I Get It, Robin Williams: Smiling (and Laughing) Over Depression's Dark Mask

I Get It, Robin Williams: Smiling (and Laughing) Over Depression's Dark Mask
The smile masked a pain beyond words for actor Robin Williams, who committed suicide. He left a world of love behind

“Whoever gets sense loves his own soul; he who keeps understanding, will discover good.”
Proverbs 19:8

This is a story about depression….off and on, wanting to kill myself from the age of nine until I was 29. It’s a story about accepting who I was and finding the resources and inner strength to make a bold choice….to live.

That’s why it’s also a story about a happy ending.

Robin Williams’ suicide brought my own past battles with depression and self-loathing  into sharp perspective. The question everybody asks is: How could someone with so many wonderful gifts, a loving family, and financial riches want to end it all?

One Friday night, nearly 25 years ago,  I sat in my apartment, alone, staring at the oven in my tiny kitchen. If I only had the courage to turn on the gas… No one would care. Just like Sylvia Plath. I wouldn’t have to feel pain anymore.

At that time, on the surface, my life probably looked pretty okay. I had two jobs promoting causes I cared about. I doted on my niece, Laura…my family’s first grandchild. My sports broadcasting career was just starting, and I had access to the greatest teams in the world. Though I didn’t have that ‘special someone,’ in my life, I did have a network of friends I went out with, to the city’s Rush Street clubs.  And I dated a lot. Some men were more special than others.

Yes, there were many reasons to smile. But, I’d been smiling my whole life, no matter how bullied I was, no matter how fat and ugly I felt. I kept smiling through it all.

In fact, my smile had become a mask that covered every negative emotion and fear I ever felt.

That started when I transferred schools in second grade. I was so different from everyone else who went to my new school , it didn’t take long for the kids to start pointing out how ‘weird’ I was.  Let me count the ways:

  • Outspoken in a polite era (“Blurting out the truth,” as Mom put it)
  • A team sports fan (Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks) in a family that embraced individual sports (tennis, swimming, running)
  • Lefthanded in a righthanded world
  • A tomboy in Pre-Title IX America
  • A Democrat in a Republican suburb
  • Awkward in a (seemingly) graceful world
  • A slow presence in an athletic world

Constant dread churned in my stomach every time I had to wake up for school. Sometimes, on the way home, I’d have rocks thrown at me. Or mud. One boy beat me up once a year, like clockwork, between 5th and 8th grades.

The Token Female at a national college journalism conference in San Diego...thanking God I chose to remain alive for opportunities like this!

The Token Female at a national college journalism conference in San Diego…thanking God I chose to remain alive for opportunities like this!

I think the first time I ever thought about suicide was in 4th grade.I came home crying and asked my mom for advice. “Just  laugh it away,” she advised. “Try to make a joke of it.”

“I shouldn’t get mad?” I asked. “No, that’ll just make it worse,” Mom said. “Just let it roll off your back.”

But it didn’t stop.  Maybe because I was sensitive, the bullying just didn’t roll off my back. I held it all in. My depression and self-loathing grew exponentially. Food was my comfort.

For the next 20 years, I hid behind a mask of smiles, laughter, food, and self-deprecating humor. No matter what pain I was in, I smiled. And the depression got worse.  I went to counseling, finally, in my mid-20’s. As a psychologist’s daughter, it would have seemed an easy and logical choice, but my Dad, the psychologist,  was ashamed that his kids needed therapy. He took it as his own failure.

By the time I was seated in my kitchen, staring at the oven, I was tired, plain old tired, of my life. I yearned for stability. I yearned for a special man who would love only me.  One of the men I had been seeing at the time…someone I loved, but clearly, I wasn’t nearly as important to him, had gotten engaged without telling me. Then, one of my friends pulled a ‘prank’ on me because she was upset with me.  At work, I was facing a lot of harassment from a boss who wanted me to be his girlfriend. And even though I had access to the greatest teams in the world, going to games was a lonely experience. I wasn’t close friends with anyone there.

That’s the conundrum of depression. Even when you’re in the middle of a seemingly rich life, you’re all alone. Even though you’re the life of the party, you’ll leave after an evening of entertaining others, and start crying because…well, it’s exhausting to cover the deep hole inside of you.

So I faced the oven.  I called my Mom, pouring my heart out to her about why I didn’t want to live anymore. She reminded me of how much I had to live for…especially Laura. Then, I called my best friend, Jeanette. Both talked me down and assured me that life was indeed worth living.  They loved me, and my death would affect them. And Laura, especially.

I listened. I didn’t turn on the gas. Instead, I had one goal: To like myself and my life.

At the bottom of everything was my faith. I was raised with the idea that God created me for a reason. The faith always had been there, but it was important that I put this journey in God’s hands. Secondly, I tried to find joy in life every day. I started with that. Whether it was a nice sunset or a great dinner, or a kiss from a pet, a good conversation with a friend, or a well-written article I had completed, there was something to feel good about.

Then, I focused on what I could be thankful for about myself.  Did I like my eyes?  My smile? My body? How could I be the best I could be? And once I felt I had it put together, I didn’t compare myself to others. I just was thankful for what I had and embraced it.

Those daily exercises eventually built my confidence and belief in myself.  I learned to weed out those who couldn’t accept me. And the friends who could embrace me, did. I learned that by forgiving those who had hurt me, I was able to move on. And choose better people to stand beside me, knowing what I needed to stay.

In the mid-90’s, my depression was finally diagnosed. It was low-level and controllable by medication. Feeling real joy was far less difficult when body/brain chemicals were in balance.

Today, my smile, confidence and  joy are real. I can’t say life is perfect, but it is everything I would like it to be now.

I grieve for Robin Williams’ family. There are so many complex decisions involved in suicide. If I’d ever had the privilege to know him, I would have said…call me. Call someone. Think twice. You still have a lot to live for. The battle will be worth it in the end.

To those who are thinking they don’t matter: Even if you are feeling like you’re different from anyone around you, please take this to heart:  God made us all unique, and with different gifts for a reason. Your calling is there, if you ask. Your confidence will come, if you let it. And your world will change for the better, if you embrace yourself.

You have a purpose. You are unique. You are special. Count on it!

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