Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Legacy of a Lost Genius

Ted and I returned home from Cozumel on Sunday, both feeling exhausted and sick. Though eager to share my experiences with whale sharks and sea turtles, I figured it wouldn't hurt to extend my blog break until my immune system had kicked some Mexican microbe butt. Between sipping on ginger ale and napping, I barely mustered the energy to unpack and start some laundry. Tuesday would be a good target for blogging…Turtle Tuesday maybe? 

Then came the news of Robin Williams' suicide.

Robin Williams straddled the so-called generation gap with his always-contemporary humor of the baffling genius kind. But young ones, you had to be there in 1978 for the debut of Mork and Mindy, or for his first Tonight Show appearance, when Robin Williams was mind-blowing new and deliciously bewildering. He was electrifying. PET scans were decades away, but if they'd been around they'd have shown our brains lighting up like Times Square, frantically connecting neurons across hemispheres, regions, cortices…and that was just his facial expressions!

Robin Williams had a career that firmly established his brilliance as an actor and comic. He seemed like the happiest star in show business, but that was not the case, as everyone knows now. He privately (sometimes publicly) fought depression and substance abuse. A few days ago the darkness swallowed him. 

The tragic death of Robin Williams might knock a big hole into one of the worst obstacles to getting help - the stigma of depression. It is long past time for sufferers of depression to stop being ashamed of a condition that is not a character flaw, but a disease. Easy to say, but very very hard to do. I know, because I also am a survivor of depression. 

My own illness began very early. I almost can't remember a time when depression wasn't a shadow in my life. I got treatment, but not until I was forty. Sometimes I get depressed thinking about how much happier I could have been if I'd been treated at twenty… (*cue laughter*) So why didn't I?

For starters, I'm the wrong generation. It was unthinkable to admit you were "crazy" in the mid-twentieth century. That was a label that never went away and that you seriously had to be nuts to take on. Depression could be romantic for 19th century poets and Impressionist painters, like absinthe and the language of flowers. For that quiet girl slouching in the back of Junior English it would have been more like social death.

Then I was married to a career military officer. Seeking help for a mental health problem of any variety was never ever under discussion. Some perspective: my decision not to join the Wive's Club was discussed with my husband, because it had the potential to derail his career. Promotions could, after junior officer ranks, depend partly on the spouse's unofficial but important role as hostess, ambassador, and mentor of other and younger spouses. Fortunately for me, the role of the military spouse was evolving; my husband was superb at his job, and the promotions came on schedule. Would that have happened if I had sought treatment for depression on base? We'll never know, but today's statistics on military suicide and anecdotal evidence suggest that there is still a perceived stigma attached to mental health issues in the military.

I became a teacher after finally being treated for my depression. There is no question that treatment gave me the confidence and mental focus to return to school and become an educator. As a teacher I made a special effort to empathize with and reach out to withdrawn and less popular students. They reminded me of myself in those years. But never, ever did I reveal that I took an anti-depressant or had gotten counseling. My history with 'darkness visible' stayed firmly invisible throughout my teaching career. 

The fear of being stigmatized runs very deep, as my racing pulse is telling me.  But here's the thing. Maybe if enough of us speak up about our struggles and victories, others who are still hurting will be empowered to seek help.

 If a genius as kind and smart and talented as Robin Williams can succumb to depression, is there a reason for any of us to be ashamed to ask for help, or admit that we have needed it?

Thank you Robin Williams. You will be missed.


  1. Thank you for being brave, Mom. I love you.

    PS - welcome home and I hope you feel better!

  2. We agree brave words from the head and the heart. We admire those that can try and combat such an awful illness in their lives with dignity. It is something not given the gravitas it deserves or the understanding.
    We have lost a comic genius. His star will continue to shine bright for us all.
    Have a wonderful Wednesday.
    Best wishes Molly

  3. The night after his death, Fresh Air re-aired an interview with Robin Williams. Terry Gross specifically asked if he suffered from depression or a manic disorder (back in 2009, I think) - and he denied either. He said that he did get "sort of blue" sometimes. It was an ironic moment in hindsight.

    I, too, had a bout of depression. It happened when I discovered that I couldn't have kids. I spiraled to depths that I never want to experience again, worse than any other illness that I've ever had. I was so non-functional that I got help right away. I still practice many of the depression-fighting tips that my therapist taught me (e.g., spend time in the sunshine daily, exercise daily, do something "just for fun" daily).

    I wish with all my heart that Robin Williams had been helped enough so that he'd still be with us.

    Thank you for being brave and for talking about this. I'm so glad that you got treatment that helped you.

  4. Amy first of all I'm so sorry you got sick on your vacation. I have heard similar stories from others who have been there. Amy this is beautiful written from the heart.
    What a tragedy for Robin and family. I think of all the times I have rolled on the floor from laughter with him. We just never know what demons folks are dealing with in their lives. Depression and alcoholism are both diseases with no visible symptoms. When you say your are sick folks look for visible symptoms....but both illnesses are as debilitating as any recognizable disease. Alcoholism runs on my mom's side of the family...and thinking back on her older siblings who suffered the worst I believe they also had depression issues. When my daughter was a preteen (early 80's) she had a good friend who's mom was always 'sick'. We later discovered she was bipolar but a shamed to seek treatment.

    Anyway bravo for this beautiful post...may we all be kinder and more understanding.

    Hugs Madi and Mom

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. I do hope that stories like yours, and the coverage that depression is getting now because of Robin's suicide, will help those who are still struggling. It just breaks my heart that he would feel there was no other way out of his troubles - when he was loved by so many. There's obviously still so much work to be done to get people (and the media and the military, etc.) to understand mental illness. Thanks for helping to do your part to get the word out.

  6. Depression is a very lonely disease and greatly misunderstood. "Get over it" and "Just think happy thoughts" doesn't work Thanks for sharing.


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