Dec 14, 2014

If It Could Happen To Robin Williams

By Trish Vradenburg

Robin Wiilaims - Alzheimer's Reading Room

It was 1978. I had just settled down to catch an episode of “Happy Days,” a funny, sweet TV show – a good escape.

In the episode, The Fonz (Henry Winkler) heard a knock at the Cunningham’s front door. Outside stood Mork from Ork – Robin Williams in his first role.

Mork was an endless barrage of jokes, pratfalls, catch-‘em-if-you-can rejoinders. You could get whiplash trying to keep up. He left me breathless just trying. My husband, who was working late that night, called just after the program ended. “I discovered a star tonight,” I excitedly told him. Apparently twenty million other viewers felt the same way.

Well, who wouldn't love him? He was funny, sweet, generous, a gifted actor and comedian. But his mind – his incredible mind – was working at 78 RPMs in 33 RPM world. He left me both hysterical and exhausted.

No longer on alcohol or drugs, happily married, successful, he had it all – or so we thought.

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When it was announced that Robin had committed suicide, the world mourned.

How? Why? Nothing made sense. Then it was disclosed that Robin had Parkinson’s. A depressed personality, the drugs for this disease exacerbated depression. Still, was that enough to make him implode? Last month, the final autopsy was released and the puzzle came together. Robin Williams was suffering from early onset Lewy Body disease (LBD), a form of dementia, with 1.2 million sufferers second on the spectrum only to Alzheimer’s with 5.2 million sufferers.

Although it is believed that Robin Williams didn't know he had this disease, that didn’t prevent him from exhibiting some of the classic symptoms: difficulty walking, decreased balance, inability to control physical movements. Very often LBD (Lewy Body Disease) occurs with Parkinson’s. This leads to a decline in thinking, reasoning and independent function.

It is painful to think of anyone losing the ability to remember things, but imagine Robin Williams whose gift was taking in a thought, searching his memory bank and instantly restating it in a hilarious, brilliant way? That was his public identity and it was suddenly being ripped away from him.

Add to this the visual hallucinations, a hallmark of LBD, where people see things that aren't actually there. He was apparently wrestling with this every day, talking and arguing with these paranoid hallucinations. Perhaps Robin Williams saw no other solution than suicide.

All dementia is hideous. We cannot, as a civilized society, ignore the pressing need for research. And yet NIH only provides about $560 million for Alzheimer’s – far less than it commits to other deadly diseases.

We need to get our Congress to fund Alzheimer’s and related dementia as the national emergency it is. Because if this can happen to Robin Williams, let’s face it this can happen to any of us.

*Trish Vradenburg, a former television comedy writer for Designing Women, Family Ties, and Kate and Allie, is co-founder of USAgainstAlzheimer’s.

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