Robin Williams’ Depression. And Mine.
Robin Williams’ death jarred me. And disturbed me. Reading about his struggle with depression and anxiety, his words kindled my own dark memories.
Unlike Robin, I’d found a way out.
Before he died, Robin Williams lived in constant fear. Sometimes he drank or took drugs to make it go away:
It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.
But what did he fear?
Everything. It’s just a general all-around arggghhh. It’s fearfulness and anxiety.
As he described falling into that deep hole that showed no way out, I could relate.
In the summer before I began graduate school I began worrying about money — and probably other things I can no longer recall.
But at some point I began fearing fear, itself. I just didn’t realize that that’s what was happening.
I felt tremendous anxiety. And I started worrying that I would hurt myself, because I felt dark impulses to do that. Maybe others deal with this sort of thing by cutting?
For some reason I thought healing would come from focusing on the ominous force: exploring it, finding what lay at its base. Because then I could deal with the root problem. Right?
But I only fell deeper.
But in my first weeks of grad school I happened to read something that discussed what I was enduring — even though the reading was sociology and not psychology.
The text said that when people move into depression they often think that focusing on it will help them find the root problem to be overcome. But the focus just draws you in deeper. What you should do, instead, is focus on something else — preferably something happy.
From experience I could see that my focus had only drawn me deeper into a hole, and I was shocked to learn that I should ignore it, instead of try to understand it.
Luckily, UCLA was full of new experiences and fun distractions. And I saw that these drew me out.
And so I did two simple things. One was easy and one was not.
I realized that my taste in music was more introspective than cheerful, and I needed to get outside myself. So I went out and bought some fun tunes. And I watched funny movies. And I did fun things. And I simply chose to feel joyful. It sounds kind of silly, but it did help. That was the easy part.
It’s hard to know why disturbing feelings can feel so compelling, and yet they were. It took every bit of willpower I had to keep from being drawn back into them. But it helped to have something positive to be drawn to.
So for a while my life was battling the dark allure and choosing the light, instead.
I was fine by Halloween – and I tried helping another
And yet my transition was very quick. I was fine by Halloween. Here’s why I remember:
A guy I’d begun dating had been asked by his minister to help a young man in their congregation with a mental health issue. My boyfriend asked me to have a talk with him. (He’d thought I was studying psychology, not sociology — although my focus later became social psych.)
Not being a psychologist, I doubted I could help, but I said, “Sure.”
So the friend came over one evening and began talking about the constant fear that haunted him. As he spoke I saw his experience in my own.
I told him that I knew what to do because I had just gone through it, myself.
When we finished he said it was the first time he’d felt his burden had been lifted. Even after seeing professional counselors and psychologists, this was the first time he could see a way out. Maybe that’s because he could see someone right in front of him who had been there and back.
The young man was a Hollywood make up artist, and offered to give me an amazing makeover, in payment. But Halloween was coming and my roommate asked if he could do our make up for that, instead. I was annoyed — wanting to see how glamorous I could be. But not wanting to seem vain, I agreed.
I’m not sure how much I helped because I didn’t keep in contact. So I can only hope.
In the years since, I have met depression and anxiety again, but I’ve never been driven as deeply into it as I was that summer before grad school. Because now I know what to do for myself.
And, I’ve gained a few new tools.
If you haven’t seen the movie, What the Bleep Do We Know? you might want to check it out.
The film shows how repetitive thoughts create strong neural connections in the brain. In the years before watching it, I was still stalked by shallow, but unrelenting, anxiety. I realized that I was just in the habit of feeling fearful, and had developed strong neural connections that needed to be weakened. Seeing that it was mere habit, I found it easy to say, “Well it’s dumb to be fearful over nothing, so stop doing it!” So that faded away, too.
I also learned about meditation which, with practice, helps you to let go of any thought you want.
Why was I able to find a way out when Robin, and others, don’t? I don’t know. Maybe finding a key to relief early on — within weeks of onset — helped. Perhaps the depth of my trauma was much more shallow. Others may need intensive therapy and medication. But maybe the things I learned could aid them, too.
But on the chance that my story might help someone else, I’ve chosen to share it.
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Posted on August 15, 2014, in psychology and tagged Anxiety, Depression, Mental Health, mental illness, psychology, Robin Williams, suicide. Bookmark the permalink. 38 Comments.
In reply to both comments:
Thanks. I’ll remember the “search” option on your site, too. 🙂
Normally I couldn’t refuse such an imperative statement 😉 but it’ll have to wait until after the weekend—I have relatives coming for the weekend. 🙂
Watch Absent when you have the opportunity. 😉
Among other things, that documentary does a great job at focusing on the effects caused by having a physically or emotionally absent father, and the long-term impact the absence has on both men and women, with perhaps slightly more emphasis on women. (iirc, imo).
Re: meditation; reminders are good, thank you. And… I think you do wonderful work with this web site. (And no, I don’t use the word wonderful very often, and being a guy, unlikely to say in real life).
Thank you so much for your kind remarks. I’ll definitely have to take a look at it. And have a nice weekend with your relatives.
The link mentioned in that section of the post leads me to a “server not found” page.
Rent the film on Netflix, or something. Maybe you can watch it this weekend.
I guess one thing I have problem changing is… like when I have thoughts I’d be too ashamed to talk about verbally. I was raised Catholic and think I have an overabundance of guilt just from having certain thoughts that some might consider “slightly beyond the boundaries of what’s considered normal.” In this context I’m speaking of thoughts of a sexual nature. Not impulses to act or anything like that, just harmless thoughts; or apparently only harmful to me. And heck, for all I know, they might be normal. I don’t know how to simply accept them as part of being human, or simply just let go of them for good. If anyone has an opinion on this, I’m all ears. And I suspect that I’m not the only one who deals with this.
If you aren’t hurting anyone — and it sounds like you aren’t — just accept it. Typically, the more you try to resist something the stronger it gets. Rather than resisting, just notice it, accept that it is, and let it go.
Judging from what’s on the Internet I have a hard time imagining that you are actually abnormal. Some feminists feel guilty about some of the male dominant sex fantasies they have, or sex play they may enjoy. I figure, so long as you aren’t hurting anyone you can indulge your fantasy. Just make sure it’s not affecting your real life. See this for instance: Fifty Shades of Pro-Orgasm https://broadblogs.com/2013/07/29/fifty-shades-of-pro-o/
Rest assured, everyone’s safe, Dr. Platts. You have a stranger’s word on it! 🙂
I believe your suggestion is helpful and something I’ll definitely keep in mind (no pun intended). That’s a pretty basic meditation concept and I’m grateful to you for reminding me of it.
No I wouldn’t say my imagination is affecting my real life other than causing a burden, one which you may have helped relieve (time will tell). Thank you for giving me a feeling of safe space and the opportunity to ask it. I think it was important for me to hear an “outside” perspective on it.
An open ended request/invitation: If ever you have a link you think I might like, please don’t hesitate to share it.
If there are any topics you are especially interested in, and I’ve written something about it, I’ll be sure to send a link. So let me know if you think of anything. And vice versa for you, feel free to let me know if there’s something you think I might like to read.
Hope I’ve helped a little. Hope it will work long-term. But as with meditation, letting go is a practice, as you know. So don’t get down on yourself if it doesn’t always work. Acknowledge. And let it go. Right?
The hole of my depression involved anger, which I now realize may have been my way of covering up fear (at a young age, I developed this habit of blocking emotions from myself. It’s odd). So, I was angry. I was so angry and I hated everything and I was depressed because no one could understand how angry I was and I was so depressed that no one got me and I was so angry that I was depressed because depression is a weak feeling and I was depressed because I was weak
and it just went on and on. I don’t even know what it was that broke the cycle. I think I just realized that my anger was covering up something. It was covering up something I didn’t want to deal with – my own flaws. Perhaps for other people, that would be the source of depression, but for me, realizing the things I disliked about myself were things I could change. It gave me power over everything. The rest is history.
I sort of feel like there are two kinds of depression. I don’t know what to call mine. I don’t think it was the result of a chemical imbalance because I got over it once I changed my thinking. I think chemical or otherwise, all depression is serious. All can turn deadly. I wish for a world where people didn’t have to be afraid to seek help. Some people may only need to see a professional once or twice. That shouldn’t have a stigma attached to it.
It wouldn’t surprise me if depression came in a variety of forms. But thanks so much for sharing your story.
You expressed the cycle pretty well, it was nice to see my own feelings echoed by someone else; thanks, TK.
And congratulations to you for breaking the cycle!
I heard many years ago that “depression is anger turned inward.”
And I know what you mean about fear turning into anger. Sometimes I think about a past abuser, and realize so many years later he doesn’t have the power to hurt me anymore. But during times when I am just reflecting or thinking, or even meditating, thoughts about it come into my head, the fear leads me to thinking of defensive or offensive actions, sometimes imagining fictitious scenarios where I physically attack him, if only once, thinking that might help me let go once and for all.
Of course, Yoda from Star Wars says it best, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to the Dark Side.
Self-awareness of ones flaws can be helpful, too, I agree. I’m at a point, largely due to meditation I assume, that I’m more self-aware than I used to be. The problem for me now, as far as I can tell, is how to deal with what I don’t like about myself: determining which flaws I can change, which to accept, and perhaps most importantly what do about the the ones that seem impossible to change.
Thanks again, TK.
The way I see it, there will always be something in need of change that can be changed. I do my best to focus only on those. Things that can’t be changed deserve no reflection. It’s easier said than done but I’ve made it work for me.
This was fascinating and I like the list / image that you provided as well. This reminded me of when I was in my twenties as well, and I really thought the only path to personal growth was to entertain and brood over any dark notion that I had. Then in my late twenties I had a therapist who tried to convince me that it was possible to “change the channel.” I’ve always found that useful, and I like that here you offer some specific external ways that one might do that (engaging with lighthearted music, films, etc.) As you said, not the solution for everybody, but very helpful in the day-to-day for many of us.
Yes, what have helped me may be most helpful for people who are prone to anxiety and depression, rather than people who are already deeply into it.
Since writing this I have been practicing, “Being present to joy” every day. It’s been great!
Good article. excerpt from article
“I’ve been really struck by the number of men who have come up to me – often in my constituency – like ex-shipyard workers who have struggled for 10 years, who have been keeping it quiet,” he tells me. “We do operate in a culture where men, by and large, talk about their feelings less. They’re self-conscious about talking about weakness, there’s this male sense of ‘shrug and get on with stuff’.”
This type of male identity is cemented at a very young age. According to research by the LGB charity Stonewall, 98% of gay pupils and 95% of teachers hear “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” at school; nearly as many hear “dyke” or “poof” thrown around as insults. “It’s so much wider than gay or bisexual men,” says Stonewall’s spokesman Richard Lane. “Men hear ‘man up’ and ‘stop being such a poof’. It’s a real barrier in talking about mental health issues.”
I think the problem not only is how society treats women and men, women with shaming and men with such burden of expectations. But what also doesn’t help with mental issues and suicide is the the mental health care system in America, being sub standard. We’ve already heard of shootings with mentally disturbed people that should’ve been admitted but also people with health issues that could use therapy or better methods and alternatives and sooner.
“And the help simply is not there for men, even if they seek it. When Ant Meads finally saw the doctor who instantly recognised his OCD and began a referral for specialist care, he faced a nine-month wait. “Imagine you’re suicidal, you need to see a psychiatrist, and you’re told the current waiting list is nine months. How do people cope?” Meads is adamant that he would not be alive had his employer not referred him to private healthcare. He believes there needs to be far more government investment and a national advertising blitz about men and mental health.
But the winds are blowing against Meads’s calls: mental health trusts are making cuts amounting to 20% more than those made by other hospitals; mental health services have cut beds by nearly 10% in the past three years, and mental health organisations have warned that cuts to such services are risking people’s lives.”
Yes, that is true on at least two counts:
1. Mental health care is substandard in America
2. Even when it is available a lot of men won’t seek help because they don’t want to see themselves as, “Weak” and needing help.
So you have to deal with our notions of mental health care, availability, and helping men to feel okay seeking help.
I depend on drugs to keep the anxiety and depression at such a level that I get through each day. This anxiety is very general and becomes overwhelming at times. But I know that I’ll survive yet another time if I want to. Wanting to survive is the issue.
My son has debilitating social phobias. Enough that he is 21 and we are still working through his sr. year of high school. He too has to take medication but it only lessens it. We have spent his life since 15 trying to fight it and he is only just now beginning to find his way out of it. He learned the cognitive tricks he needed and that was the therapy he went through.
Without my drugs I would still not have a good sex life.
I get Robin.
Thanks for sharing your experience.
I have friends and relatives who have needed medication to deal with their depression, too.
@humanitsdarkerside: I get Robin, too. I totally understand when you say wanting to survive is the issue. I don’t think Robin wanted to die, I think he didn’t want to live. But paradoxically, I think he did want to live, but didn’t know how to cope with the pain of being alive, and didn’t have the hope that’s necessary to believe his pain would lessen. At least… that’s how I feel sometimes. I don’t want to alarm anyone—It’s been 13 years since my last suicide attempt and I have no plans to do it again. I wish you the best. I also have social phobias and know that it’s extremely difficult to manage. Thanks for speaking out.
Depression is the worst issue Georgia. I have witness a few cases in front of me. And if a person starts taking pills for it, he will be sane only till the same he/she are on the doses. ! You did a superb job Georgia, you dealt with it in a good way which I know must have been difficult to do. !
Thank you. But maybe I never needed meds because I got relief early. Or I may have less of a biological proclivity toward deep depression? I do have some friends and relatives who do need medication. But thank you for your support.
“And your “Not getting it” I also get. I didn’t get it before I experienced it, either. Even having experienced it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
I have to remind myself that this is an internal hell that a clinically depressed person is going through and something an outsider can’t understand. But the reason it’s hard sometimes, is it’s easy to look at the person though as mentally weak. The reason is because you see the clinically depressed person who commits suicide or thinking of suicide. And while they are going to adversities and maybes some struggles, there life though or some are not horrible or that terrible. It seems like in reverse sometimes. Like some people who lose their child, have cancer and some of the worse tragedies and adversities and traumas aren;t clincally depressed or try or think or commit suicide. While another having simply a financial issue, or anxious and is clincally depressed and things of suicide.
I know people personally who within 5 years have gone through so much sadness and tough times, more so than many people, yet they stay strong. I know people who have lost nieces, nephews, mothers, diagnosed with ms all in 5 years or so. Yet they stay strong though dealing with such devastation. Then you have others who have financial issues, or some anxiety, but nothing compared to tragic devastation like as I described and they committ or think of killing themselves. It’s hard not to think that as mental weakness, because if anyone would commit suicide you’d think it would be the people dealing with devastating loss. But it seems backwards sometimes.
And even while I was in it I couldn’t understand it — I was trying to understand it — but that just drew me in deeper.
I suspect I was able to get out of it because I hadn’t been removed from joy for a really long time, and could still access it if I let go of the dark thoughts. Many people get to a state where they simply can’t access joy at all.
I’ve been thinking about this more lately and have decided to incorporate an experience of joy in my life on a daily basis, so that I habitually put myself there. Kind of “Apple a day keeps the doctor away” preventative measure. I’ve been doing it the last few days and it’s been fab!
“Yeah, his passing hit me harder than usual, too. I was really disturbed when I heard about his suicide, even before I read the details that reminded me of my own experience with depression.”
Yeah and just two weeks before he wrote happy birthday to his daughter zelda and how she’s a quarter century old now and how much he loves her, which only adds to how sad this was. It also. Depression is hard for people to understand. I used to not get it, but now I try to be open minded about it, like its a mental illness like bi polar, schizphrenia, actually people who are bi polar I think are much more likely to be or become suicidal. I don’t believe Williams was bi polar though. I always wondered if he had clinical depression though as he’s always had issues with addiction with alcohol and cocaine. And sometimes people gravitate to drugs if depressed or with a mental illness and use drugs to calm their nerves, or as a crutch and then become addicted.
I think more research and methods need to be done than simply medication. Medication is used too much sometimes, and I think it can be due to the greed of big pharma and drugs used too often and country over prescribed. These drugs though help can make people depended on them and even more depressed if off of them and the side effects can cause a person to have suicidal thoughts, which doesn’t sound like you want a side effect to be for anyone let alone taking the medicine for his or her depression. I know person that killed them self from severe depression and were taking one of those meds at the time. I think methods like meditation and other things could be much more helpful and looked into. As over prescribing in america is causing other problems. Many people are getting addicted to prescription medications and pain relievers from using too many meds for their problems and doctors prescribing a person with an addictive nature and taking such meds. It’s the reason I believe heroin addiction is such a huge rise, meth as well as prescription meds. I believe the methamphetamine shared can be among the reasons.
You could be right about the medication, and potential for abuse. I don’t know.
But I do have friends and relatives who do need the meds.
And your “Not getting it” I also get. I didn’t get it before I experienced it, either. Even having experienced it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Bob, you appear to have a good grasp of the situation regarding how mental health treatment is conducted in America today. (I don’t know about other countries)
Though I do hear from time-to-time, such as what Dr. Platts, that people have had good success with meds. That’s encouraging to me, even though I have not and am aware many others have not. Even more encouraging is the genetic test I’ve heard about only recently that can help predict how well a psych med will metabolize.
The points you make are valid and important, that medications is too quickly prescribed, and you touched on some of the dangers. People should not think of meds as a quick and easy option, nor should doctors, and more caution should be taken before prescribing them, and all non-pharmacological forms of treatment should be considered, dropping the emphasis on drugs. It certainly doesn’t help to build up a patients hope about the efficacy rate only for them to feel betrayed or disillusioned about it later. (which doesn’t always happen, as I’ve indicated earlier)
Re: celebrity deaths. Yeah… this one was very different. A few different levels. I got a little misty when Harold Ramis died, but it was nothing compared to when Mr. Williams died, and it wasn’t just the manner of his death. ’nuff said.
Link: A touching photo of Robin and his daughter, Zelda
So sad. I usually don’t think to much of a celebrities’s passing, but Robin Williams is different. Not only was he funny and a talented actor, but he was like a kid in a man’s body. He just had a lovable, personality and something very genuine, like when her performed or in interviews, how he would light up with such life and excitment. This is why, I believe so many people were fans and liked him and upset by his passing. He seemed to be liked and loved by so many people and a favorite amongst many.
Yeah, his passing hit me harder than usual, too. I was really disturbed when I heard about his suicide, even before I read the details that reminded me of my own experience with depression.
I’m glad you added this:
And we still really have no idea how much biology plays a role. The words disease and chemical imbalance are thrown around so casually that people forget that we often do still have some power and it’s not all in our genes.
There’s a saying, “If you tell yourself something often enough you’ll believe it.” I remember being told a few times as a child if I said something negative. In recent times, the power of positive thinking has been spreading. And meditation, along with its positive mantras.
That implies that repeated negative thoughts can have the same effect. And I sometimes wonder about my own treatment, going back to the beginning.
Twenty years ago, when I was nineteen or twenty years old, I first sought help for severe depression and suicidal ideation. One thing that had affected me was that my father had suicided when I was eight years old. There was a lot of instability after that, and I had no secure sense of self.
I had my initial visit with a psychotherapist. I was administered the MMPI. I then saw a psychiatrist, and followed up weekly with the psychotherapist. This all happened at the same clinic.
So the test allegedly showed my two doctors what was wrong with me. They recommended meds right away (although I had no prior history of suicide attempts). Prozac, Stelazine, and Cogentin. The Stelazine for “poor concentration and anxiety.” Little did I know then the potential side effects, and that it’s really on meant to be used when other, more mild sedatives should be used. The meds, CBT, and continued visits was my primary treatment plan.
Here’s where the repetition starts:
The doctors helped me to become more aware of my mental illness. I go home thinking, “I have a mental illness.” Now I have these appointments every week which remind me I have a mental illness that needs to be dealt with. I have taken a test that confirms I have problems. With regular frequency I have to go to the pharmacy to get Rx refills, which remind me that I have a mental illness that needs to be treated.
I believe I’ve made my point. Do you think this “catch 22” is a valid discussion point? Do you think it might be a common occurrence.
I couldn’t say for sure if that’s what happened to me. It’s simply popped into my head one day as a possibility. I was going to write it into a short story/fairy tale format but reading your post I decided that it’s time to get it out.
I’m not out of the woods yet. I have my hobbies and escapes, and I try to avoid spending much time writing and reading about mental health issues, but there’s always just too many ways reality can seep in, and I still don’t have a handle on balancing my negative thoughts with my positive thoughts. Overall, I think I’m doing better though. Meditation has helped to stabilize my moods and I’m much less temperamental than I used to be.
So that’s the short version of where I’m at. I’ve been reading and writing about this issue the last few days so if you’d like to comment, please understand that I’m not requesting advice or an ear to bend, please simply (simply?) address the main issue of mental health and any points I’ve made that you think may be relevant to other people. If you do have a question or comment that pertains specifically to me, I’d most likely be willing to answer or acknowledge it. 🙂
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Regarding this:
“The doctors helped me to become more aware of my mental illness. I go home thinking, “I have a mental illness.” Now I have these appointments every week which remind me I have a mental illness that needs to be dealt with. I have taken a test that confirms I have problems. With regular frequency I have to go to the pharmacy to get Rx refills, which remind me that I have a mental illness that needs to be treated.
Do you think this “catch 22″ is a valid discussion point? Do you think it might be a common occurrence.”
Yes, I do think there could be a Catch-22. One of the things I’ve studied is the social construction of personal identity, Which you describe here. People who are told they are particular way often come to believe it, as you say. When others see you in a particular identity, it makes that identity stronger, because now it feels more “Objective” since many people agree.
And in fact, you can put a healthy person in a mental ward and make them a bit crazy. You might’ve heard of that.
Can you recommend any particular posts for me to look at?
I’m glad to hear your opinion about it. Thank you.
Yes, in fact very recently, when reading about Nellie Bly and her book Ten Days in a Mad-House. Are you familiar with her work? I must say that I respect her accomplishments very much.
Well, not being exactly sure of the specific focus that might interest you, I’ll do my best. And I do always have more if you’re ever interested. 😉
Former Boston Globe journalist Alison Bass has a book called Side Effects. Very well-written, easy-to-follow, and I don’t know of any problems with her sources or how she researched the data. (not a post, I know, hope that’s okay)
Not to be self-serving, but being that you have a doctorate in sociology, you might be interested in my perspective on Practicing social skills and the effects of being alone. I’ll disclaim it a little: I wrote it five years ago and not my best-written work. I believe you’ll find it relevant, insightful, and legible though. It’s likely that I’d be thrilled to get your personal or professional perspective on it, either by private email or in a comment (yes, I can handle people pointing out gaps or flaws in my work).
Dr. Burns, author of the Feeling Good Handbook, has a WordPress blog I found recently, called Feeling Good (CBT specialist). I’d expect you’ve heard of him. 🙂
Thank you very much for reading and replying to my comments, Dr. Platts.
Thanks for the links. I’ll take a look at them soon.
I need to make a slight correction to the information I gave you about Alison Bass and her book Side Effects. I have obtained her permission to give you the following information.
First, I visited her site yesterday and was confused that the “Home” link led to a different domain, something about sex work. At first I thought her site might have been hijacked, but I quickly remembered some details about a book she mentioned she was working on, and realized that her site may be undergoing some technical problems during reconstruction in preparation for her upcoming book.
I contacted Ms. Bass after I encountered the problem with her web site. Her reply:
And due to the redesign, I’m providing a link to the Amazon page for Side Effects: A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower, and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial
Thanks for the update. A lot less confusing.
Thank you for sharing your story. I hope that someone out there benefits from your experience and wisdom. Really tragic what happened with Robin.
Thank you. I hope it might help!
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