Robin Williams’ Death and the Reality of Depression


Comedians often mask a deep depression inside – the “crying on the inside” clown isn’t an archetype for nothing. Does it then follow that a man who was once almost universally regarded as the funniest man in America was also the most unhappy? So many of his films that weren’t pure comedy – think Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire and What Dreams May Come – were such blatant tearjerkers that it did seem at times that Robin Williams was just as drawn to sadness as humor. Even his “crying face” involved a weird little grin.

I used to love Williams, and I used to hate him. No need to sugarcoat it just because he’s gone – in fact, I think it underscores the duality that was probably at work within him. The manic, joke-a-second delivery that made him so funny as a young man sometimes came across as desperate when he was in middle-age, but he recovered his appeal to me when he started playing more characters who were that desperate, like the lonely nutjob in One Hour Photo, or the killer in Insomnia. His genie in Aladdin is still, to this day, the inspiration behind every annoying Dreamworks cartoon character that makes pop-culture references, but at the time it was an anarchic blast of energy signaling that Disney cartoons weren’t all going to be completely formulaic fairy tales any more.

If, as preliminary reports suggest, he took his own life…well, if that doesn’t tell you how serious depression can get, nothing will. You always wonder how people with billions of fans and seemingly solid families can feel there’s nothing to live for, and in the case of rock stars like Kurt Cobain, we write it off as a drug-addict thing. Williams almost certainly enjoyed cocaine back in his early career, but those days appeared long gone. Regardless, drugs are usually an attempt at self-medication rather than the root cause.

I used to blog about my own loneliness and depression, and generally was met with little sympathy, the Internet being what it is. The American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” work ethic is not a bad one, but it often mistakes serious mental illness for whining. And certainly Williams didn’t need further pulling up, as one of the biggest stars in the world, not to mention one of the most generous, as co-founder of the U.S. Comic Relief.

I like to think that at their best, sites like this one give voice to people who might not find a sympathetic one elsewhere. I can’t help celebrities who appear to have everything and feel they have nothing, but we can help each other – getting my wife to go to counseling for depression was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, but it was absolutely worth it. Thanks to a really screwed-up mental health system, psychiatrists charge through the roof and tend to suspect that any potential new patient is just looking for drug prescriptions. It’s easier to get a lethal weapon than it is to get the help you need, so it’s up to us to find ways to help ourselves…which is extra-daunting if you’re too depressed to even leave the house, as I once was before I went on meds in college.

Please, if you ever feel that alone…reach out. Let’s all keep each other around. If you feel the loss of Robin Williams, imagine how his family feels, and vow to never deliberately inflict that much pain.

And in the meantime, by all means share your best Robin Williams memories below.