The tragedy of Robin Williams came as a big shock. How could such a natural comedian be driven to suicide? Surely a person who has made so many people laugh must be a jolly, cheerful, outgoing person with no worries of his own. Not quite. It seems he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and was suffering a form of depression known as bi-polar disorder — reasons enough to have plenty of worries, especially since he had an image to live up to.
I have been on treatment for bi-polar disorder and depression for six years. Winston Churchill referred to his bouts as the “black dog days”, describing neatly and poetically that feeling of an aggressive overshadowing of gloom, which shows no sign of lifting.
Depression is a disease, and a very wearying one at that, in which the afflicted person has to draw on his reserves of physical , emotional and mental energy at all times, even to drag himself out of the house. He has a feeling of helplessness, hopelessness and loss of a sense of purpose, all together. There have been days when I have wanted to lock the door, draw the curtains, cover myself with blankets, put in ear plugs and imprison myself in my own miserable world.
At other times mental tiredness, even a numbing of the mind as though it has been knocked out –but there is no count to ten!– has meant inability to cope with the simple tasks of everyday living, such as working out elementary syllogisms, counting change in the super-market, filling in the clues of a simple crossword, or working out the plot of a movie.
On Christmas Day, 2008, I fell into the Slough of Despond (there doesn’t seem a better way to describe it). I felt as if my mind had been crushed and had entered a tunnel with no light at the end. I still haven’t come out, though there are occasional glimmers inside as if someone is waving a weak torch, only for the light to fade again. Miraculously I was able to read and write for four more years, then lost those skills; -it’s as if they fell in pieces around my feet. Now I am re-learning those skills, almost like a little child, and making good headway.
I did not tackle my problem wisely. I should have looked for professional psychiatric help and counseling immediately, but I feared the stigma of being seen entering a psychiatric clinic and being known to be receiving psychological help. If anyone finds himself in my condition, I would warn them not to fall into the same trap. By starting treatment later than I should I had a severe attack of paranoia and psychosis and had to move to another city where there are better facilities for treatment.
Many depressives are melancholic, reflective people who think deep thoughts and go deep into their psyche. They are perceptive and intuitive and express this gift in understanding others. They have a high degree of “emotional intelligence” and empathy. Sensitivity is an abiding characteristic of the depressive. Sensitivity, meaning the alertness of the five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing and seeing. The depressive misses little of what goes on around him, the whiff of coffee, the sulphur of the lighted match, the overheard casual remark — which, more often than not, he will take to heart. I know all this from personal experience.
I am a melancholic, too, very self-aware and conscious of my surroundings, always entertaining a certain fear and cautiousness of what is going on around me. Melancholics who have special gifts tend to express them in writing, pictorial art or music, acting on stage, screen or in operatic performances. Through the thoughts, conflicts and challenges of others, their characters, that they live out their own dramas.
And so, back to Robin Williams. He may have been melancholic, or partly so. Melancholics can also be witty and entertaining people; but theirs is a jollity that is planned and perfect (the ideal condition for stage, screen and opera parts). It can co-exist with temptations to pessimism and even despair in the face of the demands of daily life, and we know that for Williams these had become very burdensome.
The French novelist Georges Bernanos puts in the diary of his humble Country Priest some words that strike a deep chord in me:
The sin against hope is the most deadly of all, but the most cherished, nonetheless, for it carries within itself a strange sweetness. It is the most precious elixir of the devil, his most deceiving ambrosia.
The sweetness of despair lulls the victim into a false security, which he doesn’t want or intend to get out of. He is comfortable there, and with every minute that passes he is being dragged down further into a more enticing sweetness. The sweetness becomes overpowering and the only way out is to put an end to life.
It has to be a very robust hope that can stand up to such an elemental power, of a kind that evidently was not available to Robin Williams.
Yet I dare to say that hope has saved my life — a hope that, in spite of everything, wells up from my Christian belief. Hope, the knowledge that this life is “a bad night in a bad inn” (St Teresa of Avila) and that our real home is heaven, saves the depressive from that final folly, of jumping from the tenth-storey window ledge.
I am still in the tunnel, with many others behind me, and my hope is to be able to help some of them to reach the light that shines steadily in the distance.
Martyn Drakard is a MercatorNet contributor. He writes from East Africa.