On August 11th, 2014, a dark cloud descended: Robin Williams, the man who had brought joy into millions of homes the world over, was pronounced dead. He had taken his own life. Countless people took to social media to express their profound sadness and loss; in his tribute to the fallen actor and stand-up comedian, former U.S. president Barack Obama encapsulated America’s collective grief as follows:1
He was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien — but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most — from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets.
Making his debut on the hit TV sitcom Mork & Mindy (1978-1982) as an alien from planet Ork, Williams would go on to perform in the big screen in a number of starring roles—from radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam (1987), to the gender-bending Daniel Hillard/Euphegenia Doubtfire of Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) fame, to widower and psychotherapist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting (1997), for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
As his decades-long career illustrates, Williams’s acting possessed both breadth and depth. He was capable of inhabiting a multitude of roles, and through his embodiment of those roles eliciting a range of emotions from viewers. One moment, as the Genie of Alladin (1992), he provokes uncontrollable laughter with his wild voice impersonation of fifty-two distinct characters. The next moment, he elicits both fear and pity as a lonely photo technician whose obsession with a particular family takes a decidedly dangerous turn (One Hour Photo, 2002). Williams had “the ability to go from manic to mad to tender and vulnerable,” and so immersed was he in his roles that during the filming of Mrs. Doubtfire, members of the public, and the cast and crew, treated him as if he really were an old lady.
But as Obama’s tribute makes clear, the world did not only lose a talent; it lost a kindred spirit. Robin Williams was not only a good actor but a good human being. When Christopher Reeve of Superman fame was in the hospital following the tragic horseback-riding accident that rendered him quadriplegic, Williams, in full regalia, arrived as a Russian proctologist, bringing laughter back into his best friend’s life. Similarly, when Steven Spielberg fell into a deep depression during the filming of Schindler’s List, Williams spent countless nights on the phone lightening the director’s dark moods with his irreverent humor. His uncanny ability to make others feel better, including those with the most sour disposition, would earn him the nickname “Doctor of Soul.”
His spirit of generosity extended to strangers as well, evident in his involvement in charitable causes like the Challenged Athlete Foundation, which provides prosthetics to athletes with disabilities, and the Starbright Foundation, which seeks to make the wishes of terminally ill children come true. Throughout his career, Williams also took part in six USO (United Service Organizations) tours, entertaining more than 89,000 servicemen and women stationed across thirteen countries. And with his good friends Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg he founded Comedy Relief, which raised funds for the homeless. Unlike many celebrities, however, Williams was unconcerned with cultivating a star persona; he did not take on too many causes to avoid diluting his involvement’s significance. The men, women, and children who had the pleasure of meeting him also described him as genuine and personable. He was not one to refuse an autograph, and according to one of his biographers, “even his worst detractors had to concede that he was an exceptionally generous man.”2
The suicide of Robin Williams was unfathomable to those who conflated the life with the work, for he was the quintessential happy man in their eyes. Those more familiar with his biographical life made sense of the suicide by recourse to the actor’s substance abuse history; he’d been spotted in a rehab facility just months prior to his death, after all. But as Susan Schneider, Williams’s third and last wife pointed out, Williams entered the facility not because he had relapsed, but to reinforce his commitment to sobriety.3 And there’s no reason to doubt her testimony to the press; toxicology reports revealed zero traces of drugs and alcohol in his system. Aside from substance abuse, the news offered two other explanations for the suicide: Williams’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia (which I will return to shortly), and his “mental illness.”
“This is an important story about a horrific disease: depression,” wrote one commentator.4 “America has to wake up and realize this is as serious as cancer, and more funding and awareness has to be raised.” According to a staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor, depression, alongside drug addiction, make up the “twin demons” of Williams’s career.5 Psychiatrists, both armchair and accredited, took to the soapbox as well. “We have to be ever mindful that depression is a real disease, it is common, it is serious, but it is treatable, and we have to keep talking about it,” says Dr. Harry Croft.6 “It’s a brain disorder, and it can affect anybody — the rich, the famous and the rest of us.” This disorder can make people “forget all the wonderful things in their lives,” according to Dr. Julie Cerel.7 “Having depression and being in a suicidal state twists reality. It doesn’t matter if someone has a wife or is well loved.”
The verdict, it would appear, is that depression “killed” Robin Williams. But others qualified the diagnosis by claiming that Williams was not only depressed but manic as well. More specifically, he was hypomanic. “Hypomania is exhibited in creative people, and successful entrepreneurs,” says Dr. Susan Biali.8 “They’re fast talkers, full of energy, funny, don’t need a lot of sleep — and their lives are often functioning very well. But it may alternate with bouts of depression.” In his letter to the editor of The New York Times, Dr. Henry J. Friedman9 says the death of Robin Williams highlights “the importance of differentiating types of depression, particularly bipolar from other types of depressive disorders.” The greatest irony in all of these efforts to pinpoint Williams’s brand of mental illness is that the actor himself never saw himself as mentally ill. He once told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air”:
No clinical depression, no. No, I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, “Whoa.” Other moments you look and go, “Oh, things are OK.” Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.
The above testimonials, which are representative of the wider coverage of Williams’s death, operate from the assumption that mania, depression, and mental illness in general are endogenous in origin, arising from within the individual—specifically, the human brain. The illness takes on a life of its own, as if the sufferer were possessed by a demon. What’s significant is that the experts make no reference to the concrete details of Williams’s life, except when looking for confirmation of the illness. They also have no qualms about diagnosing someone who had never set foot in their clinic or office. Williams’s exuberance on stage or in front of the camera is but a symptom of (hypo)mania, for example. His creativity is all but pathologized, and his suicide is framed as a depression-induced failure in reality testing; he was well-loved but could not see that he was well-loved, nor could he see that he was mentally ill. His death is mobilized in a call to arms to destigmatize mental illness, but in doing so the actor is depersonalized, reduced to abstractions and generalities bearing little semblance to the complexities of his life. Furthermore, his own perspective into his condition—his attribution of depression to very human causes—is rendered invalid.
When it became known that Williams had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s in November 2013, and may have been exhibiting symptoms as early as 2011,10 few commentators pointed their fingers at this latest culprit. But rather than ask what Parkinson’s must have felt like from the perspective of Robin Williams, they were more concerned with how the disease, and the medications used to treat it, might have exacerbated his clinical depression and anxiety—again, without reference to the concrete details of his life.11 In order to apprehend the role of Parkinson’s in Williams’s decision to die, it’s important to consider the lifeworlds of persons with the disease, in their own subjective terms—for how they interpret the bodily experience of losing their mobility and communicative ability, and the meanings they assign to such an experience.
Parkinson’s is a movement disorder resulting from abnormalities in the extrapyramidal motor system and associated pathways, and its main symptoms—collectively referred to as the “symptom triad”—are tremors, muscle rigidity, and slowness of movement (bradykinesia/hypokinesis).12 The course of this neurodegenerative disease is 10 to 25 years, and it is comprised of five stages—Stage 5 being the most severe, with the afflicted rendered so immobile s/he is bound to a wheelchair or bed.
The condition assaults values we hold dear in contemporary American society, “such as independence, competence and decency.”13 Due to loss of strength and manual dexterity, and the gradual yet painful transition from normal mobility to complete immobility, daily activities such as writing, buttoning one’s shirt, tying one’s shoelaces, maintaining one’s hygiene, preparing meals, and driving automobiles, progressively become more difficult if not dangerous and require tremendous effort. Many individuals with Parkinson’s speak of shame when discussing their condition and their growing reliance upon others, and those who depend upon their bodies for their livelihood are especially devastated. Their sense of physical competence is assailed, and unable to partake in roles and activities that once held meaning, their notion of self is radically altered, supplanted by a sick role. Being labeled as “disabled” creates a fissure between past and present selves and can greatly diminish one’s sense of self-worth.14
Parkinson’s calls into question the unity between mind and body, for the intact mind is suddenly trapped within an uncooperative body, a body that refuses to look and behave in socially valued ways and capitulate to the person’s will. When one is unable to speak normally or hold back one’s saliva when speaking, or project the emotion one genuinely feels due to rigid facial muscles, one cannot help but feel subjugated by one’s own body. While drug therapy can control the symptoms of Parkinson’s and lengthen the period of physical independence (though not indefinitely), long-term use can produce untoward side effects like hallucinations and further motor problems like dyskinesia, a state of extreme involuntary movement which causes the limbs to jerk and the face and torso to twist. In other words, even when the symptoms of Parkinson’s are attenuated via medication, the body continues to feel alien and unnatural, as if it does not belong to oneself. Moreover, the medicated body is felt by individuals to be in a state of constant flux and unrest—between movement and movement loss, between mental agility and cognitive lethargy.
The disease also thwarts one’s ability to communicate verbally and non-verbally. As I mentioned, there is a decrease in the mobility of facial muscles, resulting in what is commonly known as the “mask” or “stare” of Parkinson’s. Reduced facial expressiveness, in concert with stuttering, slurred speech, lowered volume and clarity, and difficulties with sustaining attention, can produce much anger and frustration. It is deeply saddening when one’s words and thoughts, once forthcoming, are suddenly choked, held captive within the solitary prison of one’s body.
The afflicted can feel especially stigmatized by others. Some express concern about the misattribution of symptoms to deviant behavior—for instance, being perceived as nervous or dishonest when one is trembling or sweating profusely during a stressful encounter, or being perceived as drunk when one misses a step and falls. Many resent feeling infantilized, treated as helpless, feeble, or senile and addressed in a condescending or patronizing manner. Because their partners and loved ones must now shoulder increased responsibility for their welfare, persons with Parkinson’s may feel themselves to be a burden. To counteract negative evaluations by others, some engage in activities that test the new limits on their bodies in perilous ways.
To avoid being treated differently, individuals may attempt to “pass” as persons without the disease (Martin, 2016; Nijhof, 1995). One might hide one’s trembling hands in one’s pockets or behind one’s back, for example, or restrict one hand with the other. Attempts to conceal or disguise symptoms can backfire, however. As one person explains, “I look worse when I disguise it because I’m doing contortions.”15 When unable to hide symptoms, and when unable to publicly present themselves in ways that align with their desired image of self, the individual might avoid social interaction and withdraw from public view altogether, so as not to risk further embarrassment or shame. Combined with a more tightly regimented life in which periods of rest and activity are planned, the feeling of being under constant surveillance, and the subsequent retreat from participation in social life, can lead to a deep sense of isolation and shrinkage of one’s world.
In sum, Parkinson’s calls into question one’s relationship to self, world, and other. The loss of automation exposes the fragility of the human body, undermining one’s agency and sense of security. Avenues for the creative expression of self are stifled by the disjuncture between mind and body. The self is devalued by the stigma of disability, and the world in which one dwells, once expansive in size, is suddenly diminutive. Thoughts of the distant future are truncated and life is lived on a moment-to-moment basis.
I do not paint such a grim picture to suggest that disability is a death sentence, or to imply that persons with Parkinson’s cannot live a rich and meaningful life in the company of loved ones. Far from it. Rather, I paint such a picture to illustrate how Robin Williams might have experienced Parkinson’s—whose symptoms he concealed for three full years prior to his suicide, and whose impact he must have felt long before an official diagnosis, as is the case for most persons with Parkinson’s.16 We must bear in mind that for actors and stand-up comedians like Williams, the body itself is the medium, the vehicle for the expression of a creative vision—in his words, “another colour you get to paint with.” Because his profession requires the use of the body in its entirety, someone as gifted in the expressive arts of performance and rhetoric is sure to suffer greatly when that body is suddenly faced with imminent deterioration. Williams was a fast talker, adept in the arts of mimicry and gesticulation, with a face that could capture pathos, bliss, and every shade of feeling in between. Parkinson’s would have undone the very foundation of his craft.
Three months after Williams’s suicide, the coroner’s report revealed that the actor was suffering from Lewy body dementia (LBD)—a diagnosis he was not privy to in life. As his last wife, Susan Schneider, explains, “Clinically he had PD, but pathologically he had diffuse LBD.”17 The two conditions fall within the same spectrum of diseases, but on opposite ends; both involve the presence of Lewy bodies, which are responsible for neural degeneration, but unlike Parkinson’s, persecution by Lewy body dementia is swift and merciless. It would appear that Williams was not only losing control of his body; he was losing his mind, and he was painfully aware of it. Billy Crystal had said that Williams’s “brain is the one thing that’s kept him buoyant.” But now, the man who once memorized hundreds of lines for the 2011 Broadway production, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, could not remember a single line when filming Night at the Museum 3 four months prior to his suicide. “I just want to reboot my brain,” he would say to Susan.
Williams’ mind and body were under attack, and in the following excerpt, Schneider provides a more concrete picture of his deterioration:
Robin was growing weary. The parkinsonian mask was ever present and his voice weakened. His left hand tremor was continuous now and he had a slow, shuffling gait. He hated that he could not find the words he wanted in conversations. He would thrash at night and still had terrible insomnia. At times, he would find himself stuck in a frozen stance, unable to move, and frustrated when he came out of it. He was beginning to have trouble with visual and spatial abilities in the way of judging distance and depth. His loss of basic reasoning just added to his confusion. (p. 1309)
Williams was reportedly sleeping up to eighteen hours per day, barely able to climb out of bed.18 He’d become so reclusive that he installed blackout curtains in his bedroom, the darkening of his world mirroring the darkening of his soul. “Can you imagine the pain he felt as he experienced himself disintegrating?” asks Schneider of her readers.
It should be apparent by now that the imminent deterioration of body and mind contributed to Williams’s suicide. However, this tells us nothing about what acting and comedy meant for him, besides the obvious fact that they were the source of his livelihood. In order to arrive at their meanings, and to apprehend what was truly at stake for him, we must go even deeper, to the formative years of his life.
Robin Williams was born on July 21, 1951 to Robert, a senior executive at Ford, and Laurie, an aspiring model and philanthropist. He described his parents as emotionally and geographically distant. They were often away on business or at charitable causes, leaving him under the constant care of nannies. Though he had a privileged upbringing, his childhood was one of unremitting loneliness: “I lived in that big house and I was pretty much alone… I was kind of out in a big farm in the country way away from everybody.” To complicate matters, he was bullied in school for being short, shy, and stout. Though he had two half-brothers from his parents’ previous marriages, they were much older and not very close, and so he made imaginary friends. He reportedly had a massive toy collection, consisting of two to ten thousand toy soldiers who kept him company. Though the numbers may have been exaggerated, they nonetheless reveal his emotional deprivation, and his need to satisfy an intense longing for human connection, a need that would persist in adulthood.
Williams spent much of his childhood seeking his parents’ attention and approval, and in this pursuit, he discovered the power of comedy. His first ever impersonation was of his grandmother, whom he mimicked so accurately, and so irreverently, that his mother was reduced to tears. Comedy thus became his means of sustaining ties with his mother: “I think maybe comedy was part of my way of connecting with my mother — ‘I’ll make Mommy laugh and that will be okay’ — and that’s where it started.” If he could make her laugh, he could win her love. Though his relationship with his father remained distant, his father recognized his talents and would later finance his pursuit of acting (quite the endorsement given the man’s pragmatism). Comedy would also become Williams’s primary means of relating to others:
And since I was suffering from a case of the terminal shy I couldn’t make friends that easily, and I always spent a lot of time in my room and I created my own little world full of all these little characters that had strange and unusual qualities. After a while, I realized that people found these characters funny and outrageous, and then it got to the point where I realized the characters could say and do things that I was afraid to do.19
Later in life, Williams confessed to a severe case of ‘Love Me Syndrome’ and an acute fear of abandonment—both rooted in childhood, and both quelled by acting and comedy. In making others laugh, he felt loved, and in feeling loved, he felt less alone. Williams felt most alive when seen by others.
It is not surprising that Williams starred in the role of “man-child” in a handful of movies—a role that fuses together the adult body with the innocence and naïveté of a child. To name but a few examples: In Hook (1991), Williams starred as Peter Banning, a father and corporate lawyer who had forgotten he was Peter Pan, and in remembering, rediscovers the magic of his childhood and the magic that continues to surround him. He then starred as Alan Parish in Jumanji (1995), a child who becomes trapped in the fantastic world of the titular board game, re-emerging decades later as an adult unschooled in the ways of civil society. And in Jack (1996), Williams played the role of a ten-year-old boy with Werner syndrome, which causes his character to age four times faster than the average person. The significance of these roles stems not from his authorial control over the script, which varied from film to film, but in the resonances between them and the subjective reality of his childhood. By Williams’s own admission, Jack’s lonely childhood, and difficulty making friends, mirrored his; and like young Alan Parish, he was often by himself in a big old house. Meanwhile, playing Peter Banning made Williams realize how little time he had with his parents growing up—a mistake he vowed not to repeat with his own children.
Some have interpreted Williams’ embodiment of the man-child role as proof of his arrested development. According to one of his biographers, “He never stopped portraying the man-child because he never stopped being the man-child.” However, such a statement ignores the restitutive power of creativity in the actor’s life. Williams himself espoused the view that creativity can be cathartic, a means of addressing personal trauma in a genuine way. It was also his breakwater against deep depression and anxiety: “You look at the world and see how scary it can be sometimes and still try to deal with the fear. Comedy can deal with the fear and still not paralyze you or tell you that it’s going away.”20 By starring as a man-child, Williams not only laid bare the injuries of his past to be empathically received by others; he was also reconciling past with present, acknowledging the enduring impact of his childhood experiences.
Obviously, Williams played other roles besides the man-child, but the point stands that for Williams, acting and comedy fulfilled the ontological needs of emotional validation and human connection. It is therefore unsurprising that he mined his personal life for material for his stand-up comedy. It is also unsurprising that whenever he performed at college campuses, he would ask the event organizers to place toys of their choosing on the stage, which he incorporated into his act. In doing so, he recapitulated the loneliness of his childhood, and the comfort he’d derived from his company of toy soldiers. But in doing so, he was simultaneously undoing that loneliness, for he was now partaking in communal laughter. It is even less surprising that Williams fell into a deep depression after the cancellation of the NBC sitcom The Crazy Ones in May 2014, three months prior to his suicide. His career started in television 31 years prior with Mork & Mindy, and it seemed that it would end in television. Williams begged for clemency, to no avail. Though the show’s cancellation after one season was due to a mediocre script and fledgling ratings rather than the quality of Williams’s acting, it was nevertheless felt as radical invalidation of his being. And with his mind and body literally disintegrating, Robin Williams took his life to thwart the complete eradication of self.
My purpose in writing this brief case study is not to suggest that creativity is a mere byproduct of trauma, or to deny the role of so-called mental illness in suicide, but to situate these phenomena within the context of human lives. In short, to render them humanly (rather than medically) intelligible. Creativity is a celebration of existence, and suicide a cessation of existence—two seemingly opposed tendencies that coalesce in the lives of creative suicides like Robin Williams. In order to understand their paradoxical relationship, however, the path forward lies not in reduction to symptoms and abstractions, but in immersion in lifeworlds. In doing so, we come to understand the individual in his or her own subjective terms, and in doing so, we begin to discern patterns (and variations thereof) that can illuminate aspects of the human condition. In the life of Robin Williams, creativity fulfilled ontological needs that had been thwarted by nuclear crises, which the creative act ameliorated and endowed with meaning. But when the creative act was rendered ineffectual by forces beyond his control, suicide became a possibility for preserving what little was left of the self, for reclaiming agency where it had been lost, so that death, if not life, became his own.
- Kaplan, D. (2014, August 12). Laughter to tragedy: Suicide by asphyxiation likely. Stars in shock at loss of comedy great. Daily News, p. 4. ↩
- Herbert, E. (2014). Robin Williams: When the laughter stops 1951-2014. London, UK: John Blake. ↩
- Yahr, E. (2014, August 13). Coroner releases details in death of Robin Williams. The Washington Post, p. C01. ↩
- Vislocky, C. (2014, August 15). Death of a comedy icon: R.I.P., Robin Williams. The New York Post, p. 24. ↩
- Goodale, G. (2014, August 13). Robin Williams suicide prompts heightened discussion of depression. Christian Science Monitor. ↩
- Monde, C. & Pesce, N. L. (2014, August 13). Depression: It can affect anybody — the rich, the famous and the rest of us. Daily News, p. 6. ↩
- Weintraub, K. & Kelly, D. (2014, August 12). All the on-screen laughs can’t protect against depression. USA Today, p. 3D. ↩
- Stewart, S. (2014, August 13). Blacklight: Shadows lurked behind the manic genius of Robin Williams – but he’s far from the only comic to be plagued by demons. The New York Post, p. 38. ↩
- Friedman, H. J. (2014, August 16). Treating depression to prevent suicide, Letter to the Editor. The New York Times, p. 18. ↩
- Bender, K. J. (2014, November 8). Robin Williams’s autopsy detects no alcohol or illegal drugs. The Washington Post, p. A04. ↩
- Brown, S. R. (2014, August 17). Sad sendoff: Robin’s memorial expected to be small, somber. Daily News, p. 11. ↩
- Whitehead, B. (2010). The psychosocial impact of communication changes in people with Parkinson’s disease. British Journal of Neuroscience Nursing, 6(1), 30-36. ↩
- Nijhof, G. (1995). Parkinson’s Disease as a problem of shame in public appearance. Sociology of Health & Illness, 17(2), 193-205. ↩
- Martin, S. C. (2016). The experience and communicative management of identity threats among people with Parkinson’s disease: Implications for heath communication theory and practice. Communication Monographs, 83(3), 303-325. ↩
- Bramley, N. & Eatough, V. (2005). The experience of living with Parkinson’s disease: An interpretative phenomenological analysis case study. Psychology & Health, 20(2), 223-235. ↩
- Marr, J. (1991). The experience of living with Parkinson’s Disease. Journal of Neuroscience Nursing, 23(5), 325-329. ↩
- Schneider, S. (2016). The terrorist inside my husband’s brain. Neurology, 87, 1308-1311. ↩
- Dillon, N. (2014, August 14). Life in darkness: Star a shut-in for days. Trusted pal made grim find. Daily News, p. 8. ↩
- Dougan, A. (1998). Robin Williams. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press. ↩
- Associated Press (2015). Robin Williams: Comedic genius. Miami, FL: Mango Media, Inc. ↩
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.
Having watched my grandfather slowly deteriorate and die from Parkinson’s over the course of my childhood, I am glad that Robin Williams did not have to endure that slow and degrading end to his life. Having said that, the nature of his death made me very very angry. I think it is the definition of tragedy that someone who brought so much joy to so many people died alone, hanging from a rafter, likely overwhelmed with grief and sadness. He should have been surrounded by the ones he loved, comforted, given ample opportunity to say his goodbyes, and allowed to pass away in peace. Further, he should have had the ability to choose, with his loved ones and medical team, a pre-agreed upon time when he could choose to take his own life, painlessly, in the location of his choosing, with the support of those closest to him.
I have made many people angry – especially on inpatient units – by standing up for the right to die. We should all have it. Our culture is obsessed with lifesaving at any cost which is more than a bit ridiculous considering we all will die eventually. It’s time to end the stigma of suicide and establish a new paradigm of end of life care.
Robin Williams suicide had nothing to do with his being a creative. It was due to being given a slow and torturous death sentence and living in a culture that refuses to acknowledge that all living things die.
It’s time for death with dignity for all who so choose.
I am so sorry you had to witness your grandfather’s painful deterioration. We live in a death-denying culture that, sadly, lapses into humiliation and degradation in its attempts to prolong life, the consequence being violation of a person’s bodily integrity and right to self-determination. Unlike past eras in which the elderly and terminally ill died in the company of loved ones, in this day and age, many are left to waste away behind institutional walls, soaking in their own excrement. I agree that the current paradigm of end-of-life care needs serious reworking; one can make sincere attempts at prolonging life (where possible), without violating the person’s dignity and autonomy.
I’m not sure I understand what you were responding to when you wrote, “Robin Williams suicide had nothing to do with his being a creative,” but I want to make clear that I was not at all suggesting that his creativity contributed to his suicide. On the contrary, as I illustrated throughout the piece, his creativity was his breakwater against deep depression and anxiety (I use these terms in an existential rather than biological sense). PD and LBD robbed him of that, along with many other things that he cherished about his life and his self.
I’m so sorry, I was not as concise as I would have liked to be when I said that. I was responding not to you, but to those who would make a causative connection between his creativity and any supposed “mental illness” as it relates to his suicide. I did not express that clearly enough.
As for my grandfather, my grandmother took care of him for decades before he died but did finally put him in an institution when she was no longer physically capable of providing his care. He died three years later in conditions exactly as you describe. As many, many other people do.
I’m sure as Robin Williams was experiencing early symptoms of PD and LBD, he knew he didn’t want to experience a natural death under those conditions. He was not just a creative, he was an expressive. He was larger than life and he risked losing his ability to express himself. That would have been torturous to him. And to shift the focus away from that onto some supposed mental illness in the name of suicide prevention and stigma awareness is disgusting. And I know you understand that. Thank you for your writing this.
No need for apologies, kindred spirit. Thank you for your kind words, and for sharing your story. It means a lot. And I agree that using Williams’ death as a “call to arms” to raise awareness of “mental illness” stigma–with the ulterior motive of funneling ever greater numbers of people into a severely compromised system–is, as you say, disgusting, and utterly disrespectful. He never saw himself as “mentally ill,” and there is no reason for psychologists, psychiatrists, and the general public to override his own views of himself and diagnose him with one.
I am glad the author included the sad and lonely and abused childhood that Williams experienced. While it is obvious that the environment always interacts with the person’s goals, intentions, preferences, etc., the correlation between what is called “mental illness” and childhood adversity is enormous. Those who wrote about Williams purported “mental illness” after the fact almost completely failed to provide this important context in their zeal to advocate for “treatment” for Robin’s “brain disorder.” I found it disgusting, and appreciate this more nuanced and humanizing biography.
I agree that we cannot underestimate or take for granted the relationship between adverse childhood experiences (be it parental neglect, peer abuse, etc.) and the onset of so-called “mental illness.” Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child (among many other influential texts), suspected that biopsychiatry’s dismissal of childhood adversity and trauma, could itself be a reflection of its adherents’ reluctance to take a hard look at their own childhoods. I’ve always found this to be a fascinating thought.
And I concur that Robin Williams’ “mental illness” was a natural, human response to the myriad catastrophes that had befallen him. Thank you for reading my piece, Steve.
I don’t understand what you are calling childhood abuse. His father was an automotive executive that traveled extensively and his mother was a stay at home mom. What trauma are you speaking of? From his biography, his mother was his rock because it was a traditional lower upper class lifestyle that most would have experienced. He also said his sense of humor came from his mother. It was a pretty normal childhood for that demographic.
Hi. I was agreeing with the general part of Steve’s comment that there’s a need to explore childhood adversity’s relationship to “mental illness” onset, which biopsychiatry seems averse to doing. Nowhere in my post did I write that Robin Williams specifically was abused as a child, although my case study does point to a childhood of neglect, and to bullying and harassment by peers (which one could interpret as a form of peer abuse, and which I understood Steve to be referring to when he spoke of abuse).
Having said that, my purpose in writing about Robin Williams’ childhood was actually to explore the genesis of his creativity (which you acknowledge when you wrote that “his sense of humor came from his mother”), its myriad emotional and ontological functions, and later, to underscore what was at stake when his mind and body began to disintegrate.
You’re welcome. I really appreciate your mentioning Alice Miller. Some of her thinking has been very central to my understanding of why clinicians so often take the side of the parents or the authorities when clients/patients/victims report abuse by their parents or by the system as a whole. I have concluded that the best qualification for a therapist/counselor is that they have taken a good look at their own historical crap and have it under a good level of understanding and control.
“historical crap”….I love it!
It’s pretty arrogant if you are a clinician and claim that you’re going to heal people and you haven’t even dealt with your own issues at all. So many doctors of every specialty and clinicians of all kinds have never dealt with their own “historical crap”. This is dangerous for the people that they supposedly want to care for and to help heal. I would use the very wise words of a very intelligent man who once said, “Physician, heal thyself”.
I’ve witnessed peer workers abusing “patients” because they’ve not really dealt with their own stuff and keep working it out on the very people that they say they want to walk with in recovery.
Stephen, what do you do when you witness this peer-to-client abuse? Wouldn’t you be mandated to report this? Or any abuse, for that matter?
I’m very curious because it would seem that reporting in-house abuse would be a powerful strategy against it. I know that there are all sorts of resistances to abuse claims in the system, and I’m also aware that this kind of reporting could lead to consequences in a toxic system. But that resistance has to be broken down somehow. Otherwise, the abuse perpetuates.
It’s hard enough for abuse victims to get their voices heard, but when teamed up with a witness, that can make all the difference.
I disagree. His childchood has nothing in common with his suicide, this is an illusion, searching for victims. “Mental illness” it is not a fault of the brain, trauma or parents. It is just a way of seeing the reality. Psychiatry, society wants to get rid of psychopathology, instead seeing the purpose of the depression, suicide, psychosis.
James Hillman – Suicide and the soul, Re- visioning psychology.
Without seeing the purpose of sb psychopathology,there is no point in existence of the psychiatry. Psyche has a value, suicide too. Death is a value too. The problem is not the death itself, but the fact that people are cowards, who are using theology in the place of psychology. PSYCHIATRY HAS LOST THE MEANING OF THE PSYCHE, THE HUMAN MEANING OF PSYCHOPATHOLOGY.
Psychological man is not a victim. He is.
In the same line with blind apollonians, who are psychologically not aware. Far from the death in the psyche, that what mental health is. WE SHOULD START TO GIVE A VALUE TO PSYCHE, TO DEATH, BECAUSE STATE WON’T DO IT FOR US.
Robin Williams didn’t commit suicide. He, like many others, was murdered through psychiatric interventions.
Thank you for reading the piece. I am aware that Robin Williams had been prescribed antidepressants and antipsychotics some time before his death. I also agree that in many unfortunate cases, psychotropic drugs can and do contribute to suicidality. However, I take issue with attempts to isolate a singular cause for suicide, whatever that cause may be, that discredit the agency of the suicidal person in question.
I think you and I can agree that the biopsychiatric model discredits suicidal individuals’ capacity for self-determination by attributing their problems to so-called mental illness, defined by organized psychiatry as a “biochemical imbalance in the brain.” You’ve heard the rhetoric: “Depression killed him,” “Bipolar killed him,” etc. The model does away with the *human* context (familial, social, cultural, etc.) in which much suffering becomes intelligible.
But here’s a question: By saying drugs, and drugs alone, are responsible for the death of Robin Williams, are you not also committing the same fallacy as the medical model? Are you not also reducing the complexity of his lived experience, his life-world? What of Williams’ attempts to exercise control (tragically, through death) over the trajectory of his Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia (which, unlike so-called mental illness, are bona fide diseases)? What of the loss of his creativity in the face of imminent deterioration?
As someone who’d suffered the adverse side effects of antipsychotics (namely, akathisia), I can empathize with the desire to pin suicide on psychotropic drugs. And again, I agree that the role of such drugs in suicides should be investigated further. But this does not mean we should discredit the all-too-human circumstances that drive people to seek treatment in the first place, or to end their lives.
I agree. Psychiatry is using dehumanising nominalism to describe THE MOST DANGEROUS THE MOST LETHAL, THE MOST DEMANDING feelings. For the imagination of an ordinary man it means nothing. Well, this is everything. There is no knowledge about the human psyche without Hillmannic attitude.
There will be no psyche without Hillman knowledge which differ from SCIENTISM. And scientists wants to rule the brain, without acceptance of the psyche in mythical meaning.
I can’t find words to describe what psychiatry have done with the language. With the psyche in primary meaning. Psyche it is not the brain. Without mythical background there is no psychological reality, only meat BS about the brain.
We must see the psychological reality TO REALIZE WHY BRAIN CAN NOT COPE WITH IT, BECAUSE BRAIN CAN NOT COPE WITH THE psychological ENORMITY. ONLY APOLLONIAN LEVEL GIVES YOUR EGO THE IMITATION OF CONTROL OVER THE PSYCHE.
THE REST COULD DEVASTATE YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM, IT COULD KILL YOU, BECAUSE EGO CAN NOT HOLD ON. SMALL EGO AND the BRAIN ARE TO FEEBLE FOR THAT REALITY. PSYCHIATRY MUST ACCEPT THAT. RESPECT FOR HADES, for the psyche.
“I agree that the role of such drugs in suicides should be investigated further.”
There is a way to be more specific about drug induced suicide with the Cytochrome P450 test and known food stuffs/herbs/spices that inhibit the metabolising enzymes. Also psych drugs cause the Lewy body dementia he had.
Kerry O’Malley: Community Treatment Orders and the Mental Health Tribunal
Adverse Reactions to Psychiatric Drugs: Yolande Lucire MBBS, Peter Breggin MD:
INHIBITORS – CYTOCHROME P450 (CYP) ENZYMES:
Psych drug cause of Lewy body dementia:
Drug Induced Dementia by Grace E Jackson. All class of psych drugs referenced with clinical studies on humans and animals.
“But this does not mean we should discredit the all-too-human circumstances that drive people to seek treatment in the first place, or to end their lives.”
He does not discredit it. The problem is that at that point of emotional distress and terrible vulnerability a drug crime is being committed because that is pretty much all psychiatrists do: drugs and only drugs. They are not ‘medications’ they are neurotoxins. Peter Breggin has made this very clear.
Thank you for all your links and I totally agree with about neurotoxin drug treatments. They are poison to the body and certainly do not cure, but are a drug induced strait jacket, which in time have countless and horrendous side affects on the human soul who is forced by community treatment orders to receive by injection. My partners son who is under a CTO calls it rape. I agree with him and his mental health is gradually deteriorating, the longer he remains on “anti psychotic” medicine. And his psychosis is much darker and more violent than when he first began.
And yes it is administered by force at his most emotionally vulnerable time, causing countless traumatic events to his already disturbed psyche. It is heart breaking to watch someone being subjected to this continuous cycle of drug abuse and for it to be considered “legal”
@streetphotobeing: Thank you for sharing these resources, and for mentioning Peter Breggin, whose books–especially, Medication Madness & Toxic Psychiatry–I found eye-opening when I first read them. While I maintain the view that Robin Williams’ suicide was his final act of agency, I also concur that antidepressants and antipsychotics very likely had a hand in his death.
@ceileena: Your partner’s son’s description of forced treatment as “rape” made me think of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is how I felt when I was on Zydis and Zyprexa (fortunately, I weaned myself off of them). It felt like my body was not my own. In the middle of the night, I would wake up extremely agitated and restless, as if I had “butterflies” in every tissue of my body. It was pure torment, and I hope your partner’s son can safely wrestle himself free from (as you put it) the cycle of abuse.
Human agency is always a factor. Most people can understand that. What most people don’t understand is that psychotropic drugs can CAUSE a person who would otherwise have no inclination to commit suicide to do so. Psychotropic drugs are CAUSING people to commit suicide. This doesn’t just happen with celebrities. Of course there are varying degrees of choice involved depending on the person and the strength to resist the effects of drugging. But I’m willing to bet that the effects of psychotropic drugs are the MAIN CAUSE behind many suicides and violent rampages. Of course there are all kinds of people with all kinds of problems. No one denies that. But psychiatry is the direct CAUSE of many if not most so-called “psychiatric diseases” or “mental illness.” I can’t be certain that this was the case with Mr. Williams, but I have a hunch that psychiatry and psychotropic drugs played a major role, if not the primary role in his demise, just as they have in the demise of untold numbers of innocent people.
Dragon Slayer, wtf happened with your email address? You’ve been scaring people! Good to hear from you though — don’t be a stranger!
At a minimum, they sure didn’t make everything AOK! It is amazing how many people who commit suicide have already been using psych drugs for years or even decades, and yet their suicides result in a call for more “mental health treatment.”
Hey Mike – while the beautiful biography you’ve written helps look at Williams life and contributing factors, and the drugs surely contributed to something of his distress (maybe a factor, if not the whole story) – I think that one factor which amazes me that I don’t hear more often is that of iatrogenesis.
Would he have had Parkinson’s if he had never used drugs (have to include the recreational in there, too)? And has anyone studied neuroleptic induced dementia? Yeah, no, they haven’t. I watch the neuroleptics eating the brain of my family & friends, one lost about 30 points of IQ. While this is only a case, not a study – nobody looks at that, or the connections between psych drugs and:
Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, Restless Legs, IBS, Metabolic Syndrome, Diabetes (oh they look at this a little, and then they say, “well, you’ll just have to manage the diabetes or go mad…..”), cardiovascular issues, strange nerve issues, kidney failure, chronic insomnia….
You know the banter – all of these mysterious iatrogeneses are rarely connected to the drugs of origin. That’s what I wonder about Robin Williams, is – in the complex story of his life and death – was his final, deteriorated condition – iatrogenically induced?
Damn this is beautifully written. I wish the part about his childhood was not included, though. I felt the description of Parkinson’s, that is, the present that he was dealing with, was plenty enough. I wish MIA would include more articles like this one. I enjoyed the empathetic tone of the writer toward the sufferer, his ability to put himself into the center of the protagnist’s shoes, to feel what he felt, or suggest what he may have felt, though we do not know. The idea of “mental illness” is so dismissive. It shuts down, it does not listen, it does not feel.
Thank you so much for the generous words. In preparing to write this piece, I read every biography on Robin Williams I could get my hands on; tracked news coverage of his suicide in high-circulation papers; read the accounts of persons with neurodegenerative diseases (PD, LBD); and for a whole month, watched at least one Robin Williams movie each day. While the portrait I offer is but a humble exercise in empathy, I did my best to immerse myself in what I imagine to be his life-world, and reading comments like yours has truly made my day.
Speaking of empathy, I agree that use of the words “mental illness” in a biologically deterministic way (or perhaps in any way) precludes understanding. As you so poignantly write: “It shuts down, it does not listen, it does not feel.” Despite claims that invocation of the word “mental illness” destigmatizes, like you, I would argue that it often achieves the opposite: it casts the other as wholly unknowable, inherently flawed, burning the bridge to empathy. While I do occasionally use it in my writings, I preface it with “so-called” to bring attention to the concept’s socially constructed nature (I inherited this habit from my mentor, George Atwood, who has also written for MIA and has recently been featured in a podcast).
I do find it interesting that you think discussion of Williams’ childhood could have been left out. I included it in my attempt to provide a holistic picture–specifically, the myriad functions creativity fulfilled across his lifespan, and how the deterioration of his mind and body snuffed whatever emotional fulfillment he’d derived from his work. It was not only his present self that was under threat of erasure, but the rich personal history that preceded it. My apologies if that did not come across clearly in my writing.
If anything, his childhood was a springboard to his long and amazing career as entertainer and performer.
I see my own life that way. I grew up as the shortest kid in the class, wore glasses, was Jewish, and a whole lot of other reasons why the other kids teased me. I certainly don’t look back on that with horror, but with amusement. It made me who I am, and I am not only proud of that, but thankful.
That is a wonderful insight, Julie, and I agree with you in perspective and in feeling.
Look at Oprah, she’s been completely open about her abusive childhood in a way that has helped so many people. And she’s been highly rewarded for it. Personally, I think it’s just, and I happen to believe that she is probably the one and only person I can think of who I’d consider fit for the office of POTUS, were she to decide to take on that challenge. She has her critics and no one is perfect, but overall, that is what I mean by personal transformation leading to important world change. She’d be my best public example.
A lot of people have spring-boarded to success thanks to their hard knocks. When we make it a point to go in the other direction, we find our path.
I just don’t think people have to necessarily suffer in the process of finding their success simply because other people resent or resist it, for whatever reason, competition or otherwise.
That’s where I would turn the tables because sabotage of others is what I consider to be a “dark and evil” force in humanity. When we sabotage others, we only end up sabotaging ourselves. I truly believe it works that way.
Very much agree, Julie. In Robin Williams’ case, the desire for human connection in the face of unremitting loneliness, I think, made him an empath like no other–able to relate to, and embody, persons from all walks of life, real or imaginary.
So glad to hear that you have fond memories of your childhood experiences! Although I see my own childhood as bittersweet, I too have no regrets in that it made me the fiercely determined person I am today.
Alex, thank you for the excellent Oprah Winfrey example! She truly is a force to be reckoned with, one whose triumphs were fueled by her own traumatic past. I agree that trauma is not a necessary precondition to creativity (all humans are inherently creative, it’s just a matter of discovering–and appreciating–the myriad ways in which we are so), but of course, trauma can ignite the creative spark.
Your statement about sabotage made me think of chemical attempts to castrate the creative individual. I cannot help but feel that dogmatic biopsychiatrists do just that, because the creative person who embraces their gift is a threat to definitions of normalcy and to hegemonic sanity. Maybe there is even envy there. Unable to realize their creative and authentic selves, they proceed to tear down the creativity and authenticity exhibited by others. Nothing drives sabotage more fiercely than envy. Just my two cents.
Yes, that is exactly what psychiatry does to creative people. It sabotages. You are a writer? Poof! We don’t allow that here. You compose music? Poof! What did you want to do that for, anyway? You’re a computer programmer? Isn’t that overly ambitious? Medical student? Why don’t you think more realistically! RN? Why don’t you volunteer in the flower shop? Anything they could say to insult us, demean us with their low expectations of us…they would do. They hated our genius and would do anything to deny it. This especially rang true for me in April 2013 when my psychiatrist told me she intended to drug me till I was incapable of writing. Why? Because my writing exposed human rights abuses at the institution she worked for, MGH, medical capital of Boston.
I will never forget that. In a nutshell, that one appointment told me what the past three decades of psych had been all about. The one thing I knew was that I had to leave. I did.
Yes, Mike and Julie, that is exactly my point. Psychiatry sabotages people–physically, emotionally, spiritually, and creatively. It is not only criminal to the individuals, but it is a crime against humanity because we need artists’ creative light more than ever now!
I do think you’re right, Mike, a lot of envy and jealousy here for the permission and spiritual freedom which artists can embody.
But also, I think, an artist who is grounded and who knows their center can create circles around the system, and I believe that is very threatening to the system, which shows absolutely no creativity. I find it to be rather a black hole in this regard, I’ve witnessed this in action repeatedly. It is much too rigid, authoritarian, and hierarchical. “By the book” seems to be the motto, at the very least, and that is no way to help people, but more so, to oppress them.
I was on the drugs for 20 years and out in the world functioning, although not nearly living up to my potential. I was reasonably happy as a retail clerk-to-manager, earned a living and enjoyed life (albeit with drugs side effects and constant blood draws, dependence on therapy, etc., always paying into the system for “maintenance”) and I got a couple of degrees in the process. But the drugs wore me down over the years until I imploded from them.
Once I was off of them for a while and healing from all that, far and away from psychiatry, suddenly, thanks to volunteer work I was doing and being in the right place at the right time, I was acting and singing on stage (never had done that before, I was in my mid 40s, getting good reviews and paid work for this), then I made a film, then a piano came into my life and I have a band for which I accompany and musically direct, and then I made another film. All I do now is create, that’s my life.
It was hard core change for me, in mid-life, simply from coming off all those years of neurotoxins. My life literally became a burst of creativity. That’s my testimonial against neurotoxins, hard and fast.
Alex, I am so glad to hear that you are living a highly creative and richly fulfilling life! Your comment about artists creating circles around the system made me think of Rollo May’s “The Courage to Create,” a book that was (and continues to be) very dear to me. In it he writes about artists and creatives as insurgents, able to envision new patterns, symbols, and foundations upon which a better society can be built–which the ‘gods’ of contemporary society (patriarchy, materialism, conformity) cannot abide by, because the artist would render them irrelevant and obsolete.
Anyway, I’m ranting, but I just wanted to say that it made me smile hearing someone describe their life as a “burst of creativity.” I think all lives should be led that way.
This is really beautiful feedback, Mike, thank you for your kind words, and also for writing about the life force power of creativity as you do.
My belief is that life is creativity and creativity is life. We’re all creative beings; we can’t help it, it is our nature. The only thing created by stifling creativity is suffering.
Yes, you get my meaning perfectly, talking about Rollo May’s perspective. This is my belief as well.
what a good study……thank you…
the comments reflect our need to understand suicide..
but we don’t know very much…
we need to know a lot more —-WHY????
I’m glad that you liked the piece. Thank you. In response to your question of ‘why’, one significant barrier to a deep, humanistic understanding of suicide, is the tendency of many mental health professionals to impose their own framework of understanding onto the experiences of suicidal persons. They are not trying hard enough to understand suicidal persons in *their* own subjective terms. Rather than ask, “What does it mean to be suicidal?”–to which “mental illness” is often the answer given–perhaps we should be asking, “What does being suicidal mean *for* the suicidal person?”
While he had been treated with drugs for Parkinson’s, he was also treated with psych drugs, which I found in a news story. Very quickly, that news story disappeared. The drug was Seroquel. I saw that. I also know you can’t give people with Lewy Body any drugs like that. You’re looking at a huge lawsuit if you do.
Psych drugs are definitely a big no-no for people with neurodegenerative diseases. Williams’ diagnosis with Lew Body was posthumous, however. It was unknown even to him that he suffered from the condition.
Infused in all the speculation about how & why Williams reacted to his situation the way he did is the implication that suicide is always irrational. I think the Oczam’s Razor explanation makes the most sense — that he made a conscious decision that dealing with PD was not the way he wanted to spend his final days. Just as Thomas Szasz decided that dealing with a broken spine was not the way he wanted to spend his. In both cases their decisions should be respected.
I agree that Williams’ suicide was agentic, in that he took control over the trajectory of his illness by ending his life. It was the ultimate declaration of self-determination. But I am uneasy with positioning rational and emotive as a dichotomy. The tendency to dichotomize is a very Western thing, and I believe that every decision (including suicide) is *both* rational and emotive. This idea is supported by studies in neuroscience (*not* biopsychiatry), which found that persons with compromised emotion regulation have *greater* difficulty arriving at decisions. In other words, even the most “rational” or “logical” choice needs that gut-level feeling to put it into motion.
I agree with this from my own observation. My emotions often alert me to problems that exist or conflicts I have not dealt with or things that would be rewarding and my rational side helps decide whether or how these things can best happen. We’d all be crippled in our decision-making ability without both sides.
I’m not posing rational and emotional as opposites. I’m posing “rational” against other motivations, such as an expression of self-hatred or some form of emotional manipulation. Avoiding intractable physical pain is more rational a motivation than having a traumatic effect on other people, for example.
DOPAMINE AGONIST WITHDRAWAL SYNDROME caused Robin Williams’ death.
Three people figured this out. One made a comment on an article that appeared on this web site. I can’t recall who it was. Please take credit, whoever you are.
Another is me, but who cares.
The third is the author of most of the research on DAWS, Melissa J Niremberg, who bravely commented on the essay by the actor’s widow (“The terrorist inside my husband’s brain”), which appeared in Neurology, a medical journal and which contained a single sentence that unlocked the cause of Williams’ death.
Lewy Body disease and suicidality after dopamine agonist withdrawal
Melissa J. Nirenberg [MD, PhD], Associate Professor of Neurology
Published October 24, 2016
“…In her editorial, Mrs. Williams made one comment of particular importance: “…his medication was switched from Mirapex to Sinemet…” near the end of July, just before his death on August 11th. This raises the possibility that his suicidality may have been a manifestation of dopamine agonist withdrawal syndrome (DAWS). DAWS is a stereotyped drug withdrawal syndrome that can cause a variety of nonmotor symptoms, including severe and medically-refractory anxiety, panic attacks, depression, dysphoria, fatigue, and suicidality. DAWS does not respond to carbidopa/levodopa or other medications and can be very difficult to recognize because the symptoms are not visible and closely mimic those of a primary psychiatric disorder…” [Exerpt]
MIRAPEX is a dopamine agonist.
SINAPEX would have done nothing to offset DAWS.
DAWS is close to unbearable. Surviving it is more than any human being should have to bear. You will be diagnosed with depression and bipolar and nothing they give you will work. That is what medically-refractory means. You will also endure the scorn of doctors who are angry because you apparently refuse to get better. “I think you like feeling this way” comes to mind, for which I thank Dr. R. Davies. Your family will abandon you. In today’s pharmaco-political climate, you are unlikely to be prescribed morphine, though it might work. “They” say ADHD drugs can’t cause it, but at least one expert to whom I directed an inquiry on the topic said he didn’t see why not.
I drank beer to put myself to sleep a few times a day. It was horrible, but it was all I had.
I recovered from it accidentally, after a year and a half of praying to be killed, with a treatment that will call my credibility into question, but which I am compelled to report for the possible benefit of others currently enduring DAWS: medium-chain triglycerides, which I got from coconut oil when trying to improve my memory with a fad remedy (a home-made poor man’s version of Dave Asprey’s “Bulletproof Coffee”). Within about 8 days, I had spontaneously lost interest in drinking, resumed sleeping like a normal person (DAWS came with NO ABILITY TO SLEEP), and stopped awakening with a sense of dread and horror.
Flowery musings like the essay on this page are harmful because they distract people from a very simple explanation for Williams’ suicide. If DAWS is what did him in, he wasn’t the last Parkinson’s/Lewy Bodies Dementia patient to suffer it, but he could have been the last suicide caused by dopamine agonists if more space were devoted to the possible explanation offered by Dr. Niremberg and less were devoted to fiction. People coming off a dopamine agonist should be warned of the possibility of experiencing devastating emotional states. People going on the drug should be warned.
More on DAWS:
BetterLife that little known fact about Robin Williams and DAWS sound not only very solid, but also needs to be Front Page Headlines.
Are you saying that you, too, had DAWS? And in your case, what was the cause? You were given a dopamine agonist? Sounds very scary to me.
Dang, I never heard of this! Thanks for the education – it seems to fit the circumstances remarkably well.
Thank you for this beautifully written and thoroughly human review of the various circumstances that both contributed to the person that Robin Williams was as well as those that may have contributed to his decision to take his life.
My mother has Parkinson’s and it is heartbreaking to see her decline as a result of the disease and the medications she takes to help with her symptoms. Sadly, the medical industrial complex that governs neurology (and Psychiatry) continually shames and blames her for the emotional responses and high levels of anxiety she suffers as a part of the side effects of the drugs she must take. She has been labeled uncooperative for her refusal to take anti-anxiety medications (which they dole out to this population heavily), they refuse to acknowledge the severe symptoms she has when there are any medication changes, and the effects can be so severe that she has prayed for death to come.
Your article delves deeply into a person, rather than a diagnosis or a victim of some supposed imbalance. How wonderful it would be, if in my Mother’s final years, she could be met with this human kindness rather than the shame and blame game that is de rigueur in all her interactions with health professionals, and sadly, many who have adopted this stance as their own in the community.
Thank you again.
I am sorry to hear you needing to defend your mother against the injustice of the “mental health system” and a culture that has little time or patience for “old folks.” I am reminded of my experiences with my elderly mother after my father died; her doctor tortured her by treating her natural emotional suffering like a mysterious brain disease. Her doctor could have helped a little with a sincere comment of empathy for her plight but instead caused her more pain by pathologizing her natural suffering.