Robin Williams and Recognizing Depression

good will hunting

A lot of celebrities in the film industry have died recently. Paul Walker, known for his work for Fast and Furious, shocked us by dying in a car collision after a charity event. Philip Seymour Hoffman succumbed to drug abuse. Tony Scott jumped from a bridge.

And in another cruel twist of irony, Robin Williams, a comedian, took his own life after years of depression.

Williams starred in Good Will Hunting, one of the four movies I would say, have changed my life. Hotel Rwanda developed my passion for humanitarian work. Pulp Fiction led me to love the art screenwriting and change my major to film. (500) Days of Summer somehow foretold my perspectives in romantic relationships, changing from character to character as years go by. But Good Will Hunting ripped me to pieces when I watched it in my contemporary film history class. I was so upset that for the rest of the day, all I did was lie in my bed and cry. But I could not understand why I had such a visceral reaction until I watched it again, after my second year of university.

SEAN (Robin Williams): All this history, this shit… this is not your fault.

WILL (Matt Damon): Oh, I know.

SEAN: It’s not your fault.

WILL: I know.

SEAN: It’s not your fault.

WILL: *agitated* Don’t fuck with me.

SEAN: It’s not your fault.

WILL: *breaks down crying*

Unlike Damon’s character, I had never been whipped with a belt or passed from foster home to foster home. I did however, have experiences that led to a reluctance to form close intimate relationships. After I recovered from the sophomore year “zombie mode” as I like to call it, I watched the film again. And I realized we suffered from the same crippling conditions. Except that Will is a fictional character, and he gets a Hollywood “happily ever after.”

While some people play the “how good is my gaydar” or “what kind of Asian” game in their heads (or unfortunately out loud,) I play the mental disease litmus test. Having found out about my own problems and having many friends with the same condition, I’ve become rather good at recognizing these people.

And I see trends. They tend to be non-binary, unconventional, or non-hetereosexual. Artistic in both mind and body. They open up about familial abuse instantly or deny whatever happened. They have periods of unreasonable rage and recklessness, and then do a disappearing act into gloom until they pop out again. There is a sickly or desperate film over the things they do. They are kind and cruel. Deeply loved and deeply hated. Dysfunctional relationships and casual sex.

Manic depression, dysthymia, major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and anger. I keep seeing the same stories. And I also learn to recognize the defense mechanisms and the facades. Sometimes, it’s hard to swallow the truth when we wear them so well.

One of the most frustrating remarks I’ve ever received was “You don’t seem like you’re depressed.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Laugh, because my methods worked, or cry because I kept them away but revealed them in the end. You would never know.

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune don’t stop depressed people from wanting to assimilate and lead normal lives. They can be beautiful and charismatic. They can be kind, compassionate, and burrow deep into your hopes, dreams, and desires. They fall in love with things. They have a strange mix of proud confidence mixed in with crippling self-doubt. They might be successful and create art. They humblebrag on Facebook like everyone else, are proud of their success, and show off their trophies.

But whether you can or cannot tell, it’s still there. Their fingers are erratic and eyes twitch while they do things — agitated from lack of sleep, anxiety or sadness. They’re laughing obnoxiously after crying all night after a great evening with friends. And when you ask about that hazy glaze in their eyes, the look disappears and they chirp, “Nothing is wrong.” Don’t let us fool you, but don’t think you can intervene without our consent.

We can’t just “wake up.” The cure for depression is not medication. True clinical depression never goes away, it can only be reduced. The only cure for depression, as with all unchangeable or terminal illnesses, is death. What doesn’t kill you can turn into another attempt.

You cannot change or fix us. There is no way to resew our broken threads when you don’t know how they got there in the first place. Just be the hand to hold and the supportive presence while we learn to rewire the tangled mess that is our heads. Don’t promise that you’ll always be there, because we hate broken promises, but be there in those important moments. The people who we trust tend to be the ones not trying to convince us that we’re wrong. The people who stay focus on acceptance first, and healing second. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, we appreciate all the love that we receive, even if the chemicals in our brain tell us that it’s not real.

And all this time that we’re fighting the illness, we’re feigning. We’re all laughing and trying to make you laugh as well. But inside, the walls of our sanity may be crumbling down. And alone, that Hollywood fairy tale turns into a real life tragedy.

We don’t all need the Will Hunting ending. But perhaps, with some sensitivity and nonjudgmental companionship, you can help us avoid this one.

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