Since telling you five years ago that I live with bipolar disorder, I’ve said little else about it. I’m noisy and public, but Motherlode is about my life and being bipolar is merely one facet of it.
In the days following the suicide of Robin Williams, I started receiving notes. People were asking me if I was OK, if I was I going to write about it, would I please write about it.
“But he had everything to live for,” some say. No, he had everything we’re told you should live for, if fame and family and fortune were truly everybody’s goal. He was reportedly facing other major health issues, but by 63, most of us are. I made the mistake of believing he had outrun something I know in my heart can’t be outrun; it merely sits in the shadows waiting to re-emerge.
Robin Williams was open about his struggles with depression and addiction. His standup comedy used his damage as material, and laughing at him — and with him — made it possible to laugh at my own demons. His loss has not just saddened me, it has scared me. There was vindication in hearing your thoughts and fears coming from another.
Loving someone whose broken mind leads them down dark paths wears you the hell out. You can exhaust yourself looking for reasons, answers and ways to help. The sad truth is you can’t prevent someone from taking their own life using guilt, fear, anger or love. Knowing those things becomes not a reason to stay alive, but yet another burden. It’s a desperate, reflexive answer — if you kill yourself, you will break my heart — yet when you can’t bear your own despair, being responsible for someone else’s is crushing, and ultimately impossible.
Robin Williams’ death has rocked a lot of people already perched on an emotional ledge. It felt personal because he seemed like such a decent human being, as a friend of mine put it. His dark side was his literal dark side, which he shared in his humour as well as his more reflective roles. He exposed his own melancholy, a word both beautiful and barren. He gave us pieces of himself we used to light our own way while he disappeared into the dark.
I rage against the language that swirls around mental health, around suicide. It is not weakness, nor cowardice, nor selfishness. It is a desperate bid to not be those very things. It is being a foot soldier in a war so overwhelming, those trained to fight it can barely define it.
With the tragic passing of Robin Williams we’ll say, again, that now is the time to talk about it. And we’ll let it slide back to the shadows, because we’ll go on pretending we don’t need to find answers if we can keep believing those we lose are weak, are cowards. I’ll never be cured of my disorder; I manage it with good days and bad, but I will challenge anyone who says I don’t live it with all the strength and dignity I possibly can.
So, here is my proposal to you. Look inside your own heart and your own family. Recognize that depression and other mental-health issues thread their tendrils deep into family trees. Shake out the family secrets; shed the cloak of things we just don’t talk about. Grandparents, turn a light backwards through the decades, and reveal histories that could help your children and grandchildren be safe. Imagine the power of a teenager being told a grandparent understands. Have mental-health discussions openly and often; make avenues of help available even if they preclude confiding in you; prioritize reaching out for help over keeping secrets.
We need early, correct diagnosis. We need a medical community dedicated to working in tandem to supply treatment, and we need patients and families who commit to working that treatment. We need workplaces openly supporting their employees. Don’t let this conversation slip away, and let the loss of my favourite sad clown remind us to be vigilant, to be kind and to be open.
Ultimately, I can’t stop anyone from killing themselves. But I can let them know that many of us are often holding on for morning. You aren’t alone.