Today, like most of you, I was shocked when I learned of the death of Robin Williams at the age of 63. If you are as old as me, you remember him as Mork from “Mork and Mindy”. If you my children’s age, he is Genie in Disney’s “Aladdin”. You may also remember him as Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire, Vladimir Ivanov (“Moscow on the Hudson”), Adrian Cronauer, Peter Banning/Peter Pan, Alan Parrish (“Jumanji”), Professor Philip Brainard, and Theodore Roosevelt, to name only a few. You can make a very good argument that he was the funniest man alive. Oh, and along the way, he played some great dramatic roles, even winning an Oscar for his role as Sean Maguire in “Good Will Hunting”.
I was shocked at the loss of a theatrical legend. I was even more shocked when investigators, news reports and even his own publicist said his death was a “probable suicide”.
Like most of you, those two words were like a punch in the gut. Probable suicide. You immediately think of the pain involved for his wife and children. And the depth of the pain that could lead a man known and loved around the world, and worth an estimated $60 million dollars, to take his own life. The expressions of condolences went viral on Facebook within just a couple of hours. As always, a big question was “why”? We all know that Robin had struggled with serious cocaine addiction years ago and more recently alcoholism. But, he had been through rehab for both of those. But, it turns out that most of his life Robin Williams had struggled with major depression. Then more questions came. How can a guy who is that outgoing and funny be depressed? What does a guy with all that money and fame have to be depressed about? The answers to those questions may surprise you.
I feel the need to share something very personal in this blog. If you think that depression is just whining, unmanly or, Heaven forbid, un-Christian, I would advise you to stop reading now. I have a confession to make. I am a 52 year old man. I have a wonderful wife who loves me, 3 great children, a nice home, a successful career, great friends and family, to name just a few of the good things in my life. And, like Robin Williams, I too have had a personal struggle with depression.
I have always been an outgoing, gregarious, happy person. But, for reasons I still don’t understand, several years ago, I began to realize that a deep and foreboding sense of melancholy had invaded my life. I was always in a low mood. I always felt tired and fatigued, but could not sleep normally. I either could not sleep, would wake up and not be able to go back to sleep and sometimes all I wanted to do was sleep. For no apparent reason, I felt hopeless, helpless, and experienced a general sense of worthlessness. I found it difficult to concentrate or remember things. I did not feel like eating, even when I was hungry. My usual hobbies, activities and social activities did not appeal to me anymore, since they did not bring me the joy and fulfillment they once did. I withdrew from almost any social situations, since being around people who were having a good time made me feel even worse. And, the hardest part was the fact that I could not figure out what I had to be depressed about, which made things even worse.
I could not admit to anyone how I felt. I could not really even admit it to myself most of the time. I did not want to confide in anyone, mainly because I was afraid of what they would say about me or think about me. I thought I was hiding it from everybody, but it turns out I wasn’t. One of the things that made me decide I had to get help was the day my wife told me, “I don’t know what is wrong with you, but I am praying for you that you can figure it out and fix it.” I found out later that other people close to me had noticed the same thing.
Fortunately for me, I was able to confide in my personal physician and get some help. Even in the sanctity of my doctor’s office, I felt uncomfortable discussing what was going on with me. To my surprise, his first response was not shock or condemnation. He simply said, “I’m surprised it took you this long to realize all this.” Turns out I am in the prime demographic for depression. More on that later. But, suffice it it to say, I got help before it was too late. Once I did, it did not take long until the tremendous weight I felt was gone and I was back to my old self. The funny thing is, it wasn’t until I started feeling better that I even realized how bad I had felt for so long.
So, what is depression? For one thing, it is not just sadness. Sadness is to depression what a common cold is to pneumonia. Not even in the same class. The most common cause of depression is an imbalance in brain chemistry. Basically, some people get to a point where the chemicals in your brain get out of balance and the chemicals that keep things like mood in balance get too low. It can be a definite mood killer. While there may be a genetic component to all this, it appears that high levels of stress can cause this imbalance. Not surprisingly, people in high stress jobs suffer a high rate of depression. The good news is if you catch it in the early stages, it can be treated by some common, safe and inexpensive medications. The most common one these is Zoloft. It may be a shock, but in 2010, there were over 30 million prescriptions for Zoloft written in the United States.
For another thing, depression is quite common. It affects of 300 million people worldwide. In the United States, somewhere between 12 to 18 per cent of the population will suffer from it during there lives. That is about 46 million people. It generally starts between the ages of 30-40 or 50-60 year of age. It affects women at a greater rate than men, although no one really knows why.
It has been around a long time. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates first identified it as “melancholia” around 3oo B.C. The modern word depression comes from the Latin verb “deprimere”, which means ‘to press down’. That is a pretty good description of it, since it feels like a heavy weight pressing you to the ground. Since Aristotle, it has been associated with people of learning and intellectual brilliance, a hazard of contemplation and creativity. Like lawyers, doctors, ministers and actors/performers. Even comedians.
It may surprise you to know that many famous people suffered from depression during their lives. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John Adams, Buzz Aldrin, Woody Allen, Jon Bonjovi, Terry Bradshaw, John Denver, Barbara Bush, Princess Diana, Isaac Newton, Alan Ladd and Dolly Parton, to name just a very few. English writer Samuel Johnson used the term “the black dog” in the 1780s to describe his own depression, and it was subsequently popularized by Sir Winston Churchill.
One of the reasons people often resist getting help for their depression is the stigma they thing attaches to it. But make no mistake, depression is a medical condition, just like diabetes or hypertension. I have had people that I have urged to get help with depression tell me that they are a Christian and Christians should not suffer from depression. In short, that is hogwash. Even Jesus said those who are whole are not the ones who need a physician. Christians suffer from depression just like they suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis or anemia. And, would it surprise you to find out that pastors are one of the groups with the highest rates of depression?
Another fact is that people who have abusive or addictive personalities suffer from higher rates of depression. It used to be thought that these behaviors were the cause of most depression. However, in recent years we have begun to understand that it is the other way around. Often times drug abuse, alcoholism, sex addiction and the like are actually the result of people with depression trying to ‘self medicate’ and get some relief from the ‘black dog’ that rules their life.
So it seems with Robin Williams. It is very likely that his previous drug and alcohol problems were a self prescribed attempt to deal with his underlying depression. It certainly seems so with a lot of people. Thankfully, it wasn’t for me, but I know, as the old saying goes, “there but for the grace of God go I”. In retrospect, it seems that Robin had all of the warning signs of major depressive disorder. He was definitely a man of brilliance and creativity. He was also a person on whom many people depended for their well being and livelihood. Sometimes that is a heavy burden to bear when you are depressed. One of my favorite statements about depression is one that I think is very true. Depression is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign that we have been strong for far too long.
Robin Williams was special. People loved him and his work. They thought he was funny. But I am sure he felt a constant need to always surpass his great body of work. To stay on top. To stay funny. Too stay relevant.He continually felt the pressure to be perfect. Unfortunately, this man who had made us all laugh, who brought us so much joy, wasn’t just sad in the end. He suffered from a malignant sadness that was so great he was unable to keep dealing with it. And that is a tragedy.
But it does not have to be like that. I am living proof that you can recover from depression. Here are some things that can help. If you think you might be suffering from depression, take a look at the symptoms. If you have them, you need to get help.
Talk to your doctor, your spouse, your pastor or a close friend. They can reassure you and help you seek treatment. I can assure you those closest to you already know something is wrong. They just don’t know what. The worst thing you can do is nothing. And, if you suspect someone you care about is suffering from depression but won’t admit it, there are some things you can do too.
Depression hurts. It can even kill. But it doesn’t have to.
“If it’s the Psychic Network why do they need a phone number?”