I admit I’m not all that surprised by the news of Robin Williams’s suicide, which took place the morning of August 11th, 2014. I am, however, deeply grieved. Sure, the world lost a good man, a funny man, and a talented man – not to mention a caring man from all I can tell through articles and videos all over the Internet. But so did a family. Williams was more than a celebrity. He was a husband, a father, and a friend to many, both in and outside of show business.
I guess what I’m struggling with the most (and have struggled with this over the years) is the stigma, particularly within pockets of the Christian Church, that suicide is the unforgivable sin (Scripture never explicitly says this, but some traditions inside the church teach this. I won’t say definitively whether this is the case, but I sure can’t find it), that “all we need is Jesus,” or that depression and other forms of poor mental health are a spiritual problem generally associated with sin.
Mr. Williams’s battle with depression seems to be common for creative personalities, particularly those who rarely let others see their personal side. Further, his recovery from drug and alcohol use from earlier in his comedy career being no secret leads to a clinical supposition that some form of lacking mental health was going on. Addiction and alcoholism rarely just happen to someone of good mental hygiene.
What interests me the most in this is how this relates to me with my own mental health history. It helps me to find meaning in my own sufferings and victories – and I am willing to bet that many others are searching to find the same.
Yes, I have struggled with both Major Depressive Disorder and thoughts of suicide. It was years ago and not a day goes by (even a bad day) that I am less than genuinely glad to still be on this side of the grass. I have found contentment, even in the struggles, in pressing onward. It all started…
when I lived in Texas. It was 2002. My bride, two small daughters (age 2 and 6 months at the time), and the family canine were our family. I was working 12-14 hour days (and some weekends) and, quite honestly, never seeing the “light of day”, particularly between September and March, the months outside of “Daylight Saving Time”. My family was a part of a vibrant evangelical Christian community at the time – a community that I miss dearly. Within our congregation were several members of the staff of a local medical practice which included one of the largest teaching hospitals in Texas. And within the congregation were several local community groups centered around neighborhoods. With a few exceptions, our local group was all within our neighborhood and the group was filled with doctors and medical residents. Doctors and residents who are Christians and friends of ours. Friends who care.
Let me back up. I admit I am horrible at keeping a journal and remembering things in my own life – partly due to my as-of-yet-undiagnosed sleep apnea. So, I don’t remember when it started, but one morning on my 5am commute to the office, I had a thought. That thought is what I now know is an ideation in which I began to develop other thoughts – a plan. What I would do. When I would do it. How effective it would be. Just seeing these words on my screen are increasing my anxiety. Only now, I know I’m okay.
My plan was, on one dark morning on the way to work, while getting onto the Loop 363 (it’s a Texas thing), my Sentra and I would take a dive off the bridge before the service road. I was actually thinking very little of my bride and my Princesses and simply of how tired I was of doing what I was doing (struggling) and lacking sunlight. That’s it. I literally went about 6 months without seeing sunlight other than Saturdays and Sundays. Folks, that’s not healthy. At all.
I did one very important thing. Probably the most important thing someone with depression can do. I told someone I trust. Seems to be pretty easy right? But I’ve been told it’s probably the bravest and hardest thing anyone can do. The person in my life I trusted the most (and still do!) is my bride (now of nearly 17 years). It shouldn’t be so scary telling her stuff, but it was. And it has gotten easier since then. Much easier.
My beloved was and continues to be so supportive. She offered to move halfway across the country and allow me to take time off work so I could heal and get counseling, even if it meant sleeping in someone else’s basement with her and the kids. She offered to find a job, anything. I agreed to take her up on one thing. She asked if she could seek out support for herself – so she didn’t have to carry alone the weight of what I just handed her.
She asked me if I would be up for talking with our family practice doctor. His name was Stephen and we called him that. Because he was a friend of ours first – and he happened to be a doctor. So, I went. Explained to him everything – he was and is still a clinician, and believe me when I tell you some of the stuff doctors have no qualms discussing around the dinner table with their kind!
Anyway, he put me on a starter regimen of Zoloft and gave me a referral to see a psychologist for talk therapy. When he asked me if I was up for it, I told him simply that I wanted to get better and trusted his expertise. Then he confessed something to me that made me trust him even more. He told me that he wasn’t really all that familiar with mental health, but he would take on some research and continue to work with me on the medication titration if I wanted. (Note: titration is when something is adjusted by increasing or decreasing based on desired results and side effects) And research he did.
And into therapy I went. I learned how to process my stage in life (I was 29) as I was crossing a meaningful developmental threshold, having an emotionally intimate relationship with my wife and solidifying my role of father. I also learned about long-term aspirations or dreams and pushing forward despite a lack of knowledge, finding teammates and cheerleaders, and taking next steps to live.
Clinically, I was improving. And I knew this because that small community of which we were a part was incredibly supportive. Of the families involved, 70% had at least one M.D. (husband or wife). They were patient and kind and extremely compassionate. I was open to their encouragements, suggestions, and questions – as was my bride. They would ask about my medications, dosage, and how I was responding to them as well as what I was comfortable sharing about my therapy sessions. Sure, they were doctors, so curious about all things medicine, but they cared to make sure I was doing well and were aware that I might not care to discuss. We felt that they genuinely had our backs. I still believe that, 12 years later.
I also learned how to be an introvert effectively and how I didn’t need to “work the room” when we had cookouts with our friends. They all allowed me to just be myself.
So, when I think of celebrities and the limelight and all the pressures to always be on (it’s what I call “faking being an extrovert”), it is no wonder why they retreat to the darkest places of their souls, perhaps like Mr. Williams seemed to have done. And, eventually, the pain gets to be too great and they panic and act out in painful and life-ending ways.
But it really doesn’t end there. So, I encourage you to seek someone you trust with your personal darkness. And if someone diminishes you for it, that person is obviously not the right person. My hope is that you trust again and take another chance. But don’t give up. Never give up.
If you do not believe you have someone you can trust with your darkness and pain, consider calling:
A trained, caring, and compassionate individual will be there to talk with you. To help you experience hope again.
Disclaimer: Roman Hokie is a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor and holds a Limited Permit in Mental Health Counseling in the state of New York and a follower of Jesus. He does not believe that science and faith are mutually exclusive and have experience from both with regard to his own mental health and his practice.