"I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone."These words haunt me today, because I can't help but wonder about how alone he must have felt in the moments leading up to his decision to end his life. I wonder whether he might have changed his mind if he could see the outpouring of reaction to his passing. I wonder if things would have been different had we all been somewhat more evolved in our understanding of depression and other forms of mental illness. Somewhat more darkly, I wonder who he might have been talking about, and whether their actions, intentional or not, pushed him even further down the rabbit hole.
I wonder...I don't even know what I wonder, but I do know whatever we're doing, as individuals, as a society, to better understand depression and other forms of mental illness isn't remotely enough. And every time I think that we're there - like Olympic hero Clara Hughes riding across Canada to raise awareness - I realize we're nowhere near there at all.
The sad truth of life in 2014 is we continue to stigmatize those who suffer from mental illness. Look no further than the headlines. They say Mr. Williams killed himself. They don't say he suffered from addiction and mental illness. They don't say he was sick, a victim. They don't talk about his struggle, or what it must have been like to try to maintain career, family, facade to the outside world while knowing full well what was consuming him from the inside.
No one ever really knows. Because society still expects victims to suck it up, to just get over it. Because those who suffer remain fearful of the consequences of going public. Asking for help just isn't compatible with our increasingly Type A society, where people hold onto miserable jobs because they fear the alternative, then search for years in the hope that no one will learn their terrible secret. Where we often assume the worst in someone before we take the time, if we take the time, to learn what truly drives them. Where we wear cancer survivor as a badge of courage but depression sufferer as an admission of failure. Where self-identifying as such would be the Digital Era's equivalent of a scarlet letter (seriously, put that on your Twitter profile and see if your phone continues to ring.) Where no one would ever admit to singling out a known sufferer and selecting them out of a job or an opportunity, but we all know we would do exactly that, ashamedly, if we were in that position.
Because risk aversion, and the mindset of those who sit at the top of the corporate heap and make the rules for the rest of us, ensure we'd never willingly go with someone who admits to such a fundamental weakness. Lest we ourselves get punished for making a supposedly sub-optimal choice. So the suffering continues in silence. Until it doesn't. Until this happens.
I grew up in a house where folks who sought help were looked down upon, where "going to a shrink" was something so-called "normal" people just didn't do. It wasn't so much what was said, but how. The tone said it all. And I learned the power - and the peril - of silence in avoiding confrontation.
Except silence gives those who suffer no way out. That feeling of being alone? We can do better. We need to do better. Or we'll keep losing those who still matter.
As tragic as this loss is, it's the countless other non-stars who suffer in their own form of silence who scare me infinitely more. This touches us all, and that is as true if we choose to accept it as it is if we continue to ignore reality. Maybe the loss of a comedic legend will be the catalyst we need to stop paying lip service to the concept of awareness. Maybe we're finally ready to see it for what it is: Illness. And no one should ever feel ashamed for stepping out of the shadows and telling those around them what's going on. Ashamed for asking for help.
Yet, we still are ashamed. To ask for help, and to provide it. And I fear for the countless others we'll lose before we finally figure it out.