There is a long list of brilliant people whose exceptional productivity was followed by periods of deep depression and self-doubt. Many of these geniuses have resorted to alcohol, drugs or suicide. They include Wolfgang Mozart, Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent van Gogh, and Emily Dickinson, Eugene O’Neill. The list also includes the artist Henri Matisse, writers Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, and Virginia Woolfe, businessmen Howard Hughes and J. P. Morgan, scientists Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Sir Isaac Newton, composers Frederic Chopin, Gustav Mahler, Cole Porter, as well as world leaders Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and many others.
Robin Williams, whose movies I found utterly delightful (especially Mrs. Doubtfire, and What Dreams May Come, though I preferred the book) is a more recent instance of a cherished performer being snatched away by depression and suicide. And if current trends keep up he will certainly not be the last. Indeed Winston Churchill called this sickness the black dog, with booze being the favored self-treatment. Alcohol provides a brief and costly respite from being sad, as it is a central nervous system depressant itself.
Many people wonder how a person who appeared to have everything could do this to his family. A man with such a prolific and lucrative career, money, so much talent. Alas, Williams once remarked how he could bring great happiness to so many people, but not to himself. Perhaps he recognized that these great gifts were illusions. Like the man who possesses gold in a dream and wakes up as poor as he was when he went to sleep. Williams may have realized that fame and fortune were essentially valueless, being here today and gone tomorrow. But perhaps he was not aware of the perfection inherent within, perhaps he did not live in intimate association with his immortal and blemishless soul! But how can he be blamed? We live in a spiritually impoverished time. Add to depression a diagnosis of Parkinson's, and there are very few indeed who would not opt out of the Earthly nightmare that living with this disease can become, especially for the sensitive genius that Williams was. What a precious man!
Dick Cavett is another comic who has suffered depression. Writing for Time magazine he recalls a conversation he had with a brilliant psychopharmacologist. Cavett assumed that there had been a lot of progress and new medications since back when he was first diagnosed in the ‘70s. The answer was, “No, we’re really not making much progress, I’m afraid."
Cavett recognizes that depression seems to stalk the arts like a Jack the Ripper, and the hope is that some day a chemical link will be found between great performing talent and susceptibility to depression. But like the futile search for the perfect anti-depressant, the chemical basis for sadness has eluded researchers, likely because it does not exist.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer recognized the existence of a certain temperament more prone to black moods. He called it the melancholy, which is “generally given up to sad thoughts,” with periodical fits of unrestrained liveliness (which the moderns would call bipolar or manic states). This abnormal sensitiveness is the stuff of genius, and to Schopenhauer excessively sad men were sad precisely because they were so brilliant; and as Aristotle writing over 2,000 years ago correctly observed, those “distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry or art appear to be all of a melancholy temperament.”
Everything is not without a price, and so it is with talent. And the more sensitive a soul, the more acute its suffering.
How to effectively deal with mental illness? First, we must recognize that life itself is a sort of illness, as the sages say. In order to enjoy the play of life, consciousness must attach itself to a perishable fleshy vehicle. The union of spirit and matter represents the affinity of opposites, and opposites attract but can certainly clash.
Consider that the nature of consciousness is to be eternal and perfect, and then it is confined to a body subject to degeneration and disrepair, and when the spirit identifies with this vehicle destined to become ordure and ash, what invariably ensues is suffering.
But how can what is spirit really suffer? The mind which is a product of the union of spirit and matter is the true cause of the suffering, and also the one that suffers. But the mind is merely a bundle of thoughts, and when you look for it, it goes away. So suffering itself is an illusion. That doesn't ignore the fact that it seems real at the time. But as when you recognize a mirage in the desert, you no longer look to it to gratify your thirst, once you recognize sadness as a thought, and thoughts the product of a mind without any independent reality, then sadness fades. And unlike anti-depressants and psychotropics, this is a treatment that is both effective and side-effect free. When will the medical health professionals catch on?
Now if we could only cure Parkinson's... Give us enough time and you and I are bound to come up with something.