What You Can Learn From the Tragic Death of Robin Williams

Ash Jurberg

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All it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul — Robin Williams

Robin Williams was a hero to me.

When I was in college, I started sketch comedy writing, and improv, and my idol was Robin Williams. There was none better than him.

Watching an interview with him was a manic rollercoaster ride — a non-stop one-person show with voices and characters. Robin would be asked a question, and soon he would be off on a series of tangents as he performed an impromptu performance.

I loved it.

I knew he had some substance issue addictions. He was quite forthcoming about it. As I watched him as the eccentric alien Mork, in the TV show Mork and Mindy, I didn’t realize at the time, but he was often on cocaine. Perhaps this explained his manic behavior. It took the death of his close friend, Jim Belushi, the day after the two of them had partied together to force him to quit. As he put it, “was it a wake-up call? Oh yeah, on a huge level. The grand jury helped.”

Unfortunately, at the same time, it triggered his depression. The man who made the world laugh wasn’t laughing inside.

In 2014 he took his own life. I was devastated.

A moment etched in time.

“I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that” — Robin Williams

People often remember where they were when significant events happen. Usually, they are tragic events that shock us and implant the moment in our memories. I heard people recall where they were when Princess Diana died or when the planes had struck the twin towers on 9/11.

For me, I will always remember where I was when I heard that my hero had passed. It was a regular morning for me, and I was with a colleague walking to get a coffee. My phone beeped, and I looked at the text and saw the news.

I stopped in my tracks. My colleague asked me what was wrong and I told her. I never met Robin, but I felt that I knew him. Through his movies and his interviews, and his stand up shows. It felt like I had lost a friend.

When I heard that he had taken his own life, that depression, and several other factors had forced him to take the worst possible option, it made me take a more in-depth look at myself and those around me. How many other people appear to be so happy on the outside, but suffering inside?

I had to look into depression to see what it indeed was.

I had a misconception about depression that it was just someone feeling sad. Or that it was a character weakness. The solution was easy — just smile, cheer yourself up, and don’t feel down. It isn’t that hard to be positive.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Tears of a clown

“You will have bad times, but they will always wake you up to the stuff you weren’t paying attention to” — Robin Williams

The comedian had touched on mental health issues in interviews but primarily denied having manic-depression, or bipolar disorder, or even clinical depression.

In 1998, he was on the cover of Newsweek with the headline, Are We All a Little Crazy?” Eight years later, in an interview on NPR, he referred back to that cover saying, “I was asked, well, do you ever get depressed?’ I said, `Yeah, sometimes I get sad.’ I mean, you can’t watch the news for more than three seconds and go, `Oh, this is depressing.’ And then immediately, all of a sudden, they branded me, manic depressive. I was like, `Um, that’s clinical. I’m not that.’

Was he in denial? Or was less known about mental health back then? Now, it is common to see sports stars and celebrities, and politicians open up about mental health. This was rare even a decade ago. Was Robin really faking a smile all his life?

After twenty years of sobriety, Robin turned to alcohol in 2003 — leading to his divorce from his wife of nineteen years. This obviously placed an extra burden on his mind. He had stints in rehab in 2006 and again in 2014.

On top of this, unbeknownst to the public, in 2013 Robin had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. (This was an incorrect diagnosis, during his autopsy it was discovered he had Lewy Body dementia). This led to severe depression, anxiety, and paranoia.

What we can learn from this

It’s important, to be honest. If you are feeling anxious or down, then tell someone. Open up — rather than being a sign of weakness it’s a sign of strength to admit to starting a conversation about your feelings.

Check-in regularly with friends and family. Ask them if their smile is genuine, or are they hiding behind the laughs. Even the person who is always cracking jokes could be struggling.

Last year, I had struggles which I hid. None of my friends knew as I was the guy cracking the jokes. Eventually, I admitted my feelings and acted on them. I changed certain parts of my life, removed the negative forces, and opened up about my challenges. I turned to write to tell my story. After a long hiatus, I even started writing comedy again. Life was too short to be all work and no play.

Robin’s widow has said it wasn’t depression that led to his suicide. The main cause was the degenerative brain disease he was suffering from. She has said that depression was just one of the symptoms he was dealing with.

Whether depression was the main reason or one of several causes is irrelevant, what is important is that it highlighted that anybody could suffer from mental health issues. It covers all levels of society and doesn’t discriminate based on wealth, intelligence, talent, power, and fame. It can strike anybody — even someone, who many may have thought was the funniest person on the planet.

Robin was a hero of mine before his death. And he continues to be one.

“Where I stood, I saw the bravest man in the world playing the hardest role of his life.” Susan Williams, Robin’s wife.

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