Black and blue

Imagine swimming in a cold blue ocean. Then diving down, down, down until there is no blue, no sun, only black. Heavy, oppressive black. And you can’t break the surface because suddenly you don’t even know which way is up. That is the weight of depression and what many struggle with every day.

Like for many, the news of Robin Williams’ suicide has affected me. Not just because the man was such a huge part of our culture and touched so many with his humor and in the amazing characters that he so convincingly brought to life, but also because this genius man, who brought joy to so many, suffered the weight of that oppressive darkness. That the pain he felt was so great the only way he could finally find peace was through death. I’ve been trying for days to make sense of these feelings and had thought I would write about it last night, but was too “tired” to do so. And yes, I was tired, just not from the physical exhaustion of a busy, active, productive day, but from the mental strain of trying reconcile all the thoughts and feelings that I was having.

When I first read the news, I just immediately shut down my computer. I told my mother of his death and said that apparently it was self-inflicted. Self inflicted. And although the words were apt in some ways they were completely false and hollow in others. It is often said we our own worst enemies. Or is it just those of us who struggle with depression or anxiety or addiction or some other mental illness that feel that way. So then are we to blame? After all we are the ones inflicting these wounds upon ourselves even if we feel powerless to stop. We are the ones whom people judge for not being strong enough to “snap out of it”. We are the ones whom people call selfish or crazy or ungrateful. We are the ones that are told to look on the bright side or appreciate all the blessings we have or that it could be worse. We are the ones who know it could be worse and despise our weakness and fatigue from fighting this invisible assailant. It’s our own fault. Right?

I once read the words of a man describing his alcoholic mother on the incredibly brilliant Humans of New York. He said he separated his mom from the disease and imagined there were both an alcoholic and his mom living in the same body and that he knew his mom loved him and that she hated the alcoholic. It was so insightful that this man could recognize this about his mom and it touched me greatly because I think that this is the way many addicts and those struggling with other mental illnesses feel. There are two people struggling for occupancy in one body. And it is difficult to fight against yourself. And it is even harder when people don’t understand or try to understand what this battle is like.

When someone as amazingly talented, and by all accounts kind and generous and sensitive, as Robin Williams loses that battle, or is so tired of fighting against the darkness that they feel the only possible way to bring peace to themselves and to the people around them is by killing themselves, the world grows a little dimmer for everyone. The darkness that is depression, addiction, anxiety–diseases, all of them–has claimed another soul. And for those of us who can relate because we’re either surviving through it or because we love someone who is or because we are currently embroiled in the same battle, it can be scary. A scary reminder that the darkness can come upon us at any time. That we need to continue our meditations and our meetings and our medication and all the other things that we do to survive and thrive. That we aren’t ever totally out of the woods and must be vigilant and light as many candles in our lives as we can to cast out the darkness.

There are many people throughout my family and within my circle of friends who have suffered with some form of addiction, depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other mental illness. Perhaps this gives me more compassion for these conditions than others seem to have, but it is truly mind-boggling to me and breaks my heart to realize how many people are ignorant about these illnesses and cast blame on those who suffer. People who can’t understand why others who lead such “charmed lives” or appear to “have it all” can “throw it all away”. That people actually presume to know what is in another human being’s heart or mind and that they don’t seem to believe that mental illness is an affliction. They believe those who suffer actually choose to do so. I know I wrote about my reaction to these ignorant thoughts and feelings when reading comments people left on the Internet after Phillip Seymour Hoffman died, but in the shadow of Robin Williams’ suicide people’s attitudes and comments have left me feeling colder, sadder, and more scared.

Perhaps it is because I, too, as a younger version of myself had to fight the good fight against depression. Not just “the blues”, not just being negative or failing to see the good things in my life or wallowing in self-pity (as all have been suggested to me at some point), but the true black, oppressive weight of depression. I was terrified when I was pregnant that I would have to deal with post-partum depression on top of taking care of the twins on my own. I was concerned enough at one point about 3 months in, when I seemed to be crying a lot and one day I just let out a scream; a long, loud, horror-movie scream that just erupted from me and seemed not to have been prompted by anything in particular. It was then that I thought I should probably see a doctor. I’m pretty sure I have told the story before about dragging myself to a psychiatrist with my ginormous double stroller and my fussy infant twins and relaying my story while trying to feed one child in one arm and rock the stroller with the other hand and the psychiatrist sort of gently suggesting that it probably wasn’t post-partum, but that I was likely just experiencing some adjustment anxiety due to my new situation. She gave me some pills and sent me on my way. I was able to fight against the depression and avoid being consumed by it, but for anyone who has ever been there you know that it is never conquered, only managed or tamed and too often it is simply hidden or ignored. But although I know that I am in a much better place, I also know that if I don’t continue fighting, the black can find me again. I assume that is why this has hit me so hard and why I find people’s callous comments about his death so difficult to bear. So many people are fighting these invisible battles. We would do better as a society to offer some loving shields, some empathy and and understanding with which to arm these warriors rather than casting stones of judgement and ignorance and aligning with the enemy. The enemy is the illness, the scorn and derision of people should be wielded against it,not those who are fighting it every day.

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Genius, madness and addiction

Candle_flame_(1)It has taken me quite a few days to write this and I’m still not sure I got down all my feelings. I was shocked and saddened to read about Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death. He was an actor that I always admired. Everything I saw him in, I loved, even those roles that were disturbing and unlovable. I believed him. He was an incredible talent. And everything that I have read about him as a person confirmed what I would have guessed–that he was a beautiful, sensitive soul.

I was also shocked and saddened to read comments by people regarding addicts and their choices and sort of a general sense of “well, that is what happens when you choose to do drugs” and an undercurrent of “serves them right”. Especially when it comes to celebrities, there seems to be this idea that they have the world on a silver platter and so it is hard to sympathize when they throw it all away. Not that people who hold these opinions cry for the 12-year-old in the inner city gutter either, but maybe they find it slightly more understandable.

But loneliness and fear and insecurity and shame and pain and struggle don’t only affect the poor. These are part and parcel of the human condition. Mix it with a highly intelligent and sensitive soul, possibly with a predisposition for mental illness and you have a recipe for an addict.

They say there is a fine line between madness and genius. Much has been written about the creative mind and links to mental illness and certainly, addiction is a mental illness. However, I think that many brilliant people suffer from addiction and other mental illnesses, not only because of their genetics and biology, but also due to specific personality traits. I suppose it is still up for debate about whether personalities are formed purely from genetics or whether there are environmental factors at play: the whole nature vs. nurture argument. It is one that has always fascinated me. But let’s say for the sake of argument that there are environmental influences that shape our personalities, in addition to the biological traits we are given at birth. I feel like it is the combination of the genetic predisposition of the creative minds and that their personalities are often more sensitive, more empathetic and more feeling that lead to addiction and other mental illness.

This is what concerns me.

I have never battled a drug addiction, unless you count nicotine and for these purposes I’m not counting it. But I have had addiction come creeping around my door. I’ve had moments in the past where I felt like I was balancing on a very narrow precipice and by the sheer grace of God, I was pulled away from spiraling down into a very dark place. I’ve known what it is like to feel completely alone and to feel such pain and to think, well, I could dull this pain with alcohol, food, drugs, sex…the list goes on. I’ve felt emotions that I had no proper outlet for. I’ve had feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt and anger and I could go on and on. Many of these feelings just come along with being a teenager and young adult. Growing pains, if you will. Everyone experiences them to some degree. But I think there are others who experience them on a different level.

Almost Famous is one of my all-time favorite movies and PSH delivered one of the great lines, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” He played the uncool Lester Bangs who was Über cool in his uncoolness. I think that many kids go through their teen years feeling different and uncool. Maybe they are. Maybe that is a good thing. There are lots of adults who feel that way too. It is an honest feeling. Much better to be honest and real than cool. On the other hand, honest and real can sometimes hurt. And if you don’t or can’t find someone else you can share that with, it can become very lonely.

Whether a person is born with the propensity for these feelings and thoughts or it grows as personalities are shaped, I don’t know. I just know that it is in me. The feeling of “other”-ness. Of never being cool. Of maybe never wanting to be cool and wondering if that made you really weird. Of feeling pain that wasn’t always even yours. Of feeling the world’s pain and suffering almost as keenly as your own and having it be so overwhelming that you just don’t know what to do. Of having it all be too much. Of your brain being too much. And now that I have arrived at what I hope is early middle age, I can look back and feel proud of what I’ve accomplished in my life and the person that I have become, but it has been a long haul. I’ve made plenty of bad decisions, but thankfully, none of them has led me into a bathroom with a needle to get rid of those feelings. But that isn’t to say that it couldn’t very well have happened to me.

And then there are my kids. They exhibit some of these same traits: smarts, sensitivity, creativity, marching to the beat of their own drummer. And considering that both sides of their DNA background carry the genetic disposition toward this kind of suffering, I worry. Am I teaching them the proper outlets for these feelings? Am I too hard on them? Am I not hard enough? I struggle because I don’t want them to struggle. So many of my fervent prayers have been, “Don’t let them turn out like me”…not that I didn’t “turn out” OK, but I sure had to endure a lot of pain and fight to get here. I’m a good person, don’t get me wrong, I just want a smooth ride for my kids. This may be completely unrealistic and certainly trials make one stronger, but I guess I don’t want them to have to fight quite so hard.

As parents, our greatest hopes and fears are wrapped up in our children. But that can be a huge burden for them. We want them to know that they are loved no matter what and yet we want to push them to reach their potential. We want to teach them to make good choices and to be happy with themselves even if they are uncool. Especially if they are uncool. No one wants to imagine their children feeling such a great loneliness or sadness or “other”ness that they turn to something destructive to numb that pain.

But if we realize that in every child there is that possibility and potentially more so in those that are sensitive and creative and “too smart for their own good”, we can start from a young age teaching them a better way. That doesn’t mean it is going to stop all of the beautiful, brilliant, sensitive souls like PSH from succumbing to the hounds of addiction that come scratching at their door. But maybe it can save some of them.

The attitude toward addicts of “Well, they did it to themselves” is disturbing to me. We are all a part of this human brotherhood/sisterhood. Maybe people should take a step back and realize that addiction doesn’t discriminate. All it takes is one insidious seed of pain, one bad decision, one gene, one traumatic episode, one moment and addiction could claim your best friend, your neighbor, your daughter, your father. If we could reach out and reach in to help and support these people, maybe they would have a fighting chance. Yes, ultimately it is the addict’s choice to get help and stay sober. But isn’t it a million times easier to do that when you have a safety net?

I’d like to see more people realizing that as much as picking up that first drink or drug or throwing up food or whatever is a choice that what follows in the brains and bodies of an addict is not so much of a choice, but an overwhelming compulsion and ultimately a physical dependence. It becomes the only choice. With support and love, we can help these people realize there are other choices and that they have the strength to make them. Those of us who can have a couple of drinks or even go through a stage in life in which we abuse ourselves with substances and then put that away with other follies of youth need to understand that it isn’t the same thing. The compulsion, the powerlessness, the need is what separates the addict from us.

My heart aches for all of the families who have lost someone they love to addiction. It aches for those addicts who are destroying themselves and can’t stop. It aches for all the sensitive souls out there who are feeling like they are not enough and too much at the same time. I have people in my family who have suffered this way. Friends. People I love more than words can say. But there is hope and my wish would be that the citizens of this world stop judging that which they don’t know. That they start holding out their hands to help other people up. That if they themselves can’t help, that they pray. And if they can’t/won’t pray, keep their opinions to themselves.

Let’s reach children before they stumble down this road. And for those people who are there, on that road, there is hope. You can take the path of recovery. From what I understand it is a very rocky path, but there are some of the most beautiful, empathetic, sensitive, brilliant souls traveling it. You couldn’t ask for better companions. And the clear views you will have of this wonderful world are breathtaking. You are worthy.

R.I.P Phillip Seymour Hoffman and all those who lost their battle.