“Sometimes I feel like, I’m so uninvited, like something so out of touch. They tell me depression runs in the family, well that doesn’t help me much.” ~Todd Snider
My wife likes to joke that I have no soul, because I don’t cry. She, for the record, weeps at the drop of a hat: during movies, a commercial, while reading… She even cried at the birth of both our children, and seriously, who does that?
(What, everyone does? My bad.)
The Mrs. is quite in tune with her sad side, because she suffers from clinical depression. She was diagnosed and placed on medication at age twenty, and it changed her world. For the first time since childhood, evil thoughts weren’t pounding away at her constantly, making her feel worthless, or that her life had no value.
I’ve never been diagnosed as manic-depressive, but it’s heavily prevalent on my father’s side of the family, and I have had plenty of damaging thoughts about my self-worth.
I have also been right on the cusp of suicide.
My story is no secret, and it is neither original nor special. I moved a lot as a child, and my parents had an unhappy marriage. Combine those two and you have a kid who thought friendships don’t last and love isn’t real. I swam inside the idea I would never have friends, or be loved. Once beliefs like that are ingrained in your cellular structure, they live with you for decades. You can combat the feelings using positive influences such as therapy or medication, or self-medicate using drugs, alcohol, or, my method of choice: comedy.
(Everyone knows you don’t become a comedian when everything is right inside your noggin.)
Again, this was wasn’t an original reaction to what I felt; most comics worth their weight in salt have something hidden inside that pushes them to the spotlight. Personally, comedy was both a weapon and a shield. It became an armament that gave me distance from the world—think Pink Floyd’s The Wall—and was a weapon used to attack when feeling defensive.
(Which, to someone depressed, is quite often.)
Like any drug, you eventually build up an immunity to it. For a while, the glory of a great show sits with you and carries you through the dark hours. But after a while, it’s not enough. As a comedian, you go from being on stage in front of two hundred people, basking in the glory of their laughter…
…to alone in your hotel room, the thoughts of worthlessness screaming at you at the top of their lungs.
So, when your main drug fails, you compound it with others; the alone gets shut out using women, alcohol, pot, and whatever you can get your hands on.
My drugs during bouts of depression were music, and anger. Music, because there were songs I could relate to and not feel so alone in the world. No matter what I was going through, I could tether to an artist and understand I was neither unique nor special. They knew what I was going through, which mattered to me. Anger, because when I was at my wit’s end and absolutely ready to end it all, the overwhelming desire to say “Fuck you!” to whatever power may be out there (God) would carry me through. Sadness happens, so buck up and deal with it ya pansy. Every fiber of my body would be telling me to do it, just exit this world to escape the pain, but suicide seemed like losing. And I hate losing.
* * *
Mork & Mindy premiered in 1978; I was eight years old.
In life, that’s what’s known as “perfect timing,” as the show was aimed directly at eight-year-old sensibilities. I had no clue who Robin Williams was, I just knew that I laughed at the wacky man pretending to be an alien.
I more than laughed, actually. I reflected. Each episode ended with a moral, an oft-times touching moment where Mork waxed philosophic on what he was learning on earth, and reported that information to Orson. It was in those moments I discovered the genius that was Robin Williams; he could make you laugh, but he wanted to make you cry.
(Maybe, because if you were crying, he felt not so alone in his pain. I cannot say that with absolute certainty, but I don’t believe it’s too far a throw.)
An instant fan, I became obsessed with both Robin, and Mork. I scampered around the house saying “Nanu-nanu,” and “Shazbot.” I begged and was taken to The World According to Garp, a movie not exactly marketed to a twelve-year-old. Good Morning Vietnam made me howl; Dead Poets Society choked me up.
Robin Williams was also the first stand up comedian I saw live.
I would have been, I can’t remember, sixteen or seventeen. He was performing at The Riverside Theater, in Milwaukee, and when I heard about the show I immediately called for tickets. Naturally, the show was sold out, but they were considering adding a second performance; did I want to be on a waiting list?
Hell to the yeah I did.
A late show was added, and I got my tickets. I remember absolutely nothing of the evening, save for the fact I missed over half the jokes because I was still laughing at the one before. Tears ran down my face, and my face and jaw hurt at the end of the night.
To me, Robin Williams was a God. He meant more to me than just about everyone.
(Except Martin Riggs.)
Robin was open about two of his drugs—alcohol and cocaine—but I’ve not heard anyone discuss his other weaknesses: women, and marriage. Comedians aren’t special creatures; like anyone else, they find solace in the arms of a lover to assuage their pain.
Robin Williams cheated on one wife, married his daughter’s nanny, and then married a third woman just a few years outside the end of his near-21-year second marriage. I will neither judge nor analyze his behavior, but I will say I am all too familiar with the pattern: the thoughts of not wanting to be alone, and of wanting to feel loved when you believe you’re unlovable. In my younger years, I entered into several relationships too quickly, if only because I was astounded by the fact someone seemed to like me.
“This one is fooled,” I would think. “Better not let her go!”
It was only when I reached my mid-30s that the desperation faded; I went through therapy and examined the origins of my insecurities, and hit my Malcolm Gladwell tipping point of failed relationships. I began to attack my depression, and eventually realized what I had wasn’t medical; I didn’t have a disease, I just had a shitty childhood I needed to deal with.
Robin Williams suffered from the disease; his was a manic depression, unlike mine. That means his hole was larger than most, one that couldn’t be filled by millions of dollars or awards. When he looked in the mirror he didn’t see an icon, he saw his own insecurities.
And in the end, that was too much to bear.
By the time I started writing this, arguments aplenty littered the Internet. Did he kill himself, or end his own pain? Was his act selfish, or was it his choice to make?
I don’t care.
I’m not here to fight or start arguments, I just want to talk about what he meant to me.
I was at the gym when the news broke; I finished up my workout, grabbed my phone, and it was waiting for me in a text: “Robin Williams, dead. Suicide.”
I think my only surprise was at how not surprised I was. Knowing his life and story, I don’t want to say I expected it, but after Belushi, Farley, Jeni, and Geraldo… It just wasn’t as out of left field for me as it may have been for others.
But that didn’t make it any less tragic.
As I drove home, I started to well up. Pulling into the garage, and could feel the tears behind my eyes. I got out of my car, and opened the door to my house; inside, my two-year-old daughter was playing on the floor in the kitchen.
“Daddy!” she shouted happily.
“Hi sweetie,” I croaked.
Fuck, it was really going to happen.
My wife asked me something and I tried answering, and she heard it in my voice. Alarmed, she jumped up, saw my eyes, and started asking, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
I waved her off twice, saying “Nothing. It’s nothing,” but she kept prodding, hugging me tightly in the process. “Robin Williams committed suicide,” I finally sputtered.
I wept for about twenty seconds, then felt a mix of better and silly. Which is how I believe most people feel after crying in front of others.
If anything, it made my wife joyful.
“I can’t say you don’t have a soul anymore!” she cheered.
I’ll remind her of that at the end of the next chick flick she drags me to, when she is sobbing and my eyes hurt from rolling.