Whatever the reasons for the death of Robin Williams, one thing that’s clear is that depression is a serious illness that can affect anyone, at any time. And though experiences may vary, a large part of the discussion I’ve seen online has been spurred on by comedians who, like Williams, also experience the disorder.
We reached out to several prominent comedians and authors to find out more about how they deal with the disease and work through it, and to offer some advice for anyone else out there who might feel like they’re suffering on their own:
What Depression Feels Like
Jamie Kilstein (Citizen Radio, Friend of Robin Williams): Depression is sorta like a ninja. A really mean shi–y ninja. Even when you or your friends seem fine and are joking around, a lot of time it’s a cover. That doesn’t mean if you have a sad friend open every conversation with ’ARE YOU OK?’ but always show them you care.
Sara Benincasa (Author, “AGORAFABULOUS!” and “Great”): I’ve suffered from depression on and off since I was fourteen. During my teens and early twenties, it was especially hard. These are vulnerable years, even for “tough” people who pride themselves on being strong. The thing is, depression doesn’t care if you’re strong, any more than cancer or diabetes will care if you’re strong. Depression is a very real illness and it can strike anybody.
Who Gets Depressed?
Chris Distefano (Guy Code): “The people that bring the most laughter into the world, are usually the ones hiding the most pain.” As a comedian I can not agree with this statement more. As a child I always knew I was “weird” because instead of dealing with my emotions the “normal” way like crying or getting angry I would instead bury them deep inside of me and mask them with laughter. As I grew older these suppressed emotions began to surface and I would often, and still do, fall into deep depression.
Benincasa: It’s especially prevalent in people who have a family history of depression, but since many people understandably try to hide their depression or drink it away or smoke it away, it’s not always diagnosed when it should be. So people suffer and feel so alone, because no one in their family wants to talk about it. Sometimes folks in your family will act like it’s not real, and that’s not right. It is real. And it makes you feel like garbage. It makes you feel like you are worthless. You know when you have the flu and it’s so bad that for a moment you can’t remember what it feels like to feel well? That’s what depression is like.
Nat Towsen (UCB, CollegeHumor): There’s a misconception that all comedians are depressed. The truth is that a lot of people are depressed, but comedians express their personal experience, not just for laughs but to connect to their audience.
The relationship between comedy and depression is complicated. Creating (and even just watching) comedy can ease the symptoms of depression, but it’s much more difficult to use comedy as a tool in dealing with the source of depression. It took me seven years of standup before I was comfortable talking about my anxiety onstage, and almost nine years before I started talking directly about depression, about having suicidal impulses, about feeling pathetic for struggling to do things that come naturally to most people.
Talking about these things has helped me – especially when an audience laughs, indicating that I’m not alone, that they’re glad to know that they’re not either – but it’s not enough. In that time while I was learning to use comedy to address my mental state, my depression got a lot worse, and I started seeing a therapist again. Comedy can help you feel better, it can help you process things, but there is no replacement for professional help.
You don’t need to be unhappy or depressed to be funny. People romanticize the connection, and that’s extremely unhealthy; gives comedians an excuse not to seek help. Our culture needs to let go of its “tears of a clown” obsession and realize that depression is not a tragic superpower.
Benincasa: I was very fortunate in that my friends told my parents what was going on when I was in college, and we were able to address it as a family. I’ve taken medication for years, and done lots of therapy, and both things have helped enormously. I wrote a book called “Agorafabulous” about all this stuff, and it was tough to write because I had to remember all of the hard stuff I’d tried to forget. But it’s important that people with depression come out about it and share our stories, because we can really help each other.
Jordan Carlos (“Guy Code”): Being a comedian means that you always wrestle with what’s called “the god complex” — little g of course. It’s a fancy way of saying that, like a god, you have the capacity to create (laughter) and also like a god you have the capacity to destroy (yourself). Knowing that – understanding those impulses – has kept me from the ledge many, many a night
Distefano: I chose stand up at first to help deal with the pain. Instead of drinking or doing drugs to get over the fact my parents weren’t together, or 9/11 gave me paralyzing anxiety, I chose to write jokes about it. I tried to turn my pain into art.
I don’t think many people know, that usually comedians have to go into an extremely dark place to find the funniest material. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been writing jokes while simultaneously tearing up because in the process of going into my past to get the funny, I discovered the pain. The pain that I pushed down years ago, just came up. Only this time I’m older, and understand more, and feel every piece of it. Now I see the consequences of it. Now I see how that pain shaped me. For better or worse.
Most of comedy isn’t funny. Most of it is watching a person show you their suffering in a funny way. Sit at a table of comedians after a show, more than likely we will be in silence. Buried in our notebooks or in our thoughts. Most of us didn’t want to be comedians, we HAD to be comedians. My mind was leading me this way long before I ever took the stage for the first time.
I am in no way comparing myself to Robin Williams, or saying that I can even comprehend emotionally what he must’ve been going through. Rest in Peace brother, you were one of the true greats, and whether you knew it or not, you helped me find happiness at some of my darkest times.
Anyone out there dealing with depression, do not be afraid to go get help. Do not be afraid to cry. The most cathartic thing I do is cry. Let it all out. And keep it all out. Don’t run from the pain, feel it. Just know there are people around who can help you. People who have been to the darkest depths and survived. You do not have to do any of this alone. Lean on us. I say again Rest in Peace to Robin Williams and prayers to his family and to anyone else who took their own life on account of this disease.
Kilstein: We need the weirdos, the artists, the sad kids. We are already down in numbers. We can’t lose some of the only unique caring people we have left. I know it feels low. But know that you feel this way cause you are different and special. If people don’t get you, good. Who wants to be like everyone else? Own that s–t. Surround yourself with good people. If you can’t in real life, find them on Tumblr or Twitter, or podcasts, or comics until you can. Stay brave. Appreciate the little things you get from life and give. Keep making the planet a little less boring.
Towsen: Depression is a real thing. Naming it doesn’t create it, make it worse, or make you weak. If anything it makes you stronger, braver. Having depression doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you, that you are flawed. It is simply one of the things that we deal with as human beings, and is something that gets much worse if we attempt to ignore it. Not everyone experiences depression, and those who don’t should have the decency to realize they are lucky and be sympathetic to those to do. Those who do experience it should seek help.
There is still a stigma about therapy, which is entirely misguided, as therapy is a good thing for mental health, even in people who don’t suffer from depression. A therapist is not someone who is going to analyze and diagnose you. They are someone rational you can speak to who can help you put your thoughts in order. Sometimes, they are simply someone who has spoken to a lot of people, and can tell you when your feelings are common, even if they feel isolating. You are not alone in this, and anyone who mocks you for it is probably more scared than you are.
Andrew Schulz (“Guy Code”): I’ve always felt the best way was to attack the depression. I have a little list of things I do:
1) Socialize with people I don’t know. There’s something about human interaction that I need — especially laughing with strangers lifts my spirits. This can’t be a comedy club setting. It’s got to be part of my day. Online at Starbucks. At the gym. A two minute connection with a stranger can change everything.
2) Exercise until the only thing I can think of is my next breath. Once you put the brain in survival mood s–t changes. When you’re depressed it’s hard to find the motivation for that, but if you can push your body to the limit (cardio is good, a boxing class) there is an amazing release after. I do this kind of exercise at least 3 days in a row. The deeper the depression the more constant exercise I need.
3) Smile. I literally force myself to smile. It sounds stupid but it works.
4) Make lists of things to do and get them done. The feeling of accomplishment is rewarding. Feeling productive is great.
5) Talk about my feelings. This is more for anxiety but if there’s something on my mind I have to let it out. The second I do I feel a release. If I don’t feel comfortable talking about it I write on it. I write exactly what I feel and have a conversation with myself through the writing. It allows me to really explore my feelings and what’s bothering me.
If you or someone you know is dealing with depression, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.