Comedy is easy, depression is hard.
So it was for the late Robin Williams, a master verbalist, who could ride a riff to comic heights heretofore undreamed of in his profession, but who lacked the words to communicate the horrendous state of his psyche to the people he loved. That was no fault of his, for depression has no language, and that is one giant reason why this insidious brain disease is so excruciatingly lethal.
Some of our greatest writers and thinkers have grappled with this language barrier and come up wanting. William Styron, inarguably one of America’s finest 20th century novelists, spent a whole book trying to find the words to describe the interior monologue of his despair. “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” is a must-read for everyone touched by depression, which means just about everyone with a wider social network than Ted Kaczynski.
The summation of Styron’s Herculean effort is found in this quote from the book:
“Depression is a disorder of mind so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme form.”
Robin Williams lived it in its extreme form for decades. I lived it, too, very briefly, but that was quite enough for a lifetime. It was June, 1993, and my 16-year marriage was grinding to its inevitable conclusion when I found myself awash in the “storm of murk” and “near paralysis of psychic energy” that Styron describes. The thing entered my spirit with the ferocity of a hantavirus.
I can’t remember precisely when or how, but I thought at the time that I could escape what was beginning to envelop my mind by running to one of my favorite spots, Central Park. Bad move. As I watched the children ride the merry-go-round, I remember feeling like everything worthwhile inside me was being vacuumed out via some kind of psychic sump pump. I was no longer corporeal, just a ghost figure moving among the lovers and strollers. I couldn’t take any of it in.
It was a beautiful day and while I should have felt blessed to be alive and well, I was emotionally dead. And — this was perhaps the worst thing about the whole experience — when I tried to summon the will to imagine my way out of it, to let my mediating intellect guide me to the light — it only made things worse. Whatever unholy power that had seized my being simply did not allow for the possibility of any relief. Hopelessness, writ large.
“In depression,” wrote Styron, “the faith in deliverance is absent. It is hopelessness, even more than pain, that crushes the soul.”
For me, just as mysteriously as it had entered my soul, the depression lifted. Just like that. In about 72 hours. And like its entrance, I have no idea how or why it suddenly vanished from my consciousness. A fragrance, maybe, a la Proust, or a stranger’s smile, or the sound of Frank Sinatra singing “Violets for Your Furs.” All I know is it went away, and three weeks later I was dating again, and another month later I had a new soulmate and future wife.
I didn’t tell anyone about those 72 hours for more than 10 years. I didn’t have the words.
Today, I experience depression primarily through my geriatric case management clients. I administer depression screens, use my experience working with this population to scope out the signs and clues, and try to get them to voice their feelings about death and loss. And I think to myself that if Robin Williams couldn’t find a language to make his pain known to those who might have helped, then how are my clients — aged and frail and possessed of none of the comedian’s genius — going to express the darkness that rots their insides?
Styron noted that the very word, depression, “by its insipidity” masks a general awareness and understanding of the awfulness of the disease.
The voices of ignorance calling Robin Williams’ suicide an act of cowardice illustrate just how desperately we need that awareness and understanding. But, for sure, a new language would help.