By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
August 12, 2014
This has been a sad week for the movies as we lost iconic performers Robin Williams to suicide (at age 63) and Lauren Bacall to an apparent stroke (at age 89).
Williams’ death by suicide hits hardest. If any movie actor of our era could fairly be described as “beloved,” it would have to be Robin Williams. His mission was to make people happy. He even made a movie about making sick people happy, called Patch Adams. If Robin Williams, of all people, could be unhappy, where does that leave the rest of us? How are we to go on? Movies featuring Williams grossed 5.5 billion dollars worldwide (in non-inflation-adjusted dollars). That’s a lot of money. Can’t money buy happiness? Doesn’t comedy equate with happiness? Williams’ death is unsettling. He worked all his life keeping the rest of us from killing ourselves. Didn’t he?
As a physician, and as somebody who has been depressed, I know a little about what happened to Williams. His suicide scene was exactly the type of low altitude hanging that I learned about in medical school in the lecture where the county medical examiner showed just how little altitude was required to hang yourself with a belt. The M.E. had a series of slides where people had successfully hanged themselves sitting in chairs, hanging from doorknobs, in their own bedroom closets. They were followed by a series of slides showing just how little water was required to drown yourself. Williams’ death was just like twenty or thirty slides that I watched in my medical school lecture. It takes me back. I’ve seen this death before.
Unlike Robin Williams, I have never struggled with cocaine or alcohol abuse (or with massive fame, for that matter.) But I have been clinically depressed for maybe 3 full years of my 53–two years around one divorce, and about one year around a second divorce. Thankfully, my depression has therefore only consumed 5.7% of my lifespan. But it was enough to give me insight into the plight of people like Robin Williams. When I was depressed the world was black and nothing could cheer me up. I would walk down the street and hope for a car to jump the sidewalk and take me out. It didn’t matter that there was so much to live for. Robin Williams had a lot to live for. He was worth 5.5 billion non-inflation-adjusted dollars to the film industry, and he had the adulation of millions. In the final reckoning, it didn’t matter. He reportedly didn’t even leave a suicide note. He didn’t want notoriety for this, or to have the last word, or to get back at anybody—he just wanted it over with—he couldn’t stand the pain, the black outlook, the teetering on the abyss.
This suicide should remind us that depression is a disease, and all too often a fatal disease. People do not always realize that. Take, for instance, my second wife, who was a harsh woman who rejected the notion of depression. She felt like depression was a state of mind that you could snap into or out of at will, as if it were just a way to get sympathy from those around you. She had no tolerance for me or any of her children making claims of depression. She exemplified the kind of ignorance that overlooks serious disease until it is too late. Depression leading to suicide is a biochemical state over which one has little control, whether or not it also has situational stressors associated with it. With all respect to Robin Williams’ mourning family, I have no idea whether they suspected he was at risk or not. But this death should be a reminder to us all to take this disease seriously, to watch out for it in our loved ones, and to sound the alarm when necessary.
A lot will be written about Williams in the coming weeks and months. Some of it will seem disrespectful. The saturation media coverage will become nauseating. We are already starting to hear that he had money problems, that his two divorces had gutted his bank accounts, that he was depressed over the cancellation of his latest TV series, that to make ends meet he had been forced to get involved in a sequel (though he disliked the idea of sequels) to his hit film Mrs. Doubtfire.
Instead of the tabloid angles, let’s remember the performer and how he made us laugh and generally just feel good. I personally enjoyed Williams at his edgiest, when he was being a stand-up comic, or when he was rattling on hilariously as Mork from Ork, or when he was doing frenetic voice-overs for films like Aladdin (as the Genie) and A.I. (as Dr. Know). Perhaps my favorite Robin Williams moment ever was in an uncredited role, as the King of the Moon in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), the scene where his head kept becoming detached from his body. I liked him less well as his career wore on, and you knew when you saw Robin Williams in the cast, that something about the film was going to be a little too precious and cutesie and over-sentimental. I really didn’t care to see him in dramatic cameos, like when he showed up as Dwight D. Eisenhower in The Butler. I kept expecting him to deliver a clever one-liner and get a rim-shot.
As I look back, I have spent a lot of enjoyable hours in the past 35 years watching Robin Williams’ performances. Aside from various stand-up comedy, TV, and awards show appearances, I can come up with 17 performances on my personal lifetime Robin Williams list. My best homage is to recount them here, followed by a moment of silence.
1978-1982 Mork & Mindy (TV)
1980 Popeye (see pic above with co-star Shelley Duvall)
1982 The World According to Garp (still Williams’ best film, in my humble opinion)
1987 Good Morning, Vietnam
1988 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
1989 Dead Poets Society
1992 FernGully: The Last Rainforest (voice-over)
1992 Aladdin (voice-over)
1993 Mrs. Doubtfire
1996 The Birdcage
1997 Good Will Hunting
1998 What Dreams May Come
1999 Bicentennial Man
2001 A.I. (voice-over)
2013 The Butler
. . . .God rest Robin Williams.