I’ve been thinking about Robin Williams’s passing over the last few hours. Particularly, I’m interrogating the cause of my grief—to the extent that what I’m feeling even constitutes grief—and I’m confused about it. Certainly, other celebrities have perished during my life time (and I’ve often barely noticed) so what makes Robin Williams different?
Is it the hours I’ve spent watching Dead Poets Society as an adult? Is it that Aladdin was the first film I ever saw in theatres? Is it the countless times my old babysitter made my brother and me watch Hook? This was an actor with whom I had something resembling a personal relationship. He never knew I existed—and, to be frank, why would he?—but this is a person with whom I’ve shared many important moments throughout my life. And yet, I do not think this is the reason his departure resonates so powerfully.
Is it, perhaps, the murky business of his mind, that he worked so tirelessly to conceal from his admirers? This seems to be the rub. I understand depression, and I understand the impulse to flee forever from its grip. I understand what it means to be “half in love with easeful death,” and, yet, like so many people who labour under this weight, I’ve taken solace in the expectation that it will all get miraculously better some day. (In my case, I’m lucky: aside from the sort of ambient gnawing that every depressive recognises almost intuitively, my “dark and dusky days” are increasingly rare.) Williams’s passing is a grim reminder, though, that it doesn’t necessarily get better someday. Having spent my life in communities where access to mental health care is extraordinarily limited, I have to be honest and admit that I’ve never been diagnosed with anything. Despite this, in the wake of Robin Williams’s passing, I feel compelled to acknowledge that I have often neglected my mental health. I have taken for granted that my severe depressions, when they do come along, will eventually pass; I’ve taken it for granted, when the black dogs are growling at my door, that the deadbolt will hold; and, worst of all, I’ve put myself in a position where, if I’m ever not equal to the torments of my own faulty neurological chemistry, my friends and family will be left with dozens of answerless questions. Why is Robin Williams’s death so difficult? Because I am unwell and ashamed of it. Williams’s lie mirrors my own lie. And in the end, we’re left with a stern lesson about the importance of taking care of ourselves. Indeed, “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” and we shouldn’t resent ourselves when we allow ourselves to Fall.
We never deserved Robin Williams—a person that effected so much love and joy in the hearts of many—but we will remember him, and we will be better people for having known him. This is a man who used art to teach, and, in dying, taught many of us, not only the value of life, but the importance of asking for help when we need it.