On August 11, 2014, actor/comedian/genius Robin Williams committed suicide. When I heard the news, I was shocked in the way we all get when a celebrity dies, but I wasn’t surprised. The United States has a very silent plague of suicide, as seen in the 25% rise in suicide rates between 1999 – 2016. That rise is seen disproportionately among middle-aged men, who kill themselves at four times the rate of women. (In fact, they account for 19% of the US population and 80% of the suicides.) In 2014, Williams’s death hit me especially hard because I was struggling with my own fight with depression and suicidal thoughts, and I saw in his tragic end the seeds of my own death.
My relationship with Robin Williams began at 13, when my older brother brought home Robin Williams’ first album, Reality: What a Concept. Like nearly everyone my age, I’d seen Williams on Happy Days and Mork & Mindy. (Raise your hand if you were like me and Mork & Mindy’s Pam Dawber was one of your first crushes.) As Mork, Williams displayed a manic energy that I’d never seen in a comedian, or any adult, in fact. He seemed like a human crazy ball, bouncing from idea to idea, person to person, topic to topic, with a glee that could only be described as childlike.
But, when I said I wanted to listen to the album, both my mom and my brother forbade me from doing so because it had bad language. In hindsight, their concern seems quaint, especially compared with what teens can access now via the Internet, but also because I’d already listened to George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” routine, among other things. (God love my brother for having great taste in comedy. Music? Not so much, as evidenced by the Urban Cowboy phase.) Thus, denied overt permission to listen to the album, I resorted to subterfuge.
I made my plan. I would wait until they were out of the house, then sneak into my brother’s room to listen to the album. At an appropriate time, I crept into his room, careful not to disturb any of the piles of unwashed laundry or papers, slid past his bed, and unearthed the album. The cover featured a youngish-looking man who appeared stoned out of his mind. Who knows? At that point in his life, Williams might well have been so high that he couldn’t have told you what year it was.
But, goddammit, he could make you laugh.
I listened to the first side of the album, mesmerized, amazed that someone could be that funny. (Additional note to anyone born before 1990: An “album” limited us to listen to half of its contents before we had to get up and flip the album over to hear the rest. Truly, dark times.) Granted, I only got half the references, but Williams was captivating, nonetheless. He wasn’t David Brenner or any of the staid comedians I saw the few times I’d stayed up to watch The Tonight Show. He wasn’t puzzling or deadly dull like most of Saturday Night Live’s skits. He had fun, it seemed, and he brought the audience along for the ride.
By the time that I heard that album, I was three years into my fight with depression. When I was 10, my mom wondered why her previously-joyful son had dark moments when he felt worthless and stupid. Such behavior was unacceptable. Her solution was for me to see a therapist and have him solve it. I remember little to nothing about the sessions, only that my mom was dissatisfied with their direction, so I stopped going. Or, to be more precise, she stopped taking me.
When I got into middle school, the darkness that had surrounded me seemed to dissipate, at least to those observing. I was a clown, determined to create laughs in those around me, even to the point that I intentionally tripped over things and fell. Better to be laughed at than no laughter at all, right? My mom was satisfied because her son was happy and “normal” again.
By the time I started high school in 1980, Williams was a fixture in my life and the lives of my friends and would remain that way through the decade. For much of that time, I worked at a movie theater, going from usher to cashier to manager. (Sure, that sounds dorky now, but at the time, well….no, you’re right. It was dorky then, too.) He had a major release or two every year; some of them were successes, some were huge misses, all were entertaining in their own way. (Among them were The World According to Garp, Moscow on the Hudson, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Dead Poets Society.) An interesting thing happened to Williams’ portrayals as the decade progressed. In each of the movies I listed, Williams had a moment (sometimes many) when the clown façade dropped and the hurt, wounded man underneath showed himself.
With me, the darkness only came out when I was tired or by myself. But it was always there. Always telling me that I was stupid, fat, worthless, a loser, friendless, all the things that we torment ourselves with, except that for most people, those demons come one at a time, generally because of context.
Screw up a work presentation? The inner voice tells you you’re stupid.
Binge over the holidays and gain five pounds? The inner voice says you’re fat.
But regardless of context, for most people, when life reengages, the voice recedes. For people with depression, the voice never goes away. It whispers in your ear when you’re in bed. It stands at your shoulder when you want to ask the cute girl out. It holds a clipboard of all your transgressions and personal failures and is only too willing to trot them out before you.
But, like Robin Williams, I learned to use an industrial-strength press to tamp down all those feelings and hide behind the clown’s mask.
In the 90s, my life went into its next stage, faux adult, first as husband, then as father. Williams’ career became even more storied. Awakenings, The Fisher King, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, The Birdcage, and Good Will Hunting. Sure, he had misses among his movies. (Fathers’ Day? Ouch. Bicentennial Man? Should only be shown to prisoners at Gitmo.) By the end of the decade, he was no longer just a funny guy, he was an actor. I mean, after all, who else could go from the energy of Mrs. Doubtfire to the soulfulness of Good Will Hunting? What struck me was that the world assumed the comedian was playing as being the serious, somber man and not the other way round.
Every good comedian is a little screwed in the head. That’s where the comedy comes from. And generally, the funnier and more exuberant the comic, the deeper the pain.
Robin Williams buried the pain inside from nearly everyone. When the pain came to close to the surface, he tried to drown it with alcohol and sedate it with a pharmacy full of drugs. For me, I shoved the darkness down and fought to find something that would “make” me happy: I moved multiple times, got different jobs, gained and lost friends. To my family, my few friends, and my co-workers, nothing was wrong. I was the lovable screw-up with the self-deprecating sense of humor who flit through life with a cavalier grin and “what, me worry?” attitude. But for both me and Robin Williams, the external image belied what was happening beneath the surface.
If you paid any attention in the days after his death, you saw the public outpouring of love for Williams. But do you want to know the ultimate tragedy of his death? It’s that if he could somehow hear all the accolades and stories of how beloved he was, he wouldn’t believe them. I don’t know what was running through his mind at the end, but I know from personal experience that when he was at his darkest and killing himself made the most sense, he rationalized the decision by saying that he was stopping the pain he felt all the time and that no one would notice or care.
Robin Williams’ particular darkness consumed him and I grieved for him like I would a friend for a few, obvious reasons. Whenever the world loses genius, it dims a little, and he was an unqualified genius. Beyond that, his suicide hit me hard because of what I saw as shared similarities. I was a very scaled down version of his manic clown genius, and if he hit a dark place, why couldn’t I?
Ultimately, that’s the worst part of serious depression. You’re never cured. You only enjoy bouts of remission. And although I’ve thought about killing myself, I’ve managed to pull myself out of the worst spirals, but there’s always that doubt in the back of my mind, that nagging suspicion that one day, the darkness will find me when I’m at my weakest and I will do it.
Depression is a thief. It robs the depressed person of joy, happiness, energy, and at its most extreme, life. It also robs those around him or her of the time when the person is deep in the dark. It is also patient and can wait sixty, seventy years before claiming its victim. Yet for men, talking about depression is a heinous crime. You can be a recovering alcoholic or a spouse abuser and society somehow accepts that. But depression? Depression is for weaklings or the spoiled rich boy who hated the color of the Corvette his parents bought him.
Theories abound as to why more men kill themselves than before. Ultimately, the reasons don’t matter, only the end effect. We are dying both because of society’s demands on us and also its unwillingness to let us talk about it.