If there’s one (new) thing I’ve gathered from the roiling discussion of Robin Williams’ death the week after the news broke, it’s that we are either misunderstanding or misusing this idea of “making it big.” In the first place, in the days following his death, the news “made it big.” Then, as if it was just another event in the world, things quieted down just as quickly: Robin Williams’ suicide was no longer newsworthy (and the implication? Neither is mental health.). This is not okay, which is why I’m writing about it yet again. One question that has come up far too many times is some version of, “What did Robin Williams have to be depressed about? He had everything, he had made it so big!” It’s not just celebrities who get this kind of questioning; it’s all too common for those with mental illness. But, as one blogger so eloquently said, “If he had died of cancer, would you ask what he had had to be cancerous about?” Mental illness and cancer are in the same meta-category: the “real diseases” one. These kinds of diseases do not pick and choose their victims. Steve Jobs died of cancer in 2011 at the age of 56; no one said, “But he was so [fill in the blank]! He had so much going for him! He really made it big.”
I think a deeper issue here, though, is that we actually expect “making it big” to shield us from dangers like mental illness even as we don’t have the same expectations for diseases like cancer or Parkinson’s. Why? What about “making it big” should exempt one from anguish of any sort, mental, emotional, physical or otherwise? Why do we expect that fortune and fame should be enough, that wealth and being known of the world over is a substitute for being truly known in life? Why do we as a culture persist in holding out “making it big” as the be-all, end-all in life? We say this a lot after suicides: “He was just the nicest person,” “she was just so kind;” is it maybe because they’re giving what they so desperately need to receive? I get that depression blocks your ability to feel much besides self loathing and guilt if you’re not otherwise totally numb; I don’t think the stinging judgments, persistent ignorance and misinformation are helping at all. And, though this may not be the intention, to be shocked that someone who has made it as big as Robin Williams seemed to have could have been suffering so much could sound a bit like victim blaming. We seem to forget that “making it big” in the way it’s commonly meant (fame and fortune, mostly) does not preclude a person from being human. And we all know what being human on this planet means: no one, no matter how big or small, goes untouched by pain, whatever form it may take.
And while we’re at it, why don’t we ever say Mother Teresa was “making it big” during her lifetime? Why don’t we say Martin Luther King, Jr. “made it big?” You don’t have to be a celebrity to get the hurtful and ignorant “what do you have to be so sad about?” question but you shouldn’t have to be a Hollywood megastar to be known for “making it big,” either. And either way, if you’re a real human being on this planet, your real suffering from a real disease regardless of the size of your circumstances should be seen as real. Depression and mental illness are “making it big” just like Robin Williams did – at least for now. I hope the understanding, compassion and care for them does, too.