(Today, Robin Williams would have turned 68. This is an (edited) piece I wrote about him when he passed.)
“Robin Williams was found dead last night, due to self-asphyxiation. The beloved actor and comedian was 63. According to his publicist, he’d been struggling with depression.”
I can still see the bottle. It’s clear, with white labels and green and black writing. The aspirin are small and white. The plastic bottle is full. I’m sitting on our spare bed, a cheapie I picked up when we moved to Ottawa. It was supposed to be for guests, but two weeks ago I moved into the spare bedroom. After five quick months, my marriage is over. I am a failure. I do not blame my wife. All we do is argue. I cannot seem to find happiness.
I stare at the bottle. I do not know how many I will have to take. Twenty? Thirty? It doesn’t matter. I’m twenty-six years old. I sell newspapers over the phone. I make ten dollars for every subscription I sell. Some days I sell only one. I have never sold more than eight.
My wife is in her first year of teaching. She is doing well. Her career is under way, and I pushed for us to move here.
“I’ll find something,” I’d told her. “There has to be a youth job here.”
This is all I’ve found, and I’m angry about it. Angry that my dreams have been flushed into two hundred and fifty cold calls a day selling a cheap newspaper. There’s more to it than that, but I’m not aware of those things yet. I am only aware of The Sadness. It has become a visceral thing. A companion. I do not know how else to explain it.
My friend shows up an hour later. I am still staring at the bottle. I am surprised, but tuck it away. I ask why he’s here. Who drives three hours in the middle of the night?
“She was worried. Really worried.”
I smile. I assume that I am going a bit crazy, but the pills suddenly seem a distant memory. No one is allowed to see The Sadness. I have made it my rule.
He stays until he believes me.
Another image. Two years later. My basement apartment is dark. It’s winter. Snow covers my only window. My parents are knocking on the door. They’ve driven six hours to see me. They’re worried. I do not let them in. An empty beer bottle sits on my coffee table. My computer flickers in the corner. I feel guilty. I am a failure. The Sadness has come, and for two weeks it does not let me go. I fear it will never let me go.
Time passes. I leave the church. I have tried their suggestions. I have gone to the altar. I have laid my heart bare before God. I have asked for help. But I am not good enough. I read and begin to understand my struggle, but the church is dismissive, though I know they mean well.
I am being oppressed. I am sinful. I am not committed enough. Depression is spiritual. I listen. I try hard. But The Sadness has become my shadow.
Another year passes. I am learning how to deal with my problem. I read books that inspire me. I write. And I watch films that make me laugh. Of those, no one is funnier than Robin Williams. Some are good, some are bad, but he is a constant. I watch Dead Poets Society often. It makes sense to me. But I cannot blame the Darkness on my father. My parents love me and support me. I am a failure, but it is not their fault, no more than it was the fault of my wife.
Some days I am filled with happiness. I love those days. On those days, I make myself seen. I try to spread joy and laughter. I try to live an extraordinary life, as Keating (RW) has told his students. I dream of making it as a writer. I dream of overcoming my failures. Of proving my worth. I watch Rudy when I need a lift. I watch Robin when I need to smile. And when I feel my shadow begin to overwhelm me, I watch my favourite film.
Good Will Hunting is just a movie, a fable. But for me, narrative is more than that. The characters in my favourite books are my friends, as are the ones in my favourite movies. They know that I am a failure, but they remain the same. Here, Robin is a counselor, a teacher. He is the kind of counselor I wish I had, the kind of mentor I need. I am not closed to counseling, but I am a youth worker. An aspiring writer. I cannot afford it. I can barely afford my apartment.
Robin will win an academy award for his performance. I do not know whether he is simply a great actor or that he knows what it means to have a shadow, but I feel the movie, and it feels true. So does the pain in his eyes. That is what I need. Someone who has learned to deal with The Sadness and live, and not live just another life, but an extraordinary one.
And now, he is gone.
Robin’s death fills me with great sadness. His legacy is unique and yes, extraordinary. My wife, too, feels it. There is the sense of a light being extinguished, which makes no sense as most of us did not know him, but it’s there anyway. The grieving on social media is real. Some trolls suggest that he is ‘selfish’ and ‘made a choice.’ They are roundly criticized by a more enlightened population, but their page views have gone up, and they have received more attention. Human parasites will always exist.
The images of my early struggles remain. Like pictures people once kept in their wallets. They come to mind easily and quickly, though not without pain. I have learned to deal with my struggles over the years. Two years ago, my friend called the police because they did not think I would make it through the night. Because the Shadow was so heavy. For all I have learned, the Sadness remains, and on certain days, it is all I can do to get through the day. I do my best to not let others see my shadow. That is the rule. It has always been the rule.
As for the funniest man in the world, I do not know what to think. I do not know if things could have been different. Sometimes, The Sadness visits in such power that we are helpless before it. Religious people do not like to hear this. Neither do I. Sometimes the truth is hard.
If I could say something to him, though. If I had been allowed to speak to him, I would have thanked him for helping me through so many rough times, when his smile – his laughter, his jokes – overcame The Sadness for me. And then I would have told him this:
“You have lived an extraordinary life. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
Rest in peace, My Friend. You have blessed us beyond imagining. You will be missed.