On Robin Williams and Mental Illness

12 Aug

I am no stranger to celebrity deaths. I carry vivid memories of my grandmother weeping when Princess Diana left us too soon. I remember down to the detail where I was and what I was doing when I heard about Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. The shock of Heath Ledger, Cory Monteith, and Paul Walker, all taken unexpectedly in the prime of their lives, is still with me. It goes without saying that at the time of these deaths I felt sad. Death is not the kind of news that makes one feel joy. Still, though, I felt removed. The way you would feel if a coworker told you their husband’s mother died. Sad stuff, but not really impacting my daily life. I watched the people wailing on TV about how their lives were never going to be the same and I couldn’t help but think, “Why are you crying? You did not know that person. You knew their work as an artist, but you did not know them.”

Last night when I heard the news about Robin Williams, I felt as though it was a personal loss. I found myself tearing up, unable to watch the endless montages of his films playing on every station ever. Given my standard reaction to celebrities passing, this took me by surprise. I did not know Robin Williams. I knew his work as an artist, and I loved his work as an artist, but I did not know him. I spent a considerable amount of time yesterday trying to figure out why his death has touched me more than the deaths of so many others.

Perhaps it was because I appreciated his work more on a deeper level than those other celebrities. Any actor who voiced a character in a Disney classic is automatically on my List of Favorite People. I watched Aladdin so many times the VHS needed to be replaced. As a kid I chewed on a chunk of soap for quoting Mrs. Doubtfire. (“P-P-P-Piss off, Lou.” It was totally worth it.) Times spent watching his Live on Broadway DVD constitute both some of the best (bachelorette party!) and worst (That Night We Don’t Talk About EVER) memories that I have. Yes, the jokes are no longer timely, but I couldn’t care less. Martha Stewart prison jokes will always be funny. There was not a movie Robin Williams was in that I didn’t like. Furthermore, I do not remember a time when there were movies without him. I grew up watching him. Will I miss his talent? You betcha. But I still don’t think this accounts for 100% of why I feel his death so acutely.

After much soul-searching last night, I think the reason Robin’s death (yeah, we’re on a first name basis now) hurts so much is because of why he died. Accidents are always tragic, but it seems pretty clear that his death was no accident. In case you somehow are reading my blog before any piece of news on this matter, Robin Williams was a long time sufferer of depression, and it is believed that he committed suicide. This hits close to home.

There is a history of mental illness in my family. Who has it and what specifically they are suffering from are not relevant to this pontification. Suffice it to say that I have on several occasions had to talk someone off of the suicidal ledge. I have had to defend that person’s self-worth, explain their importance in my life, beg, cry, and plead for them to stick around just one more day. I’ve also had to call the police when my words alone wouldn’t cut it. I thank God every day that the people I’ve had these conversations with are still alive. Are they “cured”? Hell no.

I have seen firsthand the struggle it is to simply cope when you are diagnosed with a mental illness. If you have diabetes, insurance will cover your doctor visits and medication. When you tell someone you have diabetes, they do not look at you like you are less of a human being. If you have an attack due to low blood sugar, people offer you orange juice, help, and empathy. You are not to blame for your symptoms. It’s not your fault, it’s your disease.

If you have a mental illness, insurance will only cover so many therapy visits and only some forms of medication. When you tell someone that you have a mental illness, they look at you like you are somehow dangerous or unworthy of standard human kindness. If you have a mood swing, a flashback, or a panic attack, people turn away and expect you to get it “under control.” You are to blame for your symptoms. It’s your fault, not your disease.

There are people in my life who are fighting these struggles on a daily basis. Every waking second takes effort to behave in a way expected by society. There’s no such thing as feeling “normal.” I can absolutely understand how enduring these circumstances could seem unbearable, and where Death could seem like the better option when faced with a lifetime of pain and scorn. Obviously suicide is not the answer, but I can see how someone struggling could find themselves in such a desperate place.

As I said before, I did not know Robin Williams. I cannot say with certainty that the struggles I’ve observed in my family were also his struggles. I do not pretend for even a split second to know the specific brand of pain he grappled with. I only know that he suffered from depression and that now he is gone. I can only hope that his death sheds more light into the darkness that is mental illness. Rest in peace, Robin. You were loved, and you will be missed. And if you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, please know that you are not alone.

*Disclaimer: The above blog details some of my personal experiences with and opinions about mental illness. It is not intended to speak on behalf of all people with mental illness or all people who know someone with mental illness.  





One Response to “On Robin Williams and Mental Illness”

  1. jenerational August 12, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    Reblogged this on It's a Generational Thing.

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