Most surely you’re aware that beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams was recently found dead in his northern Californian home, having lost his battle against major depressive disorder. It has been nearly impossible to escape reports of this tragedy, and the abundance of subsequent tributes and responses. Admittedly, upon hearing of William’s death, I was filled with immense hope that maybe – just maybe – this tragedy would result in less stigmatization and more understanding of mental illness. If an individual such as Williams, who brought humor and joy into hearts and homes across the nation, could suffer from mental illness, then most surely society would come to understand that major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and similar ailments are not a choice. Such outcomes have largely been my goal when sharing my own stories and struggles with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Subsequently, it occurred to me that I should create a post addressing the issue. After all, wasn’t this an opportunity to further my mission and raise more awareness of mental illness? However, I had second thoughts: Was it selfish to view a family’s tragedy as an opportunity? How vital was it that I put up a new post while William’s suicide was still “trending” in social media? These considerations gave me pause, and in this interval, the internet had already been flooded with responses that sounded as if they had been pulled directly from my internal thoughts. I would like to tell you that this post ends here; I have provided you with the reason for my failure to respond to this actor’s death. It had all already been said and done, so it was that simple, but that’s not the real reason I failed to respond to the loss of this comedic legend.
It was within 24 hours of Williams’ body being discovered that I was sitting on my kitchen floor sobbing and swallowing down pills, completely convinced that I was nothing but an inconvenience to my family and friends, and therefore the world would be a far better place without me. I was exhausted and overwhelmed – exhausted from trying my hardest to remain positive despite the challenges my illnesses (and life) continue to present. I felt unloved and underappreciated, and my illness had effectively convinced me that such feelings were my own damn fault because I was, in fact, unlovable. I was a worthless, miserable failure who only presented problems for those I most loved. Even my two beautiful children, who have been nothing but incredible blessings in my life, would be so much better off without me. They would have a father who could commit fully to their happiness and well-being if he were no longer totally tapped out trying to fix me and all my fuck-ups. I needed to die. I deserved to die. My death would ultimately be a favor to the world.
There was just the smallest part of my pure heart and rational head that remained and tried to speak, but I found that voice was muted. That voice was unable to say I want to live because I would never abandon these children. I want to live because I have friends that really do love me. I want to live because there is yet light and promise in this world. Those thoughts went unheard and instead a voice told me to grab a bottle of pills. Ironically, though not uncommonly, I thus swallowed down anti-depressant after anti-depressant. Failing to do their job in the prescribed form, I suppose they may have been ultimately successful as I would no longer feel crushed by this heavy depression in death. But death was just one more goal I would fail to reach as my husband woke from his slumber and halted my progress.
Consequently, I ended up in the emergency room and then in a locked behavioral health unit. When I might have been home typing a brilliant post in response to Robin Williams’ struggles in an effort to end the stigmatization toward mental illness, instead I was being admitted to a small white room and having my belongings inspected for safety. Although I did not write that post in a timely fashion, here is what I want you to know now: Robin Williams did NOT kill himself. Depression killed Robin Williams. Had I actually been successful in my attempt, I can only imagine how much it would have pained me to then be blamed for my own death. I was not in my right mind when I believed I needed to die and that suicide would actually be a favor to my family. That was not me; it was the major depression. My illness was responsible for my actions. If I were fully in charge, I wouldn’t struggle with feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing in the first place. If I were fully in charge, I would never take my life and leave my two young children behind. I wasn’t in charge; it was the illness. You need to know this, so I repeat that Robin Williams did NOT kill himself. Depression killed Robin Williams, just like it has formerly made me cut myself and it more recently made me swallow those damn pills.
While on the unit, another patient asked about my family. I showed her a photo of my children and she expressed how beautiful they were. She then asked about my home and my career. After sharing a bit of my life with her, she then said, “Well, look at you. You have a strong education, a beautiful home, and two amazing children. Your life sounds pretty damn good. How can you possibly be depressed? Why are you here?” My reply to her was very basic as I simply stated, “Because I have a mental illness.” This, too, is what I had hoped society would recognize from Robin Williams. It does not matter how many external blessings you have in your life. You can have a wonderful, loving family. You can have a strong education and a promising career opportunity. You can even have fame, fortune, and admiration. None of that matters if you have a mental illness. Mental illness does not discriminate and no amount of wealth or wisdom can cure it. It is; it just is. Yet this question came from a woman who was sharing a behavioral unit with me. Even she didn’t get it. If she didn’t understand, how could I expect the world to understand although it earlier appeared to me that it had all “already been said and done”? We need to keep on saying. We need to keep on doing. It’s going to take a lot more than 48 hours of trending articles in reaction to an actor’s death in order to change the misconceptions that exist about mental illness. Mental illness is an ugly, ugly beast and we better start paying attention to it as I assure you it refuses to be ignored for those who are suffering.
Despite my earlier considerations, I have decided it is not selfish to talk about mental illness in the wake of Robin Williams’ death. It is necessary, just as it is every single day, to continue to educate society about mental illness and suicide. In addition, the act of suicide itself is not a selfish one. It is indeed tragic and devastating, but we must hold major depressive disorder and mental illness responsible rather than the ailing individual. Approximately 38,000 people die from suicide annually, and 107 other individuals lost their lives to suicide on August 11th, the day the world lost Robin Williams. We can’t ignore those numbers. We can’t continue to ignore mental illness and expect that individuals just “snap out of it” because they have good things in their lives. The illness can speak louder and then one only sees a distorted view of the world – a view in which the world is far better off if he or she were just dead. Trust me. Please trust me because I know, and I know our attitudes and beliefs about mental illness MUST change. Every moment should be an opportunity to make a difference and end the stigmatization of mental illness.