The Dark Side of Depression – Robin Williams, We Loved You

I woke up with gloom in my brain this morning. Robin Williams apparent suicide really impacted me, just like it has so many other people. At first I wasn’t going to write about it because I haven’t really processed it or my emotions around it, but as I woke up, and continued to obsess about it, I thought I’d try to chase some of my own demons out of my head by putting words on paper (well – electrons on screen.) I have no idea where I’ll go with this post and hope it ends up being helpful instead of self-indulgent, but we’ll find out together if you read along.

Robin Williams was one of my favorite actors. He was an iconic comedian from my childhood (I’m 48) alongside Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Steve Martin. For a teenage boy in Dallas, Texas, these four guys defined funny. Every time a movie or TV came on with them in it, I watched it. And laughed a lot. But then Robin Williams did something magical. He started acting (well – maybe he was always acting) and went on to make two of my favorite movies of all times – Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. And man oh man was Mork from Orc an amazing actor.

When Amy and I moved to Boulder in 1995, one of the fun quiet things I didn’t share was how cool it was to be living in Mork’s home town. When I met David Cohen and found out he lived next door to the Mork and Mindy House, I knew I’d found an easter egg that would tickle me forever.

Yesterday afternoon I saw a tweet that was simply “Robin Williams RIP.” I immediately knew he was dead. With a couple of clicks I knew it was probably suicide (although it hasn’t been confirmed yet.) And at about 4pm Mountain Time, a lot of air went out of my balloon.

Amy is up in Keystone and I’m in Boulder so I went out to dinner with my partner Jason and his fiancee Jenn. It was a perfect night in Boulder so we sat outside at Japango and ate sushi and drank sake. I knew I probably shouldn’t have had anything to drink, since it’s wrong for me whenever I’m feeling down or depressed, but I just rolled with it. Jason and Jenn were perfect company – they are so incredibly happy and aligned on the run up to the wedding – so it was great energy just to be with them.

I got home, checked my email, facetimed with Amy, and went to bed. I was planning to get up early and work on my current book (Startup Opportunities) but at 5am when I got up, the gloom was heavy in my brain. Some of it might have been the sake, some of it was the tossing and turning from the dark, angry, hostile, complicated dreams I had, and some was waking up alone, with my beloved 90 miles away.

I rolled over and woke up naturally at 6:47. The fact that I noticed it was 6:47 triggered a bunch of stuff (normally I’d stay in bed until 6:48 because of 7:00 – 13 minutes) but I decided I wasn’t going to play that game with myself this morning. I had a cup of coffee and checked my email. I looked at my calendar which is packed with meetings from 9:30 to 5:30 followed by dinner with Seth and Jason and one of our LPs who is a very close friend. My brain flashed on “I just have to get to 6pm – then I’ll be able to chill and be happy.” That was a bad sign.

I went and read some of the stuff on Robin Williams. I watched the clip which I embeded above. I read Jeff Carter’s post Robin Williams RIP-Suicide Is Not A Way Out (Moz had picked it up in my Moz Fresh Alerts.) Jeff leads with a great reminder to anyone contemplating suicide:

First off, if you are thinking of committing suicide, don’t. Here’s the number to call if you find yourself unstable. No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

It’s an hour later. While this did end up being a self-indulgent post, I’m feeling a little lighter. The sky in Boulder is a perfect blue color and it looks magnificent outside. I looked at my schedule again and it doesn’t look as oppressive. I know I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me. While the world will miss a wonderful man, and as David Mandell said in his Facebook post “The awesome/asshole ratio of this world took a very big hit today” life goes on.

Let us all stand on our desks today. O’Captain My Captain, we will miss you.

  • Chris Mack

    Rare to find such a warm-hearted genius that could touch so many people. The world is poorer today.

  • Kelly James

    I thought of you yesterday. Sending some good energy your way today.

    • Thx Kelly.

      • so did I. I have lost too many acquaintances to suicide. I empathize with them. When I really think about it, it makes me angry. I have had to fight my own inner demons. It’s not easy. I am really glad Brad writes honestly about depression. Helps everyone understand it, and confront it. Make it a great day. Even if it sucks today the alarm will ring tomorrow. You can do more for people alive than you can when you are dead.

  • Robin Williams’ death was another reminder that depression is a disease….that at some level is somewhat contagious. Like most diseases without a cure, for those that suffer its grip, hang in there..a cure will come.

    Robin in Dead Poets Society famously said “seize the day” , maybe “seize one day, one day at a time” would be a better mantra.

    • The mantra “depression is a disease – just like diabetes is a disease” is so useful. It’s not a stigma – it’s a disease. And it can be treated.

      • Rick

        I think depression is more wide spread then we all know. This world is very oppressive! The people who are satisfied with the status quo seem to always be in control. Every time someone wants to create something new and great the majority looks at them like they’re nutz. Creative, open minded, great thinkers are so few and far between. It makes you wonder if some suicides are because people are looking for some place where there are no lame-asses making the world suck!

        • It’s super hard for people who have never been depressed to understand the feeling of “I just can’t take another millisecond of feeling this way.” But when you’ve been depressed, or are depressed, and literally can’t take it any more, there are moments of “there must be an easier way” which – when it real distress – often lead to thoughts of suicide. I’ve fortunately only had to deal with this once (I talk about it in the book Startup Life) and Amy and I have a very effective set of “rules” for dealing with it.

          • Rick

            Most of the time I have a bunch of ideas rolling around in my head. When they’re all just little ones I don’t like it. But if I have just one change the world idea. One that, in my mind, will grow to be something big and keep hundreds of people employed for decades. Then life is good!
            The worst was when I would have no ideas and was thinking “Maybe I’ll have to take a job to keep busy.” That’s when I would start having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.
            There’s really no better feeling than having some idea that takes so much thought and planning that you can’t sit still.

          • Ed

            Thanks Brad for addressing this. I’ve said before that having your blog is deeply therapeutic for me. I know there are family members and friends who probably struggle with the same thing, but I just can’t bring myself to talk to them about it. I can’t believe how much Robin Williams’ suicide has effected me. I mean…. I obviously don’t know the man nor did he know me, but it’s like my best friend is gone. I would like to learn about your ‘rules’ of dealing with thoughts of suicide…

          • I’ve written about my rules around suicidal ideation in Startup Life. When I was going through my first depression in my mid-20s, I agreed with Amy that if I ever had a suicidal thought, I’d immediately stop doing whatever it was that I was doing and tell her. That was my guard rail – she’d know and could engage to help. It only happened once – when I was driving and she was in the passenger seat. I had the thought, didn’t act on it, pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car, and immediately told her what I was thinking. By saying it out loud it lessened the impulse and by stopping driving (she took over driving) I eliminated the short term opportunity.

          • Ed

            Thank you Brad. makes total sense….. I did a simliar thing with my wife not long ago. First time I’d ever told anyone I’d had those thoughts. This reminded me I need tto read Startup Life! getting it now….

          • It’s so awesome to have a life partner.

      • More specifically, depression is a form of mental illness, and there’s a stigma that OTHERS attach to it – I believe that the only way to combat that stigma is to talk about mental illness openly. Inspired partly by you (thanks), I wrote about my own history with mental illness:

        Now I just think about it as “that time I fell down and broke my mind” … it shouldn’t be viewed that much differently from breaking my leg, so I find myself talking about it just as casually.

        (BTW, I haven’t been part of this community much lately, but I’m doing great.)

        • Glad you are doing great – I missed you! And +1 to what you said.

          • Wow, thanks! It’s amazing the impact that simple, kind words can have. 🙂

  • Rich Kwiat

    Will be missed! Loved Robin Williams in so many things. Sandy and I were deeply moved when we saw Dead Poets Society

    • My guess is Amy and I will be watching it and some other Robin Williams stuff this weekend.

  • Chris Heivly

    Re-read an article on limbic resonance last night because of this news. Limbic resonance – the emotional give and take that naturally happens with humans (and animals). Robin Williams produced positive limbic reactions for the entire room. The # of people who have come out to tell stories of being in the same room with him is a testament not only of his talent but his heart.

  • i was really bummed about this news. still am. he defined genius for me. his brain was working at a different frequency than anyone else’s. i guess that’s not easy thing to deal with.

    if you use your blog to be self indulgent and that helps you in times like this, i say keep doing it.

    • Hugs to you. Yeah – the lesson of “just write for yourself” comes through in moments like this.

    • JamesHRH

      I was just about to write your last line. I could not agree more.

    • Amen.

  • frankille

    I could feel the Heart Math of the world completely out of balance last night. The darkness of depression is a sad thing to suffer from or witness. When it manifests itself in the act of suicide it is beyond heartbreaking.

    I couldn’t agree more…O’Captain My Captain, we will miss you.

  • Well done, and thank you.

  • Thanks for sharing Brad.
    Love you & sending encouragement your way…

    • Thx man – back at ya.

  • tom

    Thank you Brad for sharing.

  • I’m just so sad. I too woke up with Robin Williams being on my mind. It’s a raw sadness.

    I hate the stigma associated with mental health. While giving oneself an insulin shot at a black tie dinner party wouldn’t raise eyebrows, seeking treatment for or asking for help to combat mental health issues still has a sort of taboo associated with it. Depression is not something that we can turn on or turn off like a light switch; it’s very real, it’s very natural, and it’s very much in need of understanding.

    Working with Active Minds has given me the opportunity to work daily to combat the stigma, with the goal of having a chapter on every college campus as soon as possible. I lost my friend to suicide last year, and I wish he thought it ok to ask for help.

    Thanks for your openness. I don’t have anything eloquent to say, other than that I am just so sad, and will continue to bust my ass through Active Minds to combat the stigma and further the dialogue about mental health.

  • Depression is a formidable foe. I also suffer from this disease. Brad’s writings on this have been stellar.

    The thought occurred to me yesterday that depression is somewhat like diabetes (as Brad mentions in reply to a comment). Or a deadly allergy to peanuts. It takes constant monitoring and diligence. I think the biggest mistake any of us can make is to think we (or a loved one) are “cured” when we get to the better times when the depression is in remission. I really praise Brad for bringing speaking about this in the venture community, which can be a very manic / depressive culture. Being able to speak about it with less and less stigma is a huge step in the right direction, IMHO.

    During the past few months I’ve been going through another very dark time. And I’m not completely through it yet. Robin Williams’ suicide is oddly validating to me about what a Big Deal depression is. I’m not weak because I have it. I just have it. And it’s powerful. So it’s perfectly normal that it feels very, very hard to manage at times. Not everyone makes it through to the next period of remission.

    I appreciate what Brad said (in a reply, below) about he and Amy having a “plan” to deal with his depression. I have a sister who is very, very supportive of me. She and I talk about my depression, and I have promised her that if I ever get that low I will get help (and I got very close to being that low recently). But we don’t exactly have a “plan”. I’m going to talk with her and create one. This week.

    Thank you, Brad.

    And my heart goes out to Robin’s loved ones who have to live with this unhappy ending.

  • Marie Powers

    I especially appreciate your post. You can relate to Robin’s.pain. As can I .

  • Jana

    Wow, so many great comments on this very dear to my heart post by Brad. Yes, the manic/ depressive/ insanity that comes along with being creative. I can’t make it leave my body, and if I could I wouldn’t, it’s my gift and my curse. I too grew up with Robin, and I so loved that I thought he really lived in Boulder with Mindy! Just up the street from where I live. : – ( RIP Robin ~

  • Brad, thank you for all you do to publicize depression. I’m sorry for your (and our) loss. What I’ve enjoyed most about Robin recently is watching my kids discover and enjoy his amazing talent. They’ve loved Hook, Alladin and several others. He seemed to embody childhood. I hope that, someday, we understand the roots of this disease aand don’t continue to lose men like Robin – and my dad. Thanks. Parker

  • Dead Poet’s Society has long been my favorite movie of all time.

    • One of the best movies ever.

      • I feel bad that Robin may have gotten in a space that he couldn’t accept, apparently, all of the love that people feel for him.

        I was thinking about this.

        As a person who is also hard on oneself, sometimes, I know it can be difficult to let that love in. I hope that we can all learn (how to let the love in) more and more.

  • For more insight, consider William Styron’s “Darkness Visible – a Memoir of Madness” ( which is his firsthand (horrifyingly sad) experience with clinical depression.

    • Such a powerful book.

      • “Most people in the grip of depression at its ghastliest are, for whatever reason, in a state of unrealistic hopelessness, torn by exaggerated ills and fatal threats that bear no resemblance to actuality…” ~WS p76

  • It is a shame when people die before their time. As much as a skilled comedian or actor, Robin Williams was a world class improviser with an incredible mind. I remember watching this episode of Inside the Actors Studio when it aired. Brilliance in action

    • Chris Heivly

      I have watched this episode so many times. The contagious laughter from the woman in the front row is something.

    • Alicia

      This is a great window into the man that is Robin Williams. He is fascinating to watch. Something mysterious about him too. Hiding in plain view.

    • Gennady Shenker

      Have the whole episode recorded. An incredible show of amazing talent.

  • It took me a while to process this one, and I still am.
    He always acted or made us laugh with a big heart. No one was like him. RIP.

  • David Keefe

    sorry you are having a tough time.

    • Thx David. I’m doing better today (Wed AM) – feeling back to normal.

  • “an easter egg that would tickle me forever.” – that says it all about Mork (and what he became in our worlds of outlandish imagination created by him, and crying-outloud-happiness/laughter each week). And then it didn’t stop – with his continued amazing skills shared in his movies.

    I recall a thought before living in CA, that I really wanted to live in San Francisco JUST BECAUSE I’d read that Robin Williams lived there. Silly thought – but in my young naive head, he was all magic and figured he brought magic to whereever he lived. Being in the same town of this super happy man would be even more special, karmic. He was THAT impactful ! (and more SF-drawing in my mind back then, than IT!)

    I also have been similarly secretly obssessing Brad – and mostly sad for his evolved sadness. Now he is at peace from his demons though – we can say that at least, and absolutely for sure. The all-white pearly gates *definitely* have the red carpet rolled out for this man!!! Maybe it’s a rainbow rug in fact.. yes, probably. Mork would like that!

    • I’m most certain it’s a rainbow rug!

  • Anonymous

    GREAT POST. I always relish the rawness of the more personal posts on this blog and was wondering if you would comment on this tragic event. The World According to Garp is one of my all time favorites. In fact I may have to watch it this weekend. I was a 12 year old girl at the time and fell madly in love with Robin Williams. By all accounts he was as as awesome a human being as he was an actor. Terribly sad. News of his death triggered old thoughts during a very difficult time in my life when I wished I would be hit by a bus (or killed by accident in any way). I have children and thought suicide was selfish, and that if I could just be killed by someone or something, it would be easier for my family (no stigma!) and me, and I’d be spared the anguish of my everyday pain. And so I wished for death (as I faked normalcy and happiness). I was embarrassed for a long time to tell anyone I wished I was dead. And then I decided I needed to. It turned out to be the best thing I did. Depression has a presence in my family and who knows where those dark thoughts might have lead if I had not. I have no idea what drove Robin Williams to take his own life but I can certainly understand why someone might want to pull down the curtain. For me, I simply did not practice enough self care and allowed another person trenched in their own disease to affect my feelings about myself, about my life, about whether I wanted to LIVE. My depression was short lived, but it was a really dark time that will forever impact how I view everything and whom and what I let into my life. I know this is not the case in your life based on your writings, and it may seem silly, but I’ve experienced this myself and have seen it with others. It’s a fave and I find it to be true in many cases: before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem – make sure, in fact, that you are not surrounded by assholes. I think it’s so well said for some. Stay well and thanks for the great read.

  • Denim

    thank you for writing this Brad. Curious if you have ever contemplated what you would say to a Robin Williams/ anyone/ yourself @ that 11th hour? Would that be therapeutic to get out in a blog post or too heavy?

    • Theraputic – maybe I’ll do it…

  • Thanks for sharing this Brad. This confirms by belief that many of us were deeply effected in very similar ways. If there is a heaven, I am looking forward to seeing what Robin has in store for us in his second act.