Tag Archive | suicide

Robin Williams and the Dangers of Depression

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

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

Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox

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.

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

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.


A starving artist and a viral spiral

Pablo Picasso, The Tragedy, 1903

Yesterday one of my Facebook friends invited people to visit his website, where he’s put up a PayPal button for donations. The cause? Help him with his daily struggles – pay the rent, buy food, that kind of thing. He described himself as a starving artist. The first comment: “Are you f*&%ing kidding? Who do you think you are, asking for money? What do we get for it?”

I jumped in, saying, “What we get is the chance to read Ned’s* poems online for free.” I then proceeded to say how few local writers had bought my books. This in turn prompted more angry responses. How dare Ned and I think we deserved to get paid? So what if I was Albany Author of the Year? The exchange between the two gentlemen continued with considerable vitriol, and other writers jumped in with their own tales of woe – “I can barely make ends meet either, but you don’t hear me bitching and moaning about it!”

Why not? What’s so shameful about admitting we’d like to sell our own work, or even inviting people to make voluntary contributions in order to read it on the Internet? This in turn brings up another important topic – how much are we willing to give away by pouring our creative energies into sharing online? Does there come a time when we can reasonably ask for payment for everything we’re putting out there? What’s in it for us?

For me, what’s in it is the joy and excitement of communicating with people all over the world, the instant gratification of knowing my words are being read and appreciated.  But I wouldn’t mind a little cold hard cash now and again.

I’m reading a fascinating book by David Bollier titled Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own. I saw the author on C-Span’s BookTV a couple of months ago and was intrigued enough to order it online. It’s not easy reading, and I’m not yet ready to write an entire post about it, but here are a few provocative quotes:

Never in history has the individual had such cheap, unfettered access to global audiences, big and small . . . .

The people . . . are reclaiming culture from the tyranny of mass-media economics . . . overthrowing the ‘read only’ culture that characterized the ‘weirdly totalitarian’ communications of the twentieth century. In its place they are installing the ‘read-write’ culture that invites everyone to be a creator, as well as a consumer and sharer, of culture . . . Two profoundly incommensurate media systems are locked in a struggle for survival or supremacy . . . (pp. 8-11)

Powerful stuff. But although Bollier stresses power to the people and the heady virtues of sharing information in the global commons of the Internet, he’s not clear about exactly how we commoners are supposed to profit in this new marketplace. Maybe he’ll have some answers later in the book – I’ll keep you posted.

Words have the power to wound, even – or maybe especially – online. In the course of the angry Facebook exchange, I interjected a memory from the years I was working as an art therapist at Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. At a social on a locked ward one Friday afternoon, an alleged “recreation therapist” said to one of the patients, a gifted artist, “I hate to say it, but you look like shit.” The next day the patient escaped from the ward, headed over to the railroad tracks that ran along the river, and committed suicide by train.

The Viral Spiral of the Internet can be a force of positive energy, a way to build community, or it can infect people with hostility and anger. The choice is ours every time we log onto the World Wide Web.

Please share your thoughts on this important topic – I’d love to hear from you.

*I’ve changed Ned’s name, but the online exchange took place among members of the Capital District’s vibrant writing community. We don’t all need to agree – getting total agreement from artists is like herding cats – but I hope we can agree to disagree in a more civilized manner. Then again, who am I to talk? I’ve been known to use the F-word too.