Invisible Illness

I woke up this morning to see my Tumblr dash still full of Robin. I read his daughter Zelda’s statement about how she feels some tiny bit of solace knowing that so many millions mourn with her.

For me particularly, I sat down yesterday still in a bit of a fog, going through my day at work with tears not far from my eyes at any point. I wondered why the passing of this man could spur such deep, deep sadness in me when I never knew him. I saw a similar statement echoed on Tumblr, which I’ll quote here:

I woke up today, still thinking about Mr. Williams. Thinking about the profound and personal sense of loss that is left in the wake of his absence. For so many of us. And we didn’t even know him personally. We never had the pleasure of shaking his hand, feeling one of his bear hugs, laughing over a meal with this man. This heroic, broken, giving, courageous man. Yet the pang is deep. Shockingly, I’m guessing, for you? It’s the same for me. It seems almost irrational. Yet I have found myself in tears more than once since the news broke yesterday. I have felt wounded. Scared. Strangely, almost morbidly grateful for my life, & small in the face of how insurmountable it feels at times. This man touched me, so many of us, so I deeply I think, because of how much he was willing to share. He was fearless for his art. Nothing was off limits. For a laugh. For a heart wrenching moment of honesty. For a real and true and honest portrayal of what it means to be human. To throw a humorous punch at how silly humanity can be sometimes. His face, when I boil down this feeling, reminded me to LIVE. To push a little harder. To throw myself head first, truly, madly, & deliciously into the things I believe in. And I didn’t even know him. What I do know is that he was human. He was broken. He shared those struggles, honestly, with people. And in that arena made people feel less alone. What I know is that depression is a foe you cannot turn your back on. What I do know is that you are not alone. It’s hard to admit that you are falling apart, especially when everyone thinks you “have it all together.” But please. Be as courageous about your big bad fears as you are about your passions in those moments of greatness. Tell someone you are breaking. You’ll discover that they are broken too, so they can probably help you pick up some of your pieces & lighten your load. Please. Think about how wounded even strangers feel at the loss of this man’s light. SOMEONE out there feels that way about YOU. I promise. It’s okay to be broken. To be scared. To need help. It’s okay. It’s profoundly human. It happens to the best of us. It’s okay. You matter to people you aren’t even aware of. It’s okay.
Sophia Bush (via thewhofiles)


With those thoughts came some serious introspection, because whenever I have a reaction I don’t quite understand, I want to try and understand it. To know myself better. To ask why. Yesterday my emotions were all over the place. There was some deep fear and anxiety. I clung to silly moments with tables, like telling them how the burger of the week (the Hangover Burger — my creation. Two patties, cheddar, bacon, fried egg, fresh jalepeños, and chipotle mayo, if you’re curious) had been catastrophically renamed by a manager as the Morning After Burger, much to the entire staff’s chagrin. (Thankfully, the GM changed it back after someone made a Plan B Burger crack.) Interspersed with some laughter were moments of lingering sadness. Wistfulness.

How likely it was that I would ever have had the chance to meet Robin Williams is debatable.

This year I’ve gotten to meet scores of people I never thought I’d be in the same room with, let alone have a chance to shake their hands and tell them how much their work mattered to me. Getting to tell Cary Elwes that his movies are my happy place takes on new significance for me in light of Robin’s passing. Getting to gush to Anjelica Huston about how gloriously statuesque she was as Morticia Addams fills me with joy. Having the chance to tell Felicia Day how much I adore seeing her pop up in my favorite things after loving her in Buffy all those years ago — that was a dream. And getting to see the look on Jensen Ackles’s face when I told him how meaningful his performance of Dean Winchester has been to me, how much I appreciate the nuance he brings to that character — well. Important. More valued now. Where my life will take me from here, I don’t know. What I can glean from those experiences is that hearing you matter means something. It doesn’t matter if you are famous or not. Having someone tell you that your work, your art, your presence, your life matters? It is important.

And even more so when you take into account the fact that you never know what’s going on inside someone else’s head. You never know what pain they have, where they’ve been, if they hurt. Because some illnesses are invisible, and they are no less serious for that fact.

I realized yesterday that part of why Robin’s passing is affecting me so much is that I have personal — if secondhand — experience with mental illness. My mother has clinical depression, and for a time in my youth, we couldn’t afford her treatment and had to pick and choose what medications we could get for her. Also in my family circle is someone with manic depression. I’ve watched family members struggle with these things. Depression. Anxiety. Mania.

Without going into detail out of respect for my family, last autumn something happened that was tremendously wrenching. For years family members tried to get help for our loved one who has manic depression. Years. Tried to get him evaluated, tried to get him treatment, tried to get him help. Because he really, really needed help. But he was tremendously good at putting on a face when necessary. He could play sane, play fine. And over and over they were told that there was nothing to be done because he hadn’t hurt anyone, himself or others. This is the state of our mental health system; that the line for getting someone treatment is that they have to harm themselves or others in order to act. I understand that safeguards are needed; someone being committed against their will or simply on the word of another is tragic and insidious. But in this case, the roiling frustration, the tension of absolute impotence still boils up within me because last autumn, he hurt someone. He hurt someone very, very badly. And the ripples out from it will be staggering in scope. On the victim and the victim’s family. On my family. On him. Family members were forced to relive past trauma. It was nightmarish. And it could have been prevented — or at least that’s the how it feels when you know people have tried, tried, tried to get help for someone and instead ran into brick walls at every turn.

When I was seventeen, a young man in my town committed suicide. Just weeks before, he had been at my school after completing one of those wilderness set-em-straight camps, showing us how to make fire from sticks. I still remember how he seemed happy to show off his skills. Knowing now what I do about the dubious morals of many of those survival programs, I can’t help but wonder if it played some role.

Yesterday at work, a coworker told me one of his best friends committed suicide a few years ago. He said no one had had any indication whatsoever that this young man was depressed or suicidal. They went to the gym together every day. Laughed, hung out, had fun. And yet it happened.

Invisible illness.

I think about the abuser I dated, how to the world around him, he was funny and nice. A charming gentleman. But alone, when he felt challenged, he became monstrously, toxically cruel. Manipulative and sociopathic. Sadistic. Unable to comprehend the words no and stop.

You can’t see what’s inside someone’s head unless they let you.

While I’ve never been depressed (I have felt depressed; there’s a distinction). I went to talk to a counselor in the early stages of my separation, only wanting an ear. I was told it was covered by my insurance. Instead they charged me $400 for a 50 minute session, and seeing what she’d written down on my diagnosis was a shock. Mixed anxiety and depressed mood. Adjustment disorder. Seeing myself reduced to seven words felt like taking the ice bucket challenge that’s circulating around Facebook right now. That was literally days into the separation; in my mind I was coping naturally and as well as could possibly be expected. I wasn’t aware at the time that an adjustment disorder is just terminology and refers to anxiety, stress, worry, nervousness, and feeling overwhelmed because of change or upheaval, but it felt like a brand and oddly, a betrayal. It can be terrifying to see in black and white any kind of label on the most private part of you. To open yourself up and receive something so impersonal in return.

To ask for help sometimes means having to come to terms with being labeled in a way you find uncomfortable. I’m not sure there’s a way around that, though I will say this: you are not a sum of your labels. You are a whole and complete person. You may have a problem, but that problem does not have YOU.

Because of my family and wonderful, stellar friends, I’m doing well. But this experience as well as the knowledge of family members for whom this sort of thing is ongoing and not a “rough patch” keeps me sober about it. I think it’s because of all these things that Robin’s suicide has affected me so deeply. Coming forward and asking for help is one of the most terrifying things we can do sometimes. It can be just as scary to reach out and tell someone else we care. Both of those things make us vulnerable. And not everyone wants help.

I don’t know how to make the world safer for vulnerability. Not when Zelda Williams has to leave Twitter because of trolls bombarding her with gruesome photoshopped images of her father. Not when Jessica Valenti receives shitstorms of abuse for suggesting that feminine hygiene products for women ought to be available free of charge. Not when there are no avenues to help someone who won’t help themselves before hurting another human being.

I don’t know how to deal with it or fix it.

But sitting here today, feeling generally optimistic about my own life and allowing for the push and pull of grief to coexist with me, I’m left with this quote from Joss Whedon’s Angel:

“If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”

Do good. Get kind. Be divinely mad.

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7 thoughts on “Invisible Illness”

  1. I have been trying to figure it out myself, but it does help to know I am not the only one who is feeling this so deeply. All I can say is that it seems as if grief is a more complicated concept and process than any of us realize.

    1. Absolutely. And it is also a testament to the power of his art, to art in general, that knowing its creator is gone affects us so intimately.

  2. I had to write about this too, about the shock and feelings and issues. Good post, chica. At least we all have each other.

    1. <3

      I realized today that I never did the follow up questions for you. I will get on that!

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