It’s been over a week since I wrote this note to myself. Since then I have seen several discussions on this topic, including two by Henry Rollins that really spoke to me. They spoke to me because, while it appeared he was flip-floping on the issue, I think he could have benefited from taking some time between writing and posting his thoughts and feelings and getting them out into the world.
Like I said, I have done just that. So these are my thoughts.
Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life is harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world.
Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go see him. That should pick you up.”
The man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor… I am Pagliacci.”
Over the past week you may have read that excerpt from the comic book Watchmen, in reference to the death of Robin Williams. It may or may not actually be relevant to the situation but to me it made me stop and think. The death of Mr. Williams affected me. To be honest, I’m not sure why it did as much as it did. Yes, I have always been a big fan of his. I remember having my Mork and Mindy lunchbox in grade school and being the only kid I knew with a Mork action figure, with accompanying egg vehicle. I remember having to see all his early movies; The World According To Garp, Popeye, Moscow On The Hudson, even if some of them weren’t really age appropriate for me at the time.
When one of his first stand up specials aired on HBO, I remember sitting down to watch it with my dad. It just happened to come on as we were looking for something to watch and it touched my life as we both recognized the genius of it. That summer, between my eighth grade and first year of high school, I would sit in my room and watch his act in a steady repeat with Monty Python’s and Steve Martin’s Hollywood Bowl performances at least twice a day. No, it didn’t make me a stand up comedian or actor but it did make me feel good and helped me find my voice, even if it was just another of the ones in my head.
There is more. I could go on for quite a while talking about how the work of Robin Williams made a mark on my life, but that’s not why his death affected me so much. The fact of the matter is being someone who (like him) has experienced bouts of depression and substance abuse, I pondered what lead him down that path that seemed all too familiar in my head.
What is it that makes someone so loved, so successful, so seemingly caring and with it end it all. Honestly, this is not a line of thinking I should probably have been scraping and poking around but I couldn’t stop myself. I can’t answer for him, obviously, but I can relate my experience and talk to what I know with a situation such as his.
Messed up thinking Part 1: People either hate me or love me and will be wanting more.
By all accounts that I have read over the past couple of days, Mr. Williams was best described as almost always being “on”. Sure, that was his job, his livelihood. He was Robin Williams, after all. Entertainers, I can only imagine, are prone to having to want to perform to understand how people relate to them. As a alcoholic, I can relate. I hear it all too often in 12 step meetings, how we as drunks do things to get people to like us, to please everyone. Those people we don’t please, we either go out of our way to try and please even more or take great pleasure in making them hate us to the fullest extent.
Adding depression to that, the sense of impending finality and hopelessness, would only exacerbate this.
I traced it through in my head and the math adds up for someone who has been through the same as him. The world is better off without you, you’ve already established this to yourself. So there’s the people around you, what about them? How can someone so caring and outgoing do that to his friends, co-workers, family and (in the case of Mr. Williams) his fans. That’s where you’d have to be inside the head of someone with depression to understand how that builds on the logic of someone who feels that they have always needed to perform for other and finally realizes the world would be better off without them.
If you are someone who loves the person, who will remember them fondly and desperately want to have more time that you can’t have with them that will never happen, in their mind they are leaving you on a high note. If they continue living on the path they are then soon, to them, you will not want or care for them anymore, depression tells a person that. Why not solidify your love permanently by making you desire them after they are gone, before you’ll come to the realization that they should have never been there in the first place?
If you’re someone who cannot stand the person, good. This is for you too. You’re going to miss hating me when I’m gone, so I will finally make you wish I was around. There is something pleasing to a person at the end their rope about having being told they are finally doing something good by ending their worthless life. Kudos from the haters at least.
Messed up thinking part 2: Why can’t I get people love me, and when they finally do why can’t I get them to leave me alone?
Isolation is a major factor to my drinking. Depression was more so. I longed to be loved. I long to have people care and tell me I mean something to them. But those two factors get in my head and then tell me it’s too much. I need space. I need to be alone because I don’t deserve people in my life.
How many times had I drank myself into oblivion saying just those words to myself, “Don’t they understand?” I craved people in my life but could not cope with them once I got them in my life.
As a drunk and when I was depressed I would come to the same conclusion every time, “I am alone. No matter how many friends and loved ones I have with me, I will have to die alone, part of my journey.”
This, of course, is why I’m calling these statements messed up thinking. All too often when I was lead down that path in my head, it was one ailment or another talking to me, either addiction or depression. But why depression? What makes a person’s default setting sometimes be “I would rather be alone or not exist?” All the money, fame, power, love, freedom in the world and still it’s not enough. You get everything you think you want and/or need and you tell yourself that there is still there’s no happiness.
Messed up thinking part 3: Why can’t I be happy?
Let’s face it, if you’ve suffered depression and you get to the point where you say the phrase “Why can’t I be happy?” you know the answer is you should be probably asking the question while sitting in front of a professional therapist. If you can truly recognize there is nothing that is causing your despair and you yourself can see it, then you’re not hopeless.
What is hopeless is that a lot of people, instead of seeking that help, do nothing about it but talk to themselves. They try and cope by using everything that hasn’t worked up to that point in their life or by using something external to numb them from feeling and thinking.
In the case of a performer, I can only imagine how easy it to make that external numbing agent be, “I guess the best way to be happy is to create happiness in others”. Making people happy creates that closeness that you’d be craving, but when you think about that happiness it leaves you feeling twice as empty as before creating the happiness, echoing chemical addiction, from it’s beautiful early use to the crippling dependency.
For me, it was the chemical addiction that I thought was both the cure to my problems and the cause of them. Depression by itself is enough. Depression added to substance abuse is blinding with what it does to your lfe, your spirit, your soul.
Depression in sobriety is just as painful. I’m not talking sobriety as in just not drinking or drugging. I’m talking working an honest step program, relating to other people with similar issues and facing your past head on. You’re promised things are going to get better and, even when they truly do, you don’t feel like life is any better.
Of all the recovering alcoholics I’ve spoken with, the ones that admit that working on your sobriety needs to be augmented with therapy are the ones that seem to have what I want out of sobriety. There are plenty of others that I’ve come across that feel either therapy or a step program is enough though. To be fair, I found I need to keep a distance between those people and my life if I am to stay sober and happy.
Messed up thinking part 4: If I say something about how I’m feeling, people will think I’m just wanting attention. So I just won’t say anything.
Finally, this is the biggest lie my depression has told me. I would want help but would not ask because I would feel that I must be wasting people’s time. The truly suicidal don’t call attention they just do it, is what I always thought. If things were so bad that I felt I should talk to someone my mind would right away tell me that I must not actually want the help, just someone to pat me on the back and give me attention. This created a feedback loop of wallowing pity and helplessness that I alone could not get out of. My only course that I knew for dealing with it then would be to numb myself with either drugs and or booze.
The truth is, it’s simply not true. No matter who a person is or how real or imagined their issues are discussing it with someone who can relate always helps. The secret is that there are more of us out there than a depressed person would think who can relate and would want to help.
I guess, in the end, that’s what makes Robin Williams suicide haunt me.