When laughter gets swallowed by the dark

So sad when the demons win. Connie Di Pietro-Sparacino

The creative mind houses all manner of demons, but those of a comedian have sharper teeth it seems. What a terrible loss. Dale Long

Robin WilliamsI remember it vividly, even though it was thirty-four years ago. It was the morning of December 9, 1980, a Tuesday, just like today.

And like today, that long-ago Tuesday was a supremely sad one. I heard from the announcer on the radio that John Lennon had died the night before. And my world changed.

I couldn’t imagine a world without John Lennon in it. Truth be told, thirty-four years later, I still can’t.

Last night, I picked up my phone, logged into Facebook and read

Jesus. Robin Williams died of an apparent suicide.

His family… Wow… I can’t deal with this right now.

And my world changed. Again.

In this day and age, it doesn’t take long to determine the deeper story. It’s one we’ve heard many times. A celebrity, seemingly someone who has it all: wealth, a rewarding career, a loving family, adoring fans…but is dogged by something darker. Addictions. Depression.

Robin Williams, the man that could make almost anyone laugh, couldn’t find enough light in the world to carry on. I can’t imagine that. I can’t conceive of it. Just like I can’t imagine a world without him.

Many celebrities die. God knows we lose enough that there’s website devoted to tracking the latest one to go. And each time, we shake our heads and say, “Gone too soon. So sad. What a waste.” And it’s the case here too.

Right now, I’m sad. I’m hurting. I’m grieving as though this was someone I knew all my life. In a way I did, if only through the television and movie screens.

But most of all, I’m angry. I’m pissed right off.

The difference for me, I guess, is the person. In this case, Robin Williams. He wasn’t just a movie star. He wasn’t just a comedian. It wasn’t a job for him, it wasn’t his career. It was encoded into him. Whether he was on stage, performing for thousands, or standing face to face with one other person, he was always on. He saw the world differently from the rest of us. His brain worked differently from ours.

You could see it in his improv, especially when he shared the stage with someone else. If that other person was smart, they’d simply get out of the way and let Robin go. Because his mind was a finely tuned machine. He made connections where most of us saw nothing. He found humour where there was none to be found. He turned his performance into an Olympic-calibre sport. And no one could touch him.

But, of course, there was the dark side. He had his demons, like the rest of us. But some of us have bigger demons than others, ones that whisper in their ear constantly, always trying to get them into a room alone so they can hammer and beat them down. And there’s no escaping that demon. Many find a way to deal with it, but it never goes away.

Unfortunately, Robin’s demon finally gained the upper hand. A horrible, devastating way for a man that brought joy to an entire world to go.

He’s not the first to commit suicide. Or suffer from addictions. Or depression. He won’t, unfortunately, be the last.

A very smart man that I know once told me that anxiety and depression often affects the highly intelligent simply because they’re capable of reasoning out all the bad things that can happen. They can see the deeper levels of the world and be affected by them, instead of bumbling along, blissfully unaware, thinking all is wonderful.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all happy people are stupid. They absolutely are not. And I think any of us would trade places with a perennially happy person.

I’m also not saying that those that are not as intelligent can’t suffer from depression. I know they can, I know they do.

All I’m saying is, I’ve seen a great many very intelligent people–those people who should “know better” and that should “snap themselves out of it” –dealing with depression and thoughts of inferiority and unworthiness.

All I’m saying is, we’re all worthy of being happy. Of not feeling inferior.

Ed Kurtz, a great man and gifted writer, said something profound in his blog yesterday. He said

ya’ll have only the very best intentions when you implore sufferers of depression to “reach out” or “seek help.” I appreciate that deeply and I can see how kind your heart is to make that statement. The trouble with this sentiment is that people like me don’t always know how, or don’t believe at a given moment that we can, or don’t even want to. We withdraw. We get trapped in our heads. We slink off into the ouroboros of our own solitude.

And, even though I have quite a few loved ones that suffer from depression, I was one of those kind-hearted fools. He’s right, of course. If Robin Williams could have reached out, I’m sure he would have. Instead, he withdrew. He got trapped in his head. He got lost. And we lost him.

I know Ed is right, because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the cries for help. I saw someone cry out on Facebook and no one picked up on it. I went to my wife and pointed out the post. She agreed it was a cry for help. And she was able to help in some small way.

But what if no one had noticed? I’ve lost cousins and friends and, I’m guessing, my father, because no one noticed. Or didn’t notice enough.

So I’m begging you. If you notice something that’s off with someone you love, ask. And keep asking until you’re satisfied. They might reach out if they need help, but if you reach out to them, it just might show them that whispering bitch of a demon is wrong and there is someone who cares. That there is a reason to push that demon aside one more time.

And for God’s sake, and for the sake of your loved ones, don’t treat someone with depression as a pariah. You wouldn’t push them away if they got sick, would you? Well, that’s what this is, it’s a sickness that’s harder to see, but just as real.

I am, by nature, a somewhat optimistic cynic. I expect the worst, but hope for the best, I guess. But there’s no upside to what happened last night…unless we can somehow lift the shroud and expose these demons to the light of day.

Robin Williams

Robin Williams not only made people laugh, he helped people. He helped Christopher Reeve after his accident. He did what he could to cheer the cast of Schindler’s List as they reenacted one of the darkest moments in mankind’s history.

Let’s try and turn this terrible loss into something that means something. Let Robin Williams be the face and the voice of those who find the courage to laugh in the face of depression.

And if you need help, try to fight it long enough to reach out.
Suicide Prevention – Find a Centre



10 thoughts on “When laughter gets swallowed by the dark

  1. Wonderful, Tobin. I hope if there is any good to come from Robin’s death, it’s *how* to try to help those suffering from depression. We have brought it out into the light as an issue affecting more than we know, and are doing our best to remove its stigma, but that last inch of reaching those who have withdrawn eludes us.

    We need to keep fighting to bridge that inch and this piece brings us closer.

  2. Your post is a beautiful and wonderful thing and I can only hope that people read your words and take them to heart. As a person who suffers from some form of social anxiety disorder, I understand exactly what you were saying about people thinking and saying that we should just “snap out of it.” I have had good-intentioned people tell me for years that I just have to “get over it” and “go out and meet people” as if it were just that simple. I, myself, have not yet found the courage to get professional help for my issues. It is a difficult thing to do. Acknowledging that you have a problem may be the first step to getting help, but it takes quite a few steps to get to the getting help point. I have found in my own situation that if people know, and accept, that I have this problem then it is a little bit easier to deal with. I still won’t be the one to walk up to someone new and say hello, or be anything but the wall flower at a party, but by people knowing I have the problem they can appreciate the effort it took just for me to show up. So I agree with you – keep asking the questions, keep yourself in front of the person who is depressed or anxious or otherwise dealing with a mental health issue. Make sure we know you are there and that you care. It could be the one thing that makes all the difference in the world.

    • Hey Kristi, thank you for your comments. I know someone very near and dear to me that suffers from social anxiety. I can tell you it took them a long time to decide to get counseling as well (because they knew they were being “silly” and that they could just get through it…but it’s never that simple, is it?). It took two different counselors, but they finally found someone who helped them.

      And the difference is amazing. I know everyone reacts differently, but please try and leap that gulf and see if someone can help you. And if the first one doesn’t, then keep seeking for that right person.

      Because, Kristi, you’re worth it. It’s not something that’s “wrong” with you, you’re just wired differently. Not wrong. Just different. And you are worthy of overcoming this. Believe that.

  3. I am so sad to loose Robin as well as many others. We have a few in our family fighting the same darkness. I try to help but words are never enough. How do we help our lost families out of this darkness. ?? RR.

    • You can be there for them. You can educate yourself on what they’re going through (which helps a lot…I didn’t understand it myself, so I read a lot, and talked to a lot of people). You’ll still mess up and say the wrong things sometimes, but just being there, making the effort, letting them know you want to help in any way, I think it helps. It can’t hurt.

      And I’ve learned that sometimes all you need to ask them is, “What do you need?” or simpler than that, simply a hug and tell them you hear them.

      Watch this. Yes, it’s a movie. Yes, it’s a scene with Robin Williams. But I’ve also seen this in action in real life. And it’s heartbreaking and it’s true.

  4. If anything, this may make people more aware and notice that the face that is put on in public is not the same as the one behind closed doors. He gave up because he was tired of being that funny public personality. That’s a lot of work trying to prove to everyone that you are OK. People you know that have that are always “on” are the ones that you do need to ask, what can I do or what do you need.

  5. Yes, just yes.
    I may be way off base in this, but it seems to me that the symptoms/signs of depressions are not easy to detect and are very rarely the same. There is no cure, no easy pill or fix and depression, quite often, doesn’t have ears, you can’t talk it back from the edge. It won’t let us hear. That is what is so frustrating. That Robin was a balm for a lot of people but never for himself is what makes this so heart wrenching. He was there, just a click away, for us, but we weren’t there for him.

    • They aren’t easy to detect, and a lot of that is because so many people have become so adept at hiding them. Because there’s such a stigma around it.

      If you’re mentally unwell, you’ll probably “go postal” and shoot up a school full of children.

      Anyone with half a brain understands this is simply not true.

      What scares me right now is, how many people are out there, hurting, depressed and maybe thinking they can’t make it. Then the world learns that someone like Robin Williams gave in. I’m scared of the impact this will have on others. If Robin couldn’t do it, what chance do they have?

      It often won’t let us hear, as you said, Dale. So, maybe we have to reach out and touch.

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