It’s been a long while since I have posted here, blogging taking a back seat to some bigger and less visible writing projects. With these now mostly under control, I have been getting ready for a reboot, though I hadn’t yet decided when exactly to do so. This morning’s news of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide seems to have been the unexpected incitement that said ‘now is as good a time as any’. If you have something to say, say it now. As his Mr Keating would have exhorted me, carpe diem.
I hadn’t given a thought to Robin Williams in many years. The saccharine dross of his family-friendly output – Toys, Jumanji, Jack, Flubber, Hook – distanced me far from the Robin Williams I was a fan of in my youth. But before then, he made me laugh. A lot. I watched Mork and Mindy as often as it was on, and I loved the mania of his stand-up. However, in his films, I was drawn to the ones that displayed his subtler, more human humour – Moscow on the Hudson and The World According to Garp being among my favourites when I was in my teens.
I knew he had his problems, but I didn’t take them seriously because I saw him make light of them and I laughed at them. I videotaped his Live at the Met show, where the booze and drugs became material for his routine. I watched that show over and over, and can still to this day recite verbatim his musings on God’s stoned creation of a platypus just to fuck with Darwin.
He could do pathos as well as goofiness and he could blend them effortlessly, with breathtaking, often heartbreaking humanity that I can’t but think came from his own persona and his own demons. His sometimes corny English lessons and life lessons as John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society still stick nostalgically with me. In Good Morning, Vietnam, his Adrian Cronauer is finally forced to face the off-air horror of the reality he could mock and make light of on-the-air. In the park scene in Good Will Hunting, he delivers his treatise on the importance of experience with a devastating credibility all his own – though in reality he delivering it to the man who actually wrote those lines. Even though these are characters and not Robin Williams himself, he brings to each of those roles not just an exuberance for life but a deep fallibility that in retrospect seem to have come from the dark depths of who he was himself.
Cold grey bubble
Depression is a heavy burden, and a burden that many feel they have to pretend they’re not carrying. Even the title of Stephen Fry’s wonderful and challenging documentary, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, speaks to that fact. And just through the people he speaks to in that film, it is striking to see how many comedians are affected by depression, as though humour were the mask through which they could continue to engage with the world.
I have written here before about how that shame of having mental health issues, and hiding the reality (even if being humorously open about it), exacerbates the depression and the isolation that both causes and perpetuates it. I can’t presume to know what was going through the mind or feelings of Robin Williams, or of anyone else, depressed or suicidal, famous or not. But I think it’s likely that isolation was at the heart of it. I imagine his drug and alcohol use arising from a need to numb or overcome that isolation, at the same time as the addiction to them fueling it all the more.
Depression makes you feel helplessly isolated from the world around you, even from the people who love you. That doesn’t mean you don’t love that world or those people any less – you may even feel that love for them all the more keenly – but you feel severed from them. Isolated. Alone, even among people. The only way out of that vicious circle of isolation is connection, and connection takes other people – something I’ve also written about here. What someone who is isolated, depressed or suicidal needs more than anything is to be reached out to, but gently and with understanding.
Someone once described their own near-suicidal depression to me as being inside a cold grey bubble where nothing could reach them. When you are in such a bubble, the last thing you need is to be told snap out of it, to be reminded of all the wonderful things you should feel good about, to be told to burst that bubble yourself. You already don’t believe you are strong enough. From the inside, that bubble is a shell – like Mork’s egg, and it’s not so easy to “fly, be free” from inside an egg. But, if you’ve ever tried it as a kid, you’ll know that a gentle hand can reach inside a bubble. And that’s what someone in that isolated shell of depression needs most – a gentle hand to reach through the bubble and just make contact.
Again, I can’t do anything but speculate about Robin Williams last hours, days, months or years. I just don’t know. When I heard the news this morning, my first thought for him was “fly, be free”, though I wish he hadn’t felt the need to fly in order to be free. Earlier today, when I was looking for that clip from Mork and Mindy, I came across a different one – one that I remembered instantly and that was even more poignant and apt. It’s one I wish someone he loved had shown him yesterday. It probably wouldn’t, but maybe it could have helped. It’s a scene that reaches through the bubble.
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