One year after the most tragic event in our country took place, I experienced a moment of blissful laughter that I did not know I was capable of feeling without the use of mind-altering chemicals.
I was in my apartment and I rented a DVD starring a comedian I had grown up watching. The comedian was Robin Williams, and the video was his performance “Live on Broadway 2002.” The entire show was filled with precision, on-point commentary and absolute unabashed goofiness that made me completely let go of the sadness, pain, grief, and discontent I had been holding. Before long I found myself laughing so hard that I fell off the couch! I knew how Mr. Williams performed as I had watched him through the 70’s and 80’s and had seen his improvisational mastery, however, he hit such a profound stride that while I watched this performance, the only choice I had was to feel good to be alive in that moment. I knew that this would help cheer up all of my friends and family that I showed it to, so I went on a tour through different households close to me to show it to them and spread Robin’s good cheer.
When I found out that Robin Williams had died as a result of suicidal depression, I felt completely saddened and empty. I followed reports over the past eight years of his relapse after twenty years being sober, as well as his bouts of bipolar-like symptoms that he would call “moodiness.” I had no idea that his depression and difficulties with coping would hit him so hard that taking his life became his solution. His pain became too great and the possibilities of relief too small for him to do what we would have liked him to do, such as reach out and ask for help. Mr. Williams had the mental illness/disease of depression, and lost his life as a result.
A week before Mr. Williams died, another person that I had watched and found some outlet to express my anger with growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, Gene Simmons from the rock band Kiss, was in the news for ranting about how he believes addicts and alcoholics are “just downers” and “have a dark cloud over their heads and see themselves as victims.” Mr. Simmons also made a claim that he tells people “to jump when they want to kill themselves.” The attitude being taken here is that addiction and depression are choices of the “weak,” therefore, no compassion ought to be given due to the weakness and desire to stay in this state of being. This is the type of bias that a large portion of our “can-do” population normally take towards something that they cannot see, so therefore, do not understand. When a bias is taken to its extreme, such as Mr. Simmons’ take, it becomes plain and simple bigotry.
Alcoholism, addiction, depression, and bipolar disorder are all mental illnesses that are listed in the guide used for all diagnoses in the field of psychology, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Being such, they are forms of disease that affect the mental as well as the emotional, spiritual and physical components of a person. Diseases such as cancer, diabetes, AIDS, and others affect the physical as well as all other components of a person as well. We treat patients with these physical-based diseases with dignity and respect, and do not believe at any time that they are choosing to be “weak.” In fact, all perceived weaknesses are accepted due to the tremendous empathy and compassion we feel for them. This is good! We must continue to give people that have physical illness all of the support and compassion to help them heal. Please let us do the same for those with mental illness. At the very least may we learn more about the nature of the illness and begin to understand the pain that is experienced by a person suffering from mental illness.
It is true that a person with any disease is encouraged to treat it in order to overcome it and heal. The course of treatment and prognosis of physically-based diseases are more overt and the progression towards healing can be monitored and tracked.
However, the diseases of the brain (the mind) are more covert as most of the monitoring and tracking is recorded through patient self-report. In addition, in the case of addiction, the intake of mind altering substances must be stopped, and then any underlying symptoms of depression can be accurately treated. This may seem to an unaffected person quite simple – Make the choice and get better. However, this “choice” is completely affected by the illness.
In mental illness the choices a person makes are coming from a mind that is ill.
Even when effectively treated, mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and alcoholism/addiction can come out of remission and have an even greater impact to the person suffering from the disease. In Robin Williams’ case it appears that he was attempting to treat his illness as he re-entered Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in July. This is proof that he was trying to make a “choice” to recover and heal, however, the addiction, the depression, the mental illness, the disease made his choices skew towards the direction he so very sadly ended up in.
My prayer is for healing. Robin Williams lived a life that helped countless others to heal through laughter. I am blessed to be one who felt the curative effects of joyous laughter from Mr. Williams’ work. Now in the pain of grief, anger is normal and a part of the process. However, biased commentary that leads to hurtful bigotry against people that have a very real illness is not only unproductive, but goes by nature against the love and laughter that this man gave to us throughout his lifetime. My memories are now sealed with his passing.
Thank you Mr. Williams for making me laugh, and thank you for making me truly see the depths of the pain that is mental illness. May your passing help others to feel compassion for themselves by having understanding for each other in the pain, as your life helped us feel the gift of laughter.
Noel Neu, MS, LMHC is the CEO and clinical director of Empathic Recovery (www.empathicrecovery.com). Mr. Neu has been a clinician in private practice for over ten years and has developed programs for “Assertive Awareness” training, “Living your Truth” to build self-esteem, and helping families with addictions heal.