Robin Williams’ death has hit all of us. While we’ve been affected at the level of “Oh my God this person who is beloved is no longer with us”, we are also struck at the level of “What are my demons? My darkness?”
Even though, by many accounts, he had bi-polar disorder, addiction problems, and was most recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s – which are all huge burdens to manage – we all have something we suffer with. And I feel like Robin’s pain and his ultimate choice has many of us reflecting on our own dark parts.
In my teens and twenties, I suffered from severe depression. So much so, I tried to kill myself at 14. Thankfully, I changed my mind as the pills were being digested and had already begun to swim in my system.
I remember dragging myself up off my bed and telling my parents I had swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills, going to the hospital, and getting my stomach pumped, all because I’d had a vision. As I had been drifting off, following my breath as it got more and more shallow, I had seen myself on stage, performing. Up to this point I had never acted, but it was a dream of mine.
As I lay on that bed, heading toward an endless sleep, seeing myself on a stage – beaming and alive and lit up and present and engaged – I suddenly wanted to live. I felt a purpose stirring within me that outweighed the desire to escape.
At the hospital, as they administered charcoal and stuck a tube down my throat and my parents wrung their hands, I was giddy. I joked with the doctors and attendants, I made them laugh. Because I had found my purpose in that visage I saw with my eyes closed.
And so I began to act and sing. I performed anywhere and everywhere I could. I went away to a college that was an arts conservatory and studied acting and all aspects of performance.
I was told I was talented, gifted, even brilliant at times. This made me feel I was on the “right” track. I made people laugh, moved them to tears, and watched their approving faces after every performance.
But performing wasn’t the answer. It wasn’t enough. And I’m sure it wasn’t enough for Robin Williams.
There was something darker, wanting to poke its head out and shake up my life. Over and over again it reared its ugly head. I collapsed after college graduation in a heap on my apartment floor. I wanted to die again. It was so strong this time, I couldn’t shake it.
“What would it be like if I just threw myself over my balcony right now?”
“What if I just ran in to the street now and let that truck hit me?”
“What would a knife feel like if I put it through my chest?”
These became the thoughts in my head. And they were loud.
They all boiled down to: “How can I die quickly and painlessly and make sure no one is offended or hurt by my doing this?”
I was fearful and I was also a people pleaser. It kept me alive.
I was sure suicide was the answer; it seemed the only answer. Thanks to a friend’s urging, I finally ended up seeking help. I went to a crappy low cost clinic where the doctor never even looked at me.
“What’s the problem?” he asked, leafing through some papers as I cried uncontrollably.
“I’m so sad. I’m just so sad all the time and it hurts,” I gurgled through my tears.
“Hmmm. OK”, was his reply, still not looking up.
He wrote on my file: “Depressed.”
“By the way,” I thought to tell him, being the thorough, detail-oriented people pleaser that I was, “My sister is bi-polar.”
“Oh”, he said nonchalantly, and crossed out the word “depressed”.
“Then you’re bi-polar, “ he declared. And just like that, I was reborn.
I took on my label dutifully. And I swallowed handfuls of pills again, but this time, they were pills meant to keep me alive. And they did. But I became numb. Checked out. I stopped acting.
I had never sought therapy, I had never talked to my friends, I had never faced what was the source of this deep, dark, insidious monster clawing its way out of me time and again: I had come from an abusive home.
Mental illness, alcoholism, sadistic behavior, and my life repeatedly being threatened by family members – this was the environment I grew up in. And I had never talked about it. This is what created the monster in me.
I was on various cocktails of medication for anxiety, depression, and mood stabilization for nearly a decade before it finally became clear though my own research and a kind, open-minded psychiatrist at Cedars Sinai that I was probably not bi-polar.
With his blessing, I got off all medication and began taking a meditation class. He was confident that I was going to be ok. And oddly, so was I.
I had a sneaking suspicion that the medications and monthly 10 minute check-ins with a shrink were only suppressing something dark and scary that I hadn’t wanted to face. But now I wanted to face it.
So in an acting class, I found myself talking about a childhood memory for the first time in an exercise. It ripped me open. I took a writing class. I began writing about my past, my pain, what had happened, how it shaped me. I felt raw and exposed but…good. I was finally facing my demons.
I kept meditating. I got into therapy. I finally began talking, sharing, and feeling my goddamned feelings. I worked with energy healers. I saw an acupuncturist and a chiropractor and a naturapath. I waited for the darkness to descend again, but it wasn’t making an appearance. It was as if I had turned on all the lights and said: “COME AND GET ME!!!” and called its bluff.
I got stronger, more stable. I began practicing Buddhism and watching and investigating my mind, my heart. I developed a deep, determined, regular meditation practice. And so my consciousness began shifting as well as my emotional and psychological and energetic states.
My dark and light parts were no longer doing battle with one another. I was realizing that I’m all of it.
I began owning my pain. At first probably wallowing, but eventually understanding that the home and the family I was born in to was not a life sentence. I could be free. And this freedom came from facing myself, my past, and my own mind over and over again. And in developing the skills with which to navigate my pain.
Thankfully, I never went down the path of addiction and became an addict, although I tried reeeeally hard (anyone party with me in my twenties? I was a lush.). But the hardest drug I did was mushrooms and I promptly freaked out and now, only slice and sauté them.
Today I teach meditation, guide people with their spiritual path, and am a Reiki energy healer. And I have not had what could be regarded by a mental health professional as a depressive period in about thirteen years. I have not needed any medication.
I do get sad. And oooooooh I can get dark. I am prone toward a type of existential angst that is often common in people with artistic temperaments. I have a tendency toward doubt, fear and anxiety. But I’ve realized I am also deeply connected to light and joy.
And I’m always able to find my way to the light. For me, after all these years, it burns brighter than the fire of despair.
Luckily I don’t have a raging, diagnosable chemical imbalance. But many do.
Let me be clear: medication was not right for me. It was a misdirected Band Aid on unattended emotional issues. But medication is right for many, many people. It can be a lifeline. And there is no shame in needing it. I was heavily medicated but not in therapy. Not a great idea.
I share my story because we all have darkness, we all have pain.
For those who have a chemical imbalance, my God, my heart aches. And thanks to fucked up brain chemistry, the world is now without a man who brought mirth and playfulness in to our lives. It pisses me off.
I’m neurotic. I’m moody. I’m highly sensitive and I feel things times a thousand. I have a beast within me – as we all do. But it’s manageable. And it’s not truly who I am. Swells of emotion are a wave on the ocean, a cloud in the sky. It always passes.
And for those with clinical depression or addictions or just plain pain, please know that darkness has visited everyone on this planet and in that, you are not alone. And there is reason and purpose in your being here. Really.
No matter how dark things get, it’s not the whole picture; you just can’t see clearly for the moment. There is always light. Always. I wish Robin had been in contact with that light for himself, beyond the light he brought to all of us.
If you suffer from depression, get help, use your support system, and do your best to hang on.
Please remember that there is always a wider view than the limited and darkened one you may be mired in right now. It always passes. The dark will come around again. But at least nothing – in the words of the Buddha – is permanent.
Robin’s suicide has touched all of us, in different ways. Not only do we mourn the loss of a talented man who gifted us so much, we are each called upon to reflect on our own demons. I’m reminded of what brought me to my artistic and creative self: my failure at suicide. Thankfully.
That vision of passion and purpose lives within me, years later. So I’m going to write and sing and act and dance and allow the waves of energy to move through me and to create something. Hopefully with wild abandon and a spark of madness. Thanks, Robin. For everything. May you be at peace.