Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On the Passing of Robin Williams

“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci.”

― Alan MooreWatchmen

Even while I'm at camp I'm not completely immune to the news. Robin Williams' death is both shocking and, sadly, not entirely unexpected. We have known for years that the actor and comedian, brilliant as he was at his craft, struggled with depression, self-medication and addiction. 

Wilmington's Jewish community has suffered a rash of suicides this year, all of them young people, each one more tragic and gut-wrenching than the next. When a celebrity dies in such a manner there is hope that more attention will be paid; the cynic in me doubts it. 

The truth is: depression is neither weakness nor failing. It is an illness that must be taken seriously. It doesn't define the sufferer; yet we approach depression with fear of contagion and a sense of taboo. There is nothing Jewish about this; the psalms speak of walking in valleys of deepest darkness (psalm 23). Elijah, after his confrontation on Mt. Carmel, appears to have a depressive episode, and pleads before God at Horeb to take his life, as relief from his despair. Likewise Jonah and Saul. Each person's experience is unique; therefore, each person is going to need different kinds of support, and different techniques to deal with the symptoms: medication, therapy, meditation, reading, writing, being surrounded by loved ones, acting. But all of those techniques tread the symptoms; too often we act as if they can be a panacea. It is not enough to wish they knew they were loved; as Molly Pohlig points out beautifully in this post on Slate, "At my lowest, love cannot save me. Hope, prayers, daily affirmations—none of these can save me. Therapy and medicine are what matter, and those don’t always work either."

What is needed is to create the space to speak openly, lovingly, about those who suffer depression, to see the person suffering and not merely the illness, and to offer them the strength that when they do walk through the valley of deepest darkness, they are able to come through.

If you are suffering, reach out to a teacher, a friend, a clergy person. And if you feel you have no one to reach out to, The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

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