The entire internet appears broken. Every other post on my Facebook feed is about the untimely passing of Robin Williams. It seems that everyone had a personal connection to Williams through his enormous and diverse body of work. Some remember fondly Mork from Ork, others shout “Good Morning Viet Nam”, others yet will sing the soundtrack from Aladdin, or will recall Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook, What Dreams May Come, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poet’s Society, or any number of other films and works in the actor’s filmography. In a country where we are bombarded on a daily basis with the minutia of celebrities’ lives, Robin Williams truly felt like someone you knew through his work. The celebrities that did know him are no different as they are all expressing their shock and sorrow at the loss of an acting genius. A Juliard trained actor, he was one of the most talented men of his generation (if not the most talented). Williams was a jack of all trades. Drama, comedy, pensive, or wild…Williams was an eclectic and electric current of humanity, able to channel it all and flawlessly, seamlessly, and uniquely to the screen and stage.
Most people will remember the incomparable humor of the man. The kinds of laughter, the depths of the humor that Robin Williams brought forth cannot be measured. As Henry Winkler told Wolf Blitzer in the coverage just following his death “I knew I was in the company of genius, and my job was to keep a straight face. It didn’t matter what line you gave him, he took it and digested it, and it never came out the same way twice.” However being a channel so attuned to breadth of human emotion comes at a price. Not all emotions are light and airy. Many are dark, brooding, and overpowering.
Williams had battled for 20 years or more with substance abuse, addiction, and depression. Often times those who seek to perform and entertain us are aiming to fill an insatiable void. The attention and power we grant them when they are in the spotlight often seems to momentarily fill something, whatever it is, that is darkly gnawing at their insides. The same is true of substance abuse…the highs and lows of intoxication and inebriation offer escape or numb that same void.
The following statement was released by Williams’ wife Susan Schneider:
“This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken. On behalf of Robin’s family, we are asking for privacy during our time of profound grief. As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”
However, while we are all certainly fondly remembering the man that we all felt was a member of lives, friends, or family, it would be irresponsible not to take the moment to recognize that one does not reach higher heights in entertainment than Robin Williams, and yet the void in him was so very destructive, so overpowering, that it has lead to an apparent suicide. While we all laughed and our sides split from the pain of joy, Williams was battling dark inner demons that eventually were victorious against him in a life that was rife with success by almost any measure. As important as Robin Williams was and is to pop-culture and entertainment, it would be a grave misdeed not to use his tragic passing to call attention to those who are continually battling these demons and succumb to substance abuse, painful and dark emotions; that insatiable void in the soul that leads all too many to take their own lives.
Robin Williams’ suicide should make us more aware of the deceptive nature of depression, and how it can be difficult to spot the pain and suffering…how it can lead to surprising and upsetting ends for those in pain.
The depression that Williams suffered from can only be speculated upon by those who, though we felt we knew him, knew only a persona not a person. The people that were close to Williams are without a doubt familiar the heavy psychological weights that pulled him down. There are always signs, indicators, and behaviors that loved ones and those close to someone suffering from depression can spot, but even those signs can be minute or seem less serious than they really are. We may even dismiss them for dramatics or quirks. Certainly Williams was known for his own dramatics and quirks–those are what him he the icon he is.
All too often, we think of those who commit suicide, abuse drugs, or become alcoholics as always down, morose, or sullen. It is important to remember that those who suffer internally from these kinds of emotional wounds can appear to be just the opposite. The tabloids and our collective celebrity obsessions kept it impossible for Robin Williams’ struggles to be hidden, but all the same none of the legions of fans he had ever surmised that it would end this way for the entertainment icon.
Of course, respecting the privacy of Williams’ family and loved ones is the least the public can do out of decency and appreciation for the years of entertainment. Of course, we should remember the countless moments of joy and laughter that he gave to millions, too. But it would be adding insult to injury if Robin William’s suicide didn’t give us pause to think about how deeply entrenched depression can be our souls, and the lengths to which many will go to hide, subjugate, or quell that disquiet. Neither the depth of Williams’ craft nor the power of his humor will be lost if when we remember him we remember that underneath it was a torment that he will never explain and while he was certainly beloved, we can take pause to refocus our attention on those in our lives that may be wearing a very convincing mask over their own torment.