The doctor’s diagnosis: A broken heart. Yes, that’s what is ailing me today; causing pain so deep it seems to be the only thing anchoring me to Planet Earth. The proximate cause: a late afternoon text message yesterday from my publisher with the news of Robin Williams’ suicide. The root cause: this is hitting close to home, just two years after losing our youngest son under similar circumstances – death by mental illness. It has ripped the scab off a slowing healing wound.
Williams didn’t commit a crime; he suffered like 25% of humanity, straddling two worlds with two very different faces – one public, one private. The public face blessed our lives with his outrageous brand of humor and pathos that invariably cast a revealing light on what makes us perfectly imperfect humans. His genius was an innate ability to tap into his Inner Child with total abandon, being marvelously outrageous while revealing the human condition. At times he made being a jerk way-cool. Other times he brought us to tears.
Let’s not forget that his very private face – the struggles with deep depression and substance abuse – also fueled his genius. This part of his life was less understood and through the years it would, at time, seep into public view. The tabloids had a field day with it, while other mainstream and online media respectfully wished him well in rehab – but please spare us the details. We were less concerned about the impact these cycles of euphoric genius and black-hole depression had on his family. It was the public face we clamored for and adored.
Having survived our son’s suicide, I can speak to that.
Each family’s journey is different but the underlying heartache is similar. There is relief shrouded in guilt and sadness. The ambivalence comes with thanks that our loved one is free from the demons and despair that haunted them coupled with the infinite emptiness and pain left behind. I call this The Empty Heart Compartment: it is an irreparably broken part of the heart. Some days it feels like a crater. It is not as blistered as it once was, but today it is rubbed raw by the news of yet another family starting this journey – surviving suicide and searching for their “new normal”.
There is so much still unknown about mental illness and brain disorders but recent brain imaging and Human Genome Project research studies are zeroing in on genetic, chemical and biological markers that influence it. I have seen how mental illness can be present in an individual’s DNA and pay forward in the family’s DNA – nuclear and extended family. As we are seeing, collectively, it is surfacing more often in society’s DNA with death by mental illness increasing among seniors due to financial insecurity, loss of independence or death of a partner; war veterans unable to reintegrate after combat due to PTSD and war injuries; middle-aged and young adults experiencing un- or under-employment; and teens and adults self-medicating with recreational drugs, over-medicating with prescription drugs, and adding binge drinking to the mix. Meds all have side-effects that impact individuals differently but one fact that cannot be dismissed is that people who suffer from mental illness can have amplified reactions to drugs of all kinds and even for those who are mentally healthy, combining drugs and alcohol can be toxic.
So how will we honor Robin Williams?
I don’t mean now, that is the easy part. The real honor will be to celebrate not just his talent but also the illness that propelled it. May we work together to dispel the stigma that surrounds mental illness by bringing it out of the darkness, into the light and giving it a voice.
Let’s encourage our legislators to fund mental health research independent of pharmaceutical industry influence. Let’s ensure patients, caregivers and families have community resources and services so they are less isolated and more connected. Let’s recognize and address health privacy legislation that prevents families from getting needed medical treatment for adult family members. Let’s wisely approach recreational drug legislation by assessing possible unintended consequences on minors as well as ensuring the infrastructure is in place to support and mitigate those challenges. Long overdue is a sensible approach to gun legislation that respects gun ownership as well as public safety.
May Robin Williams rest in peace. The world has lost an incredibly gifted and talented man but it seems this world was getting even too crazy for him. May we also honor his family by giving them space and time to find their “new normal”.