Writers write things when tragedy happens. And as a member of the entertainment industry, how can I not share thoughts after the sudden and shocking suicide of Robin Williams?
As tributes go, just look on your facebook. It’s accurate to say that everyone’s social media is packed with personal favorite quotes, scenes and memories of Robin Williams who reached truly iconic status. Everyone from the local cab driver to Rowdy Roddy Piper to President Obama expressed deep sadness online at the loss. Even ISIS took a break from their attempted genocide to mourn Robin Williams.
To us, Robin Williams was more than an actor or comedian. He was part of the very fabric of our pop culture. He was a real-life wind-up toy never slowing down. He was a lovable alien and not just because of his Mork from Ork character. He was the same as us but different. It seemed like there was no possible embarrassment for his outrageous antics and while some of his movies weren’t always successful, he always was. Somehow Robin Williams was indefatigable, unstoppable, tireless. The world without Robin Williams – did anyone ever contemplate such a thing?
But he wasn’t those things. Not really. He was a human being. So many who have worked with him have expressed the memory of his endless kindness. But beneath that kindness was a vast mystery and that mystery is one we, as a people, are just scratching the surface of.
In the wake of Mr. Williams death, something extraordinary and courageous has happened. Social media feeds are now also being filled with people’s own battles with “mental illness.” I’ve seen blogs, facebook posts and even short but profound tweets in which people are opening up about this, the most misunderstood battle of the human experience. Battles, wars even, with depression, bipolar disorder, suicidal tendencies, you name it, think of whatever mental ailment and I guarantee you know not someone – but MANY people who’ve battled it.
And in addition to the many people you know, maybe you yourself are one caught in such a torment. Yet, with such a universality of cases, one thing many of those caught in the throes of this illness feel is a desperate sense of loneliness.
I wrote “mental illness” in quotes because as term it’s incredibly inadequate. The wide ranging scope of mental illnesses out there is hard to fathom but we shove them all under a catch-all umbrella thinking that explains everything. Imagine walking into a restaurant and when the server asks what you’d like to drink, you answer “Liquid.” THAT’S how we as a society treat “mental illness.” God almighty, talk about lunacy.
Yesterday was a very emotional day for me because I learned some things about quite a few people that I did not know. That I would not even suspect in a million years. We’re all talented at hiding our deepest shame from the world at large, aren’t we?
Now again, privacy forbids name-dropping, those people will tell their stories to those they want to share with, but I believe I can say I’ve had several close friends battle with deep mental illness before. In some cases, I hope I was able to help. I’m ashamed to say that I know of mutual friends who didn’t take these battles with mental illness seriously. I can’t point fingers, though, I’m guilty of the same with others I wasn’t very close to.
But yesterday’s public outpouring, which was almost confessional, from so many about their mental illnesses really brought home something I’ve wondered about casually for a long time and am now more convinced than ever.
We are all crazy.
And I don’t mean that in a bad, judgmental way. I mean that in the “it’s time to come to terms with who the crazy people are” way. THEY are actually US.
Do you know how many different mental illnesses there are? 300 and counting.
Do you know how many people suffer from a mental illness? 61 million a year, 14 million permanently.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg:
It’s time to admit, we know nothing about this stuff but make critical judgments and engage in, sometimes very cruel, behaviors armed with that complete lack of knowledge. Except for our own personal experiences, of course. Because if you can look in the mirror and say you’ve never experienced some sort of mental imbalance, some sort of emotional instability, some sort of destructive irrationality – sorry, but you’re lying to yourself and you will never convince me otherwise.
My deep confession? Well, it’s hard but I’ve shunned the mentally ill for much of my life. Unfortunately – and in some cases tragically – I or people I love have been harmed greatly by some people’s mental illness. The specifics of these events are not for me to share, dear reader. We’ve got to keep somethings private on the internet.
Because of those events, I must confess to stigmatizing people unfairly. It was wrong. It’s shameful. It’s something I have to change, because that viewpoint doesn’t fit in today’s society. Not anymore. Now, that doesn’t mean I can completely forgive those who inflicted the harm I’m referring to. I’m not sure I believe that mental illness constitutes a get-out-of-jail free card for some. But that also doesn’t mean I should hold their actions against those who suffer from something completely different.
Goddammit, mental illness, the more I type the term, the more inadequate it becomes.
So what can we do?
I’m not a medical professional, I’m not a therapist, I’m not a psychiatrist, I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a sociologist. I’m not a escapologist or any other kind of -gist. I’m just a guy with a keyboard who strings some words together to offer to whoever’s reading what I think is some reasonable food for thought. These are by no means the cure-alls, but I’m not one to accept the notion, “There’s nothing we can do to change things.” (Seriously, how does anyone have this worldview? If this was true, I’d be drawing a deer on a cave wall instead of writing this.)
However, if anyone tries to tell me social pressures have nothing to do with these conditions, I’m not even going to listen to their argument. That’s as ridiculous as saying there’s no climate change.
How we treat each others has an enormous influence our individual self-esteems and our collective self-worth. “I don’t care what other people think.” Yeah, you know who really believes that? Psychopaths and sociopaths (also both forms of mental illness by the by.)
I’m not advocating the elimination of joking around and making fun of each other’s foibles, but I think there a certain attitudes and preconceived notions that need to change.
Suicide is NOT a coward’s way out – Fox News’ Shepard Smith (one of the reasonable voices over there) lashed out against Robin Williams calling him a coward. After a barrage of outrage against him, he’s had to apologize and rightfully so. “It’s cowardly,” “It’s selfish,” “It’s weak.” These are the things we say about people who are in such anguish the only recourse they can comprehend is the ending of their own life. It’s not 1994 anymore. It is not accurate, appropriate or in anyway acceptable to call suicide the coward’s way out. It also helps bring no further understanding to the anguish, guilt and hopelessness that bring people to their own destruction. If all we do is sneer at someone’s prison, we’ll never find the key to help get these people out.
“You have issues” – We need to stop saying this to people. We ALL have fucking issues. Standing in higher judgement over someone over this is possibly the most hypocritical thing to do. There is something somewhere in your past that is informing your judgment in an unhealthy way. Guaranteed, as I write this, that last statement is true.
“Get over it” – We need to stop commanding people to do this too. We’ve all heard and said this about people and their various frustrations. Sure, they do need to get over it. But if it was easy to just get over it, every therapist would be flat broke and there’d be no self-help section in the local bookstore I hope you still have. Think about your worst heartbreak, firing, broken friendship, betrayal. Think about what you had to do to come peace with that event and carry on living healthily. Now, think how absurd it is to judge others for not finishing that journey yet. My God, the temerity of someone to be emotional confused – how dare they?
“You’re oversensitive.” – I’ve gotten this one a lot. Maybe this is my big confessional. I’m very emotional. I’ve been known to shed a tear over great movies and favorite TV shows quite frankly. The last episode of Blake’s 7, forget about it. (I seriously don’t know if I can watch An Adventure In Time And Space again.) When someone says something that hurts my feelings and I bring it up, “God, you’re oversensitive” is many a response. (Though mind you, I’ve seen the same people get just as sensitive if not more so when THEIR feelings are hurt) But fine, I’m oversensitive. My question is so what? So fucking what? I’ve been call this a lot but I’ve never been given a valid reason why this is any bad thing.
(And maybe I’m being too conciliatory here. I put my words out there across the big bad internet, inviting scorn and criticism from all corners of the globe. Not bad for someone so sensitive.)
But the point is – are we really taking people’s feelings into enough consideration? Isn’t that what consideration means? Is it really truly so hard to go through life being careful not to hurt each other’s feelings? The words we say to other people are not forgotten the next day, they will stick with that person for months, maybe even years or decades. There’s a lot of hurt feelings I’ve inflicted I wish I could take back. Best I can do though, is try not to hurt anyone going forward.
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” A nice schoolyard saying but total bullshit. Words gut people’s self-worth. Words break people’s hearts. Words ruin people’s lives.
Words are like the ocean, if you don’t respect them, then a lot of harm will be done.
Should we tell people on the receiving end of cruelty to suck it up, or maybe would should tell other people to stop doing savage shit like this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/13/zelda-williams-quits-twitter-robin_n_5674501.html
End The Stigma – This is another one I’m guilty of. Very guilty of. I’ve turned my back to some knowing that I’m not qualified to help. But is that really good enough a reason? Some people, of course, have closed themselves off to help and may be impossible to reach. But is that reason not to try? I know lots of folks who have been through therapy, rehab and hardcore psychoanalysis. They don’t deserve our scorn. They don’t deserve our pity. They don’t deserve anyone looking down their nose at them. They deserve our respect. They deserve our admiration. They recognized a serious problem and had the Goddamn guts to say “I will not live like this and I need help to get better.” They deserve a standing ovation from the rest of us. Because the rest of us may need their advice when we say “I will not live like this and I need help to get better.”
I saw also on some threads that the phrase “demons” is no longer an acceptable term for mental illness. I actually think it’s a good metaphor but if dropping that saying helps in the long run, so be it. We’ve all got to open to new understandings on this front.
Quick side-note: I’ve had many a heated and informed debate with people about gun control. Many people on the pro-gun side have pointed to mental illness as the real issue behind the now-weekly-almost-daily shootings. (1 dead, 2 injured just now in Santa Ana, CA) I’m all ears. Whatever we can do to keep guns out of the hands of those who are not in a sound state of mental health, let’s do it. (That is a form of gun control but shh, don’t tell gun rights folks)
We don’t follow our bliss. It’s stunning to me. We jump headfirst into a rat race which brings us lots of things. Ephemera like houses, cars, fancy clothes, and all that. Don’t get me wrong, I love nice things. I would like to have a jacuzzi and closet full of expensive suits like I was Ric Flair. Why not? But they are all byproducts of happiness, not the cause of it. When you ask people what really truly makes them happy, what gives them a bliss-state, they’re going to say a lot of things, but if they’re honest it won’t be any physical item that’s the source of their contentment. Paychecks give you security. Status gives you a table by the window. Nice things gives you jealous neighbors. Happiness is a much more difficult pursuit to define. Some of us (ahem) have made a enormous material and financial sacrifices to follow that happiness. Some of us walk a different path than everyone else’s rat-race. That is not crazy, that is not sick, that is deserving of no harsh judgement. Just the opposite. Happiness is the goal, not the nice house on the hill.
Something’s got to change. We all have to open our minds to new ways of thinking, new ways of understanding, new ways of helping. Because when a man who lived in one of the most beautiful and serene parts of the country, when a man who rose to become one of the very best at his chosen profession, when a man who had more money than he could spend, when a man who overcame powerful addictions, when a man who had a loving family, when a man who made everyone on the planet laugh (not sure that’s an exaggeration) – when he finds himself in a place of agonizing hopelessness, we’re all doing something wrong.
It’s been a long time since this person walked the Earth, but we still haven’t learned his greatest lesson:
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