Let’s say you’re an average, everyday person. Like anybody else, you enjoy certain diversions, such as music, movies, and/or sports. You turn up the radio when your favorite band comes on. You’re gleefully tethered to the TV every Sunday from September to January, savoring every touchdown and tackle. Every summer you’re one of the millions of theatergoers who turn movies into blockbusters. Maybe for you one of these diversions is more than just a diversion. Maybe you wield a mean guitar, as your jam-session buddies will attest. Maybe you were a pretty good quarterback in high school, with occasional dreams of college and the pros. Maybe you got hopelessly infected by the acting bug during the dress rehearsal for your first school play. Now I have three questions:
1) If you had picked a career in music, would racking up several multi-platinum albums and performing in front of thousands of people every year put a little extra spring in your step?
2) If you had gone on to play in the NFL, and your career numbers all but guaranteed you’ll make the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the near future, would the thought of your upcoming induction ceremony have you licking your chops in anticipation?
3) If you decided on a career in acting, would the idea of not only achieving major stardom, but actually becoming an entertainment icon, instill a deeper sense of appreciation for life?
You’d like to think so, and can’t imagine who wouldn’t, but three tortured souls have told the world it ain’t that simple.
If you’ve ever listened to an FM station on the radio, you’ve probably heard Bradley Delp, lead vocalist for the groundbreaking 1970’s band Boston. If you are a capable singer who’s ever aspired beyond Karaoke, those vocals might’ve made you want to hang up your microphone. A native of Peabody, MA, Delp was blessed with an unmistakable tenor that would do for his band what Dennis DeYoung’s did for Styx and Freddie Mercury’s did for Queen: it breathed life into it. It defined it. It made it soar.
In March of 2007 that voice took its very last breath, when its 55-year-old owner poisoned it with carbon monoxide in a closed room. It was, and always is, hard to make sense of a musician who reached the pinnacle of his craft desperately wanting his life to end. Years after he helped revolutionize rock music and sell tens of millions of albums, the silence left by Brad Delp’s suicide was deafening.
The linebacker is a prototype football player, and Junior Seau was a prototype linebacker. More than that, he was one of but a select few gems in NFL history: a defensive player who commanded as much of the league’s (and often the general public’s) attention as even the most celebrated quarterbacks. Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Reggie White, Deacon Jones, Lawrence Taylor, and “Mean Joe” Greene were the members of that exclusive club until San Diego picked Seau early in the 1990 NFL draft. From there it wouldn’t be long before the USC alum showed the sports world the same quickness, ferocity, muscle, and hard tackling that made Butkus and the others gridiron immortals. The fans adored him, his teammates respected him, opponents feared him, and opposing coaches planned games around him.
Like the late Merlin Olsen, the man born Tiaina Seau, Jr. was as much a kindhearted gentleman off the field as a dominant competitor on it. The intense, intimidating glare he sported during games couldn’t have been more drastically different than the wide, gleaming smile he wore in public. That smile was merely one part, an infectious part, of a large and multilayered package. Even if your one and only conversation with Junior took less than three minutes and was about the weather, you walked away convinced you were dealing with a generous, special guy.
His outward joviality, as much as his iconic status in San Diego County and upcoming trip to Canton, Ohio, only amplified the shock everyone felt in May 2012 when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the heart. He was 43.
Of course, I was reminded of Delp and Seau last week, after hearing about Robin Williams’ tragic end. Of the millions and millions of people stunned by the comedian’s suicide, perhaps a fraction knew him just as a movie star. The majority knew more: he was a movie star, a TV star, a comic, an author, a humanitarian, and the owner of almost every major award in entertainment. His stand-up act alone, a manic mix of impersonations, observational humor, slapstick, and wicked improvisation, was an innovative ride into the stratosphere.
So why would a living legend dread living? Why did this one take his own life on August 11th?
As Williams shared with the public long ago, he had suffered from severe depression for years, and had dealt with substance abuse in the past. A few days ago Susan Schneider, his widow, revealed that he was clean and sober, and was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Past drug abuse may or may not have been an underlying factor, and the prospect of a long battle with a neurological disorder may have been the lynchpin, but deep depression is what did Williams in, just like the other two men. (There has also been speculation, with good reason, that years of violent blows to Seau’s head played a role in his untimely end.)
If anything good can come from the news of a celebrity’s suicide, hopefully it’s that average people who are depressed might understand their feelings aren’t automatically a reflection on their lot in life. Speaking as someone with personal experience and a family history of mood disorders, anyone experiencing emotional turmoil could benefit from treating it as if it’s a symptom of any common ailment. Just like a virus could be behind a child’s fever and astigmatism could be the source of your blurred vision, it just might be a simple imbalance in your brain behind your sadness, whether or not you’re reeling from a rough week. Even when you feel overcome with anguish, even in your darkest hour, telling yourself it might just be due to your own inner chemistry could really lift the burden. More importantly, it helps you do the most important thing of all: get professional help.
Your psychiatrist’s two closest friends from med school just might have gone on to become an ophthalmologist and pediatrician now; they’re all physicians, plain and simple. Patients with a higher risk of suicide are no different than those with a higher risk of macular degeneration or cancer. Trust me on this: you have spent time with people under psychiatric care, you don’t know which people, and it’s most likely the ones who appeared the sanest.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, what you make, or where you’re from; depression doesn’t discriminate.