It seems so self-serving to play that game. You know the one. “Where were you when you heard…?” Yet here we are. Playing it. Again.
We live in an ever-connected world. We have instantaneous access to global events, world-changing tragedies, and even the little things that we make matter. Who married whom, who had a baby and what “unique” name they gave that child, who died. I remember where I was when I heard that Whitney Houston died — getting out of the subway at 57th and 7th — when Cory Monteith died, and now. Now with Robin Williams’ passing, it’s not about drug use (though that was something Williams was never shy about admitting he needed help with) but rather something that much more pervasive, that much more common, that much more taboo for all its pedestrian ways. Depression.
And so, when I heard that Robin Williams had presumably taken his own life, that he had been fighting a tremendous battle with depression, I sat on the floor of my bedroom and cried. I cried; and I texted friends; and I watched The Birdcage, which was the first movie to ever really sink it into my head that there is something so wonderful about loving yourself and who you are and how you want to express yourself in every way that you want to do it; and I cried as I watched that movie; and I called my mom, and we got into a fight, which is dumb to say but it’s true.
I called to tell her that I love her, and I spent the next hour with her on the phone, in tears because — selfishly, honestly — it is my biggest fear that I will wake up one day and hear, on a much smaller scale than Williams’ news, that my mother has taken her life.
My mother has been battling chronic depression since before I was born. She has been on more medications than even she can remember, and she’s seen more doctors and therapists and psychologists and social workers than anyone else I know. And I’m from Los Angeles, where dogs have therapists. (We always make this joke because we have to, because we need to laugh about it, because there is no other way.)
I remember all the days when she wouldn’t get out of bed. All the days when she’d go back to take a nap on a Saturday, and spend the next five hours in the kind of sleep that is almost deathlike itself. I remember all the times she’d burst out into tears when we had minor disagreements, all the times she thought that my saying no, I didn’t want to do something was a direct rejection of not just the idea, but of her person. All the times she blamed me for her mood. All the times she forgot to take her pills that morning and I was left with someone spiraling in public, someone who needed to be coached to get home.
I remember when I was 15 and only had a learner’s permit, and had to go to the library so I could write a paper, but she was in one of her moods and told me to just take the car myself. (The driving age in California is 16.) Even though I had never driven on the freeway by myself. Even though I could not legally drive myself. I had to have my paper done the next day.
I remember when she admitted to me that sometimes, she would take a bath and wonder what it would be like to just. You know.
That’s not something you can ever forget, really.
Often, it would be the sound of my voice, or of my brother’s voice, or the cat, maybe, that would snap her out of these moments. But to know that it’s something your parent is thinking about is terrifying. I often wonder if I made the right choice in moving 3,000 miles away. What if something happens and I can’t get back in time?
You never really know, do you? That even the funniest people — the most gregarious, the most loving, the most engaging and charismatic and wonderful and kindest — have their demons. We all have the things that haunt us. And we all have the things that overpower us from time to time.
A lot of people are making news of the fact that Williams’ last offering to the social world was an Instagram photo of him with his daughter Zelda when she was young. She’s 25, and has therefore known only a father who had already acknowledged and sought help for his demons. Having depression doesn’t make you any less wonderful a parent, doesn’t make you any less loving or (for the most part) capable of taking care of this smaller creature who is made of your genes. Sometimes you need a little help, whether that’s medication or therapy or exercise or anything else. But I’d imagine the world he created for Zelda and her brothers was wonderful and full of love and light and laughter, whatever storm was brewing inside him at any given moment. (That’s how it worked with my mother, too; she is a woman from whom I’d be lucky to say I inherited my sense of humor.)
To be the child of someone with depression is to be born into a world where you know you are predisposed to a certain level of sadness. It’s inevitable. It’s a chemical thing, and much like cancer or hair color, they sometimes pass it along. There’s a certain amount of nurture at play, too, and if you grow up in a house that is very good at being sad, chances are you will be good at being sad, too. And there is such a burden. A duty. A responsibility. I have to be a good kid today, because Mom already has enough on her plate. Because Dad is sick and can’t help himself. Because if they love me, maybe they’ll be happy.
They can love you, and still be unhappy.
But maybe, if you tell them you love them — hopefully, you can only ever hope — they’ll feel a little less alone. A little less drowned in their own dark shadows, all those craggy parts of the mind that they think nobody else cares to help them fix. But people do care, and people will listen, and people will understand. We all have a certain level of sadness in ourselves. But what we also have is love.
Losing Robin Williams is, to many people who grew up with his movies, like losing a member of the family. Someone whom you loved so much and figured would always be there. I can only imagine what it’s like to lose your actual father, and I hope I won’t have to learn how to cope with that any time soon. The same thing goes with losing my mother. Especially to something like depression.
Sometimes people with depression never manage to find or even ask for help, and it’s up to those who love them to check in. But we live in a world that places such a premium on the opposite of depression — on that ever-elusive dream of happy, whatever that is — that sometimes we forget that sometimes all we need is just to be okay. Knowing that someone is there. That they will listen. That they care.
That there is more to live for, that there are things to be happy about, that there is a life outside of the darkness. That all you need is to try to get through to the next morning, the next hour. We’re only ever given one life. And all we can do is try to give as much love as we can, to everyone who knows us. Robin Williams did that. Here’s hoping he’s finally found his happiness, too.