Tears of a Clown: Robin Williams, Suicide and Some Reflections on Sadness

It’s hard to know how to begin this time. Mostly it’s because my head is spinning, but also it’s because this isn’t my normal literary wheelhouse, so there is no store of pithy anecdotes to which I can turn in search of just the right words. It is as simple as this, I suppose: Robin Williams is dead. And not just dead, but dead apparently by his own hand. One of about 40,000 Americans who will commit suicide this year, one-fourth of them in the manner Williams did, by way of suffocation or asphyxiation.

I have often felt the sting of celebrity deaths, as have many others I suspect, for no other reason than the fact that at some remove, we tend to think we know them; they have entertained us, made us laugh, or cry (or both), and so we feel entitled to grieve their passing as if they were family. But this one is different for me. Not because it was Robin Williams, an individual who was so integral to the laugh track of my life, but because who he was and what he did to bring joy to the world, and the way in which he took himself from us hits close — far too close — to home.

I was 16 when my father, a stand-up comic and an actor (whose personality has always been eerily similar to that of Williams) attempted to take his own life: a few dozen pills and a fifth of Vodka being thought sufficient to do the trick. Seeking to end the pain, whatever pain it was, that he felt he could no longer endure. A pain that was apparently greater in that moment than whatever love he felt for his wife, my mother; or for me, his son. And for nearly 30 years I have lived with it, and by “it” I mean the gnawing sense that all of us in this club — those who have either lost someone to suicide or nearly so —  share. Is there something we could have said? Something we could have done? Even when we know, intellectually, that it wasn’t our fault, there is this deep and abiding thing that we never quite shake: namely, the sense that maybe, just maybe, things could have turned out differently if we had just said this, done that, been different, loved more, prayed harder, whatever. Our loved ones would still be alive, or would never have tried to kill themselves at all.

I thought I was over that. Seriously. I had written about my father’s suicide attempt in my memoir and spoken of it in dozens of speeches over the years, and had never really broken down, had never really found the story hard to tell. I chalked up my stoicism to personal fortitude, having healed from the pain, or perhaps just to the necessity of moving on at some point. My father, after all, is still alive, and though we have no relationship to speak of, I can at least say that since that horrible day in May, 1985, I’ve grown and thrived and managed to build a family and to love and be loved; and I can also say that my dad has started his life over, and begun a new family, and that he too has learned to love and be loved. So there’s that, and in both cases those are not minor considerations.

Yet upon hearing the news of Williams’s death it struck me: I am not over it. I will never be over it. There is no getting over it because there is no way to reconcile the person one loves or loved (who so often put on a happy and brave face for the world) with the person who would say, in effect, to hell with that and proceed to check out, or at least try to. There is no getting over that pain because that pain can never make sense, at least not to those who have never suffered the kind of smothering depression, the crushing sadness, the debilitating melancholy of those who decide, even in the face of a family (and in the case of Robin Williams a world) that loved him, that such a love as that is not enough.

Think about that. In a world of 7 billion people, most of whom will be born, live and die in relative obscurity, their names known only to themselves, their immediate family, and a statistical handful of others, one such as Robin Williams — who brought so much to so many and had earned the love of hundreds of millions — was still brought low by sadness. Fame, fortune, and a family that loved him were not enough to keep him here. Though my father never attained the same success, he too lived to make people laugh and to make them happy, and in many ways he succeeded in doing this. He was, for most of his adult life,  a working comic; someone who managed to eke out a living, however marginal, doing what he loved. Yet he was never happy, never secure in his own skin, in the presence of others, or with his own thoughts.

I apologize at this point because I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say. I just know that I have to say it, have needed to say it for nearly three decades, and cannot keep it to myself in the solitude of my hotel room, alone in Buffalo so far from my home. And what I need to say is this: We must learn to hold each other far more tightly than we’ve done up to now. I am as guilty as any, having allowed myself on too many occasions (even tonight before the news came of Williams’s death), to engage in acrimonious banter on social media, so let me be the first to take a pledge here and now…no more. There isn’t time. We aren’t promised tomorrow, and even if we aren’t personally at risk for suicide, do we really have the luxury of treating death like a far-off visitor? Really? How distant? 10 years, 20, 30, 50? No matter, in the scheme of things it’s nothing, a blip on the screen of human existence, and it’s coming, for all of us, far sooner than we’d like.

We have to be there for one another, to stop fearing sadness and mental or emotional illness. It isn’t contagious. But running from it, afraid to touch it, to struggle with it, to admit of its presence in our own lives is deadly. You can’t outrun sadness. You can’t wish away depression. Sadness is part of the human condition, as integral to our experience as joy. If one cannot feel sadness then I suspect one can never really be truly joyful, for it is only in the presence of sadness that one can come to appreciate how full and amazing life can be. Our problem is that too often we try to sever that part of the human experience, or deny it, and make it go away without really healing the underlying cause of our distress.

When we ask people how they’re doing, let’s just be honest, are we really looking for an answer? Or was it just a pleasantry? If you asked someone that question and they answered back with something more complicated than “good, you?” would you listen? If they told you, “Hey, ya know, I’m not really doing too well right now,” would you stop and find out more? Perhaps many of us would. I’d like to think I would. But the unfortunate reality is that few who were in pain would even offer up the chance because we’ve all learned to keep our pain inside, to not burden others with it. We’ve been conditioned to believe that sadness, depression, emotional distress or mental illness is a sign of our weakness, not our humanity; evidence of our unique inadequacy, rather than our universal typicality. And so we soldier on, pretending of a strength we only wish we possessed, and we let the sadness consume us. For most of us, we are able to come back from whatever depths to which we descend, but not for all of us. And the point is, and as Robin Williams so aptly demonstrates, you never can tell.

A week or so ago I was reading about someone who said he had gone an entire month (I think it was) without complaining about anything. He said he kept a positive attitude and simply refused to complain, to speak negativity into the world. And while I think it’s a great idea to strive for positivity — and surely we could all complain a lot less I suppose, especially about little things — the simple truth is, when people are hurting, a smily face grin and a pledge to look on the bright side won’t do. When we complain, when we lash out, when we hurt one another with our words, we are all seeking a place to put the pain, whatever it is and from wherever it comes. It’s what we do when we can’t sit with it any longer, can’t stuff it down. It’s what we do when we fear that keeping it bottled up is too dangerous. And so rather than pledging a state of permanent contentment — after all there is much to be discontent about in this world — let us instead pledge something different: a pledge of mutual support, of genuine listening, of compassion, for one another and ourselves.

And most of all, let us pledge to stop hiding our sadness or pain in the shadows. It is real. It is part of us. And because it is, it is beautiful and horrifying and amazing and scary. But if we ever really want to know someone, or be known by them, we have to present it as readily as we would the easier parts, the happier parts, the safer parts. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to allow others to be vulnerable with us. It’s the only way we grow, or heal. So the next time someone makes us angry, or hurts us with their words, or pushes our buttons on social media or at work, let’s all try and step back for a minute, breathe, and remember that whoever the villain might have been in that moment, they have a story, and drama, and shit going on with them about which we know nothing. And so do we. Perhaps if we could learn to admit our frailties, to acknowledge our fears, to be upfront about our own damage, others would do the same, and we could learn from one another how to get through this brief moment we’ve been given on this planet, and to get through it together.



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