It has always fascinated me that sometimes the people who need help the most are those who are the best at making it seem like everything is okay.
Do you know how many comedians suffer from clinical depression? I don’t, but I know that it’s a lot. In fact, let’s expand this thought. How many entertainers do you think suffer from some sort of mental illness? Don’t quote me, but I’m willing to bet the percentage is higher for them than it is for us non-famous people. Why? Because these are people who need to be seen, who need some kind of confirmation from others in order to feel okay. These are also people who have some sense of needing an escape from reality.
I recently watched Patch Adams, a movie that I recommend to anybody and everybody. Robin Williams stars in this true story about a man who was a little bit different. He wanted to help people, and he had a gift for understanding others and connecting with them through comedy. He wanted to be a doctor of the soul, in a way; he believed in treating the whole patient, not just their vital signs, in a time when this sort of thinking was very much frowned upon. Patch was misunderstood by quite a lot of people, but those who believed in him really, truly believed in him.
He had a huge heart, and sometimes it was so big that he got hurt: his best friend was killed by one of their patients in an attempt to meet the patient at his home and talk him out of hurting himself. Patch felt guilty, like he had been wrong all along, like he couldn’t go on. He even tried to quit. But one thing about having a big heart and helping a lot of people is that sometimes when you’re down, those people pick you back up again.
It was a little bit painful to watch Robin Williams in this role, given how close the film ultimately hits to home for him. Robin Williams is a great example of somebody who needed so badly to escape from what was inside him, and whose escape happened to bring others an incredible amount of joy. It also happened to make him look happy and successful and in control. To me, his death didn’t make sense: how could someone who made others so happy, someone who was such an incredible human being, be so unhappy with himself? He had a family, a career, he did something that it seemed like he loved. How did all of these things not add up to happiness?
I look back at Robin in possibly my favorite two roles of his- Patch Adams and Good Will Hunting- and I see a man who I don’t think was acting. I see someone who was gifted at helping others, but not himself. Someone who was self-deprecating, but in a funny way, so other people didn’t much mind. Someone who was a genius, and of course he was flawed, because what genius isn’t? I see his crooked smile, the one he gives with his eyebrows just a little bit furrowed, as if to say, “I’m trying my hardest to be happy, but please notice that I’m not.” The vulnerability is beautiful, and it’s incredibly tragic.
Why do I bring all of this up? Because hiding emotions behind a happy face didn’t only happen to Robin Williams. I see it all the time. The strongest people on the outside are sometimes the frailest on the inside. The people who are so great at helping others? Well, it may be because of how much they’ve had to help themselves. Empathy, humor, goodness, selflessness: all of these beautiful qualities often come attached to some kind of pain. I guess that’s life’s way of making sure that everyone knows what it’s like to hurt, so that the good times will feel that much better. At least that’s what I’d like to think.
Here’s to a man who taught us an important lesson: everybody, even the most talented or funny or wonderful person, needs somebody to ask them whether or not they’re okay. And another, maybe even more important: we are all allowed not to be.