Honoring Robin Williams by starting the conversation about our ‘Shades of Blue’
Some tragedies are so shocking, so horrific, that we remember the exact moment we heard the news: John F. Kennedy assassinated. And John Lennon. The Challenger exploding in the blue sky. The Twin Towers crumbling in flames. Maybe we remember exactly what we were doing when these horrors happened because our lives before that moment, and after, are never the same. They aren’t events we recover from. We just keep moving forward, anyway.
I remember one such moment, one year ago, Aug. 11, 2014. We were settling in for burgers mid-afternoon after a long drive to Zephyr Cove, happy and looking forward to a little vacation. There, above the restaurant bar on a silent television screen, was Robin Williams, smiling, chatting, and a banner underneath: Robin Williams commits suicide.
You know that screech a needle makes when it rips across a vinyl record and the music stops? That was the sound in my head. I struggled to comprehend the incomprehensible. How could the most beloved person in the country end his life? It’s impossible! My brain kept pinging against a notion that made absolutely no sense to me. Robin Williams was synonymous with joy. His eyes twinkled with merriment and mischief, and he brightened any room merely by walking in. He offered us escape from whatever troubles tugged away at our consciousness, like the Pied Piper of comedic relief… “Never mind what’s bothering you, come with me for awhile and just laugh.” Some of us have adored Williams from the moment he burst into our television sets in that red jumpsuit as Mork from Ork, and our adoration grew as his career evolved and blossomed. What irony — his career began as a character who just couldn’t quite fit in, and his life ended for essentially the same reason.
If only we’d known.
Far too late, it was revealed that Williams suffered from severe depression. Our jaws dropped in collective cognitive dissonance. How many of us sat stunned, thinking “If only I’d had a chance to speak to him, to tell him how deeply beloved he is, how much he matters… a chance to say, ‘Don’t do it now. Wait another day.'” I know I did. So did my friend, author/screenwriter Amy Ferris. But she went a step further.
Having suffered with depression herself, but unable to reach out and talk about it, Amy felt compelled to shine a light on the dark feelings we have but are ashamed to talk about.
“When Robin Williams died, it hit a nerve that was so palpable,” Amy told me recently. Within 24 hours of Williams’ death, she proposed an anthology about depression and suicide to her publisher, Seal Press — not merely a collection of sad stories, but stories chosen to reach out to others experiencing the same, to say to him/her, “You aren’t alone. Or weird. I’ve been in that place too. Take my hand… I know the way out of that tunnel.”
Seal Press gave Amy the thumbs-up, and she proceeded to handpick writers who were familiar with sadness, depression and even suicide to contribute to this book. I’m still somewhat astonished that she included me amongst them. (Yes, you may think you know everything about me. Surprise.) The book is called “Shades of Blue: writers on depression, suicide, and feeling blue,” to be released in September. Every person contributing to this book knows about a shade of blue, and deeply wishes to connect with someone who knows it too, particularly those who feel that the only way to stop the pain is to end it once and for all. And clearly, there are a whole lot of people out there feeling that way.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more than 38,000 Americans commit suicide every year; suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US for all ages; there is one death by suicide in the US every 13 minutes — more than 100 every day. There are plenty more grim facts. Just visit the CDC website yourself or google “suicide statistics,” and you’ll discover, as I did, that it is a much, much larger issue than I ever imagined. If you factor in the collateral emotional damage of suicide on the friends and loved ones left behind, the impact is exponential.
Among the risk factors for suicide, besides the obvious — depression — is “feeling alone.” Let’s just pluck that out and examine it. When you feel all alone, you believe no one cares about you, thinks about you, notices you. Those thoughts may erode into the belief that if no one cares, you might as well be dead. Could it be that Robin Williams, in the quiet and solitude of his own private life, felt that alone? If someone so talented, successful and adored could be secretly saturated with despair and unable to reach out, imagine how much more this is so for people who don’t have a fraction of that success and adoration in their own lives. And, Williams is a case study in hiding those feelings from view. The compelling contrast between his public and private lives shrieks volumes about how lethal our blue feelings can be.
Our one and only chance is to reach out, and the only way we can do that is to feel emboldened enough to talk about our taboo feelings. We must bust through the barrier of fear and shame. We must shatter the stigma. Robin Williams’ tragic choice served as an epiphany for Amy Ferris: We must start the conversation about our shades of blue. Some of us must be willing to go first. Thirty-one of us did, in this book. It’s our chance to say, “Wait. Don’t do it today.”
We wish we’d had the chance to say that to Robin Williams. But we didn’t. We can only go forward, and we must. There are plenty more opportunities to say that to someone. Every 13 minutes, to be precise.