We all have our childhood heroes. Robin Williams was mine.
When I was seven years old, my Dad took my sister and I to the movie theatre. I had been once or twice before to see A League of Their Own and Beauty and the Beast, so it wasn’t like this was my first exposure to film. But this was my first exposure to what film and voice animation were capable of. The film was Aladdin, and while I loved the front story of the “diamond in the rough” and the rebellious icon Jasmine, I was damn entranced by the Genie. Never mind I didn’t get a lot of the jokes and mimicry until about twenty years later; this guy was awesome.
I don’t necessarily remember thinking I was going to be an actor because of that performance, but I do remember feeling “I could do something like that.” I had already started mimicking people and things I had seen on TV prior to seeing Aladdin, so the fact that you could do that for your living was a huge deal for me. It became even more of a huge deal the following year when I saw Mrs. Doubtfire and watched Robin go through about fifteen impressions in the span of a minute in his famous “I do voices” montage. (“I can do a great impression of a hot dog!”) For years, my dad and I built our relationship on a rat-a-tat “quote the Robin Williams movie” dialogue. Just a few weeks ago we were doing the Olympic luge bit from his Robin Williams Live on Broadway DVD, still one of the best comedy DVDs ever made. One of the reasons I knew my sister was going to marry her now-husband and father of her children was because he announced Aladdin was one of his favorite movies and told Jen that she bore a striking resemblance to the girl who played the oldest daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin Williams was almost an extension of our family. I even danced to “Friend Like Me” for our school variety show when I was in 3rd grade, dressed like a neon blue harem girl. It was probably the best moment of my life up to that point.
I watched nearly every movie Robin made, even the shitty ones, because you could see how hard he was working and the true raw talent that made him so electric. I absolutely love the story about how he and Christopher Reeve were in the same class at Julliard. People forget that he was a classically trained actor who is incredibly talented when given the right role. The first biography I ever read was an authorized one of Robin, when I was 13. It had uncensored interviews and everything. That was the first time I became aware of the problems that plagued Robin (the drug addiction, the incident with John Belushi, the alcoholism) and the deep undercurrent of depression and mania that coursed through his veins. By that point I was pretty sure I wanted to be an actor but the best high I ever got was from the applause and the adulation from audiences. I felt liked, when truly I didn’t feel like that a lot of the time. I was bullied and picked on in school, and on stage was the place where I felt bulletproof. I just told Therapist the other day, “I didn’t know how to do a lot of things – I’m terrible at math, I’m not good at finances, and I’m bad at cleaning my room – but you put me on a stage and I am unstoppable and you cannot touch me.”
I think Robin felt a little bit of that, and a lot of criticism leveled at him is wrapped up in this manic, almost desperate need to be loved and applauded. There were moments in between the laughter when you could see the deep wells of pain in Robin – the nervous laughter in between jokes, the frenetic pacing, the aggression of his drug-fueled early comedy bits, the half-smiles. It was almost uncomfortable to watch him sometimes because of how desperate he could seem to get a laugh. One of his most famous interviews was Inside the Actor’s Studio and a lot of it makes me profoundly discomfited because of how he breaks up every serious moment with some sort of gag, almost like a getaway vehicle he could hop into whenever things got too bad. He almost seemed like he was hanging on to those laughs like a lifeline, and a lot of interviewers were content to wind him up and let him go. In a way, thank God they did – his interviews with Craig Ferguson are hilarious.
Seeing Robin perform live was on my bucket list – it’s right under “meet Julie Andrews.” A few years ago he came to Mohegan Sun and my family was able to go and I was not. I was furious, but I just said to myself, “He’ll be back.” And he won’t be.
When I found out that Robin Williams had died, I was tremendously sad, and when I found out he had committed suicide, I felt a giant vacuum in the center of my chest. I felt hollow. Because I knew how it felt to become empty inside when the laughter stops and you truly have to face who you are, and then on top of that, you have to deal with the lying SOB that is depression. And it was too much for Robin.
Depression is a filthy liar. It will make you believe things that aren’t true. It will tell you you are worthless when you are perfect. It will tell you you are nothing when you are everything. It will tell you you are unloved when you are adored beyond measure. And sometimes, nothing anybody will say can penetrate that void. I have friends who struggle with depression, bipolar disorder, and other forms of disability, and I will never begrudge their decisions to get therapy, go down the medication route, try yoga, anything to make it through. Robin had every single thing at his disposal and still made the choice to walk out. This shows that depression, mental disorders, and illnesses such as bipolar I and II are indiscriminate.
I am very open about my struggles with mild depression and anxiety disorders. I have only once considered killing myself and it was when I was 11 years old – it was an empty threat, mostly made because I just wanted the girls who made fun of me to stop making fun of me and leave me alone. It lead to a lot of social workers and counselors trying to decipher what was wrong with me, but really, I was just lonely. Depression and sadness are isolating. You can feel alone in a room full of your loved ones. I still have those moments, but therapy and other coping mechanisms are enough for me to get through and push those thoughts away. For others, this isn’t enough. Medication is not something to be ashamed of.
Although I didn’t know Robin, it’s is the second really personal loss I’ve had this year from something like this. A dear friend of mine passed away in May, and we had just been in communication a few weeks earlier. The night I learned of her death, I walked outside to get my garbage bags and saw the sun blazing through a line of trees. One of my favorite things in the world is the look of dappled light through leaves. I watched this for a moment and the thought This wasn’t enough for her to stay flashed through my head. And that’s the catastrophic thing about suicide and depression. When you are at the lowest point, you don’t give a shit about any of the world’s beauty. You just want out.
Even in my darkest, most horrible moments, when thoughts of running away or just getting out of a situation would repeat in my head, the idea of actually dying was never an option. This makes me lucky, people. Too many people are afraid of not only what they will do when triggered, but also of telling people how they are feeling.
I read a blog on depression the other day that said, “Think of something you want to see play out. It may get you from thinking the crazy thoughts.” For example, Marvel’s Phase 3. That’s something I definitely want to see reach its fulcrum. The sixth and seventh Song of Ice and Fire books; I need to find out what happens to Jon Snow. Day three of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. The final season of Parks and Recreation. A book of essays that I’m currently working on. Whether or not the Red Sox won’t suck next year. Liverpool’s Champions League campaign. My nephew learning to talk. These are the things that get me excited. These are the things that, for me, kick depression square in the lady balls.
Anything that’s worth holding onto.
This life is horrible and awful and people are terrible to each other and sometimes it’s too much to bear. Robin didn’t get weak. He got tired of holding on. But I wish he had held on just a bit longer, and maybe it would have gotten better. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. And despite everything, I truly do believe that this world is a good place that is getting better.
If you have friends struggling with depression, the best thing you can do is listen. Don’t fix the problem yourself. Don’t start giving platitudes and life advice because it will only make them self-flagellate for not feeling the same. A simple “I am here for you to talk about it” will do. The reason why I love therapy is because I get to talk about everything going on in my head and someone is there to listen. A lot of the time, that’s how depression can be diminished.
I wish Robin had been able to internalize how much he was loved.
For now, I’m going to watch his movies, cry, and be thankful for all of the wonderful memories he gave me and my family.
For more information on suicide and depression, go here:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention,
SAVE: Suicide Awareness Voices of Education,
The Trevor Project: Suicide Prevention for Gay Youth
These websites also contain numbers and email addresses to contact if you are struggling with depression. It can be beaten. You are worth the fight.
I will miss Robin Williams forever, but I am utterly grateful for what he left behind.