Sometimes you hear the news of a famous person's death and it shocks you. It shocks you perhaps because they were young, or because you were such a big fan of theirs that the very idea of their mortality is something you could barely entertain. Sometimes it shocks you purely because it's just so bloody sad.
I grew up in the 80's/90's. For several people of my generation, Robin Williams was a fixture of our childhood. He was that zany guy we saw on TV if we were allowed to stay up later than usual. He was the person we quoted at school (or rather his film characters were). He was Mork. He was Mrs Doubtfire. He was Aladdin's genie. He was Peter Pan. He was just there. Always funny, always able to touch our emotions in ways we probably couldn't even understand back then. We watched those final words in Mrs Doubtfire ("But if there's love, dear... Those are the ties that bind. You'll have a family in your heart forever. All my love to you poppet, you're going to be alright. Bye-bye") with a lump in our throats. Because this hurricane of an actor could have you rolling in the aisle one minute and dabbing at your eyes the next.
But of course, as kids, we loved him most of all when he was making us laugh. At primary school, I can remember having one friend I always greeted with the words "nanu, nanu." By the time I was in secondary school, I had another friend with whom I would sit on the school bus, day in, day out, quoting the Genie from Aladdin. Our rather random favourite line was: "Boy, do I feel sheepish! Okay you baaaaaad boy, but no more freebies!" That line and several others, quoted over and over, made me smile. And that's a big deal. Because on that school bus, I had little to laugh at. By the time my fellow Robin Williams fan joined my school and became my companion on the journey there and back each day, I had already been bullied so badly that I wanted to die. Robin's hilarious performance as the genie was, quite genuinely, something I held onto with both hands. It made me feel happy again.
Hearing that not only was Robin gone, but that he apparently took his own life has floored me. I'm unashamed to admit that I cried when I heard the news last night. Not a simple "oh that's sad," but a full-blown "this can't be true." And yet, this morning, upon waking up, I realised it was.
Depression is one of those things we all too often sweep under the carpet. It's too big, too scary, too difficult to understand. We mark those who end their own lives as "selfish." We imagine they must have been crazy; different to us. They're not. They're mothers, fathers. They're people who work in your local shop. They're the actors who brought us so much joy growing up... Depression, like all other diseases that kill, doesn't segregate according to wealth or status. It doesn't care whether you're single or whether you have a partner and a family. When it grips you, it doesn't matter who you are or what circumstances you have. It can and does affect absolutely anyone.
I know that when I sat alone on my bathroom floor, aged just 12 or 13 (I've blocked out the memory so many times that my age has become kind of sketchy), trying to decide how I was going to die, I wasn't thinking about the people I would leave behind. Yes, you can call that selfish. But I was desperate. I had sunk to a place in which I believed I was worthless. Unlovable. All I could hear in my head were the words of the bullies who took such pleasure in telling me that I didn't deserve to live. And I believed them. I didn't want to wake up to another morning on which I'd have to make that journey to school, knowing I'd be spat at and mocked. I didn't want to keep feeling the crushing pain in my chest. It hurt to breathe. It hurt because I was fighting all the time to keep myself from bursting into tears. It felt like I was lying to everyone around me when I forced a smile onto my face. I went from being bright, confident and happy, to being subdued, shy and confused. All I wanted to do was sleep. And if I couldn't wake up in a better, friendlier world - one in which I hated myself less - then I didn't want to wake up at all.
I didn't know I was depressed, as silly as that sounds. I just thought I was giving up on a situation that seemed impossible to live through. I guess I knew I was somewhat broken, but I didn't know how to fix myself. It took me until I was 20 years old to walk into a doctor's surgery and simply say: "Help me."
And what I learnt is that there is help. There is support. But reaching out for it isn't easy. It's amongst the hardest things I've ever done. Nine years later, I did it a second time. I had walked away from an abusive relationship and I knew I couldn't put myself back together without help. Walking away from that and mending the broken fragments of the person I used to be was the hardest thing that I have ever, ever done. But I did it. It's possible. With the right help and support (and I had a fantastic CPN, followed by the best support worker from a local abuse charity ever), you can fix those broken pieces. I'm still sensitive. I still have days where my moods dip and I find myself on the verge of tears without really knowing why. The difference is I can handle those days now, because I know better ones will come.
Depression can affect anyone. It touched my life and it has touched the lives of many others I know and love. It's not something that makes you "crazy." It's not weakness. If any good at all can come from the death of a man as beloved as Robin Williams, it's that we recognise that depression needs to be better understood and that help needs to be better available. I'm not going to go on a rant about the state of mental health care in the UK right now. But I am going to say this: If you need support, please don't be afraid of asking for it. Please don't feel that you have to go through whatever you're experiencing alone. You might feel like you're worthless, but to quote the Doctor, I've never met anyone who wasn't important.
Today is a good day to simply ask those close to you how they are and really listen to their reply. Even more importantly, listen to what they don't say. The seemingly happiest people could be fighting a battle you can't even begin to imagine. So be there for them if you can.
And to Robin... Thank you. Thank you for the laughter. Thank you for the silly quotes. Thank you for giving me something happy to hold onto during one of the hardest times of my life. I won't forget that.
"Genie, I wish you free."
Samaritans (UK): 08457 90 90 90 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US): 1-800-273-8255