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.
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 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.