All is not lost…


Andrew Solomon wrote this about depression:

When you are depressed, the past and the future are absorbed entirely by the present, as in the world of a three-year-old. You can neither remember feeling better nor imagine that you will feel better. Being upset, even profoundly upset, is a temporal experience, whereas depression is atemporal. Depression means that you have no point of view.

I remember that feeling. To learn of the loss of a friend and the death of a childhood and lifelong hero as the result of suicidal depression knocked me back hard yesterday and today. To a lot of people Robin Williams was a very funny man and a talented actor. But as an old friend put it on Facebook – Williams was the patron saint of all of us theater kids in the 1980s.

If your experience of Robin Williams was watching Mork & Mindy or seeing him in films like Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams or Good Will Hunting then you really didn’t see the depth of his talent. As a kid I lived for his appearances on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson would just step back and let him riff. I saw him do stand-up a half-dozen times or so and each time I was just floored by the man’s ability to adopt a point of view and follow through with whatever character he’d jumped into in the moment and take it to the goal line.

Anyone who has done acting classes and spent time doing theater will tell you this is, by far, the most difficult space to work in. Improvisation eats most actors alive. They aren’t creative enough or smart enough to rapidly build the whole world that is necessary to make it work. Robin Williams could not only slip into a character on a moment’s notice, but within seconds that character obviously had a full back-story that Robin could draw from for hours if need be. That’s virtuoso level stuff.

I’m going to say it flat out – Robin Williams was the Andres Segovia of improvisational comedy. Untouchable. And anyone who saw him perform could not deny that fact. That he could then take a script and a character for a film and make it work at a very high level shouldn’t have surprised anyone. I remember seeing him in his first semi-serious role in Moscow On The Hudson and being so pleased for him. The friends I’d seen the movie with were surprised at how well he could act. I wasn’t. That he went on to carry much more complex roles also was no surprise to me.

When I heard, over the years that Williams suffered from bouts of depression I wasn’t surprised by that either, or that he had a reputation for binging on drugs and alcohol. I got it. Depression is a furious hell-beast that I am very, very well acquainted with.

I have tried to kill myself with complete and utter sincerity in the attempt at least three times. I’ve tried to passively snuff myself out a couple more times. Why? Because I could not maintain perspective. I could not manage my point of view.

There is no one who has lived into adulthood who exists without the pain of past actions that we regret. Likewise, there is no one who exists without some degree of fear of the future. As Andrew Solomon put it so well, when we cannot maintain the appropriate perspective and understand that the past is the past – unchangeable and worthless for the present day, except to inform choices me make today about things that are happening today, and that the future is unknowable and uncontrollable and irrelevant to the present moment except for how it is shaped by the choices we make today – when that perspective is lost we become lost with it.

I understand wanting to no longer feel pain, especially crushing pain that sits on the soul like an elephant. I have sat ready to snuff out my own pain. I have acted on that thought and been fortunate that my attempts were feeble or, at least in one case, inexplicably futile.

My God, Robin, I have sat with a belt around my neck and been ready to do what you did.

I am so grateful that I turned the page. I am so grateful that I managed to obtain enough perspective to say, “No, I will not do this. I will take a walk, have a drink and go to bed and tomorrow will be another day.”

I am grateful that I have had friends and family who took me seriously when I told them I was suffering. I am grateful to Mark (may he rest in peace) who told me to come stay with him, and held me and told me it would be OK. I am grateful to Jenny who answered her phone and listened, and listened and listened and never judged and only told me she cared. I am grateful to Erin who shared her own pain and struggles and made me not feel so alone. I am grateful to Skip for saying, “Let’s go write some songs.” I am grateful to Richie for racing our bikes through Berkeley at all hours and watching the moon rise over the bay from the Berkeley hills with me. I’m grateful to Joe, James, Dan and Jesse for just providing a place to make some earth shattering noise and chase my demons away. I am everlastingly grateful to Ben for pointing me in the direction of the SF Zen Center and saying, “Dude, that sucks. It’s not in your head. That actually sucks.”

So, what’s the point of this? I spent many years as a young man volunteering in homeless shelters in San Francisco. I wanted to help. I had the time, I had some skills that were needed and the homeless problem in SF was serious. But I got discouraged after a couple of years because it became very, very clear to me that the people I was working with weren’t going to get better. They had mental health issues and substance abuse issues that rendered them pretty much incapable of functioning the way “normal” adults do in our society. These were people who were going to need to be cared for. And being the sort of person I am, who goes and studies things he wants to understand I came upon a pretty substantial body of research that said that the primary differentiating trait between people with mental health and substance use problems who became homeless and those with the same problems who did not was the depth and quality of their support network.

Depression and suicide are no different. Modern society is awful. I find it utterly unsurprising that we have an epidemic of depression in America. Forgive me Bill O’Reilly, but America kind of sucks ass. People work too many hours, for too little money, for no recognition and nothing resembling a decent reward. Even if you manage to extricate yourself from the proverbial rat race finding community and connection in this modern nation is made beyond difficult by the physical and virtual structures we’ve put in place.

Why am I not dead? Because I was able to, repeatedly, seek out friends and family who took my cries of pain and pleas for support completely and totally seriously. If you’re disconnected from other people, or haven’t been brought up in such a way to know how to reach out when you need support then what the heck are you supposed to do?

Even with the support network I have had, it took professional help to keep me afloat. I spent nearly 10 years in therapy with an amazing therapist. His counsel and advice helped me to exit the fog I’d inhabited for most of my life.

It really hurts to realize that Robin Williams most certainly had the resources to expend on therapy (and as an actor I’d be stunned if he wasn’t actively engaged in it for most of his life), and had a loving and supportive family and network of friends but was still so crushed by pain that he couldn’t work his way through it anymore. I know what that inner dialog sounds like. It will never be better. You don’t deserve to be happy. No one loves you.

To anyone reading this who hears that refrain in their mind – It is not the truth. You are loved. Happiness and joy are your birthright. It will always get better.

Find someone, and hold their hand. Tell the people you love that you love them. Be their light.

If you need help now. Today. Right this moment, call 800-273-8255 – the National Suicide Hotline.

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