The Masks We Wear, Robin Williams, and No, it is not Selfishness, but Sickness

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”

PSALM 13:1-4 NRSV

I have been struggling a bit with Robin William’s death.

As a person who struggles with depression, I know that place and have known it off and on most of my life. People talk about “fight or flight” when it comes to response to stress, but depressed people have a third option that sometimes lurks off in the background.  No one ever talks about that option. But they are talking about it now. A lot. Because of Robin Williams.

I remember in high school when I served as the Student Organization Treasurer, which meant that the school store fell under my direct purview.  It was not unusual for some of the folks who volunteered there to toss candy out to their friends, which would then show up on the end of the day inventory as theft. The faculty advisor had a habit of having me called out of class and down to his office demanding to know what had happened and what I was going to do about it. This would happen often, the stress building and building, as I found it difficult to confront students much older and larger than me. So much stress: fight or flight or dream about running and jumping out of the second floor window the next time my name was called over the loudspeaker. I had that dream often. It followed me to college, to the pressure of “plebe year” at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. I went from being a top 5 student in high school to academic probation in short order. I was screamed at, humiliated, broken and broken again. I often looked out over the walkways that connected the buildings and looked down. How far it would be to fall? How easy to jump the rail?

I got sick and was told it was likely asthma which would be a cause for me to be dis-enrolled, but my lungs were too weak to complete the test to prove it. It was only a matter of time.  Everyone back home, my family, the school teachers, the town itself, was so proud of me. I was there to please them and that burden was beyond weighing. They put me on steroids to strengthen my lungs and my depression spiraled out of control.  My obligations to my upper class, memorizing menus and upcoming events and professional knowledge, lagged, until I was warned that the next day would be the worst day of my life. I had better know it all and without hesitation.

That night I swallowed most of a bottle of prescription pills, medicine for my weak lungs and horrible cough, and went to bed and hoped that tomorrow would never come.  But it did. Sun streaming in through the window, it came. It was not enough pills or the wrong kind of pills or God had mercy on me. I have no idea. So I got up and faced the day, for what could be worse than facing death?

I told one friend from back home who made me promise never to do that again. That she was always there to talk. And she was there, my closest friend, until her tragic death from complications from asthma some two years later, a disease, as it turns out, that I did not have.  

People throw words around the topic of suicide like “selfish” or “taking the easy way out.” I have done many selfish things in my life. Swallowing a bottle of pills was not one of them. Depression is a sickness that still holds much mystery. Talk to someone who is trying to find the right combination and dose of medications to balance their depression with their ability to function otherwise. Or sleep. Or even remember. If they are willing to talk. Ask them about what it is like, the darkness, the hidden loneliness, the masks they must wear. People suffer with untreated depression mostly out of fear. Fear for their jobs. Fear for how they will be judged by others. We can all speak to their fear with words of compassion and love. With hearts filled with grace. And we should not wait to do so. Not one more minute.

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5 thoughts on “The Masks We Wear, Robin Williams, and No, it is not Selfishness, but Sickness

  1. Keith, what a thoughtful, profoundly honest look into what depression is. Prayers, hugs, whatever. Robin Williams continues to show care for us by opening this conversation. Thank you for sharing. Jackie

    Jackie Ahern ⛪️

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  2. Thank you Keith. I too have suffered with the pain of depression for many years. I have been labeled selfish for uttering my thoughts of suicide around loved ones especially. It is only with my counsoler that I feel safe and even then wonder if they are going to commit me.

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