No, I'm not talking about erectile dysfunction so I'm sure that will weed out a few readers from the get-go. I want to talk about depression, (which should also weed out a few as well).
When I was a graduate student in the Clinical Psych department, I spent more of my time in the Applied Psych headquarters because, among other things, my wife was a student in that department and I enjoyed spending as much time as possible with her. I used to suffer from SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it generally struck in the fall of the year, most specifically between mid-September and Thanksgiving. I can recall it not being a simple depression or "feeling blue", but a real question about my actual existence and the meaning of my life. It was profoundly debilitating. While my graduate program whirred on around me, I can remember finding any way possible to avoid the reality of it and pretend that I could get by just fine without giving it the attention it deserved. Apparently, the students in the Applied Psych department picked up on my distress, the reason they're called Applied Psych students, I guess. They tend to pick up on things in the real world. And, sweethearts that they all were, they coined the phrase: "Looks like Ed is having another one of his E.D.'s (existential dilemmas). Even I thought the play on words was funny at the time, but it did very little to alleviate the symptoms.
The recent death of Robin Williams brought up again the issue of depression for me and how it isn't simply a one word explanation for what it can be. Like the Arctic peoples have 50 or so different words for snow, (and that is not a language hoax as some detractors have claimed) there are innumerable ways to describe depression, and as many different types of it as well. If you say that you have never felt one of these types in your life, then you are lying because it's part of being human to at one time or another experience the range of emotion that life has to offer. Most depressions were and are highly recoverable even before the advent of modern anti-depressant medication. You must slog through them, clinging to the knowledge that these ideas that are running through your mind are just "the depression talking" and are not permanent.
Lest you think me naïve about the horrors of significant depression, let me assure you that I am not. I have witnessed the zombie-like shuffle of folks severely debilitated by it. I have listened to their stories about the worthlessness of their lives and the absurdity of living from day to day given the ultimate outcome. And I have felt it myself. Existential depression is a real form of the disease and perhaps its most destructive. Because, what do we have if not our very existence? And where does our very existence come from? From our minds and how we think and feel about ourselves.
It may be a wholly American invention to believe that those who have money, fame and are loved by all, have everything. That the trappings of one's life are what make up his or her life. Silly thought, really. Whether you are wealthy or famous or loved by many, life can be a miserable thing to experience. People betray you. Boulders roll down mountains next to interstate highways and crush your car with you inside. People will kill you to protect their own rights. And it's finite, this life thing. Finite. That's the existential part. What other species grows up knowing of its own impending demise? How do you fight your way out of that realization? By taking control of it, I suppose.
I realize as I am writing about this that I might be suffering from just a touch of the old E.D. For some reason, I have empathized with Robin Williams and his decision. I am convinced that he wasn't just depressed - from all accounts, he suffered from depression for a good long time - but that this time his depression was existential. His very existence was in question and not by other people or professional circumstances, but by himself. That may be the part that is hard for people to understand about taking your own life. The battle is with yourself, not with your ex-spouse or the popularity of your latest movie or stand-up performance. Yourself. The loneliest and most difficult battle of all. For that's what the E.D. has to offer you. You can be surrounded by hundreds of people who love and adore you, and still feel like the loneliest person in the world.
In the end I don't know why Mr. Williams chose to take his own life. Nobody can know. But I do know that existential depression probably had a lot to do with it. From all accounts, he died alone and that in itself is the most existential of all conditions.
Now, don't you wish I had talked about erectile dysfunction?