Battling the Bear: Reflections on Robin Williams (1951 - 2014)

It is important to focus on his life and the whole picture of who he was, not how he died.
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“Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you” - Preacher Roe

That quote is what has been running through my head as I write this piece. I first read it when I was reading about Spalding Gray after he took his life in 2004. I thought about that same quote a lot when my friend Andrew took his life in 2010. And I am thinking about it now as I am still reeling from the news about Robin Williams' suicide.

I read headline after headline hoping that each one would be followed by the news that it was all a hoax, an elaborate prank. But these headlines were all set up and there was no punchline. At 63, Robin Williams has left us.

I say “us” because even if you didn’t know him personally, he entertained us. As an entertainer, Williams did it all. He was a comic, an improviser, a comedic actor as well as a great dramatic actor. In some way or another, Williams affected our lives either through hilarity or through sheer power.

Some of my friends met or worked with Robin Williams and a few even knew him personally. It is evident that they are feeling the loss of his great presence. As pictures are posted and they recount their memories, the words “warm,” “sweet,” “giving,” and “genuine” keep coming up over and over again.

Although I never met Williams in life, he was a great influence on me as a performer, an improviser, and as a comedian. He was one of the greats that helped shaped my world. It feels like I grew up as Robin Williams career grew up. He will forever be my Popeye, Parry in The Fisher King, and Jack, a young boy with an aging disorder. Of course there are so many others amazing films like Dead Poet’s Society and Good Will Hunting. Williams has been in so many movies and given so many amazing performances that even if I covered them all, it wouldn’t make up the full person that Robin Williams was, it would all only be parts. 

Like many people, my relationship with Williams began with Mork & Mindy. I can remember sitting on the yellow shag carpeting in my grandmother’s room watching weekly episodes of Mork & Mindy while playing with my talking Mork doll. The doll had a spacepack with a pull string that when I pulled it uttered one of eight different phrases. I loved that doll and I loved that show. It was one of the shows I had to watch as a kid. It was a show I hated to miss because Mork was like a big kid. His physical antics made me laugh, and I wanted Mork to be my friend.

As a teenager, I obsessively watched episodes of Mork & Mindy in syndication. It was during these years that I not only understood more of the humor, but I fell in love with the humor of Jonathan Winters who played Mearth on the show. Mork and Mindy seemed like they would be fun parents and who didn’t think it might be cool to age backwards.

And now as an adult, that show is still magic to me. Williams was brilliant in that role. As an improviser, Williams knew what worked and used his instincts to break from the structure of the scripts on a regular basis. Watching reruns of the show now is like taking a class in comedy. Watching almost anything Robin Williams did can be an education.

That is part of what is hard about his passing from us so suddenly. Each one of us has our own memories of him and each one of us will grieve in our own way. And yet all of the memories, the photos, and the stories, both public and private, only tell part of the story. They are pieces of a man who was not only a performer, but a husband, and a father, and a friend. And like many people I know whom bring such great joy, he also struggled with great pain.

I cannot speak to Williams struggle with addiction, because I personally do not know that struggle. But what I can speak to is his struggle with depression. I struggle with depression, my husband struggles with it as well. Many people struggle with depression and it’s not a made-up thing. It’s not something that goes away because you set your mind to it. Depression is like a bear that is sometimes hibernating and sometimes it’s ready to eat.

As a performer, you spend a good deal of your life projecting a persona you want people to see. What someone sees on stage is only part of the performer. But for those unique entertainers that bring such human elements into their performance, it can be hard to separate the performer from the persona. When you are up there making people laugh, making people feel, and bringing people joy, it’s one of the best feelings in the world. Most performers will tell you after a good show that they feel high. In those moments, you feel loved, you feel worthy, you feel invincible. In those times the bear is hibernating,

Then there are the moments where everyone expects you to be who you are on stage. The moments when you want to tell people that you are having a hard time but instead you crack a joke or do something to distract them and yourself from the real pain. And all of that works for a while until you get sick of that or don’t have the energy to do it, so you go and hibernate yourself.

Then there are times when the depression hits. Why it hits, you cannot explain to yourself or to anyone else. It just seems to come without provocation. The bear is awake and it is hungry. Depression can be overwhelming and is always isolating because the negative thoughts corner you so the bear can attack. And even if you have good friends and a solid family, you feel alone and like there is no way out. When you feel cornered, you aren’t thinking or feeling in a rational way. The thoughts of getting help and finding a rational way out of depression don’t show up at those times. In those moments all you want to do is escape from the hungry bear that has cornered you. Because in those moments, it’s just you and the bear.

Sometimes you escape and run back to life.

Then there are other times when the bear eats you.

The bear got Robin Williams.

He is gone but a lot of questions remain. The questions about why did this happen and how could it have happened? But again, there is no simple answer and for some questions there may be no answers at all. The reasons that Robin Williams took his own life are just as complex and layered as the man himself.

So for now we are left to grieve and to try and make peace with the actions that he felt would give him peace.

For myself, I am going to try and remember Williams and his great talent. I am going to try and focus on the influence he had on me and on the performances he left behind. I will continue to read the uplifting stories that so many people are sharing. It is important to focus on his life and the whole picture of who he was, not how he died. To only focus on his death is to do a disservice to him, his friends, and his family. Robin Williams was so much more than a suicide, he was so much more than a performer, but then again aren’t we all.

This piece started with a quote, so I will end it with a quote as well. It comes from Rick Overton who was a friend of Williams and who wrote the following to Robin’s friends and family.

“And I am sending lots of love to you all. It’s what keeps the lights on in a soul.”

Here’s to keeping the lights on.

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