A Chapter for Robin Williams

Robin Williams’ death has rattled so many of us, especially those of us who struggle with depression. I want to share this excerpt from my memoir to remind those of you out there who are in the depths of this hideous disease that you are not alone, and whether you believe it or not, you will not always feel this excruciating emotional pain.

If you know someone who is struggling and you don’t know what to do, trust your instincts and show up, even if they tell you to go away. My father didn’t know how help me, but he showed up and gave it his best effort. The day depicted in this chapter changed my life. I am forever grateful to my dad for trying something, anything to help me.

The background you’ll need to know is that I had left Manhattan after rough first year out of college. After I had a breakdown, my mom came to NYC and scooped me up and took me home to Ohio. She’s the hero of the earlier chapters. This chapter it’s my dad’s turn. 


Bottom

May 1996, Ohio, Age 22

Those weeks, I stayed on the couch, sometimes watching television, but mostly sleeping then waking and staring at the couch’s back cushion. It was maroon, a wide stitch, full of earthy smells from years of evening escape into the television. Day after day, I would wake up, walk from my bedroom to the couch, fall asleep, wake up, stare at the couch cushion, maybe cry or think about going to the bathroom before drifting back to sleep. The pattern quickly became arduous yet irresistible.

It was late spring. The weather was warm and bright, and I lay inside completely inert. I hoped to die. I hoped for a heart attack that would send me to the hospital where nurses would tend to me and ask me what was wrong. What I felt was more than sadness. It had become an inviting blackness. I began to love falling into that dark place. I clung to the awful feelings because they were so familiar, so honest, so intoxicating, and they shut out everything else. There was no room for considering that I could try again at life, that I could try but I might fail and that was okay. I could not imagine that something or someone might help me feel better. I fantasized about dying, then sat frozen with fear that I would indeed some day cease to live. 

“Do you want something to eat?” my mom would whisper, rubbing my back.

“No,” I’d mumble.

“Do you want to come with me to the store?”

“No.”

“Okay, well, I’ll be back in about half an hour,” she’d say.

The days like this merged into one long, bleak existence. I had never experienced this kind of gravity. The thought of getting up and going somewhere, doing something, exhausted and terrified me. So I didn’t do a thing. For days. Soon my mom’s school year ended, and she was home with me each day, but that made no difference. My favorite place was officially the dark crack between the cushions on the back of the couch. My face felt best pushed into that crack. Sensory deprivation had become the only way to comfort myself. I needed to be alone with no light, no sounds, no smells, and as little air circulation as possible. The breeze from an opened door hurt my skin.

I don’t know how many days I spent like this. Ten? Fifteen? But finally, one afternoon, my Dad came home from work early. This alone was almost unheard of. Maybe my mom had called him in desperation. Maybe he’d seen me there on the couch for too many days and the sight made him unable to focus at his desk.

When he walked into the family room at around 4PM on that average afternoon, there was no noise, just me trying to keep breathing. He walked over to me and said, “Julie?” I didn’t have the energy to respond. “You’ve got to get up,” he said.

I replied with a muffled, “No.”

“Yes,” he said. “Come on.”

“I can’t,” I mumbled. I started crying.

“Yes, you can,” he said, putting his hand on my back. I pushed my face into the cushion and sobbed. My hair was a matted, tangled mess. I could feel the clump of hair shift as I shook my head no. I wanted him to leave; I wanted him to never leave.

I felt his hands push under my body, and he began to pick me up.

“No, no, no, no,” I wept. I didn’t want to be carried anywhere. I could only exist there on that couch. That was my only place left.

“We are going outside. You need to get outside,” he said.

“I can’t,” I said in a whimper. “Dad, I can’t.”

“I’ll help you,” he said, quietly. “I’m here, and I’ll help you.” I put my arms around him and buried my face in his neck. “Laur, get the door,” he said. I heard my mom’s slippers rush to the front door, and he carried me down our front step and onto the driveway. “Can you stand?” he asked. I couldn’t imagine letting go of him. I believed that there was no way I could actually stand up, especially outside. But I felt him letting my legs go, and I put one foot on the ground, then the other. He held me on our driveway, said to my mom who was watching with concern, “It’s okay, Laur. I’ve got it.” She went inside and closed the door gently. This was a moment for only him to witness. It was as if he dipped his arm down into the burning depths of hell and would let it burn if only I would please, please take hold of his hand.

“We’re just going to go for a little walk, okay?” he said, in a voice that was easy-going. Simple. A you can do this voice. He was still wearing his suit pants and a red tie. He’d loosened his collar a bit and rolled up his sleeves. “Just a little stroll,” he whispered, like a meditation. “Just down our driveway, to the next driveway, then we’ll turn around. You talk if you’re ready. You tell me what you need. Tell me anything.”

I leaned on him heavily and he held me with his strong arms. I focused on his strawberry blonde arm hair as we walked. He’d been a redhead as a child. I’d been born with red hair too. We were kindred spirits. I wanted to be more of a priority in his life. I didn’t feel worthy. I felt terrible at this very moment for making him miss work to tend to stupid, worthless me.

We made it to the end of our driveway, my feet moving slowly, automatically beneath me. I used to sprint down these roads, my legs so strong and my future so full of promise. Now here I was feeling lucky that I’d walked three hundred feet.

The air outside lifted me just an ounce, made me feel like I could move again. It felt miraculous that I felt different, that just walking down our long driveway took some of the blackness’ power away. As we reached our neighbor’s driveway and turned around, I finally opened my eyes and squinted in the sunlight.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Dad,” I said.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You’ll be okay.”

“I don’t know if I will,” I said, weeping now. “I really don’t.”

“You’re still you,” he said. “You’re still beautiful and smart and strong.”

I couldn’t talk anymore, just nodded and let the tears drip down my cheeks. He granted me a merciful silence and held my waist tightly as we walked, like I’d been in a car accident and these were my first steps since the bones had healed. I closed my eyes and let him guide me back up the driveway. He asked if I wanted an early dinner. I said I was too tired, that I just wanted to go to bed. He took me to my bedroom, put me in my bed, slipped off my shoes and pulled up the sheets. “I’m proud of you, princess,” he said. “You did good. I love you.”

I closed my eyes, exhausted by the walk, ready for another solid block of sleep. But I felt a bit different, like the blanket of sorrow had transformed from lead to wood.


This from William Styron

“The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.Through the healing process of time—and through medical intervention or hospitalization in many cases—most people survive depression, which may be its only blessing; but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.”

6 thoughts on “A Chapter for Robin Williams

  1. Julie, thank you so much for sharing this. Last Sunday I lost a beautiful friend to depression I was not even aware she suffered from. We are all beyond rattled and so desperately sad that she suffered so much, that so many of us were unaware, and that we no longer have her. I’ve been trying to understand it all and this is very helpful. You are a brave beautiful soul and I am so happy you were able to find the light.

    • Thank you so much for this comment. I am so saddened by the loss of your friend. I am so sorry she suffered so dearly that she couldn’t see a way out. I’ve felt that way before too–it’s frightening and awful. You are a wonderful friend to be seeking ways to understand what she was going through. Too many people suffer in silence and shame with depression. It’s time to shine the light on it so people can see their way out. Thank you again. ~ Julie

  2. Do I have your permission to use this with patients? If so, do I have your permission to identify you at all(I can block out your name), and say you are a relative? I have two people right now on suicide watch.

  3. Thank you Julie. I’m excited about the conversation that is underway about depression and suicide. It’s too bad we all had to be jolted into it by Robin Williams’ suicide, but hey, just as long as we keep talking. And just as long as those who are depressed hear us talking with compassion and hope, then maybe they will turn to someone in their darkest moments and ask for help rather than hide and suffer silently and alone. You write beautifully about that important day of major shift for you. Sometimes it doesn’t take much more than someone leading you out the door and into the sunshine for a few precious minutes.

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