Talking therapy

Robin Williams: His Laughter & Legacy of Sadness

Who would have thought that behind the funny face and well-timed quips lay a complex interplay of struggles which would lead to his tragic demise. He chose the limelight of the stage in which to enact his improvised personas for the amusement of his audience, but in the end his toughest role was his real life – the third act in the final stage of his life.

At some point we will all go through an adversity for which there seems to be no help on the horizon. Whether professionals, parents or life partners – all lack the resources or insight necessary to help you overcome this gigantic hurdle. Williams’s hurdle was more gigantic than most. No amount of money, fame or privilege was going to rid him of the “terrorists in his mind”, as the Lewy Body Dementia which took over of his brain was so aptly described by his widow, Susan Schneider Williams.

Posthumously, he was diagnosed with the second worse case of dementia – Lewy Body Dementia, but at the time of his death he was labouring under the doctor’s misdiagnosis that he had Parkinson’s disease. Either diagnosis would have sent chills down the spine of any human being; even the most seasoned of comedians would have struggles to joke about such a menacing outcome.

But in the months leading up to his death, his increasing tally of debilitating symptoms, translated to the ultimate death sentence – he just didn’t know how to be funny anymore. Williams, who is best remembered for his outstanding performances in films such as ‘Dead Poets Society’, ‘Mrs Doubtfire’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’ for which he received an Academy Award, in the final months of his life was confronted with a role for which there was no script or rehearsal to prepare him. This was reality, raw and uncut – the loss of the tools of his trade – mental acuity, quick wit and a razor-sharp memory. Also, as a comedian he was also known for his physical humour, and he was losing control of his bodily movements. His comedic style was often described ad manic; this coupled with his recurrent bouts of depression throughout his life, raises the troubling question of whether Robin was also suffering from manic depression.

What seemed to come so easily to Robin, may not have been as easy as it looked. Williams attributes the stress of stand-up comedy as his reason for experimenting with drugs and alcohol. He would struggle with addiction for more than two decades. Robin has been quoted as saying, “Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.”

It is often thought that comedians are the happiest people in the world. After all, how can those who bring laughter to others not be full of happiness themselves?  But is their choice of occupation in fact a coping mechanism? He may well have endured a childhood of emotional neglect. This would explain why he was drawn to comedy – an attempt to dispel the loneliness of his childhood. He created characters and conversations in his head to cope with the loneliness of being an only child. His parents were wealthy so Robin lived in a big house, and was often looked after by a nanny because both parents worked. He was also bullied in school when he was in the sixth grade.

We were so busy laughing, we were so awestruck by the genius of this comedian with his inimitable talent that we didn’t notice the sadness and his subtle cries for help. But we are not laughing now. We are still reeling from the shock of his sudden departure and wishing he was still here.

Talking therapy

Self-inquiry: a key to self-liberation

Imaginary Interview with David Webb, suicide Attempter and Suicidologist

In 2002, David Webb addressed the Suicide Prevention Australia Conference in Sydney. Dr Carla devised an interview format as the best way of presenting the insights he shared.

Dr C: Describe some of the feelings you experienced when you were suicidal.

DW: I used to sometimes feel invisible. Despite the joys and wonders of this extraordinary gift of life, I was thinking that it’s not worth it. The psychache is unbearable. It was not a case of having a problem because as far as I was concerned, my problem was my life. This struggle lasted for four years.

Dr C: where do you think the medical profession might be getting it wrong in the treatment of the suicidal?

DW: they want to give you a pill to fix your broken brain. By viewing it as an illness of depression, it pathologises our most human qualities so that we suppress symptoms without addressing the causes. Also, the scholars want to put you into categories of suicide contemplators, attempters and completers when in fact the boundaries between these categories, from my experience, were not that significant.

Dr C: Having survived a suicide attempt, what is life like for you now?

DW: I struggled with knowing what to call myself because a’suicide survivor’ in the strict sense refers to someone bereaved by suicide. There was no way of reaching out to my fellow survivors without a name for us.

Dr C: you have said that suicide is studied from all these various perspectives – biological, psychiatric, psychological, sociological. What perspective do you bring to it as a suicidologist?

DW: I see it as a crisis of the self – the self killing the self. Psychology provides no unified agreement on what constitutes the self. It is assumed that the mind is the essence of our being. Descartes famously stated “I think therefore I am”.

Dr C: what were some of the spiritual insights you gained which helped in your recovery?

DW: I realised that my hopeless ness arose from an absence of meaningfulness. I felt my life was without any meaning and purpose, and there was no hope of it ever being otherwise. I thought, why put up with this pain, when there is absolutely no point? It was a combination of hopeless ness and helplessness. Spiritual self-inquiry is what saved my life. I asked myself the question – “who am I?”. I came to recognise that Descartes dictum was flawed and that in fact it is the opposite, “I am therefore I think”. I am a human being first not a human doing or thinking.

Dr C: What is the way forward in the study of suicide?

DW: the self and self-inquiry need to have a seat at the table of suicidology alongside these other fields of study which rely on the scientific method. You can never know another person’s pain and no scientific instrument can measure the severity of my pain against yours. It is not physical, objective or even rational. Spiritual wisdom, spiritual ways of knowing and spiritual practices need to be included in the conversation.

Dr C: what are some final thoughts you would like to share for all those who may be struggling with suicide as you struggled?

DW: Healing and recovery begins with telling your story. This helps to overcome the shame, stigma, denial, self-doubt and fear which combine to create a very real and powerful taboo against talking of our suicidality. Stories of survival and recovery will also help you to feel less lonely and spark a light of hope at the end of the tunnel of hopelessness. But to tell our stories we need a safe place where we can speak up and truly be heard. This space needs to allow all of that person to be present without fear of negative judgements.

*Psychache is defined by Edwin S. Scheidman as psychological pain arising from frustrated or thwarted psychological needs [The Suicidal Mind (Oxford University Press, 1996)]

Talking therapy

Caroline Flack – The Fear Factor

Caroline Flack’s suicide has sent shockwaves around the internet. It confirms that we should never allow our externals to define us. By all appearances, Caroline had everything to live for – fame, beauty, love, friends. Yet, it clearly was not enough. Perhaps she allowed her troubles to overshadow all these positives, and she reached the point where she felt she had no choice but to kill herself.

Caroline was entertainment magic. From the co-host of CBBC, co-host of X-factor, winner of ‘Strictly Come Dancing 2014’, performer in West End musical, ‘Chicago’ and host of reality hit show ‘Love Island’, her obvious charisma and infectious laughter lit up a room and won her legions of fans.

Yet, the manner of her death begs the question – on what paradigm did she base her life? Did she compare it to a merry-go-round with constant amusement, or did she see herself as a ‘clown’ in a comedic production? Speculative as it is,  a clown has a limited shelf life when accusations of physical abuser begin to surface. Suddenly, the laughter stops and the work becomes unsustainable. She stepped down as the host of ‘Love Island’ and was not fired,  suggesting that the mounting pressure of the bad press and negative social media commentary had become too much.

Despite the fact that her boyfriend, with whom she continued to be in a relationship, wished to withdraw the charges, the Crown Prosecution Service  decided to forge ahead with the criminal trial. She had pleaded not guilty to the charges of assaulting her boyfriend.

Like all entertainers, she wanted her audience to feel good not badly. The one who brought the sunshine was suddenly shrouded in shame. No doubt, that was what she thought.

This unfortunate aspect of Caroline’s life put her under the glare of the media spotlight. She magnified the looming court case in her mind to such an extent that it became a monster which threatened to destroy everything she had worked so hard for all her life.

The truth is that even if Caroline had been convicted, she would have risen from the ashes to fight and win another day. This one incident did not have the power to define her life, unless she permitted it to. There was so much more to Caroline that one moment of weakness or misjudgement. Unfortunately, she was so busy grappling with the monster whose primary weapon of torture was fear, that she could not see this truth.

But will she be remembered for all her many acts of public performance which brought the feel-good factor or  for her final act of surrender which has left us feeling so sad? That final act was never in the script. Even Caroline could not have envisaged that her life would end so tragically.

The clue of what may have driven her over the edge is the date of her suicide. Valentine’s Day holds a lot of expectations for a lot of people. They either feel blessed by ‘Cupid’ or terribly let down. It was the day after Valentine’s Day. Unable to communicate with her partner and sweetheart due to the court’s restraining order, and missing him intensely, she sunk to the depths of despair.

Perhaps the findings of her inquest, and in time, the revelations from those who knew her and communicated with her in her final weeks and days on this earth, will help to shed light on what drove her to this fatal decision. Until then, as survivors, we would all benefit from bearing in mind that there is always a way through the seeming quagmire of the challenges we face in life. We just need to hold on for one more day.