Andy Rooney died in 2011, but this morning I am wondering what he would say about Robin Williams. Rooney provided opinions for 60 Minutes for about ten millennium. He would sit behind his crowded desk and talk directly to the camera about something he had on his mind that week. One of his most famous (and grumpiest) segments was after Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Rooney boiled the musician’s suicide down like this: You are rich and famous –you have nothing to be depressed about. He also added that everyone who did not suffer through the Depression and WWII was a pansy.
I was not a Nirvana fan at the time, I was on team Pearl Jam, and like Rooney I could not understand why anyone with fame, wealth, and everything that brings happiness would kill themselves, in other words I did not understand depression.
I don’t remember if anyone took Rooney to task for his cruel misunderstanding of what depression is, or how it manifests itself, but I remember agreeing with him. I, like Rooney, had grown up with the cultural understanding that mental weakness was to be mocked and ferreted out. People who couldn’t suck it up and fight through it were weak. This has been, and I think still is, the prevailing attitude of most people in the world today.
William Styron writes in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.” (This book is a must read for people trying to understand what it is like to be severely depressed.) We can accept the psychic pain associated with the death of a parent or loss, but we do not seem to acknowledge the psychic pain of existence. For some of us life is not a joy.
Sometimes the price of a creative mind is depression: E A Poe, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Franz Kafka, Sylvia Plath, John Keats, J D Salinger, and Walt Whitman all suffered from some form of depression. Their periods of internal darkness were coupled with periods of brilliance that changed the way we saw the world. Although Robin Williams was not an artist or writer, he certainly saw the world differently than the rest of us. His ability to improvise and moments of onstage brilliance must have been matched with an offstage life filled with deep darkness.
So what did Williams have to be depressed about? That question is not the right question, because depression is not so much about the things in the world; it is about what is taking place inside the mind. Sure Williams was wildly famous and wealthy, but those things don’t have a viable exchange rate inside someone’s head. Fame and wealth might make it easier to pay the bills, but it doesn’t make anyone’s internal life easier.
Williams’ suicide will certainly draw attention to the sorry state of mental healthcare in our society, but will it force any changes to take place? There will still be people (probably a majority) who believe that mental health is a matter of choice and by simply pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and pushing all your feelings into your future heart-attack box, you will be fine. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many depressed people find drugs and alcohol an acceptable escape from their inner spiraling despair; it is much easier than navigating the labyrinth of insurance companies and psychiatrists, and, unfortunately, more socially acceptable.
In the end, I am left wondering if the ghost of Andy Rooney would understand Robin Williams’ suicide anymore than he understood Cobain’s. Would the fact that Williams’ brought joy to millions of people help Rooney understand his personal turmoil? Would Williams’ age (63) make his act more understandable? Or, would Rooney simply write off Williams’ act as the final action of a weak person who needed to stop feeling sorry for himself? I guess it doesn’t matter what Andy Rooney would think, what does matter is that we begin to acknowledge the realness of depression instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.