Robin Williams - In Memoriam
By Linnda Durre'
What was it like to spend two evenings with Robins Williams before he was famous? He was shy, quiet, and gentle – off stage, that is. On stage, he was a Wizard of Oz tornado - an unstoppable force of nature - a machine gun of rapid fire humor hits so hilarious your ears and eyes had to work overtime just to keep up or be left behind in his brilliant comedic dust as he swept you from a dull black and white existence into a vibrant, electrifying world of color shocking all your senses as it ripped a path strewn with hilarity through your mind. He was one of a kind.
In my “In Memoriam” for Robin Williams, I will be alternating between wearing my two hats – one, as a “writer” and the other as a “shrink” – two of my professions - so please stay with me as I shift between the two since I am both and they both play important roles in this story.
His death makes me incredibly sad and angry, and even more vocal about the care and treatment of highly sensitive and creative souls – since I consider myself one - as well as the correct diagnosis and remedies for bipolar disorder, ADD, ADHD, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, addiction, and the latest revelation, Parkinson’s.
A little background first: when I was 19, I moved to Los Angeles to enroll in and graduate from a specialized college with my major in Human Development, as well as to pursue acting and writing. I was blessed with respected and ethical agents who sent me out on auditions, where I was sexually harassed and literally chased around desks by some casting directors and producers. Not my style. I got out of there in a nanosecond.
So I concentrated on writing and it became a torrent: wacky sit-coms, poignant dramatic TV series, spec scripts, comedy and dramatic films, documentaries, reality shows, treatments, and synopses. The stack of my BC scripts – Before Computers – kept growing vertically and still has to this day, only now everything’s on a PDF.
I’ve been blessed with opportunities and taken them. Since then, I’ve appeared on Oprah, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and O’Reilly; on the local and/or national news on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CW, NPR, and PBS. I’ve written and hosted for the Disney Channel; hosted two TV shows – one was national – and three radio shows. I was the weekly shrink on CW’s syndicated morning show, “The Daily Buzz’ for nine months. And I was selected and vetted by America’s Health Network (AHN) and the Mayo Clinic in a national search of 200 applicants to host “Ask the Family Therapist”, which aired from Universal Studios Orlando. But back to the back story.
When I was 19, I was almost hired as a writer for NBC’s huge hit, “Laugh In.” They thought I was too young. “Isn’t good writing ageless?” I thought then and still do. Years later in 2012, I mentioned this to the show’s producer, George Schlatter, at a memorial service for veteran Hollywood publicist Dale Olson, whose clients included Rock Hudson, Steve McQueen, Marian Ross, Alfred Hitchcock, and Steven Spielberg. George looked me up and down and replied, “I must have been a schmuck!”
An odd coincidence since “Laugh In” was revived for a summer replacement in 1979, with new episodes featuring Robin Williams, but it wasn’t picked up. Foreshadowing, indeed.
When I was 22, I co-wrote a TV series, which the late Irving Salkow, my legendary agent at the time, sold to Aaron Spelling in three days. Irv handled William Holden, Ava Gardner, and a blond starlet…what was her name? Oh, yes…Marilyn Monroe.
I was honored to be admitted to the Writers Guild of America (WGA) at such a young age. I went to parties and screenings, met famous celebrities and scribes, joined WGA’s Film Society and their Women’s Committee, sat on several of their sub-committees and on a combined DGA, SAG, and WGA Women’s Committees panel on sexual harassment in the entertainment industry – pardon the redundancy.
I taught nursery school, kindergarten, and first grade; and I kept writing. I applied to graduate school and four years later, I had earned my M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology with another post-doc year of licensing hours left before I could take the exam, get my own license, and open my own private practice. I took more acting classes: I studied with Laura Rose and Larry Rice in North Hollywood at LR Studios and the stimulating Lembeck Improv Comedy Workshop – both for two and half years; I studied with well known actor and director, Mark Feder; with Emmy winning producer and acting coach, Dale Reynolds; and I kept writing.
But all I wanted to do was stand-up. I was tired of all the humorless, way too serious people I met in the psychology field where a sense of humor is crucial, not only to keep one’s own sanity after listening to horror stories all day, but to bring some needed perspective and lightness to the lives of clients who are suffering, depressed, and even suicidal, as Robin Williams must have been.
There were two “open mike nights” that were hot (excuse the pun) – The Comedy Store on Sunset and The Improv, which was, at the time, in Santa Monica. I wrote a stand up routine and performed it at both. I had a blast! I bombed at one with scattered laughs, and the second one was tighter and funnier. Two emotions – elation and terror – carried me through. It was - simultaneously - the scariest and most exciting thing I had ever done – aside from shooting the rapids down the Colorado - and I loved it! I was hooked.
The night of my appearance at The Comedy Store, I met a comedian, whom I will call George. “I liked your act,” he said. We chatted and I told him I was living in San Diego. “Hey, I’m coming down to The Comedy Store in La Jolla in few weeks. Wanna come and see me?” “Absolutely!” I responded.
Several days later, he called. “Let’s have dinner before the show,” he suggested. “I’ll reserve you two tickets for both shows, so bring a friend. Meet me at the condo.” It was where owner Mitzi Shore, Pauly Shore’s mother, housed all her comedians for their gigs. He gave me the address. My office was in La Jolla, so I knew exactly where it was. I rang the doorbell on a late Friday afternoon, and the door was opened by a trim, willowy, pretty brunette about 25.
“Hi, I’m Valerie. Come on in,” she gestured and invited me into the kitchen where she was ironing a shirt and pants for her boyfriend, she explained. I introduced myself and we chatted briefly.
Then into the kitchen walked The Yeti – wild, abundant hair sprouting out of the neck and short sleeves of his white T shirt – and growing like kudzu down his arms and his legs, which were clothed in his white boxer shorts.
“Hi, I’m Robin,” he announced softly.
“Hi! I’m Linnda,” I replied. He seemed introverted, subdued, and reticent.
“George and I are having dinner, would you two like to join us?” I asked politely.
“No, we like to be alone before a performance,” he replied.
“OK, well, tomorrow night I’m making dinner for George at my home, so if you change your mind, please join us,” I added.
“Thanks anyway, but we like to be alone before a show,” he repeated.
“OK,” I replied. “Maybe another time.”
George came out of his room. We said our cordial “nice to meet you” goodbyes.
“See you after the show,” Robin said. I didn’t know it at the time, but his birthday, July 21, was the day before mine, July 22. We shared a Sun sign in Cancer on the cusp of Leo.
George and I headed for the Chart House for dinner. Afterwards, I drove us to The Comedy Store. This was all happening in the late summer and early fall of 1977. No one knew who Robin Williams was, but the world was soon to find out.
George reserved two ringside comp seats, so the friend I invited met me there 15 minutes before show time. Our table was flush next to the stage. I could have used it as a TV tray and eaten dinner on it. I was always a big comedy fan and I’ve even worked with comedians, to sharpen up their act, give them feedback, and write comedy material for them. Some of my idols were Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Peter Sellers, Monty Python, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, George Carlin, Woody Allen, Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, and Archie Bunker all the way to Steven Wright, Sam Kinison, Triumph the Comic Insult Dog, and Richard Pryor. I was psyched for the show.
The announcer came out, told us the slate of performers, but failed to warn us to buckle our seat belts, which we needed for the raucous turbulence in the rarefied air at 36,000 feet above the earth. George went first, someone else was second, and I ducked out to use the bathroom before Robin came on.
I saw him sitting quietly in a small compartment with his hands on his knees, looking as if he was meditating with his eyes closed. That’s how actors prepare, I thought to myself, having done it myself. He seemed serene and centered. This shy, quiet man would probably be more cerebral in his humor, I mistakenly assumed. Was I in for a surprise! I soon returned to my seat and the announcer yelled, “And now hailing from San Francisco, Robin Williams!”
This burst of cosmic energy – a force of nature - jumped on the stage and didn’t stop for his entire set. He was a roller coaster of characters, voices, and manic fluidity - a tsunami of laughter. I knew in three seconds he was going to be a huge star.
He did “Superman on Drugs” – maybe not realizing that his best friend from Julliard, Christopher Reeve, would star in the title role the next year. He mimicked a gay guy so convincingly I later asked George if he was gay. “No!” came his definitive reply. Maybe he was getting in shape for his role in “The Birdcage” in years to come. He did Southerners, New Yorkers, little children, truck drivers – a plethora of accents and characters. When he finished playing an old, toothless man with a small book, he placed it on the edge of the stage, directly in my eye line.
Learning to read upside down when I taught pre-schoolers was an occupational requirement for conducting story time. What did I see in Robin’s little bound book? On every page were I Ching readings with questions or statements like: “When will I be famous?” “When is my big break coming?” “I want to be famous,” or “Is it ever going to happen for me?”
Here was validation of this man’s immense ambition, unbridled passion, and manifested vision. Who could miss it?! He had total command of the stage. He was a whirling dervish of rocket energy, switching voices and characters in a nanosecond, inhabiting each of them perfectly. His timing was impeccable. The I Ching readings conveyed his spiritual leanings and awareness of metaphysics and perhaps realms beyond. A deep soul, I felt, with great sensitivity. How could he be otherwise?
After the show, my friend thanked me and George for the ringside seat, raved about Robin, and left. The four of us – George, me, Robin and Valerie – went back to the condo to watch TV.
“You’re a genius,” I stated simply in a low key voice to him, trying to be complimentary but subtle.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
The visual contradiction of the wild man from Borneo I had just seen on the stage to the quiet, introverted, gentle person sitting in the same room was a bit disconcerting. I dare not ask him how he did it. I knew how he did it. I had a Ph.D. in psychology. I was a creative person who had performed since childhood and in talent shows in high school. I prayed and visualized daily myself. My dreams had come true because of my hard work and the movies in my mind of what I wanted to achieve. I felt blessed in my life. God gives certain people cherished, priceless gifts, and he bestowed on this spiritual entity called Robin McLaurin Williams such brilliance, it was overwhelming. I KNEW I WAS IN THE PRESENCE OF GENIUS.
I had two immediate and urgent thoughts and prayers about him. As a shrink, the first was, “Whatever he has, God – ADD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, whatever – please, God, protect his body, mind, and soul that house his genius.” And as a writer, my second thought was, “I have to write a screenplay for him.”
It was way after midnight. I stood up after watching TV to say my goodbyes. Valerie Velardi, his girlfriend, shirt and pants ironer, and now Bay Area yoga instructor, would become his first wife and the mother of his first child, Zachary “Zak” Pym Williams, now 31. I remarked what a great show it was, said my adieus to the three of them, and left for home by myself.
The next day in the late afternoon, I drove into La Jolla again, picked up George at the condo, made dinner for us at my home, and got him back in plenty of time for the show. I put my imaginary seat belt on since I was in the same seat as last night and new what to expect.
Robin’s set was similar but entirely different. His inventive mind was firing on all cylinders – the endless riffs, the easy distractibility that led to hilarious ad libs, the verbalized thought racing. I was used to it now and was fascinated just to watch him – you never knew what he would do next. There was an element of excitement and danger to him on stage. I was mesmerized.
Watching him, I put my “shrink hat” on, and I wondered if he had ADD, ADHD and/or bipolar disorder to maintain this stratospheric level of manic energy, thought racing, and stream of consciousness. But it seemed totally natural for him. This was his energy. He flew it like an F-14 fighter pilot. His solid, well built yet supple and flexible body moved like a Balanchine dancer, Was he practicing for his expressive, flowing, instructional riff to the stage dancers in “The Birdcage” nineteen years to come: “You do an eclectic celebration of the dance - Fosse, Fosse, Fosse; Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham; Madonna, Madonna, Madonna; but you keep it all inside.” http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi480576793/
I told everyone I knew about this whirlwind phenomenon, who was so unique, you could think of him as an alien, blowing the normal restrictions and structures of comedy out of the water. How prescient that his big breakthrough role was as an extraterrestrial - Mork from Ork! But now he was identified as a human being called Robin Williams on Planet Earth. I felt compelled to get the word out as if I had struck oil or discovered a diamond mine. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.
I called and talked to everyone I knew to tell them about this guy, including my friend Harry. He and I had gotten our Masters degrees together and then he got accepted to medical school and went back East to become a psychiatrist.
“He’s going to a huge star,” I predicted. “You need to see him live and in person if he plays comedy clubs in New York City. He’s unbelievable!”
“OK, I’ll watch out for him,” he promised.
Within six months, I was justified to utter my four favorite words, “I told you so!” Robin was huge and in a year, an even bigger star because of “Mork and Mindy”. How did he land the part? Garry Marshall, of “Laverne and Shirley” and “Happy Days” fame, was inspired by his son, who had just seen “Star Wars” and asked his father if he could see an alien on “Happy Days.”
Marshall wrote the part, Williams auditioned and, when asked to sit down, he turned upside down on the chair with his head in the seat. When Marshall was asked why he hired Williams, Marshall replied, “He was the only alien to audition.”
So on February 28, 1978, Robin Williams knocked on the Fonz’s door on “Happy Days”. Marshall and ABC were delighted with the successful response of this character and spun off his own series, “Mork and Mindy,” co-starring Pam Dawber. The show would debut on September 14, 1978. It was a smash.
From what I’ve heard and read, the cast and crew just watched him in admiration and awe. The writers gave up writing dialogue for him and in its place wrote, “Robin does his thing.” I met Pam Dawber, his co-star, many years later while we were both hiking the local walking trail one morning when I lived next door to Goldie Hawn in Pacific Palisades. She kept up with Robin beautifully. She had enough sense, grace, and/or improv experience to give him space, allow the riffs, and to keep him grounded and on track. It was like watching the fast forward comedy version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“Nanoo-nanoo” became a universal catch phrase. Etymologically speaking, was it from nanosecond, which was Robin Williams’ brain at the speed of light?
I continued to get the word out again about Robin Williams. ABC should have put me on their PR payroll. I called Harry, my dear friend in New York, who was almost out of medical school. He, like me, was a film, TV, and entertainment aficionado. For amusement, we would play trivia games at parties, and people would take bets on which one of us would one up each other or answer the question first. It was like playing tennis with Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, or Chris Evert - you only sharpen your game when you play with people better than you.
“That guy I told you about - Robin Williams - is on ‘Mork and Mindy’ on ABC,” I told Harry. “He plays Mork from Ork, the alien.”
“Oh, he’s incredible,” replied Harry. “I remember you telling me about him.”
Again I could utter my other four favorite words, “I was right again.”
Robin’s career took off immediately like a NASA launched missile. Over the years, I watched it soar, dip, and soar again, with a few blips on the radar screen, but mostly he was in the ionosphere of fame with stellar performances to be proud of - four Oscar nominations and one Oscar win for “Good Will Hunting,” playing Sean Maguire, the healer and psychotherapist for Matt Damon’s abused child and prodigy.
Robin was somebody with as wacky a sense of humor as I had. I couldn’t have told him this when I first met him that night after his appearance. So I wrote a comedy screenplay for him to co-star with Tracey Ullman. To me, they were like the King and Queen of wacky characters – the male/female duality – the King Kong vs. Godzilla of comedy - with all their crazy eccentrics and oddballs characters, accents, and spot on poignant and hilarious portrayals.
So, my next challenge: how to get this comedy screenplay to Robin Williams? I tried to reach his agents and representatives. No go. When my managers came aboard, they loved the script and thought Tracy and Robin would be fantastic together. They complimented me on my casting choices. They tried to get it to Robin and Tracy even they had hit brick walls. Hollywood is notorious for so many people with the vision of Mr. Magoo. As Oscar winning screenwriter, William Goldman stated, “Nobody knows anything.” How true.
Many times, people told me I should have been a casting director. When I was accepted into Edward Albee’s Master Class in Playwriting, I adapted my play into a short, award winning film which I cast, directed, produced, and shot in two days for under $4,000., thanks to an expertly competent and dedicated cast and crew. I also choose to empower actors as an acting coach and teacher on both coasts in classes and private sessions as well as acting in productions myself. Casting is an art form. And I was still writing, writing, writing.
Then my celebrity interview radio debuted and I tried to get Robin on a guest. He played at UCF on October 23, 2009, and I did everything I could to get him on the show to publicize the event – like he needed my help with PR – LOL - but he would have been in good company with my previous guests: Arnold Palmer, Earl, “The Pearl” Monroe, Ed Asner, Lou Gossett Jr., Lainie Kazan, David Foster, Peter Cetera, and Ruben Studdard, just to name a few. Years later, my dear friend Ed Asner would make an appearance on “The Crazy Ones.” Ed hoped to get me on the set as he did with “CSI: New York.” He knew I wanted to meet Robin, but it was a closed set. Again, no go.
Over the months and years, I continued to try to book Robin on my show until it ended, and to get the script to him. I called his PR firm, managers, agents - as many contacts as I could – but again he was protected like Ft. Knox. Still, no go.
When I heard about Williams’ suicide, I was bereft and I called Harry, my psychiatrist friend. “I remember when you told me to watch out for this new star you saw. You said his name was Robin Williams,” he recalled.
I asked Harry about the proper prescription medication for bipolar disorder, for clinical depression, and many other questions. I told him about the script I had written for him and Tracy Ullman that could never get to him.
Now I’m putting my shrink hat on: as a licensed psychotherapist with a Ph.D. in psychology, I’m curious. Robin Williams had the wealth to have the best, private treatment. I’ve had several clients and one friend who had bipolar disorder. As in most cases with creative people who are manic-depressive, they love the addictive highs from the mania and feel that therein beats the heart of their creativity, which they may falsely believe is endless.
The mania cycles fuel their writing, painting, dancing, singing, composing, arranging, acting, sculpting, drawing, and creating till the wee hours of the dawn and sometimes well into the next day or even days. And then they will crash. The body has to rest some time and they may sleep for many hours, get up, and then back to dreamland again until they feel rested. Some complain that even sleep doesn’t make them feel rested, and others feel totally refreshed after a solid eight hours of a good night’s sleep. The individual physiology of each person’s body is always unique.
When you approach manic-depressives about going on Lithium, Depakote, or even taking herbal, vitamin, and supplemental treatment, they usually balk or even verbally fight you vociferously because they are terrified they will lose their creativity, energy, edge, and/or gain weight. I’ve tried to get various clients I’ve had to get on medication. They rebut you and defend themselves like alcoholics and addicts in denial with remarks like, “Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine, I’m just an energetic person, I’m very creative, I have to take advantage when the Muse hits, I have a lot of passion about my work” and the avoidance, rationalizations, and denials continue. Or they just say, “No, leave me alone,” and quit therapy. A psychotherapist is handcuffed unless someone is a danger to themselves or others. More about that later.
Research shows there may be a genetic pre-disposition to bipolar disorder, just as there may be to ADD and/or ADHD and/or addiction, which can include alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, sex, love, gambling, collecting, hoarding, computers, Internet, pornography, and the list continues.
What about alternative medicine and holistic treatments? I consulted with an acupuncturist, who stated that he has used his expertise with clients who have had bipolar disorder, ADD, and/or ADHD to calm them down with reported improvement. For others, Omega 3s, fish oils, and Essential Fatty Acids seem to help. Going to licensed and/or Board certified health practitioners who can diagnose correctly with herbs, vitamins, supplements, homeopathic remedies, etc., can also be good paths to follow. Some add chiropractic, massage therapy, acupressure, and other adjuncts for treatment. Perhaps the mania or depression is exacerbated by food and/or environmental allergies. What does testing reveal?
According to medical treatment, the best drugs for bipolar disorder are Lithium and Depakote. There are theories that drugs used to treat seizures, like Tegratol, have been successful. Seeking help with licensed and/or Board certified psychiatrists and MDs who can diagnose and treat properly is one route, as is looking to alternative medicine. Perhaps a workable combination of both is possible as well.
Sleep is probably more crucial to someone with bipolar disorder and ADD/ADHD since the brain and the nervous system have difficulty turning off and shutting down to get necessary rest. By going to alternative medicine physicians, board certified nutritionists, and certified herbalists, some people are given more natural sleeping treatments like 5HTP (Tryptophan), Melatonin, Valerian Root, Hops, Chamomile, or various herbal blends that may help, depending on each body’s preference and absorption levels.
Sometimes with bipolar disorder, people are not diagnosed properly and it may be mistakenly identified as ADHD, an anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, or other categories. As a result, they may be given the incorrect medication. There have been cases where anti-depressant medication may have had adverse effects and made people more depressed. The autopsy and coroner’s report may reveal the truth.
For others dealing with bipolar disorder, they may be terrified of going into any type of treatment and may have resorted to self-medicating, as many manic depressives do, with alcohol and other drugs. Feeling too high? They mellow out with booze and marijuana. Feeling too low? They get energized with cocaine, speed, and/or amphetamines.
Sometimes the person refuses treatment, gets off their medication, or takes it erratically. Or they can mix MD prescribed medicine with alcohol and/or drugs, which can prove problematic or even lethal.
The bipolar person can create a home environment with unpredictability, chaos, and possibly even danger. What can a concerned spouse, relatives, or others do? An intervention is a possibility, similar to what a therapist does with an alcoholic or drug addict. Everyone concerned writes a letter or audio tapes or video tapes their contribution about how the person’s addiction(s) or condition has affected them. They assemble and read their letters or play the audio/video tapes from their children, grandchildren, teens, or participants that could/should not be present. The ground rules established say there is no dialogue, conversation, interruption, crosstalk, defensive remarks, or discussion with or between anyone. It is not an attack zone. It is a caring, listening time for all involved, conducted by the interventionist.
Sometimes the addict knows the intervention is scheduled and sometimes they do not. I’ve conducted interventions for addicts and alcoholics and the moment of clarity, the hitting bottom or the opening crack in the person’s denial can take many forms – for one senior, it was the sound of his granddaughter’s voice on an audio tape saying, “Grandpa, I don’t like it when you act funny. You get all silly and sloppy and you can’t talk right.” For others, it’s not remembering what happened because they’ve been in a blackout – acting normally without conscious memory – and others tell you what you did or said, some of it shocking. In another intervention I did, the enabling partner discovered that their spouse had been driving drunk/high with their children in the car. That was the end of their enabling and co-dependence.
Unless they are a danger to themselves or others, or the person is gravely disabled, it is difficult to hospitalize alcoholics/addicts/bipolar people. In some states, there are legal ways to do so, for example, using the Baker Act or Marchman Act in Florida, or Section 5150 in the California codes, to get them the help they need and into treatment for at least 90 days in a program with individual counseling, large and small group therapy, and 12 Step Meetings – AA, CA, NA, OA, GA, SAA, SLAA – Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gambling Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and any other 12 Step Group names. As Kurt Vonnegut, American author and thinker, once said, “Humanity’s two greatest inventions were the United States Constitution and Alcoholics Anonymous.”
I had to hospitalize someone only after they had endangered the lives of their own children. The police were called with the spouse’s permission who was there at the time. The person cursed at me, but I drove over with them in the police car, and soon they were under treatment at a local hospital, where I stayed until they were seen. Months later, when they realized I did the right thing and when they had had enough medication and psychiatric treatment to see things clearly, they apologized to me in a letter and thanked me for my courageous stand, despite their refusals to comply with my repeated requests to go on medication. Sometimes there are happy endings. Many bipolar sufferers claim they are MORE creative, focused, and productive on medication.
Williams had the money to afford the best of medical treatment and had been in rehab and treatment for alcohol addiction, according to reports. He even reentered treatment himself when he felt he needed help. The mood changes can be rapid – even hourly or daily – and the depression can overtake someone, dragging them into the depths of hell, an existential no man’s land devoid of meaning, purpose, and connection. Suicidal ideation becomes an obsession that can’t be shaken. That is why someone is put on 24 hour watch in psychiatric hospitals or they have round-the-clock companions and/or medical personnel at home.
At two different times in my practice, I had two clients who committed suicide – and both did so many months AFTER they terminated with me in therapy and against my professional advice. There were many mitigating circumstances in their depression. I talked to them on the phone and had written and sent long letters to both of them after they dropped out. I attempted to get communication to both of them constantly and yet both never returned to therapy – killing themselves in dramatic and violent ways, furiously angry at their spouses and/or parents. I was inwardly distraught after both suicides, and I had the same emotional reaction when I heard of Robin Williams’ death. “If only…” or “Maybe…” or “What if…” began all my sentences and thoughts.
My inner, grandiose dialogue sounded like this, “If I had had Robin Williams on my show and he knew I was also a psychotherapist, perhaps I could have reached him and referred him to people I know and trust, like my psychiatrist friend in Los Angeles. If he had read my script and if he knew I wrote the male lead role just for him, it might have given him hope. He might have wanted to do it, gotten it into production, and it might have been a huge success. It was a very funny story with a happy ending. He could just be himself – a comic genius given free reign. The character was an easy fit for him. Maybe I could have helped him. Maybe I could have saved his life. Maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself.”
And what I know to be true as a person and as a professional is that if someone is determined to off themselves, no one can save them. They will find a way, regardless of spouses, children, affluence, good health, success, and even emotional support. Depression and suicidal ideation can grip someone so tightly that they see no other way out. Depression has tricksters built in to its inner dialogue, whispering diabolically in one’s ear: “You can’t win. It’s all over. Nothing will change. It will always be like this. You have no power to make it any different. Give up. It’s over. It’s hopeless. Just kill yourself.” Suicide is an attempt to assert power over the one thing they feel they have left – the power of whether they live or die.
People on the outside looking in see options. Depressed people don’t. The Internet reports he was depressed. According to the DSM-V’s diagnostic codes, there may be various types of depression, and the two I will address here are reactive depression and biochemical depression.
1) Reactive depression – reacting to circumstances from a death, loss, abuse, domestic violence, trauma, grief, disappointment, divorce, etc. Underneath this depression can be found sadness, fear, and anger – all emotions that must be discussed and expressed to resolve the paralyzing feelings and underlying rage. Good therapists are fearless in confronting this with their clients, who need to grapple with all of this in many ways.
Gestalt exercises using the “two chair technique”: talking to the perpetrator, spouse, friend, parent, boss, sibling, whomever – screaming, yelling, and cursing – whatever works to expunge the rage and anger. Journal writing, exercise, cardio, and safe expressions of anger can all help. I had a client who went to the boxing ring downtown and kept hitting the speed bag and the body bag, imagining it was the man who molested him as a child. Another client bought cheap china at thrift stores and threw it into the recycling bins at the county facility (when no one was around) because she loved to hear the shattering sounds as the china hit the huge metal bins. According to biographies, John Lennon screamed in Primal Therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov about his sadness and rage as a teenager when he lost his mother Julia who was killed in a traffic accident after he had just reconnected with her years after she abandoned him to be raised by her sister, Aunt Mimi.
Crying is another way to deal with depression. Tears of sorrow, which contain depressants, have been proven to be chemically different from tears of joy, according to the research. That is why crying is so healing and people say, “Oh, I feel so much better after a good cry,” because the body, through the tears pouring out of the tear ducts, is emitting depressants. Men may have more difficulty with this since most of them see crying as weakness. Many practitioners recommend crying. Also generating endorphins through exercise and cardio is also beneficial. They are natural anti-depressants. Robin was an avid cyclist. Was it helping? Did he stop? Was his depression so powerful that nothing could touch it?
2) And there is a biochemical depression from bipolar disorder or perhaps from other physiological causes. All of this needs to be addressed with licensed physicians, psychiatrists, and health care practitioners who can treat depression and understand the balancing act with someone who is bipolar in moderating the manic and depressive sides of the disorder. Some people choose to seek help with alternative medicine physicians as well.
What type of depression did Robin Williams have - the first, the second, or both?
As to causes for him possibly having reactive depression, we can only glean what we know from the news and from reliable sources on the Internet: he had heart surgery five years ago in 2009 at the Cleveland Clinic to replace his aortic valve, fix his mitral valve, and correct an irregular heartbeat. Depression can be a normal reaction after heart surgery. “The Crazy Ones” his NBC comedy with Sarah Michelle Geller, was cancelled after one season. There is controversy about him having financial problems – some say he incurred many expenses from two very costly divorces. He may have been selling his ranch. He may have been downsizing.
So what could have been some of the solutions instead of suicide?
What could he have done to wipe out his debts? His brilliant concerts sold out within an hour or less. How about him booking a one man show on Broadway for a month or two? That would have been sold out in about ten minutes. Pack the house in Vegas for six weeks – do it twice year if need be. Southwest Airlines would probably have to add more flights to accommodate the rush. Go on the road for a few months to SRO arenas around the country and the world.
All debts would have probably been totally wiped out and resolved with overflowing surpluses in the coffers for any one, some, or all of those options, not to mention the pure joy he would have brought to his audiences who loved him. If you ever missed his live concerts, they are available on DVD, including “Live at the Met,” “Live on Broadway”, “Weapons of Self-Destruction,” plus his zany and poignant appearance on Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton. And we have his films, TV show appearances, and I hope NBC releases “The Crazy Ones - Season One” as a DVD set. All were full of his pure brilliance.
Were there marital troubles? He had had those before. Get into marriage counseling. Work it out. Separate for a while. Continue the counseling. Reconcile. Continue with the counseling.
Or go through another costly divorce. All are possible choices.
The latest revelation was from his third wife, Susan Schneider, stating that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and did not want to release the news to the public yet. Was he taking drugs for the onset of Parkinson’s? Which one(s)? What were some of the possible side effects of the drugs if he was on them? Could it have caused even more depression? Susan Schneider said his sobriety was intact. I’m sure all the world hoped that it was.
I’ve worked with alcoholics and addicts in grad school, in my post doc training, and in my private practice for years. They have been known to lie, hide bottles and/or drugs, sneak out to buy booze and fixes, cover their tracks, and attempt to con their doctors, therapists, family members, counselors, spouses, friends, bosses, and co-workers. They sometimes do everything they can to still drink and use and pretend everything is fine.
Others get the danger and know that they are risking cirrhosis of the liver, the DTs, and other afflictions of alcoholism/drug abuse if they don’t stop. They commit themselves to rehab, aftercare, AA, psychotherapy, family therapy and marriage counseling. They get a sponsor, go to a meeting every day, and work the 12 Steps. Some even become sponsors to help others stay sober. They write books, films, articles, and plays about their recovery. And they stay sober. God bless their recovery.
My mind races as I ask questions. How bad was the depression? What and how often were his suicidal ideations? Did he make any attempts – wrist cutting, pills, or overdoses? The police report said there were superficial wrist cuts. Did he have a sponsor? Was he working the 12 Steps?
It said he went back to his treatment facility because he thought he needed it. Who was following up with him after his release? Was he going to local meetings? Was he talking in person and/or on the phone to his support system? Who was coming to his home if he refused to go out? Did he refuse help, isolate himself, and plunge into despair? Because we all know the end result - he did the unthinkable and killed himself.
As I’ve said to more than one client, “Suicide is a permanent end to a temporary problem. Let’s look at your other options.” Perhaps Robin Williams was overwhelmed, sought a way to quiet the voices, to solve what he felt were his insurmountable problems, and he just wanted some inner peace. But suicide was not the route to take.
He might have felt his depression was bottomless and with the Parkinson’s diagnosis, he may have felt it was the last straw. When he first heard the news, did he call Michael J. Fox and ask about the latest treatment and how Fox was dealing with it? Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. Who knows?
Fox also has admitted to abusing his body with alcohol, so is there a connection here? Can alcohol and/or drug abuse do so much damage and make the brain and nervous system deteriorate to a point that allows Parkinson’s – a degenerative neurological disease – to occur?
Alcohol, by its chemical nature, is a depressant, so drinking to get rid of your depression is like taking salmonella to get rid of food poisoning. It doesn’t work, it’s not effective, and it only makes it worse. The initial release of inhibitions belies the undertow of the real effects of alcohol. Combine drinking with any prescription drugs and/or illegal substances and you’ve got some serious problems for the body and mind.
Fox seems to be coping well with Parkinson’s - taking medication, still acting, and being a global spokesman for the cause, raising money for research, and showing the world that even with such an affliction, life goes on and you can live a productive life still doing what you love. Bless him for the courage and activism.
And there’s another interesting coincidence: in 1992, I was being interviewed to be a writer on Gary David Goldberg’s series, “Brooklyn Bridge”. Gary was the creator of "Family Ties," which launched Michael J. Fox's career forward to all three "Back to the Future movies, many other films, "Spin City," and his latest TV series.
"Brooklyn Bridge" was one of my all time favorite TV series. I was invited to the set to watch and meet the talented cast: Marian Ross, Louis Zorich, Amy Aquino, Peter Friedman, and to meet and talk with some of the producers. That day, Michael J. Fox was the guest director. I had a blast. Soon after, CBS cancelled the show. I was broken-hearted.
Certainly the burdens, pressures, and setbacks of all of these stressful events – his recent heart surgery; possible financial troubles; perhaps his possible diagnoses of bipolar disorder and ADD/ADHD; his series cancellation in May, any potential relationship issues, the pressure of maintaining his sobriety, the recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and other unknown factors - could have pushed anyone over the edge.
He was beloved all over the globe for all the joy, laughter, insight, and perspectives he gave humanity. He had the world rooting for him. He could have come through. He was Robin Williams – comedy meteor, serious Oscar winning actor, generous philanthropist, co-host of Comedy Relief, USA; avid bicyclist, U.S. troops entertainer, father of three - Zak, Zelda and Cody; ex-husband of Valerie Velardi and Marcia Garces Williams; husband of Susan Schneider, and star of stage, screen, and television – he could do anything!
He was a comedic genius, like his mentor and idol, Jonathan Winters. May they both be at peace in comedy heaven.
Professional ethics would have precluded me from treating Robin Williams as a client, and I’m sure he had many qualified professionals helping him. Yet I would have done anything and everything to refer him to people that I know and trust in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, holistic and alternative medicine, spiritual counseling, and whatever treatment that could and would have worked effectively for him. He may have liked my script, saw it as a fun vehicle to get him out of his depression, and helped to get it into production. It was tailor made just for him and Tracy Ullman. “What if…” and “If only…” reverberate through my mind and heart.
His death reminds me and the world of the fragility of life, the precariousness of sanity, and the delicate balance between creative genius and emotional pain, between manic mood swings and self destruction, and between elation and depression, despite all the trappings of success, fame, and money.
I hope his death will prompt people to seek help and treatment for any ailment, be it bipolar disorder, alcohol, drugs, depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, or Parkinson’s – and not to self-medicate with alcohol and/or drugs - but to find the correct remedies for physiological genetic pre-dispositions, afflictions, diseases, and disorders and to get into counseling – individual, family, couples/marriage, and/or group therapy with qualified, licensed, competent, direct counselors who are confrontive, wise, and from the heart healers.
As a supervisor of undergraduate psychology students and of film interns for many years, I have always told my charges, “As many would observe, the two best portrayals of therapists in film are Judd Hirsch as Dr. Tyrone Berger in ‘Ordinary People’ and Robin Williams in his Oscar winning role as Dr. Sean Maguire in ‘Good Will Hunting’ – both are down to earth, realistic, supportive, direct, caring, nurturing, great listeners, empowering, and confrontive. And you’ve got to be, have, and use all of those traits with clients.”
How ironic one of Robin’s catch phrases in “Dead Poets Society” is “Carpe Diem” and he couldn’t “Seize the Day” himself.
How ironic that he played Patch Adams, a doctor bringing joy to terminally ill children, and he couldn’t bring happiness and laughter to himself.
And how ironic that he died in his home in a town called Paradise Cay, California.
God rest your brilliant, creative, and troubled soul, Robin Williams. We miss you. And how we all wish we could have saved you.
Robin Williams 1951-2014
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