Troy's Take: A Dialogue To Save Lives

Troy ClarksonAmy Rader Photographer - Troy Clarkson

I lost a longtime friend this week. He’s been a friend since my youth. For years, he made me laugh just at the right time. He brought me comfort during my sometimes awkward teenage years, and showed me that it’s okay to be unique, eccentric, spastic, and all those other tags and labels that were stamped on me with and without my permission in my younger years. They say he died from his own hand, butI believe he was murdered, killed by two sinister and insidious cousins, both ruthless serial killers. 

I never actually met my friend, but spent countless hours smiling and laughing with him throughout my life and am profoundly saddened by his tragic death. My friend was Robin Williams, and his ruthless killers are the diseases of addiction and mental illness.

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I am neither a coroner nor a police officer—and I certainly don’t have access to the investigation into this week’s heartbreaking event, but there is little doubt in my mind that those murderous cousins were lurking in the bedroom where Robin Williams died.

He was courageous enough to discuss his addiction and mental illness in public, and by doing so helped demystify these terrible diseases of the brain so that acceptance and understanding in our sometimes still unyielding and uninformed society could slowly but hopefully steadily increase. The oft-used cliché is appropriate here: perhaps Robin Williams died so that others may live. His death is highlighting the need to talk about these issues, to understand them better—and to understand, accept and embrace those among us who, like Robin, contribute immeasurably to our society while privately managing their disease.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five Americans lives with mental illness, and one in 10 lives with addiction. Given those statistics, thousands—not hundreds but thousands—of Falmouthites, our friends, neighbors, colleagues and family members, live with one or both of these treatable but potentially debilitating and deadly diseases. 

I have another friend. I’ve known him for a far shorter period than I knew Robin, perhaps four or five years, but this friend I’ve actually met. We’ve enjoyed many engaging conversations, and he, like Robin did, lives with both addiction and mental illness. He is diagnosed as being bipolar, a moniker at which he bristles, equating it with the racial or mysogynistic slurs used by previous generations. Because there is still an unfortunate (but gradually waning) stigma in public identification as an alcoholic, addict, or mentally ill person, I’ll call my friend George.

This week, after Robin’s death, George opened up about his hopes for greater understanding, here in Falmouth and across our nation, for the millions of Americans living in our midst, working daily to keep those murderous cousins at bay. 

George can identify with the depth of Robin’s pain and anguish, and the peaks of his mania. Like Robin, George inhabited a place so dark and lonely that he, too, contemplated suicide, looking up at the ceiling in the basement of his Mashpee home and simply deciding that, for that day, the rafters were too low to accomplish a hanging and deciding to live another day. He noted to me that, “People like

Robin and I who experience the stigma of having been clinically diagnosed with bipolar disease are battling a prejudice that’s not supposed to exist in our enlightened society. Racial and gender discrimination are simply not tolerated in our schools and workplace—in fact, federal law mandates quick and dire consequences for any behavior that discriminates in the workplace.”   

George lives with that labeling each day, but this former California resident, who actually met Robin in a nightclub in the 1980s and saw his genius in person, is hopeful that Robin’s tragic demise, and his own willingness to encourage a dialogue here locally, may help another of the thousands in our community feel comfortable sharing their struggles as well. 

George continued our chat by quoting from an iconic 1970s song that encapsulates his views about the lives of those living with addiction and mental illness. The song, “She’s Come Undone” by the Guess Who, provides both a window and a warning for us all:

She’s come undone
She didn’t know what she was headed for
And when I found what she was headed for
It was too late.

She’s come undone
She found a mountain that was far too high
And when she found out she couldn’t fly
It was too late.

It was indeed too late for Robin, but it’s not too late for George and so many others living in our community. George finished up by adding one more thought: “He [Robin] shook me up right at the right moment; he’ll never know he saved my life but he did.” 

By openly having a dialogue and raising awareness and acceptance in our community, we can together do the same.

Mr. Clarkson may be contacted at votetroy99@aol.com and followed on Twitter @TroyClarkson59.

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