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.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

11 thoughts on “After The Laughter, The Waves of Dread

  1. Great post! Thank you for sharing with us. I don’t know how anyone could call someone dealing with depression weak. To live with depression especially chronic depression would take strength that most couldn’t even imagine on their best day. Robin must have felt there was no hope and without hope what does someone hold on to?

    “When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you until it seems that you cannot hold on for a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time when the tide will turn.”
    ― Harriet Beecher Stowe

  2. I have tried on more than one occasion, triggered by some catastrophic events in my life, and just wanting to feel loved, but that doesn’t ever happen. So I take my life, as does the alcoholic in recovery, one day at a time. Some days are a little better than the last, but I try to keep myself going. I suffer from severe chronic pain and would just like it to stop and this exacerbates my depression, along with the fact that I am an aging senior. So, I get it, but we need to educate people to not walk away, say “stupid” things and to have some compassion. The depressed need someone to say “I’m here”, “you are not alone”, “I care.” That doesn’t seem to happen in most cases. Not all, but most. I will close by saying I have reached out to my family without regard and have been in and out of treatment throughout the years, but I live with a chronic, disabling disease, but so far I have learned to live with it and many thanks for your blog.

  3. Touching post. What sticks with me most is this “Eventually, I realized it didn’t matter what I tried. This was depression.” I learned about 3 years ago what can happen when mental illness decides it wants to rear its ugly head. It seems to swim below the surface, hidden from the unsuspecting, then it comes up for air. Having been suffocated for too long. Living with someone who is mentally ill is challenging. At first you aren’t quite sure why they are acting the way they are. You try everything, only to be blamed for causing the problems and then you realize it doesn’t matter what you say or do because the depression is not finished hurting your loved one and has now pulled them back under the surface with them…and they are now the ones suffocating.
    For us, the mental illness had been lurking under the surface for too long and was too powerful. It stopped the relationship between its victim and everyone else in the family. We were all ignored and eventually mental illness walked our loved one out the door.
    Mental illness does not play fair. It is the worst kind of enemy.

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