When I was a kid, one of the greatest moments for me, as an 8 or 9 year old boy, was to be able to watch Mork and Mindy. Robin Williams’ antics were eye-opening. His comedy, his goofiness and his sensitivity transcended anything I’d seen and, as I look back and reflect, I realize what an influence he was on me. John Ritter, in his role as Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, with his physical, silly humor, had a similar influence on me. Sadly, both men have now passed.
Robin Williams was, of course, well known and appreciated not just for his comedic talent, but for the compassion and empathy he could elicit in his dramatic roles. My friend, Pete Dominick, himself a stand-up comedian, explains that a good comic draws his ability to make people laugh through compassion, through an understanding of suffering, hardship, isolation; through those very things that allow a dramatic actor to so affect his audience.
While Robin Williams had certainly transmitted tenderness, sympathy and humanity in prior roles, such as Good Morning Vietnam, Awakenings, The Fisher King and Dead Poets Society, it was his role, in 1994, in NBC’s cop drama Homicide, that has always affected me the most. As Robin’s character, a man whose wife has just been murdered, leaving behind two small children, sits on a playground swing, he asks to hold a detective’s pistol. The look of anguish on Robin’s face, the frustration, the sorrow, the rage, as he begs for the weapon is tempered by his words as he assures the detective he won’t do anything stupid, he just wants to feel that power. In his words and body/facial language I’ve always felt how trapped the man was. Trapped between the overwhelming grief and sorrow of his loss, the anger and desire for justice towards his enemy, and the frightening and paralyzing understanding of now being a father of two motherless children, I’ve often thought about that role and that performance. I was 21 at the time and I can see, now, how that performance taught me so much about grief, anger, love, frustration and obligation. No one is two dimensional, nobody is a cardboard cut-out of emotions, and none of us live a scripted life with the solutions and remedies readily available for our afflictions and torments.
But this post is not meant as another tribute to a great actor, and as many people feel towards those on-screen giants, a friend. It is rather to admit, which I suspect many of my fellow veterans and travelers in our post-war PTSD, depression, alcoholic and morally injured lives also feel: the terror that even though we have it together today, even though we may be managing our illnesses, taking our medications, going to therapy, forgoing booze, avoiding triggers and making our lives worthy of others’ death and suffering by living lives of meaning and purpose, that it all may crash out from underneath us. For although those of us in recovery live our lives as if we are in new homes and new structures, the reality is that the floor of the structure is weak, and in some cases rotted. Constant attention, upgrade and maintenance is required to avoid collapse and our falling through, again, into an abyss, that deep dark hole with its rock bottom, we had successfully crawled out of.
Robin Williams fell through. I’d be lying if I haven’t thought many times this week that the same may happen to me in five, ten or twenty years. It’s a terrifying and haunting demon. By sharing this fear, I hope to exorcise it.
PTSD, Depression and Moral Injury are hope-destroyers. Alcohol and drugs their armaments. The disease is insidious and brilliant. If it destroys hope, then there is not much reason to remain in recovery. I feel like I should offer some form of chippy or up-beat affirmation at this point, but that would be a lie. Living, by fighting through these issues, is the only thing we can do.
Rest in peace Robin. Thank you for all you did for us. I’m sorry your floor fell through.