I have idolized Robin Williams for years. Since I first saw him as the irrepressible Mork from Ork, I have reveled in his zany antics and loved him from afar. He was one of the rare comedians who was able to make me laugh despite anything happening in my life. Even now, knowing that he is gone, I am smiling while I think of his performances.
He was not as recognized for his more serious work, though the Academy did give him an Oscar for his work in Good Will Hunting. But it was here that the real depth of his acting abilities shone through. Good Morning Vietnam, What Dreams May Come and The Fisher King are all fantastic movies, where we see a small glimpse into the other side of this zany man.
Dead Poets Society is one of the most inspiring movies of all time. His role as John Keating made me want to be a teacher when I saw it, and still makes me wish I had chosen that as my career. To this day, the wisdom and hope that movie provided remains profound and on target – use your brain to think critically, don’t let life pass you by, find and never let go of your passions, carpe diem.
I have always rather immodestly felt that I was a lot like Robin. No, I don’t pretend to be nearly as funny or smart as he was, but we seemed to have a lot of similarities. Hell, even physically – we’re both short, hairy and heavyset guys. But above that, we’re both recovering addicts - from the same drug of choice even (“Cocaine is god’s way of telling you you are making too much money”). And we both struggle with depression.
It’s the last part that is tearing me up right now. Just like Robin, I have spent a large part of my life hiding my feelings and confusing people by being the joker and the funny guy. I turned to cocaine and alcohol to self-medicate, and it worked… for a while. It wasn’t until my son died that I was forced to take a long, hard look at my emotions. It wasn’t until my behaviour started to affect my relationships with my other children that I sought medical help. And like millions of people, I learned that my life-long battle just to stay alive was not my imagination – it was severe clinical depression. And I finally started to look for solutions.
That’s when I learned the truth that no one wants to talk about, there is no solution. Nothing really works with depression, you can’t make it go away – it is a part of you. A sly, dark little part that sits in the back of your brain with long, dull claws dug in and draping everything you do and think with a fog of pain. You can smother that little fucker with the best prescription medication that money can buy. You can talk about him with trained professionals, and keep him at bay, feeling better most of the time. Every day though, he waits. He’s patient and he’ll live with you for the rest of your life. He’s an insidious little prick and all he wants is to kill you. And if you listen to him long enough, he will win. Just like he did with Robin.
There is a significant stigma attached to clinical depression. So many of us hide it, and hide it well, because we have heard the old mantras a thousand times: “You’ll get over it”, “It’s just a bad day”, “Pull up your boots!”, “Put on your big girl panties!” and my all-time favorite “But you don’t seem depressed.” We do pull up our boots and tie on our big girl panties. That is how we get out of bed in the morning – though even that isn’t possible some days. We don’t ever get over it and we certainly can’t just shake it off, any more than an epileptic can ‘get over’ their seizures – it is a chemical imbalance in the brain – a purely physical issue that causes these reactions. Of course, it is hidden away, that little bastard is clever. If we could point to the wheelchair or the crutch there would be no question that we were living with something that had tremendous impact on our lives.
If there is one thing positive to come out of Robin’s suicide, I hope it is this – that people will start to recognize that laughter can be just a mask and that emotional pain, the kind that drives our friends and family to such despair that the only way out is the peace of death, is real.
O Captain! My Captain! Be at peace now. And thank you for brightening our lives with your laugh and your smile.