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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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