Like many of you, I am grieving the loss of Robin Williams. I know I’m not the first to ask “How can a man who was so funny, who brought such joy to me and to millions of others, experience a level of depression beyond the reach of those who loved and supported him?”
I know Williams was not alone is suffering depression and that many bear the agony of their suffering in silence and isolation. Each day, five Australian men commit suicide linked to depression.
I’m particularly mindful of the challenges faced by those in public or high profile positions. Power and fame have a peculiar effect on people; they can become disoriented. It becomes hard to know not only who you are, but why people form relationships with you. Is it for your public persona, the prestige, the money or the shared limelight? Staying grounded in this environment is hard work and requires conscious effort. Trusted friends and associates are needed to remind you of who you really are.
Williams, like other famous individuals such as Marilyn Monroe and Heath Ledger, not only received our accolades, but bore the burden of our collective projection. We loved the fact that he was funny and we relied on it. So today I’m trying to let in the reality that this man was also very sad; that he experienced unspeakable pain. There must have been incredible pressure on Williams to ‘be upbeat’; just as there is great pressure on leaders to be at the top of their game. In a recent post I wrote about what gets marginalised when a person lives in the public eye. A chasm can develop between an individual public persona and their internal reality, which eventually collapses.
Few of us like to dwell on the disappointments or setbacks in our life; the nagging self-doubts or the lost dreams. Many addiction problems result from an attempt to keep these unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings at bay. Alcohol, drugs, gambling and excessive consumerism buy a temporary reprieve from coming face to face with the full gamut of our feelings. But the reprieve is only short-lived and often the addiction exacerbates the problems and challenges individuals face. And so the cycle continues. What each of us ignore or repress usually has a way of growing.
As a rule we like to feel good. We lean toward being a feel good society, but this comes at a cost. Our collective fear of depression contributes to our failure to learn about more challenging feelings. David Whyte argues that feeling down from time to time is important. It allows us to go in, to reflect and rejuvenate. He argues that if leaders stay on the surface, stuck in an achievement mode for too long, they burnout. Pointing to the great mythological stories, he argues that we make the descent into the feeling realms, in order to find the riches and inspiration there. He likens it to a journey into the earth. At a practical level this can be as simple as going outside from time to time and lying on the ground, to feel the support of the earth under you – just like you did when you were a kid.
If we learn to embrace difficult feelings our capacity to work with these feelings has a chance to develop.
Depression occurs on a continuum. It is a term we use to refer to feeling down and also to protracted periods of having a flat mood or sense of hopelessness and despair. In the latter cases, a depressive illness may be diagnosed by a psychologist or treating practitioner. At times this depression is a natural reaction to a crisis in our lives, such as divorce or loss of a business or dream. At other times it reflects a bio-chemical imbalance. In these cases professional support can be helpful.
In the Dead Poet’s Society, Williams character John Keating implored his students to “look at something in a different way.” Given that Williams’ depression led to him to suicide, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest it’s important to make time and space to acknowledge the sadness, disappointment and even fatigue in our lives. But that’s precisely the inspiration that I suggest we take from his suicide. Williams’ death reminds us to bring our own humanity into the light, to let the fresh air and the earth and the sun reach it.
And for you Robin Williams:
One day the hero
afraid to take
and the old interior angel
limps slowly in
with her non-nonsense
and her old secret
and goes ahead.
* Namaste is a customary greeting of meeting or farewell that is widely used in South-East Asia. In Hinduism it means, "I bow to the divine in you."