Robin Williams did not die because he was a “sad clown”. I’ll leave it to others more qualified than I am to analyse the relationship between comedians and depression; suffice to say it is a significant risk factor for suicide and yes – Williams suffered from it. But real life, when it comes to matters of the mind, rarely conforms to easy definitions and catch-all statements.
An utterly heartbreaking essay written by Williams’ widow, Susan Schneider Williams, was published in the scientific journal Neurology last week. It reminds us that on issues such as this nobody can really say what’s going on outside our own heads. And inside our own heads we often don’t know what’s going on either.
In a piece titled The terrorist inside my husband’s brain, the bereaved author outlines the complex conditions that led to the comedian’s death. Williams suffered from an extreme case of the little-known Lewy body disease (LBD). Doctors who reviewed his case described it as one of the worst pathologies they had ever seen, with almost none of his neurons free of Lewy bodies.
Susan Schneider Williams writes:
Some symptoms were more prevalent than others, but these increased in frequency and severity over the next 10 months. By wintertime, problems with paranoia, delusions and looping, insomnia, memory, and high cortisol levels—just to name a few—were settling in hard. Psychotherapy and other medical help was becoming a constant in trying to manage and solve these seemingly disparate conditions…
The parkinsonian mask was ever present and his voice was weakened. His left hand tremor was continuous now and he had a slow, shuffling gait. He hated that he could not find the words he wanted in conversations. He would thrash at night and still had terrible insomnia. At times, he would find himself stuck in a frozen stance, unable to move, and frustrated when he came out of it. He was beginning to have trouble with visual and spatial abilities in the way of judging distance and depth.
His loss of basic reasoning just added to his growing confusion. It felt like he was drowning in his symptoms.
In the public’s eye the basic narrative around Robin Williams’ death seemed to be this: the funny dude who burnt his fake boobs in Mrs Doubtfire got sad and killed himself. His widow paints a rather more detailed picture, about a man who was attacked relentlessly from within, physically and mentally, and fought very hard to stay with us.
After reading the essay I was reminded of an op-ed published by the Sydney Morning Herald soon after Williams’ death. I don’t know how to describe it without using words like “appalling”. Spewing with righteous indignation, the author wrote about how, by dying from suicide, Williams “has angered me” and “let this fan down”.
Let this fan down? That’s something you say when you wait in line for an hour and don’t get an autograph. I wonder if the writer has read Susan Schneider Williams’ essay. I wonder if he would feel comfortable with her reading the finger-pointing thing he wrote.
Needless to say, suicide is confusing for everybody. We all struggle to make sense of it. Emotions are myriad and people grieve in different ways. If a default position is possible, perhaps – no, surely – it is best to respond with compassion rather than judgement.
That’s what Triple M presenter Gus Worland did after he lost one of his best mates to suicide a decade ago. Worland has a new three-part ABC TV series Man Up, which premieres October 11. It addresses, in a sugar-helps-the-medicine-go-down kind of way (sprinkled with humour and with the presenter’s endearing personality) the shockingly high rate of male suicide in Australia.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged 15-44 years, eclipsing road accidents and cancer. Seventy-five percent of all suicides in this country are men. Eight people die by suicide every day.
The show’s thesis is that much of this has to do with expectations associated with traditional masculinity: the idea men harden or “man up” rather than talk about their problems. Gus visits a cattle station in WA and talks to fair-dinkum stockmen about why they don’t like discussing their feelings. He goes to a construction site in Queensland where, like any such site in Australia, employees are six times more likely to die by suicide than by workplace accidents.
Man Up presents a rather singular take on a complex phenomenon (caveat: I’ve only seen the first episode), but the work is unquestionably valuable. The underlying inference is that “macho” is an outdated word. At one point the narrator expresses an opinion that David Bowie experimented “with the gender neutral look”. I would put it a different way: that the legacy of artists such as Bowie and Queen reminds us that masculinity comes in many different forms.
If the show encourages men to talk, as I suspect it will, it is a beautiful thing. The premise nevertheless means Man Up can only brush the surface. Many mysteries abound. Men like myself, for example, we don’t know how a car engine works and we can’t ride a horse. We have loving friends and family. We understand the value in talking about things. We’re not that all concerned about being “manly”.
So why, sometimes, when we go to speak about something on our mind, in a safe space, knowing this can only do us good, we open our mouths and nothing comes out? Only air. It becomes very clear on these occasions that talking about your feelings is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.
Programs such as Man Up, or the ABC’s Mental As initiative, or even RUOK? Day, which don’t profess to solve anything but pledge to keep the ball rolling, can be easily shot down with a bit of smugness and intellectual posturing. The money spent to finance them would be better invested in X or Y and blah blah blah. The people making these arguments are generally not the same people on the ground trying to make a difference.
We see some of them in the first episode of Man Up, when Worland visits a Lifeline call centre. In August this year alone, the crisis support line answered more than 81,000 phone calls. It is currently trying to raise 100,000 online signatures. Those signatures will call on the government to double funding for suicide prevention and awareness programs.
If you or someone you know is in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. A detailed list of support services can be found here.