San Francisco, CA (USA) -- The news of Robin Williams' passing is shocking and touching so many of us. I was waiting for a friend at a bar when I first heard. All around me people erupted in a variety of emotional reactions as the word quickly spread. In the time since, a common reaction has been deep sadness, often paired with a sentiment of "I never thought someone like him would kill themselves."
Actor Robin Williams (1951 - 2014)
What we mean when we say "I never thought someone like him..." is that we can't wrap our minds around certain people whom we deem successful or joyful or wise suffering from the same sorts to the demons that we ourselves face. Studies have shown that one in ten people in the United States are afflicted with depression. Robin Williams is said to be one of these people. In response to the news of Williams' death his friend Harvey Fierstein wrote, "Please, people, do not f-- with depression. It's merciless. All it wants is to get you in a room alone and kill you. Take care of yourself."
Yet for anyone who has suffered from depression or had suicidal thoughts, you know that self-care is the last thing you want to do when you feel that down. I teach meditation, and write books about how it effects our everyday life. That is the form of self-care that I preach. The sort of people who want to learn about meditation aren't the "All is well and good in my world" type. They are people who have come to terms with the fact that they suffer. They are people finally looking at big transitions in their life, strong emotional states, and feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. So you would think that having taught meditation for thirteen years and worked with these people I would be a pro at this whole "take care of yourself" thing.
I have never publicly admitted this, but given the stigma around mental health issues and suicide I feel that I need to now: two years ago I was suicidal. I had written a best-selling Buddhist book and had begun working on the second one when the rug was pulled out from under me in a multitude of ways. My fiancé left me, quite out of the blue, without any recognizable reason. That set me down a self-destructive road which was only heightened when, a month later, due to budget cut-backs, my full-time job was eliminated. The straw that broke the camel's back came a few weeks after that; one of my best friends died of heart failure at the age of 29. I felt estranged from my family, and two major support structures, my fiancé and my friend were now gone, so I began to self-medicate in a destructive way. I knew better, but the vastness of my depression consumed any thoughts around self-care and regular meditation.
I cannot explain how fathomless my sadness was during that period. I had a roof I would go up to every single day and contemplate jumping. I convinced myself that my first book was out there helping people, so maybe I should finish the second one. I sat down and wrote the second half of that book, which oddly enough comes out next month. It gave me purpose, and during that short period of time friends started to catch on something was wrong with me.
I remember a day when I was particularly low. My friend Laura asked me to dinner but I could not stand to be in a restaurant, surrounded by people who seemed normal. We sat in a nearby park as it got dark, with homeless people urinating nearby and the rats slowly coming out to play. She was very patient with me, as I was not interested in leaving. Finally she asked the question, "Have you ever thought about hurting yourself?" I broke down in tears and within the week was guided by her and others into therapy. A week later I returned to the meditation cushion. A week after that I began eating regularly. A week after that I finally got a full night's sleep.
I mention my story because there's not just a social stigma around mental health issues, there's also a Buddhist one. I have seen some Buddhist teachers make remarks about depression as a form of suffering; that one should be able to meditate and have everything be okay, in lieu of prescription medication. That is not true; meditation is not a cure-all for mental illness. The Buddha never taught a discourse entitled, "Don't Help Yourself, Continue to Suffer Your Chemical Imbalance." If you have a mental illness, meditation may be helpful, but should be considered an addition to, not a substitution for, prescribed medication.
I write this article for two reasons. The first is to say that Robin Williams is a person. I am a person. And like all people, we struggle with a myriad form of suffering. And sometimes things feel like they are too much for us to handle. Just because Robin Williams was a comedian, a celebrity, or someone we viewed as a joyful person did not mean he wasn't fighting demons unknown to us. I share my story in the same vein; the fact that I struggled with suicidal thoughts does not negate my years of meditation experience or understanding of the Buddhist teachings, but shows that I am human and sway to suffering like all humans are. You can be well-practiced and still struggle like anyone else. Robin Williams ended up taking his life. I was lucky in that I was able to seek help and no longer feel the way I once did. In fact, that experience only deepened my appreciation for the practice of meditation and the Buddhist teachings. In many ways, my life has turned around.
The second reason I write this article is because my life turned around because I sought help. Buddhists can't just take everything to the meditation cushion and hope it will work out. When things get tough, as in to the point that you can't imagine getting out of bed in the morning tough, you need help. And there should be no shame in seeking it. If you even remotely feel like you are struggling with depression, or are going through an emotional time that simply feels out of control, the best way to take care of yourself is to seek guidance from trained professionals. Sure that can be a meditation teacher, but a therapist may prove more helpful at that time. Therapy in-and-of itself can be a mindfulness practice, where you bring your full attention for an hour each week to what is expressing itself in your body and your mind.
Don't feel like you have to go it alone. Meditation does not preclude or diminish the power of therapeutic methods. They are powerful in their own right. There are trained people out there who can work with you to navigate your suffering. Do not be scared to seek help.