Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams verses mental illness and the disease wins again!!!

     “I dream of angels, but I live with demons,” are simple words from an episode of “Law and Order, Special Victims Unit." This scripted line can easily be construed as a metaphor for those living within the confines of mental illness. It speaks volumes of the normalcy we all strive for, but often eludes those that suffer from a relentless disease. These disorders stand as a significant roadblock to ones desire to achieve ultimate happiness. This alternate path of life which is well-traveled, wears out its victim attempting to transverse the terrain, and once again, it claimed another victim.
     The headline was short and direct, “Comedian Robin Williams dead of an apparent suicide!” Many similar titles were posted throughout the evening as the shock of this tragedy took the nation by storm. So many comments such as, a talented actor, a man who could make us all laugh, were some of the most-common themes. However, the caption was not an accurate depiction of what transpired.
     An actual headline should have read, “Robin Williams, a man who did not wish to die, lost his battle with mental illness and addiction!” This heading flies into the conventional but false belief that people end their lives because they chose too. The real cause of his death, which mirror those of the nearly 40,000 Americans who do commit suicide annually, is the fierce and unrelenting emotional pain brought on by major depression. It is unlikely he had a desire to end his life. However, the question on the minds of his fans is simply why? The answers are not always clear, nor are they readily understood.
     It is imperative to understand that those with healthy minds do not voluntarily end their lives. They would find the concept of self-murder an unwarranted ending, simply because they fail to see life through the prism of mental illness. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, Head of Psychiatry at John Hopkins Hospital, sums it up in her book,” Night Falls Fast," “Suicide will have seemed to its perpetrator the last and best of bad possibilities…” In essence, the afflicted ones feel they have run out of options.
     Personally, I understand her reasoning. It was about 13 years ago that I nearly lost my personal battle with this dreaded disease Robin Williams, and I shared, bipolar disorder. I recall just dreaming and fighting the urge to put a gun to my head and pulling the trigger. While in a delusional state, I would hear voices encouraging me to end my life and reinforce that it was the only option left to end the many years of torturous pain. The suffering was so intense that I would just lay in bed and cry from its affects. Like most afflicted, all I wanted was the agony to finally end. Those thoughts manifested themselves in such a manner, that it led to eventual attempts to end my life. It was only dumb luck that I survived. As Dr. Jamison pointed out, because of clouded thinking, I could not envision an alternative, as up until then, treatment continuously failed.
     Unless one experiences the symptoms, it is impossible to grasp the dark valleys of depression that many confront and lose hope that they can ever discover happiness. The afflicted suffers unendurable pain, loneliness, and with a desperate desire to find a way to end their suffering. Even those such as myself who recover, still live with a sense of foreboding that the symptoms may one-day return.
     It is no secret that Robin Williams fought both bipolar disorder and drug addiction. This dual diagnosis is a difficult challenge to confront. They feed off one another. The drugs treat the symptoms, which exacerbates the need for them, which creates the individual’s desire for further self-medication. A full sixty percent of those with mental illness do develop a chemical dependency. His drug of choice was cocaine, but others use an assortment of illicit drugs and/or alcohol.  It is worth adding that 20% of all people who develop bipolar disorder do eventually kill themselves.
     Robin Williams did indeed typify the concept of the “tears of a clown," smile on the outside and crying on the inside. While he was performing for millions of fans and bringing them entertainment and laughter, it is likely that he was sobbing on the inside. The public only witnessed his manic side, his high voltage personality, but not the subsidiary of pain from the inevitable depression that follows. That is a common trait of those stricken, as many develop the ability to hide their true emotions.
     As with other similar deaths, a great deal of empathy is expressed but it also brings out those with ignorance of what the victims confront. One simple cliché always finds its way into the conversation. It is “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem!” To clear up this misconception; depression is not a problem, it is a relentless and deadly disease that attacks indiscriminately and left untreated, or is treatment resistant, does destroy its targets!!
     One comment that stood out with its vile and vicious stupidity was “to kill oneself is very selfish…it is a coward’s way out…” Those that battle mental illness are not cowards, quite the contrary, they fight a valiant battle daily not only with the illness, but against ignorance of those who have not taken the time to understand its symptomology. Robin Williams was no coward; he bravely fought a lifetime battle, to which he finally succumbed. His courageous openness about his struggle unblocked the door for others to not be ashamed and to also seek treatment. No doubt, his response to his challenge has saved countless lives!
     To better illustrate how many of those who suffer feel, some individuals go to bed with the irrational fear that they will never wake up. Those who are in the throes of a deep depression go to bed with the fear that they “will” wake up and have to face another day of suffering. It is not a pleasant existence, and it is one that millions of Americans face daily.
     As a way to honor his memory, take the time to understand these afflictions. Most importantly, be aware of the warning signs of potential suicides. Many at risk feel a sense of detachment from family and friends, they have out of character mood swings, or they express a desire to end their lives. This person is not engaging in drama; it is often a cry for help. Respond with empathy, not pity. Most importantly, never define a person by their illness, the symptoms are an involuntary reaction. 
     Finally, next time the Indians sell-out Progressive field, remember that is the about the number of people who commit suicide in this country every year. Look around and examine the faces of those in attendance, because they are the doppelgängers of the real victims. The mentally ill are average citizens trying to get through life struggles and at the same time, have the added burden of the demons of a socially unacceptable disease. Most seek nothing more than understanding and acceptance.
     With the death of Robin Williams, I feel as if I lost a teammate. His apparent suicide has left his fans devastated and feeling very alone.  No, I am not an actor, nor have I even met this great and talented entertainer.  He and I shared a camaraderie of being afflicted with mental illness, specifically, bipolar disorder. For me, his death opened the doors of a past wrought with pain which still haunt me. This created a strong sense of compassion for him as I am acutely familiar with the desperation he felt that proceeded his fatal act. No one has a right to judge him by this method of death, only honor his life and remember the entertainment he brought us all.
     Rest in Peace Robin Williams, you have left your demons behind!


  1. This is the best description of depression and its effects that I have ever read. I look forward to the exposure of the effects of social anxiety one day. It has crippled my 32 years of sobriety and has caused me to feel SO guilty for not being more prosperous, as other recovering people, and for not being as happy as I am supposed to be in recovery. I have depression, social anxiety, ptsd. Social anxiety is also formidable, wish we could wake up to that, also. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. Though I have never experienced chemical dependency, I know depression firsthand. Social anxiety is clearly misunderstood and is debilitating. Please stay in treatment and give it a chance, it worked for me. I hope you continue to face your illness and not surrender to it.