The tragic death of Robin Williams has triggered an avalanche of publicity for depression.
I can speak only from one person’s experience. My depression is not an illness, with the universality that seems to suggest a dose of Tamiflu or something would clear it up – one case of flu being very like another (although individual responses to it are not, ranging from a mild headache to respiratory failure, en masse they all fit within a definable diagnosis: it’s the same bug).
My depression is rather a personal reaction to events, learned behaviour responding to raw feelings of disempowerment, a burning sensation that has blighted my entire life and career because a part of me seems to prefer to stay in those feelings than to move on.
I cannot remember how long I have lived with it, what started it. I have almost no memories of childhood that are not little vignettes rehearsed down the years, but I sense that my depression is largely connected with the experience of being sent away to boarding school at the age of seven, my brusque treatment on arrival (“God, you smell!”) and the sense of sudden, total hopelessness it engendered.
My former life as an only child at the heart of a cozy nest of care and attention was immediately exposed to the glare of mysterious strangers, imposing obscure rules and condign punishments in an unfamiliar and frightening environment. What else do you do, but learn to mould yourself into the safest space? Some children thrive on it; others don’t. I threw myself in to the business of trying to please everyone, rising to the top of the class. But I knew it wasn’t me.
Fifty-eight years later, the other night I drank my regulation bottle of wine, listened to some music and crawled into bed, as usual alone in the dark (I fear to have the lights on, in case it is noticed that someone actually lives here). Suddenly, big butch bloke that I am, I burst into floods of tears and found myself grizzling like a three-year-old, ‘I’m sorry, whatever it is you think I’ve done I didn’t mean it. Please, please don’t leave me in this awful place.’
It was quite pathetic, really, and I wondered if I shouldn’t go back to the apparently indifferent GP I saw a few months ago, and mention it to him. After all, it’s never happened before and might be a sign of something coming to the surface, that might be valuable.
Unfortunately, the last time I had a diagnosis of depression from a more sympathetic GP, it was either take the Prozac or join the eighteen months’ queue for psychiatric evaluation and, possibly, eventually, some help. The suicide rate apparently doubles for people who come off antidepressant medication, so the choice was to drift around in a woolly cloud for the rest of my life, or risk not having a rest of my life. There were only three private counsellors in the county, their appointment books were overflowing. Being a natural depressive, I chose to live with the depression.
Imagine, you have been doing brilliantly at work, your boss offers you a promotion interview, but the new responsibility means exposing yourself to the wider world of stakeholders – the public and the media. Success! So you deliberately blow the interview and, shortly after, you walk away from the business to start another career, and then another, where you can revel instead in brilliant obscurity. Now, go back twenty, thirty years to the time you deliberately slowed down, rather than finish first in the 100m final on school sports day, because – you told yourself – winning seemed to matter more to the other kids, and you knew you could always beat them if you needed to.
Is there maybe a connection?
So you didn’t get to university either, because you were academically bright and everyone was expecting you to. But you knew, deep down, that you weren’t good enough, didn’t deserve to – might be found out – and anyway, it didn’t matter, because you were cleverer than that. So you threw the interviews, one after the other, and ended up ‘retiring’ fifty years later as an unemployed domestic caretaker, on the point of running away again; when you could have been a merchant banker. I agree, it doesn’t make sense.
To be honest, I think I would not have survived the move to an even bigger and stranger institution. I didn’t – don’t – make friends easily, feeling that I was somehow uniquely condemned to be the outsider, already alcoholic at 16, a heavy smoker and always the guy you’d find sitting on the stairs at parties. The combination of aching adolescent loneliness, shyness and booze would almost certainly have killed me.
Many years later, I got to know my estranged father a little, and was shocked to find he had been the same, running away from school and home at 16 to become an actor, hiding for years behind a stage personality, eventually exiling himself abroad, where only a few, carefully selected friends were allowed to visit. He refused even to have a funeral. And I have a photo album, in which a little Edwardian boy, his father, my grandfather, turns year by year from a happy toddler in a sailor suit, with pretty ringlets, to a miserable looking shit of 21, in his military khaki. Eventually, he became a banker and a lecturer in economics. I recall meeting him once, sitting behind a desk in his study. He stood up and formally shook my hand. I was four years old, and overawed.
Later, I discovered about my miserable, stern and severe grandfather, that he had been a wartime spy – Deputy Director, no less, of Economic Intelligence at MI6; bisexual, he is said to have had an affair with a prominent politician; a gold-digger, he financed a louche lifestyle of private aircraft and villas in the south of France by successively marrying wealthy heiresses; and, a frequent giver of well-lubricated parties, he was also a dreadful philanderer who died in flagrante of a heart attack, it’s said atop one of his young female students. Depression can take many forms, some seemingly more enjoyable than others.
So, there was a genetic component to my condition, I discovered, which made it pretty well inescapable.
On top of his own lifelong depression, his admitted frequent recourse to drink and drugs, despite his quicksilver mind and his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Robin Williams never quite became a banker, in the Hollywood sense. Tragic, comic, he was never safely, predictably in the middle, or an actioner, like Clooney or Micky Rourke, Stallone or Ben Affleck. Nothing ever exploded around him, the pyrotechnics came from within.
Was this the inside-out man?
On top of depression and multiple addictions, Williams has been reported to have been struggling financially, on the verge of bankruptcy, while today it is said he recently had a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. You’d think he’d have seen the funny side. His comedy often overstepped the boundary of self-lacerating mania, and like Richard Pryor sometimes he seemed to wear his internal organs on the outside, haemorrhaging violently while we all fell about laughing at him. And like my friend Graeme, who hanged himself at 36 leaving three children, everyone said, what a great guy! What a shame! It’s maybe easier to live with being not such a great guy; to live with the shame.
Sometimes I wonder if we depressives actually enjoy provoking ‘normal’ people’s indifference to our self-imposed plight? It does help. Depression is a self-indulgent condition, a wrapping of yourself in a familiar icy blanket of helplessness and despondency, as any agency you might have thought you had to achieve a measure of control or to influence events seems put beyond reach by overwhelming external forces – even when it isn’t.
It’s like now, I take comfort in being able to bogl ruefully about my apparent inability to move forward by selling everything I own, as no-one seems interested in buying any of it. It’s really me they’re not buying, but isn’t that how I like it? I’ve just this morning depressed myself satisfyingly by provoking a row over fifty quid with a man who seemed genuinely to want to buy one of my guitars that I am selling, that I have been unable to sell for many months, but who has pissed me of by his mulish insistence on offering marginally less than it is worth before he has even seen it. I’m the only one who has a right to undervalue myself, my guitars, no-one else. But I could sure use the money.
Such introverted complexity is a curse, but in the end it finds its own resolution in the comfort of perpetual misery, of life-affirming spiritual and financial penury. People call me grumpy, I’m not: I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m my own worst enemy. I’d rather not be here to inflict this on others, and I don’t know why. There’s nothing I can do. Suicide seems to demand an impossible degree of organised motivation when you’re going to die anyway.
I joke about practising to be the old loner whom nobody knows, found long-dead and mummefied in his armchair, partly gnawed by cats; but it’s not really a joke, I’m just watching it happening now, as I write.
A glass half-full stays on the table; a glass half-empty is quickly refilled, a wise man once noticed.