He Left Behind a Gift

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He Left Behind a Gift

The first time I laid eyes on Robin Williams was shortly after 8 p.m., Tuesday, February 28, 1978. I was 13 years old.

The only reason I know that is because he blew me away in his bizarre portrayal of an extraterrestrial who had landed in Milwaukee with the sole intention of kidnapping Richie Cunningham. As was the case for anyone who entered the “Happy Days” universe in those days, Mork from Ork had to first get past The Fonz if he intended to abscond with the “freckle-faced typical American teenager.” The episode was one of the highest-rated shows in the long history of the legendary series,

Of course Fonzie prevailed in the end, but with such a universally acclaimed debut, Mork was well on his way to his own ABC series, and Robin Williams was on his way to an amazing career that entertained several generations and spanned 35 years.

And just like that it was over.

The way the end of Williams troubled life made headlines and sustained the 24-hour news cycle may have appeared grotesque to some, but to me it was a testament of the deep and heartfelt affection the world had for this man, whose talent seemed to cascade without limit. Most everyone seemed to really care he was gone, and most everyone was damn sad to hear it.

You knew his resume, you grasped the depth of his versatility and range, and you appreciated his spontaneous wit, but there were few who understood how profoundly sick the enormously gifted actor happened to be.

I too was in the dark, until his list of worldly ills were plainly spelled out.

1. Depression. CHECK.

Have you been around show business long? There is rejection around every corner, and the system seems to thrive on failure and embarrassment as much as it does success. How many creative people work their entire lives for the chance to become stars, only to fail in glamorously infamous fashion. Damn skippy it is depressing. I get depressed just thinking about it. And when established stars trip up, the failure becomes even more spectacular. Did you see Williams’ recently cancelled series? It was horrible, and you better believe he knew it.

2. Substance abuse/dependence. CHECK.

Many Hollywood stars can claim some experience with this, just like many teachers, tailors and toymakers. Nothing really unusual about an enormously rich man getting too much “fun,” and having to dry out or get clean before reclaiming his career. It happens. We knew it happened to Williams because he told us all about it. For decades.

3. Bipolar disorder. CHECK.

This one threw me. It threw me because I know all about this condition, but I did not know it had a deathgrip on Robin Williams.

Let me clarify, I know this “condition” about as well as a man can understand a woman, or a human can understand a cat, which is to say, I am familiar with how impossible it is to truly understand the troubled minds of the manically depressed.

Manic depression, these days referred to as bipolar disorder is not to be confused with the very real, but comparatively harmless situational depression described above. Simple depression can occur when you are at the end of your rope and flat broke. Manic depression can come any time, even if you are at the top of your field and worth tens of millions of dollars… like Robin Williams.

Sometimes it is a condition that can be managed, and even conquered to some degree. Winston Churchill did it and, currently, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jim Carrey are maintaining a successful battle against it, as are many others.

But there are countless, unknown victims among us who are not able to cope, even some who despite enjoying world-renowned attributes and fortunes, are laid waste by the disease and its effects.

These people do not digest information the way healthy people do. Often their minds are completely unable to comprehend the blessings in their own lives, while exaggerating the faults and blemishes. And they can suffer horrible hallucinations, inspired by imaginations driven to overdrive for no apparent reason and with no prior warning.

One of the worst things a manic depressive can do is attempt to self medicate. They often equate “numbness” with “feeling better,” or at least they believe it is a better alternative to being constantly “under siege” and delusional to the point of being incapacitated.

When you are tortured by conspiracies, demons and fear, is the thought of death such an unpleasant possibility?

I really have no idea, but I have been told that it is, by my own flesh and blood.

A number of years ago I lost a member of my own family to this disease.

Long before we lost her, ironically during a conversation about my own mother, who was having a tough time battling plain old regular depression, she told me a little bit about her own battle. I thought she was just ruminating over shared circumstances and family illness, but she seemed to be describing something far worse than Mom ever dealt with.

“Complete hopelessness.”

There was no way to really understand her perspective. I had no shared point of reference, and the concept of “complete hopelessness” seemed silly when described by this woman who was blessed with the soul of a poet, classic natural beauty and a talent for composition that Margaret Mitchell would have envied.

“Complete hopelessness.”

We had no idea.

While this precious woman did not have the millions of dollars or the fabulous lifestyle that Robin Williams had, she did have the undying love of her children, her parents, her siblings, and yes, those of us in her extended family that embraced her from birth. As the illness took its toll over time, and her behavior vacillated between bizarre and destructive, there were still moments we could see her. There were still days when we could talk. There was still the connection that bonded us as family.

And then one day she was gone. Not as dramatically as what we saw this week. No, this dear soul died trying to quiet the distractions that clouded her mind. She did her very best to stay with the people who loved her, she just did not know the way to end the pain that was getting in her way.

I didn’t know Robin Williams, but I did know and appreciate his work. As his life came to an end this week, I discovered that I knew something about his struggles. His small gift to my family is the knowledge and proof that even all the money and power in the world can not keep this insidious illness from running its course. I hope his family knows that all the love in the world can’t cure it, either.

The first time I laid eyes on Robin Williams was shortly after 8 p.m., Tuesday, February 28, 1978. I was 13 years old.

The only reason I know that is because he blew me away in his bizarre portrayal of an extraterrestrial who had landed in Milwaukee with the sole intention of kidnapping Richie Cunningham. As was the case for anyone who entered the “Happy Days” universe in those days, Mork from Ork had to first get past The Fonz if he intended to abscond with the “freckle-faced typical American teenager.” The episode was one of the highest-rated shows in the long history of the legendary series,

Of course Fonzie prevailed in the end, but with such a universally acclaimed debut, Mork was well on his way to his own ABC series, and Robin Williams was on his way to an amazing career that entertained several generations and spanned 35 years.

And just like that it was over.

The way the end of Williams troubled life made headlines and sustained the 24-hour news cycle may have appeared grotesque to some, but to me it was a testament of the deep and heartfelt affection the world had for this man, whose talent seemed to cascade without limit. Most everyone seemed to really care he was gone, and most everyone was damn sad to hear it.

You knew his resume, you grasped the depth of his versatility and range, and you appreciated his spontaneous wit, but there were few who understood how profoundly sick the enormously gifted actor happened to be.

I too was in the dark, until his list of worldly ills were plainly spelled out.

1. Depression. CHECK.

Have you been around show business long? There is rejection around every corner, and the system seems to thrive on failure and embarrassment as much as it does success. How many creative people work their entire lives for the chance to become stars, only to fail in glamorously infamous fashion. Damn skippy it is depressing. I get depressed just thinking about it. And when established stars trip up, the failure becomes even more spectacular. Did you see Williams’ recently cancelled series? It was horrible, and you better believe he knew it.

2. Substance abuse/dependence. CHECK.

Many Hollywood stars can claim some experience with this, just like many teachers, tailors and toymakers. Nothing really unusual about an enormously rich man getting too much “fun,” and having to dry out or get clean before reclaiming his career. It happens. We knew it happened to Williams because he told us all about it. For decades.

3. Bipolar disorder. CHECK.

This one threw me. It threw me because I know all about this condition, but I did not know it had a deathgrip on Robin Williams.

Let me clarify, I know this “condition” about as well as a man can understand a woman, or a human can understand a cat, which is to say, I am familiar with how impossible it is to truly understand the troubled minds of the manically depressed.

Manic depression, these days referred to as bipolar disorder is not to be confused with the very real, but comparatively harmless situational depression described above. Simple depression can occur when you are at the end of your rope and flat broke. Manic depression can come any time, even if you are at the top of your field and worth tens of millions of dollars… like Robin Williams.

Sometimes it is a condition that can be managed, and even conquered to some degree. Winston Churchill did it and, currently, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jim Carrey are maintaining a successful battle against it, as are many others.

But there are countless, unknown victims among us who are not able to cope, even some who despite enjoying world-renowned attributes and fortunes, are laid waste by the disease and its effects.

These people do not digest information the way healthy people do. Often their minds are completely unable to comprehend the blessings in their own lives, while exaggerating the faults and blemishes. And they can suffer horrible hallucinations, inspired by imaginations driven to overdrive for no apparent reason and with no prior warning.

One of the worst things a manic depressive can do is attempt to self medicate. They often equate “numbness” with “feeling better,” or at least they believe it is a better alternative to being constantly “under siege” and delusional to the point of being incapacitated.

When you are tortured by conspiracies, demons and fear, is the thought of death such an unpleasant possibility?

I really have no idea, but I have been told that it is, by my own flesh and blood.

A number of years ago I lost a member of my own family to this disease.

Long before we lost her, ironically during a conversation about my own mother, who was having a tough time battling plain old regular depression, she told me a little bit about her own battle. I thought she was just ruminating over shared circumstances and family illness, but she seemed to be describing something far worse than Mom ever dealt with.

“Complete hopelessness.”

There was no way to really understand her perspective. I had no shared point of reference, and the concept of “complete hopelessness” seemed silly when described by this woman who was blessed with the soul of a poet, classic natural beauty and a talent for composition that Margaret Mitchell would have envied.

“Complete hopelessness.”

We had no idea.

While this precious woman did not have the millions of dollars or the fabulous lifestyle that Robin Williams had, she did have the undying love of her children, her parents, her siblings, and yes, those of us in her extended family that embraced her from birth. As the illness took its toll over time, and her behavior vacillated between bizarre and destructive, there were still moments we could see her. There were still days when we could talk. There was still the connection that bonded us as family.

And then one day she was gone. Not as dramatically as what we saw this week. No, this dear soul died trying to quiet the distractions that clouded her mind. She did her very best to stay with the people who loved her, she just did not know the way to end the pain that was getting in her way.

I didn’t know Robin Williams, but I did know and appreciate his work. As his life came to an end this week, I discovered that I knew something about his struggles. His small gift to my family is the knowledge and proof that even all the money and power in the world can not keep this insidious illness from running its course. I hope his family knows that all the love in the world can’t cure it, either.

  • Danyo

    That column was so good I read it twice.

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