Robin Williams: the Pain of Laughter

22 Aug

I was lucky enough to see Robin Williams live in person on two occasions. The first was sometime in 2009 when I attended a taping of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon at 30 Rock, and the second was early last year at the Macky Auditorium at the University of Colorado at Boulder, for An Evening of Sit-Down with Robin Williams.  Both of these occasions were amazing, and the audiences were treated to the genius mind of Williams, which was frantic, manic, and tinged with a unique ability to move in and out of endless characters and voices.  He was an utter genius, and anyone who was a fan of his comedy and films was well aware of this.  He surely will be missed by millions of people around the world.

When the news that Williams had committed suicide spread, some of the first reactions were of complete disbelief.  Not very many people could believe that a man who brought so much laughter and joy to others could possibly have wanted to take his own life.  However, there have been many well-documented studies that link the personalities of comedians and performers to psychotic personality traits.  Earlier this year, a study performed at Oxford University concluded that “stand-ups of a modern era are likely to have greater levels of extraversion – a form of impulsiveness – yet be more depressive and unsociable at the same time”.   Making people laugh is viewed by many comedians as a form of self-medication.  One thing was clear about Robin – he loved to laugh and to make others laugh.  However, there is often hidden pain within many people, and Robin’s battle with depression is one shared silently by many others, including myself.

The odd thing about depression is how it comes and goes, and the dark surprise by which it takes you when it returns.  When I attempt to discuss my depression with people close to me, I am more than often met with disbelief.  People refuse to believe that “someone like you” has any right to be depressed.  Depression is not a right, nor is it a conscious choice.  Depression is a disease that encompasses not only mental effects, but physical effects as well.  My struggle with depression began early in life, perhaps around the age of thirteen, when years of bullying caught up to me.  For years, I was tormented regularly by children in elementary and junior high school, for a multitude of reasons.  I was the favorite target, most likely because my tormentors knew how easy it was to make me cry.  Years later, second and third waves of depression hit me following a difficult breakup and the death of  my best friend.  I am currently in the process of recovering from the third major depressive episode of my life.  This most recent depressive episode coincided with my starting stand up comedy.

A sensitive heart and soul is often a feature of an artist, and comedians in particular tend to have addictive personalities and tendencies toward mental illness.  As someone pursuing a career in comedy, I can easily say that a depressive personality is common among comedians.  Many fellow comics struggle with anxiety and depression, among other mental afflictions.  This does not mean that comedians are completely dysfunctional, but there is a quality that attracts people to quality that directly corresponds with some sort of need for validation.  I know that for me personally, my experiences with being teased for many years in school is a contributing factor toward my desiring a career in the creative arts.  It is part of a drive to leave a legacy and somehow show those who put me down that I am indeed valuable in some way.

Although none of us will ever know the exact factors that drove Mr. Williams to take his own life, it is important for an conversation regarding mental illness and depression to commence in this country.  Far too many people suffer in silence, unable to discuss their feelings with their own family members.  The stigma of depression is what leads to acts of suicide shocking so many people.  However, to acknowledge the pain and struggle of depression is to become more self-aware as humans and as friends to one another.

You will be missed, Robin Williams.

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3 Responses to “Robin Williams: the Pain of Laughter”

  1. gregmercer601 August 22, 2014 at 5:15 PM #

    Sad and unnecessary, as each suicide is; hence the tragedy. Even more obviously so with remarkable talent and life and humanity. Hopefully we can learn to do better: such deaths are preventable, and the depression behind them treatable.

  2. nikmahie August 22, 2014 at 6:07 PM #

    Interesting post. I had never really thought of humor as some sort of self-medication… but to be honest, I do it too. I’ll have to think about this.

  3. dangermouse92 August 22, 2014 at 8:21 PM #

    Reblogged this on ournewnormalafterdeathbysuicide and commented:
    “Depression is not a right, nor is it a conscious choice. Depression is a disease that encompasses not only mental effects, but physical effects as well.” (By heathermarulli)

    This quote defines the reality of a person suffering from depression. It’s not a conscious choice. It is NOT an option. You don’t simply wake up one day and think, “Oh I think I might be a depressed person from now on. Or when it suits me.”
    Depression caused by whatever reason, be it physical, emotional or part of another mental health condition or issue … Will not give you an option to say no. It will not knock on your door asking to be let in and get comfy. It will blow your door off the hinges and then figuratively and literally, take you by the throat. Or it may slide in insidiously and silently. Like a smoke wisp it works it’s way into your life bit by bit. Until one day you realise that life has lost it’s vibrancy. And terrifyingly, at times, it’s meaning or reason for living.
    Depression can kill. Depression has killed people. On a daily basis. In Australia alone we have 7 deaths per day when someone reaches their limit of coping with their depression and take their own lives. Three times as many people attempt suicide per day.
    Some people may take their lives after years of battling depression and mental health issues and are simply overwhelmed by their pain and turmoil. Others, like my son Jaie did, may mask their depression and mental health issues quite literally, until the day they die. Jaies taking his own life was a double shock. He was always so energetic and looking or creating fun. I never would have pinned him for having depression or depressive episodes.
    However, hindsight is a cruel thing. We can look back now and say yes there were times he was irritable and moody, but he never portrayed the ‘normal’ signs and symptoms of depression. The low low moods and withdrawal from society. Up until 7 hours prior to his death he was posting on Facebook about what a great job he and his workmates had done that day. It would be his last post ever.
    Less than 7 hours later we would be scrambling with the police to save him from hurting himself.
    Sadly, distance and Jaies determination to end his life, worked against all our efforts to save him.
    Our family is now forever broken. I am broken. I knew the one thing in this world I could not cope with would be the loss of any of my children. I’ve had to make myself stop looking through photos of Jaie everyday. Because I start to cry. And I cannot stop. I cannot function beyond wiping my tears away, to have them replaced with many more.
    And as our society becomes even more detached from each other the rate of death by suicide/depression increases daily. Depression is the ‘new Aids’ of his century. Unseen like a ‘mainstream’ illness and stigmatised by society and the media. Many people have depression and other varying degrees of mental health issues and function as full contributing members of society.
    Robin Williams should be remembered for the wonderful gifts he gave to this world. Not just for the sad and tragic manner in which he left it. But, also, if we are able to portray what happened to Robin (and it did happen to him. It simply didn’t occur randomly) and push this need to remove the stigma involved for being unwell with bipolar, depression, anxiety etc and hopefully it will allows others to save themselves (so to speak). Society has to start acknowledging that dark side we all have and recognise the need for meaningful human interactions. I will always regret that my baby boy died without hearing me tell him I loved him on his birthday. Instead I roused on him for an inappropriate post on fb and never spoke with him properly. He was upset with me. I was upset with him. I will always, always regret that text. I will always regret I never postponed my surgery for another week so I could have seen him for his birthday. Had a coffee and cake with him. I will always regret I never asked those 3 words, “How are you?” I will now, to my dying day, regret so many things. I love my children. But for Jaie, I was his everything. I was his mum and dad. I hurt my baby. For this I will never forgive myself.
    We, as a family, empathise with Robin Williams family. I wish them much strength and love through this terrible ongoing journey.

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