I was at band rehearsal last night when I got a text message from a friend saying that Robin Williams was dead. It about took my breath away. In fact, a few of my band mates had to chide me to get focused on our rehearsal. One of them said, “Jeesh, it’s like you know him or something.”
Strangely enough, I feel like I did. How? It’s not that I knew him as a whole person. Of course not. But somewhere inside me, I knew how he died, even before reading about it. It was depression-related suicide. I knew it because I’ve been there before, far too close to the edge.
Like so many other people of my generation, we were raised with Robin Williams- Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, and all those great movies he made. In my childhood home, Robin Williams was staple entertainment… well, at least the cleaner stuff he did. As I grew up, he never ceased to entertain me and later my children… again, sticking to the cleaner stuff.
I also knew about his struggles with depression and addiction, often devilishly dark conjoined twins. The part of me that knew Robin Williams knew that side of him all too well. I’ve never been addicted to any kind of substance or alcohol, but I do come from a family of addicts who struggle with depression. Through genes and upbringing, you could say I inherited my fair share of depression and addictive personality.
Depression is double shame. First there’s depression. It’s a painful, shame-induced inwardly turned anger, hopelessness, crushing low self-esteem, and soul weariness. Add to the shame of depression the shameful social stigma of depression and other illnesses of the mind, and you’ve got the double shame of depression.
It’s no wonder then that a good number of people who suffer depression are also suicidal. When you feel completely isolated from yourself, from God, and from others, why bother going on? When you live utterly alone under the smothering void of depression, what’s left?
Or so we think.
The healing balm of depression is presence- the presence of others and God through others. I keep thinking about Robin Williams. Had he allowed someone to simply be with him, even without saying a word– and actually for those suffering depression, that is preferable– he would still be alive today. Or if someone had noticed his condition and insisted on being with him, even against all of his angry protests or empty apathetic gazes, he might still be here.
I know that’s true because I’ve lived it. Three years ago after donating my left kidney, I suffered a deep depression. Coupled with the enormous physiological changes my body had gone through, I kept suffering from chronic feelings of inadequacy, being a burden and bother to my loved ones and church, feeling helpless and trapped, and more. All of that plunged me into a depression, so bad that I seriously contemplated suicide. I first justified why everyone would be better off without me. I began to say my quiet goodbyes to my wife and kids, and then I began to research ways of dying.
I’m here today because my wife Blairlee noticed a grave shift in my behavior and insisted on knowing what was going on. I said that nothing was wrong (a lie, but easier than talking about the truth). She gently pushed more. And then I spilled it all out. We decided that I would more openly communicate how I was feeling, especially if I had thoughts of hurting myself. Shortly afterwards I underwent a long round of medication and therapy.
I share these things because I’m not alone. So many other people suffer from depression and suicidal ideation, but we never talk about it. It’s a hidden disease. I could have cancer, a heart condition, diabetes, or any other disease of the body, and openly talk about it. But the moment I mention depression, I’m looked at differently as a broken, weak, unstable, even immoral person who obviously can’t manage his life properly.
Here are several facts about depression:
- It does not indicate character, moral, or spiritual defects.
- Depression does not indicate weakness. In fact, some of history’s strongest people suffered from depression. I’m in good company with the likes of Abraham Lincoln.
- Depression is a medical condition to be treated like any other medical condition– therapy, medication, and self-care.
- Depression does not have to define who a person is, but it can bring about the opportunity for tremendous growth, healing, and strengthening.
I truly hope that Robin Williams’ death will shed some more light on the reality of depression while sweeping away untruths and misconceptions. Robin, you are finally not alone. There are many of us who suffer like you did, and we will choose to live on together in hope, healing, and in God’s love and light. Rest in peace, my friend, and thank you.