Okay, I wasn’t going to write anything more about Robin Williams, especially in light of some of the comments that came in on the last related post. Several people said that I shouldn’t be focusing on the addiction issue when it is pretty evident that mental illness was the main contributor to this tragic death. Mentioning his history of alcoholism, and the fact that he was in rehab just weeks before his death, was called ‘gossip’ – and I can see that, although it wasn’t my intention. I’m not discounting William’s mental illness, but I write about addiction: that’s what I do. Which came first, for Williams or for any of us, is an unanswerable question.
But there are wider lessons to take, here, and some of them apply to us addicts even if we don’t also suffer with mental illness. In particular, this Cracked article, Why Funny People Kill Themselves, is one of the best things I’ve read on the topic so far.
Let me tell you about who I was, in high school. I was the kid with the strange accent, and the not-quite-normal-ness that comes from being an immigrant. I didn’t have the right sort of lunch, or know the right television programmes to watch. Also I wore glasses, and had a pronounced overbite that had never been fixed with braces. I was also precociously smart, which meant that I was a year younger than everyone else, and I used words like indomitable and picturesque in normal conversation. As you can imagine, I was a TOTAL HIT in the school yard.
Actually, after a while, I was. Those first couple of years were rough, but by the time I was in senior high, I was pretty popular. Boys flirted with the idea of flirting with me; I had friends, and went to parties, and entertained classrooms full of people. I had a reputation for being funny, and quick, and funny, and daring, and funny. Because by then, I had learned that funny is a winner. I still remember, and treasure, every time someone told me I was funny, or asked how I did it, or complimented my value at a party.
But being funny is a mask. While I wrote here about the myth of great artists as alcoholics, a myth that is largely due to confirmation bias (that is, we don’t hear about all the alcoholics and depressives who die of their conditions, but who aren’t famous), there does seem to be a link between comedy and depression. Here’s Jim Norton in Time on the subject:
The funniest people I know seem to be the ones surrounded by darkness. And that’s probably why they’re the funniest. The deeper the pit, the more humor you need to dig yourself out of it.
I was funny because I was never convinced that people would like me if I stopped cracking jokes and started being me. I’m not even sure why I’m using the past tense here: I do this all the time, even now. I measure how successful an evening was by how many times people laughed at my jokes. I’m funny on Facebook, I interweave puns into my writing, I have been known, awfully, to interrupt a perfectly reasonable conversation at a party, that I am having with someone else, in order to interject a quip. I’m already talking to this person! They already want to spend time with me! But I can’t relax into that: I have to try harder.
It’s, yes, quite tiring. But guess what always helped to keep that persona going? Alcohol.
Many, many people say that drinking helped them socialise. Lowered their inhibitions, banished their shyness, gave them confidence. Socialising when sober is one of the scary milestones that loom up in front of a newly sober person. How will I do it? What if I’m no fun?
It’s a very common characteristic of the alcoholic, I think, that we are convinced that our natural selves aren’t good enough. We turn to the bottle to enhance what we already have. To fuel the humour or give us confidence to flirt or just overcome the desire to flee back to our little nests on the sofa, safe in our own homes.
But alcohol is a depressant, so the more that we turn to it as a crutch, the more it takes away from us. When I was drinking, I hated myself. The more I hated myself, the more I was convinced that everybody else hated me too. The more convinced I was of that, the harder I tried to be likeable, and liked. So I ramped up the efforts to be funny, and to do that, I drank more. And so the cycle continued.
If you learn early on that your worth is contingent on how well you perform, it’s hardly surprising that you turn to drugs or alcohol to help you do just that. And of course, if you start with mental health issues, all of this is exacerbated. You struggle with happiness, you compensate with humour, you self-medicate with alcohol so as to keep the plates spinning in the air. See, look, now I’m spinning them higher, am I good enough now? There’s flames! And I’m on one leg! Do you love me enough? Am I worth loving?