Kevin Breel is a young stand-up comedian who lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He speaks publicly about his own battle with depression and has contributed a personal essay about what Robin Williams' death meant to him:
My birthday was on Sunday. I spent it on a little island off the west coast of Canada called Saltspring Island. It's a quiet, tiny place and barely has any cell phone service.
I woke up on Monday and found out Robin Williams was dead. And that he had died by suicide.
The news- of course - devastated me and my family.
Where do you start with something this heavy?
I'm not quite sure.
Maybe at first it's about the talent and genius of who Robin Williams was. I'm 21 years old and there isn't a person in my contact list on my iPhone who didn't know who Robin Williams was and wasn't at one point enthralled and entertained by his talent. People say it feels weird to mourn the loss of a stranger and I agree. However, it feels like Robin Williams was less of a stranger to our society and more of a friend.
I grew up as a kid watching his movies. They were odd and I always liked odd humor and so I would laugh.
But it wasn't until I watched Robin Williams do stand-up comedy that I started to realize the pure, unfiltered talent this man possessed.
I think I was thirteen years old when I first watched his stand-up special. He had about two hundred bottles of water on the stool behind him and was sweating at a rate that would be alarming in a sauna, let alone on stage. Yet there was this undeniable genius about him. The way he could snap in and out of voices, characters and ideas was truly brilliant.
I had always had a secret desire to be a comedian and I can remember watching his special thinking that one day I hoped I could make people laugh that much. I thought it would also be nice to not sweat so much. But, I rationalized that if I had to sweat that much to make people laugh that hard, it would be a trade-off I would have to take.
So Robin Williams was a talented guy. And an inspiring guy to a lot of people. Certainly, to me and my friends.
But I guess in a way, that's also not why his death affected me so intensely. The real reason I think is because of the nature of his passing. The word that feels loaded with so many different pre-conceptions and judgments: suicide.
I left high school to pursue stand-up comedy. I started as a 17 year old kid getting up in the back of a bar at an old, run down Best Western hotel at two in the morning to entertain a few truckers who happened to be passing through and what I can only assume was a handful of homeless people who had stopped in to avoid the cold. That was the place my comedy career started. It was a humble place to begin, to say the least.
But while I was on stage, making my inexcusably awkward jokes and trying to be this thing they called an "entertainer", I was someone who had a lot of secrets about myself.
And one of those darkest secrets was that I was someone who had struggled with depression off and on. And on February 26th, 2011 I had come very close to committing suicide. I still have the note I wrote that night and I still have the at times haunting memory of what it was like to live in a moment so low that you lose the desire to keep on existing. It was- and is- one of the heaviest things I've ever experienced as a person.
An older comic I know told me once that "anyone who gives advice is really just talking to themselves". Sometimes he would say that comedians are guilty of the same thing. They try to make other people laugh, but sometimes can't do the same for themselves. I'm not exactly sure whether or not that's true. Certainly, people love to discuss the idea of a "sad clown" or something along these lines. I'm not sure if that exists or if that is who Robin Williams was. I never met him. I live in west coast Canada, not west Hollywood. I didn't hang out at The Comedy Store in the 90s; I had barely been born. So I can't say a single thing about the person Robin Williams was.
What I can say is that I think his struggle is a shared one. I think it's a similar struggle to the one a lot of people wake up with some mornings. I think in some ways, it's a struggle that I can identify with.
And the saddest part about his suicide isn't that we lost a great talent. That's sad too, but it's also selfish. It says he was here only to entertain us. Not to be a person. But he was a person. And he was a person who had a lot of pain. The same way other people on this planet have a lot of pain. And he lost his life to a battle that a lot of people would deem invisible. But to him, I suppose it was very visible. I guess it was very real.
And that I think is the sad part. That we lost someone to his brokenness. And that we lose people every single day to suicide and to their own sense of brokenness. Last year, almost a million people on this planet took their own lives. And yet, it feels like we don't hear too much about that.
I'm heartbroken about Robin Williams. He was a hero of mine.
But I'm also heartbroken that so much of the chaotic aftermath of his passing has been focused on his fame and societal stature and not the fact that depression, addiction and suicide are issues that affect every single one of us; whether directly or indirectly. We want to ask the question of how can someone be so accomplished yet so conflicted. In a lot of ways, it's a fair question. But I think the real question we need to all be asking is: what are we going to do from here? What conversations are we going to have? What steps are we going to take? What change are we going to make?
You can be known and still feel invisible. You can be successful and still broken. You can be loved and still feel alone.
I think Robin Williams' story is evidence of this.
As we move forward, I hope we don't forget that this story is not singular. It's a shared story. A shared struggle. And that our society still has a long way to go on the conversation of suicide. Hopefully, this moment can be the beginning of something, rather than just an ending.
RIP Robin Williams.
You, along with so many others, will be missed.