Thursday, August 14, 2014

Letting the Genie Out of the Bottle

When my husband came home from work Monday night he told me Robin Williams was dead. I didn't believe it. He told me he commit suicide. I felt a profound sense of not surprise and then I knew it was true. Robin Williams suffered from mental illness. He fought it bravely. He eventually lost the battle.

I cried. I cried a lot. I am not sure why. Obviously I loved his work. Obviously I grew up watching his movies. Ferngully was my daughter's favorite at one point and we watched it all day everyday for a two month stretch. But this man was not my kin. I have lost others who were kin and did not cry as much. But they were old and visibly ill. But they died of natural causes. I don't know...

A light has truly gone out of the world.

When I hear Robin Williams called "selfish" and "cowardly" for his final act, I am angered. I am angered because he was neither. Robin Williams spoke openly about his mental illness and his addictions. He discussed his struggles with anyone who would listen and he helped others. Most people hide these conditions, pretend they do not exist, try to go on as normal. Robin Williams functioned. He went to work and his work was pretending he was someone he wasn't, but he didn't pretend he wasn't suffering. He never pretended that. He was very brave.

Mental illness will never be conquered until we can recognize it for what it is- a disease- and call it out without shame of social stigma, of being considered "weak" or "cowardly" because owning your disease takes strength and bravery and it is the only way to conquer it. And if it still wins after that, then at least you went down fighting.

Today in the car I heard a story on NPR about a picture going around of Aladdin and the Genie and the caption "Genie, you're free" and they had an interview with a psychologist who was saying how much she hated this image and this idea and how it promoted the idea that suicide is a good answer, a way to freedom and it made her job so much harder.

But here is what she was forgetting.

Mental illness is illness. It is disease. It is chemical as research is beginning to show. It makes you suffer; unspeakable suffering, mostly in silence. Even if the disease doesn't cause you to become isolated you are still isolated because of the nature of the disease - you can't talk about it. You shouldn't. It's a faux pas. If you have Cancer, you can talk about it. If you have Diabetes, you can talk about it. AIDS, okay, maybe not to just anyone, but you can talk about it. We can talk about heart disease. In my family, the hot topic is Parkinson's disease, which conquered my paternal grandfather 3 years ago and is currently working on my maternal grandmother. And when someone dies from complications from these diseases we say "At least he is free from his pain." "Well, he is at peace now." And it is okay to say that.

But when someone dies of complications from mental illness - suicide or maybe even an accidental death related to the illness - we can't say that. It's wrong. It's bad. It "glorifies" suicide and drug use. Even the mental health professionals who want mental illness to be recognized as a real and true disease and not a social defect, consider it a faux pas to acknowledge that now this person who has suffered is now free from his suffering.

People can't understand how someone so loved could feel so alone, so worthless, so done as to want to take his own life and that is the point. It does not matter how well you are loved. It does not matter what you have or what you accomplished. At a certain point you are simply done. It is simply over. There is simply no more to do and the rest of that does not matter. And then you attempt suicide. And you die or you don't. Or there is an intervention and it doesn't happen. But that person who is mentally ill is no more capable of preventing the suicide attempt on his own than a person having a heart attack is capable of saving his own life. Either he has to call out for help before it reaches a tipping point or someone close to him has to recognize the symptoms and intervene.

We don't know if Robin Williams called out for help that night. We don't know if anyone heard him or knew what he was saying. Unfortunately, if there were symptoms they were too subtle or the people around them didn't recognize them. I am sure his family and staff are asking themselves what they missed, how they could have missed it. But we can't blame him or anybody for what this disease did. We can only mourn him and never forget and work harder to understand mental illness so that it can stop killing people.

Suicide is not the only death by mental illness out there. Do not assume that because some deaths are "accidental" that they are not also suicide. Mentally ill people play with their lives all the time. Do you think people don't know that if they drive drunk they might die? Or that if they take a lot of heroine or whatever or engage in other risky behavior that there's a chance it will kill them? Of course they do. When I was in the deepest depths of my own depression and self medication I remember saying "I do it because I don't have the balls to kill myself outright." I am pretty sure that wasn't an original statement. I am no that creative.

There are people in my life that I pray for every day. Some day my phone will ring and I will get the news that mental illness has killed another person so young and so full of promise. Mental illness loves a genius. It is greedy for the greatest among us and it will take many many more before it is conquered.