On Robin Williams and mental health… and stuff

I don’t know why we’re not all more open about the fact that life can be rough. We say that everyone has their cross to bear, but as soon as someone admits that bearing it has any actual effect on their wellbeing, we get weird. I almost didn’t publish this because I don’t want anyone to worry about me or pity me, but screw that. I believe that most people can relate to struggles with mental health, whether they rise to the clinical level or not, and so maybe we should start trying. This is a kind of meandering piece, but the only real point of it is to stare down that stigma that leaves us to deal with our struggles in isolation and give it the finger.

Robin Williams’ death hit me hard this week. Not just because he was a phenomenal talent and a wonderful person, or because it seems wrong to live in a world without him, having grown up watching him on screen. Not just because of the tragic irony that he couldn’t see the world as he made us see it. It made me even sadder because he left behind a 25 year-old daughter. Preparing for my Mom’s death from lung cancer, diagnosed this past May, I feel sad and angry that someone else “opted out” of his daughter’s life, where my Mom would have cherished the time. Before you tear me to shreds in the comments, I know it wasn’t really an option. Or at least my head knows it wasn’t a choice; my heart is still angry that he took for granted that he (probably) could have seen his daughter marry and held his grandkids. I know that his being failed him in no less an absolute manner than my Mom’s will, but that’s not how it feels right now. Which is ironic, really. I wish I could reason with the angry part of me—that same part of me feels that he could have chosen—and yet I cannot, just as he couldn’t.

The Cracked.com article on the sad clowns of the world also made me angry because we should be better at treating depression by now, dammit. Wong describes their pain so poignantly (there’s a word that’s never been said in reference to a Cracked article before) and its source so thoroughly, yet science can’t make sense of it to fix it? My inner demons are cousins of theirs, I suppose. I am a perfectionist (at least when it comes to my expectations of myself) and an idealist whose hope is often misplaced, it seems. Over the past several years, I have often felt like a disappointment because I went to a great college with all these dreams of making myself into someone powerful and independent, but I don’t feel like I’ve made any progress yet. Finding employment was hard; finding employment with benefits was, apparently, impossible. A bad back limited my job choices and the medical bills associated with it have prevented me from paying off my minimal student debt immediately after graduating, like I’d planned. I bailed on the notion of going to law school because the thought of a house-sized debt with no guarantee of finding a job, let alone one I liked, made me sick to my stomach. Literally, I think I had an ulcer. And there are definitely days when I’m convinced it could all have been avoided if I’d just been better somehow.

I may have the occasional pity party or roast in my own honor, but it’s feeling like I’ve let others down that makes me want to curl up in a ball and stay there. My mom’s well-meaning advice about job hunting just made me feel worse. The stress I’ve watched my boyfriend struggle to manage when we have money problems because of my medical or employment woes makes me feel so incredibly awful. I’ve wondered whether his mother secretly hates me for bringing it upon him because I might, in her shoes. (She claims not, thankfully.)

So, no, I’m not always the picture of mental health, and with good reason, I think. My mom is dying. My back still hates me. I’m trying to find a part-time job now because the nonprofit we started—thinking there would be plenty of money to go around before the guy with the $250K/year, 3-year grant who wanted to fund Artifice lost control of said grant—cannot afford to pay me, but it requires our devotion if it’s going to survive. A dear friend died and another moved away. There have been other health scares. Finding and making friends after college isn’t easy. Shit’s rough sometimes. And the cognitive dissonance between how awesome I thought I’d be at “the real world” and the way things are actually going has made me feel like the Universal punch line more than once. Lately, I’ve been creating my own pressure to get my life in order so that my mom will know I’m “going to be okay,” whatever that means.

Aside from venting to relative strangers in the free support group I joined, the most effective thing I’ve found to shut up my inner demons on days when hope is replaced with self-blame is validation. Maybe Robin Williams’ life looked easy to all of us, but clearly it wasn’t, for him. I’m sure there are those who think that they would have been happy with his life and thus his success was wasted. That’s not how it works and framing anyone’s battles that way, no matter how they compare with yours, only makes matters worse for everyone. For me, it helps to hear that you agree that things have been tough—objectively tough, even if you think what you’ve been facing is tougher (but, ya know, don’t say that)—and that you think I’m strong. Strong for facing it, and even strong for running away from it when that’s what I need. Don’t make excuses for me or pity me. Don’t say I’m doing well all things considered or that no one could have expected more from me under the circumstances. Stand at the top of my mountain or at the bottom of my crevasse or wherever in between I may be at that moment and say to me, “Wow, that is one hell of a hike behind you.” Tell me you have respect for, or are proud or amazed of, or are inspired by who I am right now and my journey to get here. Let that be enough. Heaven knows that’s my goal.

And let’s not act like admitting that sometimes your mind gets the better of you is the same as confessing that you’ve got the plague. That’s a stupid reaction and it needs to stop. Just because someone’s said that they’re sometimes sad or angry or depressed or confused or anxious—I mean actually had the balls or ovaries to say it, in a way that you couldn’t avoid acknowledging—doesn’t mean you now have to stonewall “The Downer.” In fact, I bet that many of these very human struggles (though we know mental health problems can affect other beings, too) have happened without your realizing it to all those, uh, humans you know because we’re not supposed to talk about it. Mental/mood stuff does seem to be contagious somehow—see, for example, that horrible Facebook study—but that means your hope or joy can rub off on someone who needs it, too. In my own experience, the rough stuff doesn’t preclude the good stuff… at least not for long. Yes, some serious bouts with depression and anxiety do actually preclude the good stuff and need to be handled by professionals, and they can be really scary to those of us not equipped to deal with them, so some people bolt. But I’m pretty sure that most of us in the modern world struggle at some level with these issues at times and yet are afraid to talk about them, lest someone bust out the straight-jacket. Those of you with clinical depression or other serious mental health disorders, or those of you with loved ones who have them, may think that was super callous. (Or maybe not, I have no idea.) My reasoning is that if we stop whitewashing all of the shades of gray in between pure joy and mental health problems requiring treatment, and we embrace the fact that we’ll all move though a bunch of those shades in our lifetimes, the stigma should decrease, even for those hardest hit. So yeah, I guess that’s what I wanted to do with this piece.

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