The Pain Behind The Smile: The Robin Williams Story

A Robin Williams posing for a photo in 2013 for People Magazine | Courtesy to Firenze Post

Imagine being one of the most well-known actors and comedians who had a talent for making people laugh. A person who would light up the room with just one joke. That is exactly who Robin Williams was. A master at his craft, Williams was an individual who brought to life any character he played. However, with all the laughter he brought to people and all the smiles he put on others, Robin Williams was battling an inner demon that not many people knew about: depression. Williams spent time bringing joy to his fans, only to cover up his personal problems away from the public eye.

Robin Williams in 1956 posing for a portrait | Courtesy of Factinate.com

Born on July 21, 1951 at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago Illinois, Robin McLaurin Williams was the only child to the parents of Robert Fitzgerald Williams and Laurie McLaurin. His father was a senior executive at Ford Motor Company and his mother was a former model as well as a part time actress.1 Robin’s parents came from wealthy families, and growing up, Robin was surrounded by wealth and privilege too. However, he did not get much attention while growing up, as he was raised mostly by his maid. At the age of eleven, his family moved from Chicago to the suburbs of Detroit, where they lived in a house with forty rooms. Robin was described as a short, shy, and introverted kid, and while he was growing up in a big house, he did not have much happiness. He was often alone and would communicate more with the maids around the house than with his own parents, as they were often working. The only friends Robin had while growing up was just his imagination, since he was very shy, which made it hard for him to develop real friendships. When he was in sixth grade, Robin was constantly bullied for being overweight, and each day he would go home crying due to the torment the other kids would put him through. The constant harassment led Robin into a deep depression, something he was to face the rest of his life.2

Williams and his Mom posing for a photo in 1956 | Courtesy of Digital Sky

Robin found comedy as a defense mechanism, which he got from his mother, who was known for having a witty sense of humor. He also felt like he was able to develop a closer relationship with his mother through comedy.3 At the age of sixteen, his father retired from the Ford Motor Company and moved the family to the San Francisco area in 1967. There he attended Redwood High School, where he overcame his shyness by joining the drama club. Soon enough Robin became the most popular guy in school, always telling jokes and making his peers laugh. He eventually was known as the class clown.4 At the end of his senior year, he was voted “most funniest student.” Once he graduated high school in 1969, Robin attended Claremont Men’s College where he pursued a major in political science. However, he spent the majority of his time in the college theater rather than in the classroom. He left his major, and Claremont, to attend a community college to pursue acting. After three years of perfecting his craft, Williams was accepted into the prestigious performing arts school Julliard, in New York City. He was one of only two students that got accepted into the 1973 program, along with good friend Christopher Reeve.5 Robin thrived instantly at Julliard, and astounded his teachers as he would take on any character he was told to play with ease. He then went to San Francisco to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. Robin was on the rise to fame, and was about to be the new face of Hollywood. However, no one knew the serious problems Robin was facing, as he would always appear with a smile. After his death everyone began to ask what led to Robin’s depression?

“Unfortunately, when it comes to the term depression, it is the most tragically misunderstood word in the English language, as many compare depression to sadness,” said Stephen Llardi, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas.6 The scientific description of depression is that it is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. There are many different types of depression, such as postpartum depression, known as the “baby blues,” bipolar depression, in which an individual can experience extremely high euphoric or irritable moods called “mania,” and psychotic depression, in which an individual will experience false fixated beliefs.7

Major depression, which is the most common, affects millions across the globe, and according to the National Institute of Mental Health, in the year 2016, over 16 million adults in the United States experienced at least one major depression episode in their personal life.8 People with major depression, unfortunately, live beyond the realm of sadness, and can often feel numb to the world. They also tend to become lethargic while they also slowly loose interest with the activities in their everyday lives. There are many symptoms that a person can experience when dealing with depression, including a loss of appetite, having trouble sleeping or sleeping more than usual, having thoughts of suicide, and many more. However, in order for it to be consider major depression, or any type of depression, one must experience symptoms for at least two weeks.9 This mental illness is difficult for many individuals to describe. No one word, sentence, or even paragraph does it any justice. An individual’s day-to-day life is not a normal person’s day. An individual who is suffering from depression finds it difficult to wake up and start their day. They also find their days to be hard and slow. Depression tends to cause individuals to focus on the negative and amplify sad emotions, which makes everyday things paralyzing and oppressive. Mental illness can slow a person’s world down, and they can often appear “normal” to the outside world, but when they are alone, they find it extremely hard to function.10 That is exactly what Robin Williams was facing, even as his career was thriving in Hollywood.

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam that got him an Oscar Nomination for best actor in 1987 | Courtesy to Republica
Once in Hollywood, Williams started doing stand-up comedy in the Los Angeles area in 1975. He was approached by George Schlatter, who asked him to appear on his reboot of The Laugh-In. Although the series was a flop, it gave the exposure Robin needed to land a guest role as the Space Alien Mork on the show Happy Days, which would lead him to getting his own spin-off series, Mork and Mindy, in 1978.11 Fans loved the maniac, free associating character that Robin played, and in a blink of an eye, he was an overnight sensation. However, behind his rise to fame, Robin began abusing drugs and became addicted to cocaine in the 70’s.12 William’s name became more prominent and in the spotlight due to his staring roles in his critical acclaim success in the movie The World According to Garp in 1982, and his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor in Good Morning Vietnam in 1987. He was on the top of the world. However, behind the scenes, Robin could not help but fall further into the use of alcohol and drugs. This caused him to fall into a downward spiral whenever he would get off the stage. Robin tried very hard to hide his problems away from the public eye; however, nothing could stop his first marriage from unfolding in the public eye. Infidelity came to light, because his mistress sued him for 6.2 million dollars for supposedly giving her herpes. Although the story turned out to be false, his first wife, Valerie Velardie, divorced him after ten years of marriage and a son named Zac, in 1988.13 Between his drug abuse and his infidelity, things took a turned for the worse when Robin’s good friend John Belushi died due to a drug overdosed. Robin vowed to change his life and sober up, as he did not want to end up like his friend. After a few years of sobriety, Robin would go and star in movies such as the aforementioned Good Morning Vietnam, in which he portrayed an irreverent military disk jokey, Adrian Cronaver, and in Dead Poet’s Society, in which he plays an inspirational English teacher. He then went on to win his first Oscar Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the movie Good Will Hunting in 1998.14 Things were looking good for Williams, however behind closed doors, Williams was in a very dark place as he was dealing with major depression.

Robin Williams holding his Academy Award that he received in 1998 for best actor in supporting role in the movie Good Will Hunting. | Courtesy to castofmovie.com

Now married to his second wife, he unfortunately relapsed back into drinking and drugs, and in 2003, he was admitted to a substance abuse rehabilitation center in Newberg, Oregon.15 Many close to Robin knew how bad he was struggling with depression, but he refused to let the public eye see what he was going through.16 One main cause that triggered his depression to worsen was his divorce between him and his second wife, due to the fact that the divorce settlement caused him to give up his 29.9 million dollar 640-acre estate in Napa California, which he had had for over ten years. Between the financial problems and his drug abuse and his mental health, things were starting to become too much for Robin, and even though he remained full of joy in front of his fans, Robin would soon crack and his depression would have finally taken over.

Usually people that develop depression have triggers that cause them to enter into a dark place mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For example, Robin’s triggers were his financial problems, marriage issues, and drug abuse. Triggers can be difference for each individual who experiences depression. It can be triggered from stress, or a sport’s injury, or the loss of a family member, or even a heart break. Each trigger causes an individual to go into a gloomy state of mind in which they find it hard to get out of. However, even though everyone has different triggers that causes them to develop depression, what stays the same for everyone is the sadness that gradually develops during their dark state.17 Unfortunately, many people compare sadness with depression when they each have different meanings. Depression causes problems with a person’s functioning in their everyday life. It is a mental illness that lasts for weeks, months, and sometimes even years. It affects a person’s ability to think, feel, and act, whereas sadness is a normal human emotion that usually goes away on its own.18 People who suffer from depression tend to have lower levels of the neurotransmitter of serotine, which is a chemical that gives an individual happiness. When conditions worsen, individuals will tend to look for an outlet to feel better, and sometimes it’s not always the best outlet. According to a study that John Kelip, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University, preformed in 2014, over 60% of his participants with depression chose alcohol as a way to cope with their depression. When mixing substances such as Berizodiazepines with alcohol, an individual’s attention span is shorten and memory capacity becomes cloudy due to the fact that the substances depress the brain’s reward center. This will cause a person to start having suicidal thoughts, as they feel like they are never going to feel better.19 However, when a person is contemplating suicide, people on the outside don’t see that the individual is having such thoughts, due to the fact that they appear to be fine to everyone else. Robin Williams was very good at this, as he was thinking about suicide, his family, friends, and fans would be too late to answer his call for help.

A smiling Robin Williams as he poses for a photo in 1998 | Courtesy to Replubica
In Robin’s last few months, he showed no signs of committing suicide. However, Robin’s wife, Susan Schneider, was concerned about her husband’s health in 2011 when the doctors revealed that Robin was suffering from Lew Body Dementia, which causes a progressive decline in mental abilities. Robin kept this away from his fans as he did not want anyone to worry about his health.20 He pressed on and threw himself into his work to get his mind off his health issues. However, Williams hit a standstill when his new TV show, The Crazy Ones, was canceled after just one season in May 2014. When July came around, he admitted himself to the Hazelden Foundation Addiction Treatment Center in Lindstorm, Minnesota, to sharpen his sobriety.21 When returning home, his wife felt that her husband was doing better and did not suspect anything. The night before his death Robin went to the store and purchased his wife a magazine at 7:09 pm. When he returned home, he gave his wife the magazine and at 10:30 pm he grabbed his iPad and headed to the other room to call it a night. The next morning, his wife was glad that he was finally getting rest for once and decided to let him sleep, and she headed to work. At 11:45 am William’s assistant became worried because Williams wasn’t responding to her calls. When she decided to go check in on him, she found his body in a seated position with a Nylon belt around his neck, while he was wearing a long black T-shirt and belted black jeans with superficial cut marks on his left wrist. Robin Williams was pronounced dead at 12:02 pm August 11, 2014, due to him committing suicide.22

Suicide is known as the act of deliberate taking one’s own life or causing one’s own death. Most causes to suicide are people who have been dealing with mental disorders, such as major depression, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia. In the American Journal of Psychiatry suicidal thoughts and even suicidal attempts are more frequent in people having mixed depressive episodes, than with depression alone. Therefore, when alcoholism and drug abuse are mixed with a person’s depression, that individual has a higher chance of committing suicide, and that causes the rate of suicide to skyrocket. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the year 2011 there were 39,518 suicides in the United States, and then it jumped to 43,361 in 2012 with suicides only rising every year. Suicide is known to be the tenth leading cause of death, with having between ten to twenty million attempted suicides every year.23 Those who question why an individual would commits suicide or thinks of those who commit suicide as “selfish” do not understand the battles many of these individuals are going through everyday. They wake up exhausted every day with a hangover from the medication they took the night before to relax them. They feel as if their world is on their shoulders, and they struggle just to get through a day. Many people who are dealing with depression most likely won’t show symptoms of wanting to commit suicide, and most do it without even saying goodbye, as they do not want to be stopped from doing what they think is the only way out.24 Only 4% of people successfully commit suicide, and studies show that individuals who attempt to commit suicide only want to be saved by someone who can see that they are really drowning. That is what Robin William’s was trying to do; however, help came too late and the damage had been done.25

When news broke that Robin committed suicide, the world stood still. Family, friends, and fans were all devastated and had so many questions as they thought Robin was enjoying life since he was always spreading joy and love with everyone. Even the president at the time, Barack Obama, issued a statement from the White House:

“Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien — but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most — from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalize on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”26

Robin Williams brought joy to many individuals and inspired many to always follow their dreams. It’s unfortunate that he was battling something that he did not want anyone to know. He tried so hard to make other people happy even when he was not happy with his own self. Though all the trials and tribulations, Robin Williams is a well respected man who was and still is loved by many. He brought many characters to life and gave us movies that are unforgettable. Even though he lost his on battle on August 11, 2014, he will forever be remembered as the man who brought laughter to the world.

If you or someone you know is suffering from a mental illness, get help from a professional, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-Talk (8255). It is available 24/7.

  1. Hassan Tohid, “Robin Williams’ Suicide: a case study,” Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 38, no. 3 (2016): 178-182, http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2237-60892016000300178&lng=en&tlng=en.
  2. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, “Robin Williams,” by Mary Virginia.
  3. Hassan Tohid, “Robin Williams’ Suicide: a case study,” Trends Psychiatry Psychother, 38, no. 3 (2012): 178-182, http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2237-60892016000300178&lng=en&tlng=en.
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009, s.v. “Robin Williams.”
  5. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Robin Williams,” by Mary Virginia.
  6. Karen Rowan, “Robin Williams Death: The Difference between Depression & Normal Sadness,” Life Science, August 11, 2014, https://www.livescience.com/47302-robin-williams-death-depression-sadness.html.
  7. Roni Jacobson, “Robin Williams: Depression lone Rarely Causes Suicide,” Scientific American, August 13, 2014, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/robin-williams-depression-alone-rarely-causes-suicide/.
  8. Karen Rowan, “Robin Williams Death: The Difference between depression & Normal Sadness,” Life Science, August 11, 2014, https://www.livescience.com/47302-robin-williams-death-depression-sadness.html.
  9. Lance Rappaport, “Depression Symptoms Moderate the Association Between Emotion and Communal Behavior,” Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64, no. 3 (2017): 272, 267-279.
  10. Natasha Tracy, Lost Marbles: Insight into life with Depression & Bipolar (United States: Natasha Tracy, 2016) 10, 5-23.
  11. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Robin Williams,” by Mary Virginia.
  12. Hassan Tohid, “Robin Williams’ Suicide: a case study,” Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 38, no. 3 (2012): 178-182, http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2237-60892016000300178&lng=en&tlng=en.
  13. David Holdhan, “Robin Williams Bio Revelation: Infidelity, Substance Abuse Insecurity Over Jim Carrey,” USA Today, May 13, 2018.
  14. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Robin Williams,” by Mary Virginia.
  15. David Holdhan, “Robin Williams Bio Revelation: Infidelity, Substance Abuse Insecurity Over Jim Carrey,” USA Today, May 13, 2018.
  16. Hassan Tohid, “Robin Williams’ Suicide: a case study,” Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 38, no. 3 (2012): 178-182, http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2237-60892016000300178&lng=en&tlng=en.
  17. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009, s.v. “Robin Williams.”
  18. Hassan Tohid, “Robin Williams’ Suicide: a case study,” Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 38, no. 3 (2012): 178-182, http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2237-60892016000300178&lng=en&tlng=en.
  19. Roni Jacobson, “Robin Williams: Depression lone Rarely Causes Suicide,” Scientific American, August 13, 2014, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/robin-williams-depression-alone-rarely-causes-suicide/.
  20. David Holdhan, “Robin Williams Bio Revelation: Infidelity, Substance Abuse Insecurity Over Jim Carrey,” USA Today, May 13, 2018.
  21. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, “Robin Williams,” by Mary Virginia.
  22. Hassan Tohid, “Robin Williams’ Suicide: a case study,” Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 38, no. 3 (2012): 178-182, http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2237-60892016000300178&lng=en&tlng=en.
  23. Hassan Tohid, “Robin Williams’ Suicide: a case study,” Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 38, no. 3 (2012): 178-182, http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2237-60892016000300178&lng=en&tlng=en.
  24. Natasha Tracy, “Drug Abuse Statistics-Drug Abuse Facts,” Healthy Place For Your Mental Health, June 2016, 5.
  25. Hassan Tohid, “Robin Williams’ Suicide: a case study,” Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 38, no. 3 (2012): 178-182, http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2237-60892016000300178&lng=en&tlng=en.
  26. Alan Duke, “Robin Williams Dead: Family, Friends, and Fans Are Totally Devastated,” CNN Entertainment, August 12, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/11/showbiz/robin-williams-dead/index.html.
Tags from the story
, , ,
Written By
More from Brianna Ford

The Flu Game: Michael Jordan Beating the Impossible

It is two o’clock in the morning on June 11, 1997, the day...
Read More

87 Comments

  • Many times since his death, I’ve felt a tinge of sadness in remembering that we will never again get to enjoy another performance by this incredible actor and comedian. It is a shame that someone who seemed so full of life would succumb to something as insidious as depression. This article highlights his struggle well, but several typos throughout weaken its impact. Another round of editing will help this become a fitting tribute to a great and troubled man.

  • Brianna, Congratulations on your nomination for Article with the Best Title with your article: “The Pain Behind The Smile: The Robin Williams Story” I think is a very clever title that gravitates others and plays well with the words! The topic is sad and eye-opening at the same time, how we do not know what someone is going through, they hide behind a mask and what not, thank you for writing this piece! Good luck!

  • I felt like your article flowed well and switched from one thing to another nicely. The section in which you included definitions as to what depression is and the different kinds was very informative. I had a general idea of what depression is but I was not aware that there is several kinds of depression. It’s sad how Williams felt the need to hide his depression and addiction from others and focused his attention on to making others happy. I think people need to take it upon themselves to be more aware and pick up on the signs so that we can get people the help they need and prevent suicides. Great job on your article and congratulations on your nominations!

  • When I found out about the passing of Robin Williams, I learned that he had been depressed. This article helped me to learn a bit more about Williams and his personal struggles. I found it interesting that he did not have much happiness growing up, yet his acting brought people happiness. I hate that he was bullied as a kid. Kids can be so cruel. It is sad to read that Williams suffered from depression for so long despite his thriving career. I had no idea that he abused drugs and was addicted to cocaine. It is such a tragedy that the world lost such an incredible man. I wish he had not struggled so much. This article was very informative and I learned so much about Williams, his childhood, and the problems he faced.

  • The story of Robin Williams is one of heartbreak and a yearning to be saved. He is like many other people who do not want to burden others with their problems, but still attempt to try and mask their problems with drugs, alcohol, work, and anything to help them forget they are suffering on the inside. Because of stories like his and many other celebrities, I make sure to always check on a friend, no matter how many times they say they are “okay.” I wished to learn a bit more of his legacy, but this was still overall a great and informative article.

  • Amazing article Brianna! This article is by far one of my favorite articles. Not many authors in this platform have been able to get to me like you did with this article. You definitely deserve the nominations you got for your article, it was perfect. Every person I have shared this article with has absolutely loved it because it is so good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.