Robin Williams is an exercise. Depending on the quality of the project and my mood as a viewer, he hit somewhere between exhilarating and exhausting. There's something in the frenetic plate-spinning, the rapid fire impressions, the tossed off references that is manic. One can go along for the ride, or just see the sweat and the arm hair. Alternatively, a dialed down Robin Williams can be captivating in his stillness, or maudlin in his winking, bearded softness. More often than not, he was the gut-busting comedian and the heart-stopping dramatic actor, but there were some clunkers in the bunch. How could there not be? Thanks to his versatility, every film could benefit from some Robin Williams, which meant he was sought-over, which meant he took on a lot, which meant not every project could be great.
I wonder why he worked so hard. Why he accepted thankless roles as the hapless priest, or the cartoon penguin, or President Eisenhower. A Robin Williams cameo immediately elevates a movie, I'm sure a nice cheque always cleared, but couldn't he wait until the next Birdcage? Good Will Hunting? Aladdin?
I've been reading a lot of tributes which posit that Robin Williams got from an audience the kind of happiness and peace that he couldn't find in his own life. That may be true to some degree, but seems like a really simplified explanation. If all Robin Williams needed was an appreciative audience, he could find one at any comedy club in the world. He had dozens of great films, great reviews, great box office returns, more than any one performer could ever expect to receive in his lifetime. The vague and sinister, "He had his demons" lends credence to the notion that depression is some kind of mystical, ethereal condition that we can't understand. You would never say of a person with cancer, for instance, that they had demons. Yet for so many people, depression and addiction still sit in this weird grey area between a disease and a state of mind. People chafe at comparisons to physical illness saying, "You can decide to pour another drink, you can decide to self-harm, you can't decide to be diagnosed with Parkinson's" (just an example). I know that's a horrible sentiment, but it's one I used to believe for a long time, until I started learning things about depression. I just don't know enough.
Dream: Understand depression.
Goal: Achievable, with caveats. The more I learn and talk to people, the more I can understand, but as someone who doesn't suffer from depression, addiction, or mental illness myself, I'm hesitant to say that I can truly understand it. I know people who deal with those issues, friends and family, loved ones to acquaintances, but it has not been my personal experience. To put it another way, I can read about what it's like to belong to another race, or to have a disability, or to suffer from ALS, but if I'm not another race, able-bodied, and not diagnosed with ALS, I can't claim to truly understand what it's like.
Plan: I'm the type that has to talk through everything to make sense of it. I don't know what kind of learner that makes me (a slow learner?), but I think I'll derive some benefit from just blathering for awhile. An important caveat to these musings is that I'm truly just feeling my way and it's not my intention to offend anyone. I don't know a great deal about all the nuances of depression, but I know it's serious and it affects a lot of people. With that in mind, all I'm trying to do is be sensitive here. If ill-informed talk from a dope will only engage triggers for you and make you more upset, please don't read any more of this today. I don't want to upset anybody, really and truly. Keeping that in mind, here's what I know (or think I know) about depression.
Depression is not sadness. Can we come up with a different name for depression? Unfortunately, it is a serious condition that shares its name with an abstract feeling that we all suffer from. I can be depressed when my weekend plans get cancelled, but I'm not suffering from depression. From what I understand, depression is the absence of any feelings, good, bad, or otherwise. If depression had another name, like bindlestar or shoobaloo, we'd stop associating it with a sullen teen listening to records alone in her bedroom. We should start by changing the name.
I think the unfortunate trend that is related to the equating of depression and sadness is that people who are sad but do "cheer up" and "snap out of it" and all of those things we wrongfully advise truly depressed people to do, those people think they suffer from depression. You don't, sad people! You're just mopey! I wouldn't presume to know someone else's life, but it really chaps my ass when people that I don't think truly suffer from depression post (but again I don't know) post sullen, passive aggressive Facebook messages looking to illicit tea and sympathy. I'd venture to guess that truly depressed people don't do that in the throes of their illness. The vague status that reads, "sigh... i guess it's another sad day... what is my life right now?... ugh :'( " really bothers me because I don't think people that truly think that post it. Maybe I'm wrong here, but again, the people I know personally who suffer from depression don't whine on Facebook. If anything, they work so hard to hide, rather than reveal their struggle, that you'd never guess something was amiss based on a social media account.
Some addicts suffer from depression. Some people with depression are not addicts. Are some addicts not also depressed? I don't know. It seems to me depression and addiction get lumped together, but can you have one without the other? I know some people who suffer from depression who don't appear to be battling an addictive tendency in turn. I couldn't say if there are addicts who are not also depressed. But if addiction is linked to depression, shouldn't that be in all the literature? Wouldn't that help treatment and recovery?
Depression is a mental illness, but mental illness is not necessarily depression. Taking the "mental" away from "mental illness" shows one how broad the term really is. Obsessive compulsive disorder is not the same as schizophrenia is not the same as PTSD. It's helpful to have dialogue about all of these things, but maybe it's dangerous to lump them together.
Here's the bit I don't understand and I wish I did but I don't. I get that depression is no different from a physical illness in terms of the effects it can have on a person. I get that depression can't be snapped out of. But then I don't understand why people say, "If you're feeling this way, call this hotline", or "There's always help, tell someone now", etc. If someone has reached the point of suicide, how is a stranger over the phone able to help them? How does the person about to attempt suicide not know, at least intellectually, that people love and care for them? And if they really don't believe that's true, how can a stranger on the telephone convince them of that? I'm genuinely asking, I'm not trying to be judgmental. What is the phone call that keeps the suicidal person from going through with it? Is that like defibrillator panels, briefly jolting someone back to life, but not restoring them to total health? Is it like CPR, suddenly clearing a blocked airway? How does a person at the end of their tether recognize that a stranger on the phone could save them, but not see that the people in their lives would want to prevent this more than anything else in the world? Do they really forget that they are loved? How do you do that?
If I hope to change one thing about myself, it's that I wish I could rid myself of the twinge I feel in the pit of my guts when I find out that someone suffers from depression. It's wholly unfair, but there's a part of me that immediately thinks, "That's someone I could lose one day" and it makes me terribly sad. But if depression is just like a physical illness there is treatment, there are options, there is living with depression just like someone is able to live with diabetes. The cruel fact of life is that any of us could lose any loved one at any time. The point is to let people you love know that you love them right now, and I hope I do that, even if I'm sweaty and provincial and can't actually say it say it, but you know it's true.
I don't know what my favourite Robin Williams moment on film is, but the one I'm thinking of right now is in Hook. He and the Lost Boys sit down to eat, and the table is bare. Robin, as Peter, sees nothing before him. Then someone says, "Use your imagination, Peter!" and he opens his eyes and suddenly there's an unimaginable feast. They all dig in, savoring every delicious bite of it, and everyone has just what he wanted.