Robin Williams, Suicide and the Effect on Others

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the few days I spent in my friend’s basement suite in April 2011. I don’t know why that time keeps coming to mind, but I think about it as I walk up the stairs, as I sit at my desk at work, when I walk the dog. I don’t remember much about the period of time when I hit rock bottom, but I remember exactly what those days felt like.

alarm clock

I remember sitting on the couch until 2 or 3 a.m., writing or watching movies or just sitting in the dark trying to breathe. I (not a night owl) stayed up as late as I could, then took the pill that knocked me out cold for 12 hours straight. I know a lot of people find nighttime really hard when struggling with depression, but for me it was easier than being awake during the day when everyone else was functioning like normal human beings and I couldn’t. I remember seeing people walk around the grocery store one day as if everything was completely normal when it so clearly wasn’t.

I don’t know what has caused those days to be so present in my mind lately. Maybe it’s because life hasn’t been entirely easy lately and I remember when it was so much worse. Or maybe it’s because at that point every moment was devoted to getting out of that horribly dark place and these days the struggle is just an item on the agenda between commuting and putting kids to bed, between brushing my teeth and thinking about what to have for lunch. It’s there, almost all the time, sometimes less, sometimes more, but I don’t have the luxury of focusing solely on what to do about it.

The thing that’s different between that time and now is that then I thought the struggle was temporary. It was an enormous, pothole-laden hill that I had to get up and over, but if I got over it, I thought, I’d be in the clear. Now, I know it doesn’t work that way. At least not for me.

Lately I am reminded, on an almost ridiculously regular basis, that this is my lot in life. I’m fine! I think, and then I wake up one day and observe I’m a little bit less fine than I thought. I find strategies to feel okay, and then realize those strategies are fine when I have the house to myself for a weekend but a lot less realistic when there are three other people and a dog there. I rail against the permanence of this struggle in my life but figure I’m making it through and one day things will probably be easier.

And then a celebrity dies by suicide after battling depression for years and all those things I think I believe seem a little less true.

I saw the news about Robin Williams as soon as I got home from work yesterday, and suddenly it was hard to breathe. I cried a lot last night, and this morning, and I know I’m not the only one. But as much as I loved him as an actor, I’m not really crying for the loss of the man; I’m crying because I know how he must have felt and the simple truth that I could very well end up feeling that way again is staring me straight in the face. And it’s not wearing a red clown nose to soften the blow.

I didn’t go to work today, because I needed to not be sitting at my desk trying not to cry and having to explain that, no, I’m not that sad about Robin Williams, it’s just that it makes my ongoing strategy of just treading water feel a little bit hopeless.

I think I have more to say about this, but there are already so many posts about what this all means and how we should react to it. I don’t know that I can contribute anything useful to that conversation, so while I think about how my story—and all our stories—can best help keep this conversation going, I’ll leave some links to perspectives I especially appreciated:

Be The Light – Finding Walden

When Reaching Out Isn’t Enough – Truthfully

We Lost One of Our Own – Learned Happiness

Put On Your Happy (Yet Sometimes Really Depressed) Face – That Tam I Am

A simple but true graphic: Nest (Because honestly, sometimes this is the only thing we can think of that will help)

And Huffington Post put together a piece called What Facebook Statuses Would Say If We Were Honest About Mental Health. They asked me to contribute, and I did, gladly.

Whole for Whole

A little over a year ago I started taking a new medication. I’d had a blip, and I was pissed off about that, and I really didn’t want to have to start another medication. But I took it, and aside from feeling drunk and having a very weird middle-of-the-night conversation on the first night I took it, I hardly noticed it. Except not long after I realized it had one profound effect: It finally, miraculously allowed me to control my anger.

This was revolutionary for me, in the holy-crap-how-is-it-five-years-later-and-I-am-only-figuring-this-out-NOW sort of way. A pill to control anger? Sign me up!

It does have some side effects, though, one of which being that it masquerades quite nicely as a sleeping pill. Which is fine, except it makes mornings sort of drowsy, and that’s not helpful when you have two small children who are awake at an ungodly hour, and it especially wasn’t helpful as I prepared to go back to work after maternity leave. So after talking to my psychiatrist I went down to half a pill.

For the better part of a year, I dutifully cut that little round, orange pill in half and popped that half every single night. But mornings were still a little rough, so I started taking the pill a little earlier in the evening and planned my activities around the hour and a half I had before it was nearly impossible to keep my eyes open.

And so it went, and things were mostly pretty good.

And then, after a while, they weren’t.

railroad tracks

Since late spring (maybe, in fact, for longer) things haven’t felt quite right. I’ve been blipping too often and struggling with the great why and generally feeling like c’mon, please, for the love of all things holy, there must be a way to manage this. And I was angry about that.

I was angry about a lot of other things too, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

And then one day something happened and I got really mad and my husband pointed out that I was angry all the time and we had a rager of a fight and I decided I needed to do something about it. So I stopped cutting the little round, orange pill in half and started taking the whole thing again.

I think (though I haven’t verified this with my husband) that it has made things okay. I still get mad, but the thing about this medication is that it allows the normal, sane version of me that still exists inside my head to stand off to the side and point out that the anger is irrational and I should probably just let it go already. Sometimes I still get mad, but I have the ability to choose not to react. I have the ability to control my reaction. Control! It’s a wonderful and quite helpful but often elusive thing. I look back now and realize that lack of control has made the road I’ve been on the last few years a pretty rough one.

So no, I didn’t want to start another med, and yes, it does have some side effects, but I got over it and the side effects are quite manageable. So I take medication for anger, because the benefits outweigh my pride and the challenges of drowsiness and put me back in a place where I can (mostly) act like a rational human being towards those around me. And perhaps (dare I say it) even more importantly, it puts me back in a place where I am me. Where I am more whole. And the implications of that are many and far-reaching and something I will share with you in another post sometime soon.

11:11

Alone in a room in a friend’s house in a city that is not my own (anymore), I listen. The house sounds quiet and I think maybe no one else is home. Downstairs is breakfast and a cup of tea and some quiet time and I should get up. But downstairs is also the door to the outside world, and the weight in my chest and I don’t feel ready for that just yet.

I look at the clock: 11:11.

Isn’t catching the clock when it reads 11:11 supposed to be good luck? I see this time frequently. It feels like all the time, in fact, and I certainly don’t feel lucky. At least not today.

clock face

In a mind-over-mind sort of way (there’s certainly nothing matter of fact about it), I get up.

Downstairs is quiet, and my aloneness is confirmed by a text from my husband that both boys are asleep on swings at the park (that’s what happens when you wake up when the clock says 4:58, I guess).

I put the kettle on for tea and open the cupboard looking for a mug. There in rows on two shelves are mugs in three colours. White. Black. Red.

I reach for a black mug and then hesitate, reconsidering. I have a choice, and I make it.

I choose a red mug.

Maybe it’s a sign of my willingness to push the darkness away. Or maybe I’m just feeling lucky.

Stuck at the Second Level

Sitting at your kitchen table at 7 a.m. trying to determine where mental health fits on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is probably not a good sign. It’s probably a sign that you need help.

I didn’t get a satisfying answer from Google (one site suggested that failing to have needs met at any of the stages can lead to depression or anxiety, but I think it has to work the other way around as well, i.e. that mental health issues can prevent people from moving through the stages) so I turned to a friend who is wise in the ways of psychology and mental health. “I would put it in the safety band,” he said, “but really, mental health is a precondition for all of the four levels above physiological.”

That makes sense to me, and it’s why I had turned to Google for answers that morning.Maslow's hierarchy of needs

What I had secretly been hoping for was for someone to suggest that mental health was a requirement for functioning properly in this world, that it fit squarely in one of the levels as a clear and understood need, as though I could then point to this theory and say, See? I have a right to good mental health! and someone, somewhere, would then be obligated to ensure I got it.

This, needless to say, is not how life works.

The idea of it being a precondition to the higher levels does fit squarely into the thought process that led me to Google, however.

Many of the things I would normally aspire to, like being involved in my community or deeply pondering or even pursuing answers to life’s big questions—the things that normally make me feel alive and grateful for this life—now exist mostly as a sidebar to the story of my life rather than being woven in as a fully developed theme.

looking up from inside a building courtyard surrounded by walls

I know I have important needs that are not getting met. I even know what some of them are (lately, a lack of sleep has been putting me firmly at the bottom level of the triangle).

Other needs, though, are less easy to defend as legitimate. The need for solitude and for quiet, the need for living space that isn’t constantly terrorized with the mess and energy of three other people, the need to be able to do my own thing sometimes without the burden of guilt caused by leaving more of the childcare to my spouse who is already home with them full time – where do those needs fit? And why does not getting them met cause me to spiral?

I don’t know how to reconcile these needs AND be a mother. I don’t want these needs to rear their ugly heads on hard parenting days and, while I’m down, kick me once more with the knowledge of how significantly (and negatively) I can affect my children’s place on the pyramid. But it feels like admitting these needs is taboo. Not okay.

I’m stuck. I’m struggling. And admitting these needs is scary, especially when there’s no clear path to getting them met.

Now We Are Six

Dear Connor,

Last night after dinner we put together the loot bags for your birthday party. They’re Star Wars themed, like your invitations, and your dad had selected a bunch of things along that theme that six-year-olds might like. As we put them together, you helped sometimes, and ran around sometimes, playing with the various extra bits, pretending you had a light sabre, and it struck me once again, in that moment, that you are six. You know things about Star Wars and light sabres and you are six.

Star Wars birthday invitations

For the last couple of months as we led up to your sixth birthday, my chest has been tight thinking about it. I don’t know why. There isn’t anything particularly noteworthy about turning six; at least not that I can think of. You might notice that this year, unlike other years, I have titled this letter, “Now WE are six.” For some reason this birthday, unlike other years, feels more like it’s about us and not just about you.

I have thought about this a lot, trying to figure out why. The closest I can come is that it has something to do with the stage Ethan has reached. At 18 months (and then 19, and then 20) it became clearer and clearer to me how different he is from how you were at that age. And in so realizing, it became clearer and clearer just how hard those first few years of parenthood were when you were a baby.

boy in skull shirt with spiked hair

My darling boy, I love you so much, but a lot of things about being your mom in those first few years just sucked. I look back on those things now and I wonder how we got through it. Sometimes I think maybe I didn’t actually get through it intact, but maybe this is just how things are and were meant to be. Maybe some of these things would have come about anyway.

You are an entirely different person now. Well, maybe not entirely. You are still full of life and energy, but you have evolved into a person who has two speeds: high speed and off. You are either moving through life at mach speed or completely still, focused on Lego, or a movie, or fast asleep. For the last couple of mornings I’ve had to come and wake you up so you could be at school on time, something I don’t actually recall ever having to do in the last six years. You were curled up in your sleeping bag on your camping cot (which you’ve insisted on sleeping in since returning from camping last weekend) and you didn’t even move when Ethan and I came into the room. And then I left the room for a moment to tell your dad that you were still totally passed out—because it really was that remarkable—and Ethan jiggled you enough to wake you up and the next thing I knew you were out of bed. You went from completely OFF to completely ON.

Hoo doos in Drumheller

Recently, I have become better at catching you in, or encouraging you into, quieter moments. I have worked on regulating my own settings so that your high-speed setting doesn’t inevitably push me straight into overdrive. Our relationship is better now than it was. Better now, I think, than ever. I can see more clearly what you need, and you can express your needs more clearly to me, and we aren’t always jockeying to each have our own needs met RIGHT NOW.

I have struggled recently with the things your birth brought into my life – things I didn’t ask for and didn’t expect. But I struggle less with you, and as a result you struggle less with me. We have found a balance, like the point of a spinning top that stays in control, en pointe, and fully supported by the forces around it. It took us a few years of working to build the strength and structure to appear to dance more lightly, but we got here. And as I look in the mirror I see us dancing a choreographed dance that we perform mostly in unison, spending less time treading on each other’s toes.

silhouette in front of water wall

I like this dance, my darling boy.

Now we are partners.

Now we are six.

I will love you always and forever,

Mama xx