I woke up today in a sea emotions as the realization that the genius of Robin Williams has left us. As a recovering addict and someone who has struggled with the depths of depression, the news of another celebrity's death leaves me feeling both terrified and furious. Until you've waded through the waters of dark depression, you'll never realize what a razor-thin line separates our stability and fragile mental health. Whenever I see an active addict slumped over in an alleyway, or see someone with obvious mental health issues being ostracized on the subway, I quietly remind myself, "There but for the grace of God, go I."
I think one of the most telling lines from Robin Williams was when he said: "Comedy is acting out optimism." I don't think there is an addict out there, either in recovery or still using, who doesn't identify with that sentiment. We all have our own reasons for numbing our demons with drug or alcohol, but behind each addict's behavior lies an individual struggling to find the "optimism" in reality. When we see a celebrity like Robin Williams, who appears to have everything going for him and adored by so many, we scratch our heads and wonder how he could possibly feel such despair. What we fail to realize is that drugs and alcohol can not selectively numb out only the bad feelings -- they also erect a barrier to keep out all of the love and support around the addict.
For me, it was always a pointless debate about what comes first, the depression or the addiction. When I was in the throes of my depression about 18 years ago, it felt as though everyone and everything around me was moving at a different speed from me. I was bouncing around the mental health profession trying to find a quick fix out of this hell. I was introduced to the pharmacological world of antidepressants and their unsavory side effects that are rarely talked about -- cold sweats, loss of sex drive, bloating, pounding headaches, loss of appetite. You're left wondering if the cure is worse than the disease. I was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was put on lithium as a mood stabilizer. I felt like I was walking around in a rubber body suit in a total haze. Yes, I wasn't suicidal anymore, but I felt absolutely nothing. I can remember having no emotional response as I had discussions with my wife, who said I needed to get some help or she would take our son and leave.
I am alive today, and sitting down in front of this computer writing for one reason, and one reason only -- my wife stood beside me when I directly, or through my behavior, had pushed everyone else away. I'm now 17 years clean and sober, and I'm no longer on any depression medication. Those who know me understand that I don't take my mental health or sobriety for granted. Some days are easier than others, but every morning I need to commit to living another day on life's terms. People often tell me how much they admire my courage and determination for facing these issues head on. Let me be clear about one thing -- the real heroes are the people like my wife who stand beside the addicts and those struggling with depression and other mental health issues. Depression and addiction are ugly, messy, and cause immense pain and collateral damage to all the lives they touch.
If you know someone struggling today, simply be there for that person. Offer your unconditional love and hold onto the faith that behind the struggle lies beauty. There is no doubt we will all miss the comic genius of Robin Williams, but I invite you to see this tragedy as an opportunity to look around you and reach out to someone in your life who feels alone, ashamed, and lost.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.