Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve

Robin Williams committed suicide last week. I heard the devastating news during a casual conversation with my good friend Andrea, but it took a few days to sink in. Once it did, there was an aching emptiness in my soul that I still can’t shake. I feel like I lost a close friend.

Maybe that doesn’t make sense since I never met him and only saw him on television and in movies. But I grew up with him. He was “Mork from Ork” when I was in junior high school and Mrs. Doubtfire and Patch Adams during my first job after completing my Master’s degree. The characters he played made me laugh, cry, and think. Sometimes I did all of those things simultaneously. He was so many things: a brilliant actor, a gifted comedian, and an amazingly generous human being. He was severely depressed and battled addiction in his life. He touched millions of people throughout his career with the gamut of his talent.  Did his recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease put him over the edge? Nobody will ever know.

But what I can tell you is that he had to be dealing with crippling emotional pain. I can relate. When I was diagnosed with a mood disorder in my early 20’s, I was both overwhelmed and relieved. I was overwhelmed because it was something else for me to deal with, another thing in my life that made living it more difficult. I was relieved because I finally knew a reason why there were days so dark that I struggled to see the glimmer of light in the distance and days when my anger felt like an all-consuming entity, bigger than I was, who had an independent life of its own. That is not the kind of pain a person can snap out of, and it doesn’t help when others tell you to cheer up. That kind of pain is truly a taste of Hell, and few people who haven’t experienced the depth of that kind of despair can understand how agonizing it really is.

In the days since his death, I haven’t heard anything negative about Robin Williams as a person. I have heard many negative things, however, about the circumstances of his death.

Many people believe that suicide is selfish, because of how it affects the people who are left behind. I can see that point, but I respectfully disagree. My belief is that suicide is a last desperate choice people make to end the excruciating pain that they are going through. When they cannot live with the pain anymore, they choose to make it stop in the only way they can see; by ending the life that they live.   Sometimes people are in a pit so deep they simply cannot get out of it. In that situation, and the people in that spot deserve compassion and not criticism.  I will always be sad that Robin Williams committed suicide. At the same time, if there has to be a silver lining in his death, I will always be grateful that he put a name and a face on those of us who struggle with mood disorders and depression. The world will never see mental illness in the same way again.

In late May of 1995, Christopher Reeve was thrown off a horse, paralyzing him from the neck down. He needed a ventilator to help him breathe and spent months in a rehabilitation hospital. I was also devastated when I heard that news. What? Superman was paralyzed? I couldn’t believe it!  In the recesses of my imagination, he was a geeky reporter who sent half of every paycheck he earned to his mother in the Midwest. All he had to do was find the nearest phone booth and he could leap tall buildings in a single bound, he didn’t need a power wheelchair for mobility!  That was crazy!

The news was sad but true. At first, he wanted to die. But slowly, over time, he adjusted. He and his wife Dana renovated their house to make it completely accessible for him, and they got used to living with the round the clock caregivers he required for the rest of his life. He went on to direct movies and inspire millions. He even acted again, in a remake of “Rear Window,” and several other films.  Within a few months of his injury, he created what is now the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which provides assistance and support in many ways to people with spinal cord injuries all over the world. From the day of his accident until now, many years after his death, Christopher Reeve put a name and a face on spinal cord injury. People will never see it in the same way again.

A year or two after his injury, I read Christopher Reeve’s biography, called “Still Me.” In it, he describes one of the first days he was lucid, several weeks after his accident. A “doctor” came into his hospital room. He had a Russian accent and said he was a proctologist (butt doctor) and needed to do an immediate and thorough examination.

The “doctor” was Robin Williams, who was a roommate of Christopher Reeve’s when they were both studying acting at Julliard. According to Christopher Reeve, that conversation was the first time he had  truly laughed since he had gotten hurt, and it made him realize that life could be good again. The two were very close until Christopher Reeve passed away in 2004.

In some ways, it is ironic that these two men, these close friends died too soon. They were both amazing actors. They were both wickedly funny. And they both left the world better than they found it. They changed society’s perception of the vastly different disabilities that affected their lives.

Thank you, gentlemen. Rest in peace.

You left a profound legacy behind!