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.