Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams, Sadness, and the Lie of Success

After a day of musical rehearsing which should have been enjoyable, I got home last night feeling like I wanted to be somebody else.  I laid in bed and wondered to myself why everything has to be such an effort.  I wanted life to be easy.  Then, my wife, who was browsing Facebook, told me that Robin Williams committed suicide and I cried.

Robin Williams was not my favourite comedian, nor celebrity.  Rik Mayall died recently, for instance, whose comic work I hold in higher esteem.  While upset, I was not moved to tears.  Normally, a dead celebrity produces a shoulder shrug and a "meh".  In fact, I've spent much of my life chortling at Robin Williams' roles in sappy dramas like Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come, and that concentration camp movie, the name of which I care not to remember.  Yet I cried when he died.  Here's why.  

The first reason is obvious.  He spent so much of his life trying to cheer people with his comedy, to improve lives, and make life on earth better.  Those dramatic roles he chose were often inspirational people who taught us the importance of joy, laughter, and life.  To suicide himself seems to render his work fraudulent, like he was lying to us the whole time and in the end, sadness wins.  

It is not as simple as that.  His death should not be the entire meaning of his life.  

He battled depression.  I know what that's like.  I know what it's like to obsess over joy and sadness.  The depressed always do.  We wonder why we're not as happy as we should be, we wonder when we'll stop being sad, and we worry about the happiness ending.  An evil self-critic is constantly nattering at us.  Yet when that voice is silenced, the joy we taste is overwhelming.  Its memory sustains us through the brutal times.  I suspect, though I'll never know for sure: the non-depressed do not, and cannot, appreciate joy the way our fellowship of the sad experiences it.  

In short, he was more than just a sad clown.  Yes, that was really Robin Williams rolling on the ground, weeping and pouring gasoline on himself in Death to Smoochy.  He drew on his personal despair to make the role of "Rainbow" Randolph real, so real that many viewers were disturbed.  But that was also him in Dead Poet's Society, drawing on his energy as a nurturer, trying to help us live and see through all the bullshit that makes us unhappy.  

However, this is not what made me cry.  

What made me cry is this: Robin Williams had a huge house and tons of money.  He had talent.  He had fame.  He had children.  He had work whenever he wanted it.  He had professional respect.  His acting roles inspired and moved millions of people.  In short, he had success.  Yet he still hated himself.  

His death exposes a great lie: Success = Happiness.  I was taught that if I strove to improve myself and my lot in life, my reward would be happiness.  But it's just not true.  Wealth, fame and power did not save Robin Williams, and it cannot save me or you or anybody else.  

This is either the saddest thing ever, or the most freeing.  It's sad because I will constantly be duelling my personal demons.  But it's freeing as well, because I now see how little Success actually matters, and how little Failure matters conversely.  I can stop worrying about it.  A life of happiness can be lived without them.  This leaves me with more time to pursue actual happiness instead of stuff that doesn't matter.  

As I lay in bed last night, talking about Robin Williams with my life, I could see how easily I could die like him.  Someday, I could hate myself so much, be so full of despair and regret, that I asphyxiate myself.  If that day comes, it won't matter how famous or rich I am.  But just thinking about it has made that future seem more dim and distant.  I can be happy this instant, regardless of the success of my career.  Right now, the trees are green, the cat is fuzzy, my kid wipes the table by herself, and I love them all just a little bit more.  

When Robin Williams killed himself, he was not thinking about me or my happiness.  Yet his life and death have touched me and instructed me in a profound way that none of his movie roles ever could.  Thank you and farewell, O Captain, my Captain.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Life is but a Dream

They say that vulnerability is the new strength.  I'll share, then.

In winter of last year, I succumbed to depression.  It was really a shame, because things were going swell.  I was exercising daily, writing well, and fulfilling my promises as father, husband and home-maker.  Yet, I began to feel a tiny tug of anxiety, like a discordant note on a piccolo that shrieked in my mind every few minutes.  It was the first tone in a pathetic symphony that I play every year when the sun departs.  I didn't want to believe it was happening again, and tried as long as I could to hold my life together.  I had big plans for the winter, after all.  Then, a couple weeks before Christmas, it all collapsed.  No more writing, no more exercise.  Only the barest minimum of parenting duties pulled me from my bedsheet hideaway.  While functioning, I was exhausted, forgetful and dopey.  Life was a boring fever dream, full of disinterest and worry.

I clawed my way out of that depression.  I enrolled in an online depression therapy program offered by the University of Regina, learned techniques to cope like deep-breathing, thought challenging and graded exposure.  My personal trainer introduced me to yoga and helped me stay active.  As spring dawned, the bout subsided.  I borrowed a light therapy box from a friend.  I have an arsenal of new skills to deal with my depression when it returns.  

It's over.  And yet, as I try to understand this annoying-as-shit condition that I battle, I must make a painful admission.  It's getting worse.  Winter has always been a trigger for me, but the last few years, it has seemed darker and more hopeless.  Last year, I managed to delay symptoms until December, but when they hit, they were merciless.  Some days I felt like my every limb was tethered to a talking 100-pound weight that periodically said, "You're not good enough."  

So, why?  Seriously, what the fuck?  Why should it be getting worse when in the last few years, I have become a landowner, I have seized my destiny as a freelance writer, I witnessed the birth of one who can only be described as the perfect daughter, my band is doing great, and my every comfort is assured?

There are many reasons, but the last I discovered only recently, and it was the most devastating.  I was watching an episode of reimagining of Battlestar Galactica with my wife.  This, as many of you know, is a good show.  When I watched the first season of this show in 2005, I was enthralled by it.  Yet as I rewatched it, I was bored.  What had changed?  Not the show: it can't change.  I had changed.  And I wasn't enjoying it because I was waiting for it to be over.

And what was I waiting for?  Nothing.  I had no plans for the next hour.  Eventually, I would put my kid to bed.  Yet in that stark moment of realization, I knew I would be mentally absent through her bedtime routine, waiting for my own bedtime.  Then, as I put myself to bed, I would be waiting for sleep.  Then, in the morning I would read Facebook, waiting to be less groggy.  I would shower, waiting to eat.  I would play with my daughter, waiting for her nap so I could get some work done.  Each hour was a preamble for the next, each day a trial to be endured before the next.  And so rolled the weeks, months and years, waiting for some indistinct moment in the future when I will be happy.

It was terrifying to realize that almost all my moments on earth were spent waiting.  For, in the process of waiting, I was never present.  I was not living.  In moments when I should have been happy, I was anticipating the next moment when I would be sad.  Joy vanished.  I became intolerant of times when society expects me to wait, such as traffic or a boardgame with friends.  Existence was a foggy limbo, lingering for an unfulfilled promise.  Every aspect of my life became polluted with waiting: I just have to wait for tomorrow and I'll be less tired, I just have to wait for Kara to be of school-age and then I'll have more time for work, I just have to wait for my writing talent to be discovered and then I'll have money, I just have to wait for winter to end and then I'll be happy.  But really, humanity's only true promise is delivered by the Grim Reaper, and he does not deal in happiness.

This waiting bullshit stops now.  So many times, I have heard people say that you must grasp your happiness in each moment.  I think I finally understand that now.  Each time I realize that I'm waiting, I challenge that thought and try to engage my senses, somehow, to remind myself that I'm alive and each moment is mine.  Even in a supermarket checkout, where I am expected to wait, I can still talk to people, still admire some pretty woman on a magazine cover, still whistle a tune.

Old thought patterns die hard, and breaking those habits is difficult.  But I can already feel joy creeping back.  It is so wonderful to resume enjoying things again, after so long being numb.  Sometimes I get so filled with happiness that I cry.  I wept over a song that Pinkie Pie sang on My Little Pony last week.

I'm back, bitches.

ps. If life seems like an unfulfilled promise, don't wait.  Therapy is good.  Seek it, and remember how to live again.  Here's the service I used: https://www.onlinetherapyuser.ca/