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Robin Williams tried to outrun the dog


Robin Williams in Patch Adams

As human beings we do all kinds of things to avoid suffering. Drink, drugs, hobbies, television, 'retail therapy', computer games, gambling. The list is endless. It is our job to survive and avoid suffering: to huddle around our loved ones, to live and thrive and not let the shit of life get us down. This need is something we must all answer to. 

For Robin Williams, it seems avoiding suffering was a very hard task. By abusing alcohol and cocaine, some might think he brought mental ill health upon himself. But those who are well don't abuse their bodies with toxic substances – because to a healthy human being this wouldn't make any sense. It is an attempt to escape pain.

I didn't know Robin Williams – although I wish I had been one of those very fortunate people. But it seems obvious that this comic genius did all he could to flee what is commonly known as the Black Dog – depression. I believe he tried to outrun his suffering. It breaks my heart that yesterday, it chased him down and backed him into a corner where there seemed only one way out.

I believe he wanted to live. I think about his films that have planted seeds in my mind which blossomed into little hope–filled memories. In particular the semi-biographical film Patch Adams (pictured). The last time I thought about that film was a mere week ago – reflecting on the female lead character Carin (Monica Potter) who yearned to be free from the men who preyed on her as a thing to be used. I remember how Patch (played by Williams) deeply loved and cherished her for the whole person she was. How patient he was with her sadness. How – despite an utterly devastating turn of events – she became his ultimate reason to not be defeated by the darkness in the world.

And I regularly think about the scene where Patch explains that helping others helps him forget about his own problems. For someone who is both brilliant and has the potential for deep sadness, finding purpose in helping others can be a liberation. It might be risky to try to carry on purely for the sake of other people without dealing with one's own demons – but what is even more dangerous is for society to make the assumption that the latter option is always within reach. 

I cast my mind to the emotionally intense scenes in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon's character – Will, a highly intelligent man who seems to know about and understand everything except himself – receives therapy from Dr Maguire, played by Williams. The experienced shrink uses daggers of insight and truth with precision, to pierce the layers of Will's denial and repression. In this scene, Williams repeats arguably the most famous lines from the film: 'It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault.' Will's wounds, having been acknowledged and aired, have a chance to heal. But Damon's character is young, and so the therapeutic intervention perhaps early enough to save him. As portrayed in the film, the potential for this kind of healing shouldn't be seen as a certainty but more as beautiful in its total miraculousness.

In the late 1990s I stood in front of hundreds of proud parents along with my primary school peers giving a colourful, props–filled rendition of 'Friend like me' – the rousing number Genie, voiced by Williams, sings to Alladin in the Disney film of the same name. Our creative and enthusiastic teacher, who literally orchestrated this performance, let our ideas run wild, to this day securing the esteemed place in my heart of 'favourite teacher'. Tragedy struck, however, and in later years I learned of this person's enormous struggles with alcoholism and a deep well of mental anguish. We knew a teacher who was passionate, fun and creative. We did not know about the other side, the suffering.

To be highly smart and creative, running on high emotions and highly sensitivity to life around you, may seem like the luck of the draw. But the tragedy is that such a state can all too easily lend itself to self–destruction. Author of the internationally–acclaimed memoir Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, describes it this way: '... having a creative mind is something like a owning Border Terrier; It needs a job. And if you don't give it a job, it will invent a job (which will involve tearing something up.) Which is why I have learned over the years that if I am not actively creating something, chances are I am about to start actively destroying something.'

Williams created, gave and suffered, all in huge amounts. And his suffering was extremely hard to outrun, though he bravely struggled against it. It is hard to not despair at the news, knowing he will be sadly missed by millions of people. Yet there are no neat answers – except to recognise that a beautifully prolific mind can sometimes be a danger to itself. 

I take solace in what I believe to be the truth – that Williams did not want to die so much as he had a deep desire to live and to win out over his suffering. Yesterday, he did not win. But we should not forget the many, many times he did. The many times he found joy and shared it; the ways he has made the world laugh. His films and comedy have enriched those of us lucky enough to have experienced it. If only we could have given back to him the same joy he so abundantly provided; and if only that Black Dog would have let him have it. 

Rest in peace Robin Williams. Thank you for all the times you outran that dog – and for all the joy you left for us. 

Megan GrahamMegan Graham won the 2013 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers.

Topic tags: Megan Graham, Robin Williams, Black Dog, depression, creativity, film



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Existing comments

My social media feeds have been dominated by the news and response to Robin William's death. Thank you Megan for your youthful insights and warm words. I am old enough now to have seen a lifetime of great comics who have lived with inner struggle with tthe "black dog" Along with music I find much of my hope in the comic side of life. Irony, paradox and ambiguity surround us. The are the doors into the comic and the marvel of our life and relationships. I will be forever grateful that Robin Williams left the doors open so I would walk through them often. May he find peace and rest and may we who grieve for him continue to open doors to the comic in our lives.

Tony Robertson | 14 August 2014  

Of course, my favourite Robin Williams film is "Dead Poets Society" (what else?) - oh captain, my captain. I was always confronted by his manic comedy and liked him much better in dramatic roles. Depression, the black dog, doesn't let go, and for a creative spirit like Williams everything would be magnified, the good times and the bad times. His many admirers won't forget him.

Pam | 14 August 2014  

An insightful article. Robin Williams was a superb actor. . "Dead Poets Society", like Lindsay Anderson's "If", is a film any Australian GPS boy from the 60s would empathise with, but then Peter Weir is Australian and went to Scots, Sydney. The late Harry Williams, former Dean and Chaplain of Trinity College, Cambridge and author of "The True Wilderness" - quite epoch breaking in the 60s to attempt to marry Christianity and Psychology - would've understood, empathised with and felt enormous sorrow at Robin's death. RW was Episcopalian (Anglican) and said some very warm and loving things about the commonsense, warmth and sense of humour of American Episcopalianism. I tend to believe many suicides can be prevented if someone capable of genuine empathetic and professional help is available at that crucial time. Mental illness and suicide should be a matter of grave concern to all of us. So many people suffer depression. When one of them commits suicide I am reminded of Donne's "Ask not for whom the bell tolls..." The world is poorer without Robin. May God bless him and bring him to a place where he is far, far happier and at peace.

Edward Fido | 14 August 2014  

Rest in peace ,Robin .Yes Edward mental health and suicide should be of a concern to all. Are our professionals equipped to support people in need? Is there easy access to professional help? Is our mental health system adequate or is it broken and ,in need of replacing.? How can governments actually plan for a society that is inclusive and caters for the disenfranchised.? Could it be in practical terms that some of those "poor" that Mr. Hockey believes don't drive a car could even be stressed beyond their ability to cope with and enter into society which may build depression or lead them to resort to the less healthy ways of surviving their world?

Celia | 14 August 2014  

My daughter (42) rang me up as soon as she heard that Robin Williams had died at age 63. She was sobbing her heart out. "Dad, I can't understand it. I've never felt so sad about anyone dying before. Do you remember when we saw "Dead Poets Society" together and I asked you to stay behind with me in the theatre because I was crying so much and my mascara had run and I didn't want to run into anyone I knew.What's the matter with me?" I told her it was good to cry. To express and to share her grief. She went on: "I know so many people who have overcome alcoholism and depression by going to AA, why couldn't he?" I could only say I don't know. Alcohol abuse and the abuse of other mind altering drugs are sometimes the symptoms of a deeper malaise which requires ongoing professional psychiatric help. Sporadic spells in rehabilitation is not the answer. For the addict total abstinence from drugs and alcohol requires a program of daily living that cares for the body, the mind and the spirit. Such a program is not easy for people of genius. Robin Williams RIP

Uncle Pat | 14 August 2014  

A beautiful article Megan - from one who suffers from depression and has for a long time - thank you.

Ann | 14 August 2014  

Thank you so much for such a beautiful and compassionate article.I had not encountered the 'outrunning the black dog' concept before but it is so perceptive.And for all of us on this path so very apt...

margaret | 14 August 2014  

Perfectly worded... I am one who suffers from all u mentioned in this brilliant article. I am winning the fight right now, but u never know...

Susan thiele | 14 August 2014  

"If only we could have given back to him the same joy he so abundantly provided; and if only that Black Dog would have let him have it." Thank you Megan for this kind and insightful article honouring Robin Williams. I wish I could have let him know how much he gave to people like me. I feel extremely sad about what has happenned and have benefitted from reading what you have so respectfully written.

robert | 14 August 2014  

As we know, the 'black dog', as depression is known as, does not discriminate. I wish there was a more informed discussion on why there is so much depression in this world today ... then we may just be able to see what policies, laws, medicine and religious approaches need to be made so that the people will the least capacity ("because we are considered TOO sensitive" perhaps?) to carry the burdens of the world on others' behalf. Leunig offers much in his cartoons to both highlight and move this conversation more towards hope and a better hope-filled future.

mary tehan | 14 August 2014  

I had meet Robin Williams and his then wife, when I was living in San Francisco in 1982. He was the funniest man in the world. RIP.

Bernstein | 14 August 2014  

What a wonderful article that was able to give us an insight into the inner struggles of the mind and the daily fight with our demons. Much food for thought, thank you.

Elena Christe | 15 August 2014  

Megan, Thank for such a wonderful article on Robin Williams. It deserves to be published world-wide.

June Jefferies | 15 August 2014  

After Robin William's death, there has been an obvious effort to bring the 'darkness of depression' into the awareness of the general public. Yesterday, I read an article about Ernie Dingo's self-confessed battle with depression and how he dealt with it. How people suffering with depression cope with their state of mind eventually leads to either a positive or negative outcome. I pray that they find the courage to seek help when they recognise the early stages of depression setting in. I also hope that those they turn to show understanding and compassion. I feel that if someone suffering from depression turns to you and you are not capable (or qualified) to help, you must be firm yet gentle in leading them to seek professional help.

Debbie | 17 August 2014  

Thank you so much for the extremely kind comments. It is an honour to be able to write about Robin Williams and have it read and appreciated. For those struggling with depression - much love and peace to you. I'm so glad if this gave you some solace.

Megan Graham | 19 August 2014  

I know this is an incredibly late comment, but this article is not about a fleeting news "story" about one man. It is about a problem that will continue to afflict people until we start to deal with "the black dog" properly. So I will comment! You cannot outrun the black dog. It has infinite energy. it will always catch you. If you run, it will chase you down and when you collapse from exhaustion, it will devour you. The only way is to stop, turn to face it, seize it and strangle it (sorry for the violent imagery). It should be called "the brown bear". I have heard that the best way to stop a bear attacking you is to pretend to be tougher and more intimidating than the bear. As much as your survival instincts tell you to, it is usually a bad idea to run.

Michael | 25 May 2015