Thursday,21 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1211, (28 August - 3 September 2014)
Thursday,21 June, 2018
Issue 1211, (28 August - 3 September 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Swept Away by Sorrow

Al-Ahram Weekly

Nothing is as exhilarating as the joyous song of a robin, on a bleak winter morn.

Once upon a time we had a Robin who could chirp and sing the whole day through.  Always busting with merriment, his comedic style was born of a superior brain that flew faster than a speeding arrow. We embraced his innocent, natural hilarity and our hearts sang and danced with his every step.

Suddenly all was silent. The music, the chirruping, the laughter stopped. Robin Williams had died, taking with him the special joy he so generously spread around.

Beneath their sighing and their sobbing, fans kept asking why and what and who killed dear Robin. Little did they know that the unbearable burden he had carried for years could have easily slain a giant, not just a playful, gentle clown.

Williams suffered from three lethal diseases — drug addiction, depression and Parkinson’s. Substance abuse, for which he was once treated, is a chronic addiction that can be controlled but never cured. Temptation beckons and many fall back to the comfort of the drugs when the world seems dark and dreary. The results are often tragic.

Depression ravages the body and soul. It clings to its victims fiercely, intent on destroying them. Overpowered by an intense feeling of sadness, patients feel inadequate, flawed or unworthy. Life altogether becomes troublesome as they slowly lose interest in all that was once pleasurable. A sense of hopelessness leads them to withdraw or escape from life’s myriad stresses. In the US alone, $83 billion are spent every year on the treatment of clinical depression or unipolar disorder, yet it is rampant and often goes untreated.

Still our Robin kept on singing, even as he secretly battled his demons.

An occasional companion to depression is Parkinson’s, named after British physician Dr. James Parkinson in 1817, who described it as “shaky palsy”. The disease dates back 5,000 years to an ancient Indian civilization, where the disorder was called Kampavata and treated with the seeds of a plant containing “lavodopa”. The same treatment is used today, and is effective in managing early symptoms.

Having suffered the immense pain of depression for four decades, Robin was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. That was the final blow, but everyone was too busy laughing to notice the grey shade of hopelessness that crossed over those twinkling eyes.

What causes Parkinson’s? A substance called dopamine acts as a messenger between two brain areas, the substantia nigra and the corpus stratum, to produce smooth and controlled movements. When the levels of dopamine are too low, communication between the two parts of the brain fails and movement becomes impaired. The greater the loss of dopamine, the more pronounced the movement-related symptoms.

Why do dopamine-producing cells deteriorate? Scientists have not figured it out but suspect it is due to a combination of factors, both genetic and environmental. Stress, man’s number-one enemy, is mentioned as a major culprit, of course.
The symptoms of stress are familiar: involuntary trembling of fingers, hands, arms, feet, legs, jaw or head. This can be embarrassing, to say the least. The early symptoms are slow and subtle, emerging gradually, and may not be noticed, remaining unnoticed until they become more pronounced. 

Speech becomes slurred, your arms may no longer swing as you walk, your feet may be hard to move as you attempt to walk, shoulders and hips may be stiff and painful. As the disease progresses, patients slouch, stoop or lean when standing; their sense of smell lessens and the voice may change to soft or hoarse. Worse of all, an expression of sadness covers the face.

With proper management patients can live for many years, functioning reasonably well. Experimental surgeries and deep brain stimulation (DBS) have met with some success but there are no guarantees. Eventually, with the progressive loss of muscle control, the entire body is devoured by this second most common neuro-degenerative disorder.

The threatening bow and arrow was aiming at Robin’s heart!

How can a person famous for his mental agility face the consequence of precipitous decline?

Can we try to understand why people commit suicide? No one condones suicide. All religions condemn it but are unable to prevent it. People commit suicide because they believe there is no longer a reason to live, because they need to end the pain. But is death the answer? We shall never know.

What enables someone to plan his death and follow through, to hang himself from a rope, swallow a bottle of pills, jump off a bridge? Researchers shy away from the word ‘courage’. What would you call it?

Williams is neither the first, nor sadly will he be the last, to seek refuge in the arms of death. Numerous celebrities throughout the centuries have found solace in self- inflicted death, leaving the world shocked and puzzled. Philosophers, statesmen, leaders, poets, composers, scientists, authors, actors, film directors, fashion designers, suicide-bombers, passionate lovers … suicide does not discriminate. In fact, according to a 2011 report by the World Health Organisation, it is on the rise. Global rates have increased 60 per cent in the past 45 years.

A sense of hopelessness, loneliness, and endless pain overwhelms the mind and causes a temporary loss of reason. Death is seen as the only escape.

Feeling trapped and overburdened, poor Robin folded his wings in silence. An avalanche of despair swept him away to eternity and beyond. And all who had once laughed so heartily at his clever quips and madcap performances could only weep.


           

“Death is a delightful hiding-place for weary men.”
— Herodotus (484-424 BC).            

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