Robin Williams grew up a few miles from where my father grew up, and he is about 10 years younger than my father. Both my grandparents and Williams’ parents were prominent, well-known members of the same community.
Strangely, Williams looks very, very much like my father. Williams has the same face, body, expressions and many of the same mannerisms.
While that may be coincidence, my grandparents did not have the happiest marriage, and I heard of at least one case of infidelity. Williams’ mother, a former model, was also on her second marriage during this time.
Every time I have seen Williams, the resemblance to my father has struck me as “eerie” and very hard to believe—so much so that I avoid his movies and television shows. I know a number of television and movie stars, but I am far from the “celebrity stalker” type and have little interest in the entertainment industry. However, in this particular case, I often thought of writing Williams. Now, I am disappointed that I probably will never know if there was some relation. His resemblance to my father, though, is very striking.
Why would someone like Williams commit suicide? He was loved by the public, extremely successful and wealthy, and had a wife and family that cared for him and loved him. Williams reportedly first tried to cut his wrists with a knife. When that didn’t work, he hung himself. That is a lot of work, and, in order to commit suicide in this manner, you would need to be extremely unhappy. The level of depression needed to carry out this sort of self-slaughter must be quite deep. You need to feel that life is hopeless, that you do not belong, that things will never get better and you have no other choice. You need to be deeply, deeply troubled.
The fact is, however, suicide is very common, and very few people talk about it.
“More people die of suicide than in car accidents or of breast cancer each year,” said Julie Cerel, the board chair of the American Association of Suicidology. “Twice as many people die of suicides than homicides. But nobody talks about it. And whenever there is a loss close to us, we feel so alone, and that nobody wants to listen. So when somebody like this dies and is so beloved, it can bring up those feelings of our loss and get us talking.”
|Robin Williams’ death makes public the usually private agony of suicide
When I was younger, I was isolated and less interested in sports and socialization than cerebral pursuits (reading, writing, etc.). I once set a school record for reading the most books in a single school year (I believe it was 85) and doing book reports on them. I was also rewarded by going to dinner with a couple of other kids, our parents, and our teacher when I was in the fifth grade for reading a lot of books. I enjoyed doing things like raising guppies and writing long reports. When I was in sixth grade, for some reason I wrote a 300-page report about Russia. The other kids in my class did 20-page reports. This sort of behavior is unusual, but it is what made me happy.
Being relatively introverted and enjoying reading and writing is simply the kind of person I am. I’ve given speeches in front of thousands of people; however, I prefer smaller, more intimate environments where I can read, think and study. This is who I am. I also prefer to work in a smaller, quiet office than with a lot of people.
When I got to middle school, I started to notice that kids were dating and there were many social activities going on. I was in a public school (at first) and being good at school made me something of an outcast. The kids who were having fun, spending time with girls and playing sports were the most popular. I immediately got depressed and felt very badly about myself. That is not to say everyone in this environment was “having fun;” however, it seemed like to be popular in this school, I should act more like the other students. I wanted to be part of the “in crowd.”
I concluded (rightly or wrongly) that in order to be part of this group of “cool kids,” I needed to be noticed. So, I started acting out and getting in trouble. My parents knew I was unhappy in the public school and moved me to a private school; however, the social dynamic at this private school was similar. I started being a practical-jokester, not taking school seriously, getting in trouble and being someone completely different than my actual nature.
I ended up not being invited back to the school and spent my first year of high school in a public school in Detroit. I continued to act out, trying to compete in an ongoing popularity contest.
Luckily (I do not know how) I reached the conclusion that none of this behavior was in my best interest. Both my parents had gone to elite colleges and graduate schools and were able (somehow) to convince me that the right person to be was the person who liked to study, do reports and read, and it was okay to be somewhat withdrawn. That is my natural personality, and being the person I am serves me well. Had I continued on the path I was on, I may (like many of my friends from Detroit) have wound up in prison, addicted to drugs, or dead (several of my old friends are).
I decided to be the person I truly am, and that saved my life.
The interesting thing about Williams is that his nature was not the same as the characters he frequently played on screen. According to Williams, as a child, he was pudgy, isolated and had few friends:
“I always picked isolated characters, man-child characters, and then tried to make connections with people,” Williams says. “It got to a point where I said, ‘I can’t keep trying to work out therapeutic issues on film.'”
Those issues took root on a Michigan estate … “Robin had the entire third floor,” his mother, Laurie Williams, says. “He put his toy soldiers — he had thousands of them — in those rooms, carefully divided according to period.” Williams not only staged intricate battles between soldiers of different eras, he created dialogue for them in what was, essentially, a childhood version of his performance style.
|Robin Williams 1983: Even Then, You Could See Life Was a Struggle
As an adult, Williams was reportedly quite withdrawn and isolated as well (except when he was on stage):
Williams’ talent for ad-libbing functioned as a gift and a shield. “He was always in character — you never saw the real Robin,” said Jamie Masada, founder and chief executive of the Laugh Factory. “I knew him 35 years, and I never knew him.”
|Robin Williams dies in apparent suicide; actor, comic was 63
Could it be that the cause of Williams’ depression and suicide was that he was living a life as a character and not necessarily being himself? Could it be that his entire career was based on a personality that was not his own, and it left him unfulfilled and empty inside?
I think there is a possibility that this tragedy has something to do with this.
Williams was a prolific user of cocaine and alcohol. I have never used cocaine, but have seen what it does to people. It can take a withdrawn person and turn him into a social butterfly and star on the dance floor. Williams was friends with people like John Belushi (he was the last person to see him alive). Like Williams, Belushi used cocaine to become someone different than he really was while on stage. Many well-known comics, like Chris Farley, have died of cocaine abuse. Richard Pryor is another one who slipped into the depths of cocaine abuse and accompanying depression.
The reason I believe people like Williams, Belushi, Pryor and other comics abuse cocaine is because they believe they need help to “be up” and be something they are not naturally.
They also suffer from the same thing that plagued me when I was younger, a need for the approval of others. Since this approval comes when they are “up” and acting out, they believe they need to constantly put this face on. However, what makes this so difficult is that deep down (like the rest of us) this is not who they really are. They may be depressed, withdrawn and melancholy like everyone else is from time to time. In fact, they may be even more so. They get approval from their peers when they are performing, so they continually perform to get the approval and connection that they need.
As a comedian or other person gets older, getting that approval becomes more difficult – and acting against their own nature to gain this connection becomes depressing and difficult. What if people loved you only when you were “up,” and being “up” was something that was very difficult for you to be at all times? How would you feel then?
In my career counseling and working with job seekers, I see many people who are doing jobs they should not be doing and that are completely inconsistent with their nature. I also see others that do jobs that are completely consistent with their nature. People that do jobs that match their skills and personality are almost always much happier than people doing jobs that don’t really fit them.
Doing something like being a yoga teacher is the last thing in the world I would be comfortable doing. It is completely out of my nature. I started and ran a successful yoga studio and could not believe how passionate people were about this work. I even had people volunteer to teach and work in the yoga studio for free. But people who teach yoga often really love it.
Some attorneys love the practice of law. I know several attorneys who are crazy about practicing law and could not ever think of a better job. I once met an attorney is his mid-90s practicing law who told me that he loved it so much that it was keeping him alive. He was completely suited to the legal practice.
In contrast, I know numerous attorneys who have been sent to early graves practicing law. They hate it, and the stress is too much. It is not in their nature.
No one should ever be living a lie and not being themselves. You need to be the exact person you truly are and want to be. This is the only recipe for happiness and long-term success.
My guess: Williams equated happiness and success with getting the approval of others and being thought of as funny at all times. As he aged, that became harder and harder to do. His career was declining and this attention and mass approval was unlikely to ever come back at the same level. While most people would be happy with the level of success he had achieved, Williams’ mind told him that happiness would only come from being someone different than he truly was.
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