Robin Williams: Brilliance and Depression

This week we lost one of the greatest comics and actors of our time when Robin Williams took his own life at his home in California. He was 63. How could a person who appeared to have everything commit suicide?

• He was world-famous as an actor, screenwriter, voice actor and stand-up comedian. Over his 30-year career, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor three times, received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Good Will Hunting, received two Emmy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and five Grammy Awards.

• He had many passionate interests. He owned more than 50 bicycles and rode well enough to work out with professional riders. He traveled on the US Postal and Discovery Channel Pro Cycling buses during the Tour de France. He was a great fan of professional rugby and was friends with famous rugby players such as Jonah Lomu. He loved jazz and numbered many famous jazz musicians among his personal friends. He supported eco-friendly vehicles and drove a Toyota Prius when he could have afforded the most expensive automobiles. He worked tirelessly to help others; with his second wife, Marsha, he founded the Windfall Foundation to raise money for many different charities: the Comic Relief fundraising effort, Children's Promise, the 2010 Canterbury earthquake project to rebuild the New Zealand city, and the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. He also performed with the USO for U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

• He had plenty of money. His net worth was more than $50 million, even after two very expensive divorce settlements.

Yet he suffered severe depression, had battled alcohol and drugs all his life, and had sought treatment as recently as July of this year. NOTE: I wrote this report before Williams' wife had released the news that he recently was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. See my comments on this horrible disease below.

Early Life He was born on July 21st, 1951 into a wealthy family. His father was a senior executive at Lincoln-Mercury Motors and his mother was a former model from New Orleans. During his childhood, he was bullied by other children for being fat. He rarely spoke to other children and would play alone in his family's estate with his many toys. He overcame his isolation by joining the wrestling and track teams in high school. He also learned that by making other children laugh, they would become his friends.

After high school, he was accepted at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City where he was told that he was better as a comedian than a serious actor. He developed a stand up comedy act that he performed at various night clubs. This led to the role of "Mork" on the sitcom "Happy Days" and then to the spin-off show, "Mork & Mindy". From there, he became one of Hollywood's best-loved actors.

Marriages and Relationships He was married three times. At age 27, he married Valerie Velardi. They met in 1976 in a San Francisco restaurant where he was working as a bartender and she as a waitress while taking a graduate degree at Mills College. In 1983 they had a son, Zachary Pym Williams. He had an affair with a cocktail waitress who sued him in 1986 for not telling her that he was infected with the herpes simplex virus. The case was settled out of court. Valerie divorced him after she found out that he was having an affair with their son's nanny.

At age 39, he married Marsha Garces. She went from being the nanny to wife, secretary and personal assistant. She said that they had a strictly business relationship in the beginning because when she went to work for him, "he was too screwed up and I wasn't interested in being sucked dry." They had two children: Zelda Rae Williams, born in 1989 and Cody Alan Williams, born in 1991. She divorced him in 2008.

In 2011, at age 60, he married Susan Schneider, a graphic designer. After his death, she said: "I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken."

Alcohol and Drugs During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was addicted to cocaine. He had spent hours with John Belushi before Belushi overdosed on heroin and cocaine. In 1982 he quit cocaine and alcohol cold turkey when his first wife, Valerie, was pregnant with their son Zachary.

In 2003, after twenty dry years, he started drinking alcohol again. In August 9, 2006, he checked himself into a substance-abuse rehabilitation center in Newberg, Oregon to help him stop drinking. In July 2014, he was severely depressed and was admitted to the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Lindstrom, Minnesota. On August 11, 2014 he was found unresponsive in his home after hanging himself.

Diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease Shortly before his death, Williams had been told that he was in the early stages of Parkinson's disease. When people start to shake and tremble when they try to move, they usually have either benign tremors, which is not necessarily progressive and usually can be controlled with drugs, or Parkinson's disease, a progressive, incurable disease that usually leads to depending on others for a person's essential existence. Parkinson's disease occurs when the nerves cannot produce enough dopamine to send messages from one nerve to the next. Use of cocaine increases risk of developing Parkinson's disease in later life by making the brain more susceptible to toxins in the environment.

Parkinson's disease is also often linked to depression. Many people with Parkinson's disease choose to live and fight their symptoms while hoping for improved treatments in the future, but it is perhaps easier to understand Williams' choice of suicide as he confronted the way this disease would affect his ability to work and the burden it would place on his family.

Genius and Depression Robin Williams is the latest in a long list of brilliant people whose exceptional productivity was followed by periods of deep depression and self-doubt. Many of these geniuses have resorted to alcohol, drugs or suicide. I have written about several of them: Ernest Hemingway, Wolfgang Mozart, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Robeson, Florence Nightengale, Vincent van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Eugene O'Neill. The list also includes: Artists: Paul Gauguin, Michelangelo, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro Authors: Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf Business Leaders: Howard Hughes, J. P. Morgan Scientists: Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Sir Isaac Newton Musicians: Irving Berlin, Frederic Chopin, Stephen Foster, Gustav Mahler, Cole Porter World Leaders: Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and many others

Be Aware of Suicide Warning Signs Since the strongest drives for a person to commit suicide are feelings of failure and of being a burden to family, friends and society, always take warning signs seriously. Try to be nice, kind and considerate to anyone who is depressed, angry, hostile or offensive. You may save a life with your kindness.

UPDATE - 11/13/14 From an examination of his brain, we now know that he also had a form of dementia that can cause hallucinations. He had Lewy body dementia, severe brain damage that affects 1.3 million Americans. This causes loss of memory and difficulty communicating. Nobody has shown that this condition is linked to suicide, but it could help to explain increasing frustration and depression.

Robin Williams July 21, 1951 - August 11, 2014

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