Robin Williams’ Death Leaves a Legacy of Sadness — and Carries With It a Warning

Aug 12, 2014

The sadness most of us feel about the death of Robin Williams is palpable.

I spent a few minutes with him at a family event a number of years ago and felt his warmth, generosity and sincerity.

The occasion was a fundraiser for Parkinson’s disease. The person being honored was my stepdad, Al Brounstein. Al, along with my mom, Boots, started a winery in the Napa Valley about 40 years ago. They were the first vineyard to produce Cabernet Sauvignon exclusively in the history of the Napa Valley. In his early 60s, Al developed Parkinson’s.

Robin and his wife at the time, Marsha, got to know Al and Boots. I was very excited to hear that Robin was going to be at the fundraiser, and when I saw him there I went up to him and introduced myself.

Once he found out that Al was my stepdad, Robin could not stop talking about him. He said that Al was one of the most remarkable people he had ever met. He went on and on about what a great attitude and sense of humor Al had about his Parkinson’s, and how it hadn’t stopped him from giving people so much joy and making such great wine.

Robin was absolutely right about Al’s great attitude and sense of humor. Because of the Parkinson’s, Al’s arms and hands could shake a lot, which could be off-putting, especially to strangers. But Al had a million jokes to put people at ease.

For example, If you were tasting his wine he’d go up to you, with one of his arms shaking wildly, and, flashing his mile-wide smile, would say, “Listen, if you don’t like it for any reason, pour it back in the bottle, give me the bottle for five minutes and I’ll give you a Cabernet Milk Shake that I’ll guarantee you’ll like.”

Part of the festivities that evening included a wine auction. One lot in particular was not doing well, and out of the blue Robin stood up, went up to the dais and, doing his shtick, took over for the surprised auctioneer. He had the crowd laughing hysterically within moments and, simultaneously, got them to bid the lot way up, thus raising thousands more dollars to fight Parkinson’s than would have otherwise happened.

One sadness for me in this wonderful memory is that Robin is now dead — by, it’s been reported, suicide — at about the same age that Al was when he got Parkinson’s. At the time of the fundraiser that Robin was at, Al was 80. And Al lived another 6 years after that.

The key phrase I read yesterday was from Robin’s publicist, who said Williams had been “battling severe depression.”

Back when I was an undergraduate at UCLA in the early 1970s, I took a class from Dr. Ed Shneidman, who had a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. I minored in psychology and Shneidman’s class was about suicide. Shneidman, who died in 2009 at the age of 91, was the co-founder of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center. It was either the first or second time he taught the class.

I no longer have my notes from that class, but I do want to quote for you a few passages from the 1998 edition of one of Shneidman’s books, “The Suicidal Mind.”

One of the paradoxical truths about suicide that Shneidman used to lecture about is reiterated in his book: “Most people who commit suicide talk about it, [though] most people who talk about it do not commit it.”

More specifically, Shneidman notes, if you follow a group of people for five years, only about 2% to 3% of those who threaten suicide will actually take their own lives. On the other hand, about 90% of those who commit suicide have talked about taking their own lives.

Among the group of 10% who commit suicide but who do not talk about it are those who are so depressed that at the same time they have a hard time connecting “emotional experiences with thoughts.” This results in a “split between what we think and what we feel,” Shneidman writes.

In his book, Shneidman reprints the following, which is an excerpt of the late award-winning writer William Styron’s essay about depression that ran in Newsweek on April 18, 1994. It’s called “An Interior Pain That Is All But Indescribable.”

My wife and I had been invited to dinner with half-a-dozen friends at a fine Italian restaurant in New York. I very much feared the hour … by dinnertime I felt virtually suffocated by psychic discomfort. Of course, that evening I could have stayed at home [but] the anguish is lodged in the mind, so it matters little where the corporeal self is located; one will feel equal desolation at home in one’s armchair or trying to eat dinner at Primavera.

I say “trying” to eat dinner because my appetite had decreased over the previous week to a point where I was eating purely for sustenance. Two of my table companions were charming friends I had known for years. I picked at [my food] without tasting it. For no particular reason, the sense of encroaching doom was especially powerful that night. But the demented stoicism that depression imposes on behavior caused me to register scarcely a flicker of this inner devastation. I chatted with my companions, nodded amiably, made the appropriate frowns and smiles.

The restroom was nearby, down a flight of carpeted stairs. On my way there the fantasies of suicide, which had been embedded in my thoughts daily for several weeks, and which I had kept at bay during the dinner conversation, returned in a flood. To rid one’s self of this torment (but how? and when?) becomes the paramount need of all people suffering depression. I wondered desperately whether I would make it through the rest of the evening without betraying my condition. On my return to the floor above I astonished myself by expressing my misery aloud in a spontaneous utterance which my normal self would have rejected in shame. “I’m dying” I groaned, to the obvious dismay of a man passing down the stairway. The blurted words were one of the most fearsome auguries of my will to self-destruction: within a week I would be writing, in a stupor of disbelief, suicide notes.

Some months later my two table companions recollected that I had appeared to be behaving quite normally. The monumental aplomb I exhibited is testimony to the almost uniquely interior nature of the pain of depression, a pain that is all but indescribable, and therefore to everyone but the sufferer almost meaningless.

Shneidman also quotes A. Alvarez’s famous book about suicide, “The Savage God”:

“Once a man decides to take his own life he enters a shut-off, impregnable but wholly convincing world where every detail fits and every incident reinforces his position.”

One of the only ways to help a person in such a state is to “let some light in so that the person can see new angles,” Shneidman writes.

Yesterday, when he heard what happened to Robin Williams, Jimmy Kimmel tweeted: “Robin was as sweet a man as he was funny. If you’re sad, please tell someone.”

And while sadness, along with feelings of gloom, despair and despondency are indeed warning signs of someone who may be suicidal, for the person who is in deep depression it’s hard for them to seek help themselves. A number of celebrities have spoken about their own bouts with deep depression, including the late Mike Wallace, who used to be on “60 Minutes,” and former talk-show host Dick Cavett.

Another celebrity who has opened up about his struggle with depression is David Letterman. Letterman talks about his battle in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, which you can see at the bottom of this post.

Cavett has said, in a video he made for BigThink.com “If you have a relative who’s lost interest in everything and doesn’t get out of bed, who doesn’t care for things they used to, can’t imagine anything that would give them any pleasure, don’t fool around with it, get therapy, get help, get medication if that’s right for [them], or talk therapy, or something. But the very simple reason that you don’t want to fool with it is, people with depression commit suicide.”

Cavett added, “[I]t’s a ticking time bomb … but you don’t do any favors to the depressed person by saying, ‘Come on, snap out of it.’”

I hope this essay may help us help the next person who is thinking of committing suicide. As Shneidman wrote in the preface to “The Suicidal Mind”:

It is the words that suicidal people say — about their psychological pain and their frustrated psychological needs — that make up the essential vocabulary of suicide. Suicide prevention can be everybody’s business. … The principal goals of all my writing on suicide for the past 45 years have been to be helpful and to relieve pain. I live with the hope that I am not deluded in this aspiration.”

6 Comments

  1. Chuck,
    As a guy who has lost his best friend and two favorite uncles to suicide over the years, I found your piece about Robin Williams and suicide to be really good. It’s not the kind of stuff you expect to find on a web site devoted to the business side of television, which makes it all the more remarkable and commendable. Nice job.

  2. What’s sad is this depression led Robin Williams to do the worst of the worst…leave his suicide to those in his home, in his family, in his close circle. That’s when you really know someone can’t handle the demons most of us take for granted every day.

    Jay Thomas said it perfectly this morning on MSNBC. He said he and Robin Williams drank, did drugs and chased skirt during their early years but Jay could handle and control his addictions. Robin Williams could not.

    This is the saddest story ever. Yes as Jimmy Kimmel says…reach out to someone if you’re sad. Surely don’t leave this to your wife and kids.

  3. Mr. Ross,
    Thank you for sharing your story. My father took his own life in 1993 at just 61 years of age after many years of struggle with depression. He was a vintner and skilled enologist. A sad story. My question is simple… I have heard that Robin Williams suffered with Parkinson’s… I wonder if this is true and if it may have played a role in his unfortunate death?

    • Hi Vintage. First, I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of your father to depression and suicide. It has come out this morning that Robin was indeed in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. And yes, some research suggests that Parkinson’s can cause depression. I am not a doctor and do not know the medical condition Robin was in when he committed suicide.

      What I do know from personal experience with Al, my stepdad, is that the initial diagnosis — which he received in his early 60s — scared him and depressed him. In many ways he thought it was a death sentence. At the time of his diagnosis Al did not personally know anyone who had Parkinson’s. However, at the suggestion of one of Al’s doctors, Al got up enough courage to ask at a Vintner’s meeting if anyone there had Parkinson’s, and that he had recently been diagnosed with the disease. Two people came up to Al at the meeting and told him that yes, they also had Parkinson’s. That moment changed his life.

      It gave him the courage to reach out and find and connect with others who had Parkinson’s, and it allowed him to realize that he could live with the disease — that it wasn’t nearly as debilitating as he had built it up to be in his mind. And damn if Al didn’t give Parkinson’s a run for its money. He battled it daily for more than 25 years. We finally lost Al when he was 86 years old.

      Chuck Ross
  4. Mr. Ross,

    Thank you for your response.
    Best regards.

  5. Chuck, thanks for the insight, and I must say, I sort of felt you attacked this subject here, a lot like how Robin attacked his work, with a lot of awareness. I do believe, depression is definitely a chemical thing, having had it my entire life, and dealt with it one way or another, I have managed to make it through. The substance abuse, is a way for one to just deal with their mind, and try to manage it. If I can ad here, I believe the psychiatric world kinda went on a lost search over the last 30 years, by trying all the ssri’s, etc…, and getting away from the possibility of opiates in the system in a controlled manor to help with raising dopamine levels. (Funny how parkinsons has to do with dopamine levels), but not to change the subject , I had to find my own cure, and was on the verge of not wanting to live also. Basically I would try anything out there, and came across suboxone, or buprenoprphine in its generic form as a way to sustain my brain chemicals and not have to take more and more and more (like a lot of pain killers do). Unfortunately, I had to basically say I was a drug addict to get 1 pill a day prescribed, but nevertheless this has helped me to a large extent. (Like changed my life). The good thing here is its not the complete answer, and doesn’t put you into a false sense of well-being. THE GOOD NEWS, in the past year clinicals are now being done with this drug buprenorphine and major depression (when I read this, I thought wow, I had it right all along). Again, nothing is THE answer but just having this crazy little pill I can
    break up in quarters and take when I feel I need it gets me through. I just wish I could have known
    Robin personally because I would have said here try this….Thanks again

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