Picture a driver whose wrists are handcuffed to the steering wheel. A short chain, at that, so no hand-over-hand turns. The gear shift is barely reachable, with the fingertips.
Now send that driver on a trip from Limon to Grand Junction. How much of a miracle will it be to make it? If and when the inevitable happens, how many will blame the driver? How many will see that the driver was largely a prisoner of his own car?
In the end, I think that’s where Robin Williams was. Careening off a mountain road in a vehicle he could not control.
The crash has left echoes in all our ears.
There’s been a lot said and written about Robin these days. Not surprising. For many of us, the brilliant comic and actor was one of the constant presences, always there, always doing something new, always on the move, like a lightning storm that had been distilled into a human body. Too much energy to be contained.
My own personal memory is of a performance he gave in London in the 1980s, part of a royal gala for Prince Charles and Princess Di. My family and I taped the show on TV and darned near wore it out, as we watched his hurricane of stand-up over and over again. The effects of playing rugby without pads. The difference between New York and London cab drivers. The sharks watching airline crash survivors bobbing on seat cushions. (“Oh, look, Tom, isn’t that nice? Canapés!”)
At one point, white-hot, he broke off his routine. Running beneath the royal box, he pointed upward, looked to the rest of the audience and stage-whispered “Are they laughing?”
Everyone broke up. Charles included.
But now I wonder. How much of that question lay at the heart of Robin’s own life? Are they laughing? Do they really like me or just the face I show? Does any of this matter?
Those can be uncomfortable questions even without a poisonous brain chemistry. But that is exactly what Robin Williams had.
I don’t have depression myself. Too many of my friends do, including some of the oldest friends I have in the world. From them and from a number of acquaintances, I have at least a second-hand idea, like a reporter in a war zone watching people in the line of fire.
And that’s what it is. A silent war against your own mind.
“Your brain is literally lying to you,” one online acquaintance said. Even when you realize that, he added, it’s still your brain and you still want to believe it.
That’s a terrifying thing to consider.
Mind you, I’m used to the idea that your own brain can ambush you. I’m epileptic. If someday my medication fails or it gets missed for too long, I can have a literal brainstorm. But that’s a sometimes thing, a sneak attack out of the bushes.
This is more insidious. This is the command center taken over by the enemy. When you can’t trust your own mind, your own perceptions and impulses, what do you do?
There are more tools than there used to be. I have friends who use medicine to fight the chemistry, who use cognitive-behavioral therapy to find a path through the labyrinth, who reach for reasons to even get out of bed in the morning: family, faith, pets.
“Unless brain transplants become a thing, I will always require medication,” one dear friend said. “But I’ll always need glasses, too, and that’s the context I try to keep it in.”
But among these tools, we also have one other thing. A society that doesn’t fully understand. A place where the glasses and the pills aren’t seen the same way, where people see depression as a personal failing instead of a mental illness.
Where it’s the driver’s fault for not sawing through the handcuffs in time.
Like many, I wish Robin Williams were still with us. But also like many, I hope his death gives more of us a chance to understand, to see, to ask questions and really listen to the answers. And by listening, to lift some of the stigma so that more people can get more help.
It takes all of us. Together, in understanding.
And that’s no joke.