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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reconciling Laughter and Pain - the Legacy of Robin Williams

The loss of Robin Williams to apparent suicide seems to have triggered a massive episode of cognitive dissonance in America. Those who either do not understand or choose to write off mental illness as something other than it is - an illness - are dumbfounded by the notion of a man who brought so much joy to so many, a man who made so many laugh, living in the depths of a depression that seems to have led him to take his own life at sixty-three. Of course, there is much we don't know yet. He may have received a terminal diagnosis that he couldn't cope with or his death may have been immanent due to a disease other than mental illness, but can we look for a moment at what we know? Here was a man who had everything, but despaired of living. His transition from this life flies in the face of the
American dream and Consumer Capitalism. When we wonder how he could be depressed while having everything we believe we want and need, we misunderstand the power of both material goods and depression.

I saw a post last night from a fundamentalist Christian that asked how Mr. Williams could have killed himself knowing the pain that act would cause his family, friends, and loved ones. I think the writer of that post was really wondering how he could kill himself and in so doing call her world view into question, a world view that doubtless doesn't allow for mental illness, psychotherapy, or psychology. When we ask "how could they?" in situations like this, we are really crying out in pain because the act makes us uncomfortable. We merely use concern for their close friends and loved ones as a method of denying our own pain.

The truth is that mental illness destroys lives and families every day. People neither choose to contract a mental illness nor can they choose to "snap out of it." Their perceptions are often distorted, yet very real to them. Robin Williams suffered from bipolar disorder, and like so many with bipolar disorder tried to use substances to control his pain, leading to some stints in rehab. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, right now we can only try to control symptoms. I have encountered it in several people close to me, and can attest to its ability to destroy lives while the rest of us sit by and watch, feeling the horror of our own powerlessness. I've seen it in the biological mother of my children and in one of our children and stood by helplessly as they and our relationships come unraveled.

I have been dealing with my own diagnosis of depression most of my life. I can tell you that laughing is a great defense mechanism. I use it to mask my own pain, to ward off questions about how I am feeling, and convince others that I am fine - and, gracefully, most of the time I am fine. It's no mystery to me how Mr. Williams could take to a stage and make people laugh while feeling horrible inside, and it's no mystery why the adulation of millions of people couldn't assuage his pain. When our brain chemistry is out of balance, the only thing that will make us feel better is restoring our brain chemistry to its proper levels. Just as you can't laugh your way out of diabetes or a thyroid disorder, you can't laugh your way out of mental illness.

I hope that the tragic death of Robin Williams leads this country to see that insurance companies' classification of mental illness as a different sort of illness than any other physical illness and their refusal to pay for treatment at the same level they do for other illnesses is a civil rights issue and nothing less. We need parity for mental health treatment, and if the Sandy Hooks of the world won't convince you, I pray that Robin Williams does.

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