There have been a few occasions in my life where I’ve resisted the urge to chuck a lime at someone’s head, like Mrs. Doubtfire did, and then blame it on an unknown assailant who committed a “run-by fruiting.” I paid close attention to “Dead Poets Society” – shedding plenty of tears in the process – because it was the first movie that prominently featured teenage suicide that I saw after I tried to kill myself during my teenage years. And I can’t count the times that I’ve turned to “The Birdcage” for laughs – it’s one of my all-time favorite comedies, and one of the movies I quote most often.
Like many people, my jaw dropped when I learned that Robin Williams had died, and my heart ached when I read that it was a suicide. I had never met the man, but he was a guest on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” six times during the seven years I worked there, and I worked on most, if not all, of those appearances. My favorite memory was from April 2006, when I pitched the idea that we keep a running total of all the impressions and voices he did during his interview, and at the end, ask him to pick a charity and make a donation for each voice. His comedy and generosity ultimately raised $7,500 for Doctors Without Borders, and Ellen and the studio audience had a blast.
I learned a lot about Robin leading up to those appearances on “Ellen,” and I always respected and appreciated how open he was about his struggles with addiction and depression. As I read some of the press about his death yesterday, I was led to a “Good Morning America” interview with Diane Sawyer from October 2006 where he said something that has stuck with me.
“It’s the same voice that… you’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice that goes, ‘Jump.’ The same voice that goes, ‘Just one.’ And the idea of just one for someone who has no tolerance for it, that’s not the possibility.”
My own personal demons may be different from Robin’s, but the underlying connection hit home. We both have had ugly little voices in our heads that encouraged unhealthy behavior or perpetuated untrue and harmful beliefs. Robin’s pushed him to drink. Mine have told me that I’m worthless or undeserving of love and happiness. In the past, mine pushed me to try to take my own life, and perhaps Robin’s pushed him towards taking his.
What Robin pointed out during that interview, though, is that it’s the same voice pushing you to take action, whether it’s a small action that seemingly wouldn’t have consequences, like having a single drink, or a much bigger action, like jumping off a cliff.
It’s reminded me that I can’t listen to that voice at all. I can’t validate any single negative thought that may pop into my head, because as soon as I give that voice a platform, I’m inviting it to continue manipulating my thoughts and actions, and I can’t let that happen.
I think back to the roughest episodes of my own depression, and they all were downward spirals that escalated until they were out of my control. But they began much more simply, just a trash-talking voice in the mirror that would plant little seeds of disgust and self-hate. But I listened to them, and gave them power, and so when those messages evolved into more severe messages of loathing and hopelessness, I listened. And I believed them, because I believed everything that had come before.
I’m in a pretty good place right now, in regards to my mental health. One of the most important things that I’ve learned in the past few years is that how I think about myself is just as important for my overall health as what I eat and how I move. And what I’ve learned from Robin Williams’ passing is that I need to start fighting as soon as that little voice pops back into my head. I can’t accept any little bit of venom and vitriol that it may spit out, because if I let it, those little bits will grow bigger, and that same little voice will turn into something meaner and much more dangerous.
As anyone who has played a board game with me knows, I’m up for a good fight.
Keep it up, David.