Beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams died by suicide on 11 August 2014 at the age of 63. As we approach the fifth anniversary of his death and to mark the National Suicide Prevention Conference 2019 I am republishing my tribute to Robin Williams.
The death of Robin Williams has struck many people, including myself, in a very personal way because he was that kind of performer: so giving, so immediate, so intense that he left no distance between himself and his audience. To witness a Williams performance was to be swept into its maelstrom.
There was no half-way with this gifted actor and comedian. Everything about Williams was full on, strictly all or nothing. And he was loved for it.
His manic turns on countless television interview shows were hilarious forces of nature: a tempestuous stream of consciousness that fused anecdotes, impersonations, observations, gags and routines that would leave audiences gasping for air.
But it’s also true that Williams was hiding behind these walls of comedic sound.
No doubt there were times when Williams revealed a little of himself during these interviews – be they on television, radio or print – but one could never be quite sure when the real Robin Williams was offering a glimpse of himself. He was in that regard like so many of the great comedians, always “on” and much preferring to be somebody else, at least when in the public eye. Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Jim Carrey come to mind.
Making a lot of noise, being the irrepressible wit, dominating discussion: these are ways for people with depression to hide – from themselves, and from those around them. But it’s also a way of pumping the air of life into a deflated soul. To stop long enough for life to overwhelm you is to curl up in a corner and wish you could disappear, while at the same time wishing you didn’t feel that way.
My guess is that while Robin Williams was making the world laugh – or, with equal intensity, cry – he was desperately trying to keep himself alive. It’s a battle he lost.
His death at the age of 63 has shocked the world, a world that felt so close to him, yet many of us will now realise, or will come to realise, that we barely knew this giving man. We were so busy laughing or crying that in idolising Robin Williams we didn’t notice that he was unraveling before us.
The demons that swirled within
In an era when living to 100 is barely remarked upon, 63 is so young, but the blessing of this loss is that it did not happen sooner.
Williams did not let us peer deep into his soul, but neither did he attempt to conceal the demons that swirled within. He was a recovered alcoholic, had suffered drug addiction and most recently severe depression and had recently checked himself into a rehabilitation centre.
These burdens were part of who he was – and some will argue that an artist without demons is no artist, or a lesser artist – but they did not define Robin Williams. The tragedy of this life cut so terribly short was that in giving so much to his friends and family, and to admirers around the world, Williams felt he had so little to give himself.
Depression is many things, but its characteristics include self-loathing, hopelessness and loneliness. Robin Williams’ art and comedy may well have been offsprings of these conditions, but they were also masks that enabled Williams to confront life every day. Which make his performances all the more remarkable, and tragic.
Williams’ talent was not simply a ball of nervous energy. He was a Juilliard-trained actor whose cinema performances were as varied as they were compelling, moving and hilarious. His best-known films include: Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Fisher King (1991), Good Will Hunting (1997, for which he won an Oscar, having been nominated for the previous three films), Awakening (1990), Mrs Doubtfire (1993), The Birdcage (1996) and One Hour Photo (2002). He will also be known to a legion of fans as Mork in the landmark TV comedy Mork and Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982.
There is no ready answer
Beyond the shock, many will greet his suicide with the question “Why?” They will say that he was so successful, so wealthy, so loved, how could he possibly take his life?
These are questions, of course, to which there is no ready answer. But what answers there are have nothing to do with the gloss of Williams’ life. Everything we admired about Williams was the exterior he hid behind. We know that Williams was gifted, loved and loving. But he was also broken, bereft and afraid.
Is suicide a rational choice? I don’t know. But it is a lonely choice. And a desperate one.
Williams was married and had three children. His third wife, Susan Schneider, issued a statement in which she expressed her heartbreak: “This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”
Williams’ death, ultimately, was not the death of a comic genius and actor, but of a man.
His death will shed momentary light on this darkest of scourges: depression.
Let me conclude by quoting Stephen Fry, who like this writer suffers from depression, but unlike this journeyman journalist has the gift of writing with an angel’s touch:
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former columnist and senior writer with BRW, the Australian Financial Review and The Bulletin. He was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2014 and has written extensively on his experience with depression since.
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ADDENDUM: Ahead of the fifth anniversary of Robin Williams’ death his son Zak reflected on his father’s mental health anguish. He recently told Good Morning Britain: “As a family member and a child, you want to do everything you can to help soothe and ease what seemed to be intense personal pain. It was sad to see someone who was suffering so.” Williams’ wife Susan Williams has attributed her husband’s suicide to the debilitating brain disease Lewy body dementia, stating emphatically: “It was not depression that killed Robin.”