The death of a champion and hero of mine, Robin Williams, has forced me to objectively consider the nature of depression. It’s something I consider subjectively far too often, and not by choice. But when the question is forced to the surface and calls upon an expert to provide an objective answer, there is something inside of me that raises a hand. And that image, in itself, could tell the entire story.
When a celebrity dies, and news services have no alternative in the absence of hard facts but to fill space and time with dark matter, the chatter takes on a nebulous, almost automated, form. It speaks of the “demons” people face, as though our lives may be tapped into via remote control by comic book artists. It asks questions that it has no intention of ever answering, one of them being, “How can someone so great and so successful take his own life?”
To truly understand the concepts that question seeks to reveal, one must deconstruct the premise. Indeed, the entire solution to depression is a deconstruction — not so much an explosion as a dissection. It gets to the heart of the things we think we know, and questions both the identity and the relevance of the fundamental principles of our existence, “greatness” and “success” being far more frivolous.
For this journey, I beg the reader’s indulgence, since my own assertion that I know what I’m talking about presumes a direct association between myself and certain concepts which, in popular use, have come to define “greatness” and intellectual acumen. It is not my intention to place myself on the same pedestal as certain others simply because I would place us on the same operating table.
“Genius” has been said to be, like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of “pornography,” something one knows when she sees it. Robin Williams was a genius, and that was self-evident. Genius, as I have always perceived it, is exactly what the roots of the word say it is: a manifestation of many things from one, from the same stem as “generate,” “genie,” and “generosity.” It is not the capability to do one thing, or even anything, particularly well. It actually is not, despite how TV dramas about brilliant detectives portray it, an ability. Moreover, it is a formation, a culmination, a shape the human soul takes when formed — and oftentimes contorted — by a variety of conflicting forces.
The ability to do things with genius is a phenomenon, a side-effect. Robin’s genius was evident from his ability to freely associate disparate things, people, phrases, and sounds, in such a mercurial way that the products of his free association came out on stage as resounding instruments, symphonies of connections. If he had done this any more slowly, we might not have caught the meaning. It was as if the links between objects in his mind formed the contour of an unseen bell that, once identified, was struck and was loud.
The forces that enable this ability, the genius behind the phenomenon, are the cause of depression. It is one of the enigmas of human existence. Like gravity, we see and feel it every moment, and are satisfied that we understand it to the extent we actually need to. Then when we are forced to solve it as a force of physics, it defies logic. When a model is built to explain it to us, like the curvature of space, it makes sense on paper. But when you try to apply the model explaining gravity to the principle of gravity you derived from common sense, it doesn’t fit.
When I was first told I was a genius by psychiatrists, I was young enough to be permitted to wear it as a badge of honor, or a Halloween costume. It enabled me to be passed among groups of mildly curious adults as something of a novelty act: a four-year-old who could read a newspaper, a six-year-old who could compose music, an eight-year-old who could argue philosophy. It gave me the attention and applause I needed to overlook the scorn of other kids my age who saw my affliction the way French townspeople gazed down upon Quasimodo. It allowed me the illusion of importance that substituted for the simple smile of confidence that other kids were getting from their parents, whether or not they could read Nietzsche aloud.
The reason I was declared a genius, for whatever it was worth, was because I demonstrated an ability to freely associate concepts and identify patterns and relationships. I could theorize why certain things may have been chosen for a grouping for any reasons other than random chance, and I could deduce the circumstances behind the observations I made from photographs. I could speculate as to whether a work of art was a forgery without comparing it to another work. And when I demonstrated those abilities, I was told I was destined for greatness.
At age 8, when custody of me passed from one parent to something less than a parent, I was told by that person my prior behavior was no longer permissible. In this house, came the edict, we act like normal people: do normal things, read normal books, sing normal songs. We don’t play-act, and we leave philosophy and other magic tricks to grown-ups. People are always judging us, I was instructed, and we don’t want to give them any reason to believe we are homosexuals.
The roots of depression descend into the ripped seams of one’s psyche, where the persona one projects to the world and the one he protects from public view have failed to graft onto one another. These are the depths of mine, and thankfully, they stop there. I have seen deeper depths from many other people, though when one is sunken into his own depth, a self-imposed competition ensues to drive it even deeper.
Had anyone bothered to enter my skull from the outside, to do more than just observe the phenomena of my existence — to project the noumenon behind it — he would have seen the same forces at work that could easily have culminated in schizophrenia, or have displayed themselves in the act of mass murder. If we can set aside the qualitative judgment of “genius” as some mantle of greatness, and accept it as a clinical observation in the same way an astronomer concludes that Jupiter is big, I can state from experience that to be a genius is to master a loose assembly of conflicting forces within oneself, each of which has the innate power to metabolize into its own personality. Some of those forces are well-formed, perhaps worthy of being declared people in themselves, but most of them are not, rather like single posts propping up entire tents.
All of the voices that Robin produced on stage were, I can attest, manifestations of his soul in different aspects, different frames of reference, different angles of observation. Many people are radiant, fewer are brilliant, though Robin was uniquely prismatic, refracting character into clarity and projecting the entire spectrum with vigor and vitality.
In another person, just one aspect of his character may have formed the whole personality. For Robin, the perceived product of his very being that we called his “character” was really the amalgam of all the voices talking at once. That he could master these voices and conduct them into a chorus was why he was my hero in that regard, in a very similar way that Jonathan Winters — a genius and, by clinical definition, also a maniac — was Robin’s hero.
I am the son of a genius, indeed by the clinical standard. My mother was the most intellectually gifted, and yet simultaneously artistically capable, woman I have ever known. Not many people knew her, because it was a property of her unique condition that she could not be known except by a select few, on a contractual basis. Genius in a vacuum attracts no more fame or recognition than anything else in a vacuum.
At the peak of her talent, Mom was a mesmerizing figure, a woman whose ability to freely associate philosophies, religions, and intellectual frameworks with poetries, music, and paintings held people spellbound in her studio for hours, sometimes days and nights on end, unable to muster the initiative to leave. Yet I spent more time in the same room with her than anyone else was ever permitted. What I observed from that experience was that the chariot of her soul was driven by a team of beasts pulling in all different directions, sometimes at war with each other.
With typical schizophrenia, each beast is revealed to the world in succession, like a parade of characters perceived through a single portal. Mom revealed them all at once, the entire circus. She is the only person I’ve known who would have had the genuine ability to hold Robin Williams as a captive audience, or maybe to exchange thought with the man at his speed, like twelve-handed ping-pong players. That Mom's chariot went forward at all, was a miracle. The split in her ran far, far deeper than the split in me. If I was, as one of my teachers described me after the custody change, a “stick of dynamite,” Mom was the entire arsenal of H-bombs, held together with duct tape and baling wire.
It did not last; it could not. Depression, like gravity, is a force of nature, a curvature of the universe that can be explained with logic yet defies reason. It is a collapse of the mass of all those fragments of soul unto oneself, an implosion, a black hole. And when the black hole reaches critical mass, it is impossible for people, events, and the courses of other people’s lives, to escape its pull. Mom’s depression, when it revealed itself, was the End of Time.
To truly comprehend depression is to deconstruct our reliable, secure notion of “self.” Our sense of identity is constructed around a premise of singularity; the ideal that whatever it is that makes us human is a whole entity at the center of some personal universe, around which all other things — personality, experience, talent, wisdom, genius — revolve. This axiom is rarely challenged. When we encounter a schizophrenic, we clinically diagnose him to be an aberration. When the manifestation of the forces that coalesce to become whatever it is that the human soul is, becomes a multiplicity of shocking personalities that boil to the surface and rudely display themselves without permission, we presume the product is defective.
Except when those forces are harnessed to just enough of an extent that the product presents some modicum of continuity, in which case we declare the product a comedian.
The presumption of the singularity of the human soul enables us to conduct dialogs with other people in a common society. Identity may be a natural faculty for someone whose personality is contiguous and well-formed, if indeed that notion in itself is not a presumption. For every genius I have known, identity is a façade. It’s a mask that presents itself as a face that lacks just enough hideousness that others will not look away from it in disgust. What’s more, the mask is exchanged or shared among all the forces that comprise the human psyche, sometimes as a coalition, other times as the prize in a ceaseless competition.
Depression is the exhaustion of this force, the expenditure of the effort in keeping the beasts reined together. What we call “manic depression” is the observation that it manifests itself without cause, as does gravity. At some point, that much mass collapses, and rarely with grace or dignity. My sincere hope is that my body will give out before my mind gives in. And it is through my comprehension of this hope that I can sympathize for a moment with anyone in the same position who feels he needs to help his body maintain that promise to the world. That I will not take the same measures is a promise I made to my wife and daughter, for when I descend into the state of mind it remains possible for me to attain, I cannot be trusted.
The only “cures” for depression that I have ever seen are the mind-altering drugs that mash the fragments of our character into a malleable paste whose texture and composition blends more comfortably into the blandness and mediocrity of society — into the “normal” person I was told to behave like. More often than not, I believe, such drugs are more pain relievers for those who live with depressed people, than for the depressed themselves. Depression can no more be cured by an alteration of reason than gravity can be overcome through any intellectual process — as if we can think ourselves into a state of levitation.
Yet humans, for whatever reason, are equipped with the tools with which to compensate. Somehow, despite what logic tells us, the defiance of gravity is one of humanity’s principal goals. It is what compels us as a species to walk upright, against the bend of our spines, and it is at some deeper level the spark that gets us all out of bed.
I speak from experience when I say that the defining feature of depression is a descent into the black hole of oneself. It relies upon self as the center of gravity, and thus the center of the universe. To be what psychiatrists consider a genius is to live inside a perennial, incessant argument between every force that would seek to possess the mask of identity. To be depressed is to succumb to that argument’s central, overarching tenet: that everything stands as proof of your unworthiness to exist.
That argument depends upon a system of value, of self-worth. It’s that system of value that people call into question when a genius commits suicide: “How can someone so gifted and so successful and so talented want to take his own life?”
Here is my response: Every person is a product of forces he cannot explain. As with myself, this does not stop him from trying. Each of us attempts, in his own way, to justify his existence through some framework of reason. Sometimes he borrows someone else’s framework, like a religion or a philosophy. Whatever method he adopts, the product is the façade of his identity, the thing that he claims to be “himself.”
Self is the fuel of all depression. In the eternal argument of the soul, it depends upon a value system to make its case. The conquest of depression can only be achieved, and must periodically be re-achieved, by deconstructing the central presumption: that self is at the center of existence. It must stop being the central character of one’s personal Mein Kampf, and adopt a stance that begs to be adorned with quotation marks. “Self” must become an unproven theory.
It is the value system of the human psyche that insists that “self” must have relative value, and thus depression is the decline of the argument that such value is of any worth. To tell a depressive person to just believe in himself is to point the gun at him and fire. It is one’s belief in oneself that catalyzes the nuclear reaction to begin with.
What enables a depressive person to continue existence for as long as he can is the ability to embrace the converse of one’s personal universe: the reality that “self” is merely a molecule, an isotope, one element among an infinity whose level of impact by “self” can only be negligible. On a realistic scale of greatness, no single person is even measurable.
The magnanimity and magnificence of the universe beyond ourselves is what empowers true genius to produce anything of value for the rest of humanity. It is why Albert Einstein and Steven Hawking smile, why Ray Charles sings, why Vincent van Gogh beckons from beneath an infernal twist of color, and why Robin Williams laughs. When we can accept a system of value that dwarfs anything that “self” uses to measure itself, we can become brilliant despite our genius.
Yet genius cannot, despite how hard it sometimes tries, produce a perpetual motion machine. Like a radioactive isotope, genius decays and collapses, sometimes before the person himself, often because personality is too frail a structure to support it. The best we can hope for is a minimum of cruelty in the process, and an acceptance that the solution, imperfect though it will likely be, is the best possible outcome.