Robin Williams’ Depression. And Mine.

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Robin Williams died about a year ago. As a tribute I am reposting a piece I wrote last year, in hopes that others might benefit from reading about my struggle with anxiety and depression. I’ve also learned a little more in the last few months.

***

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.

Robin’s Depression

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.

My Depression

In the summer before I began graduate school I began worrying about money — and probably other things I can no longer recall.

Depression

Depression

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.

My recovery

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 and into a more positive mood. So I bought some more upbeat 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.

Overcoming depression

Overcoming depression

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.

More tools

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.

What the bleep do we know?

What the bleep do we know?

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.

After Mr. Williams death someone wrote a letter to the editor saying that depressed people lose touch with joy. So everyday after I meditate I simply choose to spend a few moments feeling joyful. I have no problem feeling anxious for no particular reason, so why not choose to be joyful for no particular reason?

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.

On the chance that my story might help someone else, I’ve chosen to share it.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on August 7, 2015, in psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. Interesting post. I’ve had a similar experience with past depression and anxiety and have found all the advice you offer helpful. It was difficult at first to change thought patterns, it was as if I had an addiction to feeling sad. Over time it became easier to consciously choose a more joyful way of living and the depression and anxiety gradually became less acute.

    • “It’s like it was in addition to being sad.” And my experience was like an addiction to being extremely fearful and anxious.

      It’s the strangest thing how you can feel compelled to live in darkness. I found it amazingly difficult choose to feel differently.

      Now I choose to feel joyful every morning – intensely joyful – and I’ve been doing really well. In addition to doing the other things I talk about.

      I hope that sharing my experience can help someone!

  2. I work with this regularly. My co-morbidity seems to generalised anxiety and suicidal thinking. In my case I need medication. But I have also always had to realise that my thinking was spiraling downwards and tell myself that I needed to think about something else. Anything will do as long as I keep repeating it long enough for the dark stuff to go away.

    But what I have realised is that I am incredibly lucky in having light stuff available to me. Not everyone is that fortunate. Their life-circumstances are dark, dark, dark. I’m not sure I would be able to work my way out if that were the case.

    • I can really relate to what you’re saying. I really think that going through this for the first time when I had first started UCLA was really helpful, because there were a lot of really wonderful distractions that aided my Choice to be distracted — choose to be wonderfully and joyfully distracted.

      And yes, I recognize that sometimes medication is also necessary.

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

  3. This is wonderful.
    Thank you for sharing your path

  4. Sending you a hug. ❤ Thank you for sharing and shining a light on what few want to openly talk about.

  5. What an inspiring personal story! In my own case I was able over time to distinguish and disentangle the separate states of mind and stories, ultimately gaining the capacity to rid myself of the debilitating ways of thinking that I had realized were counter to who I am and my values. I came to realize my recurring way of thinking had been reinforced, as you say thru repetition, and I was able over time to think my own thoughts and cast off the old habitual thinking. Thus I was freed up more than ever to be myself. Such a liberation, with increased capacity to truly connect!

  6. Great posts and I understand what you mean… It seems that depression is a shade that covers even the brightest spotlight at times… I also feel sad at times myself… But when I do I try to push it forward and …well my startegy is a little bit pragmatic … I do things… 😀 Kinda of works, you know…
    Also I want to introduce you a very young lady who I came across lately and whose posts I am enjoying very much… http://courtneysvoice.com/2015/08/06/recovery/ … I hope you can read that post! … Virtual smiles and best wishes! Aquileana 😀

  7. I think it’s good to talk about feeling this way, it helps other people realise they are not alone.

  8. It takes immense strength to share what you have shared. Depression is the worst to deal with. We lose many things along with peace. It’s good that you fought back and you are out of it. The feelings that you have shared, I can completely relate it!

  9. What a wonderful post Georgia! I love your attitude to depression and I am so glad you were able to approach it so constructively. I have had anxiety before, and it was horribly debilitating. It was a heAlth issue though, and when the issue was over, so was the anxiety. It was such a relief. In that way though, I don’t think that thinking positively would have helped in this case, as it was part of an illness rather than an error of thought.

  10. Hi Georgia…Depression and its aftermath—have taken ‘way too many’ creative spirits from us. You are the Best! Wishing you a ‘happy’ Sunday…Phil

  11. Thank you for sharing this I’m sure it will be of help and comfort to many and for me it’s thought provoking….thank you also for visiting my blog 🙂

  12. Oh no, Georgia, I’m speechless. I only can send a felt heart hug. So strong. ❤

  13. A very important and brave post! Thank you for writing it.

    I have suffered from panic disorder for at least 40 years. I SO get that when I started being aware of the fact that it is fear of which I was most afraid, it spiraled out of control. But I’ve worked hard to put together a personal panic management routine. Thank you for stopping by and visiting my blog.

  14. Robin William’s death is indeed a great loss. It was extremely sad to hear such a shocking news. He was an amazing actor!!

    And kudos to you for over coming your heavy thoughts and shinning bright!! 😀

  15. I went through the same experience and now reading this is how i got out of my stages of depression but it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t come back. I have some pretty crappy days myself, but seeing some of my friends deal with this as well, i have to ask. Although their situation is much greater than mine, is this way of dealing with depression suppose to help everyone? maybe it the kind of situation where it can’t truly help until they accept the true feeling of joy. But in many cases i have tried to help my friends the same way and it works for a little while, but they always seem to go back to the stage they were at before. I’m not trying to say this doesn’t work because i did for me, or maybe they just need to spend more time figuring out what makes them happy?

    • Some people need medication maybe because their trauma was greater or because they got deeper into it before some of these coping strategies were introduced. But since I’m a sociologist and not a psychologist, I can only guess as to why the things that you and I tried worked for us but don’t work for everyone.

  16. I been struggling with depression too, but is not as often as it used to be. Depression is so horrible, you re sinking in a hole of memories and stuff in which makes you feel like a failure and it’s not true. When I knew that Robin Williams died, I was devastated! my favorite actor, the one who I truly loved died! I cried and cried! I have never cried for an actor because I don’t know them and etc. But Robin, he was different. His death made me think about life and the ways how you can end it, and yea, hanging is one of the options that crossed my mind when I am like that depressed. But it is just a thought, not something that I would do or at least… I haven’t been that depress in order to kill myself. I had a girlfriend that most of the time was depressed because of: family, school, life, etc. I made it shorter but the family part is a very sensitive topic… Her mother is a monster!. I helped her to stop doing that in a way that I had to harm myself to make her understand that cutting doesn’t heal your feelings. And I guess I succeed because she still alive.

  17. I know it’s not that short, but I think this one is worth reading. And I tried to limit what I could. Like I said, a morbid song, but so powerful and that ending of the song, so haunting, the sound and lyrics.

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