Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times?
— Russell Brand, comedian/actor
Like millions, I am sitting with the fact that one of the funniest people to grace the planet has died by his own hand. Robin Williams’ death has hit people of my generation, Generation X, especially hard. After all, his face flashed often across our childhood screens. Mork and Mindy episodes were a source of solace for me as a little girl, as I bounced around between foster homes and family members’ homes, while my single mother cycled in and out of the state mental hospital, fighting to survive. I could laugh and say “nanu, nanu – shazbot” and “KO” and do the silly hand sign and forget for just a little while about living a life I didn’t ask for.
“You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it,” may become one of Robin Williams’ most famous quotes. I was always struck by how he moved so seamlessly between wacky comedy and the most intense dramas. He was so magnificently able to capture the human experience in all its extremes. He threw all that intensity right into our faces, undeniable, raw, frenetic. He showed us our own naked vulnerability and sparks of madness and gave us permission to laugh in the face of all that is wrong in this world.
In the wake of his death, many people are understandably jumping to identify causes. Depending on who you talk to, Robin Williams’ suicide was caused by depression, it was caused by bipolar disorder, it was caused by the drugs, prescription or otherwise. We just don’t know.
As a suicide attempt survivor myself, I can attest that it’s not that easy to find any single cause for the urge to die. It’s true that along with street drugs, SSRI antidepressants and other psych drugs can certainly increase suicide risk in some people. A decade ago, I was one of many who fought and won to get to the FDA to put a black box warning on SSRIs to warn the public of these very real risks. While a drug, legal or illegal, may give us the impetus we wouldn’t otherwise have had to act on suicidal thoughts, for some of us it’s more complex than that.
Our reasons for wanting to die are as varied as our reasons for wanting to live. That, I believe, is the great mystery of suicide.
But I invite us all not to fear the mystery; not to be struck hopeless by it. We can save each other’s lives; better yet, we can find and share reasons to keep on living. If we have 20 seconds, we can share information about a hotline or a warmline. But if we want to really see this horrific epidemic end, we all have to get more involved.
As someone who has looked into the void and longed for it more than once, I can attest that anyone who reaches out in those darkest of times is truly remarkable. It is, tragically, when I am most distressed and most in need of love and acceptance, that I have the hardest time reaching out. This is not an absolution of personal responsibility, because we all must accept some measure of that; rather a recognition that we shouldn’t put the full onus on a suicidal person to “reach out” and “ask for help.” We need to reach out and help. I have written about the problems with the master narrative of suicide prevention, and how punitive and dehumanizing much of the “help” out there currently is. This blog isn’t about that. I’m talking about help that heals.
My point is that we must change the way we relate to ourselves and one another. In revolutionary ways. We must wake up to the fact that we have been socialized since birth to hide the fullness of who we really are. Robin Williams got to act it all out and the world loved him for it. He expressed the madness, the wildness, that we have been conditioned to hide. We are generally chastised for laughing too hard or crying too loud or being too sensitive. We have been trained to put on a proper face and act like all is well. If for some reason we can’t naturally do that (and most of us can’t), we devise ways to cope with the awful unbearableness of it all. They may be fairly innocuous, like binge watching Orange is the New Black in bed all weekend long. Or we may seek to stop the pain in innumerable ways that we know will kill us in the end — from binge eating to chain smoking to staring down a bottle of whiskey or pills.
If we only realized just how many people walked around carrying heavy burdens that are invisible to the world, and were doing every fucking thing possible to keep from cracking under the weight, we would stop feeling so alone and isolated carrying our own. We could put down our burdens and rest, in the all-encompassing field of our human vulnerability and strength.
“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a hard battle,” said theologian Ian MacLaren. I am struck by the imperative need for us all to take up the challenge to be kinder to ourselves and others. There is so much suffering in the world. How often do we ask ourselves, in the midst of responding to Facebook posts, Tweets, and emails: how can I relieve suffering? At the very least, how do I not add to it?
No one person can fix this mess we have gotten ourselves into as a species, but we can each be a part of bringing more compassion and acceptance into the world. First, we have to learn to practice it with ourselves. We can be the antidote to the fear and sorrow that exists within us, in other people, and in the world “out there.” Kindness is dismissed as bullshit in a world that values power over others. But as mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg reminds us, kindness is a “force.” If unleashed in vast quantities, it could literally reverse the cycle of misery on this planet.
When will we stop walking around in these miraculous, vulnerable human bodies seeing ourselves as separate? What will it take for us to realize our interconnectedness; to act from a deep understanding that suicidal people are not to be feared and judged, but to be embraced and held in the light of understanding and true empathy? Empathy sees that we are all connected, and thus demands well-being for all.
I think of the people who report walking to the bridge and said to themselves, “if one person smiles at me or talks to me, I won’t jump.” Lately I try to go out of my way to smile at people, to talk to people, even if they look at me funny because they aren’t used to random strangers smiling at them or talking to them. Come to think of it, I think talking to strangers is definitely a symptom of some severe mental disorder in the DSM-V.
But seriously, folks. It strikes me that breaking down our collective walls of isolation, of chiseling away our carefully constructed masks, of taking care of ourselves and each other, of judging less and loving more, may be among the most important things we can do with our lives. We can simply value people, not for what they do or what they achieve in the world, but because they are alive on this planet with us, right now, sharing these troubled, turbulent and painfully beautiful times.
In the end, we are stunningly diverse, yet there are basic human needs that we all have in common. The ancient practice of lovingkindness exhorts us to wish for ourselves and all beings to be safe, to be healthy, to be free, to live with ease. How can we create a world where these universal human needs are met? I think this is one of the primary questions we should all be asking ourselves right now, and figuring out the answers together.
I don’t claim that smiling at the person who makes your coffee or talking to a stranger on the metro will save the planet. What I do believe is that if we all made human connection, safety, and a sense of shared belonging among our top priorities, if we all tried in ways large and small to end our collective isolation and suffering, this world would be a safer place to be human. And a lot of people might not be eager to leave so soon.
Nanu, nanu, Robin Williams. Rest in peace.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.