On Robin Williams, holding on, and popular misconceptions about mental illness
Robin Williams died this week. A flood of articles and essays on the seriousness of depression and mental disorders followed, and on how many, willingly or not, trivialize these very real problems. These pieces tended to echo one another, speaking on how depression was more than simple sadness, and on how suicide was far from some selfish impulse. Many of these articles were bad schlock pieces. Others were pretty good, in that they looked to point out that the way many people looked at depression was damaging to those who suffer from it, reducing sufferers into strange, self-absorbed, solipsistic egoists.
Some years ago, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder (BP-II, a form of manic-depression), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (adult ADHD). And so from my own vista, the building energy behind the project to overturn common misconceptions about mental illness is surely welcome. Considering the belief of many health practitioners that mental disorders are seriously under-diagnosed , the wider discourse on the nature and consequences of these illnesses that all these stories invite is a good thing.
Still, I can’t help but sense that this sudden rush of depression-related articles, inadvertently or not, romanticizes, glamorizes, or celebrates depression and suicide. This is problematic on several fronts, some of which have already been taken up by other commentators as mentioned above. Let me revisit some of the points that stood out to me.
Tragedy as entertainment, plus media reporting on suicide
One of the concerns that’s been brought up in the past days is how the spate of stories vividly describing the supposed manner of Williams’ death may invite imitation suicides, or provoke sufferers of depression into attempting to take their own lives. It’s been pointed out that many of these stories failed to comply with generally accepted guidelines on the narration of such incidents in popular media, guidelines that were made specifically to mitigate the established effects of such media reports on those vulnerable to suicidal thoughts.
The way Williams’ death has been talked about in all these articles also raises questions related to journalistic ethics. The garishness of some of these popular reports, which certainly do nothing but heighten the anguish of the Williams family, is sad to behold. It appears that our desire for morbid news-entertainment trumps concerns over the welfare of those prone to thoughts of death, as well as that of the Williams family. Conversations among ourselves about this tragedy is one thing, but front page stories on something as deeply personal as mental illness and suicide is quite another.
While the death of Williams, as someone who’s achieved the highest heights of fame, would naturally be a topic of discussion across the globe, the kind of reporting we’ve seen on his apparent suicide seems to me to be a terrible encroachment into the lives of people already going through a great ordeal. Robin Williams was a celebrity, but he was also a person, who in death is still deserving of all the dignity we would hope for ourselves and for those we love.
“Genie, you’re free.”
Another problem that’s been talked about is the unintended effects of the “Genie, you’re free.” meme, which became popular after being tweeted by Evan Rachel Wood. While the sentiment behind the meme (a combination of mourning and of paying homage to one of the many Williams characters that resonated with his many admirers, myself included) is certainly sincere, the lines used and the accompanying imagery seem to take on an air of bittersweet triumph, as if suicide were some light at the end of a long, dark tunnel that Williams was finally able to escape.
As someone who has time and again been engulfed in the shadows of depression— a feeling described by David Foster Wallace, another beloved genius-level creator who himself took his own life, as a “nausea of the cells and soul”, a “level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it” – I can say with certainty that suicide and the experience that culminates in this final, terrible act is nothing to celebrate.
Suicide after all is not a breaking free, but a termination. It is an ending brought about in the most sudden and violent of ways, the final expression of a pain so unbearable that death becomes the most desirable course of action regardless of all the moments of love and bliss that Williams would likely still have experienced.
Suicide as ingratitude and irresponsibility, V/A/V the need to assert agency
And then there are the articles that have dealt with the misconception that depression and suicide are somehow selfish, an avoidance of responsibility and a lack of gratitude for the good things in one’s life, with suicide as the ultimate cop out. This notion manifested itself in the most ugly way possible in the online space, where a great deal of hateful antipathy commingled with the offered condolences. Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda was eventually driven away from Twitter after especially nasty messages about the suicide were sent to her.
The incident on Twitter is surely an absolute low, but it also evinces a sort of frustration with the depressed that I myself know well. I love my friends dearly, and without them, the darker days of the last few years might have broken me. But even from them, people whose concern for me is beyond question, I have sometimes felt slivers of this frustration. I was told: I had a good family, I was bright, and I lived in reasonable comfort. I had no right to be depressed.
While I’m sure that the lines described above were said with nothing but my wellbeing in mind, I firmly believe that the view that depression is ingratitude must be overturned, especially when it’s expressed in the manner of those who drove Zelda away from Twitter. I’ve personally not encountered that level of hatred, and I hope I never will. Depression is an illness, not an attitude, and sufferers of depression have enough to deal with without having to bear the psychic toll of uninformed judgment from others fortunate enough to be “normal.”
However, I am also of the view – and I am saying this as someone whose projected course in life has changed radically because of my condition – that depression should not strip away a sufferer’s agency, nor should it diminish one’s self-worth.
Sufferers must realize that they have more power than they might think, and that doing great things for themselves and for others is still possible in spite of the illness. This is something that both David Foster Wallace and Robin Williams knew, even if the Bad Thing finally overcame them. While depression tends to imbue living with a sort of hopeless fatalism, I am convinced that the assertion of one’s agency over the illness is just as important as any form of formal therapy that depressed people undergo.
A pill for everything, love as medicine, and depression as mental illness
This erosion of agency is closely tied to the fact that many mental health practitioners as a default option resort to prescribing drugs as if these were some magical panacea that would restore the joie de vivre of depressed people. Apart from eroding the sufferer’s own role in her treatment, the prescribing of such chemical drugs by default may result in all sorts of side effects whose effects range from the unpleasant to the debilitating.
I myself continue to take medication, and am grateful to have settled on a combination that helps me devote my energies fully to the matters of the day, and enjoy myself in the process. Proper medical treatment is necessary, and something that I will encourage anyone with depression to look into. But I’ve also been through periods where I was taking a daily buffet of drugs – Zoloft (antidepressant), Lamictal (mood stabilizer), Abilify (antipsychotic), Straterra (anti-ADHD), and when needed, Xanor (anti-anxiety), Zoldem (hypnotic), and Akidin (for the symptoms of Parkinsonism induced by Abilify), which had me wondering if my search for a “cure” was in reality making things worse for me.
As one might reasonably expect, I felt absolutely horrible at the time. I was on a mix of drugs similar to that described by Bradley Cooper in that famous dinner scene in Silver Linings Playbook, a scene I found particularly amusing because it reflected the my own curious, maddening experience (and simultaneously made light of it).
Beyond my depression, I was constantly antsy and irritable, my limbs felt like tree branches, and I was grinding my teeth throughout the day. I wouldn’t go home for days on end, and I would strip off my shoes and go walking around UP Village at night because sitting still with footwear on just felt like a drag. I burned through my wallet and my health too, making all kinds of wrong life decisions we’ve no need to get into. (I was also able to finish writing and recording my band’s first album at the time as well – more on the supposed link between depression and creativity later).
Even when in the throes of despair, when tasks as mundane as putting the dishes in the sink, taking a bath, or going to work seem to require the most immense effort, the one capital-T True realization I had was that no matter what medicines one takes, triumph over mental illness comes not in the form of a final escape, but in exerting one’s own capacity to take on headfirst and hopefully overcome depression. My psychiatrist has repeatedly told me throughout my years of seeing her that the outcome of my struggle came down to me in the final analysis. I could either fight back or lie down and die.
My family, in all their boundless patience, also had similar words—get up and out into the world, immerse yourself in work, go travelling, get back into fitness, spend more time with us. All this showed me that while mental illness is a tough, tough battle, I was fortunate to have constant reminders that there were reasons to live and to live well. There were reasons to endure, reasons for joy.
I by no means wish to suggest that the people who did end up taking their own lives were weak or that they failed to do more. I know that in many cases, the darkness induced by depression and mental illness is simply too powerful to endure. Both Robin Williams and David Foster Wallace fought valiantly against their own demons for years, bringing light to the lives of millions along the way. But in the end, the darkness overpowered them, in spite of all the spirit and love and strength they were able to muster against it. I am luckier than them.
The fact that people who by all appearances had everything they needed for a full and happy life should underscore the fact previously mentioned that depression is as real an illness as any other, as real as a bout of flu, as real as heart ailment, as real as cancer, and often just as fatal. Depression after all is not something that one can decide to not have, or switch off on command, or will away. It is an illness that demands empathy and understanding rather than pity or ridicule. It is an illness that requires proper medical treatment as well as an earnest effort on the part of the sufferer to go on in spite of the numbing pain.
Sometimes however, all that is not enough.
Depression and the artist, or romanticizing horror
Finally, I would like to touch on the supposed connection between bouts of depression and increased creativity. As I alluded to above, I was able to finish writing and recording a full album’s worth of material for my band Love Never Dies during a particularly difficult manic-depressive episode in the latter half of 2012. This was something I had aspired to do for years, but had never been able to accomplish until those difficult months. It is a modest work that pretty much no one’s heard, but I am still quite proud of it.
Considering all the great artists, writers, poets, actors, philosophers, and revolutionaries who have suffered from depression (I am not one of those, to be clear), it has been suggested that depression fostered creativity and expansive thought, and that the creative-minded were more vulnerable to depression. Certainly, a cursory look at the lists of famous people with depression that have popped up on many websites and magazines (a reductive and fetishizing endeavor) might suggest that there really is a positive correlation between mental illness and creative capacity.
Meanwhile, a handful of studies, some with pretty robust designs, have suggested an overrepresentation of manic-depression among creative professionals. Kay Redfield Jamison herself, perhaps the most prominent chronicler of living with manic-depressive disorder, published a book of case studies of creative intellectuals who suffered from the illness.
However, there exists equally strong evidence suggesting that the link between creativity and manic-depression isn’t the direct correlation that other studies suppose. For instance, a 2005 study at Syracuse University came to the conclusion that artists were more likely to ruminate than those in non-creative fields, and this tendency for introspection, rather than creative intelligence, was the cause for depression.
Moreover, it’s been pointed out that (and I can attest to the truth of this) depression often manifests itself in inactivity, inertia, and stupor, things that directly work against creative expression.
The danger in overemphasizing the supposed link between bipolar disorder and creativity is that the illness again may be romanticized in the minds of many. One may imagine depression as a badge of a unique kind of genius, a certain expansion of thinking and feeling unavailable to “regular” people, a way of legitimizing the ideation of oneself as an artist in the eyes of others. Again, this is a gross mis-appreciation of the nature of depression, casting the illness as some sort of mystic wellspring, sapping the lifeforce of sufferers while endowing them with an otherwise inaccessible font of creative energy.
This is a disservice to people like David Foster Wallace and Robin Williams, who managed to do truly great things despite the horrible inner turmoil they had to deal with each day of their lives. Both of them endured for as long as they could, and were somehow able to conjure great performances such as the writing of Infinite Jest and Williams’ portrayal of Peter Pan, Dr. Sean Maguire, Adrian Cronauer, John Keating, Mrs. Doubtfire, Genie, and Armand Goldman, feats of human wonder that enriched innumerable lives around the world.
As fans mourn Williams’ death, it is these inspiring accomplishments that should be remembered and celebrated, while keeping depression in its proper context. Robin Williams took on the full might of his terrible illness head on, making an extraordinary life (Carpe diem!) even with night falling fast around him.
In the end, the Bad Thing was too powerful, even for our dear Genie. But I know for sure that he found reasons to live and to live well for as long as was humanly possible.
“Look to the living, love them, and hold on.”
– Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide (1999, Knopf)
Karlo Marco Cleto is a writer and law student raised in Baguio and now living in Quezon City. Listen to Love Never Dies here: https://soundcloud.com/loveneverdiesmusic. Sporadic Tumblr posts here: http://lndlndlnd.tumblr.com/, and tweets every few days here: https://twitter.com/onlyrevolutions.