As one of the millions of people who have suffered from severe clinical depression, I can readily imagine why Robin Williams committed suicide. When you’re in the depths of depression, it sometimes seems as though the darkness will never end, and suicide is the only way out. And when life pelts you with lemons, you can’t muster the strength to turn them into lemonade.
His widow has disclosed that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, although he had not yet gone public with the fact. The diagnosis must have been devastating to a man who built his public persona upon his genius for rapid-fire, manic improvisation. Sooner or later, Parkinson’s would inevitably have eroded those gifts and slowed him down, and perhaps that prospect was more than he could stand.
Michael J. Fox has taken a courageous stand in going public about this devastating illness and appearing on camera with his tics and
tremors on display. But he’s always been a star with a certain sweetness and vulnerability, so his role as a crusader against Parkinson’s is a perfect fit for his personality. Perhaps in time, Robin Williams could have faced the diagnosis with similar grace, but alas, we’ll never know.
His career may have peaked. His CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones was cancelled this year after one season, and he worried about his finances, especially the alimony to two former wives. His California ranch was on the market, and he felt pressured to take roles he wasn’t enthusiastic about purely for the money. In his final days he spent most of his time lying in a room with blackout curtains, too exhausted to get out of bed.
I know that feeling well. I’m diagnosed bipolar, and within the past decade, I suffered two debilitating depressions, both of them after I had completed and published novels that failed to set the world on fire. Both times I was convinced life was no longer worth living, and I contemplated suicide, but like Dorothy Parker in her famous poem, I found something objectionable about all the possible methods and decided I might as well live.
With help from a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and above all my husband, I eventually climbed back out of depression, although I live with the fear that it may recur. For now, medications keep me on an even keel – Zoloft and Seroquel, to be specific, and Lunesta as needed for sleep. All three are now available in generic versions, so I spend under $20.00 a month for meds – a small price to pay for happiness.
But I may be paying a much higher price. I was diagnosed as bipolar twenty years ago, and I’ve been on psychotropic medications ever since. I’ve accomplished a lot in the past couple of decades, including publishing two novels, but I no longer have the overriding drive and energy that powered me through my earlier years as an artist. Laziness and complacency are ever-present dangers. I’m content just being in the present moment – gardening, walking my dog, reading – though I suffer pangs of guilt over my lessened productivity. Is this a normal product of aging, or a side effect of my medications? Maybe it’s both, but I’ll never know for sure.
When I learned of Robin Williams’s suicide, my first thought, after the shock and grief, was that he too was bipolar. If so, he had never publically disclosed it, but certainly his public persona was over-the-top manic. But as I read more about him and listened to old interviews, it became apparent that his personality when out of the camera’s eye was calmer and more reflective. He readily admitted to substance abuse and periods of deep depression and discussed them candidly, so if he’d been diagnosed as bipolar, he probably would have disclosed that too.
Still, I can’t help thinking he may have been in denial about the nature of his illness. The rapid-fire imagination and creativity so striking to those who knew him well may not have been full-blown mania, but it teetered close to the edge. Perhaps he was afraid that the powerful mood stabilizers and antidepressants of modern medicine would dumb him down intolerably, and perhaps he would have been right.
I don’t know what meds Robin was on or what therapy he was receiving. But it’s extremely common for people diagnosed with a mental illness to refuse or discontinue medication because they don’t want to become comfortably numb. And the inexorable progress of Parkinson’s disease, with its many physical and mental symptoms, including depression, would have taken a terrible toll over time.
Doubtless more details will emerge and more people will conduct psychological post-mortems. But in the meantime, although Robin Williams’s death is a tragic loss, I believe I understand at least part of the rationale for his decision.