Farewell, Robin Williams (and my experiences with mental illness)

Author: Steve Jurvetson. Cropped from http://www.flickr.com/photos/44124348109@N01/2351249788
Robin Williams at the 2008 BBC World Debate

A Farewell

RIP, Robin Williams. Some of my best film memories as a child involve you. My brothers and I always had time for you in our obsessive movie rotation. Mrs Doubtfire, Flubber, Patch Adams, Jack – you showed us so many sides of the human equation.

Hook showed me that’s it’s never too late to retrieve our childlike selves from the monotony of adult life. You taught me that even mechanical men have a heart and soul in Bicentennial Man. What Dreams May Come showed me the beauty of real, strong, lasting love that would literally go to hell and back. One Hour Photo showed a much darker side to your acting range, but brought out the depth of your talent that before then, I’d only seen in comedy.

Farewell, Mr Williams. May the journey you are now on bring you some measure of the peace you struggled to find in Earthly life. You will always have a place in my heart.

My Experiences With Mental Illness

As a child all I knew of Robin Williams was his acting career. The funny guy in all those comedies. It wasn’t until I saw him on an episode of Parkinson that I discovered his life was more than it appeared on-screen. That he had spent many, many years coping with depression and addiction, and still did.

At the time it didn’t mean much to me. I didn’t know anyone with mental illness, so it was all theoretical. I could feel sorry for him, and the sadness that he must feel (because that’s what depression was, right? Feeling sad?).

Fast-forward a decade. My partner of almost eight years, the Raccoon, has lived with depression more than half his life. I have talked him through suicidal ideation at least three times in our relationship. I have helped him recognise and stop self-harming behaviour. I have held him through many, many breakdowns when the pressure of “acting normal” has become too much for him to bear. I live with his mood swings, his perpetual exhaustion, his short temper when the world has overwhelmed him. I remind him of his worth as a human being, as a father, as a partner, when guilt tries to crush him. I comfort him as best I can, having only an outsider’s view to go by.

I have seen, albeit from a distance, the repercussions of suicide. Both my best friend and an aunt made suicide attempts while I was in my teens, both unsuccessful. I have held the Raccoon too many times while he grieved for friends lost to its grasp.

I have two friends and a cousin with bipolar disorder. I can name at least six friends with depression, anxiety, or both. Two have PTSD to go along with it.

I act as a sounding board for my metamour, the Raccoon’s long-distance relation-date-ship thing (thank you for such a useful phrase, Daria), when she needs to vent about her anxiety and/or fibromyalgia.

I spent at least part of my teenage years dealing with intermittent anxiety, something I only realized a year or two ago. I self-medicated with knitting for about 18 months after the birth of Chipmunk, when I was in the grip of (undiagnosed) mild postnatal depression. I know at least two mothers who have dealt with PND, one so severely affected she has needed intervention twice.

Suffice it to say, I now have a much better understanding of mental illness than I did at sixteen.

And yet there’s still so much I don’t understand – because it isn’t talked about.

I live in a country where it’s estimated that 1 in 7 people will experience depression at some point in their lives. 1 in 5 Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year. 20% of the population. And yet we don’t talk about it. We ignore it, we marginalize the people affected by it.

That needs to stop.

I can’t give you the magic key to fix this. This is a generational, societal issue with many roots that need digging out. All I can do is urge this:

Talk to family. Talk to your friends. Listen to them – really listen – if they seem down. Even – especially – if they’re the sort of person who seems happy, funny, joke-y all the time. Cracked has a great article that explains the why behind this better than I can.

If someone in your life has a chronic mental illness, remember this: Don’t try to judge. Don’t try to “fix” them. There is no quick fix for this, just like there’s no quick fix for most chronic health conditions. (There are non-medication things that can help manage a mental illness, but that’s a whole other series of posts.) Nudge them when their self-care slips. Offer to put them in touch with resources that can help, if their condition is heading downwards. And for God’s sake, take any mention of suicide seriously.

Basically, let the people you care about know that you are a safe space. And then BE that safe space. Is it hard? Yes. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve had to learn. I’ll try to write a future post covering this concept in more detail.

We need to talk about mental illness, because it’s real. The damage it does is real. And if we remove the taboos surrounding it, maybe it will finally be seen that way.