I was driving down a freeway, alone, when I heard of the death of Robin Williams.
A flash of foreboding hit me when I heard his name on the radio. Then I gasped when I heard “has died” and gasped again when I heard that it was an apparent suicide.
It was a somber drive home.
Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole were my favorite dramatic actors, but Peter’s death last year was neither shocking nor tragic; it was the end of a long, illustrious life. Robin’s life was far too short.
He may have been more known for his comedy, and he was indeed funny and often endearing, but Robin Williams was never my favorite comedian. He tugged at my heartstrings in Awakenings; in Dead Poet’s Society, he filled my heart, then ripped it open and filled it back again. He was fabulous in Good Will Hunting. These are three of my all-time favorite movies.
And as much as some of my friends make fun of Patch Adams, it was a lovely and inspirational performance in a movie that admittedly does some stupid things (like make up a fake love interest to replace a real platonic friendship) and leaves out a lot about the real Patch Adams.
Of Robin Williams’ dramatic and semi-dramatic movies (Good Morning, Vietnam is both comedy and drama), the only one I don’t like is Seize the Day. This is weird for me, because his “seize the day” message in Dead Poet’s Society was so strong, so poignant, that I had to pause my VCR and go find something productive to do in order to seize the day and enjoy it. I ended up cheerfully cleaning the bathroom. When I saw the movie Seize the Day (which preceded Dead Poets Society), I thought it would be about finding good things, but it was more about finding bad things. It was nothing but sad.
That’s how I feel about Robin Williams. Nothing but sad. I don’t feel happy to have enjoyed his humor; I don’t feel fulfilled to have enjoyed his beautiful dramatic portrayals; I don’t feel compelled to watch a bunch of his movies or revisit Mork and Mindy; and I don’t feel fortunate to have had him around for 63 years. I just feel sad.
I feel sad that this creative, gifted, sensitive, clever man is dead, that he was so troubled that he took his own life. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to truly enjoy a Robin Williams movie again, whether comedy or drama. I know eventually I’ll watch some of his movies I haven’t seen, and re-watch some of my favorites, but it will never be the same, but it will never be the same. I still shy away, for example, from watching “The Neverending Story: The Next Chapter,” a movie I like, because I get sad over Jonathan Brandis, the talented young actor who hanged himself. The sadness poisons my enjoyment of the movie.
Suicide makes me sad. I didn’t know Robin Williams, and I don’t know much about celebrities in general. I like actors and other celebrities for what they create, and what they put into it. I’m sad that Robin Williams was sad. I’m sad he had alcohol and drug problems. I’m sad so many celebrities have issues with alcohol and drugs. I’m sad they are marketable one day and gone the next. I’m sad they are known for abusing drugs and alcohol and being sad. I’m sad that we laugh at Lindsay Lohan; I saw her cry on David Letterman one night and that’s the Lindsay I see now: A troubled young woman whose troubles are news and whose sadness is lost in it all.
Although I don’t follow celebrity news, when an actor dies I often wish I’d known more about them. I wish I’d known Robin Williams was a voracious cyclist. That’s so cool. I also wish I’d known he loved video games and that he named his daughter Zelda after my favorite video game of all time, The Legend of Zelda. I also didn’t know much about his alcohol and drug problems. My love of Robin Williams was confined to the movies, and that does make me sad in retrospect. But even though I didn’t know these things, there’s something else that sits heavy in my chest: All those sad characters.
I see pictures in my head of his sad, dark eyes, his downcast gaze, his grim mouth. Character after character, movie after movie, sadness after sadness. “One Hour Photo.” “The Final Cut.” “Dead Poets Society.” Even “Good Will Hunting.” Even “Patch Adams.” And it’s not confined to the comedies. My son put on “Hook” the other day, in which Peter begins the movie as a miserable man. “Mrs. Doubtfire” may be hilarious, but the backstory of a failed marriage is heartbreaking. The comedy of “Good Morning, Vietnam” is haunted by the drama of war and death.
My heart aches for a stranger, and for those he left behind, the family and friends who loved him and were crushed by this terrible loss.
I didn’t read much about him in the first few days after his death. I knew what I needed to know, for the time being. Later, I started reading articles, and comments by other people who also didn’t know him. I didn’t leave any comments. I didn’t know what to say.
Some people said Robin Williams was selfish for taking his own life. Others said that’s an unfair label and we can’t know what drives someone to do this. Most of the arguments were heated; some were civil. And I can see both sides, to an extent. Of course we don’t know what drove him that night, to so doggedly pursue death; we can’t know what the tipping point was or what he was thinking and feeling (apparently there was no note, which dismays me). We don’t know if he had control or lost control.
But suicide *is* selfish. It’s self-centered. It’s self-absorbed. It’s about self. I don’t mean that as negatively as it sounds; even when someone in terrible pain, with a terminal illness, commits suicide with the support or assistance of loved ones, it’s a selfish act, and sometimes it’s important to be selfish.
But suicide is an act that can bring real harm to many people who are left behind. I’m sympathetic to people who suffer emotionally, and I’m sympathetic to people whose suffering leads them to take their own lives. But I’m also sympathetic to those who are left behind. I just don’t know if the suffering of one person outweighs the suffering of all those who loved that person.
I was seriously depressed in January 1998. There was no particular reason, except perhaps that it was January. I’d say I hate January with a passion, but I have little passion in January. It’s a cold, bitter, deadly month, and it’s just the start of the bitterness. People with seasonal depression in Minnesota have a long wait for things to get better.
I was working as sports editor for the Crookston Daily Times, the smallest daily newspaper in Minnesota – so small, in fact, that I was the entire sports department in a three-person newsroom and doubled as system administrator.
That month I didn’t go to any games. I still covered them; I called coaches, got stats and quotes, wrote the stories, designed the pages, and went home and shut the door of my apartment a block from work. I got by with file photos (or no photos). I was concerned, but I had no energy or drive to change. One day as February hit, and there was a game in town, it occurred to me that I was going to go to it. Just like that, it was over, albeit a little tentatively. And then I was fine, more or less.
The next fall, I got nervous as I felt the winter gloom approach. I didn’t want a repeat of the previous year, so I went to my doctor and got antidepressants. January went by without any more fuss than usual, and I didn’t take the drugs very long.
Since then, I manage any depression I have. This isn’t to say that I think everyone should be able to do this. This is fueled by things that are important to me, in particular the privacy to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself; the freedom to go about life without drawing more attention to myself than I wish; and my desire for simplicity. I’m also very literal; I never suffer from unrealistically negative self-judgment, because it doesn’t make sense. And I’m pragmatic. It makes sense to me to categorize and manage depression to the point that it’s rarely even a thing. It’s something I do pretty well, and it leaves me more open to good things than if I didn’t.
People deal with depression in various ways: Drugs and therapy and meditation and physical activity and massage are great, but I’m also a big fan of “faking it”: Watching comedy; doing something fun; and smiling when you don’t feel like it.
Smiling releases endorphins in your brain that make you feel happier, especially if you smile with your eyes. It’s science. I heard this on the radio a couple of years ago and I tried it out in the car; I could physically feel the difference when I smiled with my eyes. It’s a trippy physical-emotional feeling, and it feels good. It’s certainly better than feeling depressed, even if it doesn’t take away whatever made you feel lousy. It might, though, put you in a frame of mind you couldn’t reach on your own.
Losing a loved one is painful, but in the case of suicide, it’s sort of like losing a loved one and his murderer in the same person. I don’t know how someone can get through that without going through some pretty deep pain and anger relative to the act of suicide. I’ve always held the view that, outside of terminal illness/physical suffering, I would never put my friends and family through that, no matter how much emotional pain I felt. I just don’t feel that I could give myself more importance than the entirety of a bunch of other people I care about and who care about me. No one can predict the future, and I don’t mean to suggest that my convictions make me better than anyone else, but that view is intensely important to me.
I do sympathize with those who kill themselves; I can only imagine the pain they go through to get to the point where ending their lives trumps everything else. But what purpose is served in criticizing this selfish act of someone in pain, when we didn’t even know him? Who are we to mock and sneer at him? The selfishness makes me sad, not angry or bitter.
It makes me sad for Robin, for what might have been if he had instead reached out at that moment, looked outside of himself for help, and it makes me sad for the anguish of his family and friends. They are all victims of suicide.
I am just a fan; an admirer; someone who wished this layered, complex, funny, deep and lovely man had found a way to stay in this world and overcome what made him leave.