Like most people, when I heard that Robin Williams died on Monday, my emotions ran the gamut from confused to heartbroken. Williams was a comedy icon – without him, the genre wouldn’t be what it is today. Everything from goofball slapstick in Workaholics to Will Ferrell and Adam McKay films find their roots in Williams’ high energy, 1,000-jokes-per-minute style.
But this isn’t a retrospective on his career. With the outpouring of sadness from across the world, it isn’t hard to find thousands of life-affirming laughs about run-by fruitings and goose bump-inducing readings of Walt Whitman.
Unfortunately this is going to be a more difficult endeavor.
Suicide is not a pleasant conversation topic, that isn’t lost on me. It’s much easier to remember Robin Williams as a Scottish nanny or a bearded psychologist but some things need to be brought to light regardless of how off-putting they may be.
The only way a tragedy isn’t completely in vain is if it leads to a discussion.
Robin Williams gave hope to millions. It sounds cliché, but his mere existence showed melancholy goofs who fended off their sadness with jokes that they had a place.
I’m lucky enough to have been given a platform to discuss my own struggles with mental illness and those who have triumphed over it. Unfortunately for every relatively happy 20-something and NFL superstar there are at least the same amount of people who are being crushed under the immense weight of mental illness.
And on Monday evening, everyone was left with the same question:
Robin Williams was one of the most beloved people on the planet, a Chicagoan, a father, a husband, an icon. Why would he do this?
This just shows what an awful thing depression is – there is no reason to it. Robin Williams couldn’t comprehend that his death would cause the world to stop with sadness, he just couldn’t see through the intense darkness that mental illness casts over everything. Rationality doesn’t apply when it comes to disease of the mind. Because like any other life-altering sickness, it assumes control. The person you knew and loved takes a backseat to a collection of imbalanced chemicals and unsettling thoughts.
The knee-jerk reaction that suicide invokes is an easy one:
“How can someone be so selfish?”
It isn’t a totally unfair question because suicide at its core is a very selfish thing to do. But it goes way deeper than simple self-interest. In fact, most people who kill themselves think they’re doing their loved ones a favor, freeing their family and friends from what they perceive to be an unnecessary burden. Logic is twisted and perverted to something only reasonable to a damaged mind.
It’s hard for someone who is healthy and happy to wrap their head around something as bleak as suicide. That knee-jerk reaction serves as a defense mechanism because the concept is so unfathomable to the majority of people. But for those who have struggled with the disease, it’s a reality that those kinds of thoughts exist within their minds all the time.
From the time they start feeling sad as a teenager and into their adult lives, suicidal thoughts find a way to percolate up from the darkest depths of their minds. It’s simply a symptom of the disease. Very rarely are they actionable thoughts or legitimate desires but rather a small voice from the peanut gallery telling your rational brain how simple it would be to just ‘opt-out.’ Even in the happiest moments, those thoughts aren’t gone – just buried with the hope that you will be stronger than your disease.
In Louis C.K.’s brilliant series Louie, he shares a scene with a date on top of a tall building. She sits casually on the ledge overlooking the city while Louie fearfully stays on the wall. His date continually asks him to come sit with her and Louie declines repeatedly, begging her to get off the ledge.
“The only way I’ll fall is if I jump” she finally says. “That’s why you’re afraid to come over here. Because a tiny part of you wants to jump, because it would be so easy.”
People with mental illness are constantly standing against that wall looking towards the ledge. It’s a constant fight to keep their palms against the brick rather than striding forward.
We love our success stories like Brandon Marshall, but we also have to acknowledge and learn from the failures. Rationality finally abandoned Robin Williams and now a world of adoring people are left with unanswerable questions. Suicide is a manifestation of a sickness so terrible and powerful that it rebels against humanity’s most rooted instinct: survival. Who knows how long Robin Williams was fending off demons, but he sadly lost a fight that millions of others are still entrenched in.
We don’t blame you, Robin. We just wish we could have helped.
Thanks for the laughs.
As I mentioned above I’m very lucky to have such a platform to talk about things like this, as unpleasant as they may be. My hope is that I’m helping to improve the visibility of mental illness by even the smallest margin but above all, if you’re struggling please know that you are not alone. I and millions of others have felt and will feel the way you do. You are important, you are necessary and you are loved. Don’t leave us any time soon.
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Illinois Suicide and Mental Health Crisis Hotline: 1-800-248-7475