[caption id="attachment_1204" align="alignleft" width="405"] Courtesy of chicagoreader.com[/caption]
It is hard to be shocked by news these days.
Between the 24/7 availability of news and the headline hunters that constantly chase, and sometimes even create, new stories it is hard to get to amped up when you see a “Breaking News” banner scroll across the screen. Yesterday was different. When news of Robin Williams death scrolled across the television I was not only shocked, I was numbed.
I am not a celebrity follower. I don’t care who is dating who or where they eat or what they are wearing or whether or not they actually know how to spell “tweet” much less how often they do it. But there aren’t many celebrities like Robin Williams. There aren’t many people who have reached across generations and genres and mediums like he did. I saw him in concert once and I have never been more mentally exhausted than leaving his show. He was truly an inspired artist. But that isn’t what made him special to me.
As a kid, I remember “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley” and then “Mork and Mindy”. This truly was “Must See TV”. When Jonathan Winters joined the cast of “Mork and Mindy” it was like the whole world held their breath to see what these two could come up with next. The quickness of wit and the willingness to be the butt of every joke and the fodder for every laugh coupled with the lightning fast stream of conscious delivery was something to behold. But again, this wasn’t what made him special to me.
Watching movies like “Mrs. Doubtfire” and” Good Morning Vietnam” and “Aladdin” and “Good Will Hunting” proved a depth of ability that few of us could have imagined. Whether playing the role of a disturbed and lost man in “The Fisher King” or President Eisenhower in “The Butler” he could make us laugh, cry, cheer for, and even emote with his characters. He was as gifted on the screen as he was on the stage. But this isn’t what made him special to me.
My brother died two years ago after losing his fight with AIDS related illnesses. My brother had spent many years battling addictions and demons that seemed very foreign to me. I watched my brother self-destruct and, despite all of my training and education, there was little I could do. The lure of a lifestyle that seemed hopeless to me was unavoidable and unrelenting to him.
Several years ago I saw an interview with Robin Williams where he candidly spoke of his addictions and his demons. He candidly spoke of the dark desires within him and the never-ending fight for peace and solace that never came. This man that made me laugh to tears brought me to tears as he poured out his soul and took a huge chance by telling the world that he lived daily with an internal fight and that he wasn’t winning as often as he should. He told of the darkness of desire and the twisting of perspective that occurs when your brain and your soul are in conflict. He told of how substances were a crutch that allowed him to mask his demons, yet all the while he knew these substances were causing them to grow.
I remember watching this interview and getting a glimpse into the tormented mind of a comedic genius who thrived on laughter yet was exhausted by his own mind and abilities. Listening to him and seeing how raw his words were convicted me to reach out to my brother. His words helped me make a little more sense of darkness and temptation, failure and tempered success. His emotions and pain helped to personalize struggle and make it seem more real. His willingness to share his sorrows and own his demons made it easier for me to understand what a crippling force emotions and affective instability can be.
Depression is an overused word and has become somewhat clichéd, because when someone doesn’t feel good they call it depression. When someone isn’t happy, they say they are depressed. In actuality, depression is an illness that can debilitate. It can cast a pall over life and dim the brightest amongst us. We all understand physical pain because we have experienced it, but emotional and affective pain is foreign to most of us. How can you hurt so badly mentally that you would take your own life? How can your outlook be so dim that you cannot see or feel or believe in hope? How can depression snuff out one of the brightest stars?
Robin Williams was special to me because his words, those words heard by a sophomore in college in 1989, pricked my heart. His words caused me to rethink my black and white views of the world and question whether or not I understood the subtlety of life and the frailty of the human psyche. His words helped me reframe the way I thought about my brother and my willingness to try and understand what he was going through. He wasn’t my mentor nor someone I aspired to follow. He was someone who had a very bright light on a very big stage with a lot of success and untold recognitions, and he was willing to let the world see that he also hurt and that he often lost his fight with his inner demons. If it could happen to him, it was real for everyone else as well.
It truly saddened me yesterday when I saw that Robin Williams took his own life. I can honestly say that I was shocked and taken aback. It was a very harsh reminder of our temporal and frail nature. It was a reminder of how our battles here are never over until the finality of life comes. It was also a reminder of the need to be alert and cognizant of those around us who hurt more and those who seem to struggle more with the grind of life.
I have been blessed to have a tempered affect and a sense of emotional perspective that has kept me from living too high or too low. But many cannot say the same, and we have to be aware of them: where they are, whether or not they are winning their battles and how we can help. We need to be able to honestly and earnestly say, “Are you ok?”
A star has fallen. How truly sad.