When you’re an addict, you hurt people. Addiction is, by its very nature, a selfish thing. It’s because of this that when you’re deeply in the throes of it you begin to wonder if your root problem involves some kind of sociopathy, an inability to feel what others feel and a naked disregard for the pain you’re causing and even for pain in general. This is what I thought when I was in rehab in August of 2001: that the insatiable hunger I had spent day after day, night upon night futilely feeding was symptomatic of a profound weakness of character. That the hurt I was causing proved I felt nothing for the people around me and cared about myself in only the most superficial, hedonistic of ways. Then someone made it clear to me that most addicts aren’t addicts because they feel too little, they’re addicts because they feel too much. And what they feel is often constant and agonizing, so they seek out something, anything, to make them feel better. To fill the gaping hole at their center that only knows suffering and to maybe quiet the unrelenting voice in their head — the one that sounds trustworthy and almost comforting, because it is in reality their own voice — telling them that nothing will ever be okay even when things seem perfectly okay.
Depression isn’t the absence of happiness, it doesn’t manifest as tragic melodrama and it can’t always be noticed by those who don’t know what to look for. It doesn’t present only during times of corresponding darkness and uncertainty and it can’t be exiled by times of relative joy or contentment. It can be impacted by events in the outside world but the thing about it is that it doesn’t need to be. It’s always there, at best surviving inside you like a dormant virus waiting patiently for its chance to flare up and take total control; at worst, totally in control, pulling you down into a thick murk you can’t break free of no matter how hard you may struggle. Put simply, it doesn’t matter how happy you should be, how awesome your life is, how successful you are, how many people look at you and think you’re on top of the world and are understandably smiling through every second of it — if you’re depressed, there’s a very good chance you’re always depressed. Just because you can’t see it at a given moment doesn’t mean it isn’t still there. Depression is absolute. It’s a loss of hope and an unwitting relinquishing of belief — and it hurts like hell, so much so that after a while the acceptance of the pain becomes matter-of-fact and second nature.
It’s easy to be shocked by the heartbreaking suicide of Robin Williams the same way it’s easy to feel a kind of grief not usually associated with the death of a celebrity. He was so brilliant, so vital, so much a part of our collective consciousness that it’s difficult to fathom a world without him. In many ways he was one of the most famous people alive simply because his career had spanned more than 35 years and his popularity transcended crude constructs like political, ethnic and racial divisions. He was as beloved a figure as any actor or comedian could be — a man whose miraculous heart, humanity and generosity of spirit made him feel like a personal friend to us. He was someone we laughed with and cried with and were always surprised by and it’s impossible to overstate the impact his death will have on our culture. But if you have any experience at all with depression, if you live with it every day and understand its insidiousness, it’s difficult to be completely surprised by the way Robin’s life ended. He couldn’t tame the disease that very likely told him — irrationally, counterintuitively — that he was valueless and that nothing would ever get any better no matter how good it already was.
Imagine what it takes to convince a man of Robin Williams’s passion and character that life is often an exercise in punishing misery and death is the sensible answer to it. If you can do that, you can begin to grasp how deeply depression runs and how tragic its impact is. When I first learned that Robin had taken his own life, I broke down and cried violently. I did this not simply because, like so many others, I felt that I had a personal stake in the loss because Robin’s work played such a profound role across the many stages of my life. I did it because I understood. I understand. I get why Robin Williams did what he did. I’ve battled depression for years, had that voice in my head — the voice that sounds just like my own voice — telling me that I’m worthless, hopeless, and damaged beyond repair. There have been times that I can keep it submerged in a sea of distraction and even, on occasion, unadulterated joy at even the tiniest of life’s wonders. But it’s always there and as the years pass its pull becomes more and more difficult to dismiss handily. The result is that I now have to remind myself on occasion that I am, in fact, suffering from a particular kind of brain chemistry and shouldn’t necessarily give in to the belief that I’m doomed to take my own life at some point rather than peaceably living out my days. When it comes to depression, self-awareness is half the battle.
Last summer, I opened up about these thoughts and feelings in an extended column over at my blog, Deus Ex Malcontent. It was written during a period of excruciating personal turmoil that made an already difficult situation worse — and was in turn made worse by my view of it — but in no way was it time to pull the plug on this world by any objective standard. Still, there I was, for the first time in years publicly alluding to some of the darkest thoughts my head regularly conjures and giving physical form to the pain I’d lived with for far too long, through good days and bad — the pain I’d once attempted to bury under the weight of every chemical known to man and which continued to stalk me no matter the ostensible successes I could count nor the unremitting love I felt for and from my family and friends. I tend to write about my personal life only when I feel like I need to — when there’s an especially toxic presence that I need to symbolically push out and away from me — and last summer was one of those times. Again, though, the thing about depression is that it’s always there in some form or another, even when it’s not shouting in your ear. I have no doubt that Robin Williams understood this and maybe even believed that it was only a matter of time before he gave in to the demands of his disease as he had before with the depression-related disease of drug and alcohol addiction.
It’s so hard to overcome those feelings. It’s so hard to make yourself believe there’s hope even when the evidence of it is all around you. This is the destructive lie depression tells you and it’s probably the lie it was telling Robin, although I’d never presume to know what exactly was going on inside his head since depression can be a surprisingly personal affliction.
What I do know is what was etched clearly all over Robin Williams’s face: an absolute, insuppressible passion in everything he did, but one that came at a very high price. In order to feel as strongly as he did in positive ways he had to feel just as strongly in negative ways. To bring that much laughter and joy to us, the darkness of his depression must have been a burden that always teetered on the edge of being achingly unbearable. He felt so much. It’s what made him brilliant beyond words. It’s probably also what killed him. He felt everything, particularly his own pain — and at some point maybe he just wanted it to stop. I wish I could say I have no idea at all what Robin was feeling and what he felt for most of his life, but if you live with depression and understand the reality of it, you can’t. You just can’t.
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Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.