Robin Williams: A Bibliophile's Good-Bye



If there is one thing all readers can agree upon it is this. Because those of us who read books so passionately understand the power of words. We understand just how quickly an idea can spread. What many of us can not understand is how we, as an enlightened First World society, could have reached the 21st-century with all of it's technological advances and medical innovations that would have been nothing short of miraculous a mere one hundred years ago, while remaining willfully ignorant of the reality and validity of mental illness.

We hear it all time: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You just need to decide to be happy. Exercise will fix it. You're just being selfish.

And in a way it makes sense. We live in a country whose motto has always been anything is possible for those willing to work for it. We are willing to cut a little slack for those who obviously (read: visibly) cannot work for it: disabled folk in a wheelchair, missing a limb, you know...the ones you can see are unable to work for the American dream. But what about those who are struggling with an illness you can't see? As a general rule of thumb, Americans aren't very tolerant of those folks. Ask anyone who suffers from fibromyalgia about that. If it isn't visible, it doesn't exist. 

As for mental illness, well, this is the ultimate invisible disease. And sadly, many Americans still refuse to see it as a disease. Instead, they view it as a weakness or a personality flaw, throwing it in the same category as laziness or deceptiveness. A person can change these flaws, right? Straighten up and fly right. Work hard and reap rewards. These are Americanisms so oft repeated that we revert to them almost automatically whenever we see anyone not operating optimally with no visible injury hampering them. 

This refusal to recognize the severity of mental disorders stems from an embarrassing lack of education. How many people, for example, have been heard to say, "I was depressed once, but I just focused on being happy and I got over it." Those who do understand the nature of clinical depression will immediately recognize the what an utter ludicrous statement that is....such a person may have experienced momentary sadness, a perfectly natural (and temporary) emotion, but not clinical depression. Failure to educate our students and ourselves about the true nature of mental disorders is the root of the problem.

Is it any wonder then that those suffering with the crippling mental disorders such as clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorder, and too many others to name, sometimes feel the battle is simply too hard to fight? Isn't it enough that they quietly battle their demons in secret, hiding it from a disbelieving society that scorns their plight and offers condescending platitudes?

Shame on us.

But if words and ideas can change the world, then let it start with changing us. Because we need to change how we see this illness. We need to validate this illness. We need to help, not hinder, those who fight this illness. And this begins with educating ourselves with words and ideas. The information is out there. Find it. Read it. And once we've done that, do what readers do best: read and share words and ideas. Bibliophiles are incredibly empathetic people, owing to the books we read. We need to be reading the right books. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and her poetry, The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, and Darkness Visible by William Styron are but a few of the books that address or have key characters grappling with mental illness. Education first, then empathy through reading, and vocal sharing of ideas. It's a small start, but it has to start somewhere. 

His death shouldn't be in vain. 

Farewell, Robin Williams. Find peace, wherever you are.

Robin Williams
1951-2014

19 comments:

  1. I can't stop crying. My husband is giving me strange looks. But I tried to explain my reaction to him last night. My son was almost swallowed by this last year, and probably will battle it for the rest of his life. Scariest thing I have ever been through, and it certainly opened MY eyes to what this disease can do to a person. Also introduced our whole family to the pharmacology and therapy that can help. It makes me so sad when people (even good friends, as you saw last night) say it is selfish. I do passionately believe that Robin Williams' legacy (one of many) can be to make people aware of how real this problem is, no matter how happy you may seem to be on the outside. To help people be more understanding, to be a better friend, to observe and reach out when you see the signs.

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    1. I know my *wanting* us to address this as a book-loving community won't happen. I get that. We'll turn out collective heads the other way. Those who are educated about the subject will remain so and those who aren't will keep burying their heads in the sand...but this talented man died. And they say "oh how tragic, how sad"....well, goddamit, yet it IS. Now DO SOMETHING.

      I can't even start to comprehend the fear you must have gone through. And still go through. And will go through until your dying day. Your son, your family, you, shouldn't have to go through that. Worse - you shouldn't have to go through that with a condition many people don't even see as valid.

      If we, as a society, can just start understanding this disease, in all of it's evil variations, we can start recognizing the signs and symptoms around us --- as you say, reaching out. How many lives might be saved by just being a better friend? Not all, I understand that, but maybe a few?

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    2. Well it was horrifying. There were nights when I slept in his room I was so scared. But there are some awesome meds and doctors out there, and therapists, and we slogged through a good solid year of multiple appointments every week. (And still are slogging amid doctors, maybe a little less frequently thank God.) And he wanted to get better, so that helps. It certainly educated OUR family on mental illness, and are very aware now of how destructive it can be. He is so good at reaching out to others now; he wants to help. He described depression this way: being at the bottom of a Haruki Murakami well with your feet cemented into the ground. Versus what people think: you are in a well with a long ladder to climb out.

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    3. I *hate* Murakami novels. And now I know why. Your education on the subject is very impressive. And you serve as quite an example too, I might add.

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  2. So sad, and as I mentioned on another blog, he will be missed.

    There are so many people who, like RW, are laughing on the outside and crying on the inside....very sad...depression is still a very misunderstood illness.

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    1. It's terribly misunderstood, I think. And you're correct, oftentimes the symptoms are masked within. Education about the disease is key. I think, as Sandy says, it would be nice if unmasking the shroud that veils this disease could be part of Williams' legacy.

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  3. My heart broke yesterday. Such a brilliant, talented man. Loved this post. Well said and so relevant. I do hope that his death can bring an awareness to this debilitating disease.

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    1. It really sent me reeling, too, Holly. I just don't know where to go with this. When I think of all the incredible talent - not just Williams, but so many others including literary talent - who took their own lives due to this disease.....it just makes my heart bleed.

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    1. I think we all said it last night, didn't we?

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  5. So very well said!! I was very sad on hearing of him taking his life. I've battled my own depression and I still wonder why people are so ignorant to others.

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    1. I can only imagine what you've been through. I think as a avid reader I might come closer than those who aren't widely read, but still, I can't possibly know the battle you've fought. But I can tell the world that it's REAL and it's as debilitating as cancer or MS or any other physical disease. And I can rejoice that you are in recovery. :)

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  6. Thank you so much. I'm a Fibromyalgia Warrior and have been battling severe depression for over a year now. It is amazing the amount of disregard people have for my illness - so much so that it has left me wondering why I even bother being in the world. I thank God every day that I don't believe in suicide or I would have been another statistic years ago.

    My heart aches for the loss of Robin Williams... and for all those that will miss the joy he has brought into the world. If only we can take the feelings from this moment and make them last.... giving true focus to mental illness and finally giving society an opportunity to accept others with open arms.

    Thank you again, Michele. Your post has helped to begin healing the loss in my heart today.

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    1. Shannon - as someone who is intimately familiar with the fibro merry-go-round, I have to say that I have yet to meet anyone associated with the disease who has *not* also been thrown onto the wheel of depression in varying degrees. How can you not? Fibro is a disease that is frequently dismissed or made light of by doctors themselves, to say nothing of family and friends. It takes years to officially diagnone and in the meantime, the patient is a puddling mass of agonized jelly. If you are lucky enough to even get an official diagnosis (oh yea, see family/friends? I actually *do* have a disease), it then takes years to find the correct combination of medications to treat your pain. Combinations that frequently mess with your mental and physical capabilities in ways you did not think were possible. And oh yes, in the interim...no one sees anything physically wrong with you, so get your lazy butt to work, etc and so on.

      How could you NOT end up severely depressed with a horrible self-image and self-esteem down the toilet? Any relationships in your life, be it marriages, with family, or with friends are likely to have taken an absolute nose-dive and if they survive it is with severe damage. So depressed? Oh yes. I would think so. In fact, I would be suspicious if someone wasn't depressed after all of that.

      It's a helpless feeling to see someone going through that particular hell and not being able to help. Other than to say that what you are experiencing is real. And awful. And it shouldn't have to be.

      And I feel all I can do is to tell people that depression -- no matter what triggers it -- is so very real. And we can't help by offering platitudes. Or snappy suggestions. So I want those of us who love books so much to do what we do best: to read and learn and understand. If only so we can A) educate the uneducated and B) sit next to people suffering from this very real disease and quietly understand and validate it.

      I wish I could give you a hug. Well, a fibro hug. Which isn't a hug at all, because that would hurt as we both know. ;) But I think there are a lot of us who very much know that what you are experiencing is so very real and so very awful. And we hurt for you. And if all we can do is read a book together, let's do that.

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  7. Very well said, my friend. I experience mental illness on a daily basis because my son has anxiety disorder. It is very real. And it's very important to recognize and be aware so that what happened with Robin Williams doesn't keep happening. People need help, but the first step is that they need acknowledgement that what they are going through is a real illness. Not just something that can be shaken off, or swept under the rug. Shame on us in this modern age that we can still treat some things like we live in the Dark Ages.

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  8. Well why don't you just make me cry, Michele? Geez. *sniffle, sniffle*

    Mental illness is so misunderstood. Believe me if it were just the blues, people would definitely pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But depression is so much worse than that. If you've never been there it is hard to imagine. People need to learn to be more empathetic and less judgmental. No one would tell someone with diabetes or heart disease to just get over it.

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  10. I've been horrified at the posts floating around about how Williams' death wasn't a disease, it was a "choice". My father-in-law, who lives with us, has multiple diagnosis, including schizophrenia and severe depression. I can assure you that nothing that happens in his brain would ever be his "choice". Thanks for this.

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