Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
In 1978, when I was 11, my mom bought me a Robin Williams T-shirt. I was floored. It was pale blue with an iron-on image of Williams as Mork, the wildly unpredictable character from Mork & Mindy, a new hit TV show that made me laugh until I gasped for air.
I already knew Williams. I’d been hooked on his lunacy since he exploded onto the set of Happy Days, another favourite sitcom, the year before. It was an epiphany. I had never seen so much energy unleashed on the small screen. He stepped out further and committed to character more than any TV actor before him.
As a young man just discovering my own acting chops, the revelation was profound. I was obsessed with Williams’s blistering delivery and wild stream of consciousness. I spent my allowance on a set of rainbow suspenders from BiWay so I could be him – or at least catch a small piece of his power.
Although I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, as I got older and emotionally bashed around, something became quite clear: I wasn’t drawn so much to Williams’s comedy as to its source, the desperate sadness that seemed to be percolating just below the joy. It was his manic edge that fascinated me – the pain you could only see if you focused on his eyes.
It just looked so familiar. And only now can I see why.
In 1996, my younger brother Carey finally ended the relentless agony of his mental illness and made a quick, undramatic exit off this mortal coil. It wasn’t the first time he tried, but it was the last.
Twenty years ago, suicide was still a whispered subject. We were told outright by a family doctor friend that it was an act of cowardice – and he was not alone in his view. In fact, the rabbi asked us straight out how he should “disguise” the manner of death in his eulogy.
There was only one thing we could do as the people we were: Screw the lot of them and make a scene.
My sister and I eulogized Carey ourselves, addressing his suicide head on, and quoting our tragically insightful brother on several counts. His depression, he had said, was like cancer: You fight it with all your might and often you win, but sometimes you die. And unlike with a terminal disease, you do not die surrounded by family and friends. Inevitably, almost in necessity, you die alone.
I just can’t stop thinking about Carey’s words and about Robin Williams’s eyes. I can’t stop thinking about their fight, their insanely brutal and fruitless fight.
Each one struggled differently. Carey suffered in silence as he tried to bear down and focus on completing medical school. Williams waged his 40-year battle against the darkness on our TV sets and movie screens. Both paths led to the same horrible precipice when the fight became too unbearable to sustain.
In 2016 there are any number of popular events – walks, runs, rides – supporting mental-illness causes. There are support groups in almost every town and city you can find. It is truly inspiring to see how far we have come in our understanding.
But it is equally tragic when you realize just how far we still have to go. There is still the misdirected blame. The accusations of cowardice. The heartbreaking lack of recognition of the “illness” part of mental illness. That is the torturous part for me – because I see Carey all the time in the stigma and lack of education that stills hangs over the mentally ill.
When a scared, mentally ill kid gets gunned down by police on a public bus, I see Carey taking those bullets and crumpling in a heap on the stairs.
When a hopelessly ill young man arms himself to the hilt and kills a schoolfull of children, then is derided as a monster, I see Carey’s picture on TV and feel the ostracism of a society that would rather blame him than admit their accountability.
And when a globally beloved entertainer, who could not have accomplished more glory or contributed more joy to our everyday lives, finds it necessary to take his own life, I see Carey, alone in that room, making that excruciating final choice. Smothering the pain in the only way his brilliant, irretrievably wounded mind can fathom.
Even if he is funny. Even if he is sweet. Even if he is loved.
Cowardice? Selfishness? I think not. This is an act of desperation.
With the second anniversary of Robin Williams’s suicide tomorrow, I can’t help but feel that there is so much left to do. But it’s not a lot when you really think about it. Education. Understanding. Love. That’s about it.
As I remember my irrepressible mentor, and my beautiful brother Carey, both casualties in the hard-fought war against clinical depression, I am sad that neither will ever be aware of the differences their lives and deaths made on our perception of this disease. That’s our work now.
Shael Risman lives in Whitby, Ont.