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William Rivers Pitt | To Know the Darkness and the Light

On the heels of Robin Williams’ death, William Rivers Pitt ruminates on living with bipolar depression.

Ye must welcome the phantoms that scream through the night
Take heed to the visions and presences bright
Lest ye waste up your life with the weight of street
In fear of the banshees ye’d happen to meet…
– “Jo’rneyman’s Song,” Barleyjuice

I know about the darkness. I have seen it, smelled it, tasted it. I have felt it invade me through my pores, had it envelop and encompass every river and sea and valley of me. I have been staggered as it conquers and pillages me, I have choked on the soot of its burning, and I have wept tears of ash as the hoofbeats of its raiders tear my soil and thunder up the road to batter down my gates.

There is that. There is also this:

The wind in the trees. The sun on my skin. The taste of rain. The morning light dappling the ripples on the pond. The swell and crescendo of music. The caress of a lover. The coo of a child. A long embrace. A turn of phrase, a rhyme of verse, a finely-told joke. The taste of chocolate, or whiskey, or wine. The way wildflowers look in Spring, and the leaves in Autumn, the low susurration of snow in Winter, and the cobalt blue aftermath of sunset on Summer nights.

All of these, and so much more, and everything, are electric to me. For as long as I have had memory, the world around me and within me has left me gasping in a way that beggars the word “overwhelmed.” I am in a state of perpetual astonishment, because I am wired that way. I came into this world a human tuning fork, humming with the tones surrounding me entirely against my will. I cannot stop it, and would not if given the chance. Mine is wonder, and awe, and I am overtaken by it, as if the air itself is transformed into high waves breaking on the beach. I drown daily, hourly, in minutes and in seconds, I drown in moments, and smile as I sink, because it is beautiful beyond words and space and time.

There is, however, a price. That price is the darkness, bleak and cold and forbidding, and I must make room for it as I also make room for the astonishment, because it comes relentless, remorseless, and it will have its way. When it comes to hold court – and it always comes, and always will – I cling to what is simple and good in this incredibly strange life I have been gifted to live. I hold tight the basics – my wife, my daughter, my family, my friends – and furiously remember that this, too, shall pass. It always does, I tell myself.

It always has, so far.

Such is the bewilderment of depression. It is both reaper and reaver, a joyful destroyer, a Technicolor wrecking ball. With one supple hand it gives you the whole wide world that thrums against every nerve and fiber of your being, the world like diamonds dropped on a gilded plate. The other hand is a taloned fist, crusted with old blisters and older blood, and that hand takes. And takes. And takes.

Balance is all. You come to see your life as a long sine wave, all valleys and peaks, which are to be ridden out. Chronic depression has a dreadful way of transforming you into a demented walking contradiction, a deeply empathetic narcissist, at once all-embracing and self-absorbed. You are a thunderstorm, beautiful and terrible, bringing rain to cleanse and restore along with wind and lightning to destroy and scorch. You ride it out. You tame yourself. You learn. You endure.

Most of the time.

The darkness took Robin Williams from us. On Monday, he was found hanged in his home, a suicide, another triumph for the torment of depression suffered by so many. Comedians, more often than not, are the saddest people in the room, as Richard Jeni, Freddie Prinze, and now Robin Williams could attest to, were they still here.

Robin Williams never knew me, never met me, could not have picked me out of a line-up, but the news of his death hit me like a physical blow. I had, of course, reveled in the body of work he assembled over so many years, but it was more than that. We had something in common, after all: that darkness, which is the price of the light.

“The funniest people I know,” writes comedian Jim Norton, “seem to be the ones surrounded by darkness. And that’s probably why they’re the funniest. The deeper the pit, the more humor you need to dig yourself out of it. In the 25 years I’ve been doing stand-up, I’ve personally known at least eight comedians who committed suicide. There is simply no way Robin could have understood the way the rest of us saw him. And there is simply no way he could have understood how much respect and adoration other performers had for him. At least I hope he couldn’t have understood. Because it’s too sad to think that maybe he did understand, and it just wasn’t enough anymore.”

That’s it, right there, and perfectly said. Depression is a thief that steals your ability to see the ground under your feet for what it is. You find yourself, instead, lost in a contradictory autobiography, a self-created narrative drafted by demons in a hall of mirrors where all the glass is cracked. It is all too easy to get lost in there, and Robin Williams, like so very many others before him, could not find his way out.

I see the ground under my feet. I know it for what it is. I lose it sometimes, but after many hard years, I know full well how to find it. I have put my malady in the traces, and it plows my fields with a durable reliability I will never not find surprising. When I hear the raiders coming, I brace the gates, and bring the provisions inside the walls, and prevail.

But I know the darkness, and I damn it with curses unspeakable, because it steals people like Robin Williams every day. Even in my wroth, however, I am forced to bless it as well, because it is Janus of two faces, and the other face of the darkness is that great, good, glorious light. It shined so brightly out of Mr. Williams, and out of so many others who bear this burden. It is the price, implacable, utterly immutable. It is what it is.

If you share this with me, you are my brother, my sister, the wind on my skin. You are not alone. Reach for the light, always. It is there. I know. I’ve seen.

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