Robin Williams did a lot of stuff that I’ll never forget, but there’s one standup bit that my wife and I have consistently borrowed over the past 30 years. It’s the one where he puts Mr. Phallus on the witness stand and asks him what he remembers about the night in question. Mr. Phallus answers, “Let’s see, it was light, it was dark, it was light, it was dark.” Today, it’s definitely dark. Really dark.
I didn’t know Robin Williams, and I rarely get choked up when a celebrity shuffles off for his backstage pass. But I’m not ashamed to be part of the mob that says, “this one got to me.”
I can understand a little of what Robin Williams must have been going through, I think – the soul’s dark implosion; hope, will and desire sucked dry of momentum; no reason to live, no reason to try, microwaves of pain constricting and expanding in a nasty mockery of rhythm, and the nagging persistence of a beating heart to mark the endless hours. Or something like that. I’ve pulled over when the convulsions of depression rendered driving impossible, when I wanted to cry or scream, or die where I sat, alone, forgotten and hopeless.
I’ve also suffered a rotator cuff injury patting myself on the back for finding whatever courage or common sense it took to get back on the highway and show up for whatever I was driving to.
So, 11 years ago I wrote a magazine story titled, ‘Down Time: The High Cost of Depression.’ It was written by a breadwinner, a husband and father whose infant son had recently been diagnosed with cerebral palsy – his little boy, who seemed to be facing insurmountable, unfair challenges.
It was written by a man taking some sudden sharp turns in his life, a guy who loved and loves his family with a gut-punching fury, a self-pitying, miserable man who felt well suited to approach the subject of depression with a measure of understanding.
The story focused some on the financial toll depression had on businesses, and some on the personal struggles of a few big shots, CEOs and the like, and these dudes shared their serious-shit depression stories.
“I felt enveloped by a darkness. I was going down, down, down, down. It was like being in a deep well that I couldn’t climb out of,” Tom Johnson, the former head of CNN and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, told me. He described times when the anxiety was so smothering, he sought refuge in the safe place under his desk. Hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Turns out, depression is a great equalizer – CEOs and regular shmoes stand side-by-side and front-to-back in the Prozac line. According to the experts I interviewed at the time, environment (the stress of raising a child with profound disabilities, or a demanding job, for example) accounts for about 60 percent of the risk for major depression, and genetics (dad was depressed, so you might be, too) about 40 percent. Those are risk factors. It’s not the job’s or the kid’s or your old man’s fault that you’re bummed out. It’s more than that. Basically, it’s your biochemistry, which doesn’t always react to those factors in a healthy way.
Anyway, the lions of industry that spoke with me faced their depressions with different arsenals. Drugs, therapy, even shock treatment were part of their assorted proverbial toolboxes. They all agreed on one thing. There was (and still is, God help me) a stigma associated with depression. “Even in today’s enlightened society, you tell someone you’re going to a psychiatrist or taking an antidepressant pill, and you are sort of singled out,” said J.B. Fuqua, an Atlanta businessman and philanthropist who died in 2006.
Boy, was he right on. A lot of so-called enlightened people still have a hard time accepting the validity of the vice-like choke hold that depression can have on another person – even if they’ve experienced it themselves (depression doesn’t come with the automatic power of empathy, unfortunately). Often, it’s quite the opposite – there are plenty of depressive narcissists walking around in their wide-awake nightmares, blaming the world and everyone else, including other depressive narcissists (which describes a lot of narcissists) for their pain and sorrow.
That article from long ago ends with the contention from Johnson that treatment – drugs, therapy, whatever – isn’t necessarily a cure. “Sometimes, you just have to make a change,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to get away from whatever is pulling you down.”
It only occurred to me today, when I dug up the old article, what a chilling statement that is. Johnson didn’t meant it that way. He meant, distance yourself from the thing that is destroying you. For Tom Johnson, it meant leaving CNN. But for Robin Williams, and way too many others, it means leaving everything.
I’ve heard people say – people I otherwise respect – that ‘hope’ is for the lazy, that ‘hoping’ is a passive way to avoid the responsibility of actually ‘doing.’ Misanthropic bullshit. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul.” For a lot of people, hope is the thing that keeps them going. Hope is life.
It’s heartbreaking to think that someone as gifted and beloved as Robin Williams, an artist who unleashed such a positive spirit and energy on the world, can be so incapable of drawing hope from the big love and admiration that surrounded him. This powerful, positive presence in the universe was utterly hopeless. And if it could happen to him …
That’s why this one got to me.