Comedy, Trauma & Healing: A tribute to Robin Williams from a survivor of child sexual abuse

Thank you to our guest contributor for this post. Eric Stiles identifies as a survivor of child sexual abuse, a master of humor, and so much more. 

When I entered the first grade, I remember the first day back to school so vividly. I knew that I was going to be there a whole day. I was growing up so I rode the bus for the first time. And I was on the bus with my two older brothers. I knew all this, but, as a child, I still did not know what to expect. I was just a small, kind of round kid headed for a big change. 

As I entered the bus I was overwhelmed with the loud noise—the children carrying on, just being kids. I instinctually shrunk to as small as I could be and slid into a seat. While riding to school my anxiety mounted. I did not have the words to name it anxiety. I just felt so scared and alone. My brothers seemed to fit in, to be just like the big kids. They were liked and had no problems. 

By the time I got to school, I had urinated on myself. I was so scared of people seeing I pulled my sweatshirt off and wrapped it on my waist. I had tears in my eyes as I exited the bus and headed into school. I made it to my classroom with no one noticing. My teacher was very nice and she instructed us all to hang up our jackets and put our lunches in our little spots where our names were. She told us to find our seats. 

The tears I was fighting poured out of me and the teacher asked me what was wrong. I could not get any words out. She noticed that my pants where wet. She took me to the nurse’s office and called my mother. The nurse came down and as she came in the room I said the only thing I could think of: Earlier in the summer, we had a dog that had puppies die. I told her that I was sad about this. I could hear her talking to my mother and telling her what she thought was wrong. My mother agreed and also said it was a year since my grandfather had passed. 

They all had a reason for why I had done this. My mother took me home and did her best to comfort me. She did not yell at me. Yet, I still could not share what was happening. My brother was sexually assaulting me at home. 

The first day of first grade shaped so much of my life to follow. I learned to keep silent. I also learned that crying was so terrible because it drew attention.

When you can’t talk, don’t have the words to talk, about what happened it’s so overwhelming.

As I entered class on the days that followed, kids started to make fun of me. I was in the spot light again. I began to shrink, but it did not stop their attacks. At recess the picking started again, I found myself struggling, desperate not to cry. This teasing went on for a while. 

Sometime later that year, I had a day that taught me a second life lesson. I went over to a little boy in the playgroundand started to play on the swings with him. He was very lonely and nice. I knew he had lost his mother in an accident. I could resonate with his pain. I started to make jokes and be goofy to cheer him up. As my energy was being focused on lifting his spirits, I found a newfound freedom from my own pain. 

Later, I would use this skill to keep the majority of the kids who picked on me at bay from me. They would laugh. I found a useful mask for my pain.

Later in life when things came to a head with my victimization I found that my mask of humor couldn’t keep all of the pain contained. I was in a very dark place; suicide seemed like the option for me. I had numerous attempts. Each time I would find my way back from the brink with my humor and love.

In light of Robin Williams' passing, I reflect back on how he resonated with me in my adult life. He was the father type figure I always wanted. His humor, coming from dark places, resonated with me.

A tribute to a member of the acting community, many of us have connections to famous people because of what they perceive them to be like. I am one of those people. I had a special place in my heart for Robin Williams. Though I admired him from a distance, my connection to him felt very profound.

My humor was my mask, but also a useful tool for helping others when they are in dark places. Somehow, my pain transformed into humor and brought light to others. I am truly grateful for that. 

Although as a child my humor was a way of coping with pain, as an adult I’ve found new ways to use it for joy. Pain and joy don’t have to be so disconnected. On any given day, I can use humor for both and that works for me. That may not be true for everyone, we’re all made different. 

We often craft our differences into masks. The masks we show the world can make our experiences invisible to others. In our work to end sexual violence we talk about preventative strategies and healing methods. We have to practice prevention and healing together to erase sexual violence from this world. 

One of the best ways to do both is to start building deeper connections with those around us. We can’t label people or rely on one-word, one-dimension qualifiers. I was seen as a class clown, but that is not all of me. The whole of me is so much deeper and greater.

People are deep, and complex, and that’s true art. 

Not all of us, no matter what the abuse or pain in our lives, can find the ways to put the mask down — to show our true selves. But we, as people who strive to end violence, can take the time to be supportive and nurturing. This way, when someone lets down their mask, there are kind and caring people, waiting with open arms. Mr. Robin Williams always gave me the feeling, even if only at a distance, that there are kind, caring people waiting without judgment for me when I was ready to come forward. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for being you, an artist of humor and so much more.


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