“Oh, Captain; My Captain” – Robin Williams, Mental Illness, and This Crazy, Messed Up World

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After having a few days to process, or more truthfully, not completely process the news about Robin Williams, I decided that maybe writing about it would help. But to (hopefully) properly work through everything, this cannot be just another post about feelings and loss and suicide; I have to be willing to open up about who I am and go from there.

Having grown up in the 80s and 90s, there has never been a time in my life where Robin Williams was not around; he was omnipresent and at the peak of his career to a certain point. Mork & Mindy was one of my favorite shows growing up even though I didn’t quite grasp the concept of the show. But the colorful alien who said hello with “Nanu Nanu” quickly won me over. He was goofy, happy, out of place, and didn’t understand the ways of Earth. I was a goofy, happy, and often felt out of place in the world kid. So I felt bonded with Mork. So I would run around saying “Nanu Nanu” and “Mork calling Orson; Come in, Orson” anytime I felt like it. I was always an odd kid, so pretending to be an alien really didn’t matter to me. Then the 90s happened. Robin Williams omnipresence and popularity was undoubted: Mrs. Doubtfire, Toys, Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest, Aladdin, The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society, etc. 

Sometime in the mid to late 90s, I was diagnosed with Bipolar at the tender age of 13 after 2 years of seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist after because I attempted to commit suicide when I was 11 years old. Thus began my journey into being an outcast, a black sheep, and a social pariah. Going through your teenage years is hard enough without adding a mental illness into the mix. I couldn’t be, or act, like a normal teenager. In order to get anywhere close to normal, I had to take a large cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs that had enough sleep agents to knock out a small horse. Even with that, I missed a lot of school due to my inability to function. I couldn’t go to a lot of parties or sleepovers (not that I got invited to a lot). Even when I did, my mom had to call the other person’s mom to explain a few things, including my need to take medicine. Most parents weren’t up for the task of making sure I took my medicines and keeping an eye on my behavior. Lucky for me, I had two friends who had parents who were willing to do what was necessary for me to stay the night or whatever. These two people are still two of my closest friends, and I can’t imagine not having them or their families in my life. They are two of the first people who were willing to accept me exactly as I was/am, mental illness and all. To some, this doesn’t sound like much. But just imagine going through the first several years of your life with lots of loving family members and friends, ones who love to have you spend time with them and see you as often as possible. Fast forward to being diagnosed with a mental illness and needing medicine to function properly, and suddenly most of those people don’t want to spend as much time with you and find excuses not to see you nearly as much, if at all. People don’t think kids understand things like this, but believe me, kids do. Kids understand it, yet they aren’t equipped with the mental tools to deal with these things properly.

Being ostracized from people because of who you are, and something that is a part of you, no matter what age you are, is a horrible feeling. To have that done by people you love and care about, its even worse. I learned to do everything I could to hide that part of me; to try to keep it hidden from everyone in the world. The hard part about that is that eventually, a mental illness that is part of who you are always has a way of making its way to the surface. When I was younger, this came out in ways that made my life so much more difficult, including, but not limited to, dancing on cafeteria tables in the middle of lunch time and howling at a psychiatrist (not on the same day, though). Events such as these made me fearful of going out in public for fear of losing control of my mind, body, and actions. To this day, this is still one of my biggest fears. 

I don’t remember a lot about the first few years after I was diagnosed with Bipolar; I have little splotches of memories that come through like video clips or pictures, but mostly there’s just a giant blackout in my memory. It’s like the blackout that most people have from the first several years of their lives: you remember certain things, but mostly you rely on pictures and other peoples’ stories to fill you in on what you did the first 2-5 years of your life. Most of the memories that leak through from ages 11-14 are not ones that I would usually choose to remember. They are fiery: full of rage, sadness, and confusion. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be like all the other kids; why was I acting like a psychopath and not learning to rebel like every other middle school kid? However, I’m thankful to have any memories of that time and those feelings. Hopefully, my life will never get to the point where I am like that again.

Not having enough control over myself and my emotions to go to school took a toll on my life fast. I learned lessons about life and society that most people won’t figure out well into their 20s, 30s, 40s, or beyond. In some ways, I am grateful. But as a teenager, I didn’t want to deal with the insanity that was my life. I had little to no control over my emotions (even if I was drugged up), my thoughts (I heard voices for years), my actions, or my life. I had to do certain things to be a halfway normal human being, and even that didn’t work. I was angry. I was scared. I felt alone. I didn’t want to go on living in a world where I had to be ashamed of things I couldn’t control. I attempted suicide twice during my high school years, and on at least one other occasion since then. Though, the number of times I have thought about attempting is a staggering one: thousands, maybe millions. Those thoughts still creep up in my head.

The end of middle school and early high school is where Robin Williams makes a major appearance in my life. You see, in the roller coaster of pain, chaos, torment, invincibility, anger, mania, and confusion of my life, I have found three things that can, not cure everything going on, but sedate it. These three things give me moments where I felt almost normal. When paired together, it’s almost like a miracle has happened in my head

The first thing is nature. For several years when I was having moderate to extremely bad days, my mom would call my psychiatrist and inform her of what was going on. My p-doc would then fax a note to school telling them that I’d be absent for the day. She’d then tell my mom to give me an extra pill and take me to the pig farm. I loved going to the pig farm. I could run around and be zany, talk fast, yell, squeal, or just sit in silence and no one cared. In fact, the worse my day was, the more the pigs tended to allow me to be with them. The man who owned the farm taught me all sorts of fun things like how to bottle feed calves, make pig feed, and how farm life worked. Sadly, we eventually had to stop going to the pig farm. But nature is still something that can help to calm me. Water, moonlight, animals, fall, all wonderful ways to bring me out of a funk, at least temporarily. If nothing else, it helps to clear my head of most of the negative thoughts.

Secondly, music. Really loud music blaring in from a pair of headphones can drown out most, sometimes all, of the noise and static in my head. My mind focuses on the words, whether singing along to it or trying to learn a new song. It focuses on the melody; often times I can feel my pulse pumping to the rhythm of the bass line. My mind will dissect the different instrumental lines and the different harmonies until I feel like I could reproduce it if only I knew how to play the instruments and had a decent singing voice. My musical tastes are wide and eclectic, so I have been able to find music to match, or change, almost any mood I’m in or how I’m feeling. If I can’t, then I just turn to my default artist of the moment, the one(s) that I know will always make me feel better by just hearing the familiarity of the notes and voice(s). On one particular occasion in 1999, a song from one of these artists saved my life. I was ready to end everything, all the pain and anger and confusion. But I turned on the radio so no one could hear or come looking for me for awhile. Just as the music turned on, ‘I’ll Never Break Your Heart’ by the Backstreet Boys came on. Granted, they don’t know me personally, but the message in the song made me fall down and start bawling, because maybe, just maybe, someone actually did care about me and might be able to get my head better. When the song ended, I ran out to my mom and told her what I had almost done, and after hugging me and crying for a half hour, she took me to see some people who could hopefully give me some tools to deal with the things that I’d been dealing with. I still have never met the Backstreet Boys, and even though I don’t listen to them nearly as much as I once did, I will always love them and be thankful for them. 

The third thing that I have found that helps is laughter. I love to laugh; I always have. Even when my life is going completely smooth, I still love to laugh. Yet, it’s easier to make me laugh when the chaos of my head, or the black pit of hopelessness and helplessness and isolation of depression isn’t getting in the way. When I’m in that state, it takes something/someone special to even get me to smile, let alone laugh. I soon learned that if I either watched something with John Ritter in it, popped in one of Robin Williams comedies, I would not only smile, but I would laugh. I would laugh a lot! If I watched one or both of them enough, I could be feeling better within about 12 hours. 

When John Ritter died, I was absolutely gutted. It was sudden and tragic. Most of the world went on to mourn the loss of Johnny Cash, but I spent a week mourning the over John Ritter. It still makes me sad that John Ritter died. In fact, I’m tearing up while I type this. John Ritter is also why I learned to start despising the word cardiomyopathy. When John Ritter died, I turned to Robin Williams’ movies. They were the only thing that could bring a smile to my face.

Eventually, I wanted to know more about Robin Williams. In my research on him, I not only learned about his drug and alcohol issues, but I learned this amazing/horrible fact about him: Robin Williams was Bipolar too. As soon as I learned that, I didn’t feel so alone in the world. I also felt a sense of hope. Not only had Robin Williams become successful, but he’d done it majorly due to his Bipolar. He’d embraced it and had turned it in to something wonderful: laughter. Robin Williams became my hero; I idolized him. Since then, I have found many more celebrities who have embraced their Bipolar and used it to do extraordinary things. I look up to many of them as well, but none as much as Robin Williams. Especially because he was open about his troubles. He let the world know that he wasn’t perfect and that he didn’t always know how to deal with life properly, but he kept trying to fix his life and get it back on track. So many times he did, and I was so proud of him.

So when Monday’s news about Robin Williams came in, well, honestly, I didn’t deal with it. I was literally pulling into the parking lot of my cousin’s wedding reception. I wasn’t going to let the news affect the happy event. After I left, it started to process, but not quite because I was still out in public, and I refuse to walk around in public crying streams of tears. But I knew I couldn’t deal with the bombardment of news that was going to be coming in over the next few days, so I have avoided the internet and media outlets as much as possible. I was busy most of yesterday and was exhausted when I got home. So today has been the first time I have had the time to let any of it sink in. It’s also the first time I’ve been on the internet in two days. But I do know what’s been being said about my hero, and all I can really say is shame on so many people.

Before I go on, I do want to say that no matter what he did, I am still proud of Robin Williams. He fought his darkness and demons, and he won so many times. This time, he just couldn’t find a way out of it. He went to rehab to try to keep away from the alcohol and drugs. Good for him. That to me says he was still trying to find the light in the darkness, he just couldn’t succeed this time. Now, whatever pain, sadness, anguish, and whatever else he was trying to tackle is gone. He’s finally free of it all. Sadly, sometimes, life really is just too much to deal with. I wasn’t him; I didn’t live his life. But I do have an understanding of some of the struggles that he could have gone through. So no, I’m not ashamed of his decision; I’m not angry with him; I am very, very sad. I will miss him, even though I didn’t know him personally. He has been my light in the darkness more times than I care to count, and I know that he will be in the future too. It will take me awhile to watch his movies again, but one day (hopefully sooner rather than later) he will bring laughter into my life again. I am so thankful for all he’s done for me, and it pains me to think that he didn’t have something that could do what he has done for me.

Now, certain members of the media/internet have immediately gone after him for choosing to take his own life. They’ve condemned him, called him selfish, and so many other things. This makes me more angry than I really care to say. Why is it selfish to take away one’s own pain, whether physical or mental? Think about it, if an animal is suffering, we either take it to a veterinarian and fix whatever is hurting the animal, or we put it to sleep. We don’t choose to deliberately let the animal suffer. Yet, if a human does the same thing, end the pain, we chastise them. Especially if it was something mental, and not physical. If Robin Williams had had cancer, and after getting it treated found out he was going to die after six months of being slowly and painfully killed by a virus, the world would condemn him, but not as harshly. But mental illness is a scary thing in this part of the world. To some, it’s just made up or an excuse. To others, “it’s not really that bad. you can just fix it if you try hard enough.” Even postpartum depression, when most of the world realizes that if a woman develops it after giving birth, she should be embraced and helped, is seen as the woman’s problem or non-existent in this part of the world.

When is the world going to understand that mental illness is real, and that instead of shunning these people, making them feel as if they are wrong for having something that is out of their control, that maybe, just maybe, we should start accepting that they need help not criticism and/or ridicule. Why don’t we start taking the steps to make therapy accepted and easy to find. We should embrace those that are hurting, mentally, physically, emotionally, or whatever. We should do our damnedest to make resources available to people who are hurting. Also, this is potentially the most important thing, we need to stop blaming the people who are hurting. We need to stop making them feel like less than human for things beyond their control. When someone commits suicide, instead of chastising them for being selfish or whatever, how about we start asking “why did this person feel like this was the only way out?”

Maybe Robin Williams can be the catalyst that can start a revolution and evolution in the way we treat and see mental illness. Even if it’s just in getting people to start thinking and reevaluating their views on mental illness, revolutions and evolution has to start somewhere.

I’m not going to have made this post and not include the disclaimer of: If you, or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please, please, PLEASE find someone you know and trust and talk to them. If that doesn’t work, or you can’t find anyone/don’t want to tell someone you know,call the national suicide prevention lifeline.

U.S.A 1-800-273-8255

To Robin Williams friends, family, loved ones and fans all over the world, I am so sorry for your loss. My heart goes out to you in this dark time.

To Robin Williams, wherever you are;

Thank you for being the light in my darkness for years. Thank you for being someone I could look up to, even with all of your faults and troubles. You have done so much for me in my life, and I wish somehow you could have known, or that there was something I could have done for you to help. May you now have the peace that you couldn’t find here. Even though I never met you, I will miss you, and I will remember you. I will still use you when darkness comes around, and hopefully you will keep helping me out of it, one laugh at a time. Heaven is a funnier place now. I look forward to eventually being able to walk up to you and saying “Nanu Nanu” and thanking you in person for keeping me going.

R.I.P. Mr. Williams, and thank you for everything.

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