To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub, For in this sleep of death, what dreams may come…
Hamlet, William Shakespeare, the ultimate Dead Poet.
I have to take a little pause in my self involved tale of going home to acknowledge the passing of Robin Williams.
My heart is broken by his deep sadness and his terrible hopelessness.
Robin Williams was a chameleon, and his various incarnations wriggled into the lives of every one of us. I would be agitated by his manic comedy, admiring his whip fast brain, but I was cognizant that mania’s counterpoint would feel hollow and silent. I loved how his gentle spirit slid into his many movie roles, and his intelligence strobed behind those blue eyes. He leaves a legacy of films that will stay with us forever. God only knows what amazing things he would have shared with us had he only gathered the strength to go on.
The stories of his kindness and accessibility to the sick, the struggling, even the random stranger have crushed me.
I have never suffered from depression, but people I love have.
In 1988, my Mom, always a sturdy compass for her brood, fell into a pit. She was moving from the home she raised her kids in and was fixated on the notion that her life as a useful person was over. She had a heart condition, and was being treated with beta blockers and was generally over-whelmed by the chore of living. My Dad, not given to sympathy, told her to buck up.
That was not the answer.
She visited me in Chicago during this time, and the pain was etched on her face. She was gray, listless. She slumped. I had a new Golden Retriever puppy at the time, and cuddling Chamois brought a tidbit of sparkle into her day, but it evaporated like a bubble. She was so, so sad.
Now we realize that the prescriptions that save you from dying can create intense fatigue, replicating depression. They could also block serotonin, which is essential to feelings of well being. Counter programming is a must. For Mom, the abyss was temporary: she found peace through adjustments to her medication, and she got well. Her breach was not chronic, but it was a shocking detour from her general optimism. We did not know what to do, or how to help. The last 25 years have brought much illumination to the disease of depression, but there is no universal cure.
My other close contact with this imbalance is of course, my soulmate. For years he self-medicated feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness with Jack Daniels and illicit drugs. He referred to his inner being as a person I would not want to know, much less love. He refused to tell me his darkest thoughts, because he said they would scare me. I was the essential Pollyanna. I believed he was just a party animal with no governor. In 1995, he looked at our boys, and realized that he needed to re-balance his life and deal with his demons, he stopped self-medicating. Cold turkey. Hasn’t relapsed once.
That was not the cure for the underlying depression. It was the start.
Steve has spent the better part of 19 years seeking to re-route the things that weigh him down. He has sought medical assistance and has used prescription medications to re-wire his brain. Did you know that the very same meds that alleviate depression can stimulate thoughts of suicide? It is a thicket, that road to mental health. Steve now also has cognitive therapy and meditation in his arsenal. It is working for him, for us. For now. Forever, we hope.
It doesn’t, always. And sometimes the most buttressed person can stumble back into the darkness.
That is where supportive circles come in: AA, family, co-workers, friends. The cruel irony is that depressed people withdraw so their pain is not seen or shared. Or they pretend as they plot to fade away. Or harm another. It is a cruel burden to all involved. Sometimes it is fatal.
Steve has me, his sturdy watch dog. Yet after Monday’s newsreels ran, ascribing Robin William’s suicide to lost fame, cancelled shows, failed marriages and so on, I realized that Steve had also navigated land mines over the last 5 years: the loss of his radio platform, his brother’s and mother’s deaths. A difficult, fraught-with-peril tech start up. Isolation from the city he loved as he worked in the basement. I had thought to ask him if he was tempted to drink when times were rugged. He assured me that he had no wish to add pain to misfortune. That was music to my ears.
Last Monday, I realized with some guilt that I had never asked him if he had contemplated suicide. Maybe I did not wish to know the inner darkness of a man who warned me of his cock-eyed thought patterns.
But it was time to ask. It was weird to feel jangling stress in a conversation with my husband of 36 years. On our anniversary, no less.
He said no. Never.
I know all depression does not lead to that choice. I also know that we have complicated mental processing systems, and they are not constant. It is possible to slide into a pit and get out with help, or it is possible to have the pit cave in. So the conversation must be ongoing for those who struggle and their help mates.
Still there is no guarantee. But for those fortunate enough to see the world with the sun in every day, don’t judge. Monitor and surround anyone you love who suffers. Intrude upon their shell. And know that there may still be cataclysmic failure. Or triumph. We are fragile. We are iron clad. Often in alternating episodes.
A person suffering with profound depression cannot process joy. External difficulties compound despair, but do not trigger the hard-wired illness Robin Williams struggled valiantly against. The heart meds and Parkinson’s disease further challenged his particular system to remain balanced. Perhaps his metabolism and brain wiring might have regulated themselves if he held on. He could not.
It is a problem of the ages, this depression. Shakespeare wrote of it in many poems and plays, but his most famous and unsalvaged character was a Danish prince:
I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither…
To Robin Williams, Good Night Sweet Prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.