Robin Williams and Me: The Killer Among Us.
Why Robin Williams?
I’m not a fan of celebrity worship, nor do I feel especially comfortable perhaps taking advantage of human suffering and loss by writing about a total stranger’s suicide. That said, Robin’s suicide disturbs me. It touches a sore nerve, it hurts. He seemed a safe, reliable positive out there in the world, a source of joy and humor and, well, life. He was fine as far as I knew, just fine, then BAM!: dead. It’s shocking, saddening, makes the world seem less safe, less reliable.
Clearly there is no “Robin Williams and me”, no relationship beyond talented performer and fan. I use the phrase in another sense. Why does his death hit me harder than most? What does it mean?
Events’ meaning partially come from our reactions to them, our responses. Like so many, I have thought over Robin’s many fine performances, the incredible eruption of intelligent banter he could produce like no other, the sensitivity and deep humanity of his calmer roles.
Still, my personal response centers on Robin the man, suffering from mental illness badly enough that he saw no escape but death. Like so many others, a man with friends, family and a life well worthy of living, I imagine a happy man much of the time because such is so common with depression. Like so many others, I imagine a man who seemed fine at one point, disappeared from view a bit without attracting concern, then dead. Just like that. Dead.
I don’t know much about such details in Robin’s case, nor are they my business, frankly. I conjure these details from the tens of thousands of American suicide deaths every year, and the countless depressed people I’ve worked with over the years. All people, each unique, yet themes emerge, not quite universal but quite common.
I also recall my suicide attempt. I was a student at Harvard Medical School with friends, no reason for sadness but impossibly high self-expectations I could never meet. One day I was fine, then not great but hiding it quite well, then locked up in my room. No one saw it coming except me. Ever the good student, I looked up the lethal dose of the antidepressant Imipramine, lined up the pills, took them. Woke up 36 hours later, emerged beat up and confused, having had seizures I guess, and a friend took me to an ER. I survived, and the depression passed. So it goes with these things. Blind luck matters, it always does, but I’d not count on it. My life is a bit of a fluke, a gift.
Since then, I’ve been depressed and suicidal from time to time, but mostly not. Depression is not sadness, or a “tormented soul,” it’s an illness that tells you lies: You’re worthless. You’re finished, doomed. Everyone will be better off without you. You’re a bad person, BAD. Why put off the inevitable? Get it over and done. These lies can be completely convincing at the time, and they make a mockery of the idea of bravery versus cowardice you hear about. Suicidal people aren’t battling reality: they’re battling ruthless demons. When a bout of depression abates, as it will with effective treatment or even, often enough, with time, the demons’ lies seem ridiculous nonsense, which of course they are.
That’s why Robin’s sad, unnecessary death hits me so hard. It fits the sad, sad pattern. He’s out there on the periphery of my personal world, fine for all I know, taken for granted, then he’s dead. That’s how it goes, unless someone notices and intervenes, or the sufferer can seek help. Many learn to do so with some experience and education, BUT.
But what? BUT they must survive to learn and grow and get better. Otherwise all is lost.
Unless we take an interest in each other just a bit more, and stop avoiding and shunning these SO common illnesses, and DO something about it, unless we do these things, we will continue to lose tens of thousands of Americans, far more worldwide, every year. Lost neighbors, friends, parents, children. And yes, lost entertainers.
Depression is a social disease, in a sense. The death rate reflects our isolation, our distrust, our unwillingness to share uncomfortable vulnerabilities. Our culture, in this sense, is all too often lethal. Suicide mostly happens in isolation.
We shape an event’s meaning by our response to it. We can bring much good from this awful event, if we so decide. I’d like to think Robin would find it comforting and a worthy tribute if we did, far better than talking about his films.
Will we learn and grow? Will we make it better, as we easily could?
I don’t know. I hope so, certainly, but I don’t know.