In Memoriam: Mental Illness Connects Us All
Like many of you, I cannot stop thinking about the suicide of Robin Williams. In fact, when I look at my Facebook friends—people I have known since elementary school and others who are new friends and acquaintances—I am astounded by the number of folks who have been touched by depression, substance addiction and suicide. I am especially overwhelmed by the number of young men that we have lost to addiction and/or suicide. And while we all publically mourn the loss of a cultural icon, I am thinking a lot about my personal connection with mental health issues.
Thirty years ago, my family lost Daniel, our very close friend. Our families did everything together. We saw each other almost daily and spent all of our holidays together. Throughout my childhood, Daniel entertained me with marionettes and puppets. He was a brilliant artist and a gentle soul.
Daniel struggled with addiction and depression (they often go hand in hand), and, tragically, he took his own life in his early 20s. When he died, the family’s Rabbi suggested that they not make the suicide public in order to avoid prying and painful questions. I know he did that to comfort the family because then and now, brain illness is often thought of as a shameful personal problem rather than an actual disorder to be treated. In this way, the well-meaning Rabbi unwittingly made Daniel’s suicide an unspeakable secret rather than a community problem to be addressed and shared. He cut Daniel’s family off from an important resource: others who had suffered through a loved one’s suicide.
Abs and I started The Anxiety Sisterhood because we did not want to stay silent about our own struggles with anxiety, a brain illness closely related to depression. We knew how isolated and lost we felt, and how much we blamed ourselves for not being able to “just deal with it.” We used to feel ashamed to talk about it and worried that, especially in our professional lives, we would be thought of as “crazy” if we admitted to our disorders.
It turns out, what was really crazy was keeping silent about a problem from which so many suffer. Abs and I are certainly not quiet about our anxiety now—we talk about it to anyone and everyone, whether they want to hear it or not. And here’s some good news: it really helps! Abs always tells me that the single best treatment for her panic disorder was talking about it—that sharing it with others made it more “normal” and easier to deal with on a daily basis. Hiding pain only serves to intensify it and its accompanying sense of loneliness. Which is why we say DON’T GO IT ALONE!
In the same way, I feel we cannot stay silent about people we have lost to suicide. We need to talk about them, their strengths, and their illnesses. It’s time to demand that more resources and research go toward addressing and treating mental illness in all its forms so we don’t keep losing people we love.
I lost my brother to addiction/suicide and my family has always kept quiet about it. My parents feel like it is their fault and like they were not good enough parents. I feel enormous guilt both over the loss of my brother and how sad my parents are and I always think I should make things better for them. I have been working with a therapist. It’s so hard not to feel responsible even though I know it is not rational, there is a lot of shame involved.
Thanks for your comment. The more we learn about addiction, the more we understand that it is a disease of the brain…an illness that is biologically based. In many ways, the same holds true for depression and anxiety.
While, like with physical illnesses, there are circumstances that contribute to the onset and severity of the illness, we all know people that have healthy habits and get cancer (or children that get cancer) and people that have with less healthy habits, and live a long time without physical issues. What I am saying is that with every type of illness, the picture is much more complicated than we understand at this time.
The stigma behind mental illness, is a large part of the reason we started Anxiety Sisters. Your parents, like so many other folks, have to suffer both the loss of their beloved son and the shame that they are to blame. Likewise, you have internalized this guilt and shame. I have no easy answers for you, except to reiterate what I mentioned in my blog….so many people are silently suffering with the same issues, they feel personally responsible for an epidemic. We hope that we can be your voice right now, and that when and if you are comfortable, you speak out as well. It may help someone else with their own shame and guilt. Thanks for your important post.