I was leaving the gym after a spin class. I grabbed my car keys and phone out of my backpack. As I usually do, I looked at my iPhone’s lock screen for any texts or major news push alerts.
The first thing to grab my attention was the headline, “Robin Williams dead at 63.” My heart sunk. Celebrity deaths used to not bother me. A lot of them still don’t, but sometimes, and in the case of comedic idols like Williams, they do in surprising ways. Before opening the story on my phone, I assumed Williams died of a heart attack or some other sudden cause.
Then I read the story and dug deeper.
Police believe Williams committed suicide. Death by asphyxiation. It’ll take an autopsy to make it official, but almost every news outlet seems to agree that’s the cause.
Reports indicate Williams, a long-time recovered addict and alcoholic, recently relapsed. He was struggling with demons that almost consumed him in the 1980s, before he made such great movies as “Dead Poet Society,” “Good Will Hunting” or “The Fisher King.” This time, it seems, he succumbed.
In my line of work, I hear a lot about suicides. It’s a rule of thumb that a majority of those deaths go unreported. Much like the suffering of those who take their own lives, the grief seems too painful and private for public display for those left behind. Then there is the idea that somehow reporting suicide, outside of unavoidable, large public spectacles such Williams’ death, may inspire others to take their own lives.
I’m honestly not sure what to make out of that reasoning, especially the latter. Does homicide reporting inspire more homicides? Are we doing a disservice by not more openly talking about suicide, many times the result of a disease that fester in silence and masked feelings?
I always feel for suicide victims. I wish they could have saw outside of their dark places, in no small part because I can relate to feelings of immense depression. A few times in my life, I’ve been in what felt like inescapable emotional places. I’ve also had the immense luck and ability to find ways to move through those moments.
Reading the Williams story at the gym though was particularly jarring. It caught me off guard. It reminded me just how much I loved Robin Williams as an actor and how he affected me through the years — from Mork and Mindy to repeated watchings of Popeye (yes, Popeye) to seeing “What Dreams May Come” multiple times in my mid 20s with my ex-wife.
Ironically, the depiction of personal hell for a suicide victim in ‘Dreams’ is so metaphorically spot on in depicting the torment of the suicidal depressive. It’s a house where nothing but the sadness and emotional confusion lives, where a person is dead to the reality outside of their own head. All color is blotted out by their own thinking.
Williams’ passing made me pause and remember that no matter how good one’s life looks from the outside, no one is insulated from pain, from mental illness, and despair on the inside. For some it’s so acute that suicide as an action is a way to relieve the pain because they are just too tired to fight any more.
Monday night on social media I joined others in expressing my sadness over Williams. I honestly wanted to weep, something I don’t really do with most deaths any more. I also felt immensely lucky.
As I read about Williams, I was still awash in the afterglow of a hard workout, of thinking of my upcoming marathon and my friends. As silly as it sounds, for me, physical activities allow me a way to live in the moment without being consumed by the moment. Endurance running has taught me there are other, healthier obsessions to be had. (Volunteering to mentor troubled foster kids and other activities have helped me overcome my depression through gaining perspective as well.)
I wish Robin Williams had been able to find, or hold onto that same feeling.
I imagine he fought his demons for a long time. I hope Williams’ death, the wonderful memories being shared about him and his career, and frank conversations about suicide leads others to not contemplate taking their own lives, but instead motivates them to talk about their feelings. And perhaps Williams’ in turn reminds us, at least a bit, to be aware of the emotional suffering and needs of others. Sometimes, every bit of kindness and human interaction helps.