Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone—Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 1883


Always On

We are mourning the death of Robin Williams, whose brilliant acting and comedic genius are a testimony to some of the best of the human spirit.

Though Williams shared much laughter with us, most of us are jarred to learn that he seems often to have wept alone. As often happens after this type of tragic loss, mental heath providers, friends and others find out things we wish we had known before, and, perhaps that we could have stepped in to ameliorate. Like many fans, we feel a personal connection with our cultural icons, having watched their careers develop over decades. At times we weathered significant emotional and maturational experiences that their performances illuminated.  Yet the experience of Robin Williams and the recent tragic death of another such significant performer, Philip Seymour Hoffman, reveal unflinchingly that our experience of personal connection and validation may not be shared by the performers whom we admire—may, in fact, cost them more dearly than we come close to imagining.

Williams' death brings to mind poignantly what is, perhaps, one of the most troubling aspects of our work with people in irrelationships: the difficulty many have finding the willingness and ability to step outside a way of being in the world that is not scripted, predictable and safe from vulnerability that comes with being committed unconditionally to another person.  How much more stringent might those “scripted”—and predictable—ways of being become when the expectation to remain "in role" both on and off the screen, comes not from a "significant other," i.e., a partner, a husband, wife or family member, but from the world at large—in addition to being driven, perhaps ruthelessly, by oneself?


Does the need or drive to be an entertainer put one at greater risk for choosing irrelationships? Does irrelationship perhaps even underpin the entertainment industry? These are questions we encourage readers seriously to consider.  Do many entertainers  perform for us at the peril of their own well-being? Are many performers acting out aspects of their own childhood deprivations in their drive to entertain?  

As mental health professionals, we  know better than to indulge in facile analysis of public figures whom we don't know personally or professionally.  But we can’t help being caught up sharply, both personally and professionally, by a tragedy both as public and as hidden as that of Robin Williams.  To wonder what went wrong, what may, could and should have been done, is not mere idle speculation: they are questions we necessarily ask ourselves as professionals.

Many or us who followed Mr. Williams over the years were excited to see his career progress from frenetic, incisive "stand-up" routines to the warmth of his work on "Mork and Mindy," and finally, to see him develop into a serious actor.  Therapists will cite Good Will Hunting as an astute cinematic portrayal of a therapist, who, though, perhaps, idealized, was compassionate and empathic, authentic and  engaged. Perhaps what really stood out about that role, however, was that the therapist proved to be all too human, a fellow-sufferer and journeyer rather than someone living in an ivory tower, removed from any ability to connect with others with mutuality and reciprocity.

 Now we've learned in the hardest way imaginable that, in his personal life, like so many of us, Mr. Williams struggled with addiction, depression. and relationships gone bad.  Nevertheless, those around him consistently report that he was "always up,"  "always in role," but that the real person behind the act was hard to locate, hard to connect with.

Williams' comments about marriage and divorce reveal a sense of his pain, habitually masked by humor, so well-described by Dr. Lyubansky in his blog Between the Lines ( Mr. Williams famously quipped, “Ah, yes, divorce—from the Latin word meaning to rip out a man’s genitals though his wallet.”

Though we laugh, identify and empathize with him, on a deeper level, we know it isn't funny: it's horribly painful and heart-wrenching—sometimes violently so.  Laughter gives us relief and bolsters resilience.  But it also provides space for denial—not a bad thing in all times and in all places: it can give us the ability to bear terrible wounds as we struggle to go forward with our lives. 

Robin Williams certainly had a smartness and greatness about him that was able acutely to connect to our human feelings and needs. Now we know also that, tightly wound as he was, he was at least as skillful at covering up the breaking point  on which he tottered, and which he did not survive.  Convincing as his roles were, they ultimately seem not to have been enough to cover or compensate for his human needs and human feelings.

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About the Author

Mark B. Borg, Jr, Ph.D., Grant H. Brenner, MD, & Daniel Berry, RN, MHA

Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D., Grant H. Brenner, MD, Daniel Berry, RN, MHA are the authors of Irrelationship.

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