Were you as shocked as I was when you heard the tragic news of Robin Williams’ suicide? I just stood motionless for a time, wondering why. Of course, people are complicated. I didn’t know Robin Williams. Sure, the comedian and actor that struggled with addictions and depression, but all that’s just surface stuff. His wife and kids knew he was in pain. But not even they knew how much. One’s struggles are so deeply personal. I’m sure they were as shocked as we were, probably more so. My guess is that he hid his pain from them too, out of love.
I’m sad. My heart breaks for him and his family. It breaks for all of us collectively too. The world just lost a unique and wildly creative perspective. Few people ever see the world as idiosyncratically as he did. We need perspectives like Robin Williams.’ People like him help the rest of us open our minds a bit further. His creativity was such a gift. Not as obvious though, but way more poignant now, was that he also carried its curse. There’s a dark side to creativity.
I’m reminded of the famous Jack Kerouac quote, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” The burning, that’s what I want to explore. Because Robin, you were a Roman candle too. We all burn out eventually. I’m just wondering if maybe you didn’t snuff out your light too soon? I may be wrong. Again, each of our struggles is so deeply personal. But I can’t help but think it didn’t have to be this way.
I watched Wolf Blitzer interview Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN this week. Wolf astutely hit on this Jack Kerouac theme by asking Sanjay, ‘if the traits that made Williams a great comedian might also have contributed to his deep depression?’ Sanjay speculated this was so, and I agree. It’s easy to imagine how an innately strong, inborn passion could push a person’s emotional pendulum from manic to depressive and back. In fact, it’s so common that it’s almost cliche–the depressed and addicted comic, musician, artist, or writer. Sanjay went on to remark that there are no easy answers. And he’s right again. But if we’re to understand this problem better and hope to prevent the next artistic genius from killing himself, we’re going to have to make sense of the shadow side of creativity, and learn to work with it. I’ve found Jungian and Buddhist psychological to be very effective in this respect.
Secondarily, may I suggest that we start by thinking about disorders like depression and addictions more critically? Sanjay started the interview by reminding us that depression is a disease. I’m not criticizing or even contending with Dr. Gupta. The subtext of his comment was that depression is a serious condition and that it warrants serious treatment. I wholeheartedly agree. Yet, I cringe when I hear the word disease. I know, it’s my issue. But I do so because I know that words are powerful, and in this specific case, it can be misunderstood. Everyone regards cancer as a disease. But does the word disease mean the same thing when applied to depression and addictions? To anyone listening, it carries the same weight. Sure, depression and addictions meet the definition: a particular quality, habit, or disposition regarded as adversely affecting a person. But are we talking about the same thing?
Cancer is primarily a disease of the body. The most-effective treatments for cancer target the body. Psycho-spiritual-emotional interventions may help on the margins. But affirmations, prayer, healing touch, meditation, group therapy and the rest can’t hold a candle to the power of the latest biological and chemotherapies. Depression and addictions are different. They are primarily diseases (qualities, habits, and dispositions) of the mind and heart. Yes, they affect the body too, it’s a whole system. So brain circuits do malfunction. But these conditions are primarily diseases of meaning (thoughts of self, needs, wants, losses, threats, urges, inadequacies, injustices, etc.). For that reason, they are extremely context dependent. That is why a change in meaning can result in a change in being.
Long and short of it is lumping all these disparate conditions together under on label seems like a mistake. If we continue to call both cancer and depression diseases, then we need two categories: one for the diseases of the body, and another for diseases of the mind and heart. Treat the former with biologic and pharmaceutical interventions supported with integrative approaches for symptom management. Treat the latter primarily with integrative interventions, talk and group therapy, shadow work, and most especially meditation and mindfulness. Then, offer pharmaceuticals to manage symptom intensity. That’s what makes the most sense.
The myriad ways humans manifest repetitious patterns of suffering require us to be a little more thoughtful in our approaches to curing them. I’m going to miss Robin Williams. Had the context shifted somewhere in his past, through mind training, I believe things could have been different.
If you found this post interesting or insightful offer your comments. Please also tweet and retweet and otherwise share it within your social media networks.