I was 22 years old when I got the call, out of state on vacation. My high school friend and part-time boyfriend (it’s complicated) had committed suicide. Devastated isn’t the word. I was paralyzed. Truth be told, it wasn’t long before I checked into a hospital myself. As teenagers, there was a group of us that made a suicide pact. Gosh, to think back on the multitude of stupid things you do in high school. Once he did it, I felt the need to honor my part of the bargain. Gratefully, I never did. Gratefully, I also found my way out of most of the darkness that tortured my earlier years. Yet, since I know that place well, I also cannot condemn my friend. I still miss him. I’m still angry at him for “being so selfish” at times. Mostly, I hope he found peace.
He was in many ways the stereotypical class clown. He made everyone laugh. He was quick-witted. He genuinely embraced and accepted everyone. He made us all feel like we were enough. He directly challenged our judgments and worked to promote unity and equity. He had a gift. Yet, he was tortured, always. He never was able to find the self-acceptance he so freely gave to others. He was hard on himself always. He showed that tortured self to a few of us, and while I’d like to think we offered him the same acceptance he offered us, we couldn’t dissolve his burden.
Senior year in high school, he broke up with me for my best friend. I pretended to take it well, but I was devastated, and so when we graduated I slowly and painfully let myself drift away. Some of my friends who remained close to him bore the burden of his loss much more keenly. Yet, as much as I wanted to be with my friends during that time, I could not bring myself to them, a decision I regretted for some time.
As a mom, I resent that I have to worry about my kid if he or she is funny just as I have to worry about the one who shares anxiety or sadness openly. But doesn’t Robin Williams’ untimely death remind us to look beneath the surface, beneath the presentation. Knowing my dear high school friend as I did, I know the suffering underneath his jokes. I know that it couldn’t be massaged away with a little acceptance or TLC. In my darkest hours, I’ve felt insatiably needy, untouchably broken and incurably flawed. Not particularly gifted with a sense of humor, my defenses more closely resemble potato chips and the extra inches, and an often unspoken wish for external validation. I am very blessed to cherish and love my life, be surrounded by an amazing circle of family and friends, and be genuinely content in my life. Yet, even with it all, the vulnerability of showing my true self can leave me raw, exposed, sensitive, and depleted.
I believe the courage required for authenticity is immense, and ought be validated and praised more than any other accomplishment; and I suppose that may be the one gift we can all aspire to offer. Whether it’s for our kids, our friends or our partners, let’s work together to see each other’s quests to be authentic, and honor their bravery. Perhaps then their gift can become an authentic piece of them instead of a wall of protection.
Rest in peace my dear friend, my Robin Williams; and Robin, may you have peace as well.