Robin Williams would have been 70 years old today. It is also a sad coincidence that he committed suicide on my birthday, August 11. He was one of the funniest men on the planet, but while most of the world was in shock when he took his own life back in 2014, I was not. I am like him in so many ways, and I knew exactly why he did it. He had just been (mis) diagnosed with Parkinson's. He eventually wasn't going to be able to make people laugh anymore. As it turned out, he had Lewy Body Dementia, which can mimic Parkinson's. Sadly, the medications used to treat Parkinson's can, in patients with Lewy Body Dementia, worsen existing depression and cause suicidal thoughts and actions. That is not to say, however, that he wouldn't have committed suicide anyway. Depression is a terrible disease.
Since I was a kid, I was always the different one.
When I started performing, I was young, thin, and pretty, so I almost always ended up playing the ingenue. To a degree I loved it, but then I did a show called Guys and Dolls, and I quickly realized that the ingenue is not always the best role. Comedy was where it was at, as far as I was concerned. Still, it wasn't until I aged out of the ingenue roles that I started to really develop my comedic chops. Or maybe it was because I was no longer in the Featherweight class.
I guess growing up a sarcastic, moody middle child served some sort of purpose, because people like us tend to use humor to deflect from uncomfortable, stressful, or otherwise difficult situations. We always want everything to be sunshine and fairy tales, and for everyone to be happy. We will walk a mile barefoot on a gravel road littered with Legos to avoid conflict. It works pretty well for us, too, until we get to a point where we find that we are having difficulty "turning it off".
I have an aunt who lives in Florida who told me of a time when she had somehow become friends with Robin Williams' family. His parents and a sister, if I remember correctly. On one occasion, she was invited to dinner at their home with the entire family, Robin included. Keep in mind this was after he had become fairly well known as a ridiculously energetic, off the cuff comedian. He seemed to never stop moving on stage, and his comedy was almost frenetic in its pace. My aunt said that she was surprised (and a little disappointed) when he showed up, sat in his dinner chair sort of slumped over, and barely said a word. Not a drugged or alcoholic slump, but the slump of someone who had nothing left to give. I know this feeling. I imagine some of you do, too.
The more comedic roles I took on, the better my comic timing got. I could play the straight man or the slapstick sidekick. The better the roles got, however, was inversely related to the happiness in my life. Being a critical care nurse certainly didn't help. We develop a very dark and twisted sense of humor as a coping mechanism for all the suffering and death we deal with. (What do you call a patient who dies on Arctic Sun? A corpsicle.)
Now, don't get me wrong. A good sense of humor is a great character trait. It allows me to build rapport with people of all different backgrounds and walks of life. What I have recently realized, though, is that sometimes I can't seem to be able to turn it off. Between deflecting and de-escalating awkward situations and the self-deprecating humor I have developed with every pound that I have gained, I've noticed that the people around me have come to expect (at least in my mind) me to act a certain way, to always be the entertainment, to make everyone else's day better by making them laugh. It is almost effortless, honestly, but if those same people were to see me at home or at the grocery store, they wouldn't recognize me. That is because when I leave work, or I leave the theatre, or I leave a party, I've nothing else to give. I walk in the door of my apartment and leave my comedy mask at the door along with my car keys and purse.
I finally realized something had to change when I started having anxiety so bad before going in to work that it bordered on a panic attack, but as soon as I walked on the unit, I was perfectly fine. For twelve hours I kept my residents and my coworkers laughing (or at least smiling) without even trying. I told my coworkers that we needed to install a Valium salt lick in every nursing station. When COVID started, I would do my best runway walk in whatever new PPE we were wearing. That bitch Gisele had nothing on me! Me - Here's your medicine, Mrs. So-and-So. Resident - What's it for? Me - Depression. Resident - I'm not depressed. Me - Then it's working. Here's some water to wash it down with.
The problem was, the second I clocked out all of the problems and worries that I left at the door so that I could be there for those around me came flooding back with a vengeance. Between the anxiety and the back pain, I would crawl from my car to my apartment, and have nothing left to give my poor animals, who had waited so patiently for Mommy to come home.
It just got to a point where I didn't know which version of me was the real one. It's been a week and a half since I left my job, and I am already starting to find that happy medium that I did not even realize I so desperately needed. The stressors are still there, and honestly I'm not sure how I'm going to pay my rent and other bills next week. My ability to face those stressors, though, is improving daily.
Never fear. I will continue to be the comic relief at all parties, family gatherings, weddings, bat mitzvahs, and probably even funerals. I mean, honestly, when do you need a laugh more than when faced with death? It's when I lose my sense of humor that you should be worried. It means I've reached my limit, and I am done.
I like to think that Robin Williams didn't take his life out of a sense of despair at his diagnosis, or as a horrible side effect of a medication he was taking, but as a way of retaining control over his life. Leaving this world on his terms, not at the mercy of his disease. I don't expect everyone to understand this. If you don't understand, count yourself lucky, because it is only when you have actually stared into that same abyss that you will understand.
I choose to keep going, but starting now it will be on MY terms.