I’m not sure when it was I first figured out Robin Williams wasn’t actually acting. He wasn’t pretending to be an endearing visitor from another planet or a shattered, homeless man in New York City or an energetic Genie trapped in a bottle. He wasn’t posing as a passionate, beloved poetry teacher or a grownup who could fly or a father crazy enough in love with his ex-wife that he’d waltz around as a stout, prudish nanny. Instead, he was just being himself – his nuanced, magnetic, hysterical, genius, explosive self.
I imagine it must have dizzying for him to feel such intense, raw emotions so much of the time. As someone who struggles to corral my own over-active monkey brain and small-scale bouts of extreme emotion, Robin Williams’ openness thrilled me. He was willing to be ridiculous, both physically and emotionally, to show us exhilarating joy, childish wonder, profound sadness. He took the complex business of being human to an emotional level very few of us ever contemplate.
By the time he went public with his addiction and depression, I was well into my 20s. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t just the fun and funny that were heightened for him; it was also the dark and shadows and everything in between. I know living this way wasn’t a choice for him or something he could readily control. Feeling so much so intensely is a double edged sword: it can be addictively thrilling, but also frightening and lonely.
The only time I have ever experienced intense, overwhelming depression was in the months following the birth of my first daughter. New motherhood shocked me. Nursing was a disaster and Ella lost weight. She cried all the time. I barely left the house for two months because I was so strung out. I’d imagine myself tripping down the stairs and dropping her. I’d be in the kitchen cutting vegetables with Ella asleep in her bouncy chair 8 feet away and visualize the knife slipping out of my hands, flying across the room and stabbing her. These open-eyed nightmares left me breathless and consumed by sadness and failure. Wrapped in desperation, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling better and it terrified me. I didn’t know how long I could endure it.
I know now that I suffered from postpartum depression. My housecleaner saw me struggling and offered to babysit two afternoons a week. My husband gave me all his love and support. My friends came to me, eventually coaxing me out of the house. The nursing got better. Ella began to thrive. A few months later, I felt better. My depression had been temporary and I did what I needed to do to keep that demon away after having my second child and then a third. I know this doesn’t happen for everyone.
Sometimes our souls go to the deepest, darkest places. Sometimes we recover. Sometimes we don’t. I cannot imagine how utterly desperate and completely out of options Robin Williams must have been to voluntarily leave this world. But I do know how it feels to arrive at a point where you know, for sure, that you won’t survive another stint in those painful, emotional hinterlands.
We are all just visiting this earth, learning the customs, mastering the language, trying to be human. Robin Williams made me laugh until I ached, but even more than that, he showed me that being human is a layered emotional experience unique to every one of us. He gave us all of himself in the most honest and unselfish of ways. For that I will always remember him. May his light forever shine, on good days and bad, in the darkest corners and on the clearest moonlit nights.