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Depression As The Troll You Can’t Ban

A reader sent along this Michael Potemra observation about Robin Williams and depression:

One of the things I have heard in the wake of his death, apparently by suicide owing to depression, is, How could he have despaired to the point of killing himself, when he was so wealthy, successful, and beloved? And it made me reflect on what depression is, and the damage it can do. The analogy I have found in my own experience — in reading our own blog here, and others — is negative comboxers. I no longer regularly read the comboxes, especially on my own posts, but when I used to, the impression I got was of a hateful anonymous force that seeks to make the writer despair. But the difference between a hateful comboxer and depression is that the hateful comboxer — an anonymous nobody, after all — doesn’t really know what he’s doing. (Many a time, when I would read anonymous combox abuse, I would think, Golly, I suppose this chap is trying to hurt my feelings, but the fellow doesn’t know quite how, the poor dear.) Now picture an equally malevolent, anonymous force, trying to break someone’s spirit — only he actually lives inside that person, has the person’s own intelligence, and therefore knows that person’s faults with infinite specificity and can use them to destroy him. That is depression, an inner hateful comboxer — and that is what lived inside Robin Williams and destroyed him. What’s remarkable is that not that he eventually collapsed, but that he managed to live to the age of 63.

That’s an interesting way to think of it. You readers don’t know, and you can’t possibly know, how much behind-the-scenes work is required to keep these comboxes a civil place. It’s not that most commenters are nasty trolls — not at all — but that those who are nasty trolls tend to perseverate on posting commentary. I do not understand why some people insist on hanging around a site where they hate everything and feel compelled to be unpleasant, insulting, and even vicious. But boy, do they ever. It’s not that big a deal to send their comments to the trash and/or ban them, and like my old NR colleague Mike P. says, trolls don’t seem to understand how little blog writers care about their opinions. Me, I get a small, possibly perverse, pleasure in flicking aside and into the trash a comment that represents an eructation of passion from the valve of a dyspeptic troll. The point is, I don’t take any of it personally; it’s just part of my job.

But what if I couldn’t get rid of the trolls? And what if I had to share the room, so to speak, with them all the time? Worse — and this is where I think Mike P.’s observation is so smart — what if they weren’t just gibbering misanthropes hurling invective like chimps throwing their own poo, but intelligent beings who knew you as well or better than you knew yourself, and who understood exactly where you were weakest? And what if you could not shut them up, ever?

That, Mike says, is depression. It sounds like the pit of Hell to me. No wonder some people who suffer from it break, and do whatever is necessary to escape it.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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