Robin Williams – what we can take away, what hurts, what cures.

We had a bad one last night (it’s now August 12, 2014).  Robin Williams appears to have killed himself, at least according to the breaking news at the time of writing this, Tuesday morning at 11.  Reactions from patients are typical of what we all feel.  People are sad for him, for his family, and for themselves.  Sometimes there’s anger – how could he have so much and yet do this, leaving behind  three children in their 20s or just older, leaving all of us in shock, disbelief, and of course much lonelier in a world without him?  Sometimes there’s a feeling of impotence, as in couldn’t any of us have done something for him.

One patient described a reaction which bears repeating.  It also triggered some of my own reflection about how to live.  Alan (not his name of course) came to see me because of anxiety symptoms which he felt were being triggered or at least greatly exacerbated by a deteriorating marriage. He was suffering with erratic sleep, tightness in the chest and abdomen, anxiety at work, bowel disturbance (diarrhea, cramps), and racing or obsessive thoughts.

Over the course of our sessions, the anxiety symptoms have abated, he’s feeling much better, and although the marriage has wobbled along with indecision on both parts he is particularly happy that his life has begun to “open up”.  He has begun to realize how inhibited he’s been, “I’m packing for a trip and all I‘m thinking about, I realize, is how to be impressive; to my wife, to my parents, to people I won’t even meet!”  He’s begun to see how he stifles himself and lives much more timidly than he’d noticed – never varying from a staid routine even though in his best moments from younger days he was an avid explorer of new experiences.  He hardly enjoys his many talents which include painting, architecture, and design; he’d been offered commissions and scholarships in these areas as a young man.

Amid these recent discoveries, Robin Williams died.  Alan told me this morning in response to the news he noticed that he refrained from turning the car radio on to music he wanted to hear, especially as he remembered Williams in “Good Morning Vietnam” a movie with a great rock n roll score.  He saw that this is a pattern, a habit of “carefully keep my mood neutral, so I won’t have to feel anything bad, like I won’t have to notice how angry I am at my wife, or also how much she helps me when there’s conflict with our 7 year old son.”  About the car radio during his commute and on other trips he said “I remember now:  I often want to hear music but I’ll turn to the news so that I won’t get too happy and then have to come home and crash; I avoid the good moods so I won’t feel the bad ones; wow, what a waste.”   By contrast, he continued, “these people I admire – the artists – they seem to go with the moods, they feel their lives.”

That reminded me of my same reaction to Billy Joel so many years ago when I first discovered his music.  Here was someone not only didn’t flee his moods but mined them.  He fleshed them out into songs of so varying mood.  By way of example, give a listen to his album ‘The  Nylon Curtain’; there are several songs reflecting on the end of his marriage at the time and each has a completely different tone, use of language, musical style, each one expressing a different part of the grieving process.

Alan was inspired by Robin Williams to live more, as I was inspired by Billy Joel.  Alan hit on something that Billy Joel in recent years said he believes:  “When you die you go into other people’s hearts”.  The Jewish tradition emphasizes that same feeling when faced with loss:  You’re task is to celebrate and embrace life all the more, to live more zealously about the brief time you have here, to survive.

But I heard from another patient a different reaction to Robin Williams’ death, one that’s just as important.  She found herself saying that if Robin Williams can’t find a reason to keep going – with all the validation he received, all the success, all the joy of doing what he loved (as most of us don’t get to do) – how do the rest of us keep going?  Whose life has enough “stuff” (her word) to chase away the demons?  And how can you live so that the pain won’t get to you as it did him, as it seems to have gotten to Billy Joel over the past decade, at least at times?

There has been talk of Williams having a bipolar disorder, “severe depression”, and of course substance abuse problems which resurfaced lately.  I don’t think the answers lie here except in that he may have failed to get decent treatment for these, or resisted the treatment he was offered – more on this below.   There are people with such problems living much less gratifying, less extraordinary lives, yet who manage to keep living, who find a reason to hang around and even find joy.

Granted, I don’t know Robin Williams or Billy Joel.  But from other performers I’ve worked with over the years there has emerged a common story.  With a subset of such artists, there isn’t enough success, acclaim, validation from within the profession and without, fame, sex, money, etc., keep away the pain, whatever their particular pain is.  I do not believe the pain is at its core – and here I know I may ruffle some feathers – drugs, alimony, taking less-than-perfect work (Robin Williams was reportedly despondent over having to take jobs he wasn’t excited about in order to pay alimony and child support, e.g. making a sequel to “Mrs. Doubtfire”), or anything else, including the loneliness of fame.  (Damon Wayans once complained that after he became successful he never felt much real connection with people because they were performing for him, trying to be impressive.)  I believe the problems are older.  In the performers I’ve worked with the problems usually go back to chronic feelings – from way back – of being an outsider, left out, inadequate, awkward, unwanted, and other such experiences, so persistent and powerful because they happened when we were so young, needy, exposed, powerless.  Often we can’t overcome such experiences via success (fame, money, attention, acclaim, etc.).  Too many performers I’ve worked with over the years have succeeded and then found to their surprise that they don’t feel substantially better; sometimes they feel worse, although they may get a few years (even decades) of celebration and distraction.  It seems to have something to with chasing the wrong thing, with “I got what I wanted, and it didn’t kill the pain”.  Kind of like eating cotton candy when you’re genuinely hungry; it tastes great for a moment but leaves you malnourished and queasy.

Why is it so hard to face the real pain?  If you’ve been following this website you’ll know – resistance.  (See also the blog entries here in the category of “resistance” to your right, which I’ll organize  in a couple of days, promise.  Also you can just look through the archives for the many postings with “resistance” in the title.)   As Alan put it, “it’s scary! To think about really changing my life like that!  Changing careers, changing my whole family’s life, changing my whole point of view, the way I’ve been comfortably thinking about my parents and my wife (and job, and boss, and friends,…) all these years.  Makes me angry just to think about lost time” and there was more, Alan didn’t stop there!  How much safer to change the subject as he often does during sessions when we really start moving – he’ll rather suddenly look distracted, I’ll ask what’s going on, and it turns out his mind had “jumped to whether I remembered to call my tennis teacher about rescheduling, and then I was thinking about the tennis party coming up next Friday”.  Similarly, people who struggle with mania, with bipolar disorder, often resist the medications that so help them function in all ways because – they’ll admit it – they don’t want to give up the highs and they really dread the lows.  Any of us who’ve felt those lows know we can’t blame them; and anyone who’s felt that grandiosity and sense of infinite power that comes with cocaine high knows the appeal of that state.

Whatever the true story is behind Robin Williams and Billy Joel, I hear two lessons emerging from their lives (in addition to “watch out for drugs and alcohol”):  1) Don’t hide from what hurts.  Find out what it is and then you’ll be able to take care of it, because fame, success, money, sex, drugs probably won’t work more than temporarily if at all.  If what you’re craving is a family and you’re fleeing that reality by chasing artistic expression or financial success (or both), you’ll be left as empty as when you started.  Instead go get the family.     2)  Turn on the car radio; don’t miss a moment.

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