What I've noticed in the last few days is that the world is a little more honest, a little more caring, and a little more vulnerable. I've noticed friends who normally chat about their child's latest achievement or complain about their latest work hassle open up about their own depression. I've seen people show a vulnerability through honesty about their own struggles. Among my colleagues, there's been a lot of writing about personal experience. People are opening up about their own depression among friends on Facebook. Some are even posting more publicly on blogs. Rev. Tony Lorenzen writes, "It’s the depression, both his and mine, that makes his passing a powerful loss." Rev. Marilyn Sewell writes, "I have dealt with depression off and on all of my adult life. I never once seriously considered suicide, but I can understand why depressed people decide to end their lives." Intern Minister Kimberley Debus and Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom both talk about both Robin Williams and the Rev. Jennifer Slade who committed suicide earlier this summer. Debus writes:
I have lived that moment when, despite having some success and security, I could see no way out.It's difficult, I think, for people in the caring professions to acknowledge their own depression and suicidal feelings. It's difficult because, right or wrong, we feel we're supposed to be worrying about other people and not have worries ourselves. It's difficult because we're supposed to be psychologically healthy to engage in this work, and admitting our struggles puts us at professional risk. It's difficult for the same reasons that Robin Williams' depression was difficult to understand. With Williams, the question is how can someone be depressed when they are so successful, so rich? With ministers, the question is more, how can someone be depressed if they're someone spiritual, who looks at the deeper side to things, who is in connection with the holy, whose mission it is to make meaning? How can we find life meaningless when we know "we are the meaning makers"? So it's not to be taken lightly that people are being open, being real, and talking about this.
I have lived that moment when, despite knowing that there were people who would miss me, I thought they would be better off without me.
I have lived that moment when, despite being knowledgeable about mental illness and the tragedies of suicide, it just didn’t matter.
I know why Robin Williams' death is meaning so much to me. My whole life I've been surrounded by people dealing with deep depression. Dead Poets Society which dealt with depression and suicide came at a time in my life when I had so many friends around me that were deeply depressed that my very poor joke about the matter became to say that I ought to introduce myself by saying, "Hi, I'm Cindy. We've just met, so you must be depressed." The movie hit as I embarked upon my first poetry class in college, the prerequisite to becoming an English major. I was in a Dead Poets Society group of sorts, albeit with a different name, where we met in the evenings and read poetry and literature and talked philosophy, and felt life intensely. Williams' death calls me back to those days, to the powerful emotions of the time, to the poetry and the call to "seize the day" and make our lives extraordinary. "O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring."
When I went through the worst period of depression in my own life, a few years later, I was well enough to seek help, and to get better. And I wasn't depressed enough that I ever seriously got close to suicide myself. But the death of a celebrity from suicide helped me, strangely. That celebrity was Kurt Cobain. When he committed suicide, as rich and successful and popular and idolized as he was, it helped me to realize that the action, suicide, bore no connection to the things we think suicide is about -- money, fame, love. I wasn't a big Nirvana fan at all, but Kurt Cobain's death woke me up to my own levels of depression and where, unchecked, it could lead. I sought help, got myself into therapy, and got a better and deeper sense of myself than ever before. And I've never had that level of depression since. Something about Kurt Cobain's death, as little sense as that makes, changed things for me that day.
I hope Robin Williams' death is changing things for people now. I sense that it is, in this openness to people talking openly and honestly about their struggles. I hope that it's helping to erase the sense of shame around mental illness to know that someone like Williams could suffer from it. I think it is.
When I heard of Williams' death, my heart cried out, "Oh Captain, my Captain!" Indeed, the Whitman words were soon trending on Twitter and people standing on desks across the country and world. (Mine is too cluttered and not sturdy, but the fact that I tell you that tells you I thought about it.) It's appropriate not just as a quote from a movie that dealt with suicide, and as words used to hail Robin Williams' character in the movie, but also for the subject of the poem, the death of Abraham Lincoln:
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Williams was no Abraham Lincoln, but he is captaining our ship somewhere--somewhere a little darker, less colorful, but a little more loving, more open, more honest, and more real.