Robin Williams. And My Crazy Family. And Yours.

Sadness (framed & soft filter) LOW RESSerious mental illness runs in my family.

There, I said it.

All my mother’s siblings and their adult children have struggled with schizophrenia, depression, agoraphobia, addiction, and in at least one case that I know of, suicide.

We used to joke that my mom – with more than a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder and some pretty significant narcissism and abandonment issues – was the “normal” one in the family. When people would ask, “What about your dad’s side?” the joke was always, “Oh they’re not mentally ill; they’re just crazy.”

But these are all jokes we’ve shared inside a small circle, coping mechanisms as we’ve watched the people we love struggle and, almost to the one, succumb in one way or another.

I am sharing this publicly because it is time we all share it. It is time we acknowledge that the only way to get rid of a stigma is to decide it’s not a stigma anymore. To come out.

The world I envision is not a world where everyone is mentally healthy or where people living with mental illness are embraced; it is a world where we no longer find reasons to distance ourselves from others.

It is a world where we celebrate a Robin Williams AND hold him in our arms.

It is a world where we look at each person living under a bridge or in a subway station, and ask him how his day is going, because when we reach out to another human being, we are reaching out to ourselves.

It is a world where “get a job” is replaced with “tell me about your life.” A world where “there but for the grace of God” is replaced with the thing of which we are the most deeply afraid – that I am you.

We can create this world, right now, by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes instead of demanding they walk in ours. By listening instead of condemning, by asking instead of giving advice. By listening period.

Every day, we can look beyond people’s behaviors, to inquire – and really want to know – how they are experiencing life.

Not just with the homeless guy. Not just with my “crazy” family. With everyone. With ourselves. Right now.

If you are reading this in an email reader, please click this link to see the video. It is the most tender example of being present, an exchange between Robin Williams and Koko the gorilla.

Deep gratitude to Meryl Steinberg for sharing this video.

9 Responses to Robin Williams. And My Crazy Family. And Yours.

  1. Thank you Hildy. That your admission is a brave one speaks volumes about the very thing you advocate – open, honest, heartfelt connection between humans. My family has not been immune, and many of those in my circle of friends and colleagues know what it is to live in the shadow of mental illness. Shining a light on it brings it out of the shadows. Sharing it, through conversation and support and love and caring and, yes, listening…well that’s a massive spotlight and it’s a huge step towards no longer being distanced from each other.

  2. The passion of your heart and words would stir Koko to a big warm hug — and a tickle. I found myself pausing on the idea that we find reasons to distance ourselves from others. We distance ourselves from anything that makes us uncomfortable. It’s interesting that in EFT Tapping sequences quite a bit of time is spent saying how horrible we feel: ” Even though my headaches like nails being pounded in it with a jackhammer. ” And it’s followed by “I completely love an accept myself”. At first it didn’t make sense to spend so much time focusing on what I wanted to go away, but after doing some tapping, I realized that being present with the pain was an essential part of the process. Resistance creates an enormous part of our discomfort.

  3. Meryl:
    Good catch. You found the one word that was work for me. It started as “excuses,” and that was so judgmental – itself a distancing word. I substituted reasons for excuses. It’s probably still not perfect, and if we find a better word, I’ll substitute it again.

    For me the “excuse” or the “reason” lies not in the discomfort, but in our attachment to the aversion to that discomfort / our attachment to comfort. We cling to the distance as an external salvation from the discomfort we don’t want to feel. We cling to the resistance. We enshrine it in stigma and stereotype of the other. Because to think that the other is us is the greatest discomfort of all.

    Compassion for others and compassion for self are so easy to say and several lifetimes of practice to do. Thank you for being such a wise and thoughtful teacher.

  4. This post really hit home. I have people with serious mental illnesses and history of suicide in my family too. I love them and want to spend time with them but admit I distance one sometimes from my friends and social activities because his ability to cope and be relatively “normal” in social settings varies from day to day. But isn’t that true for all of us?

    I’ll make a point of calling him today and telling him once more how much I love him.

  5. Thank you Hildy, and to those who shared comments that resonate with your profound compassion and wisdom.

    To listen to each other’s stories – an ancient art that we need to remind each other to practice.

    To be open to the spoken (and unspoken) stories of those we come in to contact with requires that we chose to act counter culturally. It takes being really present. It requires that we master our own impatience and discomfort. It requires that we are grounded enough to make ourselves vulnerable. It requires that we open ourselves to what is, without judging. It requires sometimes “going with the flow” in order to be present – which, in our world of tight, efficient schedules, is no mean feat.

    There are many who have found themselves excluded from contributing to society based on nothing other than societies discomfort with their differences. Those who feel too acutely or are overwhelmed by what they are experiencing could also be seen as “canaries in the mine” – and as such, offer warning bells for the rest of society – Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Hundertwasser . . . . .

  6. Claire – I am struck by your words “There are many who have found themselves excluded from contributing to society based on nothing other than societies discomfort with their differences.” We have the opportunity, as a society that is now so hyper-connected, to change what we as humanity are uncomfortable about. We do that all the time; imagine if we did so consciously.

    Thank you so much for what you wrote. It really has inspired me.

  7. Dearest Hildy,

    there is no end to the love and goodness you bring to the world. Thank you for this post. It is my family too. Too numerous to mention. So hard that I had to tell my son with some anxiety and depression that this is our legacy. This is part of who we are and we carry the genetic burden- and it is not ALL of who we are.

    There is great relief in being seen. and understood. and to know we are not alone in the world.

    with love,