Hunting for the Whys of Depression and Suicide: What Self-Hate Has to do With It

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Robin Williams’ heartbreaking suicide brings depression and suicide to the forefront of everyone’s mind, along with remembrances of his many film roles. Ironically, Williams won his only Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1998 for his emotional performance as Sean Maguire, a gifted, underachieving therapist who’s challenged to reach an intellectually brilliant, yet deeply troubled young man in Good Will Hunting.  In real life, Williams’s decision to end his life leaves many unanswered questions as to why he was unable to get the kind of help he needed to go on.

In the film, Sean’s treatment of Will Hunting (Matt Damon) confirms my years of psychoanalytic work with patients and sheds light on the considerable influence of self-hate and the various feelings that underlie depression. Williams played the role of therapist brilliantly and sensitively. As Sean delves into Will’s personal history, he slowly wins the frightened and abused orphan’s trust. Himself a once-chubby, bullied only child who spent much of his time playing alone in his family’s mansion in Bloomfield Hills, MI, Williams knew about scary fathers, shaky trust, and the terror of abandonment. He knew quite well, I might conjecture, struggles and fears very similar to those of Will Hunting.

Like Will, Williams admitted he was a very lonely boy and he developed his now-famous comedic personality to hide his sadness. In a 1986 60 Minutes interview, Williams openly acknowledged a self-deprecating voice in his head: “Sometimes I get afraid. You think, ‘I don’t have it anymore. It’s not funny. I’m not creative. It’s old and – stupid.’” He also spoke about his struggles with sobriety. In a particularly candid 2010 interview on comedian Marc Moran’s WTF podcast, he described his major relapse while shooting The Big White in Alaska: “I was feeling kind of isolated…and I was thinking, there’s one cure…I think it’s trying to fill the hole and it’s fear…Rather than going, ‘this will pass….’ you go, ‘this will pass quicker [with alcohol].’”  Comedy, he said, was the only “sanity clause.” “The idea of going on the stage is one salvation. It’s like lifting a siege.”  Depression is a siege.  Especially when depression brings torrents of self-hate: “What are you afraid of?” Moran asked him. “People see your insecurity,” Williams replied.  This fear makes opening up to help most difficult.

In my work with depressed patients, a self-hating voice is lodged in their minds—a  voice that won’t let go for complicated reasons. Many a scene in Good Will Hunting sheds light on what underlies this kind of self-hate, vicious self-blame, and terrible fear of not being loved. Given his struggles, perhaps it’s no wonder Williams brought so much to the role of Sean Maguire. The best therapists are those who have done their own personal work and use the deep knowledge of their experiences to empathetically understand and reach their patients beyond their self-protections (defenses), a skill Robin Williams conveyed with great poignancy in Good Will Hunting.

The necessity of Trust

While teaching his psychology students at the community college, Sean poses the question: “Why is trust the most important thing in making a breakthrough?” The answer is that without trust, therapy goes nowhere; there are plenty of ways to stay in hiding. A good therapist must create a safe enough environment to sensitively get past carefully constructed defenses to find where each person is hiding. That psychological hiding place masquerades as the safest haven—much safer than a stranger who thinks he or she can help. Out of desperation and fear, a depressed person holds on to that place with tenacious strength.

Who is stronger?

In the film, Will tests each therapist’s strength, as any patient does, and quickly defeats the first round of would-be saviors. He mocks their efforts not because he’s “bad” but because he’s scared and they aren’t savvy enough to see it.  Scared patients must come to know that the therapist is strong enough—stronger than they are—to take the distrust, anger, and hurt they bring from the past. We see this beginning to happen when Will asks Sean how much weight he can bench-press.  “285. What do you bench?” Sean wisely quips right back. Perhaps sensing he has met his match, Will ramps up his defensive attacks against Sean and rips apart his painting. But, he’s really telling Sean a story about himself.  Emotionally, he is in the middle of a “big f—ing storm, the sky is falling on his head, and his oars are about to snap.”

The fear of being judged

Will’s (pseudo)-independence is only a mask. Sean sees right through it: “I look at you and don’t see an intelligent confident man … I see a cocky, scared-shitless kid.” Will is scared – of being judged. He’s been hurt and abused. Now, the voice inside judges him. Love is not to be trusted.  It can hurt. It can judge. It can turn against him. A depressed person never feels good enough. Good is defined as perfection.

This fear of not measuring up, though, is never based on reality, but on that distrustful and self-critical voice in their heads. They believe it nonetheless. Perfect means never making a mistake and knowing how to do everything. They hate themselves for needing any help at all. In the film, Skylar (Minnie Driver) unwittingly commits the worst “sin” in the eyes of someone as self-hating, pseudo-independent, and scared of rejection as Will is: she wants to help him.

Needing help is a weakness

With a childhood void of people he could count on, Will had to prove he could take care of himself from an early age: “Do I have a sign on my back that says ‘Save Me’?” he shouts angrily during his confrontation with Skylar, “Do I look like I need that?”  Any therapist who works with a depressed patient must understand the depths of their shame, feelings of weakness, and belief that needing help means they’ve failed in their pursuit of perfection – in their capacity to help themselves.  Bipolar depressives have this fear even more intensely than others because of the extreme vulnerability of their self-esteem and need, at all times, to stay away from feelings of smallness and sadness.

Feelings are terrifying

Depressed people are convinced their feelings are pathetic.  The cruel, unrelenting, judgmental voice is quick to jump in and tell them they’re right: “You shouldn’t feel that way. You’re weak. Be tough. Stay far away from your feelings.  They will only take you over and bring you down.”  Of course, this isn’t true.  It’s the difficult task of therapy to help them see that feelings are actually useful and human.

Mostly, in depression, there is terror of being vulnerable to love and need.  We see this in Will when he falls in love with Skylar.  He’s certain he’ll be left – especially if she comes to know the real him. The voice comes in again: “Go away. You’ll only be hurt.” He leaves her before she can leave him. No one is to be trusted. He’s convinced that the emotional storms of loss, when he is rejected, will certainly kill him.

A good therapist for Will

A brilliant man himself with unrealized potential, Sean knows loss.  He knows feelings of failure.  He knows what it’s like to feel less than someone else.  He knows fear.  He understands Will’s guilt and self-blame, yet he isn’t co-opted by Will’s self-hating voice.

This latter is particularly important in successful therapy.  When the voice of self-hate takes over, it hijacks the real person within.  It tries to hijack the therapist.  It even hijacks reality.  It becomes the voice of Truth.  This voice is an intruder.  It must be exposed for what it is and what it does.

In his unconventional but sensitive and caring ways, Sean does this quite well.  He helps Will accept that the abuse he suffered (the source of much of his self-hate) was not his fault.  It wasn’t that he’s bad. He is Good Will Hunting.  By allowing Will to “come clean” and expose the guilt he’s held inside by blaming himself for the awful experiences of his childhood, Will begins to gradually let go of his defenses and trust in love.  Most importantly, in the safe space of Sean’s office, Will learns that feelings—even terribly sad ones—won’t kill.  Sean helps Will begin to mourn his losses.

But, it’s not just sadness – it’s anger

After Will breaks down and sobs, Sean says: “F—k them, OK?” That’s not enough. Tears aren’t the only part of mourning the past. Anger is required: anger at them. Anger at the abusers, at all the people who disappointed and failed.  Feeling a right to anger and directing it where it belongs is an essential ingredient in overcoming the self-hate that drives depression.  If this doesn’t happen, anger continues to be turned inward into that self-hating voice.  In worst-case scenarios, when a depressed person can’t entertain angry, even vengeful, fantasies against the ones who hurt him, the result can be suicide. The saddest outcome of all: when murderous feelings are misdirected against the self and hope is gone.

Hope

Therapy for each depressed person must be as personal and individual as Will Hunting’s since everyone, their histories, and what they’ve made of those histories, is different. Sean Maguire finally gains Will’s trust—but not without great obstacles. In spite of those barriers, he doesn’t tear down Will’s defenses and, most importantly, he doesn’t give up. He understands Will’s fears of love and helps him not to need his defensive walls any longer.

In good therapy, there is hope when the self-hating voice is unveiled as not the only friend it portrays itself to be. When all is said and done, that negative, self-hating, frightened voice is looking for good will, too; for someone who understands and doesn’t replicate the judgment and self-hate that lives inside.

At the end of Good Will Hunting, as Will chooses love, two songs play: one is Elliot Smith’s song, “Miss Misery.” The words of this song tell us Will still struggles to believe he is strong enough to let go of the various self-protections that keep him alone and unhappy. The other song, playing almost in tandem, is Skyland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight”: “Gonna find my baby, gonna hold her tight. Gonna grab some afternoon delight.” This is a song of hope. The tone is completely different. There is longing – but there is also the expectation of satisfaction, not rejection. As Will heads across the country hopeful for a new life, we all wish Robin Williams had felt he could turn to help and find hope in his most desperate time.

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