Hearing the news of a celebrity death is always unfortunate, but something about the news of Robin Williams’ passing feels uncomfortably personal. It could be that Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire carried us through childhood, or that The Birdcage taught us that we could be gay and still be ok. Maybe it’s because he served as a universal father-figure, that somewhere between our earliest memories of sitting on the couch watching Good Morning, Vietnam and our dad’s goofy Mork impressions, Robin Williams started bearing a resemblance to our own fathers, or to the father we had always hoped for. Either way, judging from the nation’s reaction, losing Robin Williams feels hugely heartbreaking.
By now we’ve all heard the news that Robin Williams committed suicide. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions, seeing someone so widely loved end his own life. Truth is, if I had to read one more update saying, “I’d never have guessed he was depressed,” I’d have lost it. Truth is I did lose it, and here we are. Here is that dialogue we’re all so quick to promise before going right back to Instagrammng our breakfast.
Like Robin, I am an only child who has struggled with depression and anxiety most of my life, suicidal thoughts being par for the course. I realized at an early age that humor served as the best way to deal with those insecurities, making the joke before others could and laughing at myself, louder than any of my inner voices could. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve been told that people like my one side better than the other, or shrug off my anxieties with a “You are so funny.” Or how often I’ve been made to feel guilty for being pessimistic, sad or self-deprecating. Along with his being a universal father figure, what’s making this loss feel so personal is that his struggle is relatable. Being funny can often times come from a very dark and isolating place and Robin was able to bridge the gap between that anguish and the outside world with his comedy.
As we ourselves grow older, we watch both our parents and childhood heroes’ age. There’s a sadness in that; a reminder of our loved ones and our own mortality. Life is too short, yet again, and in the case of Robin, it serves as a reminder that someone who brought so much joy to our lives, someone who could light up any room, could also suffer so much anguish and pain. It proves that sometimes the most relatable and genuine humor comes from a very dark place. It reminds us that depression is indiscriminate.
Some of my best stand-up work has been done within the four walls of my therapist’s office, nearly every one telling me at some point during our sessions that I am hilarious. Hilarious and anxiety-ridden, what a mind-blowing combination. Except that it isn’t. It’s a common marriage within the comedy community, a fascinating and enigmatic darkness that we as comedy consumers are drawn to. That’s not to say that all comedians are deeply troubled people, but most of the good ones at very least know struggle. I don’t know Robin ‘s situation, and I don’t need to. I can look to Maria Bamford’s comedy, Paul Gilmartin’s podcast, Mental Illness Happy Hour, or Marty DeRosa’s Wrestling with Depression, all exemplary of where despair and funny meet.
As someone who once eased feelings of loneliness by drinking myself into a regular blacked-out oblivion, it felt like a kick in the gut to read that one of Robin’s friends noted that he had recently withdrawn from his comedy community and friends. People knew, and yet he still felt alone. Feeling alone in a crowded room is an accurate description of depression and is a feeling that is most obvious within the comedy community. While surrounded by laughter in writing rooms, clubs and arenas, we are still able to feel alone.
Both of my parents have struggled with depression, a number of my friends have battled some form of anxiety and a year ago, my girlfriend attempted suicide. It’s not as rare as Twitter would have you believe. In fact, if I was made to guess, I would bet that nearly 100% of writers, comedians and artists have struggled with some form of mental illness. No one can prepare you for how demanding and scary that place is, or how difficult that sort of love can be.
What we now have is this tragedy. It’s a wake-up call to try harder to reach out to our loved ones. It’s the wonder and awe surrounding suicide that is part of the problem. It’s a disease just like any other. I have often found myself looking to Robin Williams and his career as inspiration for what it truly means to be unabashedly authentic and I will continue to do so. In this situation, I am so heartbroken over the loss of someone who felt like a constant influence throughout my entire life, but am grateful for the lifetime of laughter and tears. All we can do now is hope this tragedy is the switch that finally flips the collective stigma on its head.