Like millions of others the world over, I was shocked last week to hear about the death of Robin Williams. I’m old enough to tell the story of how I remember seeing him guest star on “Happy Days”, and was terribly excited when “Mork & Mindy” came on the air every Thursday. I literally applauded at the end of each episode, feeling he was just that incredible (I was a dork from Ork). I was a kid – 11 years old – when the egg-shaped shuttle landed in Milwaukee. I begged my mom to buy me a pair of rainbow suspenders, so I could be like Mork. I proudly wore them to middle school, only to have some jerk steal them from my gym locker.
Also like millions of others the world over, I was intrigued by his movie career. I was too young to understand “The World According to Garp”, but I was hooked on “Moscow on the Hudson” (if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out). He chose to make films that covered a lot of territory. I have seen a couple of his comedies no less than a dozen times, with “Mrs. Doubtfire” being considered ‘a member of the family’, as I saw someone describe it.
In some ways, his dramas were even better. Many of us were surprised, delighted and touched by his powerhouse performance as a prep school English teacher in “Dead Poets Society”. “Awakenings”, “One Hour Photo” and “Insomnia” also showcased a comedian who knew how to put aside the one-liners and the quest for laughs, and deliver performances that stay with you. “Good Will Hunting” took him all the way to the stage of the Academy Awards.
As I moved through each day last week, I found myself in mourning. Several friends I talked to, both with in-depth conversations about our grief and in participating on Facebook posts, felt the same way. The impact of his death was something almost tangible. There are dozens of celebrity deaths throughout each year. Some get nothing more than a “meh” from us, and sometimes we don’t know who the person was. Sometimes we utter an initial “Ohhhh”, and sometimes we feel really sad for awhile.
Then there are the deaths of the famous that in and of themselves become infamous. Their impact is enormous and the news coverage is out of the ordinary. They are the kind of losses for which everyone has a “Where were you when you heard about it” moments. John Lennon. Princess Diana. Michael Jackson. MLK. Kennedy. Elvis.
And now, Robin Williams.
I knew I wanted to write about his life and death, but I also knew it would take several days to get a handle on my emotions and what I wanted to say. I’ve found something that keeps resonating with me, and I imagine with a lot of other people, not the least of whom are people who have reason to read an eating disorder related blog.
I keep coming back to how so many of the characters Robin played are the very people we’d like to think could have somehow saved him. When he was down in the well of his depression, when he began to entertain thoughts of checking out, what if he could’ve reached out to the very characters that helped so many others?
Adrian Cronauer would’ve given a depressed man a reason to tune into the radio every day and gather steam to start to get better.
Mrs. Doubtfire would’ve taken him in her arms and delivered sage advise in her warm brogue, helping him to see it’s always darkest before the dawn.
Dr. Malcolm Sayer would’ve known how to gently pull an awakening out of him, and stayed at his bedside until he had his strength back.
John Keating would’ve recited “O Captain”, teaching him to use the beauty of words and imagery to fight off the dark calling he felt.
Patch Adams would’ve worked tirelessy to gift him with the ability to laugh, even when all seemed hopeless.
Sean Maguire would’ve provided such an amazing therapy lifeline that his patient would’ve held on and beaten his own thoughts of ropes and final goodbyes.
Mork would’ve analyzed him in his usual “humans are so odd to me sometimes” way, and provide the shoulder he needed to lean and cry on. He would’ve talked him out of committing suicide. But Mork was just part of a 30-minute sitcom, with a guaranteed happy ending.
As well, all of those movies were just that – films. While each of those characters (and more) was able to soothe their fictional co-stars who were suffering – and indeed comfort those of us sitting in darkened theaters and lighted living rooms – they could not save Robin Williams.
And in the most basic, perhaps even banal, terms – that sucks.
Robin Williams was in the darkest moments of his life in order to do what he did. It is quite likely had he been able to pull himself back from the brink, or had someone been there to stop him, he might never act on that drive again. Then again, he might have. We will never know. We also can’t know how much his recent Parkinson’s diagnosis drove his decision.
What does all this have to do with eating disorders? Plenty. Many people whose lives have been wrapped up in anorexia, bulimia, binge eating or EDNOS also experience depression and health problems. Sadly, a number of them go on to attempt or commit suicide. There are no reliable statistics that can correlate suicides with either eating disorders or depression. By that I mean the death certificate only covers the actual physical cause of death. It doesn’t say what drove the person to act in such a horrifying, permanent manner. It doesn’t provide insight into why someone chose to punctuate their sentence early, to paraphrase Carrie Fisher.
Perhaps if we had a better, more complex overview of just how many cases of depression and eating disorders end up in suicide, we would be better prepared to combat it. Doctors and therapists could be better informed, which makes for more informed patients. Those who hold the purse strings for prevention, treatment and research would gain insight into how to better spend their dollars. The loved ones left behind, as well as strangers who think a “snap out of it” approach is all that’s needed, would be able to better comprehend what has happened, and have compassion for those who suffer and those they leave behind.
So to my Captain, my Mrs. Doubtfire, my Mork, I say this: I’m not at all certain what happens after we slip the surly bonds of this world, but I do believe there is more to come. I take some comfort in my belief that Robin is at peace now. I wish he had not disintegrated to the point that he went looking for it that way, but I like to think that somewhere, on some plane, a whole lot of other souls have spent the last week laughing like they haven’t laughed in quite awhile.
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