Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Reflections on Robin Williams' Suicide, One Year Later

I still vividly remember walking out of a water park with my two sons one year ago today, checking my phone, and learning that Robin Williams had taken his life.  I couldn't comprehend it, I wanted to believe it wasn't true.  It couldn't be true.  But it was, and it haunted me for several weeks.  It is still very sad to me now.  It's still hard for me to watch his movies or TV shows.  It is sad because he touched my life and the lives of millions.  It is sad because he did so much good in the world, and it seemed he still had so much to give.  The same can be said of every one of the 40,000 people who choose to take their lives each year.  They all still had more to give, but the pain and suffering just became too much.  

Most, if not all, who take their lives do not have the fame, fortune, and reach of Robin Williams.  However, each of these people have parents, siblings, friends and loved ones left behind.  I have never experienced the loss of someone that close to me to suicide, but I know that those who do are scarred for life.  They experience extreme guilt, sadness, and regret.  And I'm sure much more.  While there is likely healing over time, I'm told by those who have experienced this type of loss that the pain is always there. 

Perhaps the one truth that stands out to me as I reflect on this day is the intense power of depression.  Robin Williams had everything.  He had fame, money, family, adoration, and an incredible amount of talent.  It was still no match for the depression and despair he must have felt that led him to take his own life.  Mental illness does not discriminate, it is an equal opportunity illness.  We are all vulnerable.

It is often said that you have to be strong to fight mental illness.  And I think that's true.  I know my experiences have strengthened and challenged me.  However, for me it is equally, if not more, important to acknowledge my weakness in my fight against depression and anxiety.  I am extremely fortunate that the medication I take really controls my symptoms, and that the work I have done in life has healed many of the emotional scars I developed from growing up with this illness.  I have not experienced a major episode of depression in nearly 4 years.  At some points, my head even tries to trick me into believing it is gone altogether.  It's not.

However, I have a consistent awareness that I still have the illness.  I know it can strike at any moment, and that it is more powerful than I am.  When I have symptoms, negative thoughts, or signals I have learned can lead to an episode I don't try to "fight" them off.  Suppressing them or blaming myself only makes things worse.  I listen to them.  I let them be with the knowledge that they usually pass.  I remind myself that it is the illness, and that there is nothing wrong with me.  And when none of that works, or it becomes too hard, I get support.  Through therapy, writing, talking to a friend, or sharing it in an online support group where I know I will be understood and affirmed.  Thankfully this continues to work for me.

I'm mindful that it doesn't work for everyone.  Not all people experience depression the same way, and not all depression responds to treatment.  Some people can go to therapy, get support, eat well, exercise, take their medication, and still experience intense depression.  It is not their fault.  It's not because they are weak.  They have an illness, as do I. And at times, as it was for Robin Williams, it is fatal.

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