The Death of a Showman

This post is about Robin Williams, but it’s not just about Robin Williams.

In the hours after the news came that one of the country’s favorite and most talented performers had taken his own life, something really powerful and amazing happened. Social media and the rest of the Internet overflowed with conversations about mental health. One of the best things that I saw was a picture of Mr. Williams with the statement, “The funniest man in the world couldn’t just think positive and be healed. Support those struggling with depression and other mental health issues. It takes lives.”

So, this post isn’t just about Robin Williams. This post is also about me. It’s about the 22 or more military Veterans per day who escape their pain in the only way that they know how. It’s about the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds in America – with the rate of suicide attempts and completions among LGBT youth being even higher.

This post is about all of us. It’s about those who struggle with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, thyroid disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (from combat, rape, abuse, or anything else that causes trauma), eating disorders… and any mental illness that is not easily diagnosed or treated.

This post is about the everyday heroes of the mental health community: the therapists, the nurses (like my wonderful sister, Tracy) who work in the halls of psychiatric hospitals, the clergy who dare to give their time and energies to work on the spiritual wellness of those who suffer (like my amazing friend and former pastor, Charles), and the caregivers who suffer alongside us and make sure our medicines, appointments and every day well-being are provided for (like my inimitable wife, Christina.)

But, this post is also about those on the sidelines of this fight, those who sit in the crowd, the ones who don’t understand – either because they don’t know enough or because they simply don’t want to. In fact, this post is mostly about those people, because those people (these people) need to “get their head in the game” and realize that this is something that affects every single one of us.

I’ve seen a lot of posts on this on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Some of them say things like, “Depression isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of someone who has been strong for too long.”

On the other side, I’ve seen and heard a lot of comments decrying suicide as “the coward’s way out.” From some very well-meaning Christians, I’ve heard sentiments like, “True happiness comes from a relationship with God” or “Depression is a demonic attack” or “Just pray, and God will heal your depression.”

Here are some observations from someone who has worked in the medical community, and who has suffered for a long time with depression: depression is not about being weak or strong. Depression isn’t a sign of a lack of faith. Depression isn’t a sign of spiritual attack. Depression is an illness. It is an illness that most people will suffer at sometime in their lives. It is an illness that some people will suffer for their entire lives.

Depression is not just feeling sad. Depression is not about a normal response to distressing life events. Depression is not something that you can cure by just “cheering up” or “thinking positive”. Depression cannot be prayed away. (If it could be prayed away, I would have stopped being depressed years ago.)

Depression is not simple. It can either be the primary illness or just a symptom of another, more insidious illness.

There is no magic cure. Counseling helps some people, but not all. Medications help some people, but not all, and the process of finding an appropriate anti-depressant or mood stabilizer can be long and frustrating.

Depression effects both men and women, young and old, and is no respecter of ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic class. Robin Williams was a wealthy, successful, 63-year-old man. The suicide that I responded to in 2008 was a 20-year-old Soldier, of minimal means. I lost a friend in 2006 who was a 24-year-old single mother.

Depression kills.

The very real stigma that surrounds mental illness only complicates this, and the stigma takes many different forms.

There are those who are actively hostile towards mental illness, refusing to acknowledge it as “real” and telling those who suffer to simply “suck it up.”

There are those who try and explain mental illness as something other than it is, thus devaluing the experience of the mentally ill.

There are the religious, who see mental illness as a lack of faith or as a “test” from God.

There are those who simply don’t understand mental illness, and in their lack of understanding, simply try to ignore it.

All of those stigmas are real, and all of them hurt.

It’s time to get off the sidelines, out of the stands and onto the field. Every day, someone that you know or come into contact with is literally fighting for their life against these illnesses. Every day your friend, co-worker, brother, sister, son, daughter, father, mother, grandparent, acquaintance, stranger – all these people are struggling to hold on, to keep the darkness at bay, to escape from the shroud that envelops every single thing that they do.

It’s an oppressive, crushing weight, and every day that you decide to remain neutral in the fight for more understanding and compassion for the mentally ill, you force us to bear that weight alone.

Your actions, your words, your casual remarks and your Facebook posts, they can either make that weight heavier or lighter for the people in your life that struggle with these illnesses.

Will you help them or hurt them? There is no other choice.

To Robin Williams and his family, and to the thousands upon thousands of others who have suffered because of a lost battle with depression: my thoughts, my prayers, and my everlasting support are with you.

To those who still struggle, you are not alone. The outpouring of love and support for Robin Williams shows that everyone has someone who will miss them when they are gone, and who want to love them while they are here. Give us the chance to love you now.

To those who don’t want to be involved, the time is now. Don’t let one more person go through the pain and the awful loneliness of suicidal thoughts and intentions, without reaching out a hand of love, compassion and friendship.

The number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. The Veteran’s Crisis Hotline is the same number, and can be found on the web HERE.

There is hope and peace for you. Please reach out.

Grace and Peace to you all,

Michael Brian Woywood

What I Learned While Sitting With A Dying Man

It has taken me a few days to work up to writing this. I took a long drive, starting on Sunday, to visit a relative that I hadn’t seen in 15 years. When I left, I didn’t know why I was making this drive after so long an estrangement. I had some highly theological ideas in my head: I was going to and “minister” to him, I was going to pray with him, I was going to serve him Holy Communion, etc.

My family member – whom I will not name, out of respect to his privacy and the feelings of other family members – is dying. Were we to talk to a doctor, he or she would say that my family member has “terminal cancer.” “Cancer”, by itself, is a scary word. “Terminal” is the worst kind of cancer, and when we hear words like “Stage 4” and “metastasized”, our hearts sink. Because, all of these sterile and clinical words are designed to detach us from the truth: someone that we know and love is dying. They are leaving this world behind, and they are leaving it slowly. “Dying” is the most terrifying word of all.

I have plenty of experience with death. I was a medic in the US Army for 9 years, and I did 2 tours of Iraq in that time – including 9 months in the most dangerous and deadly city in the country. But, except on very rare occasions, I have never had to sit with the dying. Death in war is a sudden thing. You’re not required to process it, because it is always a past tense. Death isn’t something that your friends go through in war, it’s something that happens – something that happened – to them. You process the death as history, not as something in the here and now.

I hadn’t seen my family member in 15 years, but my memories of him were of a man “hale and hearty.” When I saw him last week, all of my theological illusions were shattered. This man was not who I remembered: he was sick, he was weak, he was in pain.

He was dying.

I sat with him for a time, trying to think of what to say after 15 years of unexplained estrangement. I never took the time to confront him with the things about him that I found repugnant or repulsive; I simply walked away from the relationship, and never looked back. Oh, there were some insubstantial phone conversations over the years, but I was always in so much of a hurry to hang up and get back to anything else. It never occurred to me that this was a person who loved me and wanted to spend time with me. I had reduced him to a worldview, a set of beliefs and opinions that I disagreed with.

I didn’t see racism or sexism or extreme conservatism when I sat there with this dying man. I saw a sick man, in pain and very, very scared. And, it scared me. Suddenly, here was the act of dying, staring me in the face. I suddenly felt responsible for every moment that I had failed to spend with him, getting to know him and letting him get to know me.

He has never met my wife.

He has never met my children.

He has never seen me write or preach, never heard me talk at length about the things that I’m passionate about.

I have never asked him why he feels so strongly the way that he does. I have never sought to understand him as a man with a wide range of experiences. I have never looked to him for wisdom or guidance, always assuming that because I disagreed so strongly on so many things, that he didn’t have any.

What I learned while sitting with this dying man is something that I have preached and written about, but that I have practiced very poorly in my own life.

Forgiveness. I learned about forgiveness.

It wasn’t just about forgiving him. In fact, I realized that I had very little to forgive him for. His anger or disgust with certain people, his “backwards” attitudes… none of that had been directed at me.For all his attitudes, he was never mean or deliberately discriminatory to anyone.  If I needed to forgive him of anything, it was simply of being a man who was out of step with the times that he lived in, not for any abuse.

But I found that I had no right to forgive him, because I had very little reason to be angry in the first place. He has always been so much more than just the opinions that I disagreed with, but I was too stubborn and prideful to move past it.

The person who needed forgiveness was me, and the only person who could forgive me was myself.

Forgiveness is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. Some would say that it is the central tenet: God forgives us, and we must forgive others. Jesus spoke many times on forgiveness, and the forgiveness that we give others must always be unconditional.

It’s a forgiveness that doesn’t concern itself with who is in the wrong. It’s a forgiveness that speaks first, in love, without waiting for an apology. It’s a difficult forgiveness, a radical forgiveness. It’s the forgiveness that a dying Man gives to the people that tortured and killed Him. It’s the forgiveness that the same Man gives to the best friend who abandoned Him.

Christianity isn’t the only religion or worldview that recognizes the value of this forgiveness. One of my favorite quotes (which I can’t attribute properly and can only paraphrase) says that, “Unforgiveness is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die.”

I am the worst of sinners when we’re talking about unforgiveness. Only recently, I have found that I am still holding on to hurts that are twenty years behind me. Acknowledging those hurts is not wrong. Confronting the person who hurt you is not wrong.

But withholding forgiveness just for the sake of holding on to the pain of past hurts is like a poison of the spirit.

At one point, another family member began to speak about funeral arrangements. I walked outside, smoked a cigarette, and then began to weep. It was not only in grief for my loved one, but in grief for the 15 years of lost opportunities. My inability to see him and to forgive whatever I held against him had poisoned me, and brought me to a place where there was nothing I could do to regain what I had lost, was losing in front of my eyes.

I did my best. I showed him pictures of my family. We talked about a shared love of Stephen King. I asked him what books he liked to read, since he’s confined to a bed. He told me about the church that he has been attending, and how the priest brings him the Sacraments every day.

And all I could think was that there is just not enough time.

Let it go, friends. Whatever you’re holding on to, whatever secret pain you carry, let it go. It won’t heal all the scars of abuse. It can’t turn back the clock. It can’t hold people who have hurt and abused you accountable for their actions (and I do believe that people should be held accountable for abuse.) Forgiveness isn’t about holding people accountable, or being right, or changing what happened.

Forgiveness is about dropping our burdens. Forgiveness is about surrendering our pain – to God, to the Universe, to the thin air.

Forgiveness is about freedom. And you deserve to be free, and at peace, after so many years in bondage and pain.

I can’t write anymore about this. I want to see him again, but I want to see him as he was, not as a dying man lying in a bed. But, I’ve squandered that chance.

I know that last week may well be the last time I see this man, who has always loved me and wanted the best for me. I know that the next trip will probably be to a funeral, and that the next chance I have to sit with him will be beside a casket, rather than a bed.

I need to forgive myself, even as I want to hate myself for it. Holding on to my mistake feels like I can somehow keep him close to my heart in a way that I failed to for my entire adult life.

But I have to forgive myself. I have to let it go. And I need to find the rest of the people in my life that I’m squandering a relationship with, and forgive both them and myself.

I don’t want to have to learn this lesson again at another bedside, at a casket, in a graveyard.

I don’t want anyone else to either.

Grace and peace to you all,

Michael Brian Woywood