Robin Williams, I hardly knew you

Robin Williams

During the last day or so many people have related personal stories about how Robin Williams touched their lives. Whether their anecdote comes from a movie, performance, interview or personal encounter, people have voiced their disbelief that such a carefree and mirthful human being could commit suicide. He rarely let his demons be known and, when he did, he made a joke about it or moved on quickly to less serious subjects.

But, for those of us in the mental health and substance abuse fields, those demons are very real and omnipresent. We see them in ourselves and in others. We never really know when the deep dark thoughts will take hold and the path to obliteration will set in. There are warning signs, of course, but the false alarms are many. At a certain point we become a little numb and a little less observant. We let our guard down. Complete and utter despair makes its entrance. There appears to be no way out. Self-annihilation appears in the guise of sweet relief. You know the rest.

I traveled in the same circles as Robin Williams did before he was famous in the mid 1970’s when he was performing in places like the Holy City Zoo and The Palms in San Francisco. I never knew him personally; he was among the many people I encountered in passing during the height of the disco era. He went on to become a celebrity and I took a circuitous path to academia. I heard about him from time to time in the media and in movies and on TV. I developed more interest in him as a person when he began to talk about his recovery from substance use. Our worlds began to look a little alike. I was in recovery myself and working with people with substance use and mental health problems. He was a well-known person who gave others hope when he talked about his struggle, even if fleetingly. When I would go on a run in San Francisco we sometimes nodded as we passed each other at Crissy Field. He was one of us. We were all doing what we had to do to contribute in whatever way we could to make up for our past sins.

Robin Williams death by suicide has taught me two things that I learn over and over again every time a thing like this happens. The first is that, no matter how many times you relapse, if you use this as a learning process, you can get clean and sober again. There is no “model” recovery and relapse is the rule rather than the exception. For anyone to hold themselves to an arbitrary standard can lead to a sense of inadequacy which can fuel the spiral downward into depression.

Secondly, always make sure there are at least two people (two in case one person is unavailable for some reason or another) that you can be absolutely truthful with and who you know will not judge you. Find these people through trial and error and, when you do, cultivate these relationships like there’s no tomorrow. These people will be invaluable to you when you are too ashamed to admit to others that you have descended into your own personal hell.

Unfortunately, Robin Williams’ celebrity didn’t protect him from the extreme emotional states that depression and substance abuse can bring on. He was well-loved and respected yet, it seems, this did not ensure his sense of well-being. It is a testament to his talent and generosity of spirit that his suicide affects many of us so deeply. On some level we feel that if only he could truly know how we felt about him he might now still be with us…

4 thoughts on “Robin Williams, I hardly knew you

  1. Awesome sentiment Kathleen! I was shocked with the news of Robin Williams’ passing. So sad however I wonder if this will start the awareness of how REAL depression truly is. Not for people to say, “You’re rich, you have a family, you shouldn’t have a care in the world!” Depression is not THAT. To me, I feel depression is the ultimate disconnection from God. The demons come to you try to claim you and you literally feel death is a sweet relief. No thing is better than death. This is depression. Many people have an idea of what depression is and they say go to the doctor you’ll be better. It’s very hard. Some people have no clue. I pray that there will be more awareness therefore friends and family will know what to do for their loved ones.

    1. Thanks, Lillian. Unfortunately, you are right, most people have no idea how far you can descend and how hard it is to even get a glimmer of hope to come back out of the hole you are in when you are depressed. Many of us are susceptible; major depression is the most common type of mental illness. Money and success don’t make you immune to it.

  2. I loved Robin Williams…………his films were all happy…….depression is a silent killer, we never know what goes inside another person’s mind…will seem happy on the outside, but so much of din going on in the inside……people don’t have much time to spare for others, every suicide is a result of society’s apathy rather than the victim’s cowardice………..feel sad…….to make matters worse, substance abuse too….

    1. Yes, Gay Bodhi, we don’t always know how people are suffering; that’s why it would be good for us to be kind and understanding toward others as often as possible. I remember hearing a story about a man who was contemplating suicide and went for one last walk along the water in San Francisco. While walking with his head down he looked up and a woman walking in the opposite direction looked directly at him and smiled widely. The man said that this gesture gave him the hope he needed to face himself and his situation and carry on…

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