The sad loss of one of our generations’ greatest comedic voices was felt around the world little more than 48 hours ago. I’m not seeking to capitalize on that loss or to use it to buoy my own name. Instead, I’m going to use his sudden — and to many, all too soon, passing — to bring a light to bear.
I’m an artist. And I live with depression.
I don’t know Robin Williams’ life, feelings or perspective. I don’t presume to imply that I do. But what I do know is that many people, regardless of their level of success in the world of arts and entertainment, suffer from and live with depression. Is it more than other professions? I don’t know, but it certainly seems so.
The Artist’s Way?
John Cleese has written extensively about his struggle with depression over the years. Jenifer Lewis has been open and honest about her 20-year tango with bipolar disorder. And it’s almost a cliché to associate emotional dysfunction with the world of stand-up comedy. From Mindy McCready and Phyllis Hyman to Tony Scott and Richard Jeni, there’s no denying that suicide has rocked the arts and entertainment industry more times than most of us would care to count. Don Cornelius. Jonathan Brandis. Lee Thompson Young. Kurt Cobain. Sadly, I could go on and on.
The weird, fantastic realm of the arts certainly appeals to a lot of sensitive men and women. For some, it’s a means to hide from our true selves. For others, it’s a way to work through our psychological issues without fear of clinical institution. And for even more of us, it’s the only time we ever feel like we can be ourselves without judgment. Whatever the reason, if so many of us seek the arts as a means of coping, why are so many of us … not coping as well as we hoped?
My Tale … So Far
As I said, I’m an artist. And I live with depression.
February 2014 marked a tentative end to my recent bout with the worst depression of my life. It began in August 2008, and has spanned over 5 years. And believe me when I say: It has been the longest 5 years of my life. Sure, I’ve dealt with depression in the past. But this marathon struggle has been like nothing I have ever endured.
Not in high school. Not in college. And certainly never before as an adult have I danced so close to the edge for so long. Some periods of my past depression were triggered by events. Others came out of nowhere and simply decided to stay.
Like most people — regardless of their vocation — I hid it from the world. Why? Because the world told me to. The world says if I think positive and force a smile, then I’ll be happy and all will be right again. So I did that. Every time I stepped outside my door. Every time I engaged someone on the internet. Every time I spoke to someone on the phone. And guess what? It didn’t work.
My 5-year descent didn’t come to an end when I saw a psychiatrist. But I did see one. And it was a mistake. I can honestly tell you my depression — officially diagnosed as Major Depressive Disorder — grew even worse under professional care. (It wasn’t until 6 months later that I learned that professional counseling has left quite a few of us this way.)
No. My 5-year pain finally began to turn about with help of my friends. People who took the time to consistently share their time. It didn’t happen overnight. Hell, it didn’t happen in less than a year. But I started to recover and, for now, I’m still here.
It’s apart of me. I own it. I don’t wear it like a badge of honor, but I no longer let anyone make me feel weak for not pretending to be happy every day of the year. I don’t want to sweep it under the rug anymore. And our culture needs to stop forcing others to sweep it under the rug too.
Finding The Light
I understand why people are confused by suicide. How can you possibly learn to understand it when at every turn we tell each other that mental illness is someone else’s problem? How can you hope to change anything if the world insists that you can “choose happiness” and “attitude is everything?”
How can we turn the tide of suicide in our society if every time someone famous leaves us by their own hand, we tell everyone who’s ever felt that way to call someone else to talk?
I was shocked by the news of Robin’s death, but sadly, not by the news of his apparent suicide. I’ve teetered on that edge like so many and I’m not ashamed to say that I understand it completely. Completely. What I don’t understand is our society’s constant refusal to deal with mental illness openly and honestly. We think we’re addressing the problem by posting phone numbers and encouraging people to seek help, but what we’re really doing is continuing to hide it from the light.
Hear me out before you object. From a person who has been knocked down so many times by this recurring nightmare and only by the skin of her teeth is still standing, I offer you this:
Your loved ones don’t want to call a hotline. They don’t want to bare their souls to a counselor. They want you … to … listen.
Let me repeat that. They want you to listen.
Don’t judge. Don’t fix. Don’t encourage. Don’t admonish. Just. Listen.
The greatest thing you can do for someone living with depression is give them your time. No one expects you to be their Freud. No one asks you to make it all better. They just want you to listen and not make them feel like they have to hide in the darkness until everything is right with the world again.
The Hard Truth
There’s no quick fix to mental illness. No hotline can cure it. No counselor’s magic wand will make it disappear. For all we know, Robin Williams could’ve seen 10 psychiatrists throughout his lifetime. He could’ve confided in a hundred friends. But in the end, he bore the weight of his illness and it broke him. I don’t judge him for that. It could’ve just as easily have been me.
And that epiphany is what I hope those who are confused, hurt and angry over anyone’s suicide will understand when they listen. Really listen. That is the most important step any of us can take to create a world where no one has to suffer in darkness. No one has to hide behind the veil of the arts to cope.
Clearly, those who seek solace in arts and entertainment aren’t the only ones who live with depression. Studies every year tell us about the ever increasing number of people struggling with mental illness. Yet anyone who’s ever seen a Van Gogh painting or listened to a Tchiakovsky symphony has been touched by the intricate legacy of depression and artistic expression. For me, my writing is both a chore and a blessing. (Some of my best work was written when my life was at its darkest.) But it’s not a cure. And it certainly can’t be a crutch.
If you’re an artist and you live with depression, I ask that you understand that you are not alone. I ask that you not hide your illness. Your work will reflect who you are regardless of your health, so don’t let that be a reason to neglect it. Let people see your illness. Let them know that you’re not ashamed and there’s no quick fix. Because we may not be able to prevent our loved ones from seeking suicide, but we can improve everyone’s life if we stop sweeping mental illness under the rug.