In Memoriam: Robin Williams

Even typing out the title to this post, it feels foreign. Unreal, almost.

But it is true.

Cause of death looks to be a suicide, if news sources are to be believed, and considering that this is Robin Williams – our Robin Williams, of Mrs. Doubtfire, of the Dead Poets Society, of the voice of Genie in Aladdin; someone who has been part and parcel of our household entertainment collection, to where we can say that we have grown up with him – it hits so, so very close to home.

We have lost many talented people already, and it saddens me to have our Robin be among those whom we lost. Philip Seymour Hoffman was another. The line stretches long, but ah, this truly highlights that we, the people, whether we are famous or not, whether we work in the public eye or not, have become experts at playing the greatest role of all: the role of “everything is okay”.

Robin Williams, who had inspired so many, who had given so many smiles throughout his career, has grown to be a master at that particular role. I cannot imagine that those around him knew what was truly in his mind, or if they did, they were at a loss as to how to approach it. To everyone around him – certainly to those of us watching from afar – he certainly seemed the happy-go-lucky Robin Williams. There was nothing about him that could’ve suggested that anything was awry.

Ah, depression, you wily beast… No one sees you coming, either, do they? Not the people watching, and certainly not those whom you sneak up on.

I wrote once before about likening depression to a coat. Think about it. Think about depression as a very heavy coat that has a mind of its own and its sole purpose is to confine you. It’s a coat that slinks up onto you and buttons itself up tight. It confines your movements until you struggle to so much as get up. You can think of nothing but the world outside the coat, because it’s interfering with your line of sight. You know you can remove this coat, but it’s so heavy that you struggle to so much as move a hand towards the buttons. It’s hard for you to breathe wearing this coat, but it won’t get removed on its own and you know it. And you can’t take it off and put it back on at will – the coat won’t let you take it off without a struggle, and you know that you will never want to wear it again. The coat confines your mind too, until you think only within the spectrum that it allows you to think in, confining you to just the inside of your head.

And no one else, unless they too had worn this coat, will ever know what it’s like to wear it. “Can you just…not be depressed?” they ask. It’s like “Can you just…not wear the coat?” But in truth, you can’t. You never can ‘just not wear it.’ Especially when you didn’t ask to wear it in the first place.

And your body never forgets the coat. Even when you do succeed in ripping it off, and it falls with a dull thunk into a corner, you remember what it was like to carry that weight on you everywhere. You never forget it. You never forget how it feels. And you always have that little smidge of fear in the back of your mind, what if one day you wake up and the coat is back on you?

That’s probably how Robin Williams felt.

But he was a public figure too. He couldn’t let people see his struggles, because he didn’t want to run the risk of exposing that side of himself, the side that is most vulnerable. He was a public figure. He couldn’t let people see what was wrong, because in this culture of ours, people were much more likely to make a voyeuristic experience of his struggle rather than just reaching out and saying, “Talk to me. I’ll listen” and leading him away from the prying eyes, shutting the door on the cameras, and turning off the phone calls from the agents and studios. It’s harsh, but that’s what our culture has become.

After we lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, L’Wren Scott, MJ, and so many more amazing talents, and now that we lost Robin, I can’t help but think:

The spotlight truly is the loneliest place for any human being to be.

We can talk about the risks of suicide all we want. They are all very valid. But know that public individuals are used to playing a part for the people watching, and they have mastered the art of making sure people know nothing about what’s under the surface. They will do everything in their power to hide their struggles, and they will do it well. You won’t know – perhaps you may get a hint or two if you know the person well enough, a word said, a something that’s out of the ordinary, which will make you wonder whether everything is okay. But you will not know for sure unless they tell you.

You can do everything that the prevention hotlines recommend. And I would encourage it, because something is better than nothing at all. But the most important thing that you can do, which you may already know, is simply listen to the person. Don’t try to rationalize what they’re telling you. Don’t try to interpret. Don’t respond. Just listen. Just listen to what they have to say, because no matter how little sense it may make to you, to them it is valid. They just need to know that there’s someone, anyone on the other side of the confines of their own head.

*long sigh*

This isn’t an easy pill to swallow. Having had my own stretch of time with the coat and knowing entirely too well what he must have been going through, I can’t help but ask, was anyone listening? Did anyone close to him take a look at his eyes, just to see whether or not his smile ever actually reached them? The signs of depression and/or suicide risk are not always obvious; you have to know what the person is really like in order to peg if anything’s off base.

Maybe someone did see… Maybe no one did. We’ll never know. But what we do know is that one of the bright lights of the world has gone out. And I really wish that we could roll a collective 5 or 8 for him to come back to us, but such is life.

We miss you, Robin. Thank you for your smiles, and here’s to making those smiles last for generations to follow.

And to my friends – not like I need to say this publicly – thank you for being there for me, and know that I am always there for you in turn. You all know how to find me.

K.G.

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6 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Robin Williams

  1. Well said. Your comparison and explanation in regards to depression is one of the more accurate ones I’ve seen that matched how it feels for me. Thank you for being there for me and know too I’m always there for you. May Robin Williams now find peace from that weighty coat.

    1. <3

      I could think of no other way to describe it. When I was younger, I didn't even know what it was until I took a college psych class – at age 14! – where the DSM was a course of study. And then, of course, I had to find someone, anyone, willing to take me seriously when I was ready to admit I had A Problem. Needless to say, part of my dislike of people stems from that experience. The coat description fits, because I never quite got past the physical symptoms of it – and oh yeah, no one will tell you that depression brings on a myriad of physical aches and pains – and it's just like wearing a coat too heavy for you. Except your brain wears it too.

      I can only hazard a guess at what Robin must have gone through. Being a public figure only put an additional onus on him to put on the happy face and to keep being the funnyman. Two things happen when you assume the role of "Everything is okay": either you eventually believe it and use it to get the coat off, or you find yourself screaming on the inside that no, everything is not okay, and it ends up eating you alive.

      I can only hope that this sparks some sort of real conversation about depression and what it is and isn't. Because some of the things I've seen so far are making me rage quite a bit.

      1. I truly love you for having said all this and this clearly, conclusively and simple enough to make enough sense for those who are willing to listen (and have enough empathy in them to care for their fellow man or woman). The coat analogy should be(come) a textbook one for any aspiring or fledgling psychiatrist/therapist!

        On my blog, someone also touched on socio-political implications, which apply to “the rest of us”, those not in the spotlight (b.t.w: I concur on your statement in regards to that – by far THE loneliest and most difficult place to be in, I have no more doubt about that). You say yourself, that our culture has become a voyeuristic one and again, I must concur.

        Following that vein, I wonder, how many more celebrity deaths it will take until we all begin to wake up to the very simple and brutal FACT that WE have made this “culture”, in fact this world the most hostile environment for (former?) humans to be in…??? Or are we collectively going down a road of desensitizing ourselves from our most basic, most natural needs as an entire species? At the risk of making too much of this and sounding overly dramatic, I can’t help but wonder…

      2. In truth, Werner, I think we have already desensitized ourselves. I have had to deal with several incidents that don’t directly concern me but my musician friends, and one of them was genuinely befuddled as to why I was taking it as seriously as I was. To him, it was just not that serious, because he dealt with similar a LOT.

        To me, it was that serious, not just because I am not a performer, but having gotten a glimpse of what it’s like to be a public figure by virtue of my photography, I put twice as much value on privacy.

        We have created this monster, and desensitized ourselves to it. And we are collectively reaping the consequences: first by loss of our great talents to the pressure cooker that we ourselves have created, and then by loss of ourselves when we forget that we are not voyeuristic machines meant to consume.

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