What I found much more surprising and affecting than the actual news of Robin William’s suicide, was some of the things others have been writing about this man’s death. I felt compelled to express my opinion on some of these statements.
One of the first reactions that I read was the following, written by a man (the cousin of one of my high school classmates) who was part of an opening act for Williams in the late 70’s and who remained in contact with him for the remainder of his life. I have excerpted the following pieces:
[Talking about lawsuits stemming from stealing the material of other comedians]
“Robin often owned up to it, allowing that he probably did, though unintentionally in most cases, steal the line or bit, and offer money as compensation. I saw a first hand example of that too, when we were on the tour. One day, Ruby told him a funny anecdote that had happened to her when she was younger. The next day, he told the same story to us as though it had happened to HIM!
During that week we did Mork, he was also savoring the fruits of his fame, with his nights usually ending around 2 or 3 AM, despite a 7:00 call the next morning on the set. Every night was a blur of performing, drinking, eating, and partying, and on some days, it caught up to him. When the show was finally cancelled in 1982, he left LA, and he and his wife bought a ranch in Napa, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. He and his wife had their first child, which helped him conquer the urge to party heartily, but unfortunately didn ‘t save the marriage. I remember hanging with him in the early 90’s, talking about those good old days, and he mentioned his denial at the time, of saying to his shrink, I think I got this drug thing under control. I can keep it under two grams a day.
In spite of a career most of us would dream of, he was rarely happy in it.
When I talked to him in early 2008, it was clear to me that his second marriage was about to end, but I could also see the woman hanging around him was not just some groupie or agent, and she became his third wife three years later. Again, he should have been happy, but apparently wasn’t, and had gone back to booze after a celebrated stint in rehab, as well as a heart attack.
Could anyone have foreseen that he was being so eaten up inside that he decided to end the suffering himself? Certainly no one like myself…”
While I find it interesting that despite listing his addiction and denial problems, the author concludes that he could not have foreseen Robin’s final action (a denial in itself), the line that really jumped out at me and the one I could not ignore, was the one that read, “He SHOULD have been happy.” I find this line of thinking MUCH more stunning than the news of Robin’s suicide, itself. To me, this statement reflects a huge problem within our society- the fact that people are expected to be happy in the first place, and secondly, that the things outside of us are what makes us happy. This kind of sentiment offers no compassion or understanding towards the interior state of a human being, which is something that can only be felt and experienced by that person. All of the money in the world, a big house, a new wife or husband (or girlfriend or boyfriend) can not alter the way a person feels on the inside. Anything external, including new love, can make a person feel good for a period of time, but we can never escape our own interior worlds. We must therefore learn how to care for and comfort our own selves. Nothing outside of us can do this for us. No one has a right to make a judgment on what “Should” make another person happy. We are all build differently, with different needs, wants, and personalities. I remember when I was suffering through a period of depression while I was working in the lab I was in, and telling a co-worker how I was feeling. “You live by the ocean. You have no right to feel sad!” was her response. I was taken aback. Yes, I live near the ocean, but that doesn’t mean I was getting the chance to visit it, and what did that fact have to do with what I was experiencing internally? She wasn’t even allowing herself to hear me.
I’ve also heard several people respond to Robin’s death by saying that suicide is a selfish thing to do. Again, I found myself having difficulty accepting this opinion. People who say that it is a selfish act are not being compassionate towards the person in pain. I can argue that wanting a person who is constantly in agony to stay alive just so that person doesn’t have to feel the pain and sadness over their loss is just as much a selfish act. No one has any control over the timing or circumstances of another person’s death. Your loved one could die in a car accident tomorrow. No matter how they leave, you will have to experience the difficult feelings of their loss. It’s all a natural part of life. The timing is not up to you. I have extensive experience with the feelings of depression and honestly have often felt like I don’t want to exist anymore many times. My energy gets so low and being so alone, I sometimes find it difficult to find positive things to grasp onto. The life of a human being is full of suffering. Some of us were given far more to deal with and heal from than others. A depressed person feels extremely isolated, alone, lacking in life energy, and experiences great difficulty in finding anything hopeful to grasp onto. It is a very dark place that easily spirals downwards and becomes harder and harder to make one’s way out of. In this state, death often seems like the only relief. A person doesn’t commit suicide to cause pain to the people they know. They do it because it is the only relief that they can think of from the constant, unbearable pain that they are experiencing. And who is to say how long another human should be alive- especially when suffering to such a great degree? I feel like Robin Williams lived a full-life. He left behind an extraordinary body of work and made millions of people laugh and smile. Perhaps he completed the work that he came here for. We don’t owe anything to anyone else. We can’t live our lives for the sake of another person. Is it right to force two people who can’t stand one another to stay in a marriage “for the sake of the children?”. This scenario hurts everyone involved. I feel the same way as in the case of a suicide. A person can not stay alive and feel miserable all of the time just to remain living for someone else or to keep someone else from feeling difficult feelings. We are each in charge of our own lives. We are each responsible for our own selves. Is it possible to intervene and help a person who is suffering? Of course. We should always reach out to one another and do whatever we can to make those around us feel loved and important. A hug and a listening ear do SO much for a person who is feeling depressed and these are things that each one of us can easily offer to one another. However, what a person ultimately chooses to do is their own right.
I also heard an interview with Joan Rivers on NPR which confused me.
She began by stating, “Shocking, Shocking news!”.
Tom Ashbrook: “Did you see a tortured soul, Joan?”
Joan Rivers: “..,We’re all tortured- comedians… you know what I mean? He was wild, he was manic, he was crazy, he went off on tangents, but that’s what made him brilliant. And no, tortured, no and um you wished you had seen it so maybe we could have all helped him a little more but absolutely this blindsided me.”
(So she starts off by saying that all comedians are tortured, but then says that he wasn’t and that people weren’t aware of his problems? Instantly conflicting herself…)
She speculated that his depression came from not been acknowledged as a serious actor.
Tom Ashbrook: “What was he like off stage?”
Joan Rivers “Every time I saw Robin… always full of fun… you could never get a real conversation going with him.”
(That in itself wasn’t a huge warning sign? A person that is incapable of holding a conversation?)
Tom Ashbrook: “Because he was, uh, because the cap was always off the bottle, because he was letting it flow?”
Joan Rivers: “Letting it flow and maybe when you hit a nerve, he took that nerve and bounced it out and made it funny.”
(So he was constantly deflecting his own pain, not allowing himself to feel anything, and attempting to hide his truth from himself and those around him.)
Joan Rivers : “Looking back, we never ever talked, say 20 minutes, about anything seriously and I think it must have been so hidden and bottled up inside of him.”
(So she was, in fact, aware that this was not healthy behavior… Conflicting herself again).
From these responses, and from my personal experience as a person living with depression, it is clear that our culture doesn’t want to recognize the fact that so many of us are hurting and suffering inside. We have become so disconnected from ourselves and from one another that we turn away from any sign of pain, not wanting to see it or feel it, and have replaced this connection with an attempt to externally buy happiness and then judge one another if someone admits they don’t feel happy all the time. “But you have x, x, and x… You have no reason not to be happy!” This judgement then places us in a state of shame. We feel that we must be doing something wrong. We become even more isolated, more lonely, and more depressed. No one feels free to talk about their feelings for fear of being labeled, fired from their jobs, told that they should be seeing a therapist or taking medication. Five months after my brother’s death, my boss told me, “You should be over this by now. It’s time you see a therapist.” (Really??) There have been so many times that I wanted to say, “All I need is a friend! All I need is someone to listen to me, to tell me that I am valuable and worthy. All I need is a hug- to be shown that someone does actually care.” I personally don’t like depression being labeled as an “illness”. To me, an illness is something that can be cured- a virus or a bacterial infection that can be eradicated. An illness is something that you can completely recover from. Unfortunately, depression is not something that can be gotten rid of. It is a way that a person has been made through no fault of their own. It stems from an ancestral pool of genes that were handed down and exacerbated by environmental conditions and personal experiences. It is something that a person will have to live with for the remainder of their lives. There are things that can be done to tame the magnitude and frequency of episodes, but it will never fully go away. It is a part of our very make-up.
This personality trait also brings gifts with it-healing abilities, creative abilities, abilities to feel strongly, empathize with others, connect on a deeper level, affect the lives of those around them. People who suffer greatly have a tremendous amount of insight to offer to the world. Those of us who suffer with it must do everything we can to learn how to bring ourselves comfort, self-validation, and strength, and to reach out to others and ask for help when we need it so that we can keep offering our gifts and not allow such a great disconnection from our true selves (which is what I feel depression really is), and those who don’t suffer from it must remember that the tiniest acts of recognizing the existence of some one else- by making eye contact or asking how one is doing- can make a huge difference in a person’s life and can even keep someone alive. We must stop denying our own pain and understand that everyone around us- our friends, family, co-workers, people we see on the streets and in the grocery stores- is fighting some kind of battle and dealing with a broken heart of some sort. We must start sharing our stories with one another and talking about what it feels like to live a human life that is full of struggle. We must reach out to one another, offer our hearts, and help uplift one another. We must help remind each other that we are all truly in this together.
The two responses about Robin William’s death that I did really connect with are the following.
The first is by author and healer Jeff Brown:
“Robin Williams is gone. Yet another whose gregarious social face did not reflect his inner world. We lose so many people everyday to unresolved pain that overwhelms their consciousness. Few are well-known. Most live anonymous lives. We must prioritize authentic revealing and emotional release in our world. We must slow down to see each other deeply and to share our inner worlds so that no one feels alone with their pain. There are so many of us here, yet so many suffer in isolation. We have to keep peeling the masks away. We have to keep sharing our truths. We have to.”
And the second is by Anne Lamott:
“This will not be well written or contain any answers or be very charming. I won’t be able to proof read it It is about times like today when the abyss is visible and we cannot buy cute area rugs at IKEA to truck out the abyss. Our brother Robin fell into it yesterday. We are all staring at the abyss today.
I called my Jesuit friend the day after the shootings in Newtown, stunned, flat, fixated, scared to death: “Is there any meaning in the deaths of twenty 5 and 6 year old children?”
Tom said, “Not yet.”
And there is no meaning in Robin’s death, except as it sheds light on our common humanity, as his life did. But I’ve learned that there can be meaning without things making sense.
Here is what is true: a third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. I sure do. I have both. And you still love me. You help hold me up. I try to help hold you up. Half of the people I love most have both; and so do most of the artists who have changed and redeemed me, given me life. Most of us are still here, healing slowly and imperfectly. Some days are way too long.
And I hate that, I want to say. I would much prefer that God have a magic wand, and not just a raggedy love army of helpers. Mr. Roger’s mother told him when he was a boy, and a tragedy was unfolding that seemed to defy meaning, “Look to the helpers.” That is the secret of life, for Robin’s family, for you and me.
I knew that those children at Sandy Hook were caught in God’s loving maternal arms at the second each crossed over, and the teachers were, too. I believe the shooter was too, another child of God with severe mental illness, because God loves, period. But this is controversial.
I know Robin was caught too, in both the arms of God, and of his mother, Laurie.
I knew them both when I was coming up, in Tiburon. He lived three blocks away on Paradise drive. His family had money; ours didn’t. But we were in the same boat–scared, shy, with terrible self esteem and grandiosity. If you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction, as Robin and I did, life here feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and no idea of what you were supposed to do; how to fit in; how to find a day’s relief from the anxiety, how to keep your beloved alive; how to stay one step ahead of abyss.
We all thought after Newtown that gun control legislation would be passed, but no–not one new law. We think in the aftermath of Robin’s death that there will be consciousness raising about mental health, but I doubt it. The shock and awe will pass, like it did after Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death. Unless…unless we take action. But what? I don’t have a clue. Well, here’s Glenn Close’s astonishing organization to raise awareness and diminish the stigma of mental illness, where you can give OR receive help: http://www.bringchange2mind.org/ Go there, OK?
In Newtown, as in all barbarity and suffering, in Robin’s death, on Mount Sinjar, in the Ebola towns, the streets of India’s ghettos, and our own, we see Christ crucified. I don’t mean that in a nice, Christian-y way. I mean that in the most ultimate human and existential way. The temptation is to say, as cute little believers sometimes do, Oh it will all make sense someday. The thing is, it may not. We still sit with scared, dying people; we get the thirsty drinks of water.
This was at theologian Fred Buechner blog today: “It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling.”
Live stories worth telling! Stop hitting the snooze button. Try not to squander your life on meaningless, multi-tasking bullshit. I would shake you and me but Robin is shaking us now.
Get help. I did. Be a resurrection story, in the wild non-denominational sense. I am.
If you need to stop drinking or drugging, I can tell you this: you will be surrounded by arms of love like you have never, not once, imagined. This help will be available twenty/seven. Can you imagine that in this dark scary screwed up world, that I can promise you this? That we will never be closed, if you need us?
Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.”