The recent death of Robin Williams has many people, including myself, shaken to the core. So many people die everyday: the unrest in Iraq, devastation along the Gaza strip, Ebola deaths in Africa, and the many deaths in our own backyard. Chicago, Atlanta, and St. Louis come to mind mostly because those cities are in the public eye.
I think Robin’s death is so heartbreaking because two particular aspects converged. The first is he was someone you “knew”. Whether you grew up glued to Mork & Mindy (I had a huge crush on Pam Dawber!) or came to know him through Dead Poet’s Society, Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, the Genie in Aladdin, or Ramon and Lovelace in Happy Feet, you knew him.
The second is he isn’t dead because he accidentally took the wrong combo of pills. He wasn’t murdered or in a car crash. And he didn’t die peacefully after having lived a long life. He died because he saw no other way out of the abyss. Robin Williams was mentally ill. Now, what did you think of when you read “mentally ill”? Did you think he couldn’t be because he’s not like that person who talks to themselves, gesticulating wildly, while walking down the street? Or like that “weird” guy who hangs out by the bus stop wearing an aluminum hat? Or that one relative that everyone tip toes around and always speaks quietly to?
Or did you think about your co-worker who always has a joke ready. Your neighbor who is always so happy to look in on your house pets while you’re gone. What about your best friend who seems a little down sometimes but then is always available to chat and is quick to suggest an adventure. They may have mental illness too, it just doesn’t manifest itself the same in everyone. Those of us that suffer silently put on a facade so no one feels uncomfortable. Life is a gift and we’re supposed to enjoy it despite our profound and utter emptiness.
Mental illness, depression mainly, is a part of my family tree. It’s close. I know it intimately. I am all too familiar with its seductive whisper that says, “This is it. There’s nothing left. You are not worth anything. I am the only thing that cares.” It is the worse kind of frenemy. I remember giving myself pep talks when that tiny thought of self-hate tried to gain purchase in my brain and I’d have to fight it, talk it down, before it could take over. Sometimes it won; it fought dirty. I kept fighting though; I fought even dirtier. I’d think of every person who would miss me. I’d think of my nieces and nephews and what kind of example I would be leaving. I’d think of the innocent people I would affect if I drive my car into that utility pole. Mostly, I would think of its permanence. I am extremely curious by nature. I want to know what’s going to happen and who will be there. I’m the idiot that won’t leave a party until I know all the action is gone. The future kept me alive. Hoping—knowing—things would get better kept me alive.
I am fortunate enough to have people who care about me—now and when I was younger. For every abuse I suffered from my stepfather, my mother saved me. For every irrational, out-of-proportion rage I inflicted on the world, a friend was there to talk me down. Just when I thought I was the only lip-syncing, drag-wearing lesbian in the entire world, a community opened its doors and welcomed me as a friend.
I was right. Things are much better now. I sought help before the depression won. It still takes work. It’s a constant fight with demons in an angel’s garb; but it’s good work that’s validating and helps me feel worth it. Not everyone wins though. Sometimes the illness roots itself so deep, a body can only see darkness even when bathed in light. It’s time to have a serious discussion about mental illness beyond medication and institutionalization. It’s time to strip away the stigma that stains the very fabric of our cognizance. We need to talk honestly and openly about psychological ills as much as somatic.
To those that have lost loved ones to mental illness and suicide and those that are suffering in silence, I offer my embrace. You know the struggle. Seek help so you can continue to survive and break the cycle. To the rest of you, I offer dialogue. Let’s talk and share. We are validated when we see ourselves in others. The worst case scenario is you leave with some knowledge that lessens the stigma. Either way, you are better for it and the battle against mental illness gains one more ally.