Were you shocked? Was I? Yes and no. But mostly, no.
Sadly, some of us dealing with mental health issues, personally and in our professional lives, or have loved ones who are, are not as shocked as others seem to be.
Within the context of Williams’ history, his sudden death is a shock yes, but sadly not as much a shock as if his mental health and addiction challenges had been absent. With the presence of severe depression, addictions, bipolar disorder, or any combination of the above, suicide is not out of the blue, but one of many responses to the pummeling experience of living with these conditions.
So often we see that behind the public persona of some of our funniest, most clever, compassionate, kind, and empathetic artists, lies a dark side. I’ve always used humor to overcome, but sometimes to cover my pain. I’m not the first one, and certainly not the only one, to retreat behind a quick succession of jokes and comedic banter when I’m feeling emotionally challenged.
That Williams was so successful in taking his natural comedic flair and genius and turning it into a career we can all enjoy – and characters many of us relate to – is a triumph of spirit.
Still, the public shock at his seemingly sudden death is at least in part a kind of wilful naiveté regarding the nature of mental illness and addiction. It was next-to-impossible, if you were a fan of Williams’ work, to be unaware of his substance abuse issues. Even in official reports of his suicide, references were made to the many times Williams openly referred to his difficulties in his public performances (for more, see msn’s update here).
It is such a short time since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing. How many wake-up calls do we need before we put more effort into understanding and treating the related issues of emotional pain, mental health conditions, and substance abuse?
Susan Schneider, Williams’ widow has publicly stated of her late husband, “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”
Contrary to that request, and with all due respect, I would suggest that focusing on the positive side while burying the facts that led to Williams’ demise is not a healthy response at the collective, nor at the individual level, especially for those of us currently suffering with mental health issues.
A different response might be to honor Williams’ suffering by acknowledging it and trying to understand it in an attempt to save us from yet another public (or private) grieving. To break through mental health stigma, we have to talk about it. Ignoring the issues only leads to the perceived necessity of hiding, even for one as public about his demons as Williams.
Canadian musician Buck65 (his real name is Richard Terfry) wrote an eloquent and insightful commentary that elucidates this key point: those who are suffering, specifically from clinical depression, often hide the depths of their despair.
“We don’t make it easy for someone to say they’re having a hard time. We don’t have the patience for it. Everyone says “fine, thanks” when asked how they’re doing and everyone is lying.” says Terfry.
We may not all be lying, but I agree that we often don’t share our emotional truths. While Williams was open about his struggles with addiction, his stints in rehab, his battle with depression and alcoholism, still – we are shocked.
Williams’ characters are not the person. To remember only the incalculable gifts he gave us is a skewed response, and a dangerous path to reinforcing the imbalanced perception that wants only to see the light, while ignoring the dark.
For those of us with ADHD, Williams’ passing is an important reminder that while we savor our intelligence and creativity, our humor and our heart, we neglect our challenges, our mood swings, our depression and anxiety – and more – at our peril.
Are we willing to suffer in silence? Williams was open about his issues. How much greater the pain for those of us who remain closeted with ours?
Many with ADHD, and perhaps Williams also, are emotionally hypersensitive. This presents its own challenges. Perhaps living in the unrelenting limelight adds an extra layer to the crushing combination of depression, addiction, and emotional hypersensitivity. Terfry considers this possibility:
“I sense that Robin Williams was a very sensitive and empathetic person. He probably knew deep down that he could have reached out to practically anyone for help. But he was also probably acutely aware of the everyday pains, problems and struggles of the people around him – even those of strangers in airports. The last thing he wanted was to add to anyone else’s burdens.”
Whether or not this is true, Terfry’s comment is a wakeup call for hypersensitive adults with ADHD. Keeping your focus outward while ignoring your own needs can be dangerous; even deadly. I’ve often been met with raised eyebrows when I share that I’m actually quite shy and insecure in many situations. But I no longer hide that fact. I share it. I try to manage it. Sharing how I feel opens a dialogue and deepens the connection, making it more authentic. We are all human, with our frailties and our strengths.
Williams’ addiction issues also speak to those of us with ADHD, as addictions in general and alcoholism and cocaine use in particular, are much more prevalent amongst ADHD adults than the general population. Williams suffered from both of these.
If nothing else, our all-too-frequent moments of collective, public grieving at least open the dialogue on mental health and addictions. Until we can speak openly not just about it generally, but as individuals, we are destined to witness even more of these tragedies.
What if we assume that others will not recoil in horror if we answer the question, “How are you?” with “Lousy, thanks.” This, to me, gives the asker the benefit of the doubt that they care about me, and that’s why they’re asking. I prefer to see the world that way, deluded though it may be. It’s like “Namaste” – the divine in me recognizes the divine you. At their deepest level, they do care about me, even if consciously they don’t know it. Why? Because we are all one.
Williams’ death is a tragic loss; let’s take it as a reminder to support each other always, to be there for each other, and to advocate for education and support services in mental health and addictions.
R.I.P. Robin Williams; you were one of us.