I got very angry yesterday, after hearing the news of Robin Williams’ death, but I wasn’t angry with him. I was angry with two other people.
The first person I was angry with was an acquaintance who berated Williams for his suicide, calling him selfish and weak. Thankfully, many came to Williams’ defense, chastising this person for both his insensitivity and his ignorance.
The other person I was angry with was myself, because there was a time when I would have said something similar.
Many years ago, I, too, viewed suicide as an act of weakness, the ultimate act of selfishness. I held this view before I’d had any direct experience with mental illness or depression. Growing up in my family, physical illness was seen as a sign of weakness, so you can imagine how mental illness was viewed.
My feelings on the subject now are very different. I’ve seen first-hand how debilitating and destructive mental infirmity can be, whether it be from addiction, depression, or schizophrenia. I’ve seen how bipolar disorders can disrupt a family. I’ve seen how PTSD and mental trauma can scar a person, affecting every relationship they may ever have. Mental illness is an illness, and a multifarious one at that.
I do not blame Robin Williams for taking his exit the way he did. I know–I know–that his choice was not taken lightly or without long deliberation and struggle. Today I view suicide much as I view a terminal cancer patient moving into hospice care. It is, for many, the best choice among nothing but bad options. While we may look at Williams’ life and say, “What’s he got to be depressed about?” and while we may not agree with or make sense of his choice, I believe that he believed it to be his best option. We may feel that his reasoning was faulty or impaired, and judge that he made the wrong choice when we view it from our quiet, stable armchairs, but we are not Williams, we cannot know his experience, his troubles, his fear, his pain.
While most people know Robin Williams for his comedy–his blitzkrieg stand-up, his iconic Mork, his laugh-till-you-cry characterizations–I will remember him for the incredible dramatic performances he gave us, like the tortured, delusional Parry in The Fisher King and the grief-stricken Chris in What Dreams May Come, for it is in these roles that I see his great depth as an actor and his intimate relationship with mental anguish. I will miss his scream-of-consciousness riffs and his blistering satire, to be sure, but I will miss more the times he allowed us a peek behind his facade, a glimpse of the vast mind and fragile humanity that we knew as Robin Williams.
At the risk of angering grammarians, allow me to paraphrase George Orwell:
All people are unique, but some people are more unique than others.
Robin Williams was, indeed, unique, and we celebrate his singular life as we mourn his passing.