Two nights ago I sat sitting in my parents bed while house sitting wondering if I had misread that Robin Williams had died of depression and addiction. I felt hot tears running down my face with an overwhelming feeling of loss. It wasn’t the same as if a close companion had past, it was a connection with someone who used humour as a shield. It was a loss of childhood, like the day your parents “misplaced” your security blanket because you hit a certain age where it’s unacceptable to carry it in public. I lost my ticket to Never Never Land and it was embodied by a comedic genius that made me know it was ok to be young at heart.
My parents got divorced when I was six years old, old enough to be aware that my reality was becoming adult way too fast. My father, who in every girls mind is their hero, their night in shining armour, the one that kept the monsters out of the closet, was now removed from my little girl kingdom. I escaped in Aladdin and found love in the big blue genie that could make me laugh until I peed a little. I think at a young age I realized that comedy was a great way to keep myself smiling and to allow myself to be accepted at school. School, where most kids at that time had parents together, most kids seemed easily normal, most kids didn’t want to escape. There I was, full of confusion and anger, I’d lash out and get punished, I’d get in fights, and at the end of the day retire to my single parent home and watch Aladdin.
Middle school wasn’t any better. Then I watched The Birdcage with my Dad, he always let me watch movies that were a little too old for me. There was Robin playing a flamboyant club owner with his partner Nathan Lane along side. It was everything I wanted in my world, costumes, stages, and a hero that would make weird noises with me. A hero that stood up for being different and outlandishly hilarious.
I remember vividly trying out for the beaches volleyball team in grade 7 because all the pretty girls did. I thought this could be my chance to be wanted. I was awful at volleyball and I remember the most popular girl in school laughing to her group about my lankyness, they called me gumby. All of a sudden I embraced that nickname, I did a rendition of a dance routine from The Birdcage and hit the ball off the ceiling only to welcome it hitting my face.
They all laughed at me, but it was me who was in control of it, and that’s when my life changed.
When I got accepted to an art high school I was excited for the first time about my education. I spent the summer dreaming of acting class, visual arts, and ballet. I dreamt of being invited to all the best parties and having friends that I could call on.
The summer before high school my mum who had been suffering from an addiction decided to get better. She moved into a wellness centre up north. My brother and I were moved into my dad’s house and yet again I had been left in the crossfire of childhood meets adulthood. What I did find was how to constantly make my then 11 year old brother laugh. We were usually left to our own devices and me being protective of my sweet little sibling decided that comedy was the only answer. We would watch Jim Carey, Robin Williams, Chris Farley, and Dana Carvey as if they were gods. When shit was hitting the fan, Kris and I would retreat and see how many one liners we could remember.
The first week of high school I met most of my best friends in my life. I remember when I first met Meghan I was intimidating how a seal walked in dance class and told her how farts are made. I quickly became the class clown and felt my world becoming those movies I escaped to. While things continued to spiral at home I was acting in every play the school could produce. I was making people laugh on the daily, I skipped class and smoked pot and revelled in making my friends barrel over laughing. I always had some witty comment to follow someone’s story. Everyone told me how funny I was and I always had this ability to crack a smile on my teachers faces even though they wanted to kill me.
That was high school, well, I should say that was the stage I performed on. I was popular, I had boys liking me, I was invited to all the parties, and best of all, I made people laugh.
But behind the curtain?
It wasn’t so funny…
I was silently suffering from anorexia and a diet pill addiction. I’m sure there was some depression mixed up in there as well. I can’t remember how it started, I don’t even recall it being a thing until it was too late. My home life was out of control, my mum had moved to the country, and I was failing every academic class on my time sheet. However I was still performing and winning accolades for it, I was still the life of the party, I was still the clown.
However like any mental illness I started to bleed through the curtains and my true self was now in the spotlight. My closest friends had caught on as I would miss a week of school at a time because I was too exhausted to get out of bed. At my worst, when my parents finally realized I wasn’t putting on a show, I had gotten myself down to 87 pounds by the age of 17 years old.
Most of that time is a whirl wind of therapists and guidance councillor meetings. I do remember my vice principle sitting me down after another week of school missed. I was a thin pale scared little clown performing some monologue to try and get a laugh out of her. I remember her looking at me with cold eyes, she said ” I hope you enjoyed your vacation, there are kids starving in Africa so you should be ashamed of yourself”. I didn’t realize it then but that was the first ignorant example of how people thought of me. I was a joke, it was all an act for attention. I had successfully blurred the lines between the real me and the mask I embodied.
I got better, I got help, but for the rest of my life comedy would be my Nirvana. In my early twenties I was performing in two comedy troupes in Toronto. I was still battling addiction, I was doing most drugs I could get my hands on and working in a bar that fuelled the same substance that broke up my childhood. The eating disorder came and went, might I add it still does. It’s not a flue that just goes away with time and it can creep up on you so fast that you wake up ten pounds under weight and not know how it happened.
Robin Williams said this about addiction:
“It’s not caused by anything, it’s just there” he said “It waits. It lays and waits for time you think, it’s fine now, I’m OK”. Then the next thing you know, it’s not OK. Then you realize “Where am I? I didn’t realize I was in Cleveland”.
This is the truest statement and hit me hard on Monday night. And even in that quote you can sense a bit of humour. Even speaking about his darkest hours Robin still peppered in comedy. And that’s what we do as the clowns, we will always, even half way, hold our masks up.
Now I’m not trying to be depressing, if you read my blog you’ll know I’ve found an inner strength and perseverance over the years. I’ve battled it, I’m loving myself more than I ever have. However, like that quote, it still creeps up on me every now and then. The crazy part is I think a lot of people will not be shocked by this blog post. The crazier part is that I think a lot of people will be, just as we were all shocked to hear about Robin Williams.
I wanted to write this post because mental illness and addiction are real things that unlike physical illness can be masked. Robin Williams was an escape, a Peter Pan in my age groups minds. He connected to our young hearts and eased the coming of age with humour. He was a non stop whirl wind of life and energy that we all aspired to be in some way. His passing of depression and addiction is a sign that should not be overlooked.
I’ll end this saying if you catch a glimpse of a friend who momentarily drops the act, if you see patterns in the things they joke about constantly, please reach out. Most likely they are battling an internal war against a scared, lonely, mixed up little lost boy. Tell your friends you love them for who they are, fuck tell them you love them for no apparent reason. Ask people how they are genuinely, look them in the eye, touch their arm and say “What’s wrong buddy?”
Sometimes all we need is a request to come backstage, sometimes that’s all we’ve ever wanted.
Robin Williams was my hero, my on screen dad, my comedy coach, and my constant link to my childhood. I love you like you were a dear friend, because in a way you were there my whole life…and now you’re gone.
I’ll never stop believing in the power of laughter.
Please share this on your walls and pass along the message to all the clowns in your life.