Just some words…
If you’re tired of hearing about Robin Williams and his death, you can stop reading this.
If you don’t understand how people can be so influenced by a celebrity that they didn’t “know,” you haven’t felt that a favorite movie or book or song was your only solace, and you can stop reading this.
If you think his death doesn’t deserve a period of mourning and remembrance because suicide is “selfish” and a disrespect to people who are actually fighting to live (which he was, I’m sure), and he did it to himself even though you think he had everything he could have ever wanted, you are completely ignorant about what mental illness truly is, so you can stop reading this.
The first movie I can remember seeing in a theater was “Flubber.” I was 6 years old, and I remember wishing I could know Robin Williams because, his character Phillip at least, was funny and kind, and his love was limitless—he could love a robot, he could love a green glob of goo, or he could love Sarah. So that meant Robin Williams could love me too.
Like every other 90’s kid, I also grew up watching “Aladdin.” The Genie was entertaining in every sense of the word, and he was the best friend that every kid wished they had—not just because he was able to grant wishes, but because he was silly and true and relentlessly loyal. He was trapped, like many children in a way, but we knew that his happy ending was up ahead and that he’d be freed, which maybe gave us all a little bit of hope for ourselves. One of my happiest memories of my late aunt Sue was reciting Genie’s lines with her again and again until I doubled over with laughter.
And of course, there was “Jumanji,” which I loved even though it scared the bejeezus out of me, and “Patch Adams,” from which I could never escape without crying, and “Jack,” a role which Robin performed with natural ease, and “Good Will Hunting,” which proved that his career wasn’t just the punch line of a joke. And “Dead Poets Society,” which I first watched when I was in high school, and as a lover of literature, I knew my life would be changed forever thereafter. I doubt that a character will ever be as inspiring to me as Mr. John Keating.
During my first year of college, moving far away took its toll, and homesickness consumed me. “Mrs. Doubtfire” was my go-to Friday night cure. Unashamedly, I spent 5 or 6 of my first Fridays watching Robin Williams dress in drag. (College wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.) “Mrs. Doubtfire” just felt like home. As broken as they were, the Hillards were the family of which I always wanted to be a part. Daniel was the ultimate devoted dad, and Robin was so convincing that it would be hard to imagine him straying from that off-screen. The thought that such a soul could exist was captivating. Robin took a character meant to be crippled with flaws and turned him into a wonderfully idealistic version of an imperfect protagonist.
Robin Williams’s characters whom he brought to life were all inarguably one-of-a-kind. What many had in common was kindness, silliness, thoughtfulness, and electric eccentricity, which some might call “mania.” I read a news article this morning about Robin’s death that referenced an NPR interview he had once done in which he said that he sometimes performed in a manic style but that he wasn’t manic all of the time; other times, sadness hit him hard.
Merriam-Webster online has two definitions of “manic.” 1) “very excited, energetic, or emotional,” which is blatantly obvious to anyone who has seen Robin’s work. 2) “having or relating to a mental illness that causes someone to become very excited or emotional,” which may have been a bit more subtle to the general public who did not see much of Robin past his character portrayals.
Mania is typically paired with bipolar disorder or severe depression, one of which we now assume is what led to Robin’s tragic death. Mental illness is an actual biological disease, as real as any physical illnesses that are much easier to detect. It is often swept under the rug and dismissed as something that sufferers can take control of, but the truth is, we can take as much control of a mental illness as we can a broken leg. We can do therapy—counseling, meditation, exercise, healthy eating, medication— but an illness isn’t cured or even bettered until proper healing has occurred. And mental illness is a much more difficult condition to heal. You cannot use a cast to hold all of your feelings together and mold them back into the shape they should be. Your crutches are the little things that help you keep breathing every day, whether it’s family or friends or music or sunshine. No matter what they are, mental illness crutches are often much less reliable than physical crutches. Your family can disappoint you, the radio can be playing crap songs today, or it might rain tomorrow. All of that can slow the healing process, and many people never fully recover. It’s not about being “happy”—it’s about being healed.
Robin Williams had been vocal about being sober for 20 years when he relapsed and went back to rehab. A person with a mental illness can be healed for two whole decades, and the disease can return with the snap of your fingers.
My skin crawls when I hear someone say, “How can it get so bad that a person wants to commit suicide?” It doesn’t get that bad; it is that bad. Though all cases are differ, I would be willing to bet that almost all people who commit suicide are not considering it for the very first time. When you’re depressed, everything is bad and everything hurts. You might start hurting for no reason at all, but by the end, you’ve thought of a million things that are wrong in your life that validate your feelings. You eventually get to the point when you just want the pain to subside, and that can come at a dear cost. Most people with depression, even the most logical, intelligent people, have the thought of suicide pinned high up on a bulletin board in their heads; it’s always there and always an option, especially if you’ve run out of others.
I have also heard ignorant comments that people who commit suicide are selfish in that by doing so, they are hurting their loved ones. But that is not how people with depression see it. Many people with depression, during their low times, feel worthless and a burden to the outside people who are affected by their disease. They are more likely to view suicide as a burden lifted off of the shoulders of their loved ones.
Those low lows are just one aspect of mental illness. There are also high highs, mania, which I think Robin Williams is most known for on-screen. He seemed to be one of the happiest, most energetic, vibrant actors we’ve been blessed to watch. And that’s the mysterious side of mania—the high highs that outsiders see often mask the low lows that occur behind closed doors.
I think that Robin’s death has hit close to home to many people for many different reasons. Whether his works of art throughout the years touched you in some way or you yourself are battling a mental illness, both Robin’s life and death have impacted millions of fans all over the world. What good can come of this heartbreak is a better public awareness and understanding of mental illness. There’s always a rise in awareness when a person in the spotlight dies, but Robin is a special case, and I am hopeful that the effects of his suicide will stick with the souls he’s touched. On the surface, Robin Williams was one of the happiest, go-lucky comics on screen, which demonstrates that mental illness is not always visible. It is not concrete; you can’t see it with your eyes, hold it in your arms, or massage the aching wound with your hands. It is a reprehensible, possibly lifelong condition that captures everyone in its path—young or old, rich or poor, successful or not.
Robin Williams was immensely successful, and not just by industry standards but by humanity’s standards. Many of his colleagues and friends have voiced that he was as sweet as he was funny, which says a lot. He brought smiles and laughs to millions of children and adults over the years, and he gave people reasons to believe in magic and hope. I only wish we could have returned the favor in the end.