I’m still not really over the death of Amy Winehouse, or James Gandolfini, Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Kurt Cobain, for that matter. People we don’t know die all the time, but when someone we don’t know who created art that touched us in some profound way dies, we mourn them almost as if they were family. It’s like we lost a part of ourselves, and very, very important part. When an artist dies who touched us, we mourn them fiercely and surprisingly. It seems personal because even though we didn’t know them, they connected us with our feelings.
Because of the particular scope and depth of Robin Williams’ art, practically every single person on the planet got the wind sucked out of them yesterday when news of his suicide hit. Robin was one of those special artists who made us feel a wide range of very deep emotions, often without even realizing it, because Robin was a master of comedy, which I’m coming to think it possibly the most important art form of all.
People who knew him say he was a sweet person, who cared deeply about other people. They say he was genuine. He was a quick wit, and a ham who often used his jack rabbit humor to hide himself while entertaining, but what always shone through was this lovely, kind spirit. No matter how he tried to deflect, he couldn’t conceal his inner radiance.
One of the best, most unguarded interviews he ever gave was in 2010 with Marc Maron. After learning of Robin’s death, Marc recorded a moving, reflective introduction, and reposted the interview website and on the podcast apps. “When you met him personally, he was almost shy,” Marc says. “And he was very warm and very – you just felt like he really cared about how you were doing, what was going on with you.
In this interview Robin talks about his struggles with alcohol and depression, subjects he had opened up a bit about in the past decade. It’s scary for anyone to talk about these things, and admit vulnerabilities like this, but when celebrities like Robin do it, I think it helps a great many people feel less alone in their situations. Keeping a positive attitude and putting your best face forward is generally good advice in life, but the disconnect between what we’re really feeling and going through and how others perceive us, or how we think they should perceive us can grow so wide that we feel completely and utterly alone. Realizing that it’s okay to be open about our struggles, that other people are going through this stuff too, can be the small ray of connection and hope that can get someone through another day, or to seek some sort of help.
Depression is such a tricky villain. It is tells us lies about ourself, and it turns truths about ourselves into weapons, and it can suck everything out of life, even pain, and that is perhaps the worst part. Depression was no doubt lying to Robin Williams, and as Jim Norton pointed out in a lovely piece for TIME, “There is simply no way Robin could have understood the way the rest of us saw him. And there is simply no way he could have understood how much respect and adoration other performers had for him.”
Depression does not have a quick fix, and often treatment is frustrating and long, and requires effort from the depressed person that they don’t even have. Right now we’re all stinging from having been slapped in the face by the reality of depression, and how sinister it can be. There is help out there, and it is worth seeking even if you don’t feel like you can possibly do it. If you’re experiencing depression, find that little kernel inside you that has a fight left. It is there even if you think it’s not.
Hopefully we can use this time of mourning to have some real dialogue about depression, and how we view it as a society. There is still real stigma for people who have mental illness, and it’s a tricky thing because mental illness can be invisible, and it does not have a quick “cure.” Ignoring it doesn’t make it any less real, but not ignoring it means facing the uncomfortable ambiguity of it.