Within 24 hours, the manner of Robin Williams’ death went from too little information (for a public figure) to too much information.
The first report simply stated (to paraphrase): “Death by asphyxiation.” Well what was that supposed to mean? Was he strangled? Smothered to death? Did he smother himself to death? Did he put his head in a gas oven? Those are all causes of asphyxiation. Normally, people don’t associate asphyxiation with hanging; they think when a person hangs themselves that their neck breaks. Which isn’t the case. They strangle.
A day later, the coroner comes out with a painstakingly detailed account of how the popular comic died. In fact, the spokesperson gave far more details than we needed or was good for public consumption, considering all the severely depressed people pondering this very act.
He hung himself inside the house. Thank you very much. That’s all we needed to know. The fact that he was not in the same bedroom as his wife is a rather interesting, if salacious, fact that could answer part of the question of why he did it. According to the reports, there were a number of factors involved beginning with his manic-depression and his drug-use, a waning period in his career, financial problems, and probably long-standing issues with his father, a senior executive at Ford who, almost without question given his high-ranking position in the company, was something of an absent father.
My father died at home, of natural causes, in a rather embarrassing place. We didn’t discuss it with anyone and no one asked us. It was painful enough for my brothers, who found him after breaking down a door. That’s not the way we wanted to remember him. We preferred to remember him as the tall, strapping, handsome man who, a family friend told us, turned all the female heads at his wedding. The man tall enough to pick up my brothers and let them touch the ceiling. The strong man who was able to swim out against a rip tide and save his 3 year-old daughter’s life.
That’s what Robin Williams’ widow was talking about.
Some of us did not care for Robin Williams’ politics or his more political movies. But for those of us who are true movie fans, that doesn’t mean we didn’t love him as a performer or didn’t appreciate his amazing talent for improv and comedy. He was amazing, incredibly funny, and by all accounts a sensitive, generous man. If we were to boycott all the communist-sympathizing actors in Hollywood, we would never see another movie again or listen to another record.
Depression has many levels. There’s the everyday level of depression, or sadness, that everyone feels from time to time. Then, as Glenn Beck observed yesterday, there’s clinical depression, where the body begins to manifest the symptoms of out-of-control mood swings. At that point, the patient can no longer just wake up and say, “Well, I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to shut the door on what’s bothering me and enjoy this day.” Physically, they’re unable to do it. That’s when they need to seek professional help.
In severe cases, patients can exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia, hallucinations, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts. A friend’s wife suffered from bi-polar disorder. This was at the time when psychiatrists were first beginning to recognize it as an illness. Her husband, in frustration, was going to have her committed. She’d go on spending sprees. She’d tell people (including me) that she was an FBI or CIA agent. I told him before he did that that he should find a psychiatrist who could prescribe her these new medications.
He did and they did help her. However, the meds also had side effects and she often went off her medications, which made her condition worse. Bi-polars don’t just go off the meds because they suddenly feel like themselves. They go off because they don’t like the side effects, including lethargy, memory problems, motor-physical difficulties, and slurring of speech.
Researchers have come out recently with new medications that avoid those side effects and actually do bring the patients to a more normal state. That’s when patients run into the problem of going off the meds because they suddenly feel better and figure they don’t need them. They have to be hospitalized or they’d harm themselves.
Yes, patients that severely affected to do need to be taken to a “safe place” so they don’t harm themselves. And no, no one can be talked out of wanting to take their own life in that state of mind. They need professional help, certainly. Although, sometimes even professional help doesn’t work. The therapists give up and settle for keeping the patients basically sedated, the families give up, and eventually, the patients give up. It doesn’t happen often. But it does happen.
Fox News featured a psychiatrist on the day Robin Williams died. He said that Williams was trying to avoid the pain, dodging it through comedy and drugs. He said he would have sat down with Williams and make him face that pain and feel it. I think that’s what he said.
If I’d been his patient, those words would have still been hanging in the air as the door slammed behind me and I got into my car. Sadism is no cure for depression. That’s the general theory that psychiatry has adopted. That people need to face their pain and relive it over and over again, spending their lives alternately weeping on a therapist’s couch and living in a drugged state, hardly different from Williams’ cocaine and alcohol habit. My friend calls it “self-medicating.”
At least, that’s what I’m hearing. Maybe that’s the best that modern psychiatry can offer. That beats killing yourself, whether hanging yourself in a closet or from a tree, or overdosing on sleeping pills, or any of the other various methods of permanent escape. At least you’ll be alive, which is better than being dead, although suicides obviously don’t see it that way.
Or you can leave the baggage in lost and found and continue on your journey. But that’s an unrealistic option for treating depression as severe as Williams faced. As Glenn Beck observed, they’re tired. “They’re just tired of fighting it,” he says.
The thing is, you can’t change the past. Williams couldn’t change the family lifestyle he led as a child of an affluent father and socialite mother. My mother’s parents were a poor woman’s version, though economically inverted, and so were my friends’ parents, and his paternal grandparents. That’s probably why Robin Williams always chose movies extolling the importance of family. Even One Stop Photo was a film (albeit a dark one) about family.
You can’t change the past and that’s what (I suspect and actually know personally) causes the spiral downward. Nothing you can do, short of inventing a time machine and climbing into it, can change the past. People seek out psychiatry, often successfully, to find an authority figure who will tell them everything will be okay. The patient does need to go into the past so the doctor knows what the heck the problem is. Unfortunately, it can also start the recording going and going and never really stopping.
At some point (in my strictly laywoman’s opinion), you need to shut the door and put a lock on it.
If any of us could go back in time, three days past now, what would we say to Robin Williams to convince him not to do this thing? His friends knew something was wrong, but he’d only answer them with a joke and tell them he was okay. Even to the casual observer at the distance of a television screen could see in his appearances that all was not well.
His smile was wearing out.
So what would we say? That most movie stars experience slumps? That he may find a new avenue for his talents? What would his mentor, Jonathon Winters, say? That we’re all getting old and no one expects him, at age 63, to stand on his head on a chair? Don’t look back? That it’s just like Vivien Leigh said in Gone with the Wind, that if you keep looking back that it tears at you and tears at you until you can do nothing but look back? That poorer men than he have been financially wiped out by divorce(s) and still managed to come back? William Shatner found himself living in a trailer after his divorce? That there’s more to life than mansions, ranches, and fancy cars? That even George Clooney and Gene Hackman do commercials? That it wasn’t really cool that the likes of John Belushi died young, in their prime and at the height of their careers of drug overdoses?
I don’t think we should romanticize the deaths of celebrities like John Belushi or Whitney, to cite a more recent example. Their deaths were tragic. But no matter how genuinely depressed Williams was, these people were taking drugs because it was cool and fashionable. And because some dealer got them hooked and took them for a lot of money. Their addictions just became so bad that enough was just not enough and they took too much and died.
In a film recap, Fox News aired an episode of Mork and Mindy, where Mork eulogizes the great talents who had left us too young. Most of the people he cited died of overdoses or actually committed suicide. However, he noted John Lennon, who at the time of the show was the most recent loss. John Lennon didn’t commit suicide, and although he did drugs, he didn’t OD; he was murdered. There’s a difference.
Yes, we will miss the merry antics of Robin Williams. If only he could have stayed young in his mind. I came across this excerpt yesterday from a book called Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young, which is a daily (dated) guide of inspirational thoughts:
Learn to enjoy life more. Relax, remembering that I am ‘God with you.’ I crafted you with enormous capacity to know Me and enjoy My Presence. When My people wear sour faces and walk through their lives with resigned rigidity, I am displeased. When you walk through a day with childlike delight, savoring every blessing, you proclaim your trust in Me, your ever-present Shepherd. The more you focus on My presence with you, the more fully you can enjoy life. Glorify Me through your pleasure in Me. Thus you proclaim My Presence to the watching world.”