I’ve given myself three days before acknowledging Robin Williams’ death. My initial reaction at learning the suicidal comedian was severely depressed was to think must have been horrible at the end to again be that lonely—feeling so isolated to be willing (and able) to kill himself. David Wong has already written about the propensity for accomplished comedians to kill themselves, intimating that loneliness may lie at the center of the self-destructive spiral:
I keep mentioning Chris Farley for a reason — in the end, he was so alone that he was hiring prostitutes just to hang out with him. Here’s an account of how his last days played out:
“Farley partied for four straight days, smoked crack and snorted heroin with a call girl, then took her back to his apartment. When they argued about money, she got up to leave. He tried to follow but collapsed on the living room floor, struggling to breathe. His final words were ‘Don’t leave me.’ She took pictures of him, stole his watch, wrote a note saying she’d had a lot of fun, and left. He died alone.”
In this case, the clown was a hilarious fat guy playing a Beverly Hills Ninja. Back behind the wall, the real person was a scared, lonely, awkward fat kid who couldn’t even pay someone to hold his hand when he died. “Don’t leave me.”
There are also theories that profound loneliness can also cause cardiovascular illness:
Cole figured that a man who’d hide behind a false identity was probably more sensitive than others to the pain of rejection. His temperament would be more tightly wound, and his stress-response system would be the kind that “fires responses and fires ’em harder.” His heart would beat faster, stress hormones would flood his body, his tissues would swell up, and white blood cells would swarm out to protect him against assault. If this state of inflamed arousal subsided quickly, it would be harmless. But if the man stayed on high alert for years at a time, then his blood pressure would rise, and the part of his immune system that fends off smaller, subtler threats, like viruses, would not do its job.
And he was right. The social experience that most reliably predicted whether an HIV-positive gay man would die quickly, Cole found, was whether or not he was in the closet. Closeted men infected with HIV died an average of two to three years earlier than out men. When Cole dosed AIDS-infected white blood cells with norepinephrine, a stress hormone, the virus replicated itself three to ten times faster than it did in non-dosed cells.
I mention this because Robin Williams had heart surgery in 2009, a procedure that is known for depression developing as a bizarre side effect. What if loneliness and stress (such as divorce) is the source of both problems?
Robin Williams’ death leaves a mystery; he did not write a suicide note. While there are those that speculate about why he decided to hang himself, I come back to Late Night with Johnny Carson:
I, like Robin Williams, admire Jonathan Winters. I kept coming back to that clip since Winters passed away on 11 April 2013. On Monday while I was watching that clip, thinking about how Williams was the only person sitting on that stage that was still alive, Robin Williams choked himself to death with a belt.
What might be the connection? Winters suffered from bipolar disorder and, like Robin Williams, was alone as a child. Williams had the opportunity to revive Winters’ career by making his mentor/idol a regular on “Mork & Mindy” in 1981, and Williams seized the day. This could have been enough to make the two inseparable, but Williams was unaware Winters was close to death:
When Jonathan Winters died [in April], it was like, oh, man! I knew he was frail, but I always thought he was going to last longer.
To a man as generous as Robin Williams was reputed to be, Williams was surprised by the death of his “Comedy Buddha.” Worse, Jonathan Winters died on Robin Williams’ son Zak’s 30th birthday. Again, David Wong:
In your formative years, you wind up creating a second, false you — a clown that can go out and represent you, outside the barrier. The clown is always joking, always “on,” always drawing all of the attention in order to prevent anyone from poking away at the barrier and finding the real person behind it. The clown is the life of the party, the classroom joker, the guy up on stage — as different from the “real” you as possible. Again, the goal is to create distance.
You do it because if people hate the clown, who cares? That’s not the real you. So you’re protected.
But the side effect is that if people love the clown … well, you know the truth. You know how different it’d be if they met the real you.
This had to be different between Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams. I’ve read many writers’ favorite Robin Williams’ bit was his take on golf, but I’m partial to Egyptian Army training course (sorry, embedding not permitted). Back to David Wong:
But there’s more. The jokes that keep the crowd happy — and keep the people around you at bay — come from inside you, and are dug painfully out of your own guts. You expose and examine your own insecurities, flaws, fears — all of that stuff makes the best fuel. So, Robin Williams joked about addiction — you know, the same addiction that pretty much killed him. Chris Farley’s whole act was based on how fat he was — the thing that had tortured and humiliated him since childhood. So think of my clown analogy above, only imagine the clown feeds on your blood.
I would wager Robin Williams was spared from this horror while Winters still lived. Winters and Williams were both reputed to be “always ‘on,'” but both also filled out the other. Both laughed at the other’s antics, but they performed for the other lonely person, not the respective clown. Williams indicated Robert Williams’ uproarious laughter at Winters’ act led him to comedy–a conduit for Williams to build a bridge to his otherwise stern father.
What does that make Jonathan Winters to Robin Williams? His hero–his idol that breaks into side-splitting laughter at the language both comedians share? A father-figure or a father Williams wished he had had? Jonathan Winters exclaiming “God in Heaven!” at the Egyptian Army joke might have been Robin Williams reason for living; it certainly helped sustain Winters, who lived to the age of 87.
Who sustained Williams? We know the answer, and we don’t like the implications. We are uncomfortable with Robin Williams’ sense of abandonment, to the point that a personality on Fox News lashed out at the dead comedian for choosing to embrace the darkness.
Shepard Smith has apologized for his ‘cowardice’ outburst, but he expresses the emotional sentiments of many. We feel cheated: we wanted Robin Williams to fight for his last breath like his predecessor Jonathan Winters did; to appear on stage having fought off a flesh-eating bacteria and shaking a cane at the disease as the 87-year-old (now 88) master of insult comedy Don Rickles did last May. We wanted another quarter century or more with him, and I’m sure his children wanted 25+ more years with their father as well.
What are we willing to do to prevent suicide from stealing those years from us, to earn what was deprived?
Friendship…to years not squandered