Robin Williams: “Oh Captain, My Captain,” You Are Far From Alone
Robin Williams is dead. He left behind a world of grief, even though 99.9-percent of us never met him. We knew him, though, as much as we can possibly “know” anyone through a lifetime of work.
All of this grieving is about losing Mork, Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, and My Captain, but it’s also knowing that if someone like Robin Williams can succumb to suicide, so can the rest of us.
With frightening finality, suicide is claiming more lives than ever before. According to The Montreal Gazette, for every Robin Williams, 200 others have attempted suicide—and another 400 people have thought about taking their own lives. This April, the Awake magazine said more than 20 former U.S. veterans commit suicide every single day. While another 950 try to do so each month.
I’ve been to that dark place—but stopped myself just in time, more than once. Many of the kindest, most caring, and artistic people I know have, too. Some of us still battle our demons, mostly in the privacy of our own homes. Sometimes we turn to booze or cocaine or even sex to numb our pain—because even though they will kill us in the end, they “love” us in the meantime. They are far kinder than the world around us, because they don’t judge us.
“We” self-medicate because society continues to stigmatize mental illness and marginalize those who suffer from it. People turn noticeably uncomfortable when they hear the words “bipolar,” “schizophrenia,” or simply “depression.” They tend to not know what to say, which most likely hampered Robin Williams’s loved ones (and those of Phillip Seymour Hoffman) from talking openly about his illness.
The end result? Families don’t want, or don’t know how, to ask for help—for themselves or the people they care about.
I know this, you see, but I’d rather not. During the last year, while I was under contract to produce not one, but two books, I found myself taking care of my adult daughter, who has gone missing at different times in her adult life. She simply dropped off the map, and we often didn’t know if she was dead or alive.
My daughter is fine, of course. Yet she talks to people who aren’t there, pens thousands of words of poetry and prose at a time, and sits and stares at pictures of people for hours on end. “I’m sending him a message,” she says, when I ask what she’s doing.
She insists she is normal and healthy. Yet she refuses to take a single pill, see a doctor, or give out any private details for fear the government may find her. The brief moments of brilliance we all glimpsed in her as a child still shine through at odd moments, but they are growing more and more tarnished. Every so often, she says she has nothing to live for—and that’s when I really begin to worry.
My family is no stranger to depression or other forms of mental illness. In December 2013, my sister’s suicidal efforts finally paid off. At first glance, Lisa’s death didn’t look like suicide. I believe that’s what it was, though. After a lengthy battle that was born of alcohol, nursed with narcotic painkillers, and which morphed into a full-blown addiction of God only knows what, the drugs did her in.
I had seen her a month earlier, when she told me she didn’t care if she died. It wasn’t until after her death that I realized: Lisa had probably been depressed for decades. I wish we could have traded places, that she would have checked herself into the psych hospital that saved my life, back in 1991, or that she would have followed in my footsteps and gotten the help she needed.
Maybe if we all stopped being so judgmental, she would have. Or maybe, instead of having the entire world mourn his loss, Robin Williams would have ascended a stage somewhere, and talked candidly about what it’s like to fight this demon called depression.
If he had, we would have cheered. He would have received a standing ovation. And he’d still be alive.
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I have four books. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about overcoming depression from domestic violence; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”