I’m Still Processing The Death of Robin Williams

The news this week, it was shocking. Shocking. Robin Williams. Dead at 63. I grew up on a steady diet of Robin Williams. I remember when he, bizarrely, showed up on Happy Days and had an epic thumb battle with The Fonz.

And I watched Mork & Mindy almost greedily every week, because–particularly in first two seasons–there was nothing quite so aggressively funny on TV.

My mom even got me a pair of rainbow suspenders, which I wore until the clips gave out and just stopped gripping. (And I’d think they were secure and would go out and then a clip would slide up until it reached the end of my waistband. Once it did, it would indeed fly, be free, right into my face. Oh, embarrassment on the playground fer sure.)

Like so many others out there, I loved Robin Williams for his energy and razor-sharp wit, his lightning-fast ability to find the joke, to make anything (a basket of eggs? Really?) hilarious. And I loved him for his ability to handle dramatic roles, too, bringing human complexity and an astonishing depth of emotion to a character that, in the hands of a different performer, could easily end up being too one-dimensional. I’m looking at you, Dead Poet’s Society.

He was brilliant. He was admired. And now he’s gone. If he’d died of a heart attack or was killed in a car accident…we have mental scripts in place to cope. But Robin Williams took his own life. He’d always been open about his long-standing struggles with depression, and also with substance abuse, so it was no secret that he had some malignant, tenacious demons. But still. In a society that views “success” as the answer–which he had, at least outwardly–Robin Williams’s suicide is inconceivable. 

The commentary surrounding his death has been interesting. I have, for the most part, stayed away from anyone who’s completely vitriolic; I don’t need to read articles written by socially stunted hatemongers to know they exist.  But the one statement that I can’t stay away from, which I’ve seen expressed in various media outlets and have heard from people I know and love, is that his act was selfish. And I recognized myself in that statement; ten years ago I might have said the same thing. I have since moved past it, realizing that depression is far more pernicious and illogical and lying and thieving than those of us who aren’t depressed can understand. Still, I get why it’s part of the public patois about suicide. I just don’t think it’s right or fair. We’re never inside anyone else’s head. We don’t know what’s happening anywhere else except in our own noggins…and even then, if you find me someone who’s legitimately got it all together, I will pass out in shock. Mental illness is so dreadfully misunderstood. As a society, we need to bring the same sensibility to the treatment of depression that we bring to, say, the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Both can cripple. Both can kill. But you don’t tell an RA sufferer to “get over it”. 

When I was a little kid–maybe 9 or 10 years old–I was at the beach and got caught in an undertow. I was pulled out in the waves, and slammed back on the beach, and pulled out, and slammed back. Over. And over. And over. I didn’t see a way out, there was no way to break the cycle of being sucked out into the water, and slammed back to the shore. Finally, something solid loomed up in front of me and in desperation I grabbed it; I remember breaking the grip of the waves, and how the waves felt resistant to my release. Luckily, the solid thing turned out to be the feet of a man doing surf fishing. It could have been a shark, it could have been an electrical box that was on fire, it could have been Jason Voorhees in full machete-and-hockey mask regalia. The point is, I didn’t care at that moment what I grabbed, so long as it got me out of the crazy cycle I was trapped in. 

While I don’t claim that that’s what was going on in Robin Williams’s head, I will say that for that split second, for that one miniscule moment in time, I understood what it’s like to not care any more about what the exit looks like. Desperation isn’t selfish. It’s just desperate. We tend not to revisit these moments, since they’re usually unpleasant and force us to contemplate our own mortality. But I’d make the bet that if everyone took a good, long look at his or her past, we could all find at least one moment where logic and presence failed and desperation took over.

That’s a spot from which compassion can grow. I challenge everyone to find it.

 Rest in peace, Robin Williams. 

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

31 responses to I’m Still Processing The Death of Robin Williams

  1. Megan

    This: “depression is far more pernicious and illogical and lying and thieving than those of us who aren’t depressed can understand.” Addiction, too. Cunning, baffling, and powerful, to borrow a phrase.

    A young member of my extended family ended his life last month, so these issues have been very much on my mind. Have you listened to Marc Maron’s amazing 2010 interview with Williams?

  2. Garzilla

    Still trying to get handle on it myself, Terz. Considering my disdain for television and celebrity. I notice the headlines, see the posts, etc. when an actor passes away, and it’s far too easy for me to shrug it off, and maintain my default position of indifference… “It’s only news because so-and-so was on a TV series 40 years ago… yada yada…”

    Not this time. The death of Robin Williams hurts, and I have become uncomfortably numb.

    • beyondpaisley – Author

      Normally, a celebrity passes away and I feel sort of bad for their family because, you know, compassion. But it doesn’t hit. This one hit, for a bunch of different reasons.

    • beyondpaisley – Author

      Thanks, Mrs. C.! I’m a little surprised by how strongly I feel about his death. That “caught in the undertow” moment…man, that was a moment that impacted me in so many ways. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Glenn Peterson

    First, that was an amazing piece if writing, so insightful,balanced, and wise. You really hit it out of the park.

    I too am feel haunted by Robin Williams’ passing. And I don’t get hung up on celebrity deaths- only a few ever gotten to me; John Lennon and James Gandolfini because they died so unexpectedly and young, and Johnny Cash, because I thought he bordered on the immortal.

    However, Robin’s loss felt oddly personal. He was that guy who always made you laugh in your own moments of darkness. But at his core was a darkness that the public only saw in certain films- we got a glimpse only in certain dramatic characters of what was eating at him inside. We may never know what triggered the spiral that led to Robin’s suicide. Maybe the death of his good friend and mentor Jonathan Winters in 2013 was the start. Winters was probably the only person who could relate to Robin’s thought process, how he harnessed and directed those manic thoughts and characters into coherence.

    Most families stoically refuse to discus mental illness or suicide in the family. Both are unspoken forbidden subjects- so the darkness remains something unexplained to those it touches. That is something that needs to change.

    Robin Williams was a year younger than me, he was of my generation and became a true icon, not some flavor of the month that is elevated to godlike status by the pop culture machine.And as the song by the Eagles says, there is a hole in the world- not just tonight, but forever.

    • beyondpaisley – Author

      Thanks, Glenn. George and I had a long talk about this last night, and I really felt like it was one more piece of perspective that I wanted to get out there. And now we’ve learned that he was diagnosed as being in the early stages of Parkinson’s, which of course is a one-two gut punch/heart ripped out, for me. There is a hole in the world for sure.

      • Depression, either first time or worsening of pre-existing, is as much a symptom of PD as the physical aspects. Sometimes it is one of the first signs. Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter behind feelings of pleasure, reward, and motivation. So individuals often do not become depressed as a result of the diagnosis, they become depressed as part of the diagnosis.
        Enough with the lecture already… Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings. Carol

    • Jan Muzyczka

      We all deal with life and loss in vastly different ways, and often differently depending on the time and place we are in our lives. We can only mourn and hope that his memory will last, be a comfort to those who need it and his craziness a joy for all.

      • beyondpaisley – Author

        I hope his film legacy isn’t permanently overshadowed by the manner of his death. He was so much more than just a bad ending.

  4. jp

    What a beautiful tribute. And thanks for your wise, compassionate words about depression.

    • beyondpaisley – Author

      Thanks, Jean. I hated that I felt like I had to write it. I hate that there are vitriolic hatemongers out there saying thoughtless, terrible things! So. We do what we must.

  5. That egg-flying scene has to be the one scene I’ve always remembered from the 70’s. That and Fonzie jumping the shark–but I won’t get into that! I haven’t seen that scene in a long time. I didn’t realize throughout it he was always “on”. It was one joke after another in a continuous stream. Incredible, really!

    • beyondpaisley – Author

      Yep, he was amazing. I remember thinking at one point, it’s got to take a lot of effort to live in that head, but I never thought anything beyond that. What a complicated man.

      Fonzie jumping the shark…*hee hee hee*

  6. Re: Parkinson’s – depression, either for the first time or a worsening of pre-existing, is often part of the disease itself. Not a reaction to it; an actual symptom of the neurotransmitter imbalance that causes the physical manifestations. Dopamine is what lays behind the feelings of happiness, reward and motivation. So usually it’s not the news of the diagnosis that is depressing, it’s part of the disorder.
    My lecture is done. ;-). Thanks for your voice of reason and compassion.

  7. Great Post. I felt and still feel the same. Thanks for sharing this in such an awesome way. If you don’t mind I would love to repost it.

  8. An important, loving and thoughtful post. This is so well written. And my tears come back again. Thank you. I’ve had students committing suicide – nobody knows what desperate thoughts haunted them to the end.

    • beyondpaisley – Author

      It’s particularly pernicious knowing he had Parkinson’s, which has depression as an accompanying effect of the chemical imbalance in your brain from the disease. So when you’ve already got depressive tendencies and then your brain is making itself even more out of whack…sigh. I can’t even imagine the level of despair he felt. And when I try, my heart breaks all over again.

      • beyondpaisley – Author

        Yeah, his family announced that he was diagnosed with it in the early stages, but he wasn’t ready to go public with it. I saw what my dad went through with that disease. It’s brutal.

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