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.
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 though, thankfully, I’ve never made it anywhere close to that point, the point of making that decision, I can’t say that I don’t understand the thought process that would lead you down that road.
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.
*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.