What Robin Williams Taught Us

By Scott Westerman
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“Comedy is acting out optimism” ~ Robin Williams

All of us who were Robin Williams fans will remember our reaction when we first heard the news. Disbelief. Anger. Sadness. Confusion.

There were those who called the act, “selfish”. A Fox News commentator alluded to cowardice (he has since expressed regret for that remark). “How could he do that to his family,” was something else I heard. “He had everything.”

If you are saying those things, you don’t know depression. You have never been in the grip of a monster that turns your every rational thought into self loathing, painting an horrific picture of existence that screams for release. You don’t know the utter helplessness that comes from being unable to lift the veil of despondency from your being, to the point where ending it all feels like the only alternative.

Yes, it is possible to crawl out into the sunshine again. Many do. But all who are afflicted know that the darkness is always close by.

We say that the conclusion of life for an end stage cancer patient is a blessing. We curse the disease, admire the stoicism with which our loved one battled the monster, and the grace with which they faced the ultimate outcome.

Depression is no less dangerous and equally deadly. It is a “cancer of the soul” that transforms cogent thought into an abyss of utter hopelessness.

But there is a difference. Cancer has better PR. We know how things can turn out, but we rally around the patient with empathy. Even in cases where knowingly ingested carcinogens were the triggers, we don’t judge. We just love.

Not so with depression. Mental illness afflicts one in three. If it is revealed, its presence can derail careers. We expect our co-workers to act professional. When they don’t, we wonder why they can’t “get their act together.”

And therein lies the secret. We are all acting. The character we portray for the outside world has been honed to elicit positive feedback. “Don’t let em see you sweat,” is drummed into us from the start. And we’re good at it. So good that we assume that it is the so-called normal. Any crack in the armor is weakness. And we hate weaklings.

If we could develop Superman’s x-ray vision and peel away the facade, we would quickly see that everyone is suffering to some degree. Depression’s side effect is a mono focus on defeat and defects. They quietly beat us with the two by four of self detestation. Many self medicate to keep it all under the radar. Only an heroic few admit to it. And even then, it can still kill.

So what does Robin Williams teach us?

Humor is often a compensation for something that is eating us. With every gift comes an offsetting challenge. With every challenge comes a gift. Appreciate the gifted. Reach out to the challenged.

Depression is often hidden but it has warning signs. Be vigilant. Look for behavioral changes. And don’t be afraid to ask. There’s a helpful essay on “What to say (and not say) to someone with depression.” It shares the wisdom of  Lloyd Sederer, medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health. Focus on observable, non-judgmental behaviors that can be confirmed by more than one person. Do not say “What’s the matter with you?” or “Don’t you know that if you miss work again today you could lose your job?”

It’s ok to say, “How can I help?”The depressed are often initially resistant or unsure. Assist in setting an appointment with a therapist. Offer a ride.

As with any dangerous disease, treatment may be hard to ride out, but it can work. Robin had the courage to seek treatment. Encouragement to stay the course on a treatment plan can be helpful.

Good friends don’t give up. After Christopher Reeve’s tragic accident, Robin was the first friend to offer positive energy. “[A]t an especially bleak moment,”Reeve wrote in his autobiography, Still Me, “the door flew flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. He announced that he was my proctologist and that he had to examine me immediately… And for the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”

Be up front about your concern. Don’t fear the, “have you thought about hurting yourself” question. The Mayo Clinic has helpful advice on how to approach this uncomfortable conversation.

Be willing to listen. Sometimes just being there as a listener is the most powerful help you can give. “Too often,” wrote Leo Buscaglia, “we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

Reassure the person that you love them. Sometimes, that assurance, alone can be a shaft of sunlight in the darkness. As my friend Allegra Smith says, “Bad days don’t last forever. We are not defined by our shame, or failures or our shortcomings. You are an amalgamation of values and knowledge and experience and magic that compose an irreplaceable being.”

Come to think of it, Allegra’s wisdom is a useful tool for any of us who have to deal with a rough road along our life’s path.

And finally, Robin Williams teaches us that if the worst happens, don’t blame the victim and don’t blame yourself.

Psychotherapist, Kathy Hurley writes that, “There is nothing selfish about suicide…The truth is that many, many people face the very same struggle each and every day. Some will commit suicide. Some will attempt. And some will hang on for dear life. Most won’t be able to ask for the help that they need to overcome their mental illness.”

We are all “in character” a lot of the time. Everybody is hurting at some level. Some are just better at hiding it than are others. Our primary purpose on earth is to help alleviate suffering.

The best gift we can give to one another is compassion.