The sadness most of us feel about the death of Robin Williams is palpable.
I spent a few minutes with him at a family event a number of years ago and felt his warmth, generosity and sincerity.
The occasion was a fundraiser for Parkinson’s disease. The person being honored was my stepdad, Al Brounstein. Al, along with my mom, Boots, started a winery in the Napa Valley about 40 years ago. They were the first vineyard to produce Cabernet Sauvignon exclusively in the history of the Napa Valley. In his early 60s, Al developed Parkinson’s.
Robin and his wife at the time, Marsha, got to know Al and Boots. I was very excited to hear that Robin was going to be at the fundraiser, and when I saw him there I went up to him and introduced myself.
Once he found out that Al was my stepdad, Robin could not stop talking about him. He said that Al was one of the most remarkable people he had ever met. He went on and on about what a great attitude and sense of humor Al had about his Parkinson’s, and how it hadn’t stopped him from giving people so much joy and making such great wine.
Robin was absolutely right about Al’s great attitude and sense of humor. Because of the Parkinson’s, Al’s arms and hands could shake a lot, which could be off-putting, especially to strangers. But Al had a million jokes to put people at ease.
For example, If you were tasting his wine he’d go up to you, with one of his arms shaking wildly, and, flashing his mile-wide smile, would say, “Listen, if you don’t like it for any reason, pour it back in the bottle, give me the bottle for five minutes and I’ll give you a Cabernet Milk Shake that I’ll guarantee you’ll like.”
Part of the festivities that evening included a wine auction. One lot in particular was not doing well, and out of the blue Robin stood up, went up to the dais and, doing his shtick, took over for the surprised auctioneer. He had the crowd laughing hysterically within moments and, simultaneously, got them to bid the lot way up, thus raising thousands more dollars to fight Parkinson’s than would have otherwise happened.
One sadness for me in this wonderful memory is that Robin is now dead — by, it’s been reported, suicide — at about the same age that Al was when he got Parkinson’s. At the time of the fundraiser that Robin was at, Al was 80. And Al lived another 6 years after that.
The key phrase I read yesterday was from Robin’s publicist, who said Williams had been “battling severe depression.”
Back when I was an undergraduate at UCLA in the early 1970s, I took a class from Dr. Ed Shneidman, who had a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. I minored in psychology and Shneidman’s class was about suicide. Shneidman, who died in 2009 at the age of 91, was the co-founder of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center. It was either the first or second time he taught the class.
I no longer have my notes from that class, but I do want to quote for you a few passages from the 1998 edition of one of Shneidman’s books, “The Suicidal Mind.”
One of the paradoxical truths about suicide that Shneidman used to lecture about is reiterated in his book: “Most people who commit suicide talk about it, [though] most people who talk about it do not commit it.”
More specifically, Shneidman notes, if you follow a group of people for five years, only about 2% to 3% of those who threaten suicide will actually take their own lives. On the other hand, about 90% of those who commit suicide have talked about taking their own lives.
Among the group of 10% who commit suicide but who do not talk about it are those who are so depressed that at the same time they have a hard time connecting “emotional experiences with thoughts.” This results in a “split between what we think and what we feel,” Shneidman writes.
In his book, Shneidman reprints the following, which is an excerpt of the late award-winning writer William Styron’s essay about depression that ran in Newsweek on April 18, 1994. It’s called “An Interior Pain That Is All But Indescribable.”
My wife and I had been invited to dinner with half-a-dozen friends at a fine Italian restaurant in New York. I very much feared the hour … by dinnertime I felt virtually suffocated by psychic discomfort. Of course, that evening I could have stayed at home [but] the anguish is lodged in the mind, so it matters little where the corporeal self is located; one will feel equal desolation at home in one’s armchair or trying to eat dinner at Primavera.
I say “trying” to eat dinner because my appetite had decreased over the previous week to a point where I was eating purely for sustenance. Two of my table companions were charming friends I had known for years. I picked at [my food] without tasting it. For no particular reason, the sense of encroaching doom was especially powerful that night. But the demented stoicism that depression imposes on behavior caused me to register scarcely a flicker of this inner devastation. I chatted with my companions, nodded amiably, made the appropriate frowns and smiles.
The restroom was nearby, down a flight of carpeted stairs. On my way there the fantasies of suicide, which had been embedded in my thoughts daily for several weeks, and which I had kept at bay during the dinner conversation, returned in a flood. To rid one’s self of this torment (but how? and when?) becomes the paramount need of all people suffering depression. I wondered desperately whether I would make it through the rest of the evening without betraying my condition. On my return to the floor above I astonished myself by expressing my misery aloud in a spontaneous utterance which my normal self would have rejected in shame. “I’m dying” I groaned, to the obvious dismay of a man passing down the stairway. The blurted words were one of the most fearsome auguries of my will to self-destruction: within a week I would be writing, in a stupor of disbelief, suicide notes.
Some months later my two table companions recollected that I had appeared to be behaving quite normally. The monumental aplomb I exhibited is testimony to the almost uniquely interior nature of the pain of depression, a pain that is all but indescribable, and therefore to everyone but the sufferer almost meaningless.
Shneidman also quotes A. Alvarez’s famous book about suicide, “The Savage God”:
“Once a man decides to take his own life he enters a shut-off, impregnable but wholly convincing world where every detail fits and every incident reinforces his position.”
One of the only ways to help a person in such a state is to “let some light in so that the person can see new angles,” Shneidman writes.
Yesterday, when he heard what happened to Robin Williams, Jimmy Kimmel tweeted: “Robin was as sweet a man as he was funny. If you’re sad, please tell someone.”
And while sadness, along with feelings of gloom, despair and despondency are indeed warning signs of someone who may be suicidal, for the person who is in deep depression it’s hard for them to seek help themselves. A number of celebrities have spoken about their own bouts with deep depression, including the late Mike Wallace, who used to be on “60 Minutes,” and former talk-show host Dick Cavett.
Another celebrity who has opened up about his struggle with depression is David Letterman. Letterman talks about his battle in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, which you can see at the bottom of this post.
Cavett has said, in a video he made for BigThink.com “If you have a relative who’s lost interest in everything and doesn’t get out of bed, who doesn’t care for things they used to, can’t imagine anything that would give them any pleasure, don’t fool around with it, get therapy, get help, get medication if that’s right for [them], or talk therapy, or something. But the very simple reason that you don’t want to fool with it is, people with depression commit suicide.”
Cavett added, “[I]t’s a ticking time bomb … but you don’t do any favors to the depressed person by saying, ‘Come on, snap out of it.’”
I hope this essay may help us help the next person who is thinking of committing suicide. As Shneidman wrote in the preface to “The Suicidal Mind”:
It is the words that suicidal people say — about their psychological pain and their frustrated psychological needs — that make up the essential vocabulary of suicide. Suicide prevention can be everybody’s business. … The principal goals of all my writing on suicide for the past 45 years have been to be helpful and to relieve pain. I live with the hope that I am not deluded in this aspiration.”