Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams

News of Robin Williams' death has been a sucker-punch to the gut of a nation. At the same time, the reality that this genius is no longer of the earth is a concept that still hasn't quite sunk in.

I always liked his improvisational stand-up better than his TV sitcom or his later commercial blockbuster movies. (Exception: Awakenings.) When I first saw this anarchist in action, hyped up on his own natural amphetamines, I remember wondering how he ever managed to wind down enough to fall asleep at night. Later, when he revealed his substance abuse issues, I was not surprised that he'd taken the self-medication route, both to calm down and to ease some enormous hidden emotional pain. It's a testament to his own fortitude that he lasted as long as he did, into his seventh decade. Geniuses of his caliber who battle mental illness and addiction usually don't survive middle age.

His death is also a reminder that, as in so many of its other assbackwardnesses, America the Exceptional is still in the Dark Ages regarding mental illness. How many times in the past day have we heard media personalities pontificate about Williams "battling his demons?"  Because, despite the advances in knowledge that depression is an organic disease, it's  still equated with being possessed by the devil, or regarded as a moral or even criminal failing.

In fact, there are ten times more mentally ill people incarcerated in American jails than are being treated in psychiatric settings. These prisons are 21st Century Bedlams, in which sick people are so neglected and abused that by the time they are released, their illnesses have only gotten worse.

According to a study released in April by the Treatment Advocacy Center, in 2012, there were an estimated 356,268 inmates with severe mental illnesses in U.S. prisons and jails. There were only 35,000 mentally ill individuals in state psychiatric hospitals. Its findings show that the deliberate "transinstitutionalization" of mentally ill patients from hospitals to prisons is well nigh complete.

"We characterize seriously mentally ill individuals as having a thinking disorder," the report trenchantly concludes. "But surely it's no worse than our own."

On that note, let us remember the refreshing  and hilarious sanity of the truly great Robin Williams. Let the current epidemic of barbarism take a back seat to the humanity of one brilliant soul for at least one more day.


Isaiah Earhart said...

A very thoughtful and enlightening perspective- thank you Karen.

Brilliant- indeed. I wonder how many people would be reached and helped if we could shed the atomized society.

We certainly lost a treasure with
this man's passing.

Pearl said...

What was admirable about Mr. Williams was that he was open about his difficulties, and worked for more improvement in the area of mental health issues.
He was a fine actor and according to reports of friends a very decent human being without the usual celebrity ego.
It is unfortunate that by accident or intent, he lost his battle to live but he was losing his hold on life and as Karen said, he lived longer than others did in the same situation. One wonders that if proper care were given early to mental health sufferers, they might avoid going the route with drugs and alcohol which in itself makes the situation more destructive. A sad story.
Thank you for your fine column, Karen.

Denis Neville said...

"You're only given a little spark of madness," Robin Williams once said. "You musn't lose it."

His was a “fine madness.”

“We of the craft are all crazy,” wrote Lord Byron about himself and his fellow poets. “Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”

Robin Williams denied having manic-depression, or bipolar disorder. “Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes," Williams said. "Am I manic all the time? No.” He admitted that he struggled with depression. “Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah. I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times"

Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched With Fire/Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, writes that “the fiery aspects of thought and feeling that initially compel the artistic voyage – fierce energy, high mood, and quick intelligence; a sense of the visionary and the grand; a restless and feverish temperament – commonly carry with them the capacity for vastly darker moods, grimmer energies, and, occasionally, bouts of “madness.” These opposite moods and energies, often interlaced, can appear to the world as mercurial, intemperate, volatile, brooding, troubled, or stormy. In short, they form the common view of the artistic temperament, and, they also for the basis of the manic-depressive temperament. Poetic or artistic genius, when infused with these fitful and inconstant moods, can become a powerful crucible for imagination and experience … It is a thin line that exists between the fate of Icarus, who – burned by rather than touched with fire - felt the hot wax run, unfeathering him, and the fates of those artists who survive the flight…”

Manic-depressive illness is a horrible disease. The damaging and killing sides of manic-depressive illness are alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. It is a tragedy because Robin Williams was a human being, and because every single person lost to this disease is a tragedy.

If you're mentally ill in America, you are shit outta luck. It’s a tough shit society. If you don’t have a job, tough shit. If your homeless, tough shit. If you got a mental illness, tough shit. If you don’t have health insurance, tough shit. As they say in England, “I’m all right, Jack.” “I’ve got mine, Jack.” “Now go get yours.”

Because of this “tough shit” choice not to step in when someone needs help, the burden falls on family members, who struggle with the problems as best they can. There is no mental health system in the US. Inadequate access to treatment and providers has left many mentally ill patients and their families fending for themselves, picking up the burden and the cost of providing care. We have privatized human problems by expecting families to solve them, out of public view. It is an extraordinary burden.

“As little as we know of illness, we know even less of care. As much as the ill person’s illness is denied, the caregiver’s experience is denied more completely.” - Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body

Isaiah Earhart said...


Once again, I really love your comment. Thank you.

Will said...

"You never know another man's burden until he puts it down and you feel the ground shake." - Robin Williams

Here's he is being interviewed by fellow comedian Marc Maron in 2010. It's an hour long. Time well spent, trust me.


P.S. I'm going to watch my favorite Robin Williams film, 1991's "The Fisher King," on Netflix tonight. Highly recommend it.

Jay - Ottawa said...

Williams’ appearance “Inside the Actors Studio” (Bravo, 2001) is celebrated as one of his best performances ever. Bits of it can be found on YouTube. He played on before the studio audience not merely for the one hour needed for the televised program, but for five hours. There is a CD for sale with most of that time.

Here is a link to the one-hour TV broadcast, which may have been a distillation of those five hours. Be warned: An ambulance was called to carry off someone from that 2001 audience who suffered a hernia from laughing so hard. 64,000 + views so far.

Valerie Long Tweedie said...

To say that I am deeply saddened by his death and the despair he must have felt is a gross understatement. This was an eloquent tribute, Karen. He would have liked it.