What an Awkward Question and Robin Williams Made Me Realize About Mental Health
Hi, Internet. My name is Matt. Thirteen months ago (at time of writing), I almost killed myself.
I’ve battled depression and suicidal thoughts of varying intensity on and off for much of my adult life. I’m in a better place now, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do. There’s a small army behind me and healthy safety nets and protocols in place should I ever need them.
For most of this saga, I’ve kept everything under wraps as much as I could, confiding in immediate family members and a handful of trusted friends. But now, I’ve got to step out of this darkness, out of my proverbial closet.
I’ve been silent for too long on this subject. I need to own my truth and share my story — not for myself, but for those fighting their own Sisyphean mental health struggles.
I vividly remember a conversation from when I was in grad school — I was contemplating suicide at the time. I went out with a bunch of friends for a weekend drink, to get out of the lab to decompress. Robin Williams had just died and we got to talking about our favorite movie character or standup bit of his. One friend brought up the relevance of mental health and people wanting to talk about it but didn’t know where to start. The cheerful mood evaporated and we all went silent. Everyone avoided eye contact, waiting for someone to be the bold one and change the subject to something more palatable.
On a societal level, mental health is still a very taboo subject. It’s hard for those on the outside to relate to what someone struggling is going through. There’s also a terrible perception that in coming out of your own darkness, you’ll be rejected by those you in whom you confide. I’ve long seen others with mental health struggles as kindred spirits. We don’t need to know each other personally to relate to what we’re going through. It was much easier for me to express what I was going through with someone who also struggled with their mental health.
I’m no mental health or medical expert. There’s still a lot about the brain and these illnesses we don’t understand. In order for me to admit there was a problem and commit to getting better, I had to hear myself tell another person out loud. With each helper I told, it became easier and easier to tell the next person and get more in-depth about my dark thoughts, their origins and how to resolve them without ending my life.
A small army voluntarily formed to support me. I would not be alive today without it and I am grateful for every single member.
Much of my healing came from a loved one, one of my soldiers of compassion, just listening without judgment and accepting me for the imperfect human being I was. The entire time I was on the fence about confessing to someone new, a force within me made me think it was a bad idea: I’d be shunned and abandoned for being “weak” or incurable or something else that would disqualify me of their compassion.
Just so we’re clear, this force was a gut feeling, an intuition. I wasn’t hearing voices.
In my experience, this stigma is entirely overblown, but someone struggling with mental health issues might not believe it until they experience it themselves. Confidants are often taken by surprise, unsure of how to help or what to say.
Compare this to cancer. Almost everyone you know has been affected by cancer in some way. A family member, a close friend, or a co-worker; someone they know has been diagnosed. When there’s a donation drive to fund research, help a patient pay the bills or grow awareness, everyone can relate. We don’t think of cancer in the abstract. We think of the loved one who experienced it firsthand and we pitch in to help others in similar situations.
When my friend from grad school brought up mental health and Robin Williams, no one knew what to say, possibly because mental health is still an inexplicably taboo subject in society. Possibly because we didn’t have someone in our lives who went through what Williams might have gone through in his life or final days. Mental health was an abstraction; none of us knew how to make it tangible, how to humanize it.
Today, I’m coming out of the darkness. I am committing myself to engaging people on mental health issues and to helping those I think are showing signs of needing help. Sometimes, it takes someone who spent five years hiding their demons to notice someone else doing the same. This is an uncomfortable conversation to have; who better to start it than the people who’ve walked through that hell and lived?
In the aftermath of sharing my survival story, I’ve had a number of friends come out of their own darkness to me. For more than one, I was the first person they told. Misery loves company, I guess, but so does healing.
The hardest part was getting started. On October 17, 2017, I told my friend Samantha I was going to kill myself and I thought someone should know. Telling her was one of the most sickening and difficult things I’ve ever done. It was an impossible task of sorts.
I can also say if I hadn’t done that, I would 100% be dead right now.
As soon as I told her, it became easier to elaborate. And then it became incrementally easier to tell the next member of my small army. It got easier to share more. It got easier for me to answer the question: “What can I do to help you?” It made it easier for me to ask for and get help.
I’ve got a hypothesis that a surprisingly significant portion of the human race is struggling with some sort of mental health condition, and all those people are feeling alone and empty inside, like they’re the only person going through something awful. And they want to tell someone so bad, but don’t know where to start. If one person just stands up and says, “I’m depressed and sometimes I feel that ending my life is the best way out,” then another person would stand up and say something similar. A third would say, “me too.” Eventually, you’d have a cathartic and relieving “I am Spartacus” chain reaction of everyone realizing they’re not alone and there are people who understand them, and they can help each other.
So let’s get this initially uncomfortable conversation started. If you know me personally, the next time you’re faced with a Robin Williams awkward silence, don’t think of suicide as intangible. Think of me and start talking. If you don’t know me but are feeling endeared to me having read this, do the same. If someone you care about is or has struggled with their mental health, speak on their behalf.
If you’re a survivor, speak up. Tell those who can’t relate what it’s like to be in that place and how you got out of it. Humanize mental health and shine a light on your story of hitting rock bottom and climbing your way out. You owe it to yourself and our entire community. If you’re still struggling, talk about it and ask for help. Make your mess your message. You’d be surprised how much having one good listener who loves you can help.
Not once have I told someone my story and been shunned or abandoned. I am living proof this is often a horrible misconception. Science has a long way to go to properly diagnose and treat the variety of mental health conditions in our society. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read of someone taking their own life and their loved ones being completely taken by surprise that the deceased was struggling. All too often, there’s a sense of “If they had told me, I could have done something to save them.”
Therapy and/or medication are vital and often necessary components to getting better. But before someone can get to that point, they have to be willing to admit there’s a problem and want to seek help. That can’t happen if they keep it to themselves. The Robin Williams awkward silence phenomenon does them no good.
So, here it goes. My name is Matt Pollard. I live in Denver, CO. I’m an environmental engineer. For eight years, I’ve battled depression in some form. Last year, I almost killed myself. I’m in a better place in my life now — not quite living my best life, but I’m getting there. I survived my suicide attempt. Tell me your story or ask me about Robin Williams. It’s OK if you’re uncomfortable. It’s natural and it will get better. Just don’t be silent. Choosing to speak up might just save a life.
I hope this goes without saying: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. They’ve always picked up when I’ve called.
Image via contributor.