August 11, 2014 started out like any other day with me knowing I needed to get out of bed at some point. Instead, I just turned on the television and flipped through the channels to see what was on. It’s great to see those “Batman” television show reruns again after all these years, but then I stopped at a channel that was showing Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society.” This 1989 film starred Robin Williams as English teacher John Keating who inspires his students through poetry, and it still proves to a moving film even after seeing it for the umpteenth time.
By the time I caught up with “Dead Poets Society,” it was at the point where Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) is told by his father (played by Kurtwood Smith) to drop out of the production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as he is preparing his son for a career in medicine and wants him to have nothing to do with acting. Those who have seen the movie know what happens from there; Neal defies his father and performs in the play anyway, his father reacts angrily and intends to enroll him in military school, and Neil tries to show his father how much acting means to him but lacks the courage to do so. So Neil ends up taking control of his life in the only way he feels he can – by committing suicide. After all these years that moment where Neil’s father sees his son’s lifeless hand next to a gun is still devastating to witness.
So it was a huge shock and a gut punch to the system when I learned just a few hours later that Robin Williams had died of an apparent suicide. I stared at my computer screen in utter disbelief at this news and hoped that it was some sort of practical joke (and a really bad one at that). The reality of his passing still hasn’t sunk in yet, and I don’t imagine it will for some time. No more will we get to see him onstage doing his brilliant standup routines that were driven by a manic force of improvisation. Yes, he left us with many great movies, but his stand-up concerts are the thing I will miss the most.
Then I read that Robin had been suffering from “severe depression,” and that made my heart sink even further. While part of me wants to get mad at him for doing the most selfish thing a person can ever do which is commit suicide, my heart goes out to him and his family because I know what it’s like to be clinically depressed. When you have descended to that abyss of sadness where your self-esteem becomes practically non-existent, you lose all interest in the things you love to do and you start to isolate yourself from the rest of humanity for no good reason. Furthermore, you become a master at masking your true feelings from everyone to where no one can see just how lost you are in your hopeless melancholy.
That’s where I was in 2013, severely depressed without much hope for the future. I had been unemployed for far too long, I felt completely unqualified for any job that was available for me to apply to, and I began to see my dreams wither away as the reality sunk in that they were largely unattainable. I was sobbing non-stop for days on end, unable to lift myself out of a seemingly infinite sadness that had become my reality. One day I was washing the dishes and took out a steak knife, and I looked at it and began to wonder if cutting my arm might ease my pain. This led to even darker thoughts and an unstoppable stream of tears, and I finally broke down and called a mental health hotline begging for help and for someone who understood what I was going through. It took a lot of work and therapy, but I managed to get my life back on track to where I have a couple of jobs now and my life has nowhere to go but up. When it came down to it, I didn’t want to leave any of my family or friends in such a grief stricken state had my solemn mood forced me to do something incredibly selfish. None of them deserve that; none of them.
How I wish Robin had sought help to fend off the demons that had been sucking all the happiness out of his soul. It’s no secret that he was one of the most beloved comedians and actors who ever lived, and all the love in the world was not enough to stop him from taking control of his life in the only way he felt he could. But that’s the thing about depression; it just sucks you dry and makes life look like it’s not worth living for.
Make no mistake, depression is a disease. And like any disease it is indiscriminate and doesn’t care how much money you make or how famous you might be. Explaining to people what it feels like to be depressed usually falls on deaf ears because no one can fully understand it unless they have experienced it themselves. The advice depressed people usually get is to “get over it” or to “man up,” and those are terms I have long since tired of hearing. Depression is not just something you just get over, and if you think that is the case then I dare you to tell that to a woman who is experiencing postpartum depression. Trust me; you’ll be in for quite a shock.
What does it mean to “man up” anyway? That seems like such an idiotic statement that serves no purpose other than make someone feel unnecessarily small. Society seems to dictate that men are not allowed to cry, and that’s really just a load of crap. We’re all human and we all have feelings, and those feelings can consume us completely in the worst way possible if we’re not careful.
One phrase I am especially sick of hearing from others is “it’s not the end of the world.” I’ve been hearing this since I was a boy and hearing it as an adult is just nauseating. I know it’s not the end of the world, but it’s not like I or anyone else asked to be afflicted with this disease. Your lack of understanding only makes one feel more alone than they should. Do we ever take the time to really listen to people anymore?
Anyway, I hope that what we can take away from Robin’s hocking death is that depression is a disease that we need to pay closer attention to. The need for mental health assistance in America has gotten bigger and bigger, and it still doesn’t feel like we are doing enough. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help. Sometimes we need help more than we realize, and sometimes it takes a lot to ask for it. Yes, life is tough and it’s no walk in the park, but there’s only so much that a person can bear before everything in the world comes crumbling down on them.
Robin’s death reminded me of how low I felt last year, and I pray that anyone in a similar situation doesn’t choose his course of action. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor or whether you’re famous or anonymous; depression can take over your life and reduce you to a mere shell of yourself. Robin didn’t have to take his own life and I wish he knew just how many people out there loved him for all the joy he brought us. From “Mork & Mindy” to “Good Will Hunting,” he was always entertaining and full of surprises.
Rest in peace Robin…