Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: So much pain brought so much joy

Sometimes, when celebrities die, we mourn them as if we actually knew them. But we didn't. When someone tells me that their grandfather just died, I'm sad for the person dealing with the loss, but I won't be in tears over the actual death because I didn't know him. (If the person I love is in tears, then I might end up crying, but it won't be for the loss of the grandfather as much as the pain his loss has left my friend in.)

Why do we react differently for celebrity deaths, then, when we didn't know that person at all? Because the way they made us feel through their art made us believe that we knew them in some way. That line from a song they wrote spoke directly to me. That character they played was someone I identified with. They make us feel deeply, whether it be through their music or acting or writing or art, and their death means we won't experience that again.

I cried when Kurt Cobain died. Not devastating sobs like I did when I lost my uncle, but I still cried and was deeply affected by it. The morning I grabbed the Globe and Mail newspaper and opened it to the giant headline that Timothy Findley (a Canadian writer whose work I adored) had died, I threw the paper like it was on fire, and I cried. Elliott Smith's death was a complete shock, as was Philip Seymour Hoffmann's, and both of them affected me deeply.

But Robin Williams is different.

Unlike all of those people I just mentioned, he made me laugh. And cry. And laugh again. And then laugh until my sides hurt so much I needed him to stop, but he was relentless. He had those warm eyes that would nearly close when he smiled a big smile, that lipless smile that always turned into a smirk, that nose that made me think he looked a lot like Bono, and I'm not sure I've ever heard him complete a sentence without switching to another accent.

And then that clown who was so manic and beloved on Mork and Mindy suddenly showed that clowns are the ones who can also reach the deepest levels of pathos. It's why the image of the sad clown has become iconic in our society. In Good Morning Vietnam we laughed and laughed at the antics of the DJ, and then cried when we saw the war through his eyes.

Good Will Hunting. 
Good Morning, Vietnam. 
Mrs. Doubtfire. 
Night at the Museum.
The Birdcage. 
Dead Poets Society. 
The Fisher King.
Jakob the Liar. 
One Hour Photo.
Happy Feet. 

These are the movies I can think of off the top of my head. And what a cv that is (it's probably a quarter of his output, but even the first four would have been a stellar career). Most people will probably forget Jakob the Liar, and it's certainly not among his best, but I saw it at a gala at the Toronto Film Festival and he was there, manic and crazy and hilarious on stage. We all went away thinking the movie was better than it was, simply because we were In His Presence.

But in almost every one of these films (One Hour Photo and The Birdcage possibly being the only exceptions), he played a similar character: someone in deep pain bringing so much joy to others. The trapped genie of Aladdin sees no end to his imprisonment, but it doesn't stop him from being the most joyful and exuberant genie you could imagine. In Mrs Doubtfire, a father who would do anything for his kids dons a ridiculous get-up and makes all of us (including his kids) laugh, simply because he can't imagine his life without them. In Night at the Museum, he plays the Teddy Roosevelt statue, who's the only one in the museum who actually knows he's made of wax and isn't the real man, but it doesn't stop him from teaching Larry his way around the museum and how to find love; he'll simply love the Sacajawea statue from afar, because he knows he's not really Roosevelt.

The list goes on and on. I don't think a celebrity death has upset me more than this one, because I grew up with Robin Williams. He was Mork. I loved Mork as a kid. As a teenager and into my 20s I discovered a new side of him in the movies listed above. And in the next decade, when I had children, I rediscovered him through my kids' love of Happy Feet and Night at the Museum and Aladdin. When I saw the news last night on my computer and gasped loudly, my daughter looked at the screen and said, "That's Teddy Roosevelt! Has something happened to him?!"

I once saw him live, and my sides hurt from laughter for days afterwards. I couldn't breathe during several points of the show.

But anyone who was a fan of Williams knew about the mania. That he couldn't be contained, and when he at the height of his drug use, his shows are barely watchable. I heard with some trepidation that he was coming to television and thought, "Oh god, this will be out of control." And then I watched the premiere of The Crazy Ones, and thought it was great. I continued watching that show all season long and he never failed to make me laugh right out loud at least once in every episode. Even Modern Family, a show I love, simply makes me chuckle throughout. But Williams was different. And what was so great is that his mania wasn't out of control; they really seemed to have figured out the perfect balance for him.

But behind the scenes, clearly it was a different story. I'm already seeing outpourings of people on social media talking about their own battles with depression, seeing as Williams' death appears to have been a suicide brought on by severe depression. Depression is everywhere in my family — in the direct family blood line, and also in the family that married in. I've lost two uncles to suicide, and my own grandfather. There is no death that isn't painful and horrible for the people left behind, but a death by suicide leaves different scars. How do you escape the "couldn't you have done something?!" thoughts from the people who simply don't understand how complicated a disease this is?

It's everywhere around me, and I even have stretches where I feel like I can't deal with things. But  the biggest problem with mental illness is, we don't understand it. I can feel like I'm sinking in black tar and it's closing above my head, and the people around me tell me to pull myself up for god's sakes and stop being so dramatic. I've watched family members battle their way through manic depression and bipolar disorder, and others around them who've known them for years think they're being ridiculous and need to stop "acting" like there's something wrong with them.

I don't talk about this on here because I think it's her thing to deal with, not mine, but my own daughter was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when she was 7. In the past three years I've read everything I can get my hands on (because I've battled it myself my entire life, without any treatment because it was just a phase I was going through as a kid, it was thought). I've taken her to therapy, I've held her during the worst attacks... and I've watched people around her who should be protecting her make her worse by either rolling their eyes at her issues or yelling at her to grow up and stop being so silly. Everyone understands that it's not her fault, but it's hard not to get frustrated when she accidentally spills some milk and leaps up from the table and runs as fast as her legs can take her to hide somewhere. She's been bullied at school for the past three years because she's an easy and vulnerable target for the kids who don't understand or care what she's going through, and no amount of discussions with teachers or principals seems to change that.

I can't be there to protect her every moment of the day, so instead I'm teaching her how to understand her own brain, how to know when it's tricking her, and how to work her way out of these moments. We have lapses, but then we make major headway when she's clear again, and the next episode isn't so bad. I think she can learn to live with this and control it, but that's only because she was lucky enough to have parents willing to understand, diagnose, and treat it. Most other kids are labelled as sucks or troublemakers or going through a phase and never get the treatment they deserve. And perhaps some of those kids end up being bullied so badly that they find their way out of that terrible situation by making others laugh, and becoming the class clown. And then they grow up to be comedians, hiding their true darkness underneath a plastic exterior. They will be our clowns and make us laugh, but until we can understand the sadness that's happening underneath, this problem won't go away.

If you are suffering from depression, you can't do it alone. Talk to someone, find some help, and know that it's a very, very long road to recovery, but mental illness doesn't just affect you, it affects everyone around you and their lives. Not everyone understands my daughter, but everyone who loves her wants to help her. We might not always do it in the right way, but we try our best, and she knows that.

People loved Robin Williams; he was surrounded by love, endless amounts of money that he could have used for treatment, but he just couldn't find his way there. He no doubt tried to seek help, or thought things would get better, and figured if he could just make someone laugh one more time the pain would go away. But the demons are just that: demons. And they're not going to let up.

What makes me so sad about the death of this great man is that everyone knew he suffered from depression, and he was open about it, and he couldn't find help. What makes me sad is that he made us laugh, but couldn't bring joy to himself. I hate that feeling, that I benefitted somehow from his deep depression. I loved his work so much. I feel like I loved him, too. But I only loved the image that he wanted me to see; he didn't let us in to that other world, the one that eventually killed him.

When someone dies of a suicide, it's all we can think of. For the moment, we forget about the life he lived before, and only focus on the way he died. How could he do that to his family and friends? How could he leave that legacy? But he didn't do that; the dark side of him did. He probably wasn't himself in those final moments. Over time you begin to celebrate the life that came before that death, and I hope Robin Williams and everyone else who dies by their own hand is remembered for the beautiful people they were before such a dreadful and ugly disease took them away from us.

Rest in peace, Mr. Williams. I truly mean that.


Cynthea said...

Exquisitely expressed, Nikki. Thank you for this moving and personal tribute.

Jazzygirl said...

Thanks, Nikki. Beautifully written and so right.

JenniferS said...

Nicely said. I feel the same way.

Dan Brown said...

The most intelligent thing I've read about his passing. I'm sorry your daughter suffers like that.

Forest City Fashionista said...

This truly is the most beautiful tribute to Mr. Williams. I've always found your writing to be thoughtful and engaging, and this is you at your best.

I cried for the loss of Timothy Findley, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and now Robin Williams. I have coped with episodes of depression since I was a teenager, and also volunteered on a suicide hotline, so the death of someone by their own hand breaks my heart because I can imagine what was going through their mind, and so often, it's not about wanting to die, but just wanting the pain to stop. I am so, so very sorry that Mr. Williams could not see any other way to end his pain.

Page48 said...

Why do we often cry over the death of celebrities we've never met?

I think that how death is presented is no small factor in determining whether I react with tears or quiet resignation.

My father's death didn't light up the Twitterverse with emotional tributes. Doctors didn't hold a press conference. There were no aerial shots of the hospital that he died in. Charlie Rose didn't offer an appreciation after rolling tape of my dad in the prime of his life. And I didn't cry when he died.

When my best friend succumbed to cancer, there was no video montage on the news, radio didn't play his songs for days on end, there were no red carpet interviews with shocked celebrities. And I didn't cry when he died, either.

Celebrities get the kind of full court emotional press from various forms of media that people I know in real life never get. I think that plays a large part in why I can cry over the sudden loss of a Princess Diana or a John Lennon, but stoically suck it up when my own loved ones leave this world. It's not about who had the greater impact on my life, but more about who had the army of professionals and the dedicated fans working around the clock to make sure that my emotional buttons got pushed from every conceivable angle.

Colleen/redeem147 said...

My husband told me Robin Williams was dead. I started crying. It had nothing to do with the press.

Blam said...

We don't know performers like Robin Williams the way their family and intimate friends do — but we do know them in a way, through how they reveal themselves (and the greater human condition, and therefore ourselves) in script or song or even, maybe especially, stand-up comedy.

I've been surrounded by depression and bipolar disorder my whole life to varying degrees. Thanksgiving of this year will mark the 15th anniversary of a dear friend who took her own life because of it; for several years I was in periodic terror that I'd lose an even dearer one. Given how overwhelming it looks from the outside — and I'm not unfamiliar with chronic afflictions myself of different sorts — it's easy to see how one could be absolutely swallowed up.

As shattering as the news of Williams' passing was, I appreciate the conversations that have sprung up around it.

Blam said...

PS: I've totally noticed the resemblance between him and Bono.

sinoda said...

Years ago during my last bout of suicidal depression, I would set little tasks for myself. One was memorizing these 5 sentences and being able to recite them and understand them. The argument (to me) ends on the side of LIVE. (Because we cannot know if we would bring our torment with us.)

I still recite it often in my head, dramatically, comedically, and when I knew of the movie whose title came from it, I decided NOT to see the movie. People tell me it is beautiful with stunning artworks throughout.

To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.
To die, to sleep, no more, and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.
Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!
To die, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to dream, aye, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off our mortal coil must give us pause.