As an extroverted, fun-loving person, I’m the type who can barely get through telling a joke without laughing before the punch line. I’ve always viewed myself as a comedian at heart. While I enjoy making others feel happy, Robin Williams’ death made me realize I hadn’t truly focused on my own inner happiness. Laughter had been the drug that distracted me from feelings of sadness. Although I’ve never been clinically depressed, I was surprised to learn that even the funniest people have struggled with depression.
Drew Carey released an autobiography which told of his bouts of depression and two failed suicide attempts. Jim Carrey, one of my all-time favorites, said he went through cases of depression during his career in an interview with 60 Minutes back in 2004. Even Ellen DeGeneres overcame depression.
After hearing of Robin Williams’ death, it’s not uncommon to think, “Wow. Why would he commit suicide? This is a guy who had it all.” But did he really? Just because someone is famous, wealthy, and/or a comedian, doesn’t mean they’re living a perfect life. I started looking into the events prior to Williams taking his own life. He had become gradually more ill with Parkinson’s Disease before ending his life. He was also suffering from Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), which was discovered during his autopsy. Protein deposits, called Lewy bodies, grow in nerve cells in the brain regions involved in thinking, memory and movement. It is believed he may have been encountering hallucinating thoughts during the days leading up to his suicide.
Williams wasn’t the only funny person who couldn’t find his way out of the darkness. Ray Combs, former stand-up comedian and host of Family Feud, committed suicide after his long battle with depression. Other comedians such as John Belushi, Chris Farley, and Richard Pryor all led troubled lives battling substance abuse behind their comedy acts. All of them died of involuntary drug overdose.
Chris Farley, cast member of Saturday Night Live, was a very unhappy man hiding behind his humor. Farley long carried a replica of a poem “A Clown’s Prayer” in his wallet. It read, “As I stumble through this life, help me create more laughter than tears, dispense more happiness than gloom, spread more cheer than despair.” Laughter and tears go hand and hand for many comedians.
I realized the miracle of “happiness” doesn’t magically occur by laughing, or by making others laugh. Being funny isn’t the same as being happy.
I’ve been through short periods of expected depression when life threw curve balls my way – divorce, financial struggles, moderate health issues, and so on. But the real challenge came when I received my chronic illness diagnosis of Erythromelalgia. It’s not as if the doctor said, “Okay, you have a life-long chronic illness, but here’s a therapist to help you deal with the mental aspect of it.” I felt like a homeless cat trapped outside during a thunderstorm. I had no clue how to deal with my physical and mental anguish over it. Suddenly my prior stints with depressions felt like a cake-walk in comparison to this.
After the diagnosis, I spent about a year mourning the loss of someone very special to me – “myself.” It’s that moment when you realize “you” are never coming back again, and you must carry on with your new life. It may not be the life you dreamed of, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an uplifting, and rewarding journey.
Robin Williams’ death made me appreciate how precious life is, and how essential it is to find your inner happiness. Once I stopped feeling sorry for myself I realized there were others suffering with my same condition. I decided to turn my chronic illness into something positive: advocacy. I focused my energy on learning more about my illness, and spreading awareness in hopes of a cure or better treatments in the future. Now, I feel empowered to help others like I’ve never felt before. It’s been a blessing.
I found my laughter again, but mostly I’m glad I found my inner happiness. It’s kind of like comparing your disposition to a car’s transmission – You go from being an “automatic” before chronic illness, to a “manual” after chronic illness. Both engines work but one requires a little more effort.
The Erythromelalgia (EM) Awareness Video: