Editor's Note: Kevin Necessary contributes to WCPO.com weekly with his Reditorial Cartoon series.
CINCINNATI -- When I learned that Robin Williams had died –– by suicide apparently brought on following years of depression –– my first reaction was shock and sadness. My second reaction, which sunk in over the course of the night of his death, struck home.
His suicide, and the depression that caused it, terrifies me.
I was diagnosed and began treatment for manic-depression in January 2000. Specifically, I have Bipolar II, which means I tend to be less manic and more depressive. Over the years, I’ve suffered and fought through too many minor bouts of depression to count. There have been several long, sustained, major episodes. A few times, I’ve been on the verge of being suicidal. There have been times where I’ve been hypomanic, or up, but less than in a full-blown mania, but when I cycle, I cycle down.
My manic-depression, like most mental illness, is biological and congenital. My DNA could have dictated that I have cerebral palsy or a predetermination to Crohn’s disease. Instead, it gave me mood swings. It’s chemical and there are ways to treat it using a combination of medications, therapy, and lifestyle choices. I feel lucky and quite proud of myself that I’ve been able to have a stable life. I have a wife, a house, friends and family. I have always either been employed by a third party or self-employed. I am not dangerous to myself nor others, and I plan on having a long, productive happy life. All of that is due to a decision I made years ago, when I told myself that I was going to be healthy and well.
However, I also know how easily the soap bubble on which I stand can pop, even momentarily. Despite my loving wife, friends, family, all the support that I have, I can and occasionally do fall into periods of loneliness and self-loathing. No matter what I achieve professionally or artistically, any setback could potentially cause me to spiral down. It’s not like just being sad. It’s a sudden drowning in a black pool, with all the weight of the water crushing your body and the air sucked out of your lungs. Worst of all, you don’t know which way is up, and you’ve no idea how to swim your way to the surface.
Through therapy, medication, meditation, support, and kicks in the ass, I’ve been able to tame the manic-depression. But I know I don’t control it. When depression does hit, I use every trick in the book to keep myself sane and safe. I remind myself who I am, what I have, who is with me in life. You have to hold on to something that reminds you life is worth living. The insidious nature of manic-depression is that, if left unchecked, it’ll destroy your own sense of self-preservation.
Congenital heart failure kills you through heart attacks. Cancer eats at your cells.
Manic-depression kills you with suicide.
And that’s what terrifies me about Robin Williams’ death.
I can never know what Williams was feeling during his depression, but I can understand how he was feeling, and why he felt he needed to take his own life. It’s a feeling of such inconceivable hopelessness that all you want is the pain to go away. Death is the ultimate pain relief.
I look to my support – my wife, friends, family – when I feel down. I anchor myself to my art, my work, my love of history, my sense of adventure, the books and movies I enjoy. All of that comprises the life-preserver I can cling on to when I feel I’m about to drown.
Last week, my wife, Julie, told me the sad news that a young, local homeless man, Tony, to whom she talked and gave food, had hung himself. Materially, he had nothing left to live for. He had pain. He wanted the pain to go away. I can understand that. He didn’t have the support, the medical care, the layers of safety netting to keep him alive. He ended the pain.
What shocked me about Robin Williams, though, was that, outwardly, he’s the opposite of Tony. Williams had his family, countless friends. He had his work. His millions of dollars. A world that laughed with him. As the cliché goes, he had so much to live for.
But he was in pain. And death is the ultimate pain relief.
I’m terrified by his death because it’s a reminder that, even under the best of circumstances, my illness could drag me down. I’m not saying that it will, and in fact, it probably won’t. But to know that it happened to someone like Robin Williams –– someone with more layers of support than most people will ever have –– is a sobering reminder that it, too, could happen to me. Despite every layer of support I have, it could happen to me.
And what saddens me more than Williams’ death, and what angers me more than the knowledge that my own body could betray me, just as Robin’s own body betrayed him, is that people don’t talk more openly about mental illness. It’s still stigmatized in our society. Those who are afflicted are feared or misunderstood. Worse, there are those in Congress, in the media and in the public who are staunchly
adamant about restricting health care to only those who can afford it.
There have been times in my life where I or my parents had to pay upwards of $500 a month for life-saving medication. There have been times when I’d been told that I wasn’t eligible for any comprehensive health insurance because my manic-depression was a pre-existing condition. Too many people have died over the years because they weren’t able to get adequate health care or health insurance due to an illness which they did not ask to have. It’s shameful there are people who wish to see the advances we’ve had in health care law destroyed, which will do nothing but cause harm to many.
Mental illness should be brought out into the light. It’s a medical issue. It should be treated with compassion. It should not be stigmatized. Those who suffer from it should not be abandoned.
Robin Williams was lost to us. I’m scared that something similar could happen to me, but I’ll spend every day I can fighting to make sure that it doesn’t. I’ll give thanks to my support whenever I can. And I hope that we as a people can find it in our hearts to help those whose support may falter.