In memory of Robin Williams, an incredible talent as both an actor and a comedian, I am taking this opportunity to express the impact he made on my life. I feel compelled to write in the midst of my sadness today to share some of my own reflections. His work in the Carpe Diem scene from Dead Poets Society has never left me to this day. It remains a favourite movie and his acting was both moving and inspirational. I am thankful for what he gave to the world at so many levels.
As a first year psychology student full of hopes and dreams, as well as insecurities and fears, the message “Carpe Diem” from Dead Poets Society hit a chord in 1989. Life is fragile, we are indeed all fragile and it pays to be reminded of the value of human life, the degree to which suffering is part of our existence and the extent to which it can stop us from living a full meaningful life or stop our life abruptly.
The message to Seize The Day helped me realise at the tender age of 18 how precious life is and how important it is to make the most of the life we have been given. The death of my Nanna at 20 and my father at 30 reminded me again of the fragility of our lives and how so quickly things can change… those close to us are so important. They can be there one minute and gone the next. Have we told them lately how much we love and appreciate them? Have we told them how important they are to us right now? Have we asked the question and been prepared for an honest answer – Are you ok? Have we told them how much we have gained from them being in our lives?
With the death of Robin Williams, days like this remind us also that even the most overtly successful people may experience the depths of despair, insecurity, self-doubt, hopelessness and an overwhelming feeling that it is all too hard. At times like that, seizing the day seems the furthest thing from someone’s mind. Waking up to see another day seems horrendous and the only thing to seize seems to be to take action on the desire to stop the pain. In these moments suicide seems like the only solution as the mind closes off options of actions towards living and the focus becomes escaping pain and hopelessness. Without skills in facing intense discomfort, managing thoughts and behaviour, knowing how to gain support and take action towards living in the face of such intensity, the thoughts of death as a solution take hold, sometimes leading to suicide.
I do not know much about what pain Robin Williams went through in his personal life at a specific level except for the summary of what has been reported and what I have observed in interviews over the years. What I can say though is that creative people like Robin Williams are in the public eye often, they get the high that comes from performance and then the slump that hits when the adrenalin stops. They step from the stage back to the reality of living their life, a world where they often feel misunderstood, judged for their unusual thought processes and perspectives and emotional responses.
They may have developed their creativity out of a desire to escape reality and to find a safe world where they may tune out from trauma, abuse and bullying from the past and where they may be accepted in a world of creative people who are like them. As performers and creative souls they often feel a kinship with each other that is lacking in other parts of society, but the problem is that they still have to live in a society where in many cultures creativity is not valued in the way other fields are. They often experience a sense of isolation, of feeling different and gravitate to other creative people where they feel there is a greater level of gentleness and acceptance in a field where rejection and criticism is part of the deal and vulnerability expressed rather than contained.
They may have grown up with the message “get a real job”. They may be with partners who do not understand the need for their creativity to be expressed and wish they could function in a normal 9-5 job as it would be so much easier on a family. They may travel regularly with their craft and be away from their partners and families for long periods. They may find it hard to interact socially in other circles other than creative ones, feeling on the outer and breaking the social norms. They may also feel the need to always “be on” and find it tempting to always represent a false persona that does not reflect their authentic self and allows them to cover up aspects of their identity. Alternatively they may appear the absolute opposite of what people expect them to be like (based on their stage presence) and notice people’s confusion, resulting in withdrawal. Their stage is their home – the real world is a world that is much more frightening and doesn’t always make sense.
They may experience incredible performance anxiety about living up to other’s or their own high expectations and on the one hand feel at home on the stage, but after a bad performance feel like an absolute failure, but still be expected to get up the next day and do it all again. The interesting thing is that in my experience they mostly do get up and do it all again even in the face of intense performance anxiety, feelings of rejection or failure and will persist as there seems no other option.
The absolute need to express this creativity is present always and even in the face of intense anxiety and panic, they will move towards their expression, hoping for that next natural high that comes with a great performance and some validation of their skills and their sense of identity. They live with financial insecurity and may have to work other jobs to support the development of their craft. They may find it hard to get a house loan and feel like a failure by society’s standards.
Once successful, they may feel the pressure of ensuring their next performance exceeds the standard of the last. They worry that they are only as good as their last performance. They love the great reviews but dread the bad ones, taking each critique so personally affecting confidence and shaking the core of their identity that keeps them alive.
These are just some of the issues I hear creative people talk to me about in therapy … a mixture of highs and lows that often make for an unstable emotional life and challenging relationships. Is it any wonder with these pressures that depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and other mental health problems are common outcomes for creative people like Robin Williams?
Most keep going but some can’t handle it and give up their careers then becoming very depressed at a core part of their identity is not being expressed. Sometimes drugs and alcohol are used to dull the pain of living or are used to continue the high achieved on stage and as a reward for making it big, only to sabotage their career over time resulting in more intense depression and dissatisfaction.
The presence of mental illness in actors, musicians, dancers, comedians, painters is very high. Some musicians have said to me they can only write a song when they are depressed and reject anti-depressants for fear that their creative expression will be stifled. Others say they can only work when they are happy or manic, but what we do see consistently is a strong relationship between depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse and creative pursuits.
So let us pay attention to the fact that even those in the limelight who seem to have it all together and are at the peak of their careers are at risk of suffering from depression or other mental illnesses. There is likely to be someone close to you right now who is suffering from some form of mental illness. Make sure you ask how they are and not the polite socially acceptable ‘How are you?’ that only engenders a fake response that is comfortable for the person questioning, but rather the real questions needing honest answers. If they are in need of support, let them know that you are there for them and also that professional help is possible and that speaking to a psychologist or other health professional may assist them with learning how to manage their mood better with practical tools that may break the negative cycles that engulf people.
And I know through our work assisting people with a range of mental health issues, especially the creative personality and performer, that getting treatment early may prevent some of these issues from escalating to the point that careers are destroyed and lives lost. Please, if you are concerned about yourself or a friend or family member contact us today to make an appointment, or another trusted psychologist you know, or if in need of immediate crisis assistance call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or your state mental health crisis service (e.g. ACIS in SA – 13 14 65)
Alexandra Frost, Clinical Psychologist
RIP Robin Williams.
Thanks for the memories and the laughs Robin Williams. Most of all thanks for inspiring me to seize the day and to take on a career where I was able to also make a lasting impact. I want my life as a psychologist to stand for supporting people to work towards change and finding meaning in their lives even in the face of life throwing up the harshest of challenges. I want my life to stand for educating others about mental illness and the benefits of psychological treatment, to break down barriers and to assist in the prevention of suicide. I want my life as a psychologist to stand for helping others improve their relationships, find meaning and contentment and to be a gentle compassionate witness to people’s pain and growth. What an incredible privilege…. there is no choice but to seize the day….
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