Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Robin Williams & The Real Pain Within Each Of Us

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

When I was in high school, I was fascinated with psychology. If I’m being honest with myself, it’s the only career path I’ve ever considered apart from writing. I remember sitting through my AP Psychology lectures, reading the textbook and completing projects all the while thinking: “This is such interesting stuff.” People always assume that the heart is the driving force of the body. And most people would be correct in that assumption because when you think about it, the heart is probably your most vital organ: it gives life to the rest of your body. You need your heart. But what people often don’t realize is that your mind is, in many ways, a more powerful organ than your heart. It’s amazing that human beings get the distinct honor and pleasure of being wired with synapses and memories and emotions and neurons that all exist within our minds. The mind is a powerful tool and it’s also a powerful weapon.

You see, when people are sick, that sickness manifests itself – quite usually – externally. For instance, I am a runner and have had the distinct honor and pleasure of experiencing leg cramps and Charley horses. (I’m being sarcastic about the “honor” and “pleasure” part.) If you’ve ever had a Charley horse, you are probably reading this and cringing because it is a painful sensation in your calf that causes you to grip your muscles, grit your teeth, and pray that the pain dissipates shortly. Charley horses are painful. But what I think too many people forget is that not all pain is physical. Pain is mental. Pain is emotional. Pain is spiritual. But for some reason, a vast majority of our society – either consciously or unconsciously – ranks the physical pain above the mental, emotional, and spiritual pain in legitimacy. If your bones are broken, people tell you to see a doctor or rush to an emergency room. If your mind is telling you that you are worthless, that life is pointless, people tell you to suck it up and just be happy. It’s funny – no one would ever dare to look someone in the eye with a broken bone and tell them: “Just suck it up. Your bone is fine.” And yet, so many people dismiss mental illness that same way.

Remember how I said that the mind is a powerful tool and that it’s also a powerful weapon? It’s because it’s true. Our minds are beautiful, wonderful, amazing things. I mean, let’s contemplate the complexity for a moment: you’re sitting and reading this because my brain transmitted signals to my fingers and to my eyes and allowed me to form words and thoughts. But your brain can turn against you. It can lie to you. It can fill your innermost being with worries and anxieties. It can shut down and tell you that you are worthless. And just like cancer can cause our physical bodies to shut down because it is a sickness that invades every part of us, our brains can shut down too, a mental sickness spreading to every part of you.

I struggle more with anxiety than with depression, if I’m being completely honest. And it’s something that I’ve struggled a lot with recently because a part of me knows that something is wrong, but the other part of me wants to placate our society, the society that says “you’re fine.” Have you ever noticed this prevalence? The most superficial question you can usually ask as a human being is this: “How are you?” Because in our society, you’re expected to answer that question whether you’re at home or in school or at work or in church the exact same way. You’re supposed to paint a smile and reply with either: “Good!” or “Pretty good!” I’ve found very few people in my life who ask how I am with the intention of actually sticking around to listen if, by chance, I should say: “Not great” or “Hanging in there.” But we desperately NEED those people in our lives: we need the ones who will sit and listen to us when we explain that we feel off, that we feel inexplicably lost or hopeless or sad or anxious. We need people who won’t judge us when we cancel plans but who won’t leave us, either. We need people who keep trying to fill us with hope when all hope seems lost. We need Doctors and Amy Ponds.

One of the most fascinating and heartbreaking episodes of Doctor Who was one titled “Vincent and the Doctor.” It’s the reason that I’ve included van Gogh’s painting at the beginning of this post. In the episode, a fictionalized Vincent van Gogh is assisted by The Doctor and Amy Pond as he battles monsters. The episode is so extremely poignant because no one believes van Gogh. There are monsters that are plaguing him and attacking things but he cannot see them, nor can anyone else. Similarly, van Gogh was battling his own inner monsters. He was fighting a seemingly losing battle with depression and Amy Pond – brilliant, beautiful, extraordinary Pond – was determined to end his story differently. So when The Doctor and Amy take van Gogh to the future, to a gallery displaying his work in abundance, Amy is hopeful that this journey will inspire van Gogh to continue living and painting. When The Doctor and Amy return to the present, however, Amy learns that van Gogh still killed himself because of his mental illness. She’s extremely heartbroken and this is what happens next:

Amy Pond: We didn't make a difference at all.
The Doctor: I wouldn't say that. The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. Hey. [hugs Amy] The good things don't always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.

Amy mourns van Gogh and believes that because he succumbed to his mental illness, she made no difference in his life. But The Doctor is right – they HAD made a difference. They had reminded him of his purpose and his creativity; they had given him slivers of hope and rays of sunshine in his darkest moments. When someone’s physical body inevitably fails to fight off illness – when the cancer spreads or the pain intensifies – it doesn’t mean that the doctors and loved ones have failed; it simply means that the body could not withstand the illness anymore. It was done fighting the battle. When someone succumbs to their mental illness, it doesn’t mean that they are weak or that you have failed them: it means that their mind simply become too weary to fight the illness anymore.

In September of 2011, I struggled with a bout of depression. No one, apart from my best friend, knows this because I didn’t tell anyone. The only reason that I remember the exact date is because I have a note in my iPhone from a particularly difficult day. I remember it clearly, too. I was walking around Borders (may it rest in peace) on my lunch break and I was feeling lost. Not lost in the sense that I didn’t know where I was, but lost in the sense of I didn’t know WHO I was anymore. There was no reason for me to feel this way – as if people who battle depression HAVE to have a reason – but I did. And for a few months, I continued to feel this way. I didn’t understand it but you often don’t understand illness. There isn’t always a reason that people get sick, you know. I remember grappling with a sense of darkness and hopelessness. And then… I was better. Not healed, but better. And each day after that continued to be better. But for a lot of people, depression is not a bout. Depression is a life-long illness, chronic like arthritis or asthma.

When I was eighteen years old, my grandfather committed suicide. It was the summer before I went away to college and I was standing in the hallway between our living room and my bedroom when my mother got the phone call. I’ll never forget that moment because it was terrifying. My mother screamed like I had never heard her scream before – a sad, desperate wail that permeated every single bit of my body and made me back slightly away in both fear and sorrow. I only remember her yelling: “How could he do this?” and repeating it over and over.

My grandfather battled depression for most of his life. I never remember really seeing that depression manifested, but people with depression don’t often manifest symptoms. You don’t know that someone has asthma or arthritis until something around them causes their bodies to plunge into pain. I flew up to Pennsylvania a few days early to stay with my grandmother and my mother in my grandmother’s house. I remember being in her living room, curled up on the couch and listening to the cars outside whiz by on the street. I remember her asking me – me, a teenager – this question: “Why would he do this?” And I remember softly explaining to her that depression was an illness, a chemical imbalance. It was not anyone’s fault. It was not for anyone to take the blame. He was sick and that sickness overtook him.

Depression isn’t about trying to be happy. Depression isn’t sadness. Depression, in fact, is a complexity that resides within the brain, as the Harvard Medical School explains in this article. Depression is an ailment and an illness and it’s just as painful and damning as any disease that you can see physically manifested in individuals. It should be, therefore, given the same weight that physical disease but it often isn’t. People with mental illnesses are often dismissed and oversimplification is applied. People with depression are just “sad.” People with anxiety are just “worried.” People struggling with self-harm and suicide are labeled everything from “attention-seeking” to “selfish.” No one would ever think to, as I noted earlier, criticize a cancer patient for not trying hard enough to rid their bodies of their disease or tell someone with a broken bone to will themselves healed. Just as physical sickness is complex, so is mental illness.

Suicide is painful. There is no other way to describe it. People automatically question how someone could be so selfish as to take their own life, but I think that the question shouldn’t be centered on selfishness but sickness and hopelessness, instead. It’s okay to question the motivation for suicide. It’s okay to wonder and to grapple with its reality and the decimation that follows. It’s okay to feel lost and confused and angry and scared whenever you encounter the loss of a loved one or even a complete stranger. No emotion is wrong; no emotion is insignificant. But let me tell you this right now: if you are reading this and you think that life would be better off without you – that the world would be better off without  you – you are wrong. If you are sitting there thinking that you don’t have it in you to carry your burden anymore, that the weight of the world is pressing down on you so hard that you feel you might drown: let someone else help you carry it. Let people come alongside you and lift your arms.

There’s a Biblical story that I love (hear me out, even if you aren’t religious, just for a moment). It’s the story of Moses and the Israelites on the day that they fought and defeated the Amalekites:

10 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. 11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. [emphasis mine]

The reason that I love this story so much is because it is a clear example of what we are meant to do in life: Moses’ arms were held up by Aaron and Hur because he began to grow tired. Moses couldn’t hold his arms up anymore – he simply did not have that kind of strength. He NEEDED to be propped up by other people; he needed them to hold him up when he couldn’t hold himself anymore. We need other people. We were not meant to do life alone. We were not meant to exist alone, without the support of community. When we are weak, we need to rely on others to help strengthen and uphold us. We cannot do it alone. The problem is that so many of us try to. We think that we are islands, that no one else understands our problems or our struggles. We think that others will see us as weak if we ask for assistance. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Asking for medicine when you are sick or for people to bring you tissues and movies and sit with you on the couch is not weak. Similarly, asking for help if you struggle with mental illness or thoughts of suicide? It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. It’s a sign that you know what you are battling and that you cannot do it alone. There are amazing organizations devoted to helping individuals who struggle with depression, addiction, mental illness, and suicide but none of whom I love more than To Write Love on Her Arms. If you have never heard the story, please go and research it because it is amazing. If you are struggling and need help, their website has some amazing resources available.

I’m writing this post because Robin Williams struggled with depression and suicide and his mental illness claimed his life yesterday. It was really difficult to believe, reading the tweets and news stories, that such a part of my childhood was gone. He was my Genie in Aladdin. He was the amazing and crazy ball of energy in The Crazy Ones. He made me laugh and cry in Flubber. He was heartwarming and heartbreaking in Jack. He was adventurous in Jumanji and slap-stick silly in RV. He was known for his amazing impressions and voices, for his kindness and generosity, for his humility. Looking at Robin Williams’ career and life, you wouldn’t think that he would struggle with depression. As if depression means that you have to wear dark clothing and brood and become a hermit, right? Depression is a mental illness which means that it is unseen to the human eye, but its effects are not. Depression is a weight that you carry around with you, even when you are working. Depression isn’t sadness, like I’ve said before, and it’s not weakness. It’s a burden.

Robin Williams was such an amazing part of everyone’s life. I have never seen so many tweets or Facebook posts or articles than I did yesterday when news broke. Everyone had the same reaction: stunned silence and heartbreak. It’s weird because a lot of people don’t know how to grieve celebrities. There are three camps: those who grieve openly and publicly, those who grieve privately, and those who look at celebrity-induced grief as something of a weakness or irritation. Celebrities are people, too. Does it make me sad that I have to type that out? Yes. Celebrities are human beings with family and friends and social circles and influence. Robin Williams meant so much to so many of us. He was a figure in our lives, just like our cousins or our parents: a presence that existed there that you would never think would be taken away so suddenly and harshly.

I grew up remembering re-runs of Mork and Mindy being played on my television. I was born seven years after the show ended, but I remember – vaguely – the series. I remember it being funny. I remember Robin Williams. I grew up, like most little girls of my generation, obsessed with Aladdin. It was my go-to videotape. I barely cared for Cinderella, I was blasé about Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. I liked The Little Mermaid. But I LOVED Aladdin. I don’t know how many times I watched that movie as a child, but suffice it to say that it was a lot. Genie always made me giggle. Robin Williams had such a spastic, lovely energy to him. You could almost hear him bouncing around while he recorded his voices for the movie. He seemed like that kind of person – the one with all the energy. It’s tough to reconcile the image of Robin Williams being so energetic and making so many of us laugh with the idea of him being depressed and struggling to hold onto hope.

He was Mrs. Doubtfire, to me, a childhood memory of laughing hysterically and crying profusely. The movie was and continues to be an astounding glimpse into the range of Robin Williams’ acting. He could do that, you know: he could make us laugh one moment and weep the next because of his succinct ability to be so intentional and profound with his acting choices. And then there was Jack (more weeping – I remember sneakily watching this film because I was young and it had more mature content than my parents were ready to expose me to as a seven-year old) and Jumanji (to this day, this movie still makes me jump) and Flubber (so hilariously zany and yet also so moving because THAT SCENE WITH WEEBO, YOU GUYS) and Happy Feet and RV (silly and delightful). And then, most recently, there was The Crazy Ones. To me, Robin Williams wasn’t just “that guy who can do impressions.” He was that actor whose work has literally spanned the entirety of my life, every significant film and role dotting my own timeline. When you feel close to an actor like this, their death hits you in a place that you didn’t expect because you’re literally losing a lifelong friend. And while it’s true that I’d never met Robin Williams in person, it’s also true that you can feel emotionally connected to people you’ve never met. We’re human beings, after all, designed to feel emotions and connections and to forge them with those within our lives.

I remember the night that I received my first and only tweet from Robin Williams. I had just finished the episode “Sydney, Australia” of The Crazy Ones and thought it was hilarious. It was honestly the best episode of that short-lived series, so I tweeted how in love with the show and its amazing ensemble I was. Robin Williams responded and I proceeded to freak out because… well, I freak out when famous people tweet me. His response, I believe, is an example of his life:

He was gracious and humble – he was complimentary of other people and kind. The fact that he took time out of his day to tweet a response has never been lost on me. And just because tragedy and depression marked the end of Robin Williams’ life, it doesn’t mark his entire life. It doesn’t negate his generosity or humility. It doesn’t mar the way that he made millions of people laugh, made them feel a connection to him and his work. It doesn’t erase those qualities or attributes that made him so amazing. If anything, Robin Williams’ life should be a celebration: we should laugh and live just a little bit more because of what his impact has done.

Depression and suicide are tragic. I’m not going to sugarcoat the reality of how horrifying, how terrible, and how utterly sad these things are. But it’s not the end. If you are struggling through the darkness, weighed down by things – by stress or your inner demons or an unspeakable horror in your past that you cannot get rid of – it is not too late for you. Listen to my words carefully: you ARE enough. You are worth it. You have meaning and have purpose. The world is slightly better because you are in it. And I know that if you’re really struggling, you may not believe it. You may believe the lies in your head that tell you you’re sick and sad and hopeless. 

Friend, let me tell you this: you are not alone. Let me repeat it: you are NOT alone. Let people come alongside you and lift your weary arms. Let us carry your burdens for a while. You’re not a problem and you’re not an unfixable mess. You are ill. But hold on, friend, because there is light up ahead. Robin Williams’ life is not a tragic story. His life is an amazing, colorful story of celebration and light and joy. He delivered the gift of laughter to so many people and that cannot – and should not – be forgotten or dismissed. He was, however, in more pain than anyone could have realized; this pain crippled him in the end and it’s sad and tragic but it can also serve as a reminder for us to live and to live boldly and to seek help when necessary.

J.K. Rowling once beautifully wrote the words of Albus Dumbledore: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” 

Keep walking toward the light of hope, friends. Keep walking.

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