Mental illness does not always present in the form of a scraggly, strung out bum on the street in a tattered, plaid shirt, or a twitchy young woman hiding chicken carcasses beneath her bed in an asylum. Sometimes it comes in the form of a handsome investment banker on Wall Street, who keeps his secrets buttoned up to the neck and secured tightly with an Hermès tie. Or perhaps it's an upbeat kindergarten teacher finger painting rainbows with her students. Maybe it's a bubbly blonde writing a satirical dating column for a leading magazine title. And in this case, it's Robin Williams, the late, world famous actor and father of three. Mental illness is biological -- it does not discriminate, and nobody is absolutely immune.
The bottom line? We just never know when someone is struggling.
Before I was diagnosed with an eating disorder and spent time in treatment with people facing all sorts of affliction, I, too, was one of those people who thought mental illness only happened to those people. You know, those "crazy" people, over there. But certainly not to a talented actor, and definitely not to dear old me.
Mental illness is just that -- mental. It rarely manifests in the physical. You grow into it; it grows into you, until the two become one amorphous being. It's invisible and incredibly maddening -- not only for the sufferer, but for those trying desperately to understand. I hid my anorexia, a mental illness that often does bear physical signs, for almost 10 years before my cover was blown. We hide because we are afraid -- afraid it's our fault, afraid of fighting it, and afraid the world will not understand when we muster enough strength to face it head on.
There was a time where I might have believed that suicide was a cowardly act. I did not understand it then. For certain, it is a drastic and permanent end to a temporary, or at least treatable, problem. It is preventable, but it is not cowardly. I am grateful to have never, personally, experienced deep depression or suicidal ideation; I have, however, stayed up through the night with a very brave friend on the other end of the telephone pleading with her that she was loved, there was help, and the world needed her in it. Other friends of mine have survived suicide attempts. After hearing their stories, and fighting an illness myself, I get it now.
But not everyone has someone to help combat the all-powerful mind and its invasive, noxious thoughts when it simply wants to self-destruct and quit. In 2014, we have continued to make strides in science, technology, and health care. But sadly, the stigma against mental illness still prevails far and wide. Most people I know who are fortunate enough to seek treatment for their illnesses do so secretly. I know -- I was one of them.
I never knew Robin Williams, but it saddens me to ponder him in his final moments, alone in his own sickness and despair. His apparent taking of his own life does not convey weakness; it points to the strength he had to have fought this disease alone for so long, to a point where death seemed a better option. Robin Williams did not kill himself; his illness did.
While Robin Williams played a role in many of our lives, to him, most of us were just strangers -- strangers for whom his death is deeply, deeply felt. If anything, the aftermath of his passing is proof that, even if mental illness is widely misunderstood, people do care. We just need to care more before something tragic like this happens.
With every loss, there is a lesson. Perhaps this one is to be kind. Reach out. Tell the people you love that you love them. And if we cannot as a society understand mental illness, we must at least learn to accept it as a real, deadly disease, and practice compassion toward those who so bravely go to war against their own minds.
And to those who are struggling, you are not alone. Everybody needs a little help now and then.