On Robin Williams, and on Depression

by Michael Potemra

Robin Williams had his faults — and as a youngster who loved comedy, I grew up hearing about them. (He stole jokes; he was a showboat; in later years, he did some awful movies; etc., etc.) He was nonetheless an amazing talent and he did some great work, not just in comedy (Mork and Mindy; standup; great impressions, including of our own WFB), but in some powerful dramatic roles such as One Hour Photo (2002), Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1986), and Insomnia (2002).

One of the things I have heard in the wake of his death, apparently by suicide owing to depression, is, How could he have despaired to the point of killing himself, when he was so wealthy, successful, and beloved? And it made me reflect on what depression is, and the damage it can do. The analogy I have found in my own experience — in reading our own blog here, and others — is negative comboxers. I no longer regularly read the comboxes, especially on my own posts, but when I used to, the impression I got was of a hateful anonymous force that seeks to make the writer despair. But the difference between a hateful comboxer and depression is that the hateful comboxer — an anonymous nobody, after all — doesn’t really know what he’s doing. (Many a time, when I would read anonymous combox abuse, I would think, Golly, I suppose this chap is trying to hurt my feelings, but the fellow doesn’t know quite how, the poor dear.) Now picture an equally malevolent, anonymous force, trying to break someone’s spirit — only he actually lives inside that person, has the person’s own intelligence, and therefore knows that person’s faults with infinite specificity and can use them to destroy him. That is depression, an inner hateful comboxer — and that is what lived inside Robin Williams and destroyed him. What’s remarkable is that not that he eventually collapsed, but that he managed to live to the age of 63.

This is a pathology that especially inheres in people who love comedy. The quest for laughter — one’s own, and others’ – is a treatment for the heartbreak at the center of life. The quest of Robin Williams was at heart, therefore, a religious one. (We have all heard his top ten reasons for being Episcopalian; I just this evening learned that other Episcopalians have added ten others. Thanks, Rev. Rebecca Barnes, for letting me know!)

May the merciful God take into his heart this man who did so much to lift the spirits of others, so that he may join great, heartbroken folks like Bill Hicks and Richard Jeni at the true source and fountain of all joy: the God who is greater than our faults and sins (I John 3:20).

Robin Williams, and all others who are equally broken-hearted and have gone before us, R.I.P.