Not terribly long ago I used to deride others for feeling sad in the wake of a famous celebrity’s death.
My argument would go something like in the grand scheme of things their deaths “didn’t matter” when compared to various other atrocities and terrible, tragic things going on in the world. I even wrote an entire opinion piece poo-pooing the general populace for being sad in the wake of Whitney Houston’s death waaay back in 2012 for my University paper back in the day all largely because since I didn’t feel anything no one else should essentially.
Then Robin Williams died.
Well, more accurately Robin Williams committed suicide then everything changed for me.
To this day, I can’t recall a single death that has affected or beat me down more than this famous, larger than life comedian’s all too early passing and it still eats me up every time I think about it even five years later. You see, Robin was something of a hero of mine, an uber talented and charismatic funny man who seemed to perform his comedy with the kinetic energy of a hurricane and his humor often brightened my darkest moments growing up.
For him to die the way he did was beyond devastating for me.
Every 90s kid grew up on his various memorable performances. Whether it was “Aladdin” as the Genie, Peter Pan in “Hook” or masquerading as a nannie to win his family back in “Mrs. Doubtfire” we all had one performance that made us all fans early on.
(For some reason I always remember “Flubber” first though haha)
I didn’t start to truly appreciate him though until high school when I discovered his comic stand-up routines from his earlier years.
Despite not growing up in 70s or 80s his humor was nonetheless electric, unlike any previous comic I had seen up until that point and his impressions of Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon are still among my favorites. Live at the Met is an all-time favorite comic stand-up performance and much later Live on Broadway still has one of the greatest closing jokes ever:
(”Harder than Chinese Algebra” is definitely a line I’ve used in my college years)
What I loved most about his performances was that he could be boisterous and sincere at the same time. Being both genuine and vulgar simultaneously and in the best way. Weave bizarre character references into personal tales of his own life. Tell a multitude of hilarious stories and references at 100 miles a minute like a comedic roller-coaster ride that lasted the duration of his performances and you never wanted to get off it. It’s true when Time Magazine referred to his comedy as something all comedians loved and respected but could never in a million years duplicate. Robin was a one of a kind talent, the penultimate original, and fans loved him for it.
Robin did his performances with such natural gusto and spontaneous hilarity that it might shock you to know he always wrote virtually every line of his stand-ups before his performances. To bring that humor to life with such infectious joy takes real talent and no one can ever deny Robin was one of the best if not the best at it.
The remarkable thing is on top of his stand-up the dude was an all-time great actor on top of that displaying ranges from as absurd as “Death to Smoochie” and “World’s Greatest Dad” to as sensitive and thought provoking as “Good Will Hunting” and “Dead Poet’s Society.” Robin wasn’t afraid to show a darker side either in famous roles such as “Insomnia” and “One Hour Photo.” His range was simply amazing.
(Personally my favorite^)
Like many high-schoolers, I was angsty teenager prone to hormonal anger and twitches, depressed I couldn’t score girls and that I wasn’t popular but at the end of the day I always had Robin to cheer me up.
As I became more and more a fan I’d read more into his life learning I actually had quite a few things in common with the famous funny man from a love of all things sci-fi including even anime and Warhammer to a deep appreciation of video games as he famously named his daughter Zelda after the titular Nintendo princess of the same name.
He was not just a comedian to me; he was one of us. America’s favorite funny, semi-secretly nerdy uncle and I loved him for it.
(The sweetest Nintendo commercial ever. #uglycrying)
I would carry my love of this magnificent comedian into college where I would routinely re-listen to his greatest hits when I was at my lowest of lows and boy did I have plenty of them during this period of my life and many of them revolved around suicide.
For reasons that are too personal to expand on, I had a friend who I was close with early in college who had some deep mental health and abandonment issues. She would constantly fear the worst out of others’ intentions and whether I would stick around with her to help her through it all in life. This put a heavy drain on myself and eventually it broke me enough to just attempt to cut her out of my life.
So, she threatened to kill herself when that happened.
If you’ve never tried talking someone down out of suicide before it is by far the scariest thing I have ever had to do and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. To try to reason with someone who is convinced that their life is meaningless that no one cares about them that they are better off dead than alive is unlike any terror I’ve ever experienced. What scared me the most was what I would do with myself if I failed to talk her down. Could I live with myself if I couldn’t do enough to save this person? Is the blood on my hands too since it was my actions that drove her to this point?
Well, long story short, I did succeed in talking her down but it left a tremendous mark on my soul that I don’t think I’ll ever forget (it also would not be the last time this would happen). I did eventually move on from this person (for both our sakes) but the depression it left within in me still stings.
There are limits to emotional dependency that we should all understand and in my need to fix everything for those I cared about I started not to care about myself and it damn near killed me. You should always try to feel empathy and help those who are need but you can’t forget about yourself in this regard because it will destroy you too. Painfully and slowly.
That semester I listened to probably more Robin Williams than I ever had in the past. His humor keeping me from being an unfeeling zombie and my mind from breaking from the stress of that year (there were other events that compounded what was going on.) Robin kept me going, kept me laughing in a period I didn’t have a lot to feel joyful about and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
Then a few years later, as well know now, on August 11, 2014 Robin took his own life.
Like most everyone else I was shocked, distraught, and in total disbelief. How could a man who had seemingly endless joy and lived by all measures a far more successful life than most people ever would feel the need to kill himself?
It was tragic beyond comprehension.
The aftermath of course was an outpouring of love and support to the Williams family particularly his children but there was also the detractors as well. People who denounced him as some sort of coward for taking his own life, Christian zealots who believed he was rotting in hell for his sin and all matter of bad takes regarding him being too privileged to be depressed. It was infuriating and broke my heart all at once. Here was a man who more than most probably deserved a happy ending, dead by his own hands and now subjected to dumb moronic statements by people who probably will never understand what depression does to someone.
You’d would only need to a modest amount of research to understand where Robin’s depression could come from though. Despite growing up in an affluent household his father and mother were rarely there with him, raised practically by the maids in his household and by himself most of his childhood. He had survivor’s guilt for being in the same room John Belushi died in many decades prior (which would become a wake-up call for his own drug addictions). Also, he was great friends with the late Christopher Reeves who went to school with him Julliard and that shouldn’t require too much explaining there.
(Personal pain never stopped Robin from lampooning himself of course)
But the real death knell probably came at the end when months prior Robin’s suicide he was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia Association and early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Now anyone being diagnosed with these conditions would be devastating by itself but if you frame it in the mind of Robin Williams, a man who’s comedy and charm relies almost entirely on spontaneous-ness, extreme attention to detail and constant joy this is like losing the very thing that made you who are, what people love you for; your core identity.
Robin was no longer going to be Robin.
I’m not asking people to like suicide or accept every instance of it but people should try to understand why and not judge others for it. Sometimes the demons are just too strong and we can’t fault others especially a mind as crippled as Robin’s was at the end.
If there’s one positive that came out of Robin’s suicide, it’s that the conversation on depression and mental health has notably shifted since that time. In the years since, it’s more acceptable now to feel sad no matter what your background is; you didn’t need to be a coal miner with black lung or a soldier with PSTD to be acceptably depressed anymore (and no, before any of you start I’m not judging those people). Athletes and celebrities alike such as Demar Derozan, Ryan Reynolds, Serena Williams, and Chris Evans have all come out about their own personal struggles with their inner demons. It’s now okay more than ever to feel inadequate even if on paper you have ever reason not to feel that way.
Though society hasn’t become completely understanding of mental health issues yet society is still a lot more open about it than it was before at least. It’s not a silver lining, don’t make that mistake with what I’m saying, but it’s comforting in a strange way knowing that even in death Robin can inspire positivity.
It’s a shame and tragic that Robin didn’t get age gracefully into his twilight years and given the current state of the country and the world as a whole we could definitely use that trademark wit to lampoon our reality right now but I’m glad that Robin helped keep me going in my most formative years.
(I mean seriously though, could you imagine Robin getting a crack at this motherfucker today on stage?)
It’s not hyperbole to call Robin Williams one of the greatest entertainers of all-time and though his time in this world was cut short by his own hand he has still left an indelible mark on myself, his fans and the rest of the world. Depression and mental health is a fact of life, generally speaking all of us will struggle with it at some point but if we can get help early and not be afraid to ask for it or even cry for it then maybe the world won’t feel so dark for us all.
So please, let’s all remember to take care of ourselves whether that’s seeking friends or professional guidance. There is strength in sadness, power in grief and love when you are lonely. You owe it to yourself to seek help and trust me, there’ll be arms open to bring you in.
Because you matter.