Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dear Robin:

First things first. Regarding Robin Williams, most people are still either in shock, or in sorrow. This is not the kind of post that will cater gently to either of those emotions. You've been warned.

First of all, I wasn't shocked. After the initial "WHAT?!?!?", I actually nodded my head. My brain, in its delightfully Asperger's way, replayed every little hint he'd given us over the years. Fun viewing.

"What hints?" you may ask--and well you should. But I'll get to that.

Grief? Sure, I'm feeling that. None the least of which because I literally cannot explain to Crikey what the big deal is. He certainly gets the tragedy of untimely death, and the sorrow people feel over it (he was on the front line when I came unglued over Davy Jones, after all). I simply couldn't convey the enormity because no one in his generation's celebrity world is comparable.

But everyone is talking about how Robin was one of a kind. It would just be redundant to do that here.

So. Grieving. In my experience, the stages of grief give you a little time in each stage before bucking you to the next.

But every time I start to cry, I wipe away the tears and get angry.

Dear Robin,

My heart breaks for you, but no more or less than it ever has, for you have always seemed an emotional dichotomy to me. 

I don't remember the first time I saw it. The transformation. Robin Williams and transformation--the terms are almost synonymous. For anyone reading this, I'm sure I don't have to list out his chameleon talents. The man could present himself as anyone he wanted to be at any given moment.

Out of curiosity, and I may just be a little crazy here, but did anyone else notice how seldomly he chose to be himself?

Chameleons usually use their appearance-changing abilities to blend in, to hide from sight. Robin did that. Always hiding, but hiding in better-than-plain-sight, because holy shit, you couldn't miss him.

Yesterday, a friend and I were speaking about him, and I honestly can't remember what she said that triggered the train of thought I'm about to share, but it was something along the lines of "why didn't (rehab, therapy, sobriety, etc.--whatever--"help" of some sort) work?"

My sister often reminds me that I see things other people miss. I guess that's fair, since I miss most things other people see (and get in corresponding trouble over it). So maybe most people didn't notice it. The repetitive hints. Hints to the inherent frailty of the man.

Honest to God, folks, I seriously believe that's why we love him. Present-tense intended. The talent, the imitations, the comedy--all of that came from his frailty.

My best friend posted a clip of Robin performing for the troops. It ended with a little video of him casually hanging out with a couple soldiers, relaying what it was like to be up on stage during Retreat.

To be precise, he was in a situation where he had to interact with individual humans, rather than a crowd, an audience. He acted out the same (hilarious) reaction he performed, ad lib, on the stage at the moment, and it was adorable. They talked a little more, and as the group began to disperse, he turned to one of them and quietly asked, "Did you get your picture?"

Where seconds before had shown us bombastic, at that instant, his voice was soft, tender, shy.  You almost had to lean toward the screen to hear him--I did, actually, even though it was perfectly audible.

There. There it is. Just at the end. I admit, there are better examples in the great big body of video footage featuring him, but I simply don't have the heart to go looking for any right now.

No, I've never met the guy. I suppose it's unfair to make these assumptions. Because these are PHENOMENAL, COSMIC ASSUMPTIONS based on itty, bitty personal knowledge of him.

But here's the thing...

Dear Robin, 

I'm not shocked at what you did. I'm not confused. I'm angry. And, for the record, I'm not angry because I can't empathize with what you were going through--it's because I can.

It was neither sloppy writing, nor an error, to give that little intro to the talk I had with my friend and then tangent like I did. To quote another comedian, "I told you that story, so I could tell you this one." It needed to be in the back of your head, the question of why all that therapy, rehab (etc.) didn't work.  I wanted that to be percolating while I rambled.

I guess I was also doing a little homage to Robin as well. Two for one.

Here's the payoff. 

What if it did work? Not to be unkind, but he, like most of Hollywood, was a drug-addled mess for a while. He got help, got clean. Made a wonderful life for himself, and in so doing, made the lives of millions of others a better place to be. Stand up, shows, movies, Comic Relief, USO. To name barely a few, because the man I saw ask that soldier about pictures was undoubtedly the type to also do plenty of good without people seeing, knowing.

And if he hadn't cleaned up, we would've hardly had any of that, because we would have lost him decades ago. Rehab, therapy, sobriety--it did work, it just wasn't enough.

I've always admired the obvious research J.K. Rowling put into the Harry Potter series. The little references, the big ones, the obscure, the obvious. One of the things she touched on hit me like a brilliant ton of bricks, because some way, somehow, that woman understands depression fantastically.

Unsurprisingly, I'm about to mention dementors. You know, those Grim Reaper types who suck all the happiness out of a person's immediate vicinity? Including any memory of joy, success, love, any ability to remind oneself of the genuine, tangible good in the world?

Her brilliance wasn't in describing depression. I think everyone feels it from time to time. The brilliance was in a little throwaway comment from Sirius Black, when he explained how and why he never went insane. I'm too lazy (or, let's be generous and say I am too focused on what I'm doing) to get up and look for the exact quote. So paraphrasing it is.

There were two things.

First, he spent most of his time with the dementors in dog form; being able to separate from his human awareness, even a little, helped, provided a certain measure of salve.

Second, he knew he was innocent. But how did that make a difference? Knowing he was innocent gave him no joy, so the dementors couldn't take that knowledge from him.

If I hadn't loved her stories before, I would have fallen in love then, because holy fucking shit, that's so goddamn, precisely accurate. Ms. Rowling, I salute you.

But back to Robin. Or, more appropriately, back to everyone out there shaking their heads, wondering how someone so buoyantly funny could be depressed. How someone who had so much to live for, and did so many wonderful things for--hell, for all of us, himself included--how he could despair to such an extent that suicide became the choice?

Clinical depression is like being a turtle without a shell, unable to find joy in anything good, terrifyingly vulnerable to even the most minor of Life's curve balls. When you have it, survival means finding surrogate shells. Like turning into a dog. Or a genie. Or a genie with dozens of personalities...

Dear Robin,

I'm sorry you had to hide, that interacting without your posse of personalities made you feel like a turtle without its shell.

With depression, the first instinct, ordinarily, is self medication. Usually starting with alcohol, since lots of perfectly healthy people have a drink now and again when they've had a bad day. It's the same thing, right?

Of course, then there's drugs, sex, or physical/mental/emotional abuse, sleep--any form of escapism will do.

Therapy is like going to the store and finding a healthy, though still artificial shell. Does the same job, but since it was never organically part of you, it's not permanently attached--and your body may not recognize this "shell" as help, instead fighting against it. Either way, you have to work at keeping it secured, and you have to maintain it, so it stays in good shape.

To pause a second--to put into perspective that little "you're body might fight it" bit, and why it's a problem:

People who don't deal with depression already have a shell--they're bodies make it, maintain it as a matter of course--benefiting from its work without any effort or deliberation at all. Just like people don't consciously control their spleens, or livers, or hearts. These folks can go about their lives without having to intentionally do anything to maintain emotional equilibrium.

To have an artificial shell, to maintain its placement and durability, is like having to purposefully control your breathing. It's possible--but how tedious would it be to only breathe when you remembered to inhale and exhale? People who can't do that get put on freakin' life support. I wonder if there's a connection there...

It's easy to be pissy with people who don't deal with depression--especially when listening to the (what seems to be) asinine advice they invariably give. Sure, the advice is useless, but it's innocent. In all reality, they simply don't have a frame of reference on what it's like to only get oxygen when you remember to breathe.

End pause--back to my own little crazy train...

The act of balancing an artificial shell, reenforcing security brackets and keeping it nice and shiny? You'll have to do it every waking minute of every waking day. Forever. Or, at least, for as long as you want to stay sane, stay alive, because if and when it slips off/breaks, you're every bit as vulnerable as if it were never there. 

In other words, there is almost NOTHING in the way of therapy leaving a cumulative effect. If the meds wear off (or you forget to refill), if you fall of the wagon, if you're hit with a curve ball--if the shell is gone, it's gone.

So, with any luck at all, you're not a human being, prone to getting tired. Because you can't afford tired. Ever.

For some, finding the proper meds and taking them is a lovely bit of false fuel--the shell exists, but feeds on the meds instead of them. For others...

Never having done it, I imagine going into rehab, or checking in to a program of similar sort (say, where a person would go to recover from a nervous breakdown) is like taking a little nap, letting other people maintain the position and quality of your shell for a time, so you can safely sleep off your exhaustion.

In my mind, those havens are chock full of naked turtles, resting while their shells are getting tuned up. The havens are safe spaces, created and maintained by the people who run those...institutions? hospitals? centers? You get the point.

Dear Robin, 

I'm desperately sorry your shell broke, fell off, and a goddamned dementor kicked you on that exposed skin while you were trying to find your way to the Fix-It Shop for Shells.

So let's have a little fun with cliches. (Despite the fact that I HATE clinical depression being labeled as a mental illness...)

Mental illness is real--but you already knew that. How about mental illness isn't confined to frothing at the mouth and acting like Charles Manson. Or the Mad Hatter. Or even H.M. (Howling Mad) Murdock and Go-Go Dodo (that last one a little 90s reference for my tiny tooney generation). Well, you probably already knew that, too.

Considering all the memes I see saying so, I suppose you've heard that depression is not a choice. Depressed people can't just "cheer up"--any more than a blind person can just get over that obsessive need to not see, or a person in a coma can't just get off their lazy ass and start walking around again.

Well, damn, then. Maybe the cliches are just too cliche to be helpful.

Dear Robin, 

I'm really sorry I'm mad at you. That you either didn't consider or didn't care about the ugly, horrible hurt you'd cause by leaving your family, friends and fans the way you did. I promise I'll get over it, because while I'm pissed right now, I know what it's like to be bleary-eyed tired from trying to maintain the shell. To find the only laughs available are in the pointlessness in calling some hotline, or even a loved one. To therefore look around, see no help, no hope. No light at the end of the tunnel, no ability to even recognize the sunshine coming in from the opening behind you.

See, it's a wonderful thing, to have that knowledge of good that brings you no happiness. When you can't harm yourself because you have too goddamn much to do, and absolutely no trust that it'll get done properly without you... when the peace and sleep of giving up is disturbed by your mind's image of the look on your child's face if he's the one to find you, the imagined cries and tears from the people you love who'd inexplicably miss you, who'd suffer if you did it.... when you realize, for honest and for true, that suicide is one of the most selfish, narcissistic acts a human can commit...

Those thoughts are too fucking sad for depression to steal away. You're stuck with them, and with them comes the nagging understanding of responsibility... the fucking inescapable burden of it...

And if you're lucky, it forms a kind of spare shell. It's about as useful as a spare tire, and not anywhere near as pretty, but it gets you to the Fix-It-Shop--whatever that may be in your life. And that's where your tired toddler-self takes a metaphoric nap.

Then you wake up and remember you love music, and movies, and spending time with your family and friends. That trips to the ocean are unspeakably amazing and you really want to see your mom's reaction to the Christmas gift you got her. That there is no guarantee of deep dish pizza in the afterlife. That, speaking of the afterlife, there is nothing it could offer that's better than the feeling of your son holding your hand while he falls asleep with his head in your lap.

Wait, the season premier of your favorite show is tonight, right? And shit, don't you have plans to hang out with your best friend next week? That bitch'll kick your ass if you stand her up.

And then you laugh. And your kid comes in and either gives you a hug and kiss, like the denouement of every after-school special, or comes in and throws a tantrum over something so ridiculously stupid, you realize that, just hours (maybe minutes) ago, you looked just like that--and that your tantrum was every bit as unreasonable, your despair unfounded.

And then you laugh again, because you kicked that dementor in the dangly bits, and are back for another round.

And Life is fucking awesome.

Dear Robin, 

Ya know, bud? Not gonna lie--that wasn't the best choice ya coulda made. And now we're all quite a mess. But you gave us so much, and for so much longer than was comfortable for you--it's our turn to do our share. We'll take care of each other, and ourselves, and when shit gets real, we'll put on something you gave us, borrow one of those amazing shells you created for and shared with us, and life will look better. I know you've not really left--you just exchanged an existence without a shell to one where they're obsolete. I'm happy for you. Or will be, once I'm done being sad and angry. But yeah, I'm happy--because I know at least those goddamn dementors can't get to you anymore.

And I'm not going to say goodbye to him. As per my intentional "present tense" way back at the beginning.

The cool thing, though? I had a "let's not say goodby" paragraph brewing in my head, and then thought--wouldn't it be better if I could find an appropriate quote from Peter Pan?

“Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.”
         J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Forgetting Robin Williams? Un-bloody-likely. And thank God for that. And Robin.

Dear Robin, 

I can't thank you enough for everything you gave of yourself. But I can wish you sweet dreams. Sleep tight. And don't forget we love you.