Robin Williams’ death has affected me deeply. I and countless others grew up knowing and loving his impressions, his characters, that sunny smile that projected so easily. You could believe what he told you: a trusted adult among children. He was a constant presence in my media as a child and teenager, and it’s not just that familiarity, that sense of distant family, that I mourn when I think of him. It’s the hammering heart and stuttering breath of someone who has narrowly missed being hit by a car. Those stumbling, rapidly blinking moments of numbness that stretch into minutes as you stand frozen on the side of the road, the car long since gone. A near miss, and you’re not sure if you’re relieved.
As a fellow human being living with depression, when I heard he had committed suicide, a wave of desperate, intimate despair smacked me down into the surf. I know what it is to feel alone.
It does little to convey the abyss that those of us face when living with depression. It’s solitary confinement in a crowd. It’s drowning incrementally while holding your husband’s hand and looking at the menu for the little Mediterranean place y’all frequent. It becomes a suffocating state in perpetuity. Even days where the load is lighter are still steeped and inky in places. It’s a struggle to be happy, to be grateful, to see the silver lining, even when you have full, logical knowledge that your life is good.
Calvin & Hobbes frequently poked fun at modern art, and Calvin titles one of his grotesque snow sculptures “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” This is darkly humorous, for the eponymous novel sought to challenge Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence with this phrase, that the life we live and the choices we make are not heavy, as Nietzsche implies, but light and fleeting, impossible to hold. Calvin’s temporary snow sculptures were the perfect vehicle to explore such concepts.
Living with depression is, for me, like living with Nietzsche riding piggyback on my person, constantly talking to me about his theories of nihilism. This is not a discredit to the man, but the best metaphor I can conjure at present. (Academically, I appreciate and even agree with many of his controversial philosophical stances). Depression is constantly telling me about the meaninglessness of my existence, discrediting my aspirations, mocking my inability to find motivation to rise above a survival state.
The majority of modern comedians live with a variety of mental illnesses. It is no surprise that people who upend and analyze the truths of our human existence suffer from the dark side of those very truths. The Pagliacci story from Watchmen is circulating in conjunction with Robin’s death, and it’s all too fitting for a man open about the struggle to live with addiction and depression. People have said: “How can a man that brought us such joy kill himself? He had fame and fortune; what drove him to death?” Those people do not see the dichotomy of life as starkly, as sharply as creative people. Or worst, exercising empathy for others is more difficult than spouting half-baked, incendiary commentary. Robin’s senseless death reminds us of our shared humanity, that the materialistic trappings of our world do nothing to soothe the soul.
All the above is to say that I know, in my own way, a sliver of how Robin felt, and I am desperately sad that in his final moments, he was more alone than you can imagine, bereft of the love he knew his family, friends, and fans felt for him. It is impossible to explain if you haven’t been sucked into that undertow yourself. Depression is a liar, and after stalking Robin his entire life, it finally succeeded in taking a brilliant, genuinely magnanimous human being from our midst, and we are the poorer for it.
I hope you are at peace, Robin.