Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams, My Mother, and Me

Like most people old enough to remember the 1970's and 80's, my first memories of Robin Williams were of his role in Mork & Mindy.  I loved the show; my favorite episode was the one where Mork, through the use of over-the-counter cold medication, accidentally shrank himself out of our universe and into a parallel one.  To a nine-year-old, this was mind-ripping stuff.

Robin Williams - Live at the Met remains one of my all-time favorite stand-up routines, right next to Eddie Murphy - Delirious.  Thank you, HBO and PRISM, for broadcasting those laughs a dozen times a day.

I never saw Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, Patch Adams, or several other of the movies that made Williams so beloved and famous.  I liked What Dreams May Come, despite its somewhat maudlin tone.  And he was quite good in The Final Cut; as a former video editor, the film struck a real chord with me.  

That's pretty much the extent of my experience with his work.  I'm really quite unsentimental when it comes to actors.  I respect what they do, and most of them live lives that are entirely irrelevant to mine.

In the wake of his death, there are renewed calls for a "national conversation" about mental illness, including clinical depression, and I understand.  We all want to make sense of terrible things (most of the time we can't), and we all want to make sure they don't happen again (ditto).  The problem is that a national conversation won't help anyone.

A national conversation wouldn't have helped my mother, who committed suicide a little over a year ago.

She had been a substance abuser her entire adult life.  Pills, alcohol, you name it.  I suffered abuse from her in ways that I'm quite unable to discuss with anyone.  When my father was dying of cancer, she would steal some of his pain and sleep medications for her own use.  That was what her mental illness, her addiction, made her into.

And none of us ever discussed it.  Not when we were kids, and very little when we became adults.  We didn't discuss it with her, my father, or anyone else.  Denial comes in many forms, and not talking about something is vastly easier than talking about it.  

Becoming a father myself and watching my wife become a loving mother to our little boy forced me to confront a lot of the unresolved issues related to my mother's substance abuse.  Mainly, I resolved to give my son a different set of childhood experiences from mine.  That will redound to his benefit, I'm certain.

About a year and a half after my father died, my mother ended her own life.  This is the eulogy I wrote for her funeral:

What my mother did to herself is a dark, terrible thing, but it would be worse if we didn’t learn anything from it.  She suffered greatly from mental illness, and a symptom of that was her substance abuse.  It was, unfortunately, one of the more significant elements of her character, and all of my memories of her are colored by it.

What made her illness all the more cruel was that she was capable of good things, and I know that she wanted to be better than she was.  She just couldn’t.

Substance abuse is very easily denied, both by the abuser and the people around the abuser.  The problem is that denying it doesn’t make it go away.  As difficult as it is, it has to be confronted and acknowledged.  Only then can it be treated.

With my mother, that didn’t happen.  

She won’t get to see her grandchildren grow up and become successful.  She won’t get to visit her husband’s gravesite and reminisce.  She didn’t get the treatment she needed, nor would she have accepted it if it were offered.  Her last days involved intolerable suffering.  

If we can learn from that, perhaps she didn’t die in vain.  

My intent here is not to bleed all over Williams's casket.  His death isn't about me or my mother.  Everyone reading this very likely has good memories associated with watching him, and that's a nice thing.  He'd have liked that, I'm sure.  But as loved a figure as he was, it wasn't enough.

My mother, who in her later years became a more and more vitriolic, divisive character, didn't stand a chance.  

I can't pretend to know what life was like in the Williams household, nor would I presume to.  But, like everything, it's vital that we take what happened and learn from it.  Don't just have a national conversation.  Have a personal conversation.

Perhaps they talked about it all day long, and Williams got so sick of it, he had to find a permanent way out.  I don't know.  Just don't sweep it under the rug.  Such concealed monsters don't stay under there, and they don't get smaller from concealment: quite the opposite.  They tend to take over the whole house.

So we'll grieve now, and for the lucky majority of us, the grief will be short-lived.  Questions of "why" and "what should I have done differently" are for others to ask, which is a blessing.  We're spared the pain his closest associates and family must feel, and my sympathies lie with them.  

Whether depressives self-medicate through alcohol or alcoholics are depressed because of their addiction is immaterial: the point is that denying a family problem never solves it.  As ugly and terrible and uncomfortable as it is, you must acknowledge it; only then can treatment begin.

Rest in peace, Robin.  I wish that you hadn't done what you did.

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