On August 11, 2014, 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? At the time of his death, there was a lot of speculation about his recent depression. His wife had not yet released the news that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and later, when his brain was examined, he was found to have suffered from Lewy Body Dementia.
• 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 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. On 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.
Diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease
In the year 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 are 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 is 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's 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.
Posthumous Diagnosis of Lewy Body Dementia
Upon examination of his brain after death, Williams was found to have Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), in which abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein accumulate in areas of the brain that control behavior, memory and movement. Since it cannot be definitely identified until after death, affected people are usually diagnosed as having Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease, which have similar symptoms. LBD is the second most common type of dementia (after Alzheimer's disease), and affects more than 1.4 million North Americans. At this time there is no effective treatment for LBD and the cause is not known.
Parkinson's disease dementia: Brain messages are transmitted from nerve to nerve by sending a chemical called dopamine from one nerve to the other. Parkinson's disease is caused by damage to the nerves in the brain that produce dopamine, so nerves lacking dopamine lose their ability to communicate with each other, and this can affect many brain functions. In the beginning, patients lose facial expression, their arms do not swing normally when they walk, the hands shake, and their fingers may move like they are rolling pills. Their muscles become stiff and rigid, they can lose feeling or suffer pain, and speech can become soft and slurred. Eventually patients can become depressed, irrational, and lose every type of brain function.
Alzheimer's disease: Dementia progresses from memory loss, to inability to recognize loved ones, carry on a conversation or even communicate with other people.
There are no drugs that cure these forms of dementia, but accumulating evidence suggests that the progression of dementia can be slowed with an anti-inflammatory lifestyle:
• Exercise regularly
• Engage in lots of activities that require thinking, memory and calculation
• Eat a plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet
• Avoid alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs
• Avoid being overweight
• Control high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and other heart attack risk factors
July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014