I was working on my tablet when a co-worker messaged to say that Robin Williams had died. My immediate response, common when handed unexpectedly terrible news, was to reject the accuracy of the report. Minutes later, every news outlet was running Williams' death as their top story. Not only had the beloved comedian died, the death was being reported as a suicide. I started to cry. I'd remembered something.
As a young kid, I suffered from severe OCD and anxiety disorder. Surviving from panic attack to panic attack was an almost insurmountable task, often leaving my stomach in such knots that I couldn't eat. I would occasionally become so overcome with crushing fear that something terrible was going to happen to me, I'd just hide in my room and shake.
There were brief respites. People who suffer from mental illness in childhood will tell you that, like triggers, there are just as often reliable calming presences, usually specific people or places that can stop an attack from commencing or reverse the effects.
For little me, Robin Williams was one of those people. The very first movie I ever saw in theaters was Aladdin. I was obsessed with Genie. I watched the movie so many times once it was released on VHS that I still know the script from memory. I had countless Genie-related products. My life as an Aladdin-film tie-in. Genie just seemed like such a calming spirit. He was there when things got awful, and he'd make you laugh as he helped drag you out of it. I must have subconsciously attached that notion to the actor who played him.
Shortly after Aladdin came FernGully: The Last Rainforest. I was immediately obsessed with Batty Koda. As a grown-up vegan, Batty's memorable rap probably planted some of the seeds of doubt in my young mind about the way we used non-human animals. But Batty was an overcomer, and I loved him.
My next Robin Williams movie was Hook, a slightly darker tale that cemented Williams' role in my psyche as the ultimate good guy. I had never been a huge fan of Disney's cartoon characterization of Peter Pan, who seemed to me like a brat. Williams, on the other hand, was once again a hilariously nice guy who saved the day without pretense. But when I looked into Williams' eyes, I saw a sadness I recognized, because I went to bed sad and scared almost every night.
Children with severe anxiety disorders often experience profound sleeping issues akin to night terrors. But unlike night terrors, in which children usually wake up screaming, these disturbing episodes that often combine sleeplessness with severe nightmares are suffered silently. Going straight to sleep was more than I could handle. I watched a movie every night before bed, regularly starring Robin Williams.
Somehow, in my childhood mind, Williams became the good guy amid the nightmares. As a little Evangelical Christian, I knew Williams was not one of us because he said bad words. Plus, I was supposed to rely on god. But god didn't swoop in Peter Pan-style to help me battle out of my nightmares, so Williams was the clear winner. Williams was probably the closest thing I had to an imaginary friend. I was a way-too-rational kid.
As the years past, I forgot this odd fun fact about my childhood. Adolescence is such a tumultuous experience, I doubt most of us remember the majority of it, especially our youngest years. I continued to enjoy Williams into adulthood, loving his dark performance in One Hour Photo and fearlessly hilarious rants about politics during his stand-up comedy.
But it was his aura of gentleness that stayed with me. As I watched the recollections of others shared on the evening news, that's clearly what remains at the forefront of everyone's minds. I was unsurprised to come across a story about Williams using his own money to fly out and meet a terminally ill child fan, where he entertained the little girl for hours until he received a call that his friend Christopher Reeve had died.
I scrolled through my social media feeds and saw an outpouring of love directed at the ways Williams helped others. From raising millions of dollars for relief charity, dipping into his own compensation when more was needed and using his talents to support others in need, Robin Williams went out of his way to give back to a degree that surpasses the expectations we place on celebrities.
What struck me most was the lasting impact his work has for so many people on a personal level. Mrs. Doubtfire may be the first family film to make queerness acceptable and de-stigmatize divorce. It resonated with me as a young teenager. I came across a post from a friend on Facebook that spoke of the same film, stating, "You taught me that a broken family is still a family."
Robin Williams was an openly broken person. He used that brokenness to help put a lot of us back together through humor, honest storytelling and a dedication to giving. The saddest part of saying goodbye to him at a young 63 is knowing that the love he shared with everyone else couldn't reach back around to him in his moment of weakness.
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