Robin Williams, Depression, and My One Tip

I don’t really have a lot to add about Robin William’s suicide. Only that I went through a severe depression when I was in my twenties, and I remember learning that if you ever experience depression you are at risk for repeat episodes for the rest of your life.

I can’t tell you the terror I felt hearing that. I simply cannot go through that again. I think people who haven’t experienced depression think of it as extreme sadness or something. Not fun of course, but not the end of the world. The reality is, the best way I can describe it is you feel nothing, but it’s the most painful, all consuming, choking, life-draining, horrible nothing you can possibly imagine.

It’s so bad that the thought of enduring it again makes me understand what Robin Williams did. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m not condoning it, I’m just saying I get it. I’ve been lucky. I never experienced depression again. If I went through it repeatedly throughout my life as I hear he did I don’t see how I could last. Far from being weak, Robin Williams must have been a fucking towering monster of strength.

Also, I just realized that when I went through my depression I was young. What would it be like to go through a depression now?? Back then I could tell myself I had decades and decades to work it all out. One more thing, if you drink or do drugs in response to depression you’re doomed. But I am also an alcoholic, so again, if I went through depression on and off throughout my life I can easily see taking up drinking again eventually. (I stopped drinking during my depression and haven’t had alcohol since.) I’d be so beaten down by the repeat episodes I do anything for relief.

I’ve spent a lifetime making lists of things that lift me out of a bad mood. It’s all about forestalling depression. Things like therapy, singing, meditation, doing something nice for someone else, going to the movies, an extremely healthy meal (very effective), sitting by a body of water and reading. But the one thing I’ve found that is the most sure-fire is exercise. I discovered this one late in life and it also took me a while to find forms of exercise that didn’t feel like work, like swimming, my main form of exercise now. No matter how bad I feel when I begin, I’m fine when I’m done. It never ever fails. NEVER.

The thing is, remembering what I was like when I went through my depression, I wonder if I could have made myself exercise while I was right in the thick of it? Depression pretty much completely immobilized me. Here’s what I would tell myself to try to get myself to do it: I know you don’t want to do it, I know you think you can’t, but just do it, just get up and do it, even though every fiber of your being is saying you can’t. As a reward, you can not move for the rest of the day, guilt-free. You’re off the hook. Knock yourself out. Curl right up.

It’s just a theory, but I think if you can somehow manage to make yourself go for a swim (or something else) it would lift you out of that blackness just enough that you wouldn’t want to crawl back into immobility. Maybe pick a movie theatre a decent distance away and walk to it. The movie at the end would be the reward (it’s also an effective mood-lifter I’ve found, even if the movie sucked).

Also very high on my list: pets. (Except then when they die. In which case you must get another pet as soon as possible even though it feels like a betrayal. It isn’t.) Here are my two amazing, wonderful depression-forestallers.


Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

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10 thoughts on “Robin Williams, Depression, and My One Tip

  1. The Furry Forestallers would be a great name for a rock band! Thank you, Stacy, I ‘get it’ too. This is a wonderful post. I hope he found peace on the other side.

  2. Ditto everything you related about depression and liquor — been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

    I did go through two rehabs, the first one was more geared to my suicidal tendencies (almost died from an attempt). The second was a very good drug rehab; I learned a lot about survival when depressed, some of the things you mention. I think you have to live for yourself; that you have to have at least one thing in your life that gives you pleasure and a reason to get up every day.

    I agree exercise is great, and some of my problems started when I became unable to do that (age, arthritis) and depression from loss of my husband. THE one thing that always pulled me back from the edge was my pets; I was sure no one could love them and take care of them like I do.

    It was very difficult to come back from that edge now that I’m older — depression/drinking got bad after I turned 60. Another thing now is writing fiction. Through the years that was always the center of my life, even when I was married. But I’d stopped…the depression, of course. Now I’m writing again, and even if no one ever reads it, or if I publish it and some people hate it…it doesn’t matter because it has saved my life. I read a quote somewhere that a writer not writing was an alcoholic and/or suicide waiting to happen. Words to that effect anyway.

    But it’s still sad about Robin Williams; and honestly I just wish people wouldn’t judge what he did. Those of us who have been there do “get it.”

  3. Yes…I’m blessed to have my own two “forestallers” in my life…pathetic at times to realize that their importance is a reason to get up in the mornings, although their insistent early reminders can’t be ignored. I’ve battled depression, drug and alcohol dependence my whole life and at almost 73, you’d think I’d be tired from the “routine”. How I’ve loved reading these wonderful comments here…maybe Robin Williams’ tragic death will be an inspiration to share more personal feelings and experiences.

  4. * This is how I put it on my FB feed: “A coward? No. Look, lets say his depression manifested in his early 20s, so call it forty years from that point to his ending. That’s 40 years = 480 months = 14,400 days. Every one of those days, he had to make decisions about whether to let his condition swallow him up or to live his life as best he could. For over fourteen thousand times or so, he chose the latter and lived. I don’t think that he finally couldn’t anymore negates the courage he had in all the days that came before. You may want to quibble with that, that he was rich, brilliant, had opportunities that others didn’t have, etc.; the particulars of his life aren’t the point. Its to remember that just because the ending is a defeat, doesn’t make the valor of its contestants any less…recall, the Spartans ultimately lost at Thermopylae.”

    * Cara, I do the same thing Stacy does re: using exercise as a mood stabilizer (I refer to regular exercise as “non-optional” for me for that reason), and I’ve often worried what might happen if I wasn’t able to exercise for any extended period. I also use writing as my primary means of expression and communication…I’m still struggling with never having found an audience, but hope I’m gradually coming around to being OK with that and using it as a creative outlet for things I need to express, rather than as a way to get love from others, if that makes sense. Thank you for sharing.

  5. I’ve had two depressions. One when I was 18 and since it was back in the 70s and went undiagnosed, I pulled myself out by my bootstraps (probably only possible because I was young enough and otherwise healthy). My second was in my later 30s and also went undiagnosed for about a year (I finally diagnosed it myself and then insisted on low dose SSRIs which got rid of it.) Before I got medication (which can work wonders, as it did for me) I did the exercise thing. I would get home from work and if I sat down, I would never get up. So I changed clothing standing up, got the dog (I agree, thank goodness for fur friends) and walked and walked for miles. I even took up horseback riding which elevated my “mood” but didn’t fix the depression, which was really bad brain chemistry.

    For me, the feeling I had when depressed was “no hope”. It was a black hole, an abyss of despair, where I felt I was looking down over the edge. Thankfully, I never fell all the way into the hole. But feeling that there is no hope is terrible.

  6. Yeah, no hope. When I said it felt like a horrible painful nothing, it’s as close as I could get. But I also felt hopeless, and also completely alienated and cut off from everyone. Not from anything they did necessarily. In fact, it hurt just to see their pained and concerned faces and feeling like I couldn’t reach them, like they were a million miles away.

    Thanks for making the point about medication. I wanted to punch Tom Cruise when he went on his rant about medication and therapy (when Brooke Shields went on meds for post-partum depression).

    Here’s to all of us who get it. I am so grateful for these posts and for what you’ve shared!!

    Cara, you have really had some trials in life. And I feel for you about being limited in how you can exercise. But walking the dogs counts, don’t you think? It might not be strenuous, but I would think this also does the trick. How is the writing going these days?

    Tagryn, I hear you about having an audience. Are you talking about your blog? Or other writing? And yeah, exercise is also not-optional for me.

  7. Stacy,
    Thank you for this thoughtful post on the subject. I think someone at Flavorwire did a nice job with it too:

    I am annoyed no end when everyone’s answer to all problems is just to “pull yourself up out of it.” It annoys me with poverty and it annoys me with depression too (and to some extent with just bad luck health issues). It’s such an annoyingly American response–and is usually purported by those with good luck to not suffer poverty, depression, etc.

    I am both sorry and heartened that so many people share this terrible experience. It’s tough to be a human.

  8. That Flavorwire piece was GREAT, thanks for the link. Yes, I hate hate hate the implication that people would be okay if they had just trued harder.

    For the record, all the things I do are about forestalling depression. When you are in the midst of it it’s a whole other thing. I still plan to try to force myself to exercise though, if I ever find myself in a depression again. It may not work, I may not be able to, but that’s my plan.

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