Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pan the Man

I honest to God don't know what to say about it. 

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died earlier this year, there was a common thread to online commentary - that he was selfish, stupid, weak. A drug overdose wasn't an acceptable death, somehow; addiction was seen as a character flaw and a choice, a self-centered idiocy, a cruelty inflicted upon others. 

Robin Williams's death, however, is discussed differently. I'm sure there are people (cold, unthinking people) out there who would call his suicide selfish, a decision made on purpose and with complete, unbroken thoughts. But the overwhelming tone of our discussion of his passing is the tragedy of it. He is a sympathetic character - Philip Seymour Hoffman, somehow, was not. 

And it tears me up. 

Those of us with mental illness find ways to harm ourselves - sometimes all at once, and sometimes slowly over the entirety of our lives. Some of us drink too much, because it's the only thing which shuts up the bad parts and gives us the good parts of living. Some of us do drugs, for much the same reason. Some of us engage in what my psychiatrist dubbed "risk-taking behaviors" - frequent, anonymous, unprotected sex; disregard for personal safety; a burning and unstoppable desire to engage in pain, engage in terrifying beauty. 

Living with mental illness is a life interspersed with self harm. And some of that is considered sympathetic, and some of that is considered unforgivably selfish. Depression, it seems, is only okay if it doesn't contradict some abstract morality. It's only okay if we keep it under control long enough to convince other people that we aren't self-absorbed, lazy, and ethically unattractive. 

Sometimes, though, that control is impossible, and we can't keep pretending to be like other people. But we are not selfish. 

The disorders are selfish. The addictions. The depression and the mania and the disassociation and the inability to break through into what other people know as normal life. 

We are not bad, or stupid, or lazy. We are not stubborn. We do not choose to be like this. 

What are we, then?

We are funny. We are talented. We are creative, and compassionate, and inspirational. We are, very often, artistic. 

Robin Williams, the man and his many masks, was a huge part of my childhood - and from what I've seen on Facebook, a huge part of many people's childhoods. Maybe that's because he seemed like a kid, almost, like one of us, and like your favorite uncle who still knew how to laugh, how to be silly, how to goof around; he was the kind of adult who took children seriously and engaged in their play. His performance in the film, "Hook," was a perfect example of the kind of man who could travel between childhood and adulthood and maintain the best properties of both. 

There was something about him which was so familiar. 

He was a grownup who would laugh with you, and not at you - which seems really rare when you're a kid. Some kindness in his eyes was the kindness which all children seek, which we all, from time to time, needed desperately. The stories which have come out in the past twenty-four hours are not just about that time when Williams was funny in some movie, but about the times when young children were facing difficult realities - abuse, neglect, depression, illness, death, and later, sexual identity - and a bit of laughter and that soft kindness was the bright spot amongst the struggle and pain of growing up. 

For me - though only the past day has finally, competely revealed this to me - his familiarity wasn't just his childlike joy but the reason for it. Because, even though I didn't know it, I could turn on the TV and look into the eyes of someone like me. 

We are not selfish. Our illnesses are. 

Robin Williams, from what I've read, had bipolar disorder. It's a horrible thing to add him to the list of great artists who drew inspiration from it and were, eventually, killed by it. I used to go on Wikipedia and look at the catalogue of famous people who most likely suffered from bipolar disorder - it comforted me a little, and made me think that yeah, there's something worthwhile, some reason why we are this way. We can look at the world through a fractured lense and see rainbows. 

But it's a bitter, bitter thing to have to look at that list and think, hey, not you, not you, too. 

I didn't know Van Gogh, and even then, the Doctor Who episode, "Vincent and the Doctor," makes me sob every damn time I watch it. So what am I supposed to do, now - now that some of my favorite movies, some of the films which kept me company when I was so alone and so vulnerable, are shuffled into the pile marked, "bipolar trigger," "in case of cathartic emergency," "Alice, this is your life?"

Robin Williams and his kindness, his humor and his empathy, his mania and his depression, have left such a tangible mark on the world. We have records and films, cartoons, dramas, comedies, and we have the knowledge, more than usual, that mental illness is real. And he's a sympathetic character because we grew up with him, because Peter Pan grew up with us; he defeated bad guys and protected children and the whole time he made us laugh. 

I guess the thing, then, is this - we should take this moment, take this tragedy, take our compassion for this one man plagued by mental illness, and we should be able to give that to others. We can't keep looking at addiction - a health condition, a real mental illness - as an immoral choice. We can't pick and choose who we are supposed to care about and which disorders are acceptable and which are just selfish. 

We didn't choose to be this way. We don't want to end up on any list of great people who did great things and then died because there's something messed up in our brains. 

I started this post by writing that I don't know what to say about this, and despite my above verbosity it's still true - I'm finding it difficult to write about. I keep thinking that it's so bloody unfair. It's just not okay. I feel like my illness is gradually eating up my life, and even my childhood comforts aren't safe. It seems - it seems almost inevitable, sometimes, and I guess that's what I keep coming back to. Art isn't enough, laughter isn't enough, kindness isn't enough. 

And that's mental illness, a lot of the time. 

The illnesses are so selfish. 

We are not. 

Bangarang, my friend. We may have fractured lenses, but when we needed it most, you helped us see rainbows. 


  1. YES! And Philip Seymour Hoffman's death was unfairly judged. They had the same illness. The same vices. Just their deaths/suicides differed, but came from the same place.

  2. I just wrote a long response that I think got vaporized when I clicked the wrong button. The gist of it was, you are doing the kindest possible thing when you use your own experience to understand what a fellow sufferer has gone through, and you do it in such a way that others who don't understand depression might learn. When someone doesn't understand, part of me thinks "Thank God, for your sake." But, if one is afflicted, about the only useful aspect of it is the capacity to understand someone else, and to let them know that you're not seeing laziness, selfishness, even if that's all she or he sees in the mirror. I like your compassion.

  3. Heart breaking and so very true.