On Monday, actor and comedian Robin Williams died of an apparent suicide at his California home. He was 63. On radio this morning, as someone who lost two family members to suicide and contemplated taking his own life, Glenn offered a unique insight into the life and death of the Hollywood heavyweight. Glenn shared his personal struggle with depression, addiction, and suicide and explained why audience laughter and adulation may have been the thing that kept Williams going as long as he did.
Below is an edited transcript of the monologue:
Sad news yesterday: Robin Williams died at 63. It looks like he hung himself. We’ll have the official report today – as if it matters. The family asked for privacy and respect. It would be nice if we would give it to them. This is a man who gave us the best of what he had. A man who made us laugh, made us cry. He is one of the greatest clowns to live in the last hundred years.
I didn’t know Robin Williams. But I think all of us felt we knew Robin Williams. We all knew that there was something inside of him that drove him to the point of madness. We all, I think, knew that something was inside of him that caused great pain. I’d like to believe that maybe, just maybe, we helped him live a little longer. I was talking to a friend of mine this morning about why comedians are like this. I’m not really sure. I’m not a doctor. We’ve had two suicides in my family, in my immediate family. Clinically, there’s something that happens to people. There is that side of it.
If you’re in a family that’s dysfunctional, sometimes you become the one that makes everybody laugh because it’s too horrible not to. If you could just make people laugh, you could find joy in their laughter, until you no longer hear the laughter anymore. It becomes almost addictive. I think Robin Williams was addicted to our laughter, addicted to our smiles, addicted to being able to make us feel better. It’s a powerful tonic. In a way it’s what we’re all supposed to learn about, service. In the end, that’s we’re our highest self. That’s when he was his highest self: Serving us, making us laugh.
How many people can cross all these boundaries? How many people could claim to have huge fans – that he really profoundly touched and maybe even perhaps changed the course of their life – in their 20s and have somebody my age, 50 or 60 that can say the same thing? That guy really touched me. I think Jeffy brought in the Mork from Ork doll today. I have it sitting on my desk today. What a great show. And how many things did he do that affected us and changed us?
I’m sure people will start to have the conversation on television, as they always do, because they’re insipid and they’re shallow and they’re thinking is the kind of thinking that makes you fly a helicopter over a dead man’s house. But I’m sure the conversations will go, ‘What was wrong with him?’ ‘What was the tragedy in his life?’ ‘What would drive him to this?’ ‘What could we have done to save him?’
Most likely, nothing.
What drove him to do this insanity: The insanity of clinical depression. I don’t want to talk about Robin Williams’ illness because nothing drives you to suicide other than insanity. But let me tell you something: The mind is one of the most powerful traps you have ever seen. The best piece of advice ever got from an alcoholic was: When you least expect it, expect it. It came from a good friend of mine, Jim Lago.
When you least expect it, expect it.
I didn’t know what it meant at the time. What it meant was: You know yourself better than anybody. Your mind is an amazing machine, and you will build up a wall of defense on your alcoholism, and you will know, ‘I’m not going to drink.’ And somehow or another, one day, it will happen that you will think to yourself, ‘You know what? Well, this is different. I’m not going to drink because of this. This is a good reason to do it.’ And before you know it, because you didn’t expect it to come that way, you’ll find yourself drinking.
I am someone who was saved by a guy named Bobby Dries, a good friend of mine. Bobby was a guy who knew what suicidal tendencies were. He also knew my familial history. We worked together. Bobby had seen me spiral out of control when I was in Louisville, Kentucky. And one day I came in and I just said, ‘I’m going. Can’t work here anymore. I’m leaving.’ He said, ‘Where you going?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Just not here.’
What he didn’t know was every day for six months I was driving to work and there was a bridge abutment on 84 that I would pass every day on the way to and from work. And I would pray as soon as I got on Highway 84, in either direction, ‘Lord, just give me the strength to pull my car into it today.’ Every day that bridge abutment had my name on it. It was my cowardice that stopped me from killing myself. Thank God the Lord made me a coward. I couldn’t think of shooting myself was too awful. Hanging myself was too much. But maybe, maybe I could pull my car into that bridge abutment.
Bobby said, ‘Would you do me a favor? Would you come with me to the hospital?’ I don’t know why I said ‘yes,’ but I did. I met a doctor in the emergency room who medicated me, and it stopped me from praying for that bridge abutment. At that time, that seemed logical to me. It seemed like the only thing that I could do. I knew I was hurting everybody in my life. I knew that I was the cause of my problems. And there was no way out.
That is insanity.
Robin Williams’ death is tragic, but I will tell you this: Out of his death will come laughter because someone right now – who is at that point of insanity – will find themselves some day laughing. The person who is feeling this way has to just have the glimmer of hope that tomorrow will be different – and if not tomorrow, the next day – that it will get better. It won’t get better doing the same stuff that you’re doing now, but it will get better.
I think Robin Williams fought this battle for so long, and – it’s none of our business – but I don’t know what was happening in his life that caused him to at some point say, ‘I don’t want to take the medication anymore,’ or ‘I want to stop looking for what it is.’
Because there are two kinds of depression: I’ve done something, and it screwed me up. That’s normal depression. But it can spiral into something called clinical depression where your brain chemistry actually changes, and that’s where nothing makes sense anymore. You’re just not thinking rationally. It happens so slowly. You slide into it so slowly. You don’t notice.
I feel for Robin Williams’ wife, Susan Schneider, who said, “This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”
People who are in Robin Williams’ position are great liars because they have spent their whole life lying to themselves. They have spent their whole life lying to audiences about how they really feel. In my mind’s eye I see Robin Williams’ wife kissing him goodbye, not knowing, and her saying, ‘Are you okay?’ And him looking her in the eye and lying to her and saying, ‘I’m fine,’ knowing that today would be his last day.
Sometimes no one can reach out to somebody because they don’t want to listen. They’re just tired. I know when I was in that position, I was just tired. My mother was just tired. My brother-in-law was just tired. Sometimes it ends horribly, but, other times, all it takes is someone to say, ‘It’s going to get better. It’s going to be okay.’ I know. I’ve been there.
If that happens to be you on either side of that equation, hear those words. If you’re on the receiving end, hear those words because they’re true. Maybe, however, you’re on the giving end, and you know somebody that you’re worried about, know that there’s nothing that you can do to change them. But you can give them hope by just using those simple words: ‘It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s going to get better. There is help.’