Robin Williams: Understanding the Depths of Despair

While on vacation, I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ book, The Marriage Plot. While I cannot say I enjoyed the book much, I was impressed with the dead-on descriptions of what it is like to have and live with someone who suffers from bipolar disorder. I was telling this to some of my family members several days ago and, in an effort to illustrate what bipolar disorder is like, said that I suspected Robin Williams suffered from the disorder. Since I did not know him, I couldn’t say for sure but it seems likely that he did. As such, I wasn’t too surprised when one of his down cycles led to his suicide.

For people who are unfamiliar with the disorder, bipolar (what used to be called manic depression) is when people experience the “high highs” and the “low lows” of mood swings. The high of a manic phase is evidenced by an incredible amount of energy (so you don’t sleep much), pressured speech, racing thoughts, and impulsive behavior, like drug use. The low of a depressive cycle can be overwhelming because the depression physically hurts and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. I’m guessing that is where Robin Williams found himself earlier this week when he decided he could not go on living.

Like most of you, I loved Robin’s work (ever since his Mork & Mindy days) and am grieving the loss of such an enormous talent and, from all accounts, wonderful person. The immense outpouring of love and accolades from family, friends, colleagues and fans just reinforces how adored he was. So why does it matter whether he was bipolar or not? It matters because, with his senseless death, Robin has given us an opportunity to learn and, hopefully, prevent others from exiting life in the same way or, if they do, not judge them for it.

People who experience mania describe it as feeling wonderfully alive and pretty good about themselves. However, it never lasts and can lead to problems. For Robin, it appears that his natural brilliance combined with his manic energy caused people to laugh. When they did, people loved him (something he admitted he desperately needed since childhood) and the laughter gave him a place to hide. One of the things I noticed about the vast majority of Robin’s interviews is that he never turned it off, particularly when asked personal questions. I often wondered if he got so practiced at distracting people from his pain that he didn’t know how to be vulnerable. If true, I imagine therapy wasn’t very successful. I also wondered how well the lack of vulnerability went over in intimate relationships. You know, like with marriage. I was not shocked he was married three times.

The worst part of bipolar disorder is not the manic phases (although they can lead to poor choices, like self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, sex and other process addictions), it’s the down cycles. For every high of the mania, there is the equally steep drop to depression. This is where it gets dangerous and it is also where people have a hard time understanding. I’ve read people’s expressions of sincere bewilderment that Robin chose to die given how beloved he was, that if only he had understood how people felt about him, he would have made a different choice. I’ve also heard people’s condemnation of how selfish suicide is, how horrible the repercussions of such an event are for the people who love that person. All that just leads me to say that people do not understand.

Depression is not a choice; it is an illness. And while there are different types of depression – some more mild than others – the kind of depressive phase that envelops most bipolar sufferers can be best described as the depths of despair. The depths. Just look at the picture above and see how immersed that person is in the water. All the person can see is more water, more pain. The light at the top of the water is so faint that it seems doubtful that it can be reached and, if it is, then not for long. Depressive despair is like swimming with an anchor attached to your leg. You can occasionally take a few breaths of air only to get pulled back down into the water. After a while, you get tired and swimming is no longer worth the effort. Robin Williams swam for as long as he could but he eventually surrendered to the water.

The knowledge that so many people loved him did not make swimming any easier. If fame is any kind of comfort, it is a cold one because fans do not know the real you. They can’t. All they can respond to is the body of work and it isn’t enough to make a difference. Given Robin’s apparent unwillingness to show vulnerability, he didn’t allow his friends and family to throw him a life preserver either. He was too busy throwing them to others to keep enough for himself. He did try to keep afloat – he was in therapy and had just come back from rehab – but the anchor was just too heavy. After all, the sound of a human voice underwater is difficult to understand. Add his open heart surgery to the mix (something that frequently causes depression in people, especially men) and it just became too much. He couldn’t even think about the people above the water waiting for him to come up; all he knew was that his lungs were ready to burst.

So, given all of this, what do we do for people who suffer from bipolar disorder or from clinical depression? How do we help them swim and come up for air? Well, we do all the things that have been suggested all week. We encourage friends and loved ones to talk about their feelings and not only allow but encourage them to be vulnerable when they need to be. If it seems like they are drowning, then we get them help via counseling and medication so we can teach them how to swim better. When times are really tough, we try to hold them above the water ourselves. However, if it becomes apparent that nothing is working, that the pull of the water is just too strong, then the best we can do is not judge the choices they make.

I am deeply saddened that Robin Williams suffered as much as he did. I sincerely hope that his life brought him at least some of the joy he so richly deserved. I wish things had ended differently but I refuse to judge him for it. I’ve spent some time underwater myself and I can tell you that it is very unpleasant. Besides, only he knew his situation and only he had the right to make that decision. All I can do is hope that he no longer has to swim and has instead obtained peace. He certainly earned it.

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