inroads in recent years and hopefully will continue to do so. I’m grateful that it didn’t defeat me and I do what I can to help others going through the same struggles. It’s the only thing any of us can do.