When I was in grad school, Marcos McPeek Villatoro gave an amazing lecture on mental illness and creativity that I wish had been recorded. He’s talked about his own diagnosis on NPR. The room filled and soon overflowed and that was the moment I discovered that most of the people around me either had a mental illness or a family member with it. Quiet, hard-working creative people coping with various storms in their brains or those of a parent, sibling, child, or partner. My mother suffered from depression and, while I was a teenager, Valium addiction. I grew up with her threats of suicide, was the one who attended the family support group at the “pain center” (back then, a euphemism for rehab) that my father would not. When my then-boyfriend’s mother asked how she was, he later chastised my honesty in answering her, for drifting away from euphemisms and mentioning Valium addiction. Shame is the real killer. My grad school mentor, Rob Roberge, has written a brilliant essay on that subject.
We owe much of the arts and sciences to the mentally ill. Sir Isaac Newton was bipolar and one of the most influential scientists ever in the fields of physics, math and philosophy and yet said of himself: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
It’s not news that people write stupid things in social media. “How could Robin Williams be sad with all that money and fame?” We need to be better than that. “I can’t imagine the pain…” Well, lucky you, but you have no excuse. William Styron and others have written about it. And please stop with the gloved blame – would you blame someone who had a stroke or heart attack? Just as either of those are not entirely a matter of diet and exercise (see Jim Fixx), Williams’ (apparent) suicide was not entirely an act of will – this was a storm of brain chemistry. This was not sadness, but an abyss. Williams stated repeatedly that he battled his demons in large part for the sake of his children. He fought for decades while maintaining a career in the public eye AND being uncommonly kind. He left us some 35 years of performances of astonishing range and did it with grace, courtesy, and humility. He treated people very well, no matter who they were. That is a rare and beautiful thing. He encouraged actors, comedians and improvisers – including friends of mine. He showed up at hospitals to visit patients without publicity. He entertained the troops in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. And he could have said the very same words as Newton, that he was just playing at the shore, but we know they both plumbed the depths in their own very different ways. Very different!
Creativity is often accompanied by some form of mental illness. There are valiant battles waged daily that we never hear about. Robin Williams’ ultimate gift, the reason he was so loved, is that he was willing to share the struggle, his vulnerability, his humanity. Watch Good Will Hunting again and look in his eyes – that’s not only the pain of a character who’s lost his wife. He let his own pain shine through and touch us.
If you struggle with depression, with a mental illness, with an addiction, please seek help. Know you are not alone. Know also that we value you and your creativity. We know it comes at a cost. And let’s do better by those who wander our streets – that should not be part of a compassionate society. There is enough challenge in treating and living with these illnesses without fighting shame as well. Fighting demons is hard enough. And sometimes, God help us all, they win.
I like this clip because it not only shows his talent, but his regard for the troops and at the very end, his kindness