Mind the Gap

Most of the time, when you’re making a fool of yourself on purpose, it’s just to make other people happy.  Their happiness brings you happiness. You may be costing yourself immeasurably in the persona you’re left with, but it’s worth it. You made someone’s day better.  And that’s the bright side.  The dark side is what it does to your mind when you’re not making other people happy.  The dark side is where you get lost in your own thoughts. The dark side is depression.

When I was a good deal younger, I was one of the three shortest kids in my grade (thanks, Matty & Ernie for keeping me from touching bottom).  And –brace yourselves here – I wouldn’t say I had the greatest eating habits, so my height and my diet put me on the chunky side.  Being on the chunky side had its perks (always being expected to eat more food or the last slice of pizza) and its cons (self-explanatory?), and then there was this gray area where you didn’t know if it was good or bad to be that way.  That gray area is where you would own your flaws and taunt others with your ability to do so.  This gray area is where everyone else thinks they’re seeing you happy.

One time (at least I can only recall doing it once), this gray area had me doing the Truffle Shuffle. (see below if you need a refresher or are the type of sick freak who has never seen The Goonies).

Did I like doing that? Of course not. But it was funny to everyone else.  And if I could turn my flaw into a means of entertainment, it would no longer be seen as a flaw at all. This wasn’t the first time I did such a thing, it certainly wasn’t the last, and I’m not sure I’ll ever shake it from my arsenal. Making a tremendous fool of yourself is an effective mask to wear.

I was a big fan of Mrs. Doubtfire when I was a kid. Still am, of course, I haven’t matured a day in the past 18 years.  And though I loved it for the humor and for Robin Williams’ erratic brilliance, I also fell in love with the concept. You could put on a different face, act however you
wanted, and escape the trials of reality.  As long as you keep them happy and laughing, they’ll keep asking for more. As long as you keep your mask on, they’ll never know how much everything else hurts. I can’t imagine that’s the message we’re supposed to take from the film, but it’s there.

The most brilliant entertainers may be the loneliest people on earth (and saddest). They live within their own worlds, within their own minds, and they’ll put on their masks for the rest of us to see.  Because within those parameters comes a perception of reality that no one else can realize and that no one else will love.

I certainly can’t tell you, or even begin to guess, what goes on in someone’s head when they take their own life, and I wouldn’t dare to do that with Robin Williams. But I can take a guess that he probably felt helpless, and at the time he took his life his perception of self was far different from the rest of ours.  All the voices, all the impressions, the never-ending stream of energy – this was the real Robin Williams to us.  But there was something else going on that we never got to see.

To be honest, I don’t know much about depression, if anything, but apparently he was battling it for some time.  For all I know, I’ll never encounter it. For all I know, I’ve dealt with it every day of my life.  But what I can certainly speak to is the feeling that comes from being the center of attention and then suddenly not.  From watching a rousing round of Nelson home movies this past weekend (during which my brother and I battled back and forth for the camera’s focus over the contents of our Easter baskets – and he won with a pack of egg-shaped crayons), I can assure you that I’ve known that feeling for quite some time.  When you’re feeling it, it’s the greatest feeling on earth.  And when you’re not the centerpiece, well, you’re stuck in this gap that sits in between.

It’s in that gap, between knowing you’re everything and thinking you’re not, where I see how depression can set in.  This can come from anxiety, from not knowing what comes next when you need to know what comes next.  From not knowing what everyone else is thinking.  From not knowing why the jokes that used to work don’t work any more.  From bouncing between high and low, from manic to depressive, at an unsustainable pace.  You’re constantly left wondering what’s wrong – with the world, with relationships, with yourself – and when you realize you can’t fix everything, you feel helpless and insignificant.

Think about what it’s like to entertain for a living. Your whole profession, unless you’re the only freak on earth who can separate these feelings from his or her work, is built around that gap.  Either you’re the center of attention or you’re left wondering why you’re not.  And if you can’t figure out why you’re not, you end up in what feels like the darkest place imaginable. You’re trapped, you don’t understand how you got there, and you can’t figure a way out. It’s not a “hey, cheer up, buddy!” kind of thing – it’s an illness.

And really, it’s all just in your head. While you’re wondering why nothing’s going right, the rest of the world keeps loving and admiring you. That’s why you need friends who will talk to you. That’s why you need whatever truly makes you happy to be a consistent part of your life.  That’s why, when you have those helpless feelings, you need someone who can be your Robin Williams:

Talk to people, write down your thoughts, do whatever it takes to not be alone without just making yourself the center of attention again.  Because then you’ll end up right back where you started.  And if you have a friend you think may be lonely – and you absolutely know you do – help them fill that gap.  It’s likely the person you never suspected. And it could mean more to them than you can possibly imagine, because without being them you just can’t understand.

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