Laughter in the Darkness
Robin Williams died on August 11, 2014 from suicide.
He was dealing with Lewy body dementia that progresses quickly and is marked by depression, anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations. His death brought light to a difficult subject, and the discussions I heard afterward spoke of the mental illness aspect of suicide. They took the blame off those who kill themselves, and removed the guilt from family and friends who felt there was something more they could have done the night before that would have saved them.
The phrase we often hear is “he committed suicide.” This has the tone of saying “he committed murder,” that he took a life. I prefer what one of my friends said — “lost to suicide.” This speaks of dealing with something like cancer, and needing the help of others to cope with it. The stigma of mental illness, the shame, is that we won’t talk about it. Too often we blame.
Much is lost with suicide and dementia. Williams was lost in the swirling of thoughts and images he couldn’t control. His family lost him to death, and has felt lost without him in their lives. Those of us who knew him only in his movies and on TV, feel lost without his humor and sharp insights into humanity’s odd and sometimes destructive behaviors. When our own pain became too crusty with doubts, too heavy with the expectations of others, he helped us step back, take a deep breath, and laugh.
Behind the laughter of many of the comedians we love, there are tears. For some, their brilliance in being able to make us laugh is rooted in anguish or unhappy childhoods. Making people laugh is a way of controlling their anxiety and fears, yet they often struggle with depression because of the constant pressure to find the next great joke.
Comedians work by themselves late at night exploring the cracks in society where its grand promises do not meet stark reality. To create something new, they have to reach into the darkness and bring back a cup of light. Sometimes they look in for too long. Maybe on that fateful night, while staring over the dark ocean in front of him, unable to see the lights of love behind him, and unable to calm the voices, caused by deteriorating brain, Williams simply thought, “enough is enough,” and the emptiness slipped in like the tide.
Other comedians have been lost to suicide, like Charles Rocket and Drake Sather, who both worked on Saturday Night Live, Freddy Prinze Sr., Richard Jeni, and Ray Combs. Some have attempted suicide and failed, like the British comedian Stephen Fry. Others have died trying to combat depression with alcohol and drugs and drifted without an anchor, like Richard Pryor, John Belushi, Chris Farley, and Peter Sellers.
Artists whose work exposed and documented the hard edges of society where people have been battered by sexual abuse, poverty, war, or chronic disabilities, have also lost themselves — Diane Arbus, photographer; Iris Chang, journalist; Simone Battle and Kurt Cobain, musicians; Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace, writers; Sylvia Plath, Alejandra Pizarnik, Anne Sexton, and Marina Tsvetaeva, poets; Sarah Kane, playwright; Jean Seberg and Spalding Gray, actors; and Vincent van Gogh, painter. The list is sobering.
It doesn’t matter whether the cause of despair is psychological, physical, spiritual, social, or a combination that extinguishes the hope of life getting better. What matters is that people listen when you say you’re troubled. We may not find a long-term solution, but we can help you get through today.
Like many others, I admired the improv zaniness of Williams, his childlike delight in exploring the world, his challenge to us to take care of each other, and his ability to cut through the illusions that politicians use to hide the truth of reality. I don’t know how many of the personalities he pulled into his comedy in the blink of an eye were the voices he battled in his head, voices that sometimes could not be quieted.
One of the characters Williams played that I value the most is Sean Maguire, the psychology professor and therapist in Good Will Hunting. In the movie he speaks of missing his wife who died of cancer two years before. His character says that he would not trade any of the days he had with her, not the funny and good times, or the days sitting with her as she lay dying, holding her hand. He understands. No matter how wrenching it is, or what it costs us, we do not want to let go of those we love, because being without them is worse.
Keep Robin’s family in your thoughts and prayers as they observe the anniversary of his death. Keep in mind, too, everyone who struggles with demons. Do not condemn them. Listen.
May all who live on the edge treat themselves with kindness today.
An earlier version of this was published in the Huffington Post.