8.12.14 44

Robin Williams, The Act of Suicide, and The Vilification of Mental Illness

I’ve thought for some time on attempting to write a semi-eloquent post about mental illness and suicide. I’d sit down, resolved to end up with something good, tap a few words out, start a post, and something would seem off, so I’d scrap the whole thing and move on to write about my dog. Or shoes. Or something else that interested me, but was in no way what I originally wanted to do. Occasionally, I’d double back and try to pick at it, editing and adding, but it largely lay dormant in drafts collecting dust. And then, after a while, I felt the moment had passed and what I would say presently regarding mental illness would be in an entirely different style and form than the original draft, so I’d delete it and try to start again.

With the passing of Robin Williams from an apparent suicide yesterday, I felt like today automatically became the day to not only try again, but get it done.
 

Unless they have some experience in it, Americans tend to view mental illness similar to the bubonic plague, and Hollywood has historically had a large part to play in that misguided perception. Since the beginning of film, the mentally ill were either portrayed as lovable simpletons who were present as a comedic foil, or as physically-hulking monsters that needed to be locked away for public safety. We started throwing around terms like straightjacket and padded room and electric shock as punchlines over drinks. In doing so, we dehumanized the real victims of mental illness in an effort to pretend it didn’t exist at all, or at least, that it didn’t exist in cocktail parties and normal living rooms.

Mental illness is a disease, no different from cancer, cystic fibrosis, or diabetes. It is a disease. I doubt anyone would stand idly by while some ignorant jackass disparaged a cancer patient for simply having cancer. It is not a choice, it cannot be prevented, and no one brings it on themselves. Now, because of the stigma that comes with mental illness, those needing medication are hesitant to do so for fear of being labeled as crazy. Xanax, Zoloft, Celexa – they are not, and have never been, the enemy. If you had the flu, and in order to treat it, you needed medication, 90% of us wouldn’t refuse it. We’d want the medication so that we’d start feeling better. We would want to be proactive in treating our disease. Unfortunately, because of the contempt and antipathy that mental illness has garnered, that reasoning doesn’t apply. Instead, even being medicated has to be dipped into self-deprecation and off-putting humor. No one seems to talk about mental illness without either (1) making fun of it, or (2) vilifying it.

Perhaps the issue is that those who have never dealt with depression or anxiety have no real understanding of what it means to deal with depression or anxiety.* I’m not talking about having a sad day, or about feeling worrisome over a meeting. I’m talking about when you are so far sunken into your own mind that you can’t even open your eyes to peek over at the horizon. When you can’t seem to make thoughts of your own volition because your brain has betrayed your will and fires synapses without your consent. When the walls close in on you and you end up under your desk, fingers clenched, repeating over and over that you just have to breathe. My mom and I have a term to explain the walls-closing-in phenomenon, and that’s that you perpetually want to be very quiet and very small, and you hope that everything around you can be still for just a moment or two. I’m just trying to be little. I’m just being very small and quiet. It’s easy to call someone selfish for making the decision to end the overwhelming madness when you have absolutely no grasp of what the overwhelming madness was to begin with. And people don’t know because we’ve taken mental illness and hidden it away in the attic. We have “glamourous” causes with pink ribbons and celebrity spokespersons and large galas with red carpets that we spend billions on, both in terms of dollars and hours, but when it comes to something as icky as depression, something that affects your mind and your ability to just be, you’re on your own. You are stuck with the hand you’ve been dealt, and you’re sentenced to sort through your illness in silence and in solitude.

There is a great deal of vilification when it comes to mental illness, but never more than when we’re discussing suicide. Most often, the rumblings in the crowd can’t help but state how selfish the act of suicide is, or how they personally take no pity for someone who could bring themselves to suicide. To them, I give the biggest middle finger I can possibly give. How callous, and cold, and indifferent. It is wholly unmerciful to judge a man by his darkest hour, rather than by the entirety of his life. If you read anything about Robin Williams, it was always noted that he was kind and giving and caring. He made a legacy for himself by living in a way we should all strive to live. And he was simply so overwhelmed with a darkness that most of us will, fortunately, never understand that he couldn’t keep moving. As far as pity goes, no one who battles with the monsters of mental illness is asking for your pity. Your empathy, perhaps, and your understanding, inasmuch as you can give it, but your pity? You can take your pity and your condescension and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

Suicide is not a selfish decision. Say it with me: suicide is not a selfish decision. It is a desperate decision. It is a painful decision. It is very often a decision made by someone who is not fully capable of making such a decision. Depression takes you, your mind, and your soul to the ends of the earth, and sometimes you don’t make it back with all three intact. You can treat it, but you cannot cure it, and whether you choose to address it or not, it will keep a grasp on you for as long as you live. It may lie dormant for extended periods of time, but it is never truly gone. And anyone who has attempted to meet depression head-on knows that. And believe you me, I wholly, completely, 100% understand the thought process that would lead you down that road. I have walked down it, feeling so empty and alone, and I mercifully made it out on this side.

When you look at people we’ve lost, at least in terms of celebrity, It always seems to be the funniest people who fight some of the largest demons. Perhaps they expend so much joy and laughter and happiness to everyone else that they forget to keep some for their own use. Whether by substance abuse due to an unknown-to-the-public mental illness, or the illness itself, we have lost too many bright, generous, funny people to it: Chris Farley, John Belushi, Greg Giraldo, Mitch Hedburg, Marilyn Monroe, and now, Robin Williams, to name a few. Maybe genius has its downside, that it’s too much to handle for too long.

One of my favorites in Williams’ enormous collection of incredible films was What Dreams May Come, which is now almost painfully ironic. Something about that movie has always resonated with the hopeless romantic in my soul: the idea that someone you love would dive through the depths of Hell to save you. I watched it again last night, hoping for some sign, something that, given the subject of the movie, would reconcile my scrambled and confused thoughts. And at the very end, I found two lines in one scene that made me breathe deeply and smile.

Chris: Where’s God in all of this?
 

Albert: Oh, he’s up there somewhere. Shouting down that he loves us, wondering why we can’t hear Him.

 

Happy trails, Mork from Ork. Thank you for providing my family and I enough laughter and joy to fill a lifetime. I sincerely hope that you’ve found the peace you so desperately sought.
 

  

Nanu nanu.
 

*note: I used depression and anxiety throughout this post as examples of mental illness, simply because they are the two most prevalent. They are certainly not the only two deserving of attention; however,for the sake of brevity, I narrowed my scope to those two most recognizable forms of illness.

 

Leave a Comment

44 Comments

  1. One of my favorite things you said: "As far as pity goes, no one who battles with the monsters of mental illness is asking for your pity. Your empathy, perhaps, and your understanding, inasmuch as you can give it, but your pity? You can take your pity and your condescension and stick it where the sun don't shine."

    I so wish there was not such a stigma attached to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. It runs in my family. I've taken medication for years and I've learned to deal with it. I once had a doctor ask me why I didn't check "mental illness" on an intake form, or something, and I said "Because I don't consider myself to be ILL. I just have a problem that I deal with every day and as long as I deal with it, I'm not ILL." I don't think he knew what to say.

    Published 8.12.14
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  2. Rachel S wrote:

    Beautifully written post – I couldn't agree with you more. One line stood out to me as I wholeheartedly understand and agree (and I'm paraphrasing, sorry) but you can only treat depression and mental illness, you cannot cure it. How heartbreaking how true those words are.

    Published 8.12.14
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  3. This is my absolute favourite post of all time. It hurts my heart that there is such a stigma surrounding mental illness. My mom was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was in high school, after my Grandma passed away, and no one, not even my friends, could understand her illness. People were constantly speculating why she was in the hospital, and saying that she had to have something 'much worse' than depression to be hospitalized. I wanted to rage at anyone who would respond with 'oh, she's JUST depressed?' when they would find out what our family was going through. The fact that there is no cure for depression absolutely breaks me heart

    Published 8.12.14
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  4. Rachel T. wrote:

    Very well written and I couldn't agree more.

    Published 8.12.14
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  5. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

    Published 8.12.14
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  6. Thank you so much for writing that. As someone that knows what it's like to deal with anxiety and depression, there are no truer words that have been spoken than the ones you wrote concerning these illnesses and disorders. Thank you for being you!

    newhomenewnamenewadventure.blogspot.com

    Published 8.12.14
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  7. Janet wrote:

    this x 100000. You hit it right on the nose

    Published 8.12.14
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  8. I wrote a post today about speaking life into people, and then I read this and I'm not sure mine even matters. This is great, Tyler. It's so well written and such an open, honest post about the darkness with mental illness & suicide. But it cannot be ignored anymore, it's a real thing and people are dying (and committing suicide) everyday because of it. Love this post!

    Published 8.12.14
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  9. Kathleen wrote:

    Beautifully written.

    Published 8.12.14
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  10. Sharing this on my personal FB. Just, yes.

    Published 8.12.14
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  11. As a therapist, I think you wrote and defined this beautifully. I couldn't agree more with your words and the truth in which you spoke. I hope all your readers will share and we continue to fight the stigma of mental illness!

    Published 8.12.14
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  12. Thank you, thank you, thank youuuuu. Seriously thank you.

    Published 8.12.14
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  13. This moved me to tears. You were able to put into words everything that I have thought and felt as I work through my anxiety and depression. Thank you.

    Published 8.12.14
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  14. Kristin wrote:

    so well written!! you hit it on the head. so many people suffer and no one ever has a clue. this brings back memories of my first semester in college and finding out a classmate killed himself. i would've never known the pain he had been in because it didn't show…no one knows what people are going through underneath the appearance on the outside. thank you for a well written post. you said everything i wanted to and more.

    Published 8.12.14
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  15. shannon wrote:

    you nailed it. once again.
    so profoundly well-said.

    Published 8.12.14
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  16. tears…

    we lost my uncle to suicide 10 years ago. part of my struggle throughout the grief was never being able to understand why the happiest man i knew could have so much secret, dark pain. i get it now… "Perhaps they expend so much joy and laughter and happiness to everyone else that they forget to keep some for their own use."

    bless you. thank you.

    Published 8.12.14
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  17. Thank you for writing about this subject in such an honest and respectful way. You nailed it!

    Published 8.12.14
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  18. Thank you. This post is exactly what people need to read concerning mental illness and suicide. As I am fighting my own battle with anxiety and depression, I completely agree with you about not wanting pity. Again, thank you.

    Published 8.12.14
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  19. Bobbi wrote:

    So beautifully written. I lost my cousin to suicide over 2 years ago. He fought the demons of depression and the lies whispered in his own brain for a great portion of his life.

    Published 8.12.14
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  20. this is so hard to read because it is so honest and beautiful and really hits me deep. i've been open on my blog about anxiety and depression and addiction, etc. but there's so much more to the few words i type out. my mom had a severe mental illness when i was a child, she was in a mental hospital and i always said i never wanted to be like her. but i didn't have control of that. i have a disease too. i've been suicidal, my mom has been, my brother has been, and even my boyfriend has battled it. it's behind so many smiles and i really wish more people could understand it and not brush it off as a bad day. like you said "those who have never dealt with depression or anxiety have no real understanding of what it means to deal with depression or anxiety"… SO TRUE. and very frustrating. thank you so very much for this absolutely incredible post.

    Published 8.12.14
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  21. A slow clap and a standing ovation for this one. Those lines at the end got me and I retweeted the Aladdin tweet last night with tears in my eyes.

    Published 8.12.14
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  22. What a wonderfully written piece. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. We need more people in the world who come from a place of compassion and understanding when talking about mental illness. Only with open discussion can we reduce the stigma, and find ways to help and love those suffering.

    Published 8.12.14
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  23. I cannot even EXPLAIN in words how amazing you are for writing this.

    I work with mentally ill adults daily, it is my full time job.
    You can never grasp fully the struggles they face on a daily, even hourly basis. It is a consistent battle with the one person you should be able to trust wholeheartedly in, yourself.

    Thank you thank you thank you for being so open, honest, and amazing.
    You will open many eyes with this post, and I hope that hundreds of thousands of people have the chance to read it!

    Published 8.13.14
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  24. CAS wrote:

    Beyond impressed with this post. Detailed, eloquent and heartfelt. With the loss of such comic genius, not too mention a valuable life, your post is a stark reminder of the need for all of us to be more aware. Thank youand God bless.

    Published 8.13.14
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  25. perfect post. so glad you could finally articulate what you wanted to say. i was a person who never understood depression or suicidal thoughts until really speaking to someone i love who suffers from severe depression, i always thought suicide was a "selfish" choice and how could anyone do that (because i suffer from anxiety re: dying, i couldnt imagine anyone "choosing" to end their own life) but we can never get inside the heads of other people and know what is really going on.

    just so so so sad.

    Published 8.13.14
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  26. perfect post. so glad you could finally articulate what you wanted to say. i was a person who never understood depression or suicidal thoughts until really speaking to someone i love who suffers from severe depression, i always thought suicide was a "selfish" choice and how could anyone do that (because i suffer from anxiety re: dying, i couldnt imagine anyone "choosing" to end their own life) but we can never get inside the heads of other people and know what is really going on.

    just so so so sad.

    Published 8.13.14
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  27. Thank you!

    Published 8.13.14
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  28. this brought tears to my eyes. I've been there and you will never understand how people can do this until you've actually experienced it. Its sad to think about all the people who hide their illness under brave faces thinking they can deal with it better on their own only to find out they cant handle it. It is a scary place to be and its always going to be there like a dark shadow threatening to devour you.

    Published 8.13.14
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  29. Neesha wrote:

    This was so beautifully written and delicately put. I'm glad you had the courage to post it and I hope people who read it are able to understand mental illness more <3

    Published 8.13.14
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  30. Lacoln wrote:

    yesterday marked one month, since one of my best friends took her life. of all the articles & blog posts i've read in the past weeks this one is by far the best. simply amazing. seriously had me bawling to the point i couldn't see the screen. thank you, thank you.

    Published 8.13.14
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  31. P!nky wrote:

    Very well written post.

    Published 8.13.14
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  32. Heather wrote:

    I would just add that the criminal justice system, as you know, also stigmatizes those with mental illness. An individual with a mental illness is more likely to falsely confess and a large population of those on death row suffer from mental illness. My hope is that someday states' criminal justice systems take mental illness seriously and give those individuals the care, medication, and support they need and deserve.

    Published 8.13.14
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  33. Melanie wrote:

    This post is worth sharing a million times. Only those who suffer from this can truly understand what it is like. I hate the stigma. I hate the "Oh, cheer up's" or "You could have it so much worse."

    I also love that I'm seeing so many bloggers I know posting about their own struggles with it. I hate that they know this topic so well, but it's good to see that others can relate.

    Well written, Tyler. Awesome post!

    Published 8.13.14
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  34. Thank you for this.

    Published 8.14.14
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  35. Thank you.

    Published 8.15.14
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  36. Esonia wrote:

    Thank u for writing this post. Maybe you didn't get the chance to write the others because THIS WAS THE ONE YOU WERE MEANT TO WRITE. I am 41 years old and I've been dealing with depression since 14. I am beginning to see that people are finally taking notice to mental illness. I was raised that you just have the blues and basically to get over it. It wasn't until I did my own research that I know that yes it is an illness. 2) I am not alone..
    Thank you again.

    Published 8.19.14
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    • Depression can make you feel so lonely, but I promise, you are never alone 🙂

      Published 8.19.14
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    Published 2.7.16
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    Published 2.7.16
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    Published 2.18.16
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      Published 2.18.16
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    Published 2.18.16
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