Robin Williams and the Power of Truth-Telling

Robin Williams and the Power of Truth-Telling

Robin Williams’ death has provoked many disorienting feelings for this woman in pain. Ultimately, his loss has left me with the reality that hiding our hurt can destroy us.

Two weeks ago when a friend apprized me by phone of Williams’ suicide, I broke down sobbing. I’d never met the man, but I loved him. There’s an intimacy the great actors share on screen, and Williams went further for me because he often depicted characters who were troubled with psychological pain and isolation. Witness Good Will Hunting, Dead Poet’s Society, Awakenings and The Fisher King.

Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting.

Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting.

Williams’ heart and empathy on screen provided me comfort, a seeming knowingness of my pain. And perhaps more powerful of a gift, his comic genius was my one, for sure, “go-to” to provide my life partner and caregiver John a break from his suffering.

I can’t count the occasions I’ve watched John laugh so hard at William’s stand-up that he’d lie on the floor, legs up in the air, tears streaming down his face and, for a time, forgetting his troubles.

As the details of Williams’ death rolled in that dark day, I began putting the puzzle together. Williams had been suffering with depression for two decades. This was complicated by his battle with alcohol and early Parkinson’s Disease. What troubled me more was that his friends and colleagues had no idea he was despondent. He’d apparently kept his pain quiet, perhaps feeling he couldn’t confide his demons for fear people would run.

John told me about an article he read in Time magazine a few days later penned by Dick Cavett, who’s also been dogged by severe depression. Cavett speculated that Williams kept the façade of a happy, fulfilled life by going into “auto-pilot.” It’s a tool actors use to stay “on” when life hurts.

I learned this skill early as a performer – and it’s something I use at times to do my advocacy work and maintain a social circle. I think all women in pain use this tool on some level. My joke is that each of us deserves a best actress Oscar.

But the most authentic Cynthia is the one compelled to tell the full truth — no matter how ugly or disturbing. I’ve been suffering severe depression for 30+ years now due to Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) and its associated fallout. I share my full experience with John, the media, my women in pain community, those close to me, and my psychologist. It hasn’t set me free, but it helps me cope with unending physical and emotional pain. Truth be told, truth-telling keeps me alive.

And maybe, perhaps, it could have kept Robin Williams with us.

Sharing one’s truth, no matter how dark, cleanses, heals, validates and make’s one feel less alone. Reaching out allows people to reach back – and it gives us a chance to help others. As a woman in pain, I‘ve learned that speaking up and out and real is empowering.

For this reason, I strongly encourage all of us to fill out the Women in Pain survey here on National Pain Report (here’s a link to it), the results of which will be unveiled at For Grace’s 7th Annual Women in Pain conference on September 12th.

It gives us a chance, with confidentiality, to say it all. Nothing held back. To share our full experience with pain so others can gain a deeper understanding of our ongoing hurt and challenges.

While I grieve and miss Robin Williams, I hope his passing will encourage everyone with pain and depression to take that first step to being heard.

Cynthia Toussaint

Cynthia Toussaint

Cynthia Toussaint is a pain sufferer, patient advocate and founder of For Grace, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting better care and wellness for women in pain.

Can’t join us in person for the 2014 Women in Pain Conference? You can view the entire conference live via our free, worldwide webcast Friday, September 12th @ 9am PDT either at the For Grace homepage or our conference webpage.


Cynthia Toussaint founded For Grace in 2002. It is a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization dedicated to bringing awareness to gender disparity in the treatment of pain. She is also a frequent contributor to the National Pain Report.

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Kathryn Benedic

Thank you for the heartfelt article and the opportunity to submit info via the survey.
I think most of us that suffer mentally and physically from chronic pain, do go into auto-pilot most of our lives. It is not realistic to share our pain with everyone we come into contact with on a daily basis. So, to get thru life we have to hide most of the time. Finding those that we can share our story with is imperative to get the “baggage” out of ourselves and in the open with those we trust.
I used to feel shame about my history and chronic pain as if it was my fault. Now, as I have gotten older and after years of therapy, I understand I never asked for the pain and all that goes with it, or any of the reasons I have it. I now accept the truth that I am a survivor, not a victim. My story needs to be shared as it sometimes empowers another to see themselves in a different light, and provides an opportunity for them to open up as well.
I urge others in chronic pain, mentally or physically, to find a network of those who will listen with compassion and acceptance. I have found there is a silent connection when you meet another who is suffering. It allows us to connect in a special way, allowing for truth to be shared. Those are the relationships that provide an outlet. To internalize pain forever from everyone, can only lead to a tragic ending.
I believe that every human being has their own struggle within and that we all handle our struggles in a personal way. I feel my own life struggle with pain has given me the strength and power to recognize those who are in need of compassion, kindness, and love. Sometimes reaching out to those in need of a way to share their pain, can help them, at the very least, to trust that they will not be judged. Fear of being judged, keeps too many silent. Our stories are powerful and need to be shared for each is meaningful and unique.

Thank you for this piece. I could not have put it any better. I concur that our feelings must be shared and validated. I attended a Chronic Pain Support Group about a month ago and the facilitator insists on not acknowledging our pain, I disagree. I think it can cause devastating effects on our psyche. I know it did for me a few years ago when I saw a therapist who accused me of my own lot in life. I kept beating myself up for everything that happened to me even though it was not my fault. I breathe a breath of fresh air when someone chooses to leave on their own accord because I know, like me they have truly suffered. Thanks, Charley

Hi Cynthia

Enjoyed reading your column.

I felt rather like you and millions of others. I think we’ve all responded so deeply because Williams, notwithstanding his mental brilliance, was, above all, every man and woman. The empathy that poured forth from his eyes was astonishing and we couldn’t help but be drawn to and hope to emulate that. He was, really, one of us, but his pain was of a different sort that no opioid could douse.

Thanks for your column.