The first dead celebrity I cared about was Heath Ledger.
Heath died my senior year of high school, and I found out about it by scrolling through ONTD at home when I should have been doing homework. It was the first time I ever really had an emotional reaction to a famous person dying. I vividly remember sitting back in my chair, taking a deep breath, and thinking about all of the movies I would never watch the same way, all of the amazing talent we’d never see on screen again. I felt…sad. Really, really sad. I may have cried, though I don’t remember for sure. But a few hours later, I was okay again. Every now and then, when I watch A Knight’s Tale or 10 Things I Hate About You, I feel that same dull feeling of sadness, but it’s replaced pretty quickly by humor and fond memories.
Yesterday, Robin Williams died.
Robin Williams was a part of my life in a way that few famous people ever were. Aladdin was the first movie my parents took me to see in theaters. My father (whose name is Peter) always joked that he was really Peter Pan, and Hook has always touched me in a way that’s hard to properly put into words. Good Morning Vietnam taught me the need for laughter in times of pain and fear and anger. Dead Poet’s Society was my go-to movie to explain to my friends why literature was so more than just the stuffy books our English teachers graded us on; it was love, and beauty, and passion, wrapped up in language so eloquent it brings tears to your eyes.
There’s been a lot of talk online about Robin’s death and the circumstances surrounding it. Some people are waxing poetic about beauty and lives cut too short, others are just raw, others are angry. Talk of suicide does that to people; it’s more raw, in many ways, than most of us like to admit. I suspect that in the coming days we will see a lot of this: frank discussion of mental illness, of suicide, validation of pain while attempting to also understand the anger of those left behind. There will be talk of depression, and those of us with mental illness will try–desperately, as we always do–to get people to understand that mental illness does not discriminate. Depression and other mood disorders don’t care about income, or fame, or the loved ones in our lives. They take and take, and we fight as long and hard as we can. And sometimes, some of us can’t fight anymore.
We’ll talk a lot about hidden pain. This will be unfair, because Robin was vocal, for many years, about his struggles with bipolar disorder, depression, and addiction. He was honest, and allowed many to put a face to confusing, terrifying concepts. We will say–I’ve seen this already–things like, “The happiest people hide the most darkness,” or, “The funniest people are the saddest.” And maybe this is true. Humor is the greatest of coping mechanisms. It’s easier, often, to laugh than to cry, less of a risk to make others laugh than to invite them to cry with us. Humor is giving yourself back the ability to find joy and light in the world.
Robin said this himself: “Comedy is acting out optimism.”
Some will ask that Robin’s legacy be his depression: that we remember that even the funniest, brightest people in our lives can be suffering without our knowledge, and to therefore treat everyone we meet and know with compassion, with kindness, with unfailing support. In some ways, this is fair: every person we know should be treated with respect and kindness. But Robin’s death should not cancel his life.
Because Robin Williams was many things. Robin Williams was funny, and smart, and kind, and artistic, and generous.
And he was sad.
But he was sad in addition to all of these other things, which is so important. Because when you are depressed, sadness can feel like the only thing that you are. It can be crushing in its heaviness and sometimes it blacks everything else out. Other times, it is completely absent, and takes everything else with it, until you can’t be sad, but you feel like can’t be funny or kind or happy or loving, either, and you want sadness to come back.
But you still are all of those other things. The people around you see those things, written in the lines around your eyes and the movement of your hands, in the ways your lips twitch and the touch of your fingertips on their brow. You remain all the things you ever were: a genie, a radio host, a nanny, a scientist, a boy who wouldn’t grow up. Sometimes, if you are very lucky, you find your way back to those things by yourself. Other times, you do not, but the rest of us, we remember them for you.
Suicide is a crushing thing. It takes multiple lives: the person who dies, and the people who mourn them. It is neither selfish nor brave; it is neither beautiful nor ugly. It is neither freedom nor failure. It is a way of dying, and like all ways of dying, it is painful, and exhausting, and those behind are left to pick up the pieces, and to remember a person that they loved.
So goodbye, Robin. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for lending your voice to the genie who taught me about freedom and honesty, for memories that connect my childhood to my husband’s and, someday, our children’s. Thank you for being simultaneously joyous and broken, dark and insightful, clever and kind. Thank you for being a hero to so many, and for fighting for as long as you did.
Rest now, my friend.
I hear there’s seating near the front.
Heard joke once:
Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed.
Says life seems harsh and cruel.
Says he feels all alone in threatening world,
where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain.
“Treatment is simple.
Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him.
That should cheer you up.”
Man bursts into tears.
Says: “But doctor,
I am Pagliacci.”
Roll on snare drum.