What Robin Williams Taught Me
In her most personal column yet, Sally Sampson talks about the true depths of depression and the real need for open dialogue about mental illness.
The big news this week has undoubtedly been the death of the legendary Robin Williams.
Now, I don’t want to go on about this too much. After all, what more could I add that hasn’t been said already? My words about his achievements pale in comparison to his actual accomplishments and anything I have to say about the tragic nature of his passing…well, who am I to comment or say anything about that? I will say though that I’ m tired of hearing the same sentence repeated, over and over again, “How could a man like Robin Williams kill himself when he was loved by so many and had so much to live for ?” And to those of you who have said that, I can only say “So what?”
Truth is, depression is the most isolating thing in the world. It throws you in a corner and bullies you into believing that hope is an abstract concept and that even if it wasn’t, it still wouldn’t apply to you. Depression is a low that you don’t just snap out of by watching a feel-good romcom and jumping face-first into a bucket of cookie dough ice cream. Depression is not being upset about missing the latest episode of Game of Thrones or what you feel when the movie you’ve been dying to see is no longer showing in cinemas. Depression is deeper and darker and far more toxic; it can mean feeling abjectly alone in a room full of people, fawning and pampering you in love and adoration.
Now, for someone who has not experienced depression, that sounds incredibly poetic, but the reality could not be further. It is truly more harrowing than can be described. Saying “I know how you feel,” to someone who’s depressed is similar to a man standing in the delivery room with his wife telling her that he ‘understands’ her pain.
But how do I know? What authority do I have to talk about this incredibly sensitive subject matter that everyone pretends to specialise in? Well I can’t say that I am an authority and I certainly haven’t spent countless hours reading articles published in health journals or watching The Doctors on television or anything.
To be candid, it’s actually a lot more personal than that.
Aside from actually knowing people who have struggled (and do still continually struggle) with depression, I myself have, at times in my life, hit those unconquerable lows myself. I know it’s hard for people to imagine me like that, because for the most part, I am a very cheerful and optimistic person. Consequently, people have a tough time seeing how those two very different and very opposite extremes (naïve optimism and bottomless depression) can coexist in one person.
Lots of people around me also consider me to be quite the drama queen and have or will undoubtedly think that I am lying or just exaggerating for attention’s sake. And to be fair, I think at times in my early teens, I myself did mistake my little teenage tantrums for depression too. In my late teens though (around the time I was about 18) I truly did hit a wall and that is not something I take lightly or enjoy remembering. In the past, I’ve only spoken about it to very select individuals, because aside from it being an intensely personal and painful thing to recount, overtime I’ve developed quite the defense mechanism. As you can imagine, I’ve tried to protect myself from the ignorant pricks in the world, walking around, looking to pass judgment. Because yes, call me a BITCH all you want, but, it is a whole other level of insulting for someone to turn around, point their finger and call me the C-word…
I am not crazy (not in the straightjacket sense anyway), but when I was eighteen, I was not in what you would call a good place. For the better part of a year, I battled some awful demons. I was an insomniac and I was plagued with ideas and thoughts that would not desist, regardless of whether I was awake or asleep (in the few hours I would doze off in anyway). To put it simply, I felt like I had no control over what was happening inside my head. I stopped talking to people, refused to leave the house, skipped an enormous part of my final school year and spent most of my days crying and praying that what I was going through would stop. I didn’t care how; I just needed it to stop! I eventually asked for help and that’s what I got. And that’s how I got better.
The minute details of my struggles and recovery will always be my own, but if there is anything that the heartbreaking death of Robin Williams has taught us (and me), it’s that it is so important to break the silence around issues of mental health. We need to encourage people to ask for help. Like any physical illness, psychological illness can happen and it happens frequently and everywhere. There is no singular trigger for depression, and sometimes there is no visible or identifiable trigger at all, but there is no reason for it to be taboo or for anyone to be ashamed of going or having gone through it. It does not mean that you are crazy.
And as ever, and though I’m actually terrified (for once) about publishing this, I’m starting with myself; I’m speaking out and recounting my own experiences. Even though, like anyone who’s gone through this, I’m scared of being labeled an incurable basket case, I don’t ever want to be ashamed of anything that’s made me who I am. My inner demons have transformed me into a better fighter. Nowadays, I’m very careful which thoughts I entertain, knowing full well that sometimes, even as you stand ankle deep on the shore, the tide can suck you in. I still have days every now and again when I plummet into a cavernous depth within myself and all I want to do is isolate myself from the world, but I try not to make the imps and sprites that dance around in the obscure recesses of my mind feel quite at home.
Depression doesn’t have to end in suicide. Depression doesn’t have to be ‘the end’ at all. And if any good can come from the death of Robin Williams, I hope that it will be in the form of millions of people worldwide educating themselves regarding mental health and even more so breaking their silence regarding their own experiences with psychological illness. I also hope that if anyone reading this is either struggling themselves or knows someone who is struggling with any psychological turmoil, that they go and seek help from a professional.
From one end of the tunnel to the other: depression can be overcome!
God rest your soul, Mr. Williams. I pray that all of us remember not just the countless performances that will forever shake us to our very cores, whether in laughter or sadness, but that we also learn the final lesson that you unintentionally taught us through your passing, though the price you paid to teach it was high…far too high.
O Captain! My Captain…Rest in peace.