There But For The Grace Of God…

I had not intended to write about Robin Williams. All I know about him is from his professional presence, and I have no right to express a viewpoint about how he lived his personal life. His death is still too fresh, and still too painful for most, for the witty dialogue that seems to be going on in the news media and among the talking heads on the various radio and TV shows.

I learned today, however, that he was a person with Parkinson’s disease. He was still in the early stages of the disease, but I know that severe depression is a fundamental feature of Parkinson’s for many PWPs. It was for me. His private battles with depression over the course of most of his professional life, as well as his obvious attempts to self medicate with drugs and alcohol were possibly, if not likely, the result of his Parkinson’s disease. But in the end, I don’t know anything about him. I don’t know what anguish he dealt with, and in the end I don’t know what horrible tortures caused him to end his own life.

In the last three days, I have heard Robin Williams vilified as a coward, and celebrated as a hero. He may very well have been either or both of those things; I suspect that, at one point or another, we all have the capacity to be both. The fact that he had Parkinson’s disease, and that he struggled with depression, alcohol and drug dependencies, and that he committed suicide, don’t make him either coward or hero. I don’t know what those facts make him, but I know that I feel a sense of kinship with him regardless. I’m probably not entitled to it, but I’m probably not entitled to the sense of kinship that I feel with everyone who has Parkinson’s disease. We undoubtedly are all different; we come from different backgrounds, we’ve had different experiences, and we’re not all as publicly visible as Robin Williams, Michael J. Fox, Muhammed Ali, Linda Ronstadt, or Davis Phinney. We do all share one thing, though. We are all battling an intractable enemy. However, our individual battles do not all proceed the same way, even if they end alike.

My wife Amy occasionally tells me she doesn’t know whether she’s talking to Corey or to Parkinson’s. In the last few days, I have begun to develop an understanding of how horrifying that must be for her. To not know whether you’re interacting with the person you have been married to for 30 years, or with some alteration of that person changed by an implacable disease, must be truly unsettling.

Where do I stop and where does Parkinson’s start? Where does good judgment and personal responsibility end, and disease begin? When do I cease being responsible for my own actions? When do I become someone other than me? I don’t know, even though Amy and I are already discussing whether I can be left alone safely, and how much longer I should be allowed to drive. All I do know is that, even though Parkinson’s continues to steal from me things that I enjoy, I’m still able to find other things I enjoy, and that I am still me. I suppose that’s one answer; as long as I can still ask, I’m still me.

People that I love very much are disturbed by the fact the Robin Williams committed suicide, and had Parkinson’s disease. I don’t believe that the disease led to the behavior that ended his life, but I don’t know that for sure. What I do know is that for me, it feels horribly wrong to label Mr. Williams as weak-willed or cowardly for having chosen the path that he chose. It also feels wrong to condone his choice: “Of course he committed suicide; who wouldn’t when faced with such a future?”

I feel terrible that a man who had such wonderful talents and who made me laugh so many times felt such enormous anguish that he believed the only path open to him was to end his life. Was he responsible for that decision, or is he absolved from responsibility by mental or physical illness? I don’t know. I don’t know what he was thinking when he made that final choice. I believe, however, that as long as we can ask the question, we remain responsible. And I also believe that God, however you happen to understand or process that concept, wants us to keep asking the question.

Mr. Williams made me laugh more times than I can count, but he only made me cry once, in a movie called The Fisher King. His character was a tortured soul reaching for greatness, but failing – he played the role of the damaged, wounded Parry with such sincerity that I’ve remembered how sad I was then for almost 25 years. I’m sad to know that he was drawing from life experience for the role, and I hope and pray for peace for his family, and for him.

What will I tell people if they ask what I think about Mr. Williams’ death? Probably that I don’t know anything about him – I never met him or talked to him, and I’m not entitled to judge. If they’re someone I love, though, I’ll tell them that I wish he had known at that instant, as I do right now, that he had the love and support of family and friends, and there was Purpose and Power in his life, and that he was not and would never be alone. I know all those things were true for him, as they are for me. It’s not up to me, though. I’m sad he carried the burdens he did. And I’m sad he set them down, and is no longer with us.

5 thoughts on “There But For The Grace Of God…

  1. Pingback: Bourdain Suicide After Parkinson’s Diagnosis – shufflingeditor.com

  2. philip billnitzer

    good read, as always, Corey!
    I think almost all stand-ups who are any good at all are manic. It’s just the nature pf the beast. You can be glorified or crucified doing the same material on the same night. It’s not the sort of profession you ever figure out.
    Steve Martin is another guy is very dark and insecure about odd things. bless his tortured artist soul.
    I’ve heard stories about the “real Robin Williams” since my 2nd week of doing comedy, which was this time of year in 1990. He was regarded as a brilliant thief. A friend of mine told RW about an idea he had for combining Lawrence Welk and Richard Pryor. (it’s wonerful to see all you mfers out to dance polka tonight. RW went on stage, improvised a bit and did it so brilliantly that Joey never even tried to do his own bit.
    RW is a particularly candid interview on Marc Maron’s WTF several years ago. (It took me more than 35 minutes to type/correct this.)


  3. Gene Shackelford

    Corey, I share your regrets over the UNTIMELY (at least from my perspective) death of one of the funniest guys who lived in our generation. It seems from the limited info I have that the dark depression demon had dogged him most of his life – how could he be so funny? I always wondered if he ever recited the script or if these uncommonly hilarious lines just popped out. What a gifted man – and what I mostly wonder about – if he ever grasped where this precious unique gifting came from?
    To digress momentarily – thankfully you – on the other hand- know where your gifting comes from and we all benefit from the gift and thank you but praise the gift giver!
    And that is as it should be.


  4. Thanks Corey. I actually thought last night, after I heard the news, that I would drop you a note to ask how that news resonated with you. You beat me to it.

    My only thought is that I’m grateful to hear you repudiate the “of course” side. With any disability, the struggles are enough without someone who thinks they know (or are) better telling you that your struggle isn’t worth living in.

    I’m glad you take comfort in the love of family and friends. I hope you realize that we take encouragement from you as well.


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