Many years ago, I had a standing invitation on New Year’s Eve to go to the home of family friends for a small gathering. Jonathan Winters and his wife were usually there. I was enchanted by him, fascinated by him, endlessly entertained, and also deeply moved. He was unabashedly honest about his stays in psychiatric hospitals — he’d put himself there on a couple of occasions — and said openly it was because he needed help. He said he had bipolar disorder and I believe the word he used was “sadness,” as in a sadness he couldn’t shake. Depression was not a commonly used word then. He spoke about feeling that he might need to “check in there again soon.”

I can still see his eyes — a mixture of twinkling humor and an undercurrent of deep sorrow.  His eyes could grab onto you and at the same time hold back. One year, when my then-husband and I drove home after ringing in the New Year, I said to him, “I think he gets help when he feels the laughter die.”

Years later, when I met Robin Williams, I saw the same mix of humor, quick wit, intelligence, and sorrow in his eyes.  And because I didn’t meet him with a group of people around, he was shy and soft-spoken. I think with people like Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams, we lean on their genius, their rapid-fire intelligence, and we assume those attributes will always win out. Whatever shadows lurk beneath the surface, whatever despair they’re wrestling with, the brightness of their amazing minds will conquer it. But human beings are fragile — all human beings, even the brightest and the most gifted.

Maybe in our sadness over Robin Williams’ passing, we can take time to reflect on that fragility, and look at everyone with a little more tenderness than we generally do. We’re all a mix of light and dark, bright blazes and secret shadows. Tragically, sometimes shadows have the last word.


  1. Dan Black says:

    We all have our individual demons but to be able to recognize this and to express it so honestly and with a sensitive heart is special. Well done.

  2. Toni Rio says:

    Powerful and insightful. Thank you.

  3. Thoughtful comments Patti. Williams was another loss to the world before his time. I have worked with many depressed people over the years and can help most – but some are so stuck in that dark place that they seem untouchable.

  4. Mick Bysshe says:

    My daughters, age 40 and 37 occasionally contemplate suicide. A nephew committed suicide several years ago. We need to accept that caterpillars eventually become butterflies–death as a more subtle plane, even as water moves from solid to liquid to gas.
    Let’s be careful we do not burden ourselves with guilt when loved ones decide to opt out of this vale here below. They would that we celebrate their time here in a positive way.

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