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Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.
Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.

The Tragic Side of Comedy, Where the Pain Lives

Robin Williams Suicide

When Robin Williams killed himself, it was a loss that felt so personal to so many people who never really knew him. It provoked a flood of grief all around the world. Film director Chris Colombus who worked with him in Mrs. Doubtfire said “His performances were unlike anything any of us had ever seen, they came from some spiritual and otherworldly place. He truly was one of the few people who deserved the title of ‘genius.’ Why should people who never knew Robin Williams feel this loss so personally?

Robin Williams brought the joy of laughter into so many people’s lives and to them, it felt as if they were laughing with him. When people laugh together, an attachment bond is formed. But it did not feel this way to him. The response of his audience made him feel like a million dollars, and he literally could not get enough of it. He called it therapy, “a relief from that shit,” meaning all the things that would get him down, “celebrity and all that other crazy shit.” Very down, as he also candidly explained, speaking at length . . . about his depression and even his past suicidal thoughts.His audience's response was not therapy. Like the cocaine and alcohol he consumed, it was not therapy. It was his “drug of choice”.

He once told an interviewer that he struggled with depression, but hadn't been diagnosed with either "clinical depression" or bipolar disorder. : "No clinical depression, no. No. I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, 'Whoa.' Other moments you look and go, 'Oh, things are okay.'" In an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News, he said that just after his two-month treatment at Hazeldon, his falling back into the addiction was gradual. In another interview, Williams acknowledged that for much of his career he didn’t plumb personal depths in the way that Richard Pryor or Chris Rock did.

According to his own public statements, he quit drugs and alcohol cold turkey in the mid-eighties after the suicide of his friend, comedian John Belushi. He managed to have two decades of sobriety under his belt before relapsing in 2006 relapsed. His family held an intervention to force him to rehab again. In 2009 he had heart surgery. Less than two months before his suicide, he had checked himself into Hazelden, a rehab center.

WIlliams did not know most of these people who felt so connected to him.. They were simply a source of affirmation, and Williams was a man whose worth needed to be constantly affirmed. His sense of himself was so depleted that he needed others to boost it for him continuously. And he got that from working constantly to get it. He worked relentlessly to keep those laughs coming. When he was not on stage, working desperately for this affirmation, he was depressed and anxious, so much so that he used cocaine and alcohol to medicate himself. One newspaper article called drugs, alcohol, and depression his longtime companions. As with coke and alcohol , Williams developed a tolerance to his audience's affirmative response and required greater and greater doses of it. When huge doses of the drug of choice do not produce the desired effect, this is when the risk for suicide is the greatest. Robin Williams was sober but was struggling with depression, anxiety and the early stages of Parkinson's disease when he died, his widow said. Williams used exercise and cycling to manage his stress and depression, and the prospect that Parkinson'smight prevent him from doing that was extremely upsetting, adding to the depression someone familiar with his family said.

What most people do not know is that most addiction rehab facilities do not diagnose or treat patients for anything other than a substance abuse problem. And that even for these, they are not very good at it. Most of their counselors are not professionally trained, and all counseling is in a group setting, not individualized.Most people who have a problem with alcohol or drugs use them as a means of self-medication for an underlying psychiatric disorder. It appeared that Williams never got much in the way of adequate mental health diagnosis and treatment. Perhaps if he had known to check himself into a hospital-based dual diagnosis treatment program, he might have begun getting the real help that he needed. Anne Fletcher (2013) elaborates on this difficulty in her book Inside Rehab: The Surprising Truth About Addiction Treatment-and How to Get Help That Works, as do Lance and Zachary Dodes (2014) in The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry

. Comedians understand what Robin Williams was going through because they go through it themselves. Severe depression seems to be an occupational hazard for comedians, whose major energy goes into honing their sense of comedy to ward off the darkness that is always there, lurking inside. Their humor serves as a manic defense, to keep their depression at bay. We all experience some depressive anxiety from time to time, but the manic defense plays a prominent role, however, in the lives of those who are terrified of grief and sadness. But all defenses have their limits, and like drugs and alcohol, stop providing their magic.

Richard Jeni used to be one of my favorite comedians. I laughed my head off at his HBO performances, I was stunned when I heard that he killed himself. He had been diagnosed with severe depression and paranoid schizophrenia shortly before. After his suicide a group called Comedians for Suicide Prevention held comedy benefits for suicide prevention in major cities. Roy Johnson age 44, said that comedians committing suicide “is just part of this business that you get used to. , “It’s a thing. It’s a real issue in the business because part of what drives people to do (comedy) for a living is some kind of deficiency inside you. It kills a lot of people.” Johnson said he has lost good friends in the comedy business, including Richard Jeni to suicide and Greg Giraldo to a drug overdose. Johnson said he once had a stand-up career that was on the rise, but he left the business because, in a span of nine months, he became a basket case and wound up in what he called a “very bad place.”“It took me a good year-and-a-half to really get over,” he said. “You know how they say there are extremes? You have that deficiency and you go on stage and you get 300 people to love you, just love the (crap) out of you and then they go home. And so you go right back down to that desperate need. And you either do a lot of drugs and drinking or sleeping around, or you go back to your hotel room and you sit there for 23 hours just curled up in a ball. I’m not the only one that lived like that. I know a lot of friends that live like that.” Johnson suggested there is danger in getting up on stage and asking people to love you at all costs.“We want desperately for everybody to think that when we walk in the room, the fun starts,” he said. “What they don’t understand is a lot of guys, they need that just because when they walk out of that room, there’s just this black emptiness that they are born with. Some guys self-medicate it with drugs and end up killing themselves that way.” For more about this, go to Youtube, The Tragic Side of Comedy.

Mental health experts are hoping that the apparent suicide of actor-comedian Robin Williams will turn a national spotlight on depression, and help others find treatment for this devastating disease. Nationally known psychotherapist Fran Sherman said “Robin Williams was a true genius. People loved the manic side of him, and it was what made him. But when he took on serious roles, the depth of his sadness was real,”

When someone wants to kill himself, he cannot think about it. He is in a tunnel vision trance and nothing else matters.So many who have made suicide attempts that failed have been able to take hold of life once again, and live. Richard Heckler wrote about this in Waking Up Alive: The Descent, The Suicide Attempt & The Return to Life.

About the Author
Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.

Sharon K. Farber, Ph.D., is a board certified clinical social worker, maintaining a private practice in psychotherapy in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

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