I am deeply saddened by Robin Williams’ death. I love the roles he chose as an actor. He was a comedic genius. And he was full of life–a light that seemed to shine a little brighter than the average star.
As a psychologist, I don’t have any special knowledge about why Robin Williams committed suicide. I wasn’t there. I didn’t know him personally. I wasn’t his therapist. I do know that, no matter how well you think you know someone, it is difficult to fathom the depths of the darkness they live in. Because who wants to share that with other people? Who wants to burden other people with additional darkness? It’s hard enough to deal with our own.
I also know what it’s like to have multiple depressive episodes. My psychiatrist compared relapses to breaking your leg in the same place multiple times: with every break you become more vulnerable to injury; it takes a little longer to recover each time.
My dad had 3 major depressive episodes. His last episode hit when he was 69 and lasted for almost 4 years. It was a tremendous amount of work for him–and my mom–to recover again. I know sometimes he didn’t want to try. And I know he felt that way more often than he let on but tried to be strong for my benefit.
In my last depressive episode, there were times when I wanted to give up, too. Well, it’s not so much that I wanted to give up. It’s more like the depression told me that I should. And in my weakened state of mind, it was hard to fight back. I am thankful that I was able to do so in the end. That was my 2nd major depressive episode. I’m trying to do everything within my power to prevent a third.
What if Robin Williams had 5 or 6 depressive episodes? What if the demons of depression never took a break unless he threw himself into something like acting or drugs or alcohol? I don’t drink and I have never used drugs, but if I had to live my life feeling the way I did at my worst, maybe I would. I don’t know that I would have been any stronger. So I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Robin Williams of being weak. Clearly, based on his body of work, he was anything but weak. He was fighting it all the time.
I was also taken aback by the anger that some people felt about his suicide. But I don’t judge them for it. I can understand why, if you have been personally affected by suicide, you would identify more with the people who are left behind and have to make sense of this loss for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, I have never been there, but if my dad had ever given in to his demons, I know I would have been devastated.
I think that people who see mental illness as a weakness, an excuse, or a nonexistent entity fear the darkness in themselves. They try to deny it in themselves and in others as vehemently as possible, lest it find a way to escape. But some of us don’t have that luxury. We can’t lock our depression in a closet and throw away the key; it is too powerful. It does not obey our will.
One positive outcome of having known that kind of pain is that it has deepened my compassion for others. It motivates me to alleviate whatever suffering I can in others. In my opinion, the people who know what it’s like to live in darkness are the ones who are the most motivated to enlighten others. So if Robin Williams inspired more people to become light bearers, then that is at least one good thing that can come from this loss.