(updated August 13, 2014)
The news of Robin Williams’ death was received with heavy hearts this week. A name – or at least a voice – that everyone over the age of 10 around the world knows.
Today I stopped reading anything about this iconic soul. It ripped me a little. In some strange way I felt disrespectful for shutting it down; as if reading was my way of honouring him. But the exploitation or judging of the situation wore me down. Updates that included lines like “if you need help, talk to someone”. Others called his act of suicide “selfish”. This is where I would normally insert a string of obscenities but in an effort to remain professional, I refrain.
A man has died. In a time we should be celebrating his life and wrapping our hearts around his family and friends we choose to criticize his act and capitalize on this situation? Is this how we treat life? As disposable as the garbage that goes out on Monday? Again, refraining.
Here’s an example (business name removed in hopes that an apology is issued by the time anyone reads this):
“As we mourn the loss of Robin Williams to depression, we must recognize it as an opportunity to engage in a national conversation… At [business name], we are in the business of helping our clients create or join public conversations.”
Callous as one friend called this. And I agree.
The power of association can also be, well, a powerful thing. Asking others to seek help in the same context as Mr. William’s death, leaves me questioning whether people will interrupt things the way I started to before looking into it and be left with the impression that he did not seek help. Perhaps I am being oversensitive to the situation but this is what I am reacting to. Not the intentions of people wanting to help but to putting Mr. Williams suicide in the same breath as asking others to get help.
Some will argue that this is a time to raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention. While normally I would agree with the importance of breaking the stigma associated with mental illness, I just believe more strongly that we should not be doing it on the back of a tragedy. Let the family grieve. Make whatever sense from this they can. This should be a year round conversation that never ends. Deep breath.
The part that has me cringing the most is the fact that Mr. William’s was getting help. He was open about his journey having battled drug and alcohol addictions. He had been to rehab for these illnesses. Canadian statistics show that about 20% of people with a mental disorder have a co-occurring substance use problem according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. I would be shocked to find out his treatment plan was solely for his addiction. So please, to say “if you need help, talk to someone” is just a slap in the face to this situation.
And why we need to differentiate between mental or physical illness is beyond me. Last time I checked my brain (to think), my heart (to feel), my lips (to smile), etc. were all a part of my body.
Think about it. You break your arm. You’re in excruciating pain. You likely yelped. Maybe even cried. By the time you got to the hospital you could tolerate it – at least until the doctor bent it in the opposite direction and said “oh, does that hurt” while you want to punch him in the face with your able arm. A cast is put on and you’re given a few Tylenol 3 to manage the pain. You don’t sleep very well that night and call in sick the next day. Two days later it’s the cast that has you irritated as you shove a ruler down it to itch that spot.
In 6 – 8 weeks you’re back at the doctor. Cast is removed. It didn’t heal right. Surgery is required. It’s day surgery so you’re in and out. A few weeks later you start physio to help build the strength back in your arm but really, you’re no worse than wear. Just a few battle scars. A few months after that you’re joking about the ridiculousness that led to the break in the first place.
Now take that pain you felt in your arm the moment you broke your arm. Take that pain and feel it for 24 hours. After 24 hours it doesn’t go away. You’re already in torment, right? Wondering when you will feel better? After a week of this you’re squirrely. Others can see your pain.
Only difference between breaking your arm and something in your brain hurting? People can see your arm. So why must we treat your broken arm differently than we treat a mental condition?
Living with depression
There is no question in anyone’s mind that the man was one of the greatest geniuses that will ever walk this earth. Very few hold the ranks of an uncanny ability to captivate millions throwing them into uproarious states with edgy, run-on monologues. His comedic abilities were no doubt a result of his imagination, intelligence and compassion.
I believe we are the one’s being selfish. Articles have described Mr. Williams’ death as the “loss to the comedy world”. Is this how we’re seeing him? Again, as an object due to his profession who we gained from rather than a person? People have lost a husband. A father. A friend.
No one know will ever comprehend what Mr. Williams went through in that beautiful, complex brain of his. What I do know is how I have felt living with episodic depression and general anxiety disorder. I am not suggesting in any way that I am capable of understanding what Mr. Williams felt suffering behind his mask. But I do know that it is not easy to describe. Jamie Flexman may have summarized it best last year when he wrote:
Depression is like trying to run through water and being told to get over it is akin to suddenly being able to move like you can on dry land. It’s impossible. You can grit your teeth and attempt to get some momentum going but ultimately the density will prevent you from moving quickly.
When depression has its grip on you, life becomes water. The air around you becomes water, crushing you with its weight and even the simplest tasks become difficult. You feel sluggish, both mentally and physically and nothing can snap you out of it.
You have essentially become trapped inside your own prison and true access to your brain lies behind that locked door. Sometimes, briefly, you are allowed outside to stretch your legs but you know this is temporary. Eventually you will have to return to your cell and wait patiently for a time when you are given another opportunity to function like a normal member of society.
There is no choice in the matter. All we can do is take advantage of our good days and try to minimise the effect our bad days have on us.
Maybe Mr. Williams just didn’t have any good days left.
“You have been fabulous audience! Tell you what, you’re the best audience in the whole world. Take care of yourselves. Good night, Alice! Good night, Agrabah! Adios, Amigos!” ~Robin Williams as Genie in Aladdin
Good night Mr. Williams. May you rest easy now funny man.
And while posting this may seem contradictory to everything I just wrote about taking advantage of the situation, it is my outlet. This blog has always been my outlet as I have talked honestly in my posts wearing my heart on my sleeve. My release on these tragic events is so my profanities aren’t my 5 minutes of fame.
As I have reflected on this post it has made me realize that maybe I am part of the problem. Have I really done all I can to be part of the solution to breaking down the stigma of mental health and making this a year round conversation?0