My dad has never been a fan of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have to -from time to time- listen to recordings of it so we could augment our appreciation of opera. Aside from “listening” and “reading the libretto,” we were sort of expected to gather a little information about what we were about to experience. This bank of data comes in handy from time to time, say when I play Trivial Pursuit, watch Jeopardy!, or hear a reference that raises a flag of “booyah, I know this” in my mind.
This morning, while watching the incessant flow of news about Robin Williams’ death, James Lipton said “he WAS Pagliaccio!” Not for the first time, I agreed with an assessment that placed Robin Williams firmly in the role of “the guy who makes us laugh because he can’t NOT do it…for his sake.” Mr. Williams waltzed into my life in pretty much the same way he waltzed into the lives of multitudes of adolescent members of my generation: he was Mork; lovable, charming, klutzy, naive, wide-eyed…and hysterically funny. The level of energy that Robin Williams managed to convey was so impressive that even my mother (who was convinced that, by rolling her eyes, she could maybe find an extra shred of patience in her parietal and frontal lobes to deal with my hyperactive demeanor) found HIM more exhausting than she found me. Robin Williams was, from the very first moment we met him, larger than life, a force of nature, and a talent unlike any other.
How many of us sat, child in lap, watching Aladdin for the thirtieth time and still laughing at his dialogue as the Genie? To this day, J wants me to try to sing Friend Like Me without having to catch my breath, slow down, or go over the rapid-fire lyrics because I’ve either forgotten a bit, or misplaced it in the flow of words. He finds it entertaining when I break down laughing because a) I can’t get through it without feeling faint, and b) I can’t imitate Robin Williams’ delivery while laughing at how it sounds in the original. TGG was familiar with Popeye, Hook, Flubber, Jumanji, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire…even The Birdcage entertained him to no end, and he didn’t even really understand what it was all about.
We all knew, of course, that this mad comedic genius was partly fueled by his addiction for a good part of his career. We all knew, of course, that it’s not unusual for the truly great ones to struggle with such issues; Chris Farley, John Belushi immediately come to mind as being hilarious, and then one remembers what fueled them, too. Mr. Williams made no secret of this part of his struggles; alcohol and drugs were things he admitted to early on, and then -much later- he admitted that he struggled with depression. At some point between 10:30 P.M. PST on Sunday and 11:45 a.m. PST yesterday, Mr. Williams’ mental illness won a long-fought battle.
Like Canio in Pagliacci, Mr. Williams decided to appropriate that final line: la commedia è finita. Originally, I learned from my father’s many lessons in opera, the final line was sung by Tonio, the fool, but shortly after debuting, the line was given to Canio. It just seemed, within the great scheme of things, to work better that way. Mr. Williams, the consummate comedian and character actor, called time on his life.
Now, if we look at it from the standpoint of the casual observer, the fan that has followed his career for years, we can say “well, he STRUGGLED, but he had a GOOD life!” Yes, he had a good life; I’m sure Mr. Williams felt a certain degree of guilt at being emotionally unable to accept this fact without attaching a “BUT” to it. Mental Illness is funny that way: it doesn’t really process the joys and sorrows of every day in the way any of us might under ordinary circumstances. A person who is struggling with depression and addiction does not see things in the same light that others (who are not struggling with these obstacles) do…and being told to “buck up,” or “chill out,” or “get a grip” isn’t particularly helpful. The person battling severe depression or struggling with dependency cannot really CONTROL the way they feel, and they are often overwhelmed by things that -to the rest of us- seem tremendously trivial.
Looking in from the outside, our family life when I was teenager seemed quite fun; once inside the house, dealing with the roller coaster emotions that ruled our day to day existence, things were not as cool as people might have assumed while observing us at parties. The boundless bouts of joy were often followed by the deepest depths of despair. Somehow, the brief view from the top (fantastic though it was) didn’t really make up for the darkness at the bottom. Whether you want it to, or not, one person struggling with mental illness sets the tone for his/her entire household, and “taking the show on the road” often proved to be an exercise in courage for the family members who had learned to anticipate the usual round of “incidents” that marked our forays into society.
The thing that many forget -because it’s easier to just not even think about it- is that mental illness (whether it comes in the guise of addiction, bipolar disorder, depression) is only part of the person that struggles with it, but it’s also a part that will expand, contract, overwhelm, take over when one least expects it. If a person who is depressed could control the way they feel, do you really think they would CHOOSE to be depressed? It’s called mental illness for a reason, and that reason is that there is no way to control the way it works. You don’t blame a cancer patient for not getting better, do you? Then why would anyone think that any form of mental illness involves the ability to turn it on/off at will?
Yes, Robin Williams had an amazing life; he had an amazing career; he was beloved, respected, admired. He had a beautiful family. He reached the pinnacle of success in his chosen field of endeavor, but…
Mental illness can happen to anyone. In some people it takes many years to get a foothold and then climb until you’re carrying it on your shoulders. In other people, it’s a sudden conflagration, a spark and fire that spreads. Maybe, for a very long time, you fool yourself into thinking that nothing is wrong. Maybe, for a very long time, people think “that’s just the way” you are. Admitting to yourself that you need help is not easy, and admitting it to someone else is even worse; there is a deep, ugly stigma attached to using the words “I think there’s something wrong with me.” There’s a shame we’ve all attached to saying “I’m depressed,” or “I’m scared,” or “I have lost my way.” The usual responses to these statements are “oh, get over it. Grow up! Get a hold of yourself? You’re such a melodrama queen!”
It happens to everyone; we all have bad days. We sometimes have bad weeks. We sometimes have entire bad seasons. But the fact of the matter is that when your bad moments are more frequent, more significant, more persistent than your good moments you have to tell someone, and if the first person doesn’t listen, find another one. And if that second person doesn’t give you an answer that seems like they’ve actually heard what you said, ask someone else.
In hindsight, there was a concatenation of signs over the years that should have clued us in about Mr. Williams. In hindsight, we can all say “he was such a manic genius, such a brilliant mind, such a rapid-fire, off-the-cuff source of intelligent, funny, wild energy that..”
At some point on Sunday night, shortly after his wife went to bed, Mr. Williams decided he was done. Maybe he reached a point where it just didn’t make sense to him to go on. Maybe he reached a point where the only viable solution, in his mind and heart, was to take himself out of the picture, and let the frame be filled with something else. Maybe he bought into the notion that time resets when we leave, and life goes on…
It does…life, as Robert Frost said, goes on. Whatever questions remain, whatever sorrow is kicked up by the violence of loss (even when it’s seemingly non-violent) will eventually find its way back to normal…some sort of normal, anyway. If anything good can come out of this tragedy (and, yes, this is a tragedy because it echoes the profound effects of mental illness on so many people who had so much to give) maybe it will be that someone somewhere will say “I kinda feel like I always have to make others happy, like I need to stay strong and rise above, but that’s not really the way I feel…” And maybe they’ll ask for help, and maybe they’ll find a way to try to heal… Robin Williams, because he was such a big presence and huge talent, leaves a wide, deep hole, but any other person out there will leave a hole, too…maybe not as wide or deep (to their mind,) but a hole nonetheless.