Normally, I don’t mind much when a celebrity dies. It’s very rare for me to be able to empathize with someone so famous, someone so removed from my lifestyle and my wants. But Robin Williams is different. Robin Williams was one of my favorite actors, not because he’s considered to be one of the greatest comedians of all time, but because his genius was in spite of (or maybe even fueled by) his depression.
I don’t know what it’s like to be clinically depressed, but from what I read and from what I see, depression is a void that overtakes everything inside your head. Its crushing gravity can swallow an entire person whole, and the things that bring us joy can be strangled by the coldness and cholera of mental darkness. It’s not just crippling, it’s almost fatal. The pain isn’t sharp like a cut, it’s a constricting type of pain that lingers. It’s sticky and it doesn’t wash itself clean, and it will follow you until the day you die.
And despite suffering from such a debilitating disease, Robin Williams carved out a career that may never be equaled.
My personal favorite performance from Mr. Williams didn’t exhibit his comedic chops as much as his instinct for drama and gravitas. As a diminutive shrink slowly drilling through the emotional trainwreck of Will Hunting, Williams’ performance as Sean Maguire took over the entire screen. I hung on every word and line from his character, as if he was right in front of me, saving me from my darker thoughts by showing his own scars. As I got older, I wondered if Williams derived therapy by playing a troubled shrink. I definitely saw the poetry in Williams playing Sean, whose trauma made him the only one able to reach an irreparably broken Will Hunting.
And yet, we remember him as the one who lit up the room. A living embodiment of a cliche reserved for the most energetic people we knew, except for all of us, the most energetic person we’ve ever liked was Robin Williams. He was yin and yang, all rolled up into a man with that could slip into any role and make it hilarious. My generation grew up with Genie, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Jumanji. My teenage years were defined by Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society (which has become required viewing for every high school freshman). In my nascent adulthood, I never really kept touch with Mr. Williams’ recent work, but I always rooted for him to do well with the critics and the box office. To me, he was someone that deserved to be respected regardless of his extremely hit-or-miss catalog. He wasn’t great because he made great movies, he was great because he could highlight every part of the human experience with unmatched intensity…while convincing you that he was a regular guy, a man who put on his pants one leg at a time, just like you and me.
Depression is a weird thing. We’re almost at the point where we acknowledge how devastating it can be for a person, but we can never really know what it’s like. We can only read about it and imagine, but it’s so much worse to actually shoulder that burden. We think we know, but we don’t. We think they’re just tripping, that through pure strength of mind alone, the clinically depressed can conquer their demons. They can’t. Not even Robin Williams, with all the adulation, comfort, and lucidity, could conquer his depression.
He brought so much joy to so many people, but the only person he couldn’t win over was himself. That’s the true tragedy, to see someone’s darkness finally extinguish their brilliant light. The last ray smudged out, and all we can see now is the legacy he left.
I remember when I lost a friend to suicide. The cynic inside me doubts the sincerity of those same emotions coming to the surface after hearing about Robin Williams’ death. I never knew the man, never cared for his worries and he never cared for mine. If he weren’t famous, I wouldn’t know he existed.
And yet, why do I feel like I lost someone?
Maybe it’s because I remember what it was like to see someone’s light simply fade out from within themselves. The worst part of it was that I was helpless to do anything about it. And that’s the scariest part of depression. When someone you love has it, you never know when that light will fade. You might not be there to reignite their spirit. They might be all alone at the wrong time, and that most unspeakable of decisions eventually becomes the only option.
I wanted to believe that a man like Robin Williams deserved to die in contentment and peace. I didn’t want to read about that man finally succumbing to his darkness.
I guess I can find poetry in Robin Williams being Peter Pan once. It was Peter Pan who once said: To die would be an awfully big adventure.
Rest in Peace Mr. Williams.