There have been a boatload of words written about Robin Williams this week. I have to say that I was only a casual fan of Williams’ work – he was frequently too frenetic and intense for me to really appreciate – but I was still saddened by his death. The thing that impressed me the most this week was how Twitter really served as a communal grief center. It seemed that this particular celebrity death hit many people very, very hard. This was undoubtedly compounded by the fact that Williams died by his own hand. How do we reconcile the funny man that everyone saw with the act of suicide? It’s tough, but not so tough when you think about it.
Williams’ death has also brought an amazing number people out of the mental health closet. The famous and the not-so-famous are all writing their own bits on dealing with mental illness of many different types. Not surprisingly, depression has been the most common one that I’ve seen written about. My wife wrote this piece on her blog in the immediate aftermath of Williams’ death and mentioned me in it, as well as our daughter. After years of hiding it and not wanting to admit to it, I now make no secret about my struggles with depression and anxiety throughout most of my life. The benefit of hindsight has led me to realize that depression was really a minor component, the bigger culprit being a crippling anxiety that left me believing every thought that came through my head. Admittedly, depression and anxiety are a bit yin and yang, can’t have one without the other, so it’s hard to separate them. I spent years trying to change my brain, trying to reprogram it to not do that any more. I have seen multiple therapists throughout the years, almost all of whom were convinced that I could be fixed if only I could correct my errors in thinking. Even my wife tried to fix me early in our marriage, only to realize that she was as powerless as all those therapists were.
Well, as those of you who know me well know, I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that all thoughts and feelings are errors. They can’t be trusted. Feelings aren’t facts. Emotions are just emotions – they aren’t right or wrong. They are not things to feel shame over. You can’t even trust the good feelings because, being feelings, they still aren’t facts, regardless of how much we want them to be. The trick lies in how we react to those feelings that are going to come no matter how hard we try. I spent the first 30+ years of my life completely fused with my thoughts and feelings, and it took a self described “old, Jewish, hippie” therapist to finally help me realize that. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. One of my common refrains comes from the end of Stevie Nicks’ song “Bella Donna” – it’s just a feeling.
But there’s more to it than that. You can recognize that feelings aren’t facts and you can work actively (because it does take actual WORK) to not fuse with them. But there’s one more part, and it definitely crossed my mind when I thought about Williams’ suicide. You have to be good to yourself. It really made me wonder if Williams had been being good to himself in the last weeks of his life. I have no way of knowing this, but since this is the thing that I’m actively working on right now, it naturally crossed my mind. Historically, I have been quite bad at being good to myself. When my brain wasn’t filled with negative self-talk fueling anxious feelings that I fused with to create more negative self-talk, I was mostly too tired to make sure that I was taking care of me. Many times, I wanted other people to do it and while that’s nice and all, it really isn’t all that helpful. Because you see, I’ve found that only when you are good to yourself does it really count. Anything else is just a hit of the affirmation drug that just leads you heading back for a bigger hit a day later because you can’t hang on to what you go the day before. It’s the only type that I can truly count on – it’s not subject to anyone else.
That doesn’t mean others can’t help – my wife is a
terrible wonderful enabler. Case in point – when she was in the hospital following her recent hysterectomy, I ran all over kingdom come attending to her every need. I knew that this would happen because hello, she just had surgery. I brought her gluten free breakfast when the hospital’s choices were less than stellar. I grocery shopped pretty much every day catering to whatever whim she might have. I slept on the pull out bed in her hospital room both nights so that she didn’t have to be there alone.
During this whole time, I was pining for this unofficial clear vinyl of the Madonna album, True Blue. I couldn’t justify it because it was something like 90 bucks and that was a lot of money to spend on a record (never mind I spent almost double on that on a vinyl copy of The Immaculate Collection.) From her hospital bed the day after surgery, Heidi pretty much ordered me to buy it. I was headed to a therapy appointment that morning (my new therapist, not the old, Jewish hippie) and he’s been really holding my feet to the fire as far as self-care goes. As soon as I left the appointment, I went home and ordered the album. I recognized that it was important to me taking care of myself and if I am not taking care of myself, I was going to be in no position to be taking care of my wife as she recovered from major abdominal surgery.
It doesn’t have to be $90 records though. Self-care for me is as simple as recognizing my limitations and not overpromising. It is not overfunctioning in my job to try to lessen my anxiety. It is getting ready just a little bit earlier in the morning so I can sit in my chair in my office and listen to one side of a record before I head out to work. It’s making sure I sleep when I need to. Basically, self-care are all the things that I need to do to make sure that I have what it takes to keep fighting the onslaught of feelings that demand to be taken as facts, even when we know they aren’t. When I don’t do well with self-care (working overnights is a time that I tend to not take very good care of myself is all I do is sleep, eat and go to work), I don’t do well in general. It’s not selfish. Being good to myself makes me a more present member of my family, a more active father and husband, a better employee and an overall better person. When I am not good to myself, I generally deteriorate into an anxious, neurotic version of myself, doubting everything and everyone. It makes me hypervigilant which is exhausting because half the things I’m hypervigilant about have next to zero chance of happening anyway.
This has been the next step for me in dealing with my own inner demons. Figuring out that feelings aren’t facts was a game-changer in my life. Realizing that being good to yourself was not selfish but essential for good mental health was also a revelation. My next move is to work on sitting with anxiety and not automatically trying to fix it by using some coping mechanism that, at best, only partially works – overfunctioning in particular.
Like I said, I have no idea the specifics of what Williams was going through at the end of his life. Maybe my way of dealing with things wouldn’t have worked for him. But I know that at my most anxious, I have believed every thought my brain offered up as if it were Gospel and was not doing a good job of making sure my needs were met. And sometimes, even when we know that’s what we should be doing, we lack the wherewithal to do it. As my former therapist always said, when we’re tired, lonely, scared or hungry we don’t always make the best decisions. And suicide is the ultimate in a bad decision – one that thankfully I have never really been close to, but I can see how someone could get to that point better than some.
So my advice to everyone today – be good to yourself. It doesn’t have to look like this, but for me, it doesn’t hurt.