On Parkinson’s, suicide, Robin Williams, and art defining life
When the first headline mentioning Robin Williams’s private diagnosis of Parkinson’s crossed my feed, I wanted to collapse with shock. I couldn’t believe it.
I’d already been on a two-day crying jag about his suicide. He was a big part of my childhood, and his face was very familiar to me from so many amazing works. But I didn’t know him. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t seem to recover from the news.
I think at first it was because it’s so hard to see someone so beloved, so talented, with so much love in his life, doing this, taking such a final step.
But now, I understand another piece of the puzzle.
For the last year, Parkinson’s has been a big part of my life. My mom was diagnosed, and with every drug change, every new protocol, she calls and asks me to look up side effects, drug combinations, what she can expect.
It so permeated my life that when I wrote Forever Loved and needed a patient for my character to take care of in art therapy, his story line was much like Robin’s:
A great and beloved painter attempts suicide when his diagnosis of Parkinson’s stirs up fear that he will no longer be able to create his art.
I’m starting to understand now just how profound this situation can be. In Forever Sheltered, when this artist takes center stage, the art therapist, who attempted suicide at the age of seventeen, says this:
Albert really must have fallen hard to attempt suicide when his talent was so visceral. Even with the struggle to control his movements, he was easily the best artist I’d ever met or studied under, even in college.
If I were unable to do the one thing I loved, if some disease took that away, I’m not sure I would do any better. One thing I told the students who attended my suicide talks is that once you choose death as your destination, it never goes away. Every upset, every disappointment, every setback has the same way out. You don’t even have to search for it to know it’s still out there, waiting for you to stumble one more time.
In that, suicide wasn’t that much different from alcoholism or drug addiction. You could go to rehab or therapy. You could get it out of your mind for a while. And life could go well for months or years or decades.
But the moment it didn’t, in that instant when your depression or your struggle or your exhaustion hit that critical point, it all rushed back. And your mind went straight to the place you thought you’d twelve-stepped or group-sessioned out of existence. The needle. The bottle. The knife.
I wish there had been some other way, that there had been some treatment, some quick intervention, some help that could have gotten to Robin in time. My story has a much happier ending. Albert does find a way. He does figure out how to manage. And he starts to recognize the treatments will go up and down, work for a while, then fail, then another will work a while longer. It becomes an act of faith to believe that another good time will come, to counteract all those thoughts and emotions coursing through him without his control. But he managed to figure out that the disease didn’t define him, and that he could muddle through.
There was so much greatness still to go for Robin, and it is lost to us now. His brilliant ad libs, his appearances, his voice and acting that added so much to every project he was in. But I am grateful that we got what we did, and that his family shared him with us. And that his life, in death, sheds a little more light on an issue we could stand to learn a lot more about.