Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Passing of a Disney Icon

Photo taken from Disney website

This is my first contribution to this blog and my heart aches as I would much rather be talking about Dole Whips or Fast Passes or anything else besides this.  But, my heart is heavy and my mind is full and such is the way of life.  Robin Williams passed away yesterday after a long struggle with both mental illness and addiction.  My initial shock at this announcement quickly gave way to a profound sense of grief that I don't really understand as I was never privileged to share the company of Mr. Williams.

My first introduction (that I remember, anyway) to Robin Williams occurred from the movie, Popeye.  I was a small child and Popeye looked a little like my Dad (similar facial features and short blonde hair).  Olive Oyl looked a tiny bit like my mother (only in the most cursory of ways, but I was little and that's how we relate to the world when we're little).  Therefore, Sweet Pea must have been me as I was also an only child in a small family of three.  Popeye was brave, he stood up to the bad guys, and he loved Sweet Pea and Olive Oyl with all of his heart (and a squinky eye).  

I grew up and learned about this profession called acting and came to accept that this funny man was not actually Popeye.  I learned that he was an actual human with flaws but also with a superhuman ability to process information and craft his observations into comedic genius.  Like so many others, I enjoyed his movies, reveled in his comedic abilities, and was astounded to see him play dramatic roles with grace and composure.  Robin Williams was an incredible performer (do yourself a favor and search YouTube for anything of his from Inside the Actor's Studio).  He was also that rare celebrity in this day and age who genuinely seemed like a nice guy; like someone who would be nice to you if you happened to meet randomly.  

Before I became a travel agent with a love of Disney unmatched by my peers (trust me, it's annoying to everyone but me), I was involved in a very different profession.  I have been a licensed clinical social worker for what feels like a lifetime (social work years are not unlike dog years, you see).  The longest stint of employment in my social work career was at a community mental health clinic specializing in treatment of adults with severe and persistent mental illness.  I am well versed in depression and suicide and have seen far too much devastation from this horrible disease to last two lifetimes.  I have visited ER rooms and jail cells to assess a person's need for hospitalization due to reported symptoms.  I have waited on the phone with someone in efforts to engage them long enough for the ambulance to arrive.  I posted the following to my personal Facebook feed last night:

As I scroll through my news feed tonight and read everyone's grief laid bare, I see the familiar expressions of heart break, confusion, and anger. I see curses at the departed, I see accusations of selfishness, and judgement regarding actions we struggle to understand. I am no longer practicing in the field of mental health but that experience never leaves me. I have known clients who have threatened suicide repeatedly but never seriously attempted it and I have known clients who gave no indication of the intention to end their life before doing so. What I want to express lest this message get lost in the grief, is that depression is a disease. A true chemical change in the brain; a change that causes feelings of despair greater than most of us can ever imagine. It causes feelings of guilt so profound (even for things that we would rationally never feel guilty about). This disease at its worst promotes the belief that the world, our families, everyone would be better off if we were gone. For those who believe in the selfishness of suicide, please take a minute to consider the idea that those who commit this act may truly believe that they are not only ending their own unbearable pain but also relieving their loved ones from the burden that loving someone with depression can cause. Depression makes the irrational seem rational. We the rational know that this is not the solution but depression is a great deceiver. Before I get flooded with hateful messages or arguments (neither of which I feel inclined to entertain), I want to express that I do not agree with anyone's decision to end their own life. But I believe we must at least try to understand this disease, raise awareness of its symptoms, and express empathy and support for those that continue to suffer from its wrath in addition to the friends and family who must stand by and suffer as well.

Everyone on this earth has experienced symptoms of depression at one time or another but only a small percentage have ever experienced true, clinical depression.  In the coming days I hope we will be hearing much more about this disease as we as a society need more open discussion about this illness, it's symptoms, and how to address them.  My hope for Mr. Williams is that his legacy will not only include his decades long contribution to the world of entertainment but also a decrease in the stigma that persists in the mental health community.  I hope that we will educate ourselves more deeply on this disease and work together to assist in it's treatment.  

In the coming days, I will cry over the loss of a piece of my childhood and I will celebrate the work of a man who provided me a lifetime of laughs.  When I visit the Magic Kingdom with my family in September, I will wait in line as long as needed in order to give my favorite Genie a hug.  Good night, Sir, and thank you.

If you are currently experiencing thoughts of suicide, please talk to someone in your life now.  If you have no one that you can think of to talk to , please consider contacting the The National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255.

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