After The Laughter, The Waves of Dread

Robin-Williams-robin-williams-32089778-2798-2798To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.”
— Charlie Chaplin

That quote has been a favorite of mine for many years. It’s never felt more achingly true than tonight, as I sit here processing the death of Robin Williams. How painful and beautiful to read the spontaneous outpourings all over the internet tonight…fans, and friends, and thousands of ordinary people, expressing their admiration for his talent, their shock and sadness at his passing.

I’m also reminded of words James Taylor sang twenty-years-ago, about the death of his friend, John Belushi.

“John’s gone found dead he dies high he’s brown bread
Later said to have drowned in his bed
After the laughter the wave of the dread
It hits us like a ton of lead”

Comedy and tragedy always exist as two sides of a coin. We laugh because we know how to cry; and vice versa. Great comedians, as Chaplin and Williams knew, take out their pain and play with it for a while. They turn it into something beautiful that often helps save the rest of us from our despair.

comedy-tragedy-theatre.jpg.pagespeed.ce_.mb7wzS84XII’ve often said that comedians uncover the injustice and basic unfairness of life in ways quite similar to the great Biblical prophets. Both comedians and prophets are usually outsiders. Both speak truth to power. Both often give human beings hope. But, because they delve the pain of our world, they often take a lot of it in too. And the pain of their own lives is often what gives them such a keen compassion (a word that literally means, “to suffer with”) for the world’s pain.

{UPDATE: Please read this incredible blog, which says what I’m trying to say here far better, and more bluntly too. Strong language warning…you have been warned…EF)

But after the laughter, the waves of dread.

The reports tonight are that Williams’ death is being investigated as a suicide. His spokesperson described him as “battling severed depression of late.” If all this is true, it makes his death all the more tragic.

And, it turns my thoughts to one of my favorite of his films, “What Dreams May Come.”

When I learned of his death, in the midst of my own tears, it was this film that came to me.

The film is the story of a man who dies prematurely in a car crash. From his place in heaven, he witnesses his wife lose her hope and commit suicide. The film is a sort of modern Dante’s Inferno, with Williams’ character fighting his way from “heaven” into “hell” in an attempt to save his wife.

But so deep into the depths of her depression is she that she doesn’t recognize him. All seems hopeless. Only after much effort, and when all seems lost, does she finally recognize him and is saved from her darkness.

Here’s the climactic scene. In both the book at the film, the monologue is roughly the same. What finally seems to get through is when Williams’ character reminds her of the simple goodness of life, apologizing to her one final time.

My own tears over Williams’ death date back to this film. Because, in a sense, Dennise and I had lived it.

The few years following our wedding turned out to be challenging ones. Dennise found herself in the midst of a serious depression. I won’t go into any details here. But she was in a place where I felt like I couldn’t reach her. I didn’t know what to do. I tried jokes. I tried logic. I tried affection. Eventually, I realized it didn’t matter what I tried. This was depression.

Thankfully, she realized it too. And she worked hard. Through medication, diet, counseling, and time, she got to a much much better place. Years later, I would struggle through my own period of depression, and would also be grateful for the gifts of medication and counseling. Things improved for us both. We got to a much better place.

So, flash forward to the film’s release. On our way home from seeing, “What Dreams May Come,” I burst into tears in the car.

It was a hidden wellspring of tears from that earlier, lonely and painful time that I hadn’t even known were still in there. I realized I’d been Williams’ character. I’d been trying to reach her in those days, and many days I had failed. She was trying to reach out too, and hadn’t known what to do either.

I cried. Dennise cried. And in those tears, we both found ourselves grateful that our own dark time was blessedly behind us.

Which is why I got emotional today. If only Williams’ own character could have come to him today.

Of course, that’s a ridiculous fantasy. Depression, addiction, and whatever else he might have might have struggled with, don’t just vanish like some great, climactic movie scene.

Sometimes, blessedly, they go away forever through lots of work. Other times, they ebb and flow as long as life lasts. Sometimes, no matter what we do, the waves of dread, keep hitting us like a tons of lead.

I suppose where I’m really going with this tonight is to say: If you feel depressed, hopeless, and don’t know where to turn, please reach out to someone. Lot’s of other people have been there too. We understand your path even if we can’t walk your exact steps.

Please call the Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255. Or, click here to go to their website. If you’re a part of our Northaven Friends and Family, don’t hesitate to call us at the church too.

Depression is a medical condition and sometimes a medical treatment is what is needed. If you suffered from diabetes, you might need to take insulin. If you suffer from depression, you might need to take antidepressants, or go through long term therapy. To this day, therapy is a regular part of my life.

Far from showing “weakness,” getting help shows powerful strength.

We share that story of our own depression in the hopes of demystifying it for others, especially in the light of a death like Robin Williams. To see someone that talented take their life can make things feel especially dark for others who are struggling. But I have found that it can really help others to understand just how many other folks they know struggle with depression.

For example, recently a friend told me she’d been at a James Taylor concert. As you may recall, James checked himself in to a psychiatric hospital as young man. The hospital is named “McLean” and to this day in that hospital is a place called “the wall,” where famous clients of the past are listed as a way of inspiring the current residents.

My friend approached JT during intermission, as he walking the rope line signing autographs. She yelled out, “My daughter was at McLean.”

That got James’ attention. He came over to my friend, and asked about her daughter. My friend thanked James Taylor for being open with his own challenges.

My friend described it this way, “I told him that it meant a lot to (my daughter) that his name is on The Wall …I told him it made a difference, and I thanked him. He told me to tell her hi and that he hopes she does well and that he will be thinking of her.

…by his eyes I could tell that he was jarred to another reality when I said McLean, and he needed to know that he has done real good by being public and putting his name on that wall…Probably no one else could have told him that last night….

I really didn’t give a shit that it was “James Taylor.” This is some guy who was in and out of McLean, and had the courage to be public and put his name on that wall and he… got my daughter through a rough time when she thought her life and career were over.”

Friends, be careful out there. Let’s look out for each other. Let’s love each other. And share your stories with others, as you find the courage to do so. Because it can help somebody else.

Know that many others –sometimes people you assume have it all “together”– have once, or are now, struggling with depression and addiction too.

And if you’re struggling with pain and depression in your life, if after the laughter there are only waves of dread, find a way to reach out.

Your life is worth it.