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