A tough week indeed, losing Robin Williams.
There’s been a lot of speculation and confusion and searching for reasons.
Some are asking if Comedians are more prone to Depression.
A non-scientific survey of the many comedians I know would suggest we are. And certainly, since making ADD & Loving It?! I have heard from a number of comedians who recognized themselves. Patrick McKenna and myself included.
Some comedians were diagnosed with ADHD as kids. Some just kind of suspected, but have never been tested. (Which is always tricky.) And some have realized they qualify as ADHD because one or more of their kids were diagnosed and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Most comedians I talk to suspect they are. But very few seem to seek out a doctor to have it confirmed. One reason I was concerned about getting ‘treatment’ was that I was afraid I’d lose my comedic edge.
My biggest fear about taking medication was that I’d become ‘normal.’ Tame. Dull. Boring. Predictable.
What actually happened was that I was able to stick with things that I didn’t particularly want to do. You know, the grown-up stuff like finances and parenting and having conversations.
Robin Williams had to deal with Bipolar, and compared to their non-ADHD peers, folks with ADHD have a higher rate of Bipolar.
And three times the rate of attempted suicide.
Plus much higher rates of Anxiety Disorder. And Substance Abuse (We will find a way to medicate ourselves somehow).
And yes, much higher rates of Depression.
But does being a comedian increase the risk of Depression? Or is it that those who are predisposed to suffer from Depression are drawn to comedy?
Looking For Answers
Some random thoughts in no particular order, about why we might be more prone to Depression. This is just from my own experience.
-There is something about being onstage, making hundreds of people happy, sending them home spent with laughter, that is incredibly energizing. But an hour later you’re sitting alone in a hotel room with no one around to make you happy.
– Comedy comes from a place of anger. Or perhaps of disappointment in the world. There’s a common thread through comedy about the stupidity of human beings. Comedy makes fun of our greed, selfishness, excess, and base desires. Whereas drama celebrates our higher selves. As Bogie says in Casablanca, “I’m not good at being noble…” before proceeding to be incredibly noble. Someone once said comedians are idealists. And the world disappoints them. And so they either become cranky complainers, or they become comedians and use humor to get people to see their own foibles and faults. I think of Louis CK’s great routine about the guy in the commercial airplane complaining about the slow internet service. “You’re in a chair in the sky. It’s miracle. Shutup!”
– The courage to get up on stage, (Or perhaps it’s desperation and arrogance) and try to make people laugh, and then to succeed… it’s a bit like jumping out of a plane and trusting someone else to hand you a parachute on the way down. The number one fear most people have is speaking in public. Making people laugh as well? If it goes wrong, you’ll know. When you succeed… it’s an incredible rush. You don’t want the show to end. I didn’t. There’s a real high. And that means daily life… by comparison… is boring.
– Comedy clubs serve alcohol. A lot of comedians drink. Sometimes the drinks are on the house. I don’t drink, so this wasn’t an issue for me. But I saw others ruin their careers with alcohol.
– If you have a bad day at the office, your boss may hear about it. Perhaps a colleague or two. Have a bad day on stage, and there are hundreds of witnesses. I have performed thousands of times. The standing ovations blur together. But I can describe the times I bombed in detail. Perhaps more than most, comedians obsess about the failures. Because, in a way, that’s where comedy comes from.
– Comedians, like a lot of ADHD people, are sprinters. Burst of manic energy and then we crash. Before a show I could be almost catatonic, convinced I was ill and wondering if I could get through the show. Then, 20 minutes before the curtain rose, it would start. The tingle. The edge. The excitement. Mind jumping. Making jokes. Pacing. Like a bucking bronco waiting for the gate to open… And then after the show… the long, slow unwind.
Does comedy cause Depression? I don’t have a clear answer for you. Or for myself.
What I Know For Sure
I do suspect that Robin Williams was dealing with multiple issues. People don’t get to suicide because of one setback. I’ve read he was having money issues, Bi-polar, drinking, and I think most importantly, he’d had heart surgery. And a large number of people who have open heart surgery struggle with suicidal depression.
As good as the surgeons are, and as amazing as the Heart-Lung machines are that keep you alive, when your heart has been stopped, your brain is affected by surgery. Sometimes deeply.
The one thing I do know for sure, is that laughter releases a lot of wonderful chemicals into the body. These chemicals make us feel good and they’re good for us.
And Depression is the result of a severe shortage of good chemicals. The brain is starving for those chemicals. And it hurts.
And we can do something about that. If we keep communicating and we reach out and get help.
Rest in peace Robin Williams. You made a huge difference for millions of people who needed laughter in their lives. And your body of work is a gift to the world for years to come. A humble thank you.