Just hours ago, my local paper reported that Robin Williams was found dead in his home in Tiburon, Calif. The Marin County Sheriff Coroner’s division said it suspected Williams had committed suicide by asphyxiation.
Many famous people live in Marin County, which is also my home, musicians and actors most notable among them. But none is as beloved a native son as Robin Williams, and no death has hit harder.
I met Robin Williams two years ago, only long enough for a warm greeting and gracious handshake, but I can tell you two things: He was kinder than he needed to be to someone he’d never met, and he had very, very sad eyes.
Here are the details, as currently known: Williams was found dead at noon today after a 911 call was placed from the home at 11:55 a.m. The Marin County Sheriff’s Office, the Tiburon Fire Department and the Southern Marin Fire Protection District sent emergency personnel to the scene, arriving almost immediately at 12:00 p.m.
Williams lived in the home on the Tiburon peninsula with his wife, Susan Schneider, but it isn’t clear if it was she who discovered him; reports say only that he was found “by family.” Williams had wed Schneider, his third wife, in the nearby Napa Valley on October 23, 2011. ”I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings,” Schneider said in a statement released by his publicist. “I am utterly heartbroken.”
The Mystery of Suicide
If Williams’ death does prove to be a suicide, it would raise many questions. How could Robin Williams, with a life as successful as anyone could wish for, be depressed enough to take his own life? Or, put even more simply, how could someone who made us laugh so hard be so sad?
The answer, of course, is depression. Depression is why someone could laugh and smile on the outside, and yet feel his life is not worth living.
That Williams battled alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression is no secret. The actor gave many candid interviews describing his struggles with these demons, and his at least temporary successes. Williams’ publicist, Mara Buxbaum, gave a short statement saying that Williams had been “battling severe depression” but stopped short of calling the death a suicide.
Last year Williams returned to television for the first time since his breakout hit Mork and Mindy, with a show called The Crazy Ones, in which he starred with Sarah Michelle Gellar as a father-daughter duo who ran an advertising agency. The show was cancelled after its first season due to low ratings and mediocre reviews.
It’s always tempting to look at a person’s life and professional situation for clues to possible “causes” of suicide. But the truth is, there is no cause of depression – it just is. And that’s the problem – we still look at it as something linked to logic, something a person has control over, when in fact it’s a mental illness (emphasis on illness) that takes control of the brain much as heart disease or cancer takes control over the body.
SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) has some excellent information about depression and suicide, which admirably avoids the us-vs-them attitude that pervades much of the reporting and research on this topic. Like this explanation of why people who are severely depressed don’t seek — or may not respond to — help and treatment.
“Many people who suffer from depression report feeling as though they’ve lost the ability to imagine a happy future, or remember a happy past. Often they don’t realize they’re suffering from a treatable illness, and seeking help may not even enter their mind. Emotions and even physical pain can become unbearable. They don’t want to die, but it’s the only way they feel their pain will end.”
Local Hero Bar None
Robin Williams was not one of those celebrities who hide, or surround themselves with acolytes, or hire security guards to keep fans at bay. He ambled into bookstores in Marin, dropped in on fellow comics and musician friends backstage at local theaters, and visited Redwood High School, from which he graduated in 1969.
Like many people who live in Marin and San Francisco, where Williams also lived, I have a how-funny-is-Robin Williams?! story. Many years ago, a very talented woodworker friend was hired to design and build an entertainment center for Williams’ Pacific Heights home. He asked another friend to help him deliver the piece, which was huge and very heavy.
When the two arrived at Williams’ house, the actor greeted them himself, then stood at the top of the stairs calling out directions as they attempted to maneuver the ungainly piece of furniture up the steep Victorian staircase. Williams went straight into his famous storyteller mode, tossing out quips, doing voices, calling out absurd suggestions. Laughing too hard to hold onto the cabinet, they had to set it down and order Williams into the other room in order to complete the delivery.
But his comedic spark wasn’t enough. Depression won. There were 39,518 suicides in the U.S. in 2011, according to the CDC.
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