Everyone has been writing about Robin Williams, and compared to the absolute beauty of some of the things that I’ve read, I’ve hesitated to say anything. However, today thoughts have been swimming around in my skull and as usual, it’s going to bug me unless I get them out.
It deeply concerns me how so many people run from these tragic events. Not literally, but in trying to process them, they manage to distance themselves from the feelings and the possibilities in their own lives. I’m still haunted by what happened in Newtown and Santa Barbara. So much of what has been reported involves finger pointing and why these boys weren’t caught and stopped before they did these horrible things. It’s easy to characterize these boys as monsters, because it allows us to separate ourselves from them. But they weren’t monsters. They were deeply, deeply sick, and in reality, probably misdiagnosed. If we characterize them as being inhuman creatures with nothing but evil inside of them, it’s easy to say it could never happen to us. But what if we talk about them in terms of illness? Could any of us become ill? Of course we could. I suppose it’s freeing in a way to separate oneself from all that dark sticky stuff. It can feel so exceptional to be able to say “I’d never do that! I’d never harm someone else. I would never take my life and do that to my family.” That may be true, but it’s not because you are superior and able to safely curl up and tuck into a little comfy corner of perfection. It’s because you’ve been extremely fortunate.
We Are Not Immune.
I can’t spend my time judging other people’s struggles and how they should have been handled. And as far as mental illness goes, I can always use a tune up. I have experienced depression first hand and it sucks. “Sucks” isn’t even an appropriate word to describe it, it’s debilitating and it feeds on itself. I have had several bouts of depression in my life, probably never serious enough to be categorized as Major Depression, but they still kicked my life’s ass. Probably the worst one was the year between college and grad school when I was 23-24. I lived with someone I couldn’t stand, had a boyfriend I didn’t love, and was using my BA in Developmental Psychology to be a receptionist at a software company in Silicon Valley. My understanding of developmental stages was used to wash other people’s coffee cups and answer the phone. Looking back I can say it was the worst year I’ve experienced in my life. I was still drinking back then, quite a bit actually. I got to a place where I was calling in sick to work every single day, and every day that I stayed in bed it got worse. I started crying and could not stop. My close friends from college had all moved on and away, I didn’t have anyone I fully trusted in my midst. I finally called my mom who immediately drove up from LA and made me get out of my apartment in Burlingame and walk outside. Things slowly got better and I began applying for graduate school, but MAN. I would not relive that year for anything. Since then, I have had little bouts of it but I know what to do when I feel like I’m sliding back in. You know that scene from Poltergeist where the mom is outside in the rain in the swimming pool that is still under construction? There are corpses down at the bottom, drifting around in the nasty, filthy water. She tries to climb out but with all the mud and the rain, she slips back down into the horror and there is nothing she can do to stop it. I think about that and visualize it all the time because that is what it feels like. I can find myself on the top edge of that pool, not fully slipping yet but close, if I have too much time and nothing to do. It sounds insane to so many, I know. But if I have no plans and no structure for a long period of time, I start slipping. I sleep too much, I stare at the TV for hours, I never get out of my pajamas. Those kinds of days are fabulous once and awhile, but when too many of them are strung together it becomes dangerous for me.
The period of time after my father died was also really tough, and I was depressed for about a year and a half. I don’t remember a lot from that period of time, it was as though I were living under water. I was working but not totally coherent, parenting but not feeling, hearing people but not listening, talking to my husband but not loving him. I truly couldn’t enjoy anything for awhile, and it was a terrifying feeling, I thought I would stay that way. I didn't, but you can't see that when you're in the thick of it. It’s all kind of a blur now. I did write some during that period of time and rereading it is difficult because it doesn’t even sound like me. Grief is brutal, and you have to just let the time pass, as cliché as that it. There is no shortcut or fast forward button, believe me, I tried to find them.
The things that help me are other people, but it can be hard to reach out when I feel that way. Having things to look forward to helps a great deal as well, specifically going to concerts and spending time with my best friends. Being outside helps a ton, and exercise always does even though I rarely do it. Music is one of the main things that makes me feel alive, so my ipod is almost always on. I was put on an antidepressant years and years ago and switched to another because of the side effects. I still take it. I have no idea if I still need it or not, but there’s this weird thing with meds like that…if you feel better, oftentimes it’s because it’s working. If you decide to go off because you’re feeling better, there is a very good chance that you will do a full cannonball dive into the corpse pool. Why risk that? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There shouldn’t be a stigma with anti-depressants, but there is. I will simply say that I know a number of people that take them and you would never know it, you’d be shocked at who they are.
We Are Not Immune.
About Robin Williams, much has been said about how much he made people laugh and gave so much of himself. So many seem surprised that someone so beloved could have such demons, but that doesn’t surprise me at all. I think fame these days is a tremendous burden, one I’d never want to have. I imagine having to be prepared to be on stage every moment of every day out in public and that pressure must be suffocating. Today I saw a lot about how people who are in pain use humor as a defense mechanism, and how that was probably the case with him too. Yikes. Yes, I absolutely, unequivocally do that, and those who know me well would agree. It’s a lot easier to see things in my life through my comedic lenses that are always within reach. I probably do it too much, and that's something I’m conscious of. I have a hard time being super emotional around other people, so it feels like a safe alternative for me. Is it totally healthy? Probably not, at least as much as I do it. Humor is how I’ve made sense of a lot of things in my life, and that’s been positive. The key seems to be allowing myself to be sad or hurt, and letting people I trust see that side of me and not always feeling like I have to make a joke. Psychologists are human too!
We Are Not Immune.
My experience with suicide was minimal until a few years ago. I never seriously considered it myself, although it has crossed my mind from time to time, especially in the young teen years. When one of the closest people on earth to me lost someone close to her to suicide, I got pretty damn close to it, a proximity I truly hope I will never have again. I attended the memorial with her and I have never been in the presence of so much pure anguish in my life. Years later, it’s still raw and when it pops into my mind, I try to push it out. Suicide triggers so many crazy intense emotions in all of the people it affects, and it’s horribly painful to see. The fallout lasts a long, long time and changes the lives of the people in its wake forever. It’s hard not to be angry, and I believe that it’s natural to feel that way. How could they do such a thing when so many people loved them? What a vicious, selfish thing. I’ve felt that way about it too, but in the time that I’ve had to think about it, I’ve realized something else. The extent of the pain and desperation these people feel is far beyond anything we are capable of comprehending. It’s insidious and overwhelming, it’s like hearing screaming in the brain 24 hours a day. Everything hurts, and they can only think about making it stop. Anyone who is in major pain of any kind can’t think about anything but making it stop! So the notion of “how could they not think about their spouse/children/friend?” argument has this answer…because they couldn't. Not in that moment, not in that amount of pain. All they are focusing on is ending their pain, and my heart goes out to anyone who has had to deal with this. It’s nothing less than devastating.
We Are Not Immune.
If you are struggling, please ask for help. It is not weakness to go into counseling, it’s the exact opposite. It’s a sign of self-awareness and incredible bravery. Counseling brings up all kinds of slimy little things that have been buried a long time. Having those things bubble up to the surface is incredibly unpleasant and it hurts. But, like I’ve told students that I have worked with, “You have to claw your way through the jungle in order to get to the beach. There is no way around it. You must go through it.” It’s not a crutch to take an anti-depressant. If your child were suffering from asthma, would you tell them that their inhaler was a crutch? Everyone’s body needs different things.
Depression is not a result of poor faith, or weakness, or cowardice. Depression is not simply being sad or bummed out. Depression is a medical condition, and it’s as real as cancer. Please be kind. Don’t point fingers and remove yourself by distancing yourself from people who need help or who feel things differently than you do. You are not stronger or smarter or better than anyone else if you haven’t experienced it. You’re lucky. I don’t believe that any of us are absolutely in the clear, not knowing what the future holds or what challenges are waiting. It can happen to any of us, and life is too beautiful of a thing to miss out on.