When I heard the news on Monday that Robin Williams had died, I was, like the rest of the world, stunned and saddened. I grew up watching him – he’s been famous for literally my entire life. I’ve always vastly preferred his dramatic work to his comedies and firmly believed he was an actor with a gift for comedy, and not a comedian who could also act. I knew that Williams had struggled with addiction over the years, and feared that we’d lost him to a relapse. It is, unfortunately, more complicated than that.
To be clear, at the time of me writing this it’s unknown if Williams had, in fact, relapsed, but it doesn’t matter. He’d dealt with two serious diseases in addiction and depression for his entire life, and he’d recently sought treatment for both. He was doing what a person with addiction and depression is supposed to do, and still, he’s gone…and it terrifies me.
A lot of people I care about deeply fight depression or addiction. They fight, every day, against the chemicals in their brains that tell them to self-destruct. Their brains turn on them and the worst part is, most people don’t accept that. They think depression and addiction are choices that you can somehow snap yourself out of. If only it were that easy.
Being on the outside is frustrating. “Why can’t you just stop drinking?” I’d ask an ex repeatedly. “But you have so much to be happy about,” I said to a friend when she expressed her sadness. I didn’t understand then that some things aren’t understandable. I didn’t realize then how lucky I was to not understand.
I’m afraid that those who struggle with depression and addiction will feel hopeless by Robin Williams’ death. He had everything to live for: fame, fortune, and millions of people who worshipped him. He had a loving family and adoring friends. I’ve already seen it expressed on social media: “If Robin Williams can’t beat depression/addiction, how the hell can I?”
To me, his death shows how powerful these mental illnesses are. Someone with so much, who was at an age that implied a certain wisdom, maturity, and fortitude, still fell to these monster diseases. I worry that Williams, who was once a beacon of laughter and endurance, will be remembered for the way he died and not for how hard he tried to live. But mostly I worry that nothing will be done to improve the treatment of mental illnesses, and those who struggle will continue to feel so overwhelmed by despair that suicide will feel like their only option.
There have been times in my life when I didn’t think I could live, but I’ve never been suicidal and I hope I never will be. I know how it feels to love someone who is suicidal. I know how scary it can be when someone you care about is that depressed. I feel helpless and I go to sleep every night hoping that the next day won’t be the one where I get the call that a life has ended.
I remind these people that I love them, and that so many others do, too. I say that I am always there for them, that there are even strangers who want to help on the suicide hotlines. I know, deep down, that if love were enough they’d be okay. But it’s not about love. You can’t love away cancer, and you can’t love away mental illness.
I say all of these things and I hope that it’s enough to get through one more day, one more rough patch, one more triggering death, until finally the stigma is lifted and mental health is given the attention it deserves.