Since coming back from the Edel conference, I have been contemplating returning to the world of blogging for many reasons. I explained briefly in my last post of my love for writing and its powerful healing in my own life. I also spoke briefly of how writing came to be an avenue for healing with my mental illness, a terrible beast of a cross that many write of but few seem to understand its gravity. I felt immense peace the other night after writing my “coming back” post, and I even wrote down a list of topics that I was excited to write about; some serious, some silly, but all of which I knew I would enjoy writing.
And then yesterday happened, and the world lost another beautiful soul to a terrible disease. There’s no need to break the news that Robin Williams died yesterday from suicide. There’s no need to go into the terrible details of his death or even the remarkable details of his extraordinary life. There are others who are far better equipped to write such stories. I even hesitated in writing about it at all; what words could possibly describe the sadness of a life lost to such a bastard of a disease? But Ryan is out of town, and after hours of being unable to sleep, I decided to try and write through all of the emotions of the day. I first read through article after article of those who knew him and the joy he brought to the world. I watched old clips from some of my favorite movies, there are far too many to even post. And I read through tweets from his fellow celebrities who were trying as best they could to articulate their sadness. I read through them all with a numbness, unable to even cry as I thought about the tragedy, that is, until, I saw this picture:
“Genie, you are free.”
Now there was an uproar, and probably an understandable one. The idea that suicide should be sought after because it frees one of sufferings is a great lie of mental illness: we all are aware that there is nothing good or glamorous about suicide. And we should hesitate to share such images, for there are well-documented cases of people being swept up into a sort of suicide fervor because of its documented attentions. But if I’m being completely honest, I got it. I studied the image again and again and finally, after many hours, wept for Williams’ death. Because I’ve been there; mental illness is a horrible beast of a disease that imprisons its victims. It lies and manipulates the sufferer to believe not just that life has no purpose, but that they have no purpose, as if they were an accident of creation. And in the depths of the darkness and on the brink of despair the sufferer believes–in spite of every attempt not to–that the only way out of the immense pain is death, and death at their own hand. I HAVE BEEN THERE. It is a terrible, terrible thing to not be able to control one own’s mind, to feel imprisoned in your own body. It is even far more horrible when the isolation sets in and the pain is not only unbearable but also indescribable; you begin to feel, as I’m assuming Robin Williams did, that no one could quite understand the depths of the despair, in spite of their attempts to try.
I have written of my own battle with mental illness before, and my central thesis remains the same as it always has: mental disorders are a medical affliction. I’m not sure exactly what else could possibly be said that hasn’t already been said, but the bottom line is this: when we (as Church and as a society) speak of mental illness as some sort of spiritual depravity or hyper-emotionalized state, we are not only doing a great disservice to the sufferer, but we could also potentially be causing them great harm. After my diagnosis as a young girl, I had many in my life try to overspiritualize my disease as a “cross that God wanted me to bear” that could simply be “prayed away.” Can you imagine how terrifying that was to me? You have no idea how long it took me to climb out of the whole others dug for me, however well-intentioned.** Let me be clear: ANY mention of a spiritual component to mental illness (even when mixed with a strange “medical condition” cocktail) could have devastating consequences for its victims. It is not worth it, so please stop doing it.
Now to be fair, most of the posts I have read these past 24 hours seem understand the gravity of this issue and respectfully write of the disorder for what it is: a medical condition. Some have done this REALLY WELL, but there are some articles that are JUST PLAIN STUPID, and other perhaps well-intentioned writers who chose to write a shock-value piece that is terribly immersed in ignorance. Whenever I read articles like the latter, or for that matter when anyone in my life speaks of the “spiritual” side of mental illness that can be fixed with a rosary and The Good Book, my first reaction is always the same: What. total. bullshit. Please do not misunderstand me; there is healing in the word of God, and there is a very terrifying reality of spiritual darkness that is frightening and chaotic: BUT IT IS NOT MENTAL ILLNESS.
So what are we to do? Well, in terms the Church, I laid out my beliefs pretty plainly here, feel free to reread if you so wish. But as a society, the only light to come from such a horrific death is the conversation which has yet again come to the surface. It is time, or perhaps I should say it is ABOUT TIME, for our world to approach mental health more seriously. One of my heroes and a fellow OCDer Howie Mandell has long advocated for “mental health” physicals. Once a year, free of pay, each of us should be able to see a therapist or licensed counselor to keep ourselves mentally healthy. This just makes sense. Imagine how different our world could be when the shame and stigma of mental illness is finally off the shoulders of its victims as we all bear the affects of the terrible beast together, one community living for the other. Now that would be truly freeing.
**A quick note: I am grateful that those closest to me, namely my parents and close friends, did NOT do this. I might not be here today had they not taken the course of action which they did.