A hot topic of conversation the past several days has been the death of Robin Williams. I have heard people say, “I am so depressed over losing him,” and some have asked the question, “How could Robin Williams commit suicide?” I have spent several hours over several days trying to write some reflections on his depression and suicide. It is difficult for me because it all hits so close to home.
It doesn’t make sense, does it? Robin Williams was amazingly talented. He had won an Oscar, an Emmy, and several other prestigious awards. He was a hilarious standup comedian, had a successful television sitcom; starred in a huge number of very successful movies and was loved and revered by millions of fans. He was generous in supporting various causes and charities. From all reports he was a kind man and a good friend. In public he always seemed up and excited. And yet, he took his own life. How could that happen?
When most of us hear that he was depressed, we think: So what. We all are depressed from time to time. No we aren’t. You are probably mistaking a bad mood or a bad day for depression. I always like to say, “Of course I’m depressed. I am Irish. I’d like a couple of beers, too.” I do suffer from clinical depression and if you haven’t experienced it, you have no idea what it is like. It is not feeling a little down or sad. Real depression is much like drowning. (Something else I have done.) It is extremely uncomfortable – should I say it is painful. It is overwhelming. You have almost no control over it. It engulfs you. It suffocates you and it is all you can think about. The ensuing panic is horrible because it does not move you to rescue yourself. I just drives you into a deeper depression. You are motivated to do absolutely nothing. Getting out of bed is a task akin to climbing Mt. Everest. Functioning normally is just something you would like to do; something you used to do but will never be able to do again. You feel helpless and completely out of control. You know you are dying but there seems to be no escape.
And when you are depressed it seems that everyone close to you takes a couple of steps away from you. If they do remain in contact it seems they are unaware of your condition. Which is normal since you are doing everything you can to hide it from them. Those who do see what is happening to you respond with such worthless “helpful” advice such as: “You should see someone about that.” (I don’t want to see you, much less someone else. The thought of leaving the house overwhelms me. Talking about it just seems to make it worse.) “You need to pull out of that funk.” (Good idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before. It is so simple and easy I should have done that last week.) “Things will seem better tomorrow.” (Tomorrow! Oh, dear Jesus, I can’t even stand to think about tomorrow. The only thing that sucks worse than yesterday is today. Please don’t make me think about tomorrow.) “It is simply mind over matter. You need to will yourself out of that funk.” (The only urge I have right now that is stronger than my desire to kill myself is my desire to kill you.) No matter what advice is given, even if it is good advice, is not helpful.
Depression is a horrifyingly deep, dark place. It is a place of isolation; of loneliness; emptiness; hollowness; it seems endless. The most powerful feeling is the feeling of hopelessness. And that is what kills you. That is why one commits suicide… hopelessness… a profound belief that things will not get better. No matter what anyone says or does, this living hell will never end. And if this is what the rest of my life is going to be like, I have had enough. Death would be a welcome relief. No matter what death leads to, it has to be better than this. One certainly feels badly for how one’s suicide will hurt and affect others. But ending one’s life is just something that must be done. There is no other choice… it is not a choice.
Several decades ago, before I realized I had received the gift of depression, (I am being sarcastic) I found myself immersed in a profound bout of that special hell. My first wife and I had separated and I was plunged into a two year depression. By that I mean I was deeply depressed every day for two years. It was the blackest, most painful time of my life. Every morning I woke with a start feeling like I was suffocating. I lay awake at night dreading the onset of another panic attack – the feeling I could not breathe and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
The blame for our separation and divorce lay directly at my feet, but I was still overwhelmed with depression. I had suddenly become exposed, to myself and others, as a failure at everything I had sought to succeed at. I had failed as a man; as a husband; as a father and as a Christian. I had managed to convince myself that I was excellent at all of those things but the divorce exposed my shortcomings to me and the world. It all came into sharp focus for me through a conversation with my police chief. Over the years I have met some police officers who we not especially socially adept. He was one of those. On our way to lunch together he started the conversation with, “How are you doing. Other than losing your wife… and your kids… and your job… how are you doing?” I replied, “Other than that, everything is great.” It was like saying, “Other than losing everything that matters, my life is perfect.”
I sought to fill the emptiness and escape the suffocating hopelessness with activities. I felt that if I could just keep moving whatever it was that was trying to kill me would miss its target. If I ran hard enough and fast enough I could out run the depression. During this time period I was the EMT and firefighter on our volunteer fire and rescue squad with the most runs made for the year. Part of that was because I often slept at the firehouse or in the back of the ambulance. I joined the county police department and spent huge amounts of time riding in a police cruiser. In some odd way, it was reassuring to see, through these activities, that there were other people with overwhelming problems.
I stayed busy but I thought about suicide, every day. I planned my suicide, every day. I prayed that God would just let me die, every day. I was so depressed I could hardly function. I couldn’t do my job. I couldn’t care for my children. There were two motivating factors that kept me from taking my own life. One was my children. As a counselor and a firefighter and police chaplain, I had seen the damage done to children when a parent took his or her own life. The second reason I resisted the desire to die was my fellow firefighters. I knew that if I killed myself they would be called to the scene and feel obligated to clean up the mess. I had been there and done that and couldn’t do that to them.
I love it when fellow Christians say, “If you would just trust in Jesus, you would never be depressed.” That is about as smart as saying, “If you will just trust in Jesus you will never get sick.” Others suggest that one just will one’s self out of depression. That is much like willing one’s self out a broken leg. It is obvious that folks that say things like that have never really suffered from depression. They may have had a bad day or two, but they are clueless what real, clinical depression feels like.
So, unless you have been there, done that and got the T-shirt, you probably will never understand why Robin Williams could take his own life. Unfortunately, I can.
Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved