On the Death of Robin Williams
I never expected to feel this much sadness at the death of someone I didn’t know. I never expected to feel compelled to write about the death of someone I didn’t know when so many others have already done so, eloquently and with far more depth than I can muster.
But here I am, writing. I have to write something, because Robin Williams killed himself, and that’s something I twice tried to do.
I have lived with depression off and on since high school. For about a decade, from my late teens until my late twenties, the depression was mostly on. It was at its worst in the years right after college, when it ruled my life. I was unemployed, broke, single, with no prospects that I could discern. Meanwhile, college classmates were writing bestselling books and making boatloads of money and doing groundbreaking doctoral research. Everyone, it seemed, was wildly successful; everyone had something to offer the world. Everyone had love. Everyone except for me: that was what I believed.
Years of this hopelessness beat me down. I tried to keep going, not to give up hope, but the pain was just too bad. Eventually, I gave in to it.
When I tried to kill myself the first time, I meant it. Four and a half years later, when I tried again, I meant it. I wanted to die. Both times, my failure made me hate myself even more. Months passed as I bided my time, waiting to make a third and final try, but I couldn’t do it.
… And then, not long after that, things started getting better.
Which brings me back to Robin Williams. Throughout those shadowed years, he was someone I looked to as a shining light, a model of someone who could bring joy to the world despite struggling with his own personal demons of depression and addiction. His films were sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful, but always honest.
Understand that Robin Williams, the actor, was a touchstone for my generation as we grew up. He became famous around the same time I was born, and was always a part of the scenery of my young life. I didn’t really pay attention to him (as a kid, I never saw the appeal of “Mork and Mindy”) until I was in middle school and Dead Poets Society came out. I was a nerdy social misfit, and that movie called to me in ways I didn’t fully understand until much later. As an idealistic twelve-year-old I raged at the injustice of it all. I wept at the tragedy of the ending, how a lack of understanding and compassion between characters allowed disaster to unfold.
A few years later, in high school, I found myself watching Aladdin on video, over and over and over again. I knew most of the genie’s lines by heart (a favorite: “PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWERS! Itty-bitty living space”). I mimicked his voices when no one was around to laugh at me. Soon after that, I joined the rest of the nation in laughter and delight with Mrs. Doubtfire. Around the same time, my brother introduced me to Good Morning Vietnam. And not long after that, as a senior in high school, my English teacher showed us a very different Robin Williams in Seize the Day, an overlooked drama based on a novel by Saul Bellow.
My formative years were some of Robin Williams’s most prolific. Of course he left a mark on me.
As I got older, I discovered that Robin Williams, the offscreen person, was a man I admired. I moved to San Francisco in 1999 and stories of him being a normal guy doing good were everywhere in that fogbound city. His name was on an adopt-a-highway sign on Highway 101, over near Candlestick Park. I assumed that meant that Williams sent his staff out once a month to clean up alongside the freeway, but no, my cab-driver boyfriend at the time said, Robin Williams himself would go out there to pick up other people’s trash on the side of the road.
Robin Williams stood in line with me and hundreds of other grief-stricken, bewildered San Franciscans on 9/11 as we waited to donate blood, imaging that there were hundreds or thousands of people wounded and bleeding in the streets of New York and northern Virginia. (There weren’t. But we didn’t know that until later.) He was wearing camouflage pants. Solemn, patient, and quiet, he didn’t do anything to draw the attention of the staff. After a while, they noticed he was there, and they whisked him out of line.
But I didn’t forget that he had stood there, just like the rest of us.
There have been several suicides in my little world within the past few months. A close friend’s cousin. A guy from my high school class. Now, a world-famous and much-loved comedian. All laid low, in the end, by inner torments we cannot begin to understand.
How do you deal with depression? There are probably as many possible answers to that as there are depressed people. To some extent, you put your head down, grit your teeth, and plow through it. But that’s incredibly tiring. And the thing that scares me the most is that you can get through it–you can beat it–but you never know if it’s gone for good.