(Content note for suicide, discussion of mental illness)
Everyone has ‘their’ Disney film – the one that comes out at that perfect, crystal time, usually about the age of seven, when you’re young enough to uncritically adore the silliness and playfulness and old enough to appreciate the complexity of the plots and characterisation. For my younger brother, it was The Lion King. For me, it was Aladdin.
I was completely, totally, head-over-heels in love with that film. Even now, I think I could recite it by heart. All the characters were perfectly realised, a brilliant balance of fantastic and real. Jafar was a terrifically suave, creepy villain; Jasmine was a badass, no-nonsense princess; the Sultan and Iago made for great comic relief, but were still interesting, three-dimensional characters. Flawed, funny Aladdin was and is one of my favourite protagonists. The stereotype dictates that little girls want to be the princess, but I wanted to be Aladdin – for several years after the film’s release, I made all my friends call me ‘Al’.
The character that made Aladdin, though, was the Genie. As a child, I laughed until my stomach hurt at Robin Williams’ fast-talking, wisecracking dialogue, at the shapeshifting, thousand-voiced, beautiful chaos that the Genie brought to the film. In my many, many rewatches over the years, I’ve picked up more and more on the references he brought in – the Taxi Driver skit, the Jack Nicholson impression, and hundreds of other ad libs and extras. Every time I’ve watched the film, I’ve noticed something new, and that’s one of the reasons it’s remained a favourite.
Aladdin woke me up to Robin Williams’ talent as an actor and comedian. I watched his other films voraciously, and marvelled at how he could make me laugh myself sick one moment and rip my heart out the next. All good comedy has a side of tragedy, dealing with the shadows as well as the light, and in his acting, Williams balanced those scales like an expert.
Aladdin has also got me through some incredibly tough times. As I’ve noted in previous blogs, I’ve struggled with depression for many years. Sometimes, the best way to deal with it was to write. Sometimes, though, writing didn’t help, and I needed to take a holiday from my own head and fill my thoughts with something friendly and fun and safe. Aladdin was one of my go-to films to get through the worst moments, to give myself a break from being me when being me was unbearable.
This morning, I woke up to a text from my mum saying that Robin Williams had died. I immediately assumed it was a result of his heart condition, which I’d heard him talk about in an interview with Graham Norton. My mum responded that no, it was an apparent suicide.
Shock joined my sadness. I’d known that Williams had had problems with mental illness. I’d known that people with mental illness can often become very good at keeping a cheerful public face – hell, I’d done it myself. Plus, of course, there’s the fact that being mentally ill doesn’t mean you never have happy days. But, even knowing all this, there was still such a huge dissonance in hearing that suicide had got someone like Williams, someone larger than life, someone whose name was synonymous with laughter.
As I mentioned, I’ve dealt with mental illness – depression and anxiety, not bipolar disorder like Williams, but mental illness nonetheless. Currently, it doesn’t affect me too much, but in the past, it’s been severe (and that’s an official diagnosis). I lived, or rather existed, through long, long stretches of time where I just felt grey and hollow.
I’ve never been suicidal. This doesn’t make me stronger than Robin Williams, or anyone else who deals or has dealt with suicidal thoughts and feelings. It just makes me luckier. Depression and other mental illnesses aren’t an indication of weakness, any more than illnesses like diabetes or cancer. People get ill. Sometimes the person can work towards their own recovery, but sometimes they can’t. Sometimes the illness kills them.
This isn’t to say that mental illnesses are always hopeless, and that you can never help a person who is ill in this way. You can, of course you can. You can be there, you can listen, you can be a much-needed distraction, you can hand out sticks. Most of all, you can remind the person that they are loved, and valued, and wanted.
Sometimes illness can’t be beaten, and, to paraphrase another of Robin Williams’ greatest roles, it’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. But kindness and compassion, when given freely and genuinely, will never cause harm, and may even help. At the very least, as Robin Williams’ work did for me and undoubtedly for many others, you might give them a few moments where they feel free.