I am Robin Williams

There’s been no shortage of opinion about the suicide death of Robin Williams at the tender age of 63. Many have pointed out Williams’ immense talent both in comedic acting and also in more serious ventures (like his amazing performances in “Dead Poets’ Society” and “Good Will Hunting”).

Many have pointed to his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. Some have remarked–with a surprise that continues, frankly, to both surprise and perplex me–that they cannot believe someone so successful could be so downcast. 

I found news of 11-04Williams’ suicide hard to take. Perhaps you’re wondering why. It’s not because I’m a super-devoted member of his fan club.

It’s not because Google’s number three search term for Williams is–sickeningly–“Robin Williams net worth.”

It’s simply because I am Robin Williams. 

I first experienced depression in seminary. I thought I was losing my mind. In a sense, I was.

My brain was, it seems, doing strange things chemically and despite my best efforts I couldn’t bring it under my control.

That was sixteen years ago and I haven’t had another depressive episode as severe again. That’s possibly because I’ve also taken antidepressant medication since then.

I suppose depending on your view of the clergy, of the Christian life, or of the ways in which God works in the world, I am either a normal human being or someone whose faith and strength is somehow faulty.

In reality, to be a normal person is to be someone whose faith and strength is faulty. There’s little point in the Good News–the Gospel–if this isn’ t the case.

So much of our modern American self-image assumes the sovereignty of the will–if you can will it, you can do it. You can pick up on this notion in Matt Walsh’s somewhat frustrating blog post. He posits that Williams simply chose to kill himself. On one level, he did. So did the people who threw themselves from the World Trade Center.They chose to kill themselves but we typically don’t excoriate them for selfishness. Collectively we tend to pity those poor souls. We’re less forgiving with those who make a similar choice in different situations.

I’m not suggesting that suicide is an acceptable option for those struggling with mental health issues–may it never be! What I am suggesting is that those who have never traversed the long, dark valley of depression should be careful to avoid suggesting that the will is something over which any of us has total control. The will and the brain are mysteriously connected–messing with the chemistry of the latter affects the former. As a result the choices we all make on a daily basis–getting out of the bed, washing–often become labored for those with depression.

So as we reflect on the loss of Robin Williams, let’s ask God to soften our hearts toward those who suffer.

26 Comments on “I am Robin Williams”

  1. Clinical depression can be so debilitating and life-sapping. For the longest time this illness in general hasn’t been understood, especially in the church community. I had a clergyman tell me (oh, some 25 years ago) that depression was a sin because I’m focusing too much on myself and not enough on God. That’s the worst thing you can heap on a depressed brain. I know what it feels like to fall into the abyss and feel that everyone is better off without me. I thank God for medication that got me out of that pit of despair.

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  2. I usually like to read Matt Walsh too but I could not finish his post on Robin Williams. The lack of compassion in popular American Christian culture breaks my heart. I like your point that our faith is faulty this side of life. I hadn’t really thought about it like that before.

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  3. Thanks Jeff. Not only for your well written words about Robin Williams, but also for your willingness to speak openly about depression and medication as a minister. I don’t know how it is in presbyterian churches, but in my background (the baptist world) this is dangerous area for a minister.

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  4. Jeff, saw this David Foster Wallace quote today on suicide that connected with your WTC comment and made more sense than Matt Walsh:

    “The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

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  5. Pingback: [List] Critical resources for understanding faith and mental illness « Jeff Gissing

  6. Coming out like this is dangerous in anybody’s world.

    If it’s a situation that seems to dwell in the past, than coming out won’t damage relationships with those currently around you. You will find little tolerance or support if there are relapses. Some secrets are best left untold even it it seems freeing at the moment. Keep the world that knows as small as possible.

    I have to admit, You hit a chord with your Blog this time. Yes, it was powerful. Good Luck.

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  7. Thanks so much for being honest & vulnerable in sharing. The Church needs more courageous leaders like you. I’m a former SU classmate of your little sis, so I stumbled onto this post from one of her FB posts, and I’d like to share a resource.
    In his 2013 book, Acting the Miracle, Piper’s partner Ed Welch writes a beautiful chapter on pastoral care and counsel for persons dealing with psychiatric disorders. It’s chapter 3, “Sinners Learning to Act the Miracle: Restoring Broken People and the Limits of Life in the Body.” The book is downloadable for free at http://www.desiringgod.org/books/acting-the-miracle. Great chapter, and Welch gives wonderfully practical examples of how the Church should rally to support persons dealing with various forms of mental/emotional illness. If only the Body would stop judging and push our sleeves up to help such persons, we’d be a bigger part of the solution for so many who are suffering.

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  8. Dear Jeff,

    Thank you so much for sharing your insights from your own journey. My hope is that churches will recognize how important it is to bring depression and other mental health diseases out into the open, and to care for people and families who suffer silently.

    Trish Fritz
    Emotional Wellness Ministry Facilitator

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  9. I have had days that Churchill described as wrestling the black dog, but what happened after Hurricane Katrina was a totally different world. Everything was black. The home we created was a stinking mold culture. My job was gone and no prospects were in sight. There were days when jumping over the rail of the boat into the river was so alluring that I could not go on deck. Even after there was a job and things were turning around there were still dark days. I was blessed with a physician I trusted and was able to get on medication. I was also blessed with a wonderful, loving wife and a strong church family. Thank you for giving a lot of us a chance to share where we have been and where we are now.

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  10. Pingback: Discipline of the Week: Prayer as Social Action | Alison Marie Smith

  11. Pingback: [Series] Caring for depressed friends « Jeff Gissing

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