In August 2014, beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life at age 63, leaving behind few facts and no last words to explain why. In the aftermath, there was a lot of speculation, primarily in the media, that he had taken his life because of depression, controlled substances, and/or financial worries. But as the 2020 documentary Robin's Wish details, Williams was suffering from a serious brain disease called Lewy body dementia (LBD).
The documentary, directed by Tylor Norwood, primarily covers the last year or so of Williams's life. Williams's wife Susan, his friends, and people he worked with describe how he struggled with his deteriorating physical and mental condition, and wondered why he was experiencing anxiety, hallucinations, and paranoia. Sadly, he never got the correct answers.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or those who want to help them. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.
No One Knew Williams Was Suffering From The Brain Disease Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) Until After His Passing
Robin Williams took his own life in August 2014. In October of that year, his widow, Susan Schneider Williams, saw the coroner's report, which found that the actor had suffered from diffuse Lewy body dementia (LBD), a fatal disease that destroys neurons in the brain and causes such symptoms as paranoia, anxiety, and disruption of sleep patterns. According to the Lewy Body Dementia Association, LBD is "the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer’s disease."
When she learned of the diagnosis, Susan Williams says in the documentary Robin's Wish, "I remember feeling, 'Now I have a name for it.' It was the beginning of understanding what had really gone on."
Although some in the media had speculated that the actor's suicide was related to controlled substances, the toxicology report came back clean. That was no surprise to his widow, who was sure the actor had been clean and sober at the time of his passing. Instead, she attributes his behavior to the fact that "he wasn't in his right mind. Those Lewy bodies were in nearly every region of his brain."
Williams never received a diagnosis of LBD during his lifetime, even though he visited numerous doctors in an attempt to find answers for his deteriorating condition for more than a year before he passed. His wife believes that if he had received an accurate diagnosis, the actor would have at least been able to find some peace.
One Doctor Said Williams's LBD Was One Of The Most Devastating Forms Of The Disease He'd Ever Seen
After Susan Schneider Williams was told her husband had suffered from LBD, she asked Bruce Miller, MD, a neurologist and director of the Memory and Aging Center at UC San Francisco, to examine the last two years of Robin Williams's medical records. Miller says in the documentary:
I realized this was about as devastating a form of Lewy body dementia that I'd ever seen. Almost no part [of Williams's brain] was left unaffected. It really amazed me that Robin could walk or move at all.
Miller explains that because Williams had never received a diagnosis, he had no idea what was causing his symptoms, which might have led to his despair: "[LBD] becomes progressively irreversible, unstoppable. And always fatal, always fatal. It affects many people, and sadly, one of the outcomes is suicide."
LBD Caused Williams To Suffer From Such Symptoms As Anxiety, Paranoia, Memory Loss, And Hallucinations
According to neurologist Bruce Miller, LBD increases anxiety and self-doubt and causes delusions and misbeliefs.
Robin Williams also suffered from the inability to retain information. One night Williams called his wife from Vancouver, where he was filming the third Night at the Museum film. According to Susan Williams, the actor panicked because he was having so much trouble trying to remember his lines.
He also dealt with paranoia. By July 2014, "the degree to which the paranoia came in was so drastic. He was just going from room to room, watching me," Susan Williams says in Robin's Wish. "He was making a lot of phone calls and texting people. And questioning, I'm sure, questioning my loyalty to him."
When he snapped out of his paranoid episodes, he'd be very upset with himself. "He had this awareness of what he was doing and it pained him, " Susan Williams says, "because he knew it wasn't us. It wasn't right."
In the documentary, Walter Koroshetz, MD, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, says many people don't understand diseases like LBD:
[With LBD], it's brain circuits that cause troubles that people assume are behavioral, not potentially related to a disease. [If] someone has Parkinson's disease and they have shaking and can't walk, then, oh, that's clearly a disease. But in fact, it's pure semantics. There's no difference. It's just different [brain] circuits that are being affected.
Miller agrees, explaining, "There's not a realization that the chemical changes in the brain are responsible for the psychiatric changes."
Williams Worried His Marriage Was Breaking Up When Therapists Suggested The Couple Sleep Apart To Help The Actor's Sleep Deprivation
In Robin's Wish, neurologist Bruce Miller says LBD also affects sleep: "When [LBD sufferers] are asleep, they suddenly act out their dreams. We call it REM behavior. They can strike out during a dream and actually hit people."
Susan Williams says her husband's lack of sleep had been building intensely since December 2013. Neither the actor nor his wife could get any rest because of Williams's delusional looping, which tended to be worse at night.
In July 2014, Williams's therapists suggested that the couple start sleeping separately, in an attempt to help the actor get more rest. His response to the suggestion was heartbreaking: "He came to me and asked, 'Does this mean we're separated?'" Susan Williams recalls.