Calling All Sad Clowns

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 12 2014 5:22 PM

Calling All Sad Clowns

I put a disclaimer at the front of my Robin Williams post today, cautioning that my very quick look at the guy's political comedy was a sidebar of a sidebar. Despite that, I've gotten some irritated email and tweets asking why I wrote a "takedown" of a dead guy and "politicized" his death. 

Short answer: Do you really want reporters to chin-stroke about all the stories outside their beats? This is a politics blog, and Williams had done some political work—presto, blog post.

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Long answer: I wasn't sure if the world needed one more "there but for the grace of God" take on Williams' reported suicide. The first-person pronoun has crept into more of my posts and stories over the last 10 years, but, generally, I prefer talking to people or analyzing stories to any kind of navel-gazing.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

But inspired by some good stories (especially this from John Tabin) and by some of the treacle that's not really informing anyone, I'll make an exception. If you've never suffered from depression, or had a public career, the suicide of a successful person makes no damn sense. It's the same reason why an artist quitting or breaking his band up makes no sense—you wanted something, and you've finally grabbed it, so why would you ever give that up? What's wrong with you?

Depression is what's wrong with you. I've been medicated for depression since 2001. In 2002, after a particularly low episode, I was taken in by campus police who marked me as a risk for self-harm. I then voluntarily checked myself into a mental hospital.

This was a good thing. The hospital, which was as expensive as a suite in the Burj Al Arab (thank you, health insurance), was staffed by very smart people who actually taught me some coping techniques that should have been obvious. I could have Googled that "depression is anger, turned inward," but instead I learned it after a few forced days of meetings, sharing a bedroom with a grad student who was unable to stay awake for more than a few minutes.

In 2002 I was a college student worrying about whether I'd nail down an internship with a tiny stipend. If I'd imagined a dream job, it'd likely be the one I have now. But success doesn't change the patterns of depression. These are the ways it hits me:

One: You earned none of what you have. You're a fraud. People are going to find out. Everything your critics have said about you, from the guy who lobbed dodgeballs at your head to the hate-mailer who hated your Iowa story, is completely right.

Two: All that other stuff you feel, the negativity and the screw-ups? You definitely earned that, because you're meant to fail. You've succeeded, and you still feel this way? Why, that's proof that you won't possibly feel better.

Three: Nobody truly likes you. They can desert you at any moment. They're succeeding, and you're not. 

It's contradictory, and pointless, and bears very little relationship to the reality of what you're going through. It's unpredictable in a way that makes you feel callow; I've been sad but functional after the deaths of family members, then horribly depressed while walking home on a random Wednesday. The problem with a public career, like Williams had (and most journalists have), is that you're "only as good as your last one." Most of the time, you create something that goes off well, and you can bask in it. And sometimes you pull it off and are sure that you peaked—down you go, down the spiral.

Does this sound pathetic? Good eye. That's one of the realizations that hits you on the way down. How many millions of people are in legitimately less fair, less pleasant situations than you? They cope, and you can't? Like Tabin says, the mind is able to lie to itself. The moments when you need help, anything from tricks you've learned to help from friends to real therapy, are the moments when your synapses are crackling with ways to make you hopeless.

It's a very good thing to see people reacting to the Williams suicide by talking honestly and asking if any of their friends need help. Depression is the weak disease that convinces you it's invincible. And voices of reason can stop that.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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