when the demons win…

Robin WilliamsA lot has already been written about Robin Williams. His exuberant talent and kindness – our grief and shock. And about our misperceptions about depression and suicide.

When I was in grad school, Marcos McPeek Villatoro gave an amazing lecture on mental illness and creativity that I wish had been recorded. He’s talked about his own diagnosis on NPR. The room filled and soon overflowed and that was the moment I discovered that most of the people around me either had a mental illness or a family member with it. Quiet, hard-working creative people coping with various storms in their brains or those of a parent, sibling, child, or partner. My mother suffered from depression and, while I was a teenager, Valium addiction. I grew up with her threats of suicide, was the one who attended the family support group at the “pain center” (back then, a euphemism for rehab) that my father would not. When my then-boyfriend’s mother asked how she was, he later chastised my honesty in answering her, for drifting away from euphemisms and mentioning Valium addiction. Shame is the real killer. My grad school mentor, Rob Roberge, has written a brilliant essay on that subject.

We owe much of the arts and sciences to the mentally ill. Sir Isaac Newton was bipolar and one of the most influential scientists ever in the fields of physics, math and philosophy and yet said of himself: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

It’s not news that people write stupid things in social media. “How could Robin Williams be sad with all that money and fame?” We need to be better than that. “I can’t imagine the pain…” Well, lucky you, but you have no excuse. William Styron and others have written about it. And please stop with the gloved blame – would you blame someone who had a stroke or heart attack? Just as either of those are not entirely a matter of diet and exercise (see Jim Fixx), Williams’ (apparent) suicide was not entirely an act of will – this was a storm of brain chemistry. This was not sadness, but an abyss. Williams stated repeatedly that he battled his demons in large part for the sake of his children. He fought for decades while maintaining a career in the public eye AND being uncommonly kind. He left us some 35 years of performances of astonishing range and did it with grace, courtesy, and humility. He treated people very well, no matter who they were. That is a rare and beautiful thing. He encouraged actors, comedians and improvisers – including friends of mine. He showed up at hospitals to visit patients without publicity. He entertained the troops in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. And he could have said the very same words as Newton, that he was just playing at the shore, but we know they both plumbed the depths in their own very different ways. Very different!

Robin-Williams-Good-Will-Hunting.2
as Dr. Sean Maguire

Creativity is often accompanied by some form of mental illness. There are valiant battles waged daily that we never hear about. Robin Williams’ ultimate gift, the reason he was so loved, is that he was willing to share the struggle, his vulnerability, his humanity. Watch Good Will Hunting again and look in his eyes – that’s not only the pain of a character who’s lost his wife. He let his own pain shine through and touch us.

If you struggle with depression, with a mental illness, with an addiction, please seek help. Know you are not alone. Know also that we value you and your creativity. We know it comes at a cost. And let’s do better by those who wander our streets – that should not be part of a compassionate society. There is enough challenge in treating and living with these illnesses without fighting shame as well. Fighting demons is hard enough. And sometimes, God help us all, they win.

I like this clip because it not only shows his talent, but his regard for the troops and at the very end, his kindness

 

The needle and the damage done…

936full-philip-seymour-hoffmanThere’s something about the passing of a master in a field you’ve been trained in that pierces the heart – not in the same way as family or friends of course – but out of a bit of knowledge about the journey, the work, the struggles, the process, the lifestyle. There are so many writers and actors who struggle with mental health, with addiction, with depression, statistically more than the general population. I saw it at grad school when Marcos Villatoro lectured on mental illness and creativity – the room was overflowing and nearly everyone either had bipolar or loved one with it or a related disorder. God knows, I’ve known a lot of addicts, some in my family. I am sad at the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. And terribly disheartened by the comments I’ve seen blaming him. All bets are off when opiates are in the picture. Rehab is no cure, not for alcohol, sure as hell not for heroin.  To say PSH was a talented actor is an understatement. Not everyone beats addiction. Not by a long shot. It’s not about willpower. Not solely. Do you think he wanted to leave his children? Doubt it. I’m sure he was looking forward to the next thing with them, the next event with his loved ones, friends, the next role…

There is so much about addiction we do not know. We do know people sometimes turn to drugs not just for kicks, but to cope with undiagnosed mental illness, biochemical imbalances, mysteries. Rehab does not always work. Not every junkie or drunk is a selfish bastard. Most are deeply wounded souls looking for balm, for relief. They may well behave like selfish bastards while under the influence. Oh yes. Still, they deserve our compassion and our help. Yes, they have to walk that road alone and every day is a choice. Just remember before you pick up that rock of condemnation, sometimes the monster… the disease… the addiction… wins. And the rest of us lose someone loved, someone talented, someone who probably would have stuck around if they could have found a way.