Monday, August 11, 2014

Good-bye Dear Mork: Reflections on the Tragic Suicide of Robin Williams

While it’s always hard to hear about someone taking his own life, it is especially hard to learn that someone who brought us as much laughter, joy and poignancy as Robin Williams did was in enough pain to decide suicide was the only answer. Robin Williams was a brilliant comic and gifted actor. I think his genius came from an overwhelming empathy for others paired with a lightening fast wit. His active mind nimbly skipped from one idea to the next, making creative leaps no one else could fathom until he articulated them.  He recognized both the glorious connectivity and essential aloneness in the basic human condition.  I think the pain and beauty of this understanding is what eventually broke his heart.  He tried to medicate the pain away with alcohol. It appears he won the battle but lost the war. After a long period of productive sobriety, eventually addiction once again reared its ugly head. This time, apparently it triumphed to the detriment of us all.

I “sorta kinda” met Robin Williams once. It was during his Mork and Mindy days. I had recently moved to Los Angeles for graduate school and was disappointed that I hadn’t yet crossed paths with a single celebrity. I flew back to NY to see my family. Upon my return I was waiting at the baggage claim at LAX when I saw him. There was no question in my mind that it was Robin Williams. He was wearing Mork’s signature baggy white carpenter pants, a striped shirt and rainbow suspenders. He was off by himself, almost as if standing in his own private bubble. My first inclination was to dash over, give him an exuberant hug and ask for his autograph. But I could tell he would not welcome this minor explosion of enthusiasm on my part so I refrained. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. I felt like I was missing my big chance for my first celebrity encounter. But I felt too much respect for his obvious desire for privacy so I did nothing.

Whenever I watched him in his movie roles or doing stand-up, I always contrasted the quick humor and glib confidence with the uncomfortable young man I observed at LAX. I’ve seen the pain behind the humor in many of those who make us laugh. The frantic cheery manic mask they cultivate often covers an essential awkwardness, a social discomfort and myriad fears that others will judge them and find them wanting. If you aren’t sure what to do, just make people laugh, right? Everyone will like you and want you around and your worries will be allayed, at least for the time being. Throw in a little alcohol and drugs and the fears are numbed away, until you sober up. Then, after the temporary reprieve, the toxic internal voices resume the incessant mutter of their dangerous damaging messages. And there’s nowhere to hide until the next drink, hit or comic performance begins the cycle anew.

My heart goes out to Robin Williams and all who loved him. I don’t presume to imagine the personal hell he must have been going through. But in taking his own life, he has just transferred his pain onto those he leaves behind.  Had he been thinking clearly, I don’t think he ever would have made such a choice. Suicidality is characterized by tunnel vision that convinces you everything is hopeless. This clouded judgment persuades those afflicted that the only way to end their pain is to end their lives. Suicidal people feel like the only solution is death and that’s simply why they do it. Those who have survived a suicide attempt usually express gratitude. The tunnel vision has often been moderated by the aftermath of the attempt and they appreciate their second chance at life.

Dear Mork, thank you for the gift of laughter. I deeply regret that it came at the expense of your own heart. I am so sorry we were unable to repay the debt you were due and help you see you could still choose life at this darkest of times. To everyone touched in any way by this tragic death, please remember that suicide is never the answer. When things get bleak and hopeless, ask for help. There is something worth living for, you've just lost sight of it. If you are feeling suicidal remember you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. There is always someone who can help.