Monday night, I wrote a piece about the unexpected suicide committed by Robin Williams. I first learned of his death when a reporter called Second City asking if anyone there had ever worked with him or had a story to share. I was dumbfounded. I knew that Robin had been struggling with his addiction in the last few months, but suicide? That wasn't even on my radar.
Thing is, it's almost never on anyone's radar.
It took some time, but soon my entire news feed was filled with pictures and video and memes. Reminding me of movies I had forgotten entirely about [Toys, Jumanji], some that I have loved dearly [Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society], and at least one that I need to go and seek out [What Dreams May Come].
It's ridiculous that I haven't written for awhile, and the things that draw me back out are deaths and sadness. But this is (ostensibly) a blog about living with mental illness, and I feel like I need to speak up and see how these tragedies relate to my own disease.
Whenever something significant happens, and the world is reacting, there is some comfort to me in reading all about it. I feel like I'm able to share the whirlwind with people and hearing other's voices on the subject always helps me to find my own.
That said, I have curated some articles and videos about the death of Robin Williams, and will use these to further my commentary. (Emphasis in following selections mine.)
David Wong wrote an article for Cracked on Tuesday. It's called "Why Funny People Kill Themselves." He writes:
But I guess my larger point is that if you know somebody who might be at risk but you've been denying it because they're always smiling and joking around, for the love of God, wake the fuck up. They don't know how to ask for help because they don't know how to relate, because when you've lived behind that wall long enough, you completely lose the ability. "Well, I tried to help him, but he was kind of a dick about it." Right, that's what it looks like. "But I don't know how to do a suicide intervention!" Nobody is asking you to. How about this:
Be there when they need you, and keep being there even when they stop being funny. Every time they make a joke around you, they're doing it because they instinctively and reflexively think that's what they need to do to make you like them. They're afraid that the moment the laughter stops, all that's left is that gross, awkward kid everyone hated on the playground, the one they've been hiding behind bricks all their adult life. If they come to you wanting to have a boring-ass conversation about their problems, don't drop hints that you wish they'd "lighten up." It's really easy to hear that as "Man, what happened to the clown? I liked him better."
I'll tell you that probably the worst part about my manic-depression is feeling alone with it. It gets even more complicated being in recovery, because it's standard to open up about your life and feelings and have people relate; have them offer up ideas from their own experience to help you carry on.
Not as much with mental illness. You have people in recovery circles who deny the information written in the basic text, and claim that you're not really sober if you take psychotropic medications. I'm talking prescribed, doctor supervised medications. Lord knows how many people that bullshit has killed.
And then there are the people who are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the 12 -step recovery program will solve all your problems. That all you need to do is work the steps better or get a better connection with God, and all will be well. The basic text does say a relationship with a higher power will solve all your problems, but it also goes on to say that God has supplied us with wonderful doctors who should be consulted when needbe.
Lastly, there are people like my friends, who are not anti-medication (for the most part) and who know that outside resources are often needed to help some people. But there's a hollow place when you turn to them and they have no experience. They have their relationship recovering from drugs and alcohol and they have the solution -- which is the 12-steps for them -- but they have no way to relate to your current state of fucked up, and don't know what to do.
Buzzfeed, who is known for its listicles and clickbait, actually nailed it here in a piece entitled "21 Things Nobody Tells You About Being Depressed.". (I could do without the gifs, but it's Buzzfeed.) Whoever wrote/compiled this clearly has a handle on being depressed.
Helen Rosner wrote a piece called "Not Everyone Feels This Way."
... depression is not, in point of fact, you at all, but a malicious program that’s taken up residence in your brain that runs alongside your you-ness, and turns your brain into a zero-sum landgrab between malware and firmware. Not only does the depression chip away at your energy and focus and clarity, but what you do retain is so exhausted from the nonstop defense of its resources that at times you just want to give in, give up, sink all the way into the warm, quiet darkness.
... so I haven’t gone to pick up my prescription, and I’ve entered into an inertia feedback loop: Not taking the pills leads to the TV static creeping in at the corners of my brain, which leads to me not wanting to take the pills, leading to more static et cetera et cetera and on and on.
They [medications] make me into me — they don’t boost my mood, they don’t give me energy. They just shove back the malware so I’ve got plenty of room to be my standard self, happiness, sadness, and all.
First of all, I love this because I often describe being in the throes of manic-depression as "the static in the back of my head." I've never heard anyone else talk about it this way. The other reason this stuck with me is her description of inertia, especially in regard to medications.
I am lucky. I have always been compliant and take my meds pretty much without fail. However, the times when I've gone off this medication or that, is because the prescription ran out and I couldn't get around to seeing a psychiatrist, or because I had it but never got it filled, or I didn't have the money, or it was an errand I didn't want to deal with (sometimes calling patient assistance, etc.).
But once that pattern of not taking medication/s is established, it's even easier to just let things ride. The bad part is that when things start to go south, it takes awhile to get things back on board.
Robin playing with the cast of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"
A friend on Facebook, who is also in recovery, wrote the following:
Had Robin Williams been able to stay sober, address his disease of the mind, and gain the acceptance to live life on life's terms...the odds of becoming so mentally depressed that suicide seemed to be the only option would have greatly decreased. So, why are so many people only addressing his mental illness, while not discussing the root cause of his depression, untreated alcoholism and addiction?
I included this because I think it's a perfect example of the type of well-meaning recovering alcoholic who only sees things through that lens. If I've said it one time, I've said it 1,000 times: I have TWO diseases that if left untreated, will kill me. They play with and mimic each other, but they are two separate entities.
My manic-depression can flare up when I'm working a great recovery program, and the thoughts and behaviors which make up my "alcoholism" can and will flare up even if my manic-depression is under control. In fact, the latter happens more often than the former, so I know where he's coming from. But the fact remains, they are separate and apart from one another.
A friend's Facebook page had this story accompanying a video of Robin Williams doing an impromptu set at Town Hall Pub:
"Six years ago at Beth Stelling's and the Puterbaugh Sisterz's absolutely perfect weekly "Entertaining Julia" show in a Chicago dive bar, Robin Williams sauntered in wearing a sleek little black summer fedora ... He looked great, and we all tried mostly successfully to act normal.
The bartender, Julia, told me later that he gave her a nice sum to keep his glass full of Coke all night, since he was fresh out of rehab and not drinking, and didn't want to be sent drinks. He joined Julia in the photo booth for pix and watched maybe a dozen of us comics file across stage for upwards of two hours as the pub gradually filled to bursting as people texted friends to hustle over. I said hi, as did lots of comics, and he couldn't have been nicer or more complimentary of the city and of people's sets. Then he took the stage and performed for ... well over an hour, I believe.
It was late by that time. I couldn't repeat a single joke he told, but I can say this: I've never seen someone wreck a room that hard in my life. It wasn't just that he was famous -- he rode waves of laughter and his own imagination like an astronaut surfing the Milky Way, just a shortish, charming guy with a powerful build ripping laughs like taking a knife to a feather bed, like a downed power line showering sparks and writhing like a snake. I'll never forget it. So ... you know, peace. G'night, Robin. We're sad for you. I am anyway.
-- Robert Buscemi
Here is the video of that performance:
Robin Williams at Town Hall Pub
Gillian Marchenko wrote a piece entitled "Depression Can No Longer Be The Elephant In The Room."
I worked ‘my program.’ The stuff I do to fight the ugly monster of depression that unfortunately exists in my head. At that moment I had a choice: to give in to a depressive episode, or to fight it tooth and nail. I chose to fight, and I won that day. That’s the deal. You fight depression day by day.
But here’s the thing: I don’t always have a choice to fight. And I want to try to help people understand that others don’t always have a choice either. Sometimes my depression is just too strong. It is a tsunami wave and I am a toddler. I get knocked down before I even realize what is happening.
Because depression is an illness.
And that's the part so many people can't fathom. That this isn't a choice. That you can't just buck up and put on a smile and be fixed. One of the themes emerging from all the things I'm reading about Robin Williams is the idea that some of our funniest and outgoing people are silently dying on the inside.
James Taylor posted a photo on Facebook with the following accompaniment:
Who can pretend to understand a gift like Robin Williams's? Meteoric, volcanic, fast and furious…Perhaps there is a price for such brilliance. I'm so sad he's gone and so grateful he left us so much.
James knows of the darkness. He has been in it and come through.
Russell Brand, often controversial, but an incontrovertibly brilliant writer and mind, wrote a piece to address the loss. He has struggled with various addictions in his life, so he knows first-hand the often silent pain that comes with these diseases.
He must have known his wife and kids loved him, that his mates all thought he was great, that millions of strangers the world over held him in their hearts, a hilarious stranger that we could rely on to anarchically interrupt, the all-encompassing sadness of the world. Today Robin Williams is part of the sad narrative that we used to turn to him to disrupt.
What platitudes then can we fling along with the listless, insufficient wreaths at the stillness that was once so animated and wired, the silence where the laughter was? That fame and accolades are no defence against mental illness and addiction? That we live in a world that has become so negligent of human values that our brightest lights are extinguishing themselves? That we must be more vigilant, more aware, more grateful, more mindful? That we can’t tarnish this tiny slice of awareness that we share on this sphere amidst the infinite blackness with conflict and hate?
And that's another common theme as the reactions are pouring out into the universe. Didn't he know how much we all loved him? Didn't he see how wonderful life is? No, he didn't. Because when you are desperate enough to commit suicide, all you can do is seek relief from the pain. You can see or understand anything else.
Most people wouldn’t peg me for a private person. But I learned a long time ago that people really don’t want to know if you have a mental illness ...
Most people don’t really want to deal with all that—they prefer the funny fucked up former addict. Even your best friends, the ones who really love you, may not get it. They think you can snap at any moment and suddenly you’re the guy from A Beautiful Mind, spending months or years on end in some make believe lab writing incoherent numbers on the walls. In fact, my psychotic episodes have never lasted more than hours. Friends may also just be plain scared for their own safety, even though I’ve never in my history gotten aggressive with anyone, or been a danger to anybody except myself.
We’re still in the dark ages in how we view (and even treat) mental illness. Some of my secrecy has been out of shame, but some has been because I genuinely believed it was nobody’s business but mine. Even as I’m writing this, I’m wondering who, after reading it, may treat me differently now, not even meaning to. And, lastly, when you come out and talk about something like this, there’s the danger—one I fear—that people will think you’re asking for some kind of special treatment. I function. I get my shit done. I just go crazy every now and then. It’s taken me twenty-eight years since my first episode to try and not be ashamed of who I am and of what illness I have. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I know it has to start somewhere.
The commentary here is so spot on. As I alluded to earlier, feeling like you are all alone with your pain is a horrible place to be.
The incredible Chicago talent, John Loos, had this to say in a piece entitled "When Someone You Like But Don't Know At All Dies."
Again, I never met him. Perhaps that's why I always feel awkward espousing about a celebrity after they died. It feels like I'm claiming the person some way, as if they touched my life in completely special way that no one else can understand. And that's not true at all. Countless gay men were inspired and delighted by Elaine. Countless comedians were inspired and delighted by Robin. I'm not different. Still, if nothing else, his death is reminder that brilliant people die too.
They do. While his memory is a blessing, we'll be feeling this loss for a long time to come. If nothing else, he has spurred a whole rash of people to come out, speak up, and talk about their struggles with depression. I do believe that good can come out of tragedy. In this case, having mental illness become more revealed is the goodness from this devastating news.
Everything has to start somewhere. In the interest of starting to celebrate Robin and letting go of some of the mourning, I present you with some tangible examples of how talented and wonderful he was.
Craig Ferguson has openly shared his struggle with addiction, and between the two of them, I think we have two of the greatest minds in comedy. In this clip, we see Robin being eminently funny, but he's not at the fever pitch he is sometimes. I think it's because he's with Craig, who he felt comfortable with enough to let some of that freneticism die down a bit. One of my favorite things is watching Craig lose his shit, so this will definitely go down as one of my favorite segments.
Likewise, Jon Stewart was also close to Robin Williams, and this interview shows their camaraderie and genuine affection for one another. Here, Robin is also more engaged and focused on his conversation with Jon, instead of putting on a one-man show. And he accomplishes with consistency a rare phenomenon: Getting Jon Stewart to laugh from his soul.
We'll miss you, Robin.
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