On early Monday morning, comedian and actor Robin Williams died of asphyxiation, the result of an apparent suicide. It's a news story that spread like wildfire in the late afternoon, and by the evening, I was watching a marathon of movies like What Dreams May Come and Mrs. Doubtfire and his stand-ups like Live on Broadway.
I didn't know Robin Williams in person. He isn't a follower of a pagan religion, the primary topic of this blog. But he did have a profound effect on my sense of humor. I would certainly call him my childhood hero because, by inviting him into my home through his movies, TV shows and stand-up acts, I felt like I knew him. He reminded me of a wonderful family member, and tonight I grieve the loss the same way I would a close friend.
But I think what makes the whole thing a little harder to swallow is knowing that, at least according to reports, he chose to end it.
Just last week, I shortly talked about mental illnesses on my Facebook profile. Mental illness is a nasty condition akin to any other chronic illness or disease. We have a tendency in society to dismiss mental disease as shameful or even imaginary. This makes the pathway towards opening up and receiving help difficult. And, such as in the case of Robin Williams, the help can sometimes be stifling, not adequate or simply too late.
Mental illness isolates you. It makes you feel less than, unworthy, ashamed, useless and alone. It makes you distrustful and leaves you in a place of constant confusion. And all of those things culminate into an unhealthy scenario that makes you put on a smiling face to avoid talking about the situation you're in.
How do I know? Because I've been there.
On January 7th of this year, after a long run with chronic illness flares from Multiple Autoimmune Syndrome and losing a multitude of friends from it, I attempted (and luckily failed) to end my life.
I know now that the lows I experienced throughout November, December and January were the result of a multitude of chronic conditions. I was receiving poor nutrient intake thanks to Celiac Disease, something I wouldn't be officially diagnosed with until I received a round of invasive and strenuous medical tests from February to May. I also was extremely low on Vitamin D, a vitamin linked to a variety of mental issues. I had recently been through two major life-changing events: my scleritis flare, which left me blind for three months; and the loss of my circle of friends, the result of 20-somethings unsure how to manage a sometimes tedious and difficult friendship with a 20-something with chronic illness and, as I would soon find out, anxiety.
Anxiety. That's the big, bad word in my life. The thing I was diagnosed with. It was likely heightened by the circumstances, but it's always been there, lurking in the darkest part of my mind. It's the tiny voice in my head that's always, always telling me I'm doing it wrong. What's "it?" Everything. Whether I simply woke up too late or if there was actually a major event in my life, that voice let me know exactly what was what. It wasn't a real voice per se, but a sinking, pulling feeling in the back of my head.
It's been with me ever since I can remember. It's the perfectionist in me, the "adult because I'm clearly still a child" that simultaneously helps me maneuver through life and yet holds me back from enjoying it.
After the ritual with Liithi Lushede on Sunday, August 3rd, I was approached by someone who told me that they were struggling with social anxiety at the event. A dear friend of mine whom I won't name, I'm humbled that they felt they could come to me with a problem such as this. Because of the stigma mental illness has, talking about problems such as social anxiety becomes taboo. It seems so unfair because there are so many beautiful people out there that would shine so brightly if just given that step forward out of the veil of their condition. Yet we scold them like children who believe in Santa Claus and push them back into their cages.
First and foremost, if you or someone you know feels stifled by a mental illness, please seek help. Open up to a friend or family member, or look for a professional. Your condition does not make you a "freak" or a "social pariah." Mental illness, while not spoken about often, is relatively common. There is someone out there that is feeling the same as you, that is going through the same things as you. I know it's hard to imagine, particularly at rock bottom, but it's worth reaching out.
Secondly, medication, when properly prescribed and monitored, can be truly lifesaving. I take a non-addictive, low-dose anti-anxiety medication nightly and have seen a huge difference in how I view the world day-to-day. It isn't perfect; I still have anxiety attacks and days where I spiral out of control. On those days, I avoid social media, try to take comfort in my husband and, if nothing else works, sleep is a useful way to get through the attack. With mental illness, you never fully "recover," but it is manageable.
Logging your mental illness attacks, whatever they may be, can help you discover your triggers and help you circumvent scenarios that will set you up for a bad day. After logging for two months, I found that major social events (such as weddings), losing things, computer glitches and illness flares are major triggers for me. I've started a near-OCD organization of my home to help me stop losing important things. I now have a laptop in case my computer malfunctions at a time where my husband can't help me fix it. I have yet to fully figure out how to manage major social events, but I am allotted to take an extra dose of my anti-anxiety medication on those days. It hasn't stopped an anxiety attack yet, but I'm hopeful to find a workaround. And that hope is everything.
Finally, no matter how difficult, know that it is possible to change your line of thought. It feels like trying to lift a 2-ton vehicle without super strength, but it is possible with some training. In order to do this, you have to actively recognize negative thought patterns and force yourself to turn those thoughts into positive ones. "I'm too fat" becomes "I have other dresses that I look good in and, if my weight bothers me that much, I can make active decisions to change my current physical state with time." "Nothing ever goes right" becomes "Things are not going the way I want them to right now, but it will get better with a plan." It's so hard to make these conscious changes in thought, but it's worth it to flex your brain muscles to feel better eventually!
Of course, I'm not a health professional. If you're experiencing true mental illness, seek professional help. They can get you started on a medication and therapy plan that will help you manage your condition.
And to those, like Robin Williams's family, who have lost a friend or family member to chronic illness, I sympathize. In 2006, I lost a good friend of mine to suicide. On Memorial Day this year, I visited his grave. He took a piece of my heart with him the day he decided that he could no longer bare the burden of his mental illness. Likewise, in 2008 and just 5 days before my wedding, my uncle pulled the trigger, distraught about his marriage. I added an additional panel to our programs in his memory but my family insisted the wedding continue to bring happiness to the dark time. While I certainly do not condone suicide, it is not "weakness" or a way of "giving up." Suicide is no different than another illness taking the life of someone. The only difference is that suicide is, what some would say, a choice. And often, when you're at that point, it truly feels like there's no other way out. It doesn't feel like there is any other choice. To end one's own life takes a great deal of strength that you do not understand unless you cross the brink yourself.
My deepest condolences to Robin Williams's wife, Susan Schneider and his three children, Zak, Zelda and Cody, as well as to anyone else whose life has been affected by the tragic result of unbearable mental illness.