Sometimes, it isn't until the light goes out that you realize how brightly it shined; how much better we were able to see the world and ourselves when it was lit and blazing. But like the Yin and the Yang, darkness and light exist to celebrate, and impinge on each other.
Robin Williams was such a light- burning fiercely and brilliantly- so much so that he enabled us to peer more deeply into ourselves than we might have felt comfortable doing otherwise. That isn't always an easy thing for us to do, but mostly, it is a good thing. Life is too precious and rich to move through it apathetically and complacently- two words I am sure were never used in any description of Williams.
It is a cliche that clowns carry a deep sadness within. It is the stuff of those fifties and sixties paintings on velvet. Clowns may or may not, but some people do. Some of us do.
Williams admitted to a lifetime suffering with depression; because of his astonishing capacity to free-associate comedically, it was often suggested that he might be bi-polar, manic-depressive. In the end, it probably isn't relevant. It was the tunnel of depression that Williams ended up in, and could not find a way out alive from.
There is a tendency in most cultures to minimize mental illnesses, or to try to develop a short-hand that helps us deal with the frightening idea of it. You mostly can't see mental illness, it isn't operable, it isn't touchable. It lurks, and stays hidden. There is that old Quaker saying, "methinks everyone is crazy except me and thee, and I have my doubts about thee sometimes." It is something that affects the other person in our culture, mostly.
Man, is he crazy. Or wow, was that some kind of OCD thing or what? We misunderstand schizophrenia, and think it means there are two people residing inside a single body- when in fact, it really is one person sorting out what is real and was isn't. Talk about a terrifying daily challenge.
But depression, that's a tough one. I know. I've carried the diagnosis on my back for a very long time. It's affected my relationships, my jobs. My ability to call up creativity when I need to, even when I know that creative expression will help save my life.
My resume doesn't have a place where I list depression, but I can see it threaded through my vocational life. I can see it on the faces of my kids. Not their depression, so much, though depression is a family disorder, and my kids carry a kernel of it. The gift that keeps on giving. You don't leave it to your kids in a will; it's actually the corrosion of will that results from depression that helps frame the additional challenges they will face.
In a metaphorical way, depression is a disease of the heart- of the soul. It undercuts the human gift for joy, and the aspiration for clarity. It is a disease of vision- you can no longer see what makes you human, what you are, and want to be. Mike Wallace, in his heart-rending story about his own depression, talked about being in a deep, dark hole. Amen, brother Mike.
It is a hole, and you slide deeper and deeper into it, no matter how much you claw at the sides of it to stop the transition, until you have sunk so far below the rim that you cannot see any light. If light is the metaphor for hope, when depression grabs you, you better keep a little bit of light with you somehow, because you cannot imagine that out there, in the world where all the functional people live, there is light that has your name on it.
Depression blinds you to who you are, to your own intrinsic value a person. It blinds you so that you cannot see what it is that others see in you that makes them respect and love you. Depression darkens the mirror, it makes the room dark, it presses in on you and makes you be still- you feel you can't see well enough to move, you might bump into furniture- into stuff- that you cannot see. Depression is a disease of the heart, it as paralyzing as a spinal cord injury.
You can't pick yourself up by the scruff of your neck and shake depression loose, have it cascade off you like summer rain. It is in you, and about you, it slowly convinces you that it is who you are. Why can't you just do something, shake it off, man? Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Check your meds, man. See someone about it.
How do you explain to someone that your 'aura,' your own signal that depression is seeping into your life, is that you can feel a smile fade from your face? You can't sustain it, and you find less to smile about. That sounds nuts, doesn't it?
When you are depressed, you don't feel sorry for yourself. You simply no longer understand what you feel, or if you feel. It's like living in the fog. You hear noises, you think you see something. Or maybe not.
And at some point, you ask yourself, why continue?
I spent five years doing emergency mental health outreach work. Ironic. Suicide work, talking people off of bridges, and telling them to put the gun down. I always believed that when someone is talking about suicide, they are asking for help. Sometimes they are serious about it, sometimes not. I never dismissed the idea with anyone I worked with- it is always an option.
An option. One possibility of many choices.
In my own life, somehow, when the darkness comes, I've always been able to find something to hang onto. I've always had the faith, as framed by Alan Watts, that things will change. They always change. Could be better, could be worse, but as long as I breath, change is possible. It's still possible after I stop breathing, but it probably won't matter to me then.
But I truly, deeply understand that it is possible to get so far down in that pit, that tunnel, that all you can hear is the voice that says 'it won't change.' Or to won't change enough. Or it won't matter. At that moment, it is possible to consider exchanging one kind of darkness for another. Who knows if we find peace on the other side; if we can end the suffering we live with on this side, for some of us, that is enough.
Even when I am sitting in that darkness, and so bereft of our humanity due to depression that I can't even bring ourselves to tears, I've always known that it could change.
That is the light I hold onto and take with me when the ground gives way, and the fog rolls in.
My prayers and thoughts are with all of us, as we are all feeling the loss of Robin Williams. There, but for the grace, and the profound talent and honesty, go I.