The Middle Children of History

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(Photo by Sander van der Wel)

My uncle Peter killed himself when I was 15-years-old.

It still haunts me 25 years later.

I’ve never really gotten over his death, because as a family, we never really discussed it.

This was in part our Ukrainian culture and the superstitions that came over the ocean with my grandparents, partly our religious beliefs and partly my age at the time.

All I ever really knew about the circumstances that led to his death was that he was a lonely man, in spite of having a loving, supportive family and that he struggled with depression.

Last week an old friend and former colleague from my newspaper days in Missoula, Montana, the indefatigable humorist, baseball lover and writer of Fatuous Twaddle, Jaime Kelly, ended his life in his car in a park in Missoula.

I’m older now, and I knew about Jaime’s struggles from working closely with him. I’ve always assumed all writers and journalists have them to some degree, but Jaime’s were a tougher, darker variety than I’ve encountered before. He kept the darkness at bay with alcohol and his own music, but alcohol is a medication, not a cure, and sometimes the music becomes background noise to the hum of the darkness when you stop self-medicating.

Jaime had a loving family too. He had lots of friends, including a pastor who supported him, and he had fans near and far.

When a producer at the radio station I work at walked by last Monday night mumbling something about Robin Williams, I asked her, “what about Robin Williams?”

“He’s dead,” she said.

We are a callus lot, those of us who call a newsroom home most of the time, but it doesn’t mean we don’t feel.

I felt the sting building as I tried to find some news source just so I didn’t have to read it on TMZ or some other celebrity rag.

Sure enough, there it was in the little MarinScope weekly newspaper. Robin Williams, Dead at 63 of apparent suicide.

For a week, we talked about nothing but Robins Williams, mental illness, depression and suicide. Then another big news story came along, and like it always does, the pain receded a little, and we went back to our normal, every day lives.

We’ll be reminded of it briefly in February when we see William’s smiling face on the in memoriam screen at the Academy Awards.

The water mark of his death will be scrubbed away like the brackish line in the tub that sits there when the water drains too slowly.

The problem with the messaging is not lonely people who need to reach out to their loved ones, as so many of us wrote on Facebook the next day. The problem is how we’ve stigmatized mental illness into a one or two-day conversation at most, and even then only if it’s a beloved celebrity, someone whose value is enough to raise it to the level of national conversation.

Mental illness is defined in the collective as an incurable disease that only worsens with time, and for some, ends in taking their own life.

If you are a healthy person, physically, it can be difficult to remember the feverous chills that racked your body the last time you had a bad cold or flu.

But when you’re in the midst of your illness, you just want everyone to understand how bad you feel, to garner sympathy for your misery and suffering.

With common illnesses, those which most of the population are apt to suffer from time to time, it’s easier to gain sympathy. And collectively, we are able to empathize.

Your boss may tell you to go home and rest, your spouse may make you a bowl of soup or make you more comfortable.

With mental illness, many sufferers don’t understand their illness enough to clearly explain what they are feeling, and certainly the majority of others cannot empathize with them, and even sympathy becomes challenging. This is true of panic disorder, depression and a multitude of mental  health issues.

Many years ago I went to see a friend who is a doctor about a problem I was having with my head, only I didn’t know it was with my head.

I used to babysit this guys’ kids when I was a teenager, and he often reduced my bill for seeing him, since I didn’t have medical insurance for most of my 20s.

At the age of 20, I started having trouble breathing at times.

These episodes came out of nowhere and just happened at any random time, or so I thought.

I could be sitting at a red light in my work van, when suddenly my stomach would twist into a knot, and I would start feeling short of breath.

Soon my fingers would go numb, and I’d have to pull over and stand along the side of the road bent double until the waves of terror passed, and my breathing would return to normal.

Several times it got so bad I had to go to the emergency room, where doctors would give me a strong sedative and call my wife.

She had trouble sympathizing with me, because it was impossible to understand something so seemingly random troubling a healthy 20-something man.

So I go see this family friend, and he tells me that I’m not sick.

There was nothing wrong with me physically.

I was getting 100 percent oxygen, even though I felt like I couldn’t get a full breath.

He turned a breathing issue into a mental health disorder with one sentence.

“Tim, I could give you a sedative that would keep the panic attacks down, but they would make you a couch potato, and it would be very difficult to support your family,” my friend/doctor told me.

“The best medicine is in here,” he said, pointing to my head. “Try and understand what is happening when you feel this way. You can treat this yourself.”

I don’t know why, but those words stayed with me, and during the next bad attack, I became more aware of what was happening. The attack was bad, pure terror as usual, but a small part of my brain remained analytical.

Slowly I started to become more aware of what things would set off these attacks. I soon realized that jumping on an exercise bike could alleviate the attacks, as could playing a simple game of Donkey Kong on my Nintendo.

I had a very low-dose of Xanax prescribed to me in case things got out of control or for situations I knew could set off panic, especially flying.

But I can count the times I’ve had to use drugs in the last 20 years on one hand.

I don’t want you to get the wrong message here though. My struggles are super light compared with what others go through. Solving your own mental health issues in your own head is not something that works for everyone.

And I’m certainly not cured. I simply manage my symptoms. I’ve only discovered recently that I’ve developed a level of discomfort with large crowds that starts to feel the same to me as my fear of flying.

Many people need drugs and psychotherapy to handle their illness. And we are not different. I am no different than someone with a debilitating case of depression, bipolar, PTSD, seasonal affective disorder, social anxiety phobia, Tourette’s disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, alcohol abuse, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, hoarding disorder and any one of hundreds of others on lists kept by the AMA.

Yet we’ve stigmatized mental health issues into something we can’t talk about for fear of what?

For fear of being marginalized? For fear of not qualifying for health insurance? For fear of being fired from a job? For fear of what others will think of us or our loved ones? For fear of the unknown?

There was a time when feminine health issues were not discussed in public, because we live in a male-centric world. This started to change at the beginning of the 20th century. But it wasn’t until the late 70s that the marketing and media world caught on.

For most of my lifetime, I have seen every kind of feminine hygiene product marketed on television, to the point that I’m educated and no longer uncomfortable with the message.

Today we can easily discuss erectile dysfunction, because of commercials for that little blue pill.

Sexual issues have gone mainstream, and yet we remain superstitious about mental health issues.

We still say our friends fought valiantly against their demons in our memorials when they take their own lives.

As if every other thing is based in science and reason, but mental health is based in superstition and old wives tales.

We are going to continue to lose good people to suicide as long as we stigmatize the issues around it or associate them with fear and ignorance.

We live in a complex time in history, a time when we are no longer obsessed with survival based on simple needs like food and shelter. We are no longer afflicted by base superstitions and non-scientific fears.

We don’t look at an eclipse of the moon as foreshadowing some great cataclysm. And it’s no longer a matter of what revolves around the sun, it’s a matter of just how small we are in the grand-scale of the universe.

We can see giant asteroids hurtling toward the earth well before they arrive.

And yet the more we understand, the less we actually know. And this makes us uneasy.

The smaller we can see, the more we realize how much exists beyond our current understanding.

There is an unsettling feeling to life today, in a world where we have sanitized warfare through drones, and we watch surgical strikes through high definition screens.

The rapid advance of society can wreak havoc on the soul, but the mind is another matter altogether. Perhaps evolution isn’t fast enough to keep up with the capabilities of our collective conscious.

Maybe we are the “middle children of history,” as the writer Chuck Palahniuk put it.

Whatever it is, I’m tired of hiding behind a veil of superstition and misunderstanding.

I don’t want to lose people I love to suicide, because we are incapable of empathy, or as if they are a different species than we are.

Or because we have reduced their illness to a tormenting demon.

I can’t remember reading this quote in its entirety until today, even though I read “A Farewell to Arms” many times. I have only ever seen a small portion of it quoted.

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” – Ernest Hemingway 

I suppose to me this means we’re all in this together. So perhaps it’s worth talking about whether you are in the midst of being broken, or if you are strong. Whether you are gentle, brave and good individually or all at once.

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