Robin Williams And The Darkness Of Depression

"Robin Williams"August 2014, and Robin Williams has died aged 63, apparently having killed himself. Social media goes into overdrive when someone that famous dies, but the subject of his depression had produced some different views. As someone who has personal experience, here’s my view…

Robin Williams had problems with drink and drugs addiction pretty much all the way through his career, and spells of depression. It’s very hard to describe to someone who hasn’t had it, and can be equally hard to understand if you’ve not had it.

When I was hit with it, it was a reaction to an event and I started off feeling ‘sad.’ I thought that’s all it was, and for people who haven’t had depression, that’s often the perception of someone who has it – yes, you are a bit sad, but we all get sad, pull yourself together.

For me, what then happened was very odd. The sadness didn’t stop. It didn’t go away, in fact it got worse. I felt myself flooded with adrenaline all the time, and the more I tried to think and talk myself out of it, the worse it got.

I found an increasing sense of being outside the world of ‘normal’ people, and the everyday act of telling people you are ok when they ask felt like it was accentuating that isolation.

That first time I had it, and this may sound odd, I genuinely felt like I was going mad.
I could sense myself shutting down, that my ability to function in the ’normal’ world was slipping away. I couldn’t seem to get my brain back to where it had been, where I felt it should be, and it seemed like whatever tide I was on had taken me too far away to ever get back.

I didn’t know that a chemical change had happened in my brain, which was affecting the way I was thinking.

This is where the thoughts come in about how to stop the situation. Killing yourself? Well, that ends the situation comprehensively, and at that stage you are swamped with the ‘why are we here anyway, what does it matter?’ type of questions.

In my case, I went to bed (knowing that I wouldn’t sleep), with a feeling of longing *not* to see the morning, and if there was a big red button which would have meant not waking up, I would have pressed it.

Of course there are plenty of big red button options available, and I was lucky enough to get advice from someone that I needed immediate medical attention. I took that advice, sought the medical attention and began a very long slog back to ‘normality’.

Lots of entertainers struggle with everyday life, and since I found my time in entertainment to be the happiest of my life, I know why that is. It’s because the world of entertainment is a make believe world. Yes, you are pretending, but it’s pretending that you want to do, that you choose to do, and it’s pretending that’s not only accepted by everyone else, it’s rewarded.

That’s completely different to the endless pretending in the ‘normal’ world, which you have to do all the time, with no round of applause at the end of it, and much less control over the circumstances. When entertainment throws something at you in mid-flow you have the mechanisms to deal with it – when life throws the curveball, as it regularly does for everyone, it’s much less easy to deal with for the pretenders. In fact it can trigger a relapse.

That’s why people with worldwide fame and massive fortunes, who seemingly have it all, will go to the extreme of killing themselves, because the private despair they are going through can be made worse by that very same fame and fortune. It means nothing, and that brings up those questions about the meaning of life.

Is it a selfish thing to do? By definition, yes it is. But when you are at that stage, you are pretty much beyond thinking about the effect it will have on others. In fact sometimes knowing the effect it will have on others makes the despair deeper still. I’m not sure that ‘selfish’ as a criticism applies in cases like this.

A high profile celebrity death like this always brings commentary, because the subject of depression can be a touchy one, both for people who have experienced it, and those who haven’t.

You can’t get out of it yourself, certainly not for the first time. Subsequent instances can be approached differently because there will be an understanding of the condition which wasn’t there previously.

If you feel you may have something like this, talk to someone. Talk to me. Preferably talk to someone professionally qualified. If you think someone else has something like this, make yourself available to talk. More often than not it will be just listening that’s the best thing you can do.

Robin Williams is gone now. He leaves a legacy of a large body of work which can move people. That’s great. As a man, he is one of many thousands of people that kill themselves every year due to depression. That’s not great.

The flood of social media posts, brings a flood almost as large, of posts criticising those posts! It’s an opportunity to highlight something that’s a real problem for many, and if highlighting it can help, it’s worth doing.

‘Til Next Time,
Health & Happiness,

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  • While most “normal” people experience mild and temporary forms of depression, the kind of depression that leads to death is overwhelming and consuming. It scares the holy moses out of normal people because they can’t understand why someone would just “giveup” on life.

    You got the help you needed early enough to help (and thank heavens you listened to the advice of that individual), but how do you reach the person who will not talk? The one who is beyond connecting with others?

    • This is a good point. People who are genuinely beyond connecting may need sectioning for their own protection. Until someone gets to that stage, the best way is to make them aware of the help that’s there, preferably coming from someone who has suffered it, and can recognise the symptoms.
      Many people don’t get the help and do get as you say, overwhelmed and consumed.

  • It is unfortunate that it takes the death of a celebrity for us to have a discussion about something that affects so many people. Maybe we’ll see some change.

    • yes Scott, there is still a taboo around mental illness like depression, which is why I think it’s worth talking about when it arises in such a public way,

    • I think the rise of social media allows greater opportunity to discuss these things, and it’s discussion that can help,

  • Very moving Gordon. Thank you for sharing this. I hope it reaches some people who need to know what you are saying. I haven’t had very much in the way of depression but my own story includes addiction. I don’t share it in detail on social media but I do share it a lot. People need to know that, whatever their brand of despair, there are people who have been there and are ok now and there are people who can help. Tragically, many people never get to the point of asking for help. So sad.

    • Thanks Harriet,
      I think part of the problem is that although people are more knowledgeable nowadays about the help that is available, they either think that it won’t help *them*, or they simply feel the thought of a long road to recovery (which it invariably is) is more than they can cope with.
      For those people, I try to convey that the most immediate fix can often be simply a better understanding of what is happening to them.
      Thanks as ever for stopping by,
      Cheers, Gordon

  • There is such a feeling of helplessness when somebody takes their life and maybe all we can do is try to disperse more knowledge about depression and addiction. I’ve been privileged to help people with both these illnesses and always emphasise that the cause is so much in the brain chemistry-hence depression would need medication and also counselling therapy. Addiction needs understanding and deep acceptance with the recognition of the need for change, never easy or straightforward.

    • Thanks Anna,
      You are right about the brain chemistry – I’ve found that’s the way I like to start talking about it, because it allows someone in the ‘normal’ world to latch onto it being an illness rather than just being ‘weak’
      Onwards and upwards!

  • It’s an unbelievable outpouring, in the wake of Robin William’s death. I could hope that the stigma of depression and suicide are gone forever, but I know it won’t be. I’ve had several depressive episodes in my life – one, when a teenager, another one, in my 40’s. The color literally drains from the world. I felt I was at the bottom of a pit made from glass – there was no way to climb out, and I didn’t have the energy or will to even try. You are so right, if you haven’t been through it you don’t understand. Thank heavens I found someone to throw me that rope ladder. I truly hope that, this time, the people of the United States will finally have “that conversation” about depression, and finally realize it is not moral failing, or selfishness, something you can “snap out of” or something you can overcome if only you “try a little harder”.

    • Hi Alana,
      you use the words that describe it well, which people who have had it can relate to – the colour draining from the world, the glass pit and the throwing of the rope, I was nodding my head to all of those.
      You will always get people who don’t understand it, and I’d say that predominantly that’s down to illeducation,
      progress, progress is being made!

  • This was a very sad moment he was the 1st actors name that I actually knew due to his great movie FLUBBER that was a winner for me in my child hood

    • Yes Josh,
      I think there are lots of people who can name a movie he did that stuck with them, that’s why it’s had an impact on so many people I think.