Jack, Reid and Cal —
I found out about Robin Williams the way we find out about tragedy now. Through Facebook. Someone shared a television news report. His only additional comment was, “Nooooooooo.” I saw it on my train ride home from work, while I was idly thumbing through status updates.
My first thought was that it was a hoax, because that is part of our relationship to tragedies now, too. Some people think it’s funny to start a rumor about someone’s death and it spreads and spreads and spreads. A couple of weeks ago, it was Hulk Hogan. This is one of many downsides to a socially-connected society.
I know these people don’t mean much of anything to you yet. When you’re old enough to watch something other than Jumanji or Aladdin, Robin Williams will just be an actor in some old movies. An actor who died, just like the actors in the black-and-white movies that I love.
Yet, it won’t be the same. Robin Williams is on my desert island list of favorite performers. I used to listen a tape of his his stand-up as I fell asleep in college. His defiant bellow of “Good Morning, Vietnam!” His troubled and melancholy psychiatrist, who took Will Hunting by the throat and said he would end him if he ever disrespected his wife again. He was my career aspiration, the inspiring college English teacher who I once wanted to be.
O Captain, my Captain indeed.
What struck me to the point of near tears yesterday, on the train on my way home, wasn’t just the loss of a talent. There is no question that he was a gifted comedian and performer and anytime a light like that goes out, it is a loss. But the circumstances of this loss in particular hit me, because he battled a deep depression and, apparently, killed himself.
The other downside of a socially-connected society is that everyone shares not just news, but opinion. People who say that suicide isn’t the answer. That it’s the coward’s way out. That you need to pray and have faith. That it is so ironic, that someone so funny could suffer from depression. (Earlier this summer, while your mother and I were buying a new refrigerator, the salesman and I struck up a conversation. He’d done a bit of acting and a bit of stand-up in his life. “I tell jokes to keep the monsters at bay,” he told me and I believed him. You bet I did.)
I’m in no position to judge anyone else’s pain. It must have been bad, incredibly bad, for it to have ended like this. I don’t know a lot about the exact circumstances of mental health. But you don’t suddenly catch depression. Robin Williams had tried to cope in other ways throughout his life, mostly through the numbing that drugs and alcohol provide.
I think of you three and the sheltered life you live now. You’ve not been in places where life starts to hit you. School. Work. Out in the world, where bullies and circumstances and settings and fear really start to take their swings.
There were periods of melancholy I dealt with, growing up. I don’t know, even if I felt that I had someone to talk to about them, that I would have. There was a weakness associated with tears, a dismissal of a certain type of feelings as a weakness. This is the unfortunate and destructive double-standard of our gender. Boys and men are expected to be emotionally available, but not emotionally expressive.
Things are better now. We’re a little bit more progressive every day. But it’s still not ideal. We have such an uneasy relationship with mental health in this country, even though, as a country, I think we’re all a little depressed.
To me, the tragedy of Robin Williams isn’t just his act of suicide. But it’s the pain leading up to it. Like I said, I don’t know what he struggled with. Or what his life has looked like. But sitting on the train, I wondered how awful it must feel, to be in such a dark place and not have an outlet. Someone to talk to. And even if he did have people, did he even think he could talk to them? Or did he think that no one would want to hear that kind of darkness from him, a man who devoted his life to making other people laugh? That it was his burden to bear, alone?
There is no shame in crying. In feeling weak. In being overwhelmed. The real shame is if you don’t share that burden with someone else in your life. I hope it is your mother and I. I hope we always give you that safe place, to tell us what you are feeling. We will always do our best to ensure you never feel weak or small or unworthy because of how you feel. To try and build you up. To help solve your problems with you.
Know this: the best coping tool I can ever give you is for you to know, deeply and without hesitation, that you are not alone in this world.You matter, deeply, to so many people already. You are worth time and attention and help. And if your mother and I can’t give it to you, we will find someone who can. Always.
I love you, each of you, so much.
Image via toomuchflux at deviantart.com; original posted here.