The sudden death of Robin Williams caught me totally by surprise.
I don’t read People magazine, or spend time watching the Hollywood gossip shows or make a point to catch a late-night talk show just because some celebrity is scheduled to appear. I had no clue that he’d been in rehab for drug and alcohol dependency, or that friends were apparently worried about his mental health these last few years.
Moreover, I don’t claim any connection with the man, no “brush with greatness” story I could share about getting up close and personal with such a multi-talented actor/comedian, someone that even his critics acknowledged was an incredibly gifted performer. No one who witnessed one of his high-energy stand-up routines, a manic talk-show appearance or even the scripted but almost always edgy movie roles he created ever denied that the man was a unique talent.
But his death was a somber event for me, one that affected me beyond even the normal sense of loss we all feel when a larger-than-life personality who lit up both the big and the small screens for decades suddenly dies.
He was the same age as me. He suffered from an increasingly serious heart condition later in life, the same as I did. He underwent the exact same operation—open-heart surgery to replace a defective heart valve—as I did, and at the same time back in 2009. In fact, the cardiologist I visited for a follow-up even remarked that, “Did you know that Robin Williams, the actor, had the same procedure you did?”
By way of reassurance, I guess, that the dramatic, life-saving intervention I had undergone was actually somewhat commonplace in modern medical practice.
Williams’ operation was declared a success, as was mine, but by all accounts he experienced post-surgical depression, as I did. It’s tough to explain to anyone who hasn’t gone through it, but despite all the cheery encouragement from doctors and nurses—and the reality that you just got a new lease on life—during the months of what becomes a long, slow recovery, there’s a deep and sobering sense of your own mortality that settles in, like a fog bank that hugs the hillsides even as the morning sun shines brightly above it.
Sometimes, it’s tough to shake it off.
Of course, that’s where the comparisons stop. I can honestly say that I don’t dwell too often on the events of five years ago. Sure, I think about the fact that in another five or ten years I might be facing a repeat procedure—the bovine tissue they implant on your heart has a nasty habit of growing increasingly calcified over time.
To listen to yesterday’s non-stop cable coverage of Williams’ behavior these last few years, it’s apparent that whatever issues he struggled with during his earlier career certainly weren’t put to sleep following his heart surgery. The anesthetic they administer effectively numbs the body’s physical activity, but it doesn’t quiet the demons that in his case seemed to take up a permanent residence in his psyche.
The song says that beneath still waters, there’s a strong undertow.
A deeper, darker personality
We tend to play armchair psychologist when someone famous takes their own life, as seems to be the case with Robin Williams. That’s only natural. There has to be some deeper reason why a person who’s rich and famous and supremely talented decides that life’s not worth living.
Genius is often accompanied by a dark side, the creative highs dragged down by equally powerful lows. In Williams’ case, it doesn’t take a degree in psychiatry to speculate that his manic public performances were likely “balanced” with episodes that plumbed the depths of depression.
Moreover, for many performers used to the stand-up or the theatrical stage, where you have immediate and intimate interactions with an appreciative audience, making movies becomes a tedious slog of endless takes and re-takes, hours and days of sitting around the set—or locked inside a trailer—while an army of grips and gaffers rearranges scene after scene under the micromanagement of some egotistical director.
For some actors, it’s a recipe for eventual problems with substance abuse—just to kill time, if nothing else. Easy to point fingers at celebrities who struggle with addictive behavior; much tougher to understand the pressures they experience to maintain the high-wire act that earned them their fame and fortune in the first place.
In a roundabout way of confronting our own mortality, we occasionally toss out the throwaway line, “Hey, I could get run over by a bus tomorrow morning.”
It’s a relatively painless way of acknowledging our ultimate destiny, since statistically that would be a rare and seemingly preventable accident.
It’s much more of a shock to realize that someone with whom we feel a bond is capable of deliberately stepping in front of that proverbial bus.