On the Death of Robin Williams and Why Sadness and Depression Are Not the Same
How can someone who lived to make us laugh kill themselves? In the less than 24 hours since we were told about the death of Robin Williams, conversation has swirled not just around his many, many contributions to the canon of popular culture, but also around this question. How could someone like him die this way? How could someone who made us so happy not want to be here anymore?
© 1990 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved. Robin Williams in Cadillac Man.
In casual conversation, depression seems inextricably linked to sadness, but these things are very different. Williams, a recovering addict who talked openly about his struggles, also talked about his depression. Ultimately, it was this big, dark and deeply misunderstood part of him that took his life. And although we, as watchers and fans, aren't part of his family, we are still left to feel heartbroken ourselves, grasping at anything to try to understand how this could have happened.
As a recovering addict who also struggles with depression, I can only base what I know on my own experiences. Addiction itself is a lonely disease; though there are millions of us who fight it and countless programs that serve to bring us together and really face our own shit, it is what we do when we are alone that makes us addicts.
Even when we do drugs or drink with others, to me it feels like being alone together: No one else is inside your mind with you, thinking with you about how much you need to drink to not remember. Or how much you need to consume to feel the least amount of feelings.
Though depression was very much a part of my own drinking problem, it wasn't until I was sober that I battled with it the most. A few years into my sobriety, there were days when I just couldn't comprehend being on this planet anymore. I recently looked back at old journals from that time, and I kept reading the same sentiment: Why am I taking up space on this planet and creating waste as a human and not contributing in a better way? I didn't want people to have deal with me anymore, and I didn't want to be a waste of resources. I didn't want to talk about why I felt bad, because I didn't have an answer. I just didn't want to be a burden anymore. I just wanted to be gone.
It was ending my relationship with alcohol that made these thoughts even harder to navigate: When you can't self-medicate, you feel everything. And when all you want to do is not feel, nothing could be worse. I tried to talk on a surface level with my friends about it, but it felt impossible. "How could someone like you be depressed?" was the general response.
It felt exhausting to reach out to others, because "explaining" your depression can feel futile, especially if on the outside you "seem fine." If you're not a sad person -- or you created a life around making other people laugh, like Williams did -- it can be especially difficult to articulate your experience. But it is almost as if when we are our most happy and productive selves as addicts that we fear life the most.
There is no doubt that those closest to Robin Williams knew he was struggling; he had recently checked into a support center to focus on his sobriety and well-being. There was no question he was loved. But when dealing with something as crippling as depression, it can be hard for those outside of you to really be there. Could this have been prevented? I don't think that's a question that can really be asked or answered.
When we lose someone like Williams in such a public way and it becomes newsworthy, it's like everyone just starts shouting, "Do you need help? Get help!" into the abyss. But it's not like people with depression are somehow going to crawl out from under a rock all of a sudden and say, "Yes! That's me! I need help. Thanks for asking."
So what can you do as a person who wants to support those around you that you may not know are struggling with depression? Create a supportive environment all the time. Don't assume there will be some big moment when you realize someone you love is depressed. I think often, we can't grasp how strong our own off-the-cuff conversations about someone being "crazy" or depressed are, and how much our casual words can keep someone who needs support at bay. When we talk this way, we deeply stigmatize the people right in front of us.
Listening to those closest to you, even when it seems like they aren't telling you some big secret, is also key. That's the thing: Depression doesn't come out like a cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately, we often turn away from those who need support because they may be making choices that we don't agree with. I know that I lost some friends when I was in the depths of my alcoholism because it wasn't pleasant to be around me. But guess what? That's when we need you the most. A non-judgmental support system is how we can (sometimes) survive.
One of my closest friends who is also a recovering addict once told me, "Sometimes, people just die from this." Even if that is true, it doesn't mean we can't love each other along the way.
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