Robin Williams: One Year On

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 07:  ***EXCLUSIVE***  Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait with his award for Scene Stealing Guest Star during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Michael Caufield/Getty Images for PCA) *** Local Caption *** Robin Williams

A year after his passing, Robin Williams’ life and death are still having an incredible impact on me.  Below is a text I wrote after his death, updated only where necessary, to reflect my life one year later.

I feel compelled to write this, this morning.

Like everyone else who heard, I was shocked by the news when I got home from work last night.  Robin Williams dead by suicide, aged 63.

I won’t attempt to eulogize him, or talk about how I first discovered his comedy when I was a kid and he was the breakout star of a cheezy sitcom, “Mork and Mindy,” or how his comedic style, off-the-cuff-improv and quick wittedness inspired my own humor, my own way of responding to the world.  This isn’t about his life, or how his life influenced mine.  One day I’ll write that post, and talk about him and my other childhood celebrity heroes, Alan Alda, Harrison Ford, Lee Majors and Spider-Man.

Today I need to talk about how deeply and personally affected I feel by Robin’s death.

Robin is said to have suffered from severe depression and probably a whole buffet list of mental health issues and symptoms.  He, like me, had an abusive childhood and a hard time at school.  He like me didn’t form attachments easily; he like me was often a very difficult man to live with.  He, like me was married, divorced.  He, like me was a father.

Unlike me, he found success and freedom doing something he loved and enjoyed: comedy, acting, performing.

Yes, I’ve written a few books, sold a few more, and more than a few people know my name.  But I make my money in a government mailroom, pushing a cart around.  I don’t make my career sitting in le Cagibi beating on the keys of my laptop.  I couldn’t say when it happened, but I’ve accepted the fact my writing will never support me, financially or make me as legendary as the writers I admire (Or the writers whose only drive seems to be churning out a new book every few weeks to occupy undue shelf-space at the local bookstore).

I’ve accepted it, but I’m not sure I’ll ever make peace with it.  Writing helps me escape.  Most of the time.  But I don’t always find solace, comfort or joy in my writing, just as for Robin, the comedy, the acting, the performances and accolades weren’t enough to give him the comfort he needed.

Thinking about the man, his career, his life and death, his struggle with the same mental health problems I have to face…I feel utterly terrified.  If Robin couldn’t make it, what hope do I have?  How am I supposed to continue struggling to face down my darkness and cut up the negatives of my life, when even Robin got to a point where it was too hard, too much, and too painful to go on?  I’ve come close many times – recently, even – to saying “It’s too much, I just can’t anymore.”  What happens when, like Robin, after coming close I finally go over that last edge?

Some people say suicide’s the act of a coward.  But to take ownership of one’s life, aware of the Price, to face unrelenting oblivion and choose it over life is many things, including a very selfish act, but it is not an act of cowardice.

It is an act of courage, a rejection of misery…even contemplating suicide is terrifying, for I could not imagine willfully choosing to embrace that Abyss.

But as far as pain management is concerned…when your personal pain is so unbearable that your hope, your vision of those affected by you, when the power to turn your head to the east and see the faint light of dawn becomes clouded, broken…what then?

People with terminal illnesses give up on life all the time because the pain is unbearable.  Is it really so hard to believe, therefore, that mental illness, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or any of the multitude of labels, pigeon-holes, brands and stigmas those of us so-called “crazies” are forced to wear by society as we struggle living day-to-day in a world of things only we can feel might not likewise one day find ourselves terminally mentally ill?

But that’s easy to say right now…I’ve moved through a year of much darkness…of many lows…the times I’ve been THAT low, the times the Abyss has loomed near, like a shadow over my right shoulder, I’ve managed to turn away, reproving myself for being a coward, reminding myself of my duty as a father…even though I don’t get to be a father nearly as often as I’d wish.

But what happens to me when those scales finally tip?  Even his dedication as a Father and Husband couldn’t keep Robin Williams going.  Even his career, his love of making others feel joy…there are times I can’t write because I don’t see a reason why.  Writing has always been my one true passion, the part of my life that gave me meaning long before I became a Father, myself.  But what happens when I get like Robin Williams?  What happens where the pain overshadows the joy, when the Solitude of a Tortured Mind is more than the comfort of loved ones can assuage?

I contemplate Robin Williams’ death and wonder how alone he felt, how sad…how haunted by his failures, mistakes and regrets he must have been…because that is a place I visit nightly, as I try to fall asleep.  It is with me daily, when I can’t escape it by focusing on work, or writing.

Looking at recent pictures (and even not-so-recent ones) of Robin Williams, I see something gazing from his eyes that I’ve oft seen in the mirror: a razor-thin, razor-sharp wound, a lens that filters life through pain.

It’s the type of thing you don’t see in a person’s eyes unless it’s there, in your own eyes, too.

And sometimes, you look around and see that in a whole bunch of different people’s eyes.  Then you realize that although there are others Like You, they are islands of solitary pain, just like you.

I’ve been more affected by Robin Williams’ death than I was by my own father’s.  Perhaps because the latter was responsible for the abuse and torment that made me into the monster I am, the man my ex-wife no longer respects, the person who lives alone, in pain, angry and ashamed, and the former was one of my heroes, a source of escape…a spear of bright light and laughter that not only helped me escape but taught me the power and skill of a quick wit.  But now I realize that I have even more in common with both men than I thought.

He was only 20 years older than me.  I’m at the age where someone in their sixties isn’t so much an elder as a peer…and I wonder if I can make it as long as he did.  I wonder if I can avoid the dark Abyss over my right shoulder.  I wonder how long I’ve got before I end up just like him.

I can’t imagine.

– Steve Karmazenuk, 2014

ONE YEAR LATER, and although I can admit to moving past difficulties I never imagined, having survived more than my share of difficulty especially over this last year, I still look at Robin Williams and wonder What Might Have Been.  I still look at how he died and wonder if it might happen to me.

I feel better now, somewhat, than I did a year ago.  But there’s still a long road to go before I feel satisfied…and I am beginning to wonder if I will ever feel any real peace.  I look to the future neither with hope or fear, but with doubt; skepticism.  I don’t know what lies ahead, all I know is that the longer I live, the less time left before I die.

Will I accomplish everything I want to, before nature stills me, or will I surrender to the life imposed on me and just go through the motions, waiting to die?  Will I achieve success and satisfaction, or will I be faced with one long, dark night too many, as was Robin? 

I don’t have any more answers now than I did a year ago.  All I can do is chart my progress forward; looking back, I don’t feel I’ve come all that far.

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