On this night, my husband and I had come home after a full day of driving. He lay sleeping on the floor. I lay on the couch, watching television. I learned of Robin Williams’ suicide. I snapped off the television immediately. I avoided all news coverage and Facebook posts regarding him. I did not tell my husband. I answered monosyllabically when he brought it up days later when the news entered his sphere of reference.
“Robin Williams is dead?!”
“He Killed Himself?!”
I didn’t say anything to his statement “You would think he would have had everything to live for.”
You would think, and you are right. But when you live with mental illness and its many accompanying demons- each day can be a struggle. Giving up. Not giving up. We are trying. Do we wake? Or sleep? This is the lonely life of one who suffers from mental illness.
You see, because as much as it seems to have become fashionable to say that collectively as a society we accept one another blemishes and all, body defects, physical differences, emotional problems, behavioral issues, mental illnesses…. You still do not want us around you. You fear us. You wonder if you might be like us, and you shun us. Or you tell us to shape up and act right. You tell us it’s a self-discipline matter and it’s under our own control. You throw up your hands and ask if we want to give up?! Would you ever say this to a person with cancer or ALS?
I wish I could say this is my coming out of the closet, being brave enough to say that among all of the things that I am, I am also mentally ill. I wish I had the courage to follow other groups of ostracized who have bravely stood in the daylight at some point and said: I AM HUMAN. Whatever other labels you give me, or I give myself because of how I was made or because of things that happened to me. I am human. Don’t push me away because I frighten you. I am human I need only for you to touch me. I am isolated. I am pushed here. I am pulled here. Mental illness and its isolation are cruel jailers. They create cravings that they will not allow to be filled.
And this is why I and probably many like me grab from every candy jar in front of us, whether it is filled with poetry, food, cocaine, alcohol, men, women, or weed. We need to fill the hole that isolation makes. It’s so fucking huge. And we can’t fill it with you. It’s not your fault. It’s not our fault. It’s living with mental illness, it’s these voices and the reality is that even though it’s crowded, it’s no party. It’s not something you get over. There are treatments, often only temporary in effectiveness. Currently, there is no cure. You are born with brown eyes or blue. You are born with mental illness (or the disposition to develop it) or you are not. You can open your soul like a can of artichoke hearts or you cannot.
I wonder if I will have the nerve to put my name at the bottom of this page. Will I face my family who would prefer not to talk about this at all? Will I be willing to face my spouse who thinks I can lose my weight to health or will I remain isolated? Will I continue to walk through the world like a stranger looking at others, feeling separate, feeling different, and feeling apart? Will I be able through therapy, through meditation, walks in the woods, the support of friends be able to maintain the castle walls against the assault of my enemies? But then, I remember. These enemies, my enemies, are inside the walls. Though with them constantly, I am alone. They are what keep me isolated. These demons. These voices. I carry them with me everywhere. They are the voices of self-doubt, self-hatred, of guilt, of shame. The voice that says you do not belong here. You do not deserve to live. And you never have. Why are you still here?
Will I ever become strong enough to silence this voice? To keep control long enough to use my hands to reach out? And this is what frightens one who lives in the isolation of mental illness- when one of us falls. We are reminded how close we are to the edge of the cliff- one thought, one criticism, one stupidity, one death, one breath away from no way out. I can mouth these words to therapists, to friends, to cops on bridges, over suicide hot lines but when you are truly in that moment, there can be no one with you. There is no room for anyone else. Nothing else. Just the ache of the loneliness you’ve felt your entire life overwhelming you. Your desire to silence it. To escape it, just for a minute to be without the crushing weight of failure upon you. It feels like that until you’re on the other side for whatever reason, your dog comes over and licks your face, or something your therapist said makes it through the fog, or there is something in the drawer upstairs calling you.
Having made it through, the intensity, the isolation, the fear, the anguish and desolation of that moment turn right around and stand directly behind you again, pressing into you, like someone in line for bread and they haven’t eaten in a week. We are deathly afraid that we won’t make it through the next moment when it comes, we are afraid to tell anyone this. They will think we are crazy and lock us away. And we are already locked up. In our brains.
We NEVER choose to give up right out of the box. But we might get tired earlier in the day. We might not be able to go in to certain buildings because they are not wheelchair accessible. We might not see the path we’re walking just the same way- my path might be blurry at the edges because of my eyesight. And there may come a day when our spirit is weak and our body is willing to let go of the struggle to keep up.
This is not saying we are not capable of achieving great things. We can be great friends, loving wives, good bosses, fine authors, competent team members, amazing artists, intense human beings, literal rising phoenixes!
Not giving up is lonely. Yes, it means you continue to live, but live in isolation. Giving up seems like bliss. To be no more. No more puppy love(literally, the love of a dog), no more daisies, no more thunderstorms on the porch, no more poems, no more laughter, no more fingers entwined in mine, twisting, bending, kissing. So I stay. I must learn better ways to endure the pain. The pain I inflict upon myself. The injuries inflicted when you feel are alive in this world alone because you are mentally ill. Even though I am married, have many friends, family and a therapist. I feel utterly alone. Is this self-pity? Am I playing the victim card? It does not feel like it. It feels like I am hunting elephants with a fly swatter.
There is nothing quite like being isolated. Being criticized and ostracized for it and then criticized further and judged when the loneliness bears down on you like an 18 wheeler and you let it mow you down. When you let go of the edge of the hole; when you fall in.
But I am trying. I am trying to find a little equilibrium among the shards of glass that are the pain of any variety, new (young soul-mate cousin six-month apart-age dying suddenly) or old (your mother dying on the occasion of your birth) and the isolation (the constant companions of loneliness and depression). This deep pit of blackness- its deepest depth that from which we don’t return. This is when you fall – Sylvia, Jimmy, Philip, Robin. And the countless numbers of those whose names we don’t know. They didn’t WANT to fall. None of us do. When we say “I want to kill myself” we are really begging “please, give me a reason to live.”
I want to stay. Robin did not want anyone, let alone his precious daughter, to know of his last anguished moments of isolation – and to have a physical description of his body now to give weight to them. That would give him great sorrow that would exacerbate his guilt but it would not stop him. Agony. Isolation. Stiff competitors to the quiet voice saying “live.” There are so many yelling “Why!?!” “You don’t deserve it!” “You’re shit!” “Die Already!”
I know my therapist would say it is up to the individual to give themselves that reason to live. He is right. But I maintain equally adamantly, that it is an indisputable fact that for some of us this is harder than for most. Just like some of us have shorter legs and can’t walk as fast as others. Some of us have weaker eyes and have to wear glasses in order to see well. Some of us are born with malformed limbs and cannot walk or use our arms or legs or move our bodies at all.
Every fiber of my being strains to walk. My mind is screaming at the muscles to move- but the synapses do not fire. You chide me continually as I remain paralyzed. I can’t say anything in my defense. I cannot speak.
Despite all this, today, I’m still here. I’m still living lonely in this world. I am in agony nearly all day. But I will laugh. I will do my job. I will put on countless masks. I will avoid any conversation that seriously addresses my situation because no one, aside from perhaps my therapist, really wants to have that conversation. Honestly, don’t lie about it. But look me in the face. Understand that I cannot look in the mirror unless I’m drunk. I hate myself that much. No one in my day to day world can handle that. Nor should they have to. They are not professionals. They don’t usually last long. They fall away to safer places. I remain isolated. I hate the trail of wounded bodies that my mental illness has left behind me. More reason to stay isolated. Exposure will mean retribution for sins and crimes committed.
There are places I can turn to for distraction, comfort, support, and help: friends who have remained, my therapist. But I still feel myself slipping. The sheer walls of the loneliness cavern rise high over my head. Hearing someone say they care or tell me I’m not alone helps. Sometimes it’s enough – sometimes I can’t even hear the words. My enemies are making too much noise.
For those who find a way out of the cavern, I say and mean most fervently, Bravo, Congratulations and shut my mouth if I sound defeatist. But the mirror, look in mine – look at me, for me. The rules of isolation allow for two outcomes. I have to acknowledge that I might not make it out. And I do realize this means, I also might.
And I will continue to hope for a different life for people like me. I will hope until my last breath that someday, like they found a cure for polio, and like they can see you when you are in utero and do surgery to fix things, maybe someday they will find a better way to reach the mentally ill like me who live in a world where we feel we don’t belong. A world where we wander in the solitary confinement of the isolation of our illness.
My therapist urged me not to get lost in the sadness over Robin’s suicide. To remember all the laughter he gave us and I do. But as someone who suffers from mental illness as Robin did – I know the isolation that the laughter was hiding. I know how it feels.
We have to acknowledge that sometimes the illness wins. We must research the disease to find a cure. We must first see that which we are afraid of in order to begin not to fear it.