I don’t subscribe to People magazine. It’s not that I don’t admire talented actors, authors, politician, and the like. I do. But I’m not one to get star-struck in the traditional sense of the word. I don’t think someone famous has merit simply because of their fame, and I couldn’t be less interested in where they went to eat last Saturday or why their marriage fell apart.
So when a celebrity dies? I’m never struck in the gut like many of my friends seem to be, filled with outrage or grief. Why is the death of a news anchor from the 50’s or a famous painter more important than that of any other father, son, brother, or friend? If our inherent value and worth is not dependent on how much we accomplish but instead ingrained in our shared humanity, each death is equally notable, for there are concentric circles of mourning that spread out from the places each person leaves behind.
I tell you all this to explain the shock I find myself facing after learning of Robin Williams’s apparent suicide on Monday morning. The news found me via twitter late Monday afternoon and was soon impossible to avoid. And as I read the full story, I found my usual modest sympathy and vague interest replaced by a heavy blanket of sadness.
And today, here I am, contributing to yet another blog post about the death of a celebrity, hoping maybe if I can sort out where this pain springs from that I will feel like I can breathe again.
It wasn’t that he was famous… Maybe it’s a sense of familiarity I feel obligated to admit to, woven from all he shared of himself with us through his work. Perhaps it’s because when such a talent is snuffed out prematurely, we mourn in part for all the art they will not get to create. None of that seems to quite fit, though, and I want to be sure I don’t internalize others’ grief.
I see the comments about how “maybe he should have tried harder,” that he “took the easy way out,” or that “he was so successful and seemed so happy,” and I remember believing those very things about depression and suicide.
That stigma? The prejudice? Kept me from seeking treatment for 5 months after my oldest daughter was born. It contributed to my refusal to take medications because I believed they were a sign of weakness. Ignorance and mental illness conspired to nearly destroy my life. Like many other things in life, I had to live depression before I could truly understand.
And now. I get it. Robin Williams was an unwilling member of my community, as we all are. We lost one of our own. A warrior from a familiar battlefield – a dark place of such self-loathing and pain that I remember being willing to give anything, ANYTHING, to escape. I think about the suffering that must have filled his days before depression took his life on August 11th, and I ache with understanding.
So today, I find myself more than a little numb. I can sense the tears that want to fall and I waver between seeking out the stories and images that will let them loose and protecting myself from the pain, hiding in my work, my children, and a ball of yarn.
I find hope in the stories of my friends, the survivors. I see you sharing your truths, opening up about something you’ve never been able to say before. I see courage spreading like the branches of a tree and I catch glimpses of empathy among those who are lucky enough to be untouched by mental illness. I find hope.
All it takes is a tiny sliver of hope. You are not alone. And neither am I.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always open. 1-800-273-TALK. They host an online chat at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Help is only a click away.