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Rainbow Suspenders for Good Measure: the day the laughter went away

To think that the man who gave me and countless others so much comfort might have been crying himself to sleep from an inescapable loneliness and depression as well breaks my heart.
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I watched Mork and Mindy. It was the first show that really made me aware of empathy. Mork was from Ork, and so was I. Mork gave me the hope that maybe one day I too could be accepted on this planet, and I would grow to like and trust the people who inhabited it.

7th grade. My best friend and I had rainbow suspenders just like Mork. We would coordinate wearing them together with jeans and a white t-shirt. It was our uniform. It showed we belonged together. What's more, it showed I belonged. If only rainbow suspenders held up smiles as well as they do pants.

Little did she, or anyone for that matter, know that at night, I would crawl into bed and cry myself to sleep, wishing to be anywhere other than home. I would imagine being inside a tiny egg-like orb, hearing Robin's voice mutter, "Nano! Nano!," and eventually fall asleep feeling safe and protected.

To think that the man who gave me and countless others so much comfort might have been crying himself to sleep from an inescapable loneliness and depression as well breaks my heart.

DEPRESSION: Big 'D', Little 'd'

Depression is difficult to talk about. It is difficult to talk about because it presents different ways for different people. Some depression is like a low-grade headache, not too noticeable but definitely present. Other depression shows up like an aggressive cancer where intervention and hospitalization are immediately necessary.

It is also difficult to know how to listen, and how to respond. People with depression can be misjudged as complaining all the time or being too "dark," Socially and culturally, we don't have to look far to realize we are ill equipped to understand it.

DAMNED IF YOU DO; DAMNED IF YOU DON'T

I learned at a very young age not to talk about or express difficult emotions. My silence became my way to "lighten up" as I also learned to mask my emotions. As an adult, my silence became a way to try to "let go" of past events. In the long run, this did nothing to serve my relationship with others or myself. In fact, it only distanced me.

To counter my tendency towards reticence, my efforts to be more forthcoming and inclusive have, at times, shown a lack of sensitivity to what is going on in other people's lives. Depression has no scheduled appearance so it is always shocking whenever it happens. This behavior too has distanced me from the people I care about.

THE ILLUSION OF TIMING

Having studied improvisation, I understand timing is everything when on stage. I also know that improvising has a lot to do with every day life. People do not have scripts to read back and forth to each other when at home, at work or on the street. We improvise more than we realize.

The truth of the matter is there is no such thing as "good timing" especially when it comes to talking about difficult things, and that goes for just about everyone. For people struggling with depression, the seemingly simple task of having a basic conversation -- let alone a difficult one -- becomes insurmountable.

How many times have any of us heard someone say, "Why is that person sad? They have everything to be happy about." As the first sentence of M. Alex Johnson's NBC News article states, "Robin Williams seemed to have it all: fame, wealth, an Oscar, and adoring and passionate fan following...."

All the therapy and medications in the world have not removed the existence of depression. Of course, they can and do help. I can attest to both. However, it is not just up to those of us suffering from depression to adjust; society as a whole has a responsibility as well.

SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

Depression does not discriminate. It has no sense of timing. It does not understand that other people love you or might need you. We know that a variety of factors cause it, from learned behavior patterns to internal chemistry. We also know that both real and imagined experiences influence a person's emotional and chemical states. How each of us responds to either a real or an imagined experience is as unique and different as, well, each of us.

Not everyone is going to have the same experience even when seated at the same table. When it is socially acceptable to tell someone to "lighten up," even in jest, we have allowed social discomfort to constrain the behavior of someone who is suffering. Last I checked, when someone is hurt, the instinct is to cry out. Unfortunately, shame effectively suppresses that instinct.

THE SIDE AFFECTS OF SHAME

Humans do a good job of shaming each other for having different experiences that appear to contradict the experience of others. Shame is then internalized, and is made that much more acute.

I believe shame alone is the spark that can ignite a suicidal thought or event with or without depression as a factor. In a 2010 interview for The Guardian with Decca Aitkenhead, Robin Williams said, "I was shameful, did things that caused disgust - that is hard to recover from."

ON A PERSONAL NOTE

To deny I ever suffered from depression would be to pretend a solid chunk of my life never existed. But in some ways, I do deny it ... every day. Every day I wake up, I tell myself I matter. It does not come naturally. I have to use a tool to help me reconstruct the infrastructure of my psyche.

Many years ago, I added another tool; I studied expressive arts therapy. I cultivated my creativity so I would have a healthy outlet for all the overwhelming sorrow, anger and shame. In fact, I have often joked that I will never have to worry about running out of material. After all, the smelliest compost makes for the best flowers, right?

But then the other night, a friend asked me what I hoped to escape through my artwork. I had never thought about it that way but in an instant I saw it: with everything I create, I aim to turn the pain into something beautiful. Additionally, I deeply hope that creative act will be the one that will make all the pain go away.

CREATIVITY

I firmly believe creativity is a safe way to express difficult, and sometimes dangerous, emotions. I believe every artist, actor, and athlete out there cultivate their talents out of a deep need to have a safe place to express challenging emotions. (Not the only reason but indeed one.) The by-product of their efforts is a relationship with the world that reciprocates, and tells them their work and their lives matter.

Robin Williams had people he loved in his life who told him how much he mattered. He had millions of fans tell him the exact same thing.

But what happens when the artist or the athlete is not performing? What happens when the veil of accomplishment is lifted, and a person reveals their vulnerability? What happens when they are told they are too "intense" or accused of not being able to "let go"?

Some people will conclude their experiences do not matter. When someone believes that, if the "timing" is just right, it won't be too hard to conclude ultimately, they don't matter.

That is painful.

The only thing that matters after that is stopping the pain...at any cost.

THE LONG GOOD-BYE

With the amount of work Robin Williams' leaves behind, his recent return to rehab, and his film schedule for this year alone, I can imagine that maybe, just maybe, he was hoping this would be the year the pain would go away.

Never would we have guessed that with it, the laughter.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.