I burst into tears when the news alert appeared on my phone earlier tonight: we have lost Robin Williams to suicide.
As I cried, I began to judge myself because the world, this summer in particular, has been in such horrific turmoil: The war in Gaza; A new crisis in Iraq; A plane shot down over the Ukraine; A man strangled for no reason by the NYPD a few weeks ago—and now, this weekend, an unarmed black teenager shot in St. Louis. And I don’t often have visceral reactions to international news of such scale. Most of us don’t, I suppose, because we acknowledge bombs and Ebola and war and disease as part of the difficult world we live in. The same way we usually talk about mental illness in the abstract.
Until it’s too late. Until a teenager commits an act of incomprehensible violence. Until the president decides to pass a mediocre bill for the “mentally ill.” Until a television show sensationalizes a character who has bipolar disorder. Until, like today, it becomes tragic.
For me, the news is devastating not simply because, like most of us, I loved Robin Williams. But because as someone who has bipolar disorder, I am one of those people who, for years, has found strength in seeing his name on those silly lists of “famous bipolar people.” Sure, Kurt Cobain and Virginia Woolf are on that list, but, if Robin Williams can manage, I reasoned, so can I.
Read the obituaries for Robin Williams, and you’ll read about his struggle with depression, alcohol, drugs. Aside from a few niche and psychology sites, no one is talking about how Williams suffered from bipolar disorder. To be fair, Williams did not openly talk about having the disease, so it’s no surprise the reporters are not mentioning it.
Nevertheless, we don’t like to talk about mental illness in this country. For decades, we have adored the brilliant manic energy of a comedian like Robin Williams who we just lost tragically to a mental illness that, perhaps, could be better treated were there more awareness, more dialogue, more honesty…
And then I have to stop myself. Of course, this is a tragedy. We lost him too soon. But we should remember the words of Whitman he spoke so beautifully when he played inspirational boarding school teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society:
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?Answer.That you are here—that life exists and identity,That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.—Walt Whitman