Sadly, it’s nothing new — a celebrity either directly or indirectly ends their own life. It was Philip Seymour Hoffman, most recently; Heath Ledger, previously; and the list continues.
Now, Robin Williams is gone. Removed from the world directly by his own hand.
As much as I was moved by deaths of other celebrities who hold a place within me, there is something noticeably more difficult to accept with Robin Williams’ suicide.
When I heard the news this past week, I found it difficult to say anything. I attempted to write a quick tribute on Facebook, much like many others were able to to do, however I deleted it before posting. I couldn’t find words that did justice to my sadness and confusion. I mean, how could the man who played Peter Pan take his own life??
I don’t think this was a case of, “He just seemed so happy.” The whole idea of Robin Williams dying by suicide just couldn’t register. I finally realized that it was more what Robin Williams appeared to stand for in the world that made it more difficult to comprehend.
Robin Williams seemingly embodied what on some level we all strive for — the ability to be a kid while also still being able to be a balanced adult, and vice versa.
In some ways, Robin Williams mastered the game of life by seemingly not even having to play it. He appeared completely comfortable to allow his inner child to be on the outside, to the point that he made Hollywood his own personal playground. He made his living playing on a playground specifically designed for his emotions, desires, and abilities, and the public loved him for it — mainly because the child was so sweet and loving. There was no pretense, no need to impress, no social politics or rules to play by. He was who he was and he was accepted and loved for the parts he let us experience.
What was most impressive wasn’t just his ability to connect with the viewer’s inner child, it was his apparent ability to be a compassionate, empathic, and sensitive adult when it was time to be. He could be Mrs. Doubtfire, and then he could win an Oscar as Will Hunting’s therapist.
What’s more difficult to digest in all of this is the reality of the depth of suffering of a person who appeared to spend his life having incredible success being who he wanted to be at any given moment. He didn’t seem to only play roles, he seemed to live and fully be the roles. He seemed to truly enjoy his work…not just study and do a good job. And in some way, this is what many of us emotionally strive for — being able to acknowledge our inner child in a satisfying way, while also being able to live within the boundaries of our daily lives as adults — whatever this may entail for each of us.
We could all speculate on the underlying issues that led to his suicide, but any explanation would only assist in helping us deny the reality: Robin Williams had a deeply suffering part of him, and he chose to end his life.
This leaves a lingering question (among many others): If Robin Williams — who appeared to be the master of summoning joy — couldn’t find some element of joy worth remaining alive for, what does that mean for all of us? What are we all striving for if the man who seemed to successfully live life on his own terms couldn’t be satisfied enough to keep living?
The answer first takes recognition of a notion that I found difficult to come to terms with: we didn’t know all of Robin Williams. At times, it may have felt like he let us in to his deepest childhood and adult states of emotion. However, there was more he didn’t let the world experience (possibly a part he wanted to hide from, as well, considering his multiple addictions). He was a great actor, and embodied many fantasies for many people. But this is also a man who suffered greatly, even if we may never know what his demons truly were.
For me, the reason his death is so difficult to take is because I wanted to believe that what we saw of Robin Williams was in fact who he was. And really, what he gave to us was still part of him. He brought life to these characters through parts of himself. And was so convincing in these roles, that it became easy to feel that Robin Williams was giving his full self to the world.
But in the end, we’re reminded that that’s what we saw on screen. Characters. Showing the world only what the character was meant to show. Sure, they were parts of Robin Williams, but they weren’t all of him. It’s hard to juxtapose these beloved characters portrayed by Robin Williams with the depth of darkness that remained mostly hidden from our view.
Robin Williams wasn’t a fantasy character. He was a human being. We all have demons, even people who don’t seem to have to live by life’s unwritten rules. His suicide didn’t just remove a great actor and person from this world, it broke the idealization and reminded us that things aren’t always as they appear and that perfection doesn’t exist. There are always two sides to a coin.
While Robin Williams appeared to live without pretense, it now seems possible that much of what we saw of him was his way of burying a deep, dark, place within himself. And what we saw was most likely genuine — the joy, the fun, the humor, the love — it was all real. But there’s only so much one can do to cover the demons. He wasn’t just making the world happy when he performed; performing was most likely how he made himself happy. We didn’t see Robin Williams in his daily life once his work was over and he could step out of character. I can’t help but wonder if his happiest moments were when he was working, performing, and creating characters…and not having to sit with himself in silence.
For all of us, the hope is that we can acknowledge our demons in a healthy way before they overtake us. And if they show up, to get help. Don’t wait until you feel hopeless. Go to therapy, go to rehab, call a friend or family member, call a hotline, etc. If you’re suffering, take a healthy step to make it known to someone. Trying to deal alone only adds to the suffering.