This is a deeply personal, weird, awkward, unfamiliar bit of information, and sharing it in public like this in many ways feels absolutely fucking terrifying.
When I was scanning my Facebook feed this morning, I stumbled upon a post that stood apart from all the others mourning the loss of comedian Robin Williams. It belonged to my old friend and former high school classmate Ty Foster. Its message resonated deeply, and I asked Ty if we could share his words. What follows is the post, lightly edited, as originally written for his friends, followers, and family. --Brian Merchant, senior ed.
I'd like to say a little something on the passing of Robin Williams.
So many of us who grew up in the eighties and nineties had a bone-deep fondness for him, owing to his unreal string of iconic performances starting around 1987. You don't need any kind of career retrospective from me: each of us has our favorite(s) among the characters he created in that time period. (Personally, I'd probably say Mr. Keating in "Dead Poets Society" but secretly mean Genie in "Aladdin.")
He was a megastar, and a hugely important part of a lot of people's cultural experience, particularly young people's. That part of his story is obvious. His body of work speaks for itself.
He was also a complex human being whose struggles all too frequently played out under the reductive scrutiny of voyeur culture. There always seemed to be a bit of tragedy nibbling at the edges of that blazing charisma. There were times, (particularly, for my money, in his stand-up and sketch work) where it felt like he was giving a little too much, like maybe he was burning at a rate that just wasn't sustainable.
His torrents of words and ideas sometimes moved past being funny and became a little intense. A little overbearing, even. It was thrilling to watch him work himself into that trademark improvisational frenzy, but it was hard not to feel a twinge of maternal worry. I have a distinct memory of watching him collapse onto a couch, belly heaving, drenched in sweat, after a particularly madcap bit on SNL, and as the camera craned away to commercial, I remember thinking, even as a kid, "Jesus, man, what kind of rocket fuel are you using?"
In many cases, it seems, the answer to that question, at least in part, was drugs. His long-term, well-publicized battle with cocaine addiction was one which apparently persisted well into his life, and possibly (not that it's appropriate to speculate) even into his final months.
It's easy to define a person by their struggles with substance abuse, but to do so is not only a failure of basic human understanding and compassion, but also a failure to see the deeper psychic suffering that so often underlies the impulse to use. Robin Williams, you see, in addition to being a drug addict, a comic, an Academy Award-winning actor, a philanthropist, father, husband, and son, among countless other roles and titles, was a self-admitted manic-depressive.
It's in the discussion of Mr. Williams' illness that his story merges with my own
His output, as is so often the case, seems in many ways informed by his condition: the ups gave his comedic performances their unmistakable, unmatchable exuberance; the downs imbued his best dramatic work with deep, almost unbearable humanity. (Consider his grieving psychiatrist in "Good Will Hunting," which many consider his towering achievement.)
Deftly and fearlessly utilizing his experience of both extremes (despite occasional forays into maudlin cheeseball territory), he constructed what I'd consider to be one of the most diverse and fascinating mainstream film careers of all time. Those downs, of course, are what ultimately claimed his life, and led to the astounding outpouring of grief and appreciation I've seen across social and traditional media today.
For most people, suicide is sickening, unimaginable, rash, selfish. It's the ultimate, permanent solution to a temporary problem. It's madness. Some of us, though, have greater insight into and empathy for his final hours, and his final decision, than others.
It's in the discussion of Mr. Williams' illness that his story merges with my own. After years of struggle with seemingly "random," "erratic," "mercurial" swings in my mood, behavior, creative output, and general sense of wellbeing, and after a recent, massive depressive episode that caused me to have to leave Seattle and move back home to California, I've begun treatment for bipolar disorder.
This is a deeply personal, weird, awkward, unfamiliar bit of information, and sharing it in public like this in many ways feels incredibly inappropriate, not to mention absolutely fucking terrifying. But I was moved, in the wake of today's tragedy and the untold numbers of similar ones that play out daily, to "come out of the closet," as it were.
Each of us has our own individual crosses to bear; some of us are anxious, some physically disabled, some diabetic, anorexic, obsessive, autistic, alcoholic, cancer-stricken, impoverished, you name it. Some of us may never quite get to the bottom of what it is that's eating at us in those moments of supreme vulnerability. But the point is: every single one of us, at one time or another, will be a pathetic blob of Jell-O quivering helplessly on the kitchen floor. Every. Single. One.
And in those moments, we need each other's support. Badly. So, if you'll permit a little cheeseball-slinging of my own: this is a bit of a call to arms, a bit of an "O Captain, My Captain" moment. If you're struggling, reach out. Get help. There's no correct way to do it; you don't have to know how. Just pick up the phone, or get in the car, or aimlessly type "help me" into Google, and begin.
There are people in your life who love you, who would consider it a privilege to lend you a hand. This is a social network, for Christ's sake; look at the hundreds of names on your friends list and remember that there are at the very least a handful to whom you matter a very great deal. Utilize them. More than any other reason, they're in your life to help you when the chips are down.
We're living in an adolescent society. We still feel uncomfortable about all this. We still whisper in hallways about people we perceive to be weak, because we can't bring ourselves to acknowledge the fact that we are and always will be right on the precipice of exactly the same level of fragility ourselves. "There but for the grace of God" and so forth. My diagnosis, in its way, has been deeply liberating. But it took an awful lot to get here, and "here" is the very beginning of a road I'll travel for the rest of my life.
I can't speak for anywhere else, and I can't really speak for any other disabilities, but I know that in my home country, we are still quite a long way from eliminating the stigma that surrounds mental illness. When I'm depressed, it's hard enough to get myself to the bathroom and back, let alone getting myself to a freaking doctor. Recovery is made all the more difficult by the fact that the world around me, in many insidious ways, causes me to feel even more alone, weird, creepy, scrutinized, awkward, unworthy than I already would. So the hell with that world. Those of you who are my people, are my people. I'll be needing—and, if all goes according to plan, asking for--your help. That's plenty good enough for me.
I wish we didn't have to keep losing great artists in order to have conversations like this. But if there's any silver lining to pull from this collective loss, for me, on a personal level, it's the fact that it kicked my ass out into the light of day. My hope is to proceed with ever greater honesty, depth of experience, and clarity of vision. And to stumble often, and, Lord willing and the creek don't rise, to laugh and question and ponder and learn from the experience once I'm equipped to do so. It's a rough ticket, this life. But at least we're together.
Thank you, you guys. In the immortal words of Bill & Ted's President Abraham Lincoln: "Be excellent to each other."
Ty Foster is an actor, writer, and musician currently based out of Auburn, California. He'll be back to tilting and windmills in Los Angeles again in no time.