As published on The Huffington Post Aug. 25, 2014
It’s been a sad, gray time here in Marin County — and the world, as the news of Robin Williams’ death sinks in. Everyone seems surprised by it. How could the man who made us laugh so hard end his own life?
Doesn’t make sense, we keep saying, but in the most twisted way, it does.
Depression is the most determined of demons, and somehow, I bet Robin Williams would have found a way to make that funny. Not ha-ha funny, but he’d let us see the cruel conundrum that many of us secretly experience or witness firsthand — and as a result, help us release our quiet shame, guilt and anguish through a burst of laughter.
No one’s laughing about Robin’s suicide, that’s for sure. We’re shocked, struck by the loss not just of his life, but also at the loss of so many lives to severe depression.
Those who have condemned his suicide as a cowardly act don’t quite understand the complexity of the illness that depression is. I’ve lost two classmates to suicide, one a talented novelist. Exactly one year ago, a dear friend’s daughter, at the age of 17, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. She had just started high school. She was loved by many for her sweet disposition and bright spirit. She wanted to be a doctor.
Turns out, a lot of people suffer from severe depression, more than most of us are willing to admit. A former childhood neighbor of Robin Williams, the beloved writer Anne Lammot, shared a bit about her own battle with depression in a recent blog.
“Here is what is true: A third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. I sure do. I have both. And you still love me. You help hold me up. I try to help hold you up. Half of the people I love most have both; and so do most of the artists who have changed and redeemed me, given me life. Most of us are still here, healing slowly and imperfectly. Some days are way too long. And I hate that, I want to say.”
How many other exceptionally creative people like Anne Lammot wage a war dance with depression from time to time? It takes a very porous disposition to absorb the world and reflect it with honesty, the way writers, actors, artists, musicians and anyone else who helps us understand the human condition and make sense of life.
It also makes sense then, when depression takes over the artist’s mind. Seems like a very natural part of the job worth mentioning. Unfortunately, we rarely do.
The fulcrum from which the most successful comedians draw their best material is often from the pain they have endured or witnessed in the world. Comedians are the purveyors of shadow and light, and they make it safe to recognize the darker, more embarrassing and downright humiliating aspects of ourselves. Robin Williams’ greatest talent was that he made it safe for the rest of us to be real — and flawed.
That’s why we love great comedians. No one wants to fight a person who can get them to laugh. Laughter is not entertainment at first. It’s a survival skill — for love.
I once took a weekend comedy writing workshop at UCLA. I was excited. I’m not funny at all but I wanted to learn how to tell a joke and infuse my writing with a bit more humor. Drama, they say, is the easiest to write. The greatest learning? Comedy is not about jokes at all. It’s about lying, scheming, reversals, surprises. I had no idea.
If the comedian is focused on shadows and has the courage to look at aspects of ourselves that most people are too afraid or embarrassed to do, doesn’t it make sense that in the worst situations, suicide appears to be a release from the pain?
Is it also possible the circuitry somehow gets overblown in artists as brilliant and electric as Robin Williams? Anyone who had the privilege of hearing him perform live, knows the energy in the room. It’s as close to sticking your finger in a socket.
Occasionally, Robin did surprise appearances at the Throckmorton, a local theater here in Mill Valley, where comedian Mark Pitta puts on a show every Tuesday night. After six comedians, Mark walked out and introduced Robin Williams one Tuesday in December 2009. I was floored to see him live and burst into applause with the rest of the audience. Robin’s holiday gift to the locals — way better than seeing Santa.
That night, he gifted us 90 minutes of laughter while he practiced some material about the disastrous Cosco Busan, a 901-foot-long cargo ship, that hit the Bay Bridge and spilled 53,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into the bay a few weeks prior. Not that destroying 69 miles of shoreline or killing thousands of birds was funny. Robin went another direction. He poked fun of the captain of the ship. We died laughing.
Then he went on to other things, like an acrobat on stage, his mind blazing, his blue eyes gleaming with that gentle smile that put everyone who knew him at ease. He was a generous man with a big heart. He was a neighbor, a normal guy we saw at the store, a fellow cyclist and parent. He was happy. Sad. Excited. Depressed. Just like all of us. Yet unlike anyone else, he was a masterful magician of shadows — playing with his own and ours like puppets and making us laugh at our foibles and flaws.
We died laughing in his presence. He helped old energies — the dark junk, to die in us every time he made us laugh. He cleared us out for some new delight. More than a comedian and talented actor, Robin Williams was almost mystical in his understanding of the energy of laughter. He understood its divinity — its power to connect, to release, to renew. The tragedy here is ironic in a way that Robin Williams probably (and privately) acknowledged, even without any other perceived options to end his own pain. He was our healer who could not find a way to heal himself.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.