The Black Box

I’m writing this just a few hours after learning that Robin Williams is dead.  Bear with me…I am stunned — this is almost unbelievable.. This is such sad news that everyone is stunned…It’s almost a national grief. There are countless expressions of shock and sorrow. He was a great talent and will be missed — missed now when he (and his talent) is needed so desperately.

We only knew him through his public life and his performances. In his personal and most private life he was clearly not the same person. It is very early but it is widely assumed and reported that his death was suicide. He suffered from depression and was not able to overcome the darkness that obscured everything else. And yet he had so much talent. It is a mystery to me how the inner demons can inspire and fuel such great talent and artistry. He is not the only one….there are many examples of talented people who were privately (or sometimes publicly) tormented.

Another similar comedian, Jonathan Winters suffered from bipolar disorder and was institutionalized on two occasions. He is quoted as saying:  “These voices are always screaming to get out… They follow me around pretty much all day and night.”

Winters somehow managed to control his demons. The Black Box of depression consumed Robin Williams. We wonder how this could happen. Surely, we think,  if you or I or somebody had gotten to him today during his darkest time we could have made a difference. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Depression is private space where a person is totally alone….maybe even in a crowd of closest friends. I have never suffered from that kind of depression. I only flirted with it. I’ve been depressed, especially after my wife died. Profound grief is not the same as depression but I maybe can see some parallels and, yes, a person can die from grief. After a while it becomes almost a steady companion…not a friend but a familiar something that is always there, almost like a shadow but with a voice.

People suffer from grief and seem to get over it. Deep depression is not so easy to escape. There are pills and counseling but medication seems to make things different….not always better. Counseling  might work for some but not others. The Black Box is hard to break out of and I wonder if in depression, as in grief, it becomes sort of a companion — a familiar presence that a person can almost bond with — in an unhealthy way.  The strength of that bond might determine the outcome.

You know, commercial airplanes have a black box that memorizes and records things that can help explain what goes wrong or how things happen in flight. We hear about them usually in crash investigations but they are there, on the job, in every flight. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had an internal black box that would allow us to inspect our own personal and private “flight” to see where things seem to be going wrong and make a course correction?  Sadly, we don’t.

I wonder if a Van Gogh or a similarly tormented artist would give up the demons if it meant the end of their talent.  I have an acquaintance who prefers not to take their medication because they like the slightly demonized self better than the medicated one. So many talented people have succumbed to one addiction or another. Would their stars shine less bright if they didn’t have the demons? I would not wish that on anyone….I’d gladly take the slightly dimmer world if it meant they could be healthy and break out of the Black Box.


One thought on “The Black Box

  1. This is beautifully written Ken! It makes me see depression/grief in a deep human nature, first hand account from your life’s experience and it touches to the core. Absolutely heartfelt! I take my hat off to this beautiful piece of writing.


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