Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A light in the dark

Like a lot of people, I'm still trying to process Robin Williams's apparent suicide. I spent most of my adult life in the Bay Area, and several years with some attachment to the comedy scene, so it was impossible not to have some contact with Robin Williams. I remember in the early 1980's, I was at work when word broke that Robin was going to do a set at Foothill College, a community college in Los Altos Hills. My recollection is that the concert, which was held in the college's stadium, was free--just show up. His opening act was singer Bobby McFerrin, and as I recall, the two of them were working out material for a tour that they were about to begin. This was a few years before McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" became a hit, and for most of us, it was the first time that we'd heard McFerrin. It turned out that McFerrin's improvisational singing was a perfect match for Williams's improvisational comedy. It was a wonderful performance by both of them, and I remember it thirty years later.

About ten years later, I met Robin's first son, Zack, and his first wife, Valerie Velardi, both of whom were very kind to me. I visited their home in San Francisco and saw Zack's bedroom; Robin had made sure to equip him with the newest and best Apple Macintosh computers. Zack could have been spoiled, the son of show business royalty, but he was totally down-to-earth.

Robin Williams's struggles with drug and alcohol addiction are well documented. There was a darkness to him that was rarely visible in public but that became more readily apparent in private interchanges with his friends. I won't go further. When I first heard that he died yesterday of an apparent suicide, I was shocked, but the surprise was lessened when I heard that he had been struggling with depression. As someone who's dealt with depression for most of my life, I know how quickly and easily it can turn into a struggle to stay alive. Depression warps your perception--it makes you think that things will never get better, and that death is the only escape. Anyone who thinks that this was a voluntary act on his part doesn't understand depression at all. It isn't something that you control--it's something that controls you.

We've lost one of the best comedians of our lifetimes, and someone who could have had many more years of productive life. On the other hand, his pain is over. The pain of severe depression is overwhelming and excruciating, and it's really impossible to understand if you haven't gone through it yourself. I hope that we use this loss as an opportunity to better understand depression and suicide. More people die each year in the U.S. from suicide than from auto accidents, but the media rarely cover it out of fear that it will encourage more people to take their own lives.

We need to start paying attention to depression, and to recognize that it's a medical condition in the same way that heart disease or cancer is a medical condition. It's important for us to remember how much joy Robin Williams gave us for so long, but it's equally important for us to use his death as a catalyst to learn more about depression and make mental health as important as physical health.
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