OP/ED: On Robin Williams, mental health, and us
I’ve reached that truly crappy age when it seems like every day brings with it the death of another childhood icon – but that’s not so bad for me, as I’ve never been one to follow Hollywood buzz. Until recently, I thought a Kardashian was a fictional Star Trek species (and I remain unconvinced that I was far off base on that). I’m far more likely to be star-struck by the likes of Arun Gandhi and Stephen Lewis than I am to have any notion or interest in what Justin Bieber and Lindsay Lohan are doing.
So I’ve spent the last 24-or-so hours trying to figure out why Robin Williams’ suicide felt so personal to me – my immediate reaction was as visceral as if I had known the man (which, of course, I did not). And, thanks to Facebook, I know I’m not alone in my reaction. Hundreds of people have posted heartfelt good-byes to this person with whom we’ve never had the slightest interaction.
Williams was a genius with a lot of heart, and a brilliant comedic talent … but so are many others, whose deaths were essentially irrelevant to me. Dead Poet’s Society, Good Morning Vietnam, Good Will Hunting – beautiful movies, all … but so were A Beautiful Mind, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Schindler’s List. I don’t imagine I’ll notice when the stars of those movies leave us.
So what’s different about Williams?
I think, if you had asked me 20 or so years ago, I would have said that people loved him in spite of his mental health and addiction struggles. Today, I believe he was beloved because of them. He struck such a fundamentally human chord – he was so easy to relate to, so open about his challenges, and made it so comfortable to laugh with him, rather than at him, while he shared his deepest, darkest secrets. By being genuine, he created a safe way for the rest of us to follow suit. (I just realized how perfect the word ‘fundamentally’ is in this context, including both ‘fun’ and ‘mental’).
I fell in love with him, a little, when he joked about going to rehab in wine country “just in case”. When he said cocaine is just God’s way of letting you know you’re making too much money, I felt like he was family.
And I think in his death, as in his life, he’s teaching us absolutely critical lessons about mental illness and addiction.
I remember the first time I saw him in a TV interview, decades ago. I laughed as hard as anyone, but I remember thinking He must be so, so tired. He was funny as hell, but some of his delivery was garbled because his thoughts were flying too fast for him to verbalize them in the moment. His manic energy was so intense it was contagious – I ended up having to get up and pace the living room just to finish watching the show.
Little changed over the intervening years – even his most recent interviews made me wonder how he could ever stay sober – with a brain always on warp speed, he must’ve sometimes wanted to crawl out of his own skin just for a little peace and stillness. The craving, not for drugs or alcohol per se, but just for a moment’s quiet, must’ve been all-consuming.
I know for sure I felt a deep sense of kindred experience when watching him bouncing around on stage, sweating profusely, jumping from idea to thought to joke to notion at lightning speed with never a heartbeat of silence.
How exhausted he must’ve been.
While I would never presume to make any claim to his level of brilliance, I so totally get what it feels like to want a break from my own mind – to want to be able to just turn it off for five minutes and rest long enough to catch my breath. Every time I watched him, I knew in my soul that he struggled with the same thing, but at an exponentially deeper level.
He made it so easy to understand how the qualities that make a person talented and exceptional can also be what make them miserable, desperate, frightened and alone. And helping people – especially the ones who don’t understand – make that connection is an outstanding gift to give the world. Maybe even better than making people laugh, which is not nothing in its own right.
In his death, he also told an unspeakably important story – he had money and access to every resource imaginable, a remarkably above-par intellect, the support of millions of people … and he just couldn’t fix what was broken.
I have many friends struggling with depression and substance abuse, and everyone I know (myself included, to my shame) sooner or later wears down and responds to them with judgmental reactions – often with sentences beginning with words like, “Why don’t youjust …”.
The world sees that Williams killed himself … the reality is, we have the opportunity to see that he had an illness that killed him. If he had cancer, would anyone demand that he “just” do something? Would they say that his death of cancer set a bad example for other people with cancer? Would they (right after his visit to his oncologist, which for Williams was rehab) ask why he didn’t seek help?
Of course not.
So maybe Robin Williams’ last gift to us is the chance to finally get that mental illness is as real as cancer, as devastating as cancer, and … sometimes … as insurmountable as cancer. No, I’m not suggesting anyone give up hope, any more than I would discourage someone from going to chemotherapy. People survive cancer, and they can survive mental illness, too. The lucky among us heal, learn to live with our limitations, and move on. I’m just saying there’s room for us to find some compassion for those who are struggling with their mental health, and to realize that, even though we can’t see the illness on their bodies like a cancer, we can respect that they are fighting as hard as any cancer victim ever did.
Robin Williams was an educational, enlightening, heartbreaking, hysterically-funny gift to a modern world filled with ways to ignore and hide mental illness, but with few cures or treatments for same.
I hope we can learn from all the honesty he gave us, and become better people and a better society as a result – I think he’d like that legacy.
I have never in my life meant this sentence more literally or more profoundly. May he rest in peace.