I commend Dr. David Carll for his column in your September issue lamenting the death of Robin Williams. As a psychodynamic psychiatrist I would like to take his commentary a step further.
First, I am delighted that Dr. Carll is looking for the “how and why” of Williams’ death and that he does not automatically defer to the popular interpretation of human problems as “mental illness”. He goes only as far as referring to “health issues” which I think is much closer to the truth. I see depression as a serious emotional problem that, in affecting the brain, acts like an illness. Too often we overlook that its cause is not necessarily in the brain but in the problems of human life and human development. No one’s depression comes from nowhere. There is always a story and a set of problems that make sense of depression and, in finding its meaning, point to a solution. People may not want to look at it or be aware of it but just because we do not see what our pain is about does not automatically mean that depression is just a “brain illness”.
In Robin Williams’ case there are some very good clues. First of all, his humour itself was always frantic and desperate, suggestive of pain. Like many others, I have noticed this since first becoming a fan of his, years ago, when he appeared on Peter Gzowski’s talk show on CBC. Second, Williams made a casual statement at one point to the effect that his alcoholism didn’t mean anything, that “it comes from nowhere”. This means to me that he did not want to look inside or to have help to do so. On another occasion he made a compelling and profound statement saying that “you think the worst thing that could happen to you is to wind up alone in life but the worst thing, really, is that you wind up with people who make you feel alone in life”. This is a revealing personal statement, is it not?
Then comes the clever journalist; the one who makes the key observation that everyone else seems to overlook. To me, it is a fundamental piece to understanding the puzzle of Robin Williams’ death to read, in one of the obituaries, a reporter who writes that Robin was raised in Chicago the overweight only child of a Ford executive who spent his childhood playing by himself in a wealthy home with 2000 toy soldiers. Quite a picture, isn’t it. Perhaps he was living with people who made him feel alone in life. It seems very likely to me that it went like this. He grew up in the pain of the isolated child; he found attention and relief in the manic denial of his comic gift that drew on his pain; he became dependent on drugs and alcohol to relieve the pain that he would not otherwise look at, creating an addiction which compounded his suffering. Where at first he had one problem then he had two.
The refusal to look, the manic denial of pain in his humour, the flight into drug and alcohol addiction and his original pain and loneliness combined to produce a clinical depression that killed him. Of course, you could skip all is and say that he just had a brain illness. It’s a lot easier, isn’t it? But, I ask, is there any real help or hope in that? If Robin Williams had been willing to have help to look into what was his actual lifelong suffering, there might well have been a real solution for him beyond the symptomatic benefit of medications and the false solution of drugs and alcohol. Too late now.
Dr. Howard Taynen