The outpouring of shock and grief over the suicide of Robin Williams has been impressive, heart-wrenching, and in my opinion a tad over-the-top. But it is not surprising given the ethos of a culture that is entertainment and media-driven. He was both an enduring and an endearing character—a major player on the American movie and comedic scene for four decades, and everyone, it seems, recalls a favorite role of his—Mork from Ork, the DJ from Good Morning Viet Nam, Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, the doc from Goodwill Hunting, etc. Along with the memorable characters he portrayed, tales of his warmth, kindness and generosity abound. His life and work touched hundreds of friends and millions of fans.
Following closely on the heels of the initial shock were the predictable speculations about “why” and then the plethora of “experts” explaining clinical depression, suicide, drug abuse, bipolar illness, etc. We readily mistake being funny with being happy, and the image of the tormented, crying-on-the-inside funnyman has become almost iconic. Psychology 101 informs us that we deal with our anxieties thru a variety of masks and defense mechanisms: addiction, repression, suppression, reaction formation, displacement, projection, etc—anything it seems other than facing our overwhelming inner demons. It brings out our unspoken fear: “Could that be me?”
Various causes given for his suicide:
(1) Biochemical: He had a severe mood disorder (bipolar illness) that demanded treatment by antidepressants and/or mood stabilizers, and he was likely off his meds or taking them sporadically.
(2) Relapse from alcohol and cocaine abuse: Williams was quite open in speaking out about his early history of cocaine abuse, his 20 yrs of sobriety (1983-2003), and his more recent battles with alcohol. He had just spent a month in rehab at Haselden fine-tuning his recovery.
(3) He had money problems. Hard to believe, yet true. His big hits were well in the past. His most recent TV series had been cancelled after one season and he was working hard on several films to pay the bills. He had two previous divorces that undoubtedly cost him. Because of the financial problems he likely felt like a failure to his family.
(4) Open heart surgery: Williams had open heart surgery in 2009. Problems with major depression following this type of surgery are common. I heard one talking-head speculate that it was because this type of major procedure causes one to realize their mortality. Personally, I think it’s more likely brain chemical changes triggered by many hours under deep anesthesia.
I’ve blogged before on the topic of suicide after the suicide of Rev. Rick Warren’s son, Matt. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in developed countries in the age range 15-49 and is the fourth leading cause of death in teens. Approximately 40,000 Americans will die by their own hand this year—a new milestone. Offing oneself seems to be an idea who’s time has come. It’s not surprising. We live in a culture of death. The media breathlessly awaits the next murder/suicide or school massacre. It is glorified in song: Megadeath, etc and by the suicide of pop icons like Curt Cobain. Suicide bombings in the Middle East are a daily occurrence. Euthanasia or assisted suicide is legal in two states and several European countries. But for me the most telling statistic is the millions of lives snuffed out by abortion since Roe v. Wade in 1973. Death on demand is a holocaust with a consequence, and that consequence is the overall cheapening of life.
Suicidologist Thomas Joiner has found three characteristric attitudes of the suicidal: (1) I am alone. They feel isolated. (2) I am a burden, and (3) I am not afraid to die. I suspect Williams had all three just prior to hanging himself—but likely none close to him were aware he had those attitudes.
The most “lethal” diagnostic category are those with bipolar disorder. About 15% of those diagnosed bipolar will succeed in killing themselves. This is due to their raging uncontrolled moods, impulsivity, and in many cases, substance abuse. Most bipolar people enjoy the highs and when they feel them fading will use stimulant drugs or alcohol to maintain the high. One does not need a graduate degree in psychology to see that Williams was clearly bipolar. His early sitcom persona (Mork), and stand up act was characterized by an edgy, barely restrained mania.
I’ve also written extensively about the topic of clinical depression. I’ve written about it from all perspectives: personal, clinical and biblical. I am an expert thru my 40-years as a therapist, thru personal suffering and thru a spiritual awakening. To those who have not experienced it, the deep sadness and hopelessness of clinical depression is difficult to explain. All deeply depressed folks feel worthless, helpless and hopeless, and their sense of reality is filtered thru those feelings. Along with that usually comes insomnia, obsessive brooding, fatigue and unrealistic feelings of guilt. It feels like one is being sucked down into a bottomless pit, an inescapable abyss. The deeply depressed usually feel at a loss to explain it to others and so there is an enormous sense of isolation.
The William’s role I recall most vividly is one that I haven’t seen much mentioned: 1991’s “The Fisher King.” It has been so many years that much of the film’s details are indistinct, but I do remember feeling that Williams gave a moving performance in a profound and mysterious story. Though the film had a few light moments, it was not a comedic role. Unless of course you find homeless, mentally ill folks funny.
The Fisher King tale is Medieval. In its various conflated incarnations it dates back to at least the 12th century and is probably much older. It’s threads are likely part of Celtic mythology. It incorporates ancient myths with the Arthurian legends of the Holy Grail. The Grail was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea after the crucifixion. The Grail being either the cup Jesus held at the Last Supper and/or the cup that Joseph used to collect the blood of Jesus while he was dying on the cross. The Fisher King is the protector of the Grail. He is always portrayed as having been wounded. The wound is in the thigh or groin. This is a metaphor for impotence—a lack of fruitfulness. The lack of personal health or fruitfulness is mirrored by a lack of fruitfulness in his kingdom–perhaps, by a famine.
The Fisher King is Henri Nouwen’s classic wounded healer. He is also the bearer of the shed blood of our salvation and yet, in a sense, unable to save himself. Robin Williams brought mirth to others, perhaps even a healing balm for their sadness, and yet he ultimately succumbed to despair himself. In his death he becomes the Fisher King of myth—a life imitating art. Of the various formulations given for his suicide the one I have not seen in the mainstream media was about his ultimate beliefs. Only radio talk show host Michael Medved, an observant Jew, mentioned it. He said in effect that Williams didn’t know God, and was likely an atheist. That godless position would square with that of most of his Hollywood peers. Knowing Jesus does not immunize one from suicide as the Matt Warren case attests, but I do think serious Jesus-followers are less likely to end their earthly lives even when profoundly depressed. They may not have happiness, but many ultimately have Joy, that inexplicable foretaste of heaven written of by C.S. Lewis.
RIP Robin. You will be missed. You knew laughter but you likely did not know Jesus, and my sadness at your passing is because of that wound, that emptiness that laughter could not heal.