In case you haven’t heard, Robin Williams died on Monday, August 11th.
He was, and is, my favorite actor (Jim Carrey is tied).
I have only cried a handful of times in my life over celebrity death: Jim Henson, Kurt Cobain, Mister Rogers, Michael Jackson… and Robin Williams. Robin Williams’s death hit me especially hard not just because I grew up watching Mork & Mindy (back in the 20th century, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and people had iStones), and have seen and very much enjoyed many of his movies… but because the circumstances of his death hit a little too close to home.
Robin Williams was, for those of you who don’t know, mentally ill and fairly open about this. He was bipolar. He has a past history of substance abuse. His death was a suicide.
I am mentally ill (not bipolar, but I do have borderline personality disorder as well as PTSD which affects my mood and relationships with others) and am in recovery from substance abuse and I have attempted suicide a few times in my life, my last attempt being on August 10th, 2013.
There is still a lot of stigma against mentally ill people in society. The fact is, 1 out of every 3 adults in the United States has some sort of mental illness. We live among you. We don’t wear signs on our shirts saying HI I’M CRAZY. In fact, our mental health issues may not be immediately obvious. I have had a lot of people tell me I seem “high-functioning”, if they don’t know me well, and I have to wonder what the heck their perception is of mentally ill people then.
I have encountered prejudice within the pagan community towards the mentally ill. I have encountered groups that will not take new members who are diagnosed with a mental illness, even if they are in treatment for it. Then of course there is the accusation that those of us with mystical experiences are “delusional”, and that if you believe in the Unseen and interact with the Powers and Otherworlds then that is a symptom of mental illness, and a lot of this is coming from other polytheists. There are a lot of problematic attitudes within paganism towards the mentally ill in our ranks – and there are a lot of us, like I said, remember that 1 in 3 statistic, we are among you more than you think – and I will, over time, be unpacking and examining these attitudes and why they are problematic, and how we can challenge them for a healthier, safer community for all of us.
One of the problematic attitudes that I see with regards to mental illness is reactions to Robin Williams’s death of “how can he kill himself, he was so funny!”
Let me tell you something.
I am The Funny Guy. I keep my blog posts on Patheos fairly serious and professional, but I built a following on Tumblr for being snarky and sassy and sometimes outright goofy and silly. I enjoy making people laugh.
I have severe depression for which I am medicated. The medication serves as a volume control, not an off switch. I will need to be on medication for the rest of my life. The suicide statistics for people with PTSD are not promising. As it stands currently, I am not suicidal. I want to live, today. But I did not, a year ago. And I’m still not out of the woods. I struggle, a lot. I am processing a lifetime of trauma and abuse, wherein my life has only been something approximating reasonably stable for less than a year. I am OK, but I am also not OK.
There are people who are surprised to hear I struggle with depression because I am The Funny Guy.
It is precisely because I struggle with depression that I am The Funny Guy. It is a coping mechanism for me. It is a way of poking sunshine through those storm clouds that are always in my brain, of giving other people rainbows… especially when, as someone who is more than what I seem beneath the surface – more than The Funny Guy – I know other people struggle and suffer and aren’t always open and obvious about it, so if I can make someone smile or laugh, that is brightening their corner of the world, not just mine.
A disproportionately high number of comedians have some sort of mental illness. A lot of people who are The Funny Guy are funny because life really isn’t that funny, for them. Myself included.
There are many problematic points of view on mental illness that I plan on challenging with my blog posts here (in addition to other topics of discussion), but today I would like to challenge that assumption of “how can they kill themselves, they’re so funny!/happy!/whatever!” Seeming happy, seeming funny… doesn’t mean someone actually is. It means they wear a mask, and indeed this society encourages us to wear masks, and those who can’t put on the mask to deal with the public are often further marginalized in some way.
Just because someone seems to have something going for them… doesn’t mean that they have it all together. When you assume that someone “can’t really be depressed” or “can’t really be mentally ill” because they seem happy, or they have a loving family, or they’re financially well off, or what have you… you make it that much harder for someone to seek help if they need it, because there’s that dismissal of their problems right off the bat.
I’ve been there. And I’m not even as good at hiding my issues and how they manifest, as others are. It literally almost killed me.