Image via Flickr user Hot Gossip Italia
There are still some details emerging about Robin Williams’ death. Opinions about his choices and facts about his habits are both being dumped into the same case folder. Details can be a comfort. They make us think we have the full picture. We have to assign something to the void he left behind, don’t we? Or else there is dark matter in the universe, threatening to cancel us out.
I ran a “Dealing with Death” workshop for teenagers for nine years. Suicide was a heavy thing to talk to 14-18 year olds about, but I was very happy to do it, and I did so on a volunteer basis out of an alcohol and drug prevention program at my old high school. I’d started there as volunteer support staff in the program in 1996, hoping to give back to a program that had helped me when I was an alternately manic and withdrawn teenager. But then in 2001 my brother committed suicide, and my function at the program became a little more specific. I don’t know if I was any good at it, but I armed myself with comforting books about the Buddhist concepts of grief and permanence and I listened to kids talk about suicide a whole lot. And I would try and say things that made sense about the psychic wound that suicide carves.
Being dead is not a good thing. Suffering is also not a good thing. So what are we supposed to choose when it’s got to be one or the other? The secret is that being alive is a flawed concept that is absolutely terrifying. There is so much of it to observe, but none of it is ours for long.
I would say that to teenagers, hoping I was right. Yes, there was some stuff about drugs and alcohol going on in the program, but this was my niche within it.
Only a month before his death, Robin Williams checked into an addiction treatment center to help him focus on his sobriety. His representative made it publicly known. But forget the stigmas of drugs and alcohol use for a second. Can you? I recommend it, because not judging people for doing drugs makes you surprisingly more fun for everyone to be around.
Treatment centers are places where people listen to you talk. You are given rituals and routines and structure to combat the chaotic impulses that would draw you into the abyss. Going to this center is not a sign that Robin Williams was falling apart; it was a sign that he was attempting to take control of his life. If you use the term addict to describe Robin Williams, you minimize the larger theme of his life: he had mastered control.
Due to my offstage social awkwardness I used to frequent online message boards about comedy. Back in 2001 the anonymity of the internet made it possible for some of those in the community to take cheap shots at those who had died in those terrorist attacks. Yes, most of the community rallied around it. But then there were these particularly uninspiring bottom-of-the-barrel jokes, jokes solely for the sake of being dark. I’m willing to admit that jokes about death and destruction can bring an amazing amount of levity. But these were the sort of hollow, mad-grab attempts at attention that one sees now on social media and YouTube comments. Only they were on message boards, so way way longer (Thanks for giving some ritualistic guidelines to your bleakness, Twitter. It’s like an addiction clinic within an addiction).
Given that Robin Williams had collected headlines for his drug use, nobody should be surprised that there are cheap, coke-dusted punches being thrown at him. People can, so they do. This is what happens when celebrities die. The impulse isn’t exclusively online, either. Stand-up comedy open mics become wastelands of morbid low-blows taking eager advantage of the fact that every stranger in the audience shares a precious shred of knowledge: That celebrity is dead now. It almost doesn’t matter who a celebrity is when they die, their release from this plane of existence nearly guarantees a sideshow of puns and free-associations at dingy bars in every major city. If you follow a comedian on social media, you have either seen them make these jokes themselves, or you have seen them lament, “Oh no, the open mics are going to be a shitshow for a month.”
So maybe when Robin Williams is being reduced to a punchline, he is just being eased back into the collective subconscious. The joke teller is now a joke to some people. Perhaps that is the natural order of things, and legacy is always destined to focus on controversy.
But let’s be honest, lots of people do drugs. Is doing them even remarkable? People who run media do drugs. Anti-drug politicians constantly do drugs. Robin Williams wrote into his live performance rider that every event must also hire homeless labor. Those homeless people almost for sure did some drugs. The people who organized the event did. But Robin Williams was sober for a long time. In fact, due to the fact that I have been aware of my own intense depression and anxiety since I was a child, I’ve never done a drug outside of cigarettes, alcohol, or caffeine. And I had to quit caffeine after once going over 24 hours without ingesting anything but energy drinks. I had a three-hour panic attack, thinking it was a heart attack because my arm had gone numb. I’m glad there are people who talk about their personal brain chemistry not being good for certain things, or else I might have tried some really weak weed and bummed some people out with my reaction.
We know that Robin Williams was suffering from anxiety, depression, and chillingly enough he had Parkinson’s disease as well. There are rumors that comedians need to suffer to fuel their craft. But Robin Williams lived and worked in spite of all of these things. He managed himself. He was not a victim of his addiction; he was a human being who had a powerful army of gears turning inside of him. If you call him weak or a coward, you’ve forgotten what it took him to get this far.
He was likely taking medications prescribed by legal doctors who didn’t hang out in cartoon alleys. And these kinds of medications may have had frightening effects on a person’s mood. Parkinson’s itself is directly linked to depression because of the effects it has on the brain. He’d had heart surgery in 2009, which is often said to lead to hormone changes and depression. And Robin Williams was not ready to talk about his Parkinson’s diagnosis yet, likely so he would not have to read the sort of dumb speculative bullshit being strewn across the web. Sure, he had somewhere between zero and twelve layers of intense sadness to live through. This was perhaps because he was composed of blood, and bones, and had a complicated system of dendrites and synapses to manage, the smaller parts of a larger working brain of someone you might have related to as a person. If we’d really known him.
Robin Williams had appeared to conquer his anxiety and ride it like a bucking dragon-steed. And for all the cliches of sad comedians, Robin Williams took on dark and frightening acting roles as often as he could. There are suddenly a lot of articles lamenting Robin Williams as tragic, but he is not. He is gone, and if he had stayed it would have been crushingly hard for him. That is how life works.
If one looks past headlines and status updates, this death takes on the quiet and disturbing intimacy of any crime scene. That is because Robin Williams was real. He was what forensic scientists and police detectives sometimes refer to as a human fucking person.
I did not know Robin Williams. But one time I had to follow him in a stand-up comedy show where he did a drop-in set. Walking onstage felt like being a nuclear engineer who had to enter a reactor core post-meltdown. I’d missed the big event and was expected to contain the energy as much as I could before the radiation poisoning took its toll on me. I could not assign any meaning to what hung in the air on that stage. The jokes had simply been written upon the molecules of the soil.
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