Lesson from Robin Williams: Take Depression Seriously

While there may be genetic predispositions toward depression and addiction, a predisposition is not the same as a predetermination.

Death, Robin Williams once said, is “the ultimate closing.”  The turbulent comic genius found that closing recently, at his own hands. The thought of suicide was not new to him and in a 2010 interview he accused himself of not having “the balls to do it.”  Why and how the fear of dying was finally overcome by despair at the thought of living must remain a mystery, but the questions raised by Williams’ tragic death are for all of us to ponder.

The two predominant emotions surging through the public response to the suicide of Robin Williams were love and sadness. He had a sweetness and vulnerability that touched many hearts, he had a love that poured out into the world—evidently he could not feel it for himself. His light radiated to others but, as with many depressed people, it could not dissipate the shadows within.

What creates this terrible isolation of the depressed? The American author Anne Lamott grew up near Robin Williams. In a much-circulated Facebook communication she wrote that, as children, “we were in the same boat–scared, shy, with terrible self-esteem and grandiosity. If you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction, as Robin and I did, life here feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and know idea of… how to fit in… how to stay one step ahead of the abyss.”

Lamott touches on only part of the truth here. While there may genetic predispositions towards depression and addiction, a predisposition is not the same as a predetermination. A predisposition increases the risk of something occurring but it cannot by itself cause it to happen. The key factor is the environment. Genes are activated or turned off by the environment, including in cases of suicide, as brilliant Canadian studies have shown.

Nobody is born doomed to depression, and nobody is born with low self-esteem. If Robin Williams became a depressive and was driven to seek validation in the laughter and applause of others, what he called the “please love me syndrome,” it was not due to his genes.

His warmth and vulnerability and his stupendous creative genius as a comic all rested on his extraordinary sensitivity. A sensitive person, by definition, feels more than others. A mildly noxious stimulus that may cause slight discomfort to a more stolid personality can inflict agonizing pain to one with a hypersensitive temperament. Temperament is significantly conditioned by genes. How it unfolds depends upon formative life events.

Williams had a troubled childhood. “My only companions, my only friends as a child were my imagination,” he once said. He originally honed his extraordinary capacity to generate strange and hilarious imaginary characters as a way of breaking his isolation. He found some freedom in them, as these characters “could say and do things I was afraid to do myself.”

His found his father “frightening” and, as many children who feel intimated at home, he was bullied in school. He was emotionally alone. His comic skills first had the function of gaining some closeness with his mother. “You get this weird desire to connect with her through comedy and entertainment,” he told an interviewer.

Williams’ addiction to alcohol and cocaine were, as all addictions, a form of self-medication. Cocaine, he implied, gave him respite from his hyperkinetic energy, just like a hyperactive child may be given Ritalin to calm him. He had the addict’s lifelong discomfort with the self, the need to flee from his consciousness of himself: “sleepwalking with activity,” he called it. The prospect of having more time for himself “may be the last thing I want,” he once said, with an ineffably sad expression on his face.

The night before he killed himself, Williams attended a party, being his effervescent, people-loving persona. Underneath that persona was utter despair—he had learned early in life to cover up his feelings, as a child does when he is emotionally alone and there is no one with whom to share.

Is there a lesson? Let us please take depression very seriously, in ourselves and in others. If in ourselves, let us speak our pain openly, let us not be limited by childhood conditioning into hiding our anguish, into being shamed into silence. And if in others, let us find the patience and compassion to hear that pain, to invite it to exist without judgment, without easy answers, without blame. Let us share. And let us understand that the prevention of mental illness begins in the crib, in how we hold and attend to our children.

  • Aisling
    August 23, 2014 at 3:16 AM

    Very beautifully written. Depression haunts, like a ghost waiting in the shadows, forever waiting for that time when you are vulnerable. It takes so much strength to fight, to decide suicide is not the only option. I hope through further education and reading maybe one day, my ghosts will become like the memory of an old friend, they were a part of my life, not necessarily a good part but they will have made me stronger. Rip Robin Williams, saddened by the loss of such a comic legend xx

  • Lily
    August 23, 2014 at 8:11 PM

    My depression has become a window to the vulnerable, lonely child within. Robin Williams had such child-like gentleness and vibrancy. I appreciate the sensitivity of this article.

  • stephen
    August 25, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    lovely reading,i hav been told time and time again that i remind people of robin williams.i too have lived my life hiding behind my comic nature,the do u love me because i make u laugh syndrome.i hav been chipping away for 25 years,and hav now narrowed my search to find,i have attachment disorder,at my age of 51,it was good to hear dr matte say that he was diagnosed with add at age 54,its never too late for healing

  • ruby
    September 19, 2014 at 9:12 PM

    The one upside of depression, I believe, is the ability to see suffering in others, to be more deeply empathetic perhaps than ‘regular’ people. I always saw a sadness in Robin Williams’ smile. Although it gave him joy, it must have also been exhausting for him to have been ‘on’ as much as he was. Now he can rest.

  • James
    September 20, 2014 at 4:32 AM

    Dr. Mate,

    I stumbled across your blog after starting a second pass of “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts…”

    Mr. William’s suicide reminded me of a quote:

    “Nor [did the ‘psych-ward M.D.’ understand] that jokes and sarcasm were here usually too pregnant and fertile with clinical significance not to be taken seriously; sarcasm and jokes were often the bottle in which clinical depressives sent out their most plangent screams for someone to care and help them.” (David Foster Wallace, “Infinite Jest”, page 71)

    While I don’t think this is indicative of his entire body of work, I do think I saw a bottle or two in the water.

    Regards, and thanks for your work.

  • emma
    September 24, 2014 at 6:34 PM

    I really felt the impact of Robon Williams’ demise; i felt shock yet understanding of what he endured. I felt relief for him. I wanted to say depression is real in my family, there also different types of depression, just like there is different types of addicts. I think there is different types of depression.

  • Kristina
    September 28, 2014 at 6:35 AM

    Wonderful article. Although I did not agree with some points, I am so glad that people who are able are working to “solve” this mystery.

    I agreed with a lot of what Emma said. I lost my brilliant daughter to suicide about 15 months ago. She was in her early 20’s. Since then, I’ve been trying to make some sense of the tragic loss of my child.

    Robin William’s suicide hit me hard. I remember getting up the courage to watch a PBS memorial show a few weeks ago. After watching it, many things started to “click”….things my daughter had written and said before she died….things elderly family members said to me….things I had heard from other suicidal people.

    I’m not sure that everyone who takes their own lives does so as a result of sadness or desperation (and this is a very new revelation to me). I am being forced to re-think this entire concept. Watching the memorial show about Robin, I couldn’t help but think that he had accomplished SO much in his life and helped SO MANY people. He had fought many battles….and had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

    Maybe Robin felt like he had lived a full life and he had given everything that he was capable of giving. Is it possible that he simply felt like his life had served its purpose, and that living on longer would just be a burden to those he cared about the most?

    Of course (as I know all too well), this line of thought may not be accurate…suicide survivors suffer horrific loss. The grief and guilt associated with suicide is extremely complicated. Yet I don’t think that many suicide victims clearly understand the misery that is left behind for the survivors.

  • Peggy
    October 15, 2014 at 5:57 AM

    I think Robin found companship within his imaginary realm which in turn became an extention to his abilities to relate to the masses.
    Imagination comes to mind. Unfortunately, depression is being taken seriously, therefore we live life to it.

  • Maria
    October 31, 2014 at 1:21 PM

    Depression is no relenting and addiction is exhausting. A daily struggle that lives behind a mask. Yes it helps me immensely when I can drop the mask and share what is going on, but i have to say that the mask is what is expected of me . . . most people don’t want to know how I really am and I could not trust them with the truth anyway . . . so there is a lot to do here in our society for things to change

  • Robyn
    November 4, 2014 at 11:45 PM

    I don’t think there is any 1 answer for depression or addiction and I have studied people with problems like these closely all my life and I call myself 50/50 50% str8 and 50% bent but of course the percentages vary.
    For me I drank excessively, but not daily or even weekly but when i did I could feel something deep within trying to rise to the surface and I would quickly run for a drink to stop the monster within from escaping. My dilemma comes from abuse of various forms, I was subjected to as a very young child, the memory’s are partial or missing but I know they are there. Due to my young age at the time and the fact that I must have psychically removed myself from my body, repressed or shut out the abuse, so I was then battling a soul wound that I could not recall. That is a dilemma of magnitude. Lucky I have been blessed with intelligence, and sensitivity, compassion love and understanding or I would probably not be here of sound mind now in my 50’s.
    It is a battle but the silent unknown truth that has gnawed at me my entire life will not destroy me, I won’t give those who stole my innocence and scarred my psyche the pleasure of defeating me, so I guess that’s why I am still here.
    I loved Robin Williams and I feel a connection and was shattered when he left the earth plane. I do believe he may have found some relief now and be living happily in another dimension. I pray for my release from this world to take me to a higher place where I can create a reality without the torment. I pray that for Robin as well

  • Odette Gotobed
    November 6, 2014 at 3:29 PM

    Remember Robin as Mork . So sweet and wholesome . My own mental problems are pretty bad recently – talking about our mental vulnerability here , is some recognition and identification with Robin . Anybody out there who is isolating themselves…try to see other people . I am starting to try again ; love to whomever reads this .

  • Karlton
    November 9, 2014 at 2:03 PM

    I told my wife a couple of years ago, after watching a Robin Williams movie, that is was too bad he committed suicide. She gasped and ran straight to her laptop. “No he didn’t!” she shouted triumphantly from the other room.

    I loved him because he was so much like me (class clown, never winding down, desperate), and I think about committing suicide every day. Down from every hour like it has sometimes been.

    I got addicted in the womb with a mom who had migraines and shuffled 222’s (codeine) into our system like they were blueberries. We had morphine too, in the last trimester. She could only breastfeed me for a few days because i was “tearing her to pieces.” Guess it was my only shot at staying soothed from the dysphoria of life. So with 1953 formula milk I cold-turkeyed and projectile vomited, a laugh for my Dad: “You could hit the wall from your crib!”

    After a couple of weeks (my 2nd + 3rd) alone in the hospital I guess I gave up on who i came here to be. Finally some combination of formula (after nasal – feeding) stayed down and got me home, again to the amusement of Dad: “They couldn’t wait to give you back because you wouldn’t shut up!”

    I guess I got along after that til my mom got two babies back to back (11 mo.s apart–good old Dad again). At age 4, absent my golden boy status, I made my first suicide attempt. I remember it well. I didn’t want to live. They didn’t understand me and joked about my sensitivity. I waited til they were having a bridge party then climbed up on the bathroom sink where I knew the baby aspirin were stored (now I know I was probably even addicted to them) and where I was told NEVER to trespass. I knew other stuff was up there too, based on my mom’s visits and demeanor at the medicine cabinet. So I started with the baby aspirin, and moved on til, as bad as they tasted + with some water, I got through all the bottles but one or two. A memory I still have it the “this will show them” attitude. Show them cuz they wouldn’t/couldn’t hear or help me. Then, when the stuff started kicking in I didn’t like it and crawled into the bridge party. Woke up in the ambulance getting my stomach pumped, I remember that too.

    We lived in a steamy part of Ecuador then, where my dad was looking for oil. I discovered something else: oxytocin. Scratching could make it flow and give me a temporary relief from panic and dysphoria–in fact it was sometimes ecstatic to scratch. Until there was no place else to scratch and I was covered with rashes, blisters, and stinging little cuts. They wrapped my hands in gauze but I tore it off; they tied me up at night but I wiggled out; they covered me with salves and wrapped me with plastic: it was horror. My Dad finally got a new job: “If it wasn’t for you we might’ve never left Ecuador.”

    I stole 222’s from my mom, just enough so that she wouldn’t notice. And stole percocets from my dad. I got through elementary school and Jr. High by playing so hard I got dizzy. By scratching so hard it elicited the oxytocin buzz leading to prednisone-type creams applied to never-ending skin issues. I had an ulcer in high school. I learned that if I got cut or hurt I could get my own supply of “relief” (meds) from the demons that drove me daily to the edge of tolerance. Then in college I went ballistic with drugs and alcohol. It was great. Whew…not to feel myself. Though my healthy young-man’s body could handle all that, I nearly did myself in with a knife one night, and got sent to a doctor who prescribed valium and that worked quite well for quite a while.

    I hopped from one toadstool to another, but true balance came only when I felt normal. That was with opiates. I didn’t and don’t take them to get high, as much as to just feel like the world wasn’t killing me.

    Anyway, I’m 61 and I’m addicted: to alcohol, food, oxycodone, other meds, nearly every endeavor is part passion part addiction…and I just realized it: fucking addicted. I have a good relationship, and a conscious one, and awesome loving affectionate kids. I have two careers, one that makes quite a lot of money (legal btw), and one that is absolutely philanthropic. But if I miss a self-medicating fix (ice cream or oxycodone, a martini, or one of my other saviors) I absolutely want to blow my brains out, even though I am on Lexipro. Because without the endogenous opiates that I guess never grew in me, even beautiful things look ugly. Daily life makes me feel nauseous and murderous. There is nowhere inside my body that I can hide from the dysphoria demons, panic attacks, and restless body syndrome.

    I loved Robin Williams so much! I could really see myself in him: the tender loving soul, and the helpless victim of ? Well now I know it was addiction. It feels really healing to know that my disease is addiction…though I still don’t quite know what to do next.

    I liked John Belushi too! But Robin, man, that dude had heart.

  • Chele Weber
    January 25, 2015 at 7:58 PM

    Thank you.. you have incredibly rich understanding of the thinking that takes place in the minds of people afflicted with addiction, ADD and depression, such as myself. You validate me and who I am. I additionally have extreme sensitivities on an emotional, physical and environmental level. When you wrote incorrigible flaw, yes… that’s me… I am praying for wisdom so that this 55 year old can live a rich and productive work life along with deep meaningful relationships… I am desperate but determined tho make my life better… that is my state of mind… do you believe that hypnotherapy would help?

  • Allan McLay
    January 31, 2015 at 6:34 AM

    Our elders have said that those who are able to laugh are the ones that will be able to heal. If we have the strength to laugh, we will have the strength to survive.
    It is too bad that Robin Williams had found so few empathetic, genuine friends.

    • Heather
      July 9, 2015 at 2:53 AM

      Good, empathic friends have nothing to do with it!!!

  • Evening messenger
    July 8, 2015 at 6:52 AM

    I wish there was something other than yoga, psychedelics, and discussion to heal depression. Something that could ease the suffering I feel right at this moment. I’m in one of those moments right now, 2:32am. My stomach feels like it’s filled with lysurgic acid. I’m not sure if it’s the stress of the 2 packs of mr noodles I masochistically consumed in an attempt to muffle the tormenting agony of poverty I am under the influence of lately. I think of the sweet life I’d have if I didn’t have to participate in this system, or the sweet life I’d have if I did but never had to think about money, a life with daily yoga, dance classes, omega juice press juices etc. etc etc. no fuckin’ problem taking care of my health if I was in a state of basic sustainence. I struggle. I don’t have to, I can sell my fading beauty and live well, but that sucks my soul, all the deceit seeps into me, it coats me like petrol. I could work part time but that would be an absolute waste of my life, I’d rather be an artist who is homeless rather than an artist on the weekend. I actually want to apply my mind to the fuels of physics, system didn’t led me there, still on the fence about institutions, haven’t led myself there. I left school at 15, pregnant, abortion. Went back at 18, Carleton university, things were empowering in a delusional way until a wake up call by the name of Eros Corazza drove me out to the middle of nowhere on my 19th birthday to remind me of the way people view me, not for relatively outstanding academic or intellectual achievement but as an object of female sexuality, btw I’m not a feminist per say.. Just a realist… I could go on about a bunch of rape and physical abuse throughout adolescence but I’ll spare you. I had a dream about my abusive ex last night, it’s been three years since we’ve separated, he got a new girlfriend less than a year after our final split. In the dream we met, didn’t say much about what happened in our past, we went to this party, when we got there he started to blatently ignore me, he disappeared before I could convince him to explain why he would speak to me.. Then I woke up. Tonight I went to work, there were only 4 guys at the club and all of them wanted a blowjob with their 50$ dance so I left and abused my body by eating those shitty noodles because I couldn’t afford to hurt myself any other way. I’m sad about not making any money because on top of being broke from being depressed and isolated I’m fucking tired all the time because of stress and now I’m out of food so that will only become increasingly difficult. I really don’t want to feel this nausea or anxiety but I do. I don’t want to dream about my ex but I do, I remind myself that he doesn’t give a shit and then feel shitty about it. I work with perspectives and angles… But God wouldn’t I love to have just one moment where I don’t have try not to be depressed. I’ve been suicidal… This is me not even close… The people who choose not to allow themselves to think about these things are always ahead because they don’t care what other people think about what’s right and wrong… If I chose to live my life that way I’d be even more depressed, I know that because I started off that way… Anyway… Hope this real depressive madness serves its readers in some constructive way

    – A

  • Evening messenger
    July 8, 2015 at 6:11 PM

    When I woke up this morning I realized that the reason people turn to addiction is because they are conditioned to evaluate their behaviour with punishment and reward dynamics rather than positive encouragement. When the feel negative about themselves or their circumstances they want to punish themselves with their escape of choice and when they feel the need for gratification they reward themselves with the same escape only their perception of its effect on their lives has changed to suit the influence behind the action. Rather than punishing oneself when one feels down or negative one should nurture themselves, take care. This is how to heal depression beyond yoga and psychedelics and discussion. To remember not to punish yourself when your down but to nurture yourself.

  • damien
    August 21, 2015 at 6:45 PM

    Thank you Dr Gabor Mate.

  • Avera Y
    September 25, 2015 at 11:43 PM

    Robin’s demons came from a schizoid personality disorder, and the depression was a sub-symptom of that. The despair which led to the suicide was from the knowledge that no matter how adorable he was nobody would ever really know him. And for someone as loving and brilliant as Robin that would be more than enough to bring on an early unnatural death.

  • Lyle Jones
    November 26, 2015 at 9:58 PM

    I was a waiter at The Canadian Association of Family Physicians Conference today. I asked 25 delegates of the 1500 doctors from across Canada, if anyone at the conference had expertise in human host fungi. No. Not to the knowledge of any one of the 25, was there anyone amongst the 1500 who had insights that might help me.

    See my problem. ?

  • georgianne fastaia
    May 6, 2017 at 11:55 PM

    I felt something profound when Robin took his life, as many here have said, kin recognize kin.In the suffering of others we sometimes feel the grace of compassion freely given, and maybe, just maybe, take a little back to give to ourselves. I et Robin twice. It was the day after Xmas and I was the only one working at the Haight Street gift shop , “circle of Friends” that December day in 1988.Robin lived in Marin at the time and so he shambled in and pursued our selection of funny t shirts buying about 50 for his friends and co-workers. I was a bit star struck, but he was down to earth, relaxed, not “on”, and despite the pleasantries of the day and our 20 minutes alone together in a shop that was empty–what were the odds of that?
    I can’t say much, it was just a few words exchanged and a smile infused with what I immediately recognized as a deep ineffable sorrow.

    After he passed, this essay by his friend Peter Coyote stuck with me. I am certain he would be happy that it is being shared:

    PETER COYOTE
    ON HIS FRIEND ROBIN WILLIAMS
    “I am still trying to get my arms around ROBIN WILLIAMS taking his own life. Though I never knew or met him, when someone in our entertainment ecosystem passes, our accumulated familiarity with them feels like the loss of a friend. From all accounts, he was an exceedingly kind and approachable man, but battled the immense invisible pain of depression. Many do. It is hidden and no one knows often to what extent until it is too late. How sad.

    For all his crazy, funny comedic genius, it was his serious and comedic acting that I really loved… Patch Adams, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, etc. that I will miss most. His friend, actor Peter Coyote, penned a short remarkable piece that is both healing and kindly instructive:

    PETER COYOTE: “Robin and I were friends. Not intimate, because he was very shy when he was not performing. Still, I spent many birthdays and holidays at his home with Marsha and the children, and he showed up at my 70th birthday to say “Hello” and wound up mesmerizing my relatives with a fifteen-minute set that pulverized the audience.

    When I heard that he had died, I put my own sorrow aside for a later time. I’m a Zen Buddhist priest and my vows instruct me to try to help others. So this little letter is meant in that spirit.

    Normally when you are gifted with a huge talent of some kind, it’s like having a magnificent bicep. People will say, “Wow, that’s fantastic” and they tell you, truthfully, that it can change your life, take you to unimaginable realms. It can and often does. The Zen perspective is a little different. We might say, “Well, that’s a great bicep, you don’t have to do anything to it. Let’s work at bringing the rest of your body up to that level.”

    Robin’s gift could be likened to fastest thoroughbred race-horse on earth. It had unbeatable endurance, nimbleness, and a huge heart. However, it had never been fully trained. Sometimes Robin would ride it like a kayaker tearing down white-water, skimming on the edge of control. We would marvel at his courage, his daring, and his brilliance. But at other times, the horse went where he wanted, and Robin could only hang on for dear life.

    In the final analysis, what failed Robin was his greatest gift—his imagination. Clutching the horse he could no longer think of a single thing to do to change his life or make himself feel better, and he stepped off the edge of the saddle. Had the horse been trained, it might have reminded him that there is always something we can do. We can take a walk until the feeling passes. We can find someone else suffering and help them, taking the attention off our own. Or, finally, we can learn to muster our courage and simply sit still with what we are thinking are insoluble problems, becoming as intimate with them as we can, facing them until we get over our fear. They may even be insoluble, but that does not mean that there is nothing we can do.

    Our great-hearted friend will be back as the rain, as the cry of a Raven as the wind. He, you, and I have never for one moment not been a part of all it. But we would be doing his life and memory a dis-service if we did not extract some wisdom from his choice, which, if we ponder deeply enough, will turn out to be his last gift. He would beg us to pay attention if he could.”

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