Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about the suicide of Robin Williams – someone of my own generation – and listening to people’s reactions on the media.
I find it quite frustrating that “mental illness” is still referred to – even by some with direct experience – as something outside ourselves. “It’s like any other illness. Anyone can get it”, I heard someone say on the radio. I don’t think of it quite like that. To me, it isn’t something you can “get”. It’s there already. I think of it as part of the human condition, of being alive.
We’re all damaged but capable of change. We’ve all had damaging experiences, it’s just that some of us are able to make up strategies to ignore the damage, or else come partly to terms with it. I’ve known people of eighty change and grow. My own late mother-in-law, for one. I’ve known others grit their teeth and pretend everything is OK, always. How tiring that must be!
I think of the damage as like bruises or injuries. We’ve all had bruises. Some bruises might be on the outside and visible. Black and blue and turning yellow, and they are obvious for all to see and might even disable us. They might hurt so much they could stop us from getting about, being mobile. Some are more internal – but there might be occasions, sparks, which reignite them, make them hurt again. And some old bruises have really gone now and it’s hard to imagine them coming back again.
Some folks, as President Obama insists on calling people, are in the hurting phase. Others are in the denial phase. Others are “well” enough to cope. Others can go back and forth between.
It’s important not to think of mental illness as something “other”, which is outside ourselves, unknown to us. We’re all to some extent mentally unwell. All of us are unable to be as we want to be all of the time. All of us, if we are honest, are unhappy and frustrated some of the time.
I tend to think of politicians, for example, as some of the most mentally unwell people there are. The ones I’ve met haven’t a clue about their own processes, or how they might come across to the ordinary people they claim to represent. Beware of these apparently untarnished people, who hide their bruises. They exist in the corporate world, too.
Secrecy is damaging. People conspire not to talk about some subjects, which they perceive as far too dangerous, or weighty. But mental health needs talking about! Personally. Openly, without shame. With interest and fascination at how different each of us can be – but underneath, how much the same.
Someone like Robin Williams kind of knew that, I think. He could talk publicly about his problems. And he could make people laugh about them, too. That was a great gift to us all.