We Are Not Alone

I had an entirely different post planned for today, but recent events have changed that. Sometimes you’ve just got to roll with the punches.

As I wrote on Facebook last night, it’s not often that the death of a celebrity affects me so strongly, I cannot stop crying. It’s very rare that anyone outside of my own personal sphere affects me profoundly enough for their passing to be completely overwhelming. But as I learned that the world had lost Robin Williams – that he had lost his own battle – I was just gutted.

I’ve spent last night and this morning attempting to understand why, indeed, I – like so many others – am so deeply upset by the loss of this particular man. There have been other comedians who have made my sides hurt from laughing. There have been other actors whose dramatic performances have taken my breath away. There have been other celebrities whose demons have overtaken them. Why is this so different for me?

I finally was able to narrow it down to two driving factors: Robin’s body of work, which so strongly impacted me; and the manner in which he died, which hits very, very close to home. Combine these and, well, I’m a mess.

You didn’t ask for a critique of his movie catalogue, so I won’t give you one (you’re welcome), but I still have a few things to say. The first time Mr. Williams really affected me was through the Good Morning Vietnam soundtrack. Not the movie itself (which I wouldn’t see until years later), but the soundtrack, which included many of Robin’s hilarious bits as disc jockey Adrian Cronauer. I listened so often, I could quote him word for word, and was quite taken aback when I finally did see the movie, which was far more serious and tragic than the album suggested.

It’s no secret that I have a flare for the melodramatic. This was probably never more obvious than when I was a teen, filled with typical teenage angst and turbulence, but with a serious bent for things that were “deep” and “moving” and “thought-provoking.” Dead Poets Society arrived at precisely this time and utterly swept me away – except, contrary to the other gag-inducing nonsense I was absorbing, it actually was a moving and thought-provoking film – so much so that one of my best friends and I created our own secret Dead Poets Society. Given that it was, you know, a secret society, I won’t give away the details here; suffice it to say that it was an incredibly important, transformative part of my adolescence – all thanks to Robin Williams.

Ever the Disney fan, I was blown away by Aladdin’s humor. By the time my college roommate and I arrived on campus, we were each more than familiar with Aladdin. Other students would play the movie on their itty bitty dorm-room TVs, which we could see from the windows outside of our own fourth floor room; the two of us would sit in the window wells and watch the entire film. We couldn’t hear a word, mind you, but that didn’t matter, because we’d already memorized the entire script, with the Genie’s lines being our best-loved, of course.

Although I didn’t fully realize it until yesterday, Robin Williams’s film work impacted me tremendously. (His stand-up and interviews – with his appearance on Inside The Actor’s Studio being absolutely epic – were mind-blowing in their intensity, genius, and hilarity. I loved watching those moments, but they didn’t affect me the way that his movies did.) I cannot quite believe that his body of work has ended.

Williams’s death has struck me in a much more personal way, however, because of the horribly tragic manner in which he died. Mental illness is something with which I am all too familiar. I have friends and family who have struggled with depression, anxiety, OCD, and bipolar disorder. I’ve had friends and acquaintances who have committed suicide. But those are their stories; I don’t feel comfortable sharing them. Instead, I will share mine.

It’s often cited that mental illness – or a predisposition toward it – runs in families. For my part, I seem to have lucked out by inheriting the depression and anxiety genes. Looking back, I see now that I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life – nothing crippling (typically), but certainly present. It’s still something that I work to keep in check, something that’s always bubbling below the surface.

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, and I am no exception to that. My first and strongest bout of depression – not just feeling a little down and out, but an actual, diagnosed clinical depression – occurred during the summer of 2008. As with so many people who suffer from depression, there was no single causal factor, no specific trigger. I just gradually stopped caring – stopped feeling anything, really – until it seemed that I was floating through the world without a place to land.

Sadness doesn’t accurately describe it; hopeless comes closer. It just felt like nothing would ever be good again, and then I stopped caring whether or not things would ever be good again. I cried at everything and nothing. I hid behind corners in the grocery store so I wouldn’t have to see anyone. I closed myself behind bathroom doors in my house so that I could cry away from the girls, who were both very little at the time. I had no desire to engage in any of the activities that normally appealed to me. I didn’t care about seeing my in-person friends and didn’t care about communicating with my online friends.. I felt suspended, drifting, lost.

But, despite the bizarre, floaty nothingness, I knew enough to know that I didn’t want to go on like that. I wanted to be the kind of mom who delighted in her children, not one who looked off in the distance, completely disengaged while they played at her feet. I wanted to have meaningful – or even lighthearted – conversations with my husband instead of avoiding him. I wanted to find joy again.

And so I sought help, both through talk therapy and medication. It wasn’t easy; I was embarrassed and ashamed, not to mention that just getting myself out of the house was a feat because I had zero motivation or energy. I knew, though, what the consequences could be if I didn’t get help, if I didn’t make a damned good effort to get better. I wasn’t about to do that to my family or even to myself; when I could see through the haze that had settled in around me, I knew that there were oh so many reasons to keep going. It’s just that believing that, in that moment, was all but impossible.

Thankfully – miraculously? – I never considered suicide, even when I was in the darkest depths. I wanted to feel better. I needed to feel better. It took a good deal of time, but with the help of several professionals as well as medication (which I no longer need, save for the Xanax, amen), I slowly climbed out of the hole and began to see daylight again. The air was cleaner up there; it felt good. Six months later, I felt like I’d regained solid footing. I had beaten depression… this time.

I know, though, that for the rest of my life, I will be fighting. There have been many, many times in the past (now) eight years when I have felt those walls closing in, when I began to feel suspiciously, awfully detached again; and every time, I have steeled myself to push back. Depression likes to lie low but it never goes away; it is always ready to rear its hideously ugly head, often at the slightest provocation – to start another fight. It is a battle that I fully intend to win, but the enemy is ruthless and mean and cunning; it can creep back in when I least expect it. Living with depression – not being depressed, but as a person in whom depression resides – requires a constant level of awareness and vigilance that, quite frankly, is sometimes exhausting.

But there’s no choice, so the fight continues. Forever.

These may seem like extremely personal details to be sharing; they are. But part of why depression is so powerful and devastating is that it makes you feel alone, that you are fighting all by yourself, that no one else understands. It makes you feel embarrassed and ashamed of being who you are. It convinces you that no one else cares what happens to you – or, at its worst, they would be better off without you.

I am here to tell you that you are not alone. You are not fighting by yourself. I understand – not your exact circumstances, but that terrible, bizarre, detached feeling? I understand.

We, as a society, are rocked by the aftereffects of mental illness and addiction (which are so closely linked) time and time again – from school shootings to overdoses – and yet we very rarely talk openly about what it means to suffer from mental illness, nor how to help those who do. There remains a stigma surrounding it, which is largely perpetuated by our continued silence, shame, and lack of discussion. Today, I am breaking my silence.

Depression isn’t a game. It isn’t something to be treated lightly or messed with. It is not made-up and “thinking happy thoughts” does not make you feel better. Admitting that you’re struggling with depression doesn’t make you weak or pathetic or pitiable. Not addressing it can be deadly… in the most literal of ways. And that is why depression is so scary, and why we must connect with one another, why we must reach out to those of us who are in darkness or are hurting. That is why we must talk about it.

I feel tremendously fortunate, and to-my-core grateful, that, while in the throes of depression, I have never contemplated ending my own life. I am devastated that Robin Williams saw no other alternative, and that the demons won. His death is especially poignant for me because… well… there but for the grace of God go I.

If you suspect that a friend or family member may be depressed, talk to them. Show them that you aren’t ashamed to discuss this beast, that you’re there to listen, and that you love them, no matter what. If you are depressed, or if you think you are depressed, or if you just don’t know which end is up, please seek help. There is no shame or vulnerability in doing so; in fact, it takes tremendous courage and strength (which totally sounds like I’m bragging, but after working so hard to kick depression in the face, I think it’s okay to feel a little badass). If it seems like no one understands, please talk to someone; so many people do get it. If it seems like you have no support network, please reach out; nets of encouragement and love can spring up seemingly out of nowhere, buoying you until you have the ability to stand on your own again. I know they did for me, once I finally mustered the courage to extend my arms and legs.

And if you feel like all hope is lost and the only answer is to take your own life – or if you believe that someone else is considering doing so – please, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Like millions of people around the world, I am heartsick that Robin Williams is no longer with us, while I am also profoundly grateful for the gifts he gave us and the ways he touched my life – the ways he made me think, made me cry, made me laugh. At first, I thought that it would be pointless to add my voice to the endless chorus of people who have expressed their grief over Robin’s suicide; I have nothing new to add, nothing unique or special to say. But now I think that perhaps our shared perspective is exactly the point. We are all in this together. We are here for one another; we are not alone.  We can change how mental illness is perceived and treated. We will get through this world side by side – by supporting each other, encouraging each other, helping each other, challenging each other, and loving each other.

And by spreading laughter and joy every chance we get.

To you, Mr. Williams… I’m so very sorry. You were astounding. Thank you, thank you.

In the words of Adrian Cronauer: “Take care of yoursel(f). I won’t forget you.”

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* For one of the first times ever, there are no photos to accompany this post – not even irreverent ones of my kids – because none seemed right.

Nick and I do plan on watching Mrs. Doubtfire with them as soon as possible**, however, because Helllllloooooo… that is more than right.

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** Update, August 2015: We have watched Mrs. Doubtfire with the girls; not surprisingly, they adored it. Now we can’t wait to show them The Birdcage — in a few years, of course.

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The island of enchantment… and laughter

A few days ago, Nick and I got back from a trip to Puerto Rico; it was amazing and fabulous and I would go there again in a heartbeat if only to eat at this one restaurant that served us a dinner I’m still salivating over.

There’s so much I could write about it, that I want to write about it, that it’s getting all squished together in my head (which doesn’t have much thinking space in it these days, anyway) and I can’t decide what should come next, so although I definitely plan to document it more in coming weeks, I will start with this one absurd story.

We stayed at this nice little Sheraton in Old San Juan right on the harbor in a lovely room with three itty bitty balconies – one of which, in the mornings and evenings, afforded us a rather industrial view…

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… and throughout the rest of the day overlooked the cruise ship docks.
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Although we did not spend a great deal of time in our room, on the last night of our vacation we found ourselves with a few minutes to spare before heading out to dinner. It had rained heavily, bringing in slightly cooler air (anything less than melt-your-face hot felt positively arctic), and so we opted to open up all three sets of French doors. I walked out onto the balcony overlooking the docks and took in the evening unfolding around me: the rainclouds rolling away, hints of sunlight dappling through and onto the buildings, the rolling hills in the distance, the tourists strolling the street below.

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This was taken minutes before I stepped out onto our balcony – from the floor above ours, but it’s essentially the same view. Minus the frog. More on him later.

While taking in the scene, I looked to the right and happened to notice that there were no balconies on the floor below us, but that all of the lower floors contained them. I also happened to notice that there was a gentleman standing on one of said balconies – one room to the right, two floors down – and that he was also looking to the right, which meant that I was standing behind him. To my knowledge, he didn’t even know I was there.

Without warning, a gust of wind blew through (then again, “without warning” is a bit inaccurate, because Old San Juan is ridiculously windy) and I heard a BANG!! behind me that startled me so much, I jumped violently, all but throwing out my back. I also screamed like nobody’s business – that brief burst of fear that escapes you when you have the absolute shit scared out of you.

See, the wind had sent a draft through the open doors of our hotel room, causing the ones behind me to slam shut, thus scaring the pants off me. In addition to being terrified by the BAM! from behind, I whirled around to face the now-closed doors and then became concerned that they had locked and I was stuck on this teeny strip of a balcony with only a railing stopping me from plunging to my imminent death below. Also I was hungry, so things were dire.

Meanwhile, Nick had been in the room getting ready for dinner when he, too, felt the gust of wind, and then – so says he – registered three sounds: a loud bang, me shrieking, and then an unidentifiable “HUH!” immediately thereafter. Bump! Aaaahhh! Whoa! Rather than ponder the third sound’s origin, he (wisely) chose to come to my aid and open the door to let me back in, thereby saving me from plunging to my death.

Just as I was wondering if perhaps this was some very twisted plot by my husband to strand me out on a balcony during our 20th anniversary getaway (a perfectly reasonable explanation, naturally), the doors opened and Nick gestured for me to come inside, which I did posthaste. I then recounted the story, explaining how the slam of the doors had scared me poop-less, and how glad I was that he wasn’t trying to play some weird trick on me and had come to rescue me instead.

After catching my breath and being reassured that everything was okay, I remembered the man who’d also been standing out on his balcony and realized my yelp and subsequent disappearance into our room might have been a bit disconcerting. Shaking my head, I lamented, “I bet I scared the heck out of that other man out there.”

And that’s when Nick put two and two together and realized that the third sound he’d heard – the “HOAH!” – came from the man on the balcony below, who had, indeed, been completely startled by my escapade. So startled, in fact, that he, too, had yelled out – so loudly, Nick had heard him from inside our room.

We then began to imagine this poor guy, stepping out onto his balcony… on vacation, likely, wanting to check out the view after the rain. He was there, relaxing – maybe for the first time all day, having traveled God knows how far to get to this little corner of paradise; maybe this was his first-ever vacation; maybe he’d always dreamed of spending the sunset on a balcony in Old San Juan – taking in the first hints of twilight, looking out over the utterly peaceful, calm scene unfolding before him…

… when CRACK!!! something slams to his left and “AAAAAHHHHHH!!” a woman screams, scaring the ever-loving crap out of him, which causes him to scream, too, like an unsuspecting guest being pranked on Ellen. He undoubtedly turned toward the source of the sound – to me whirling around in terror on my balcony, practically clawing at the doors to be let back inside – and then witnessed me magically being pulled through said doors (which were then shut behind me), never to be seen again.

Little ruins a tranquil twilight balcony moment like a fellow hotel guest shrieking and then being kidnaped. Worst. Vacation. Ever.

Bump! Aaaahhh! Whoa!

The more we pondered how my antics had obviously stunned the poor man, the more absolutely hilarious the entire farce became. We basically didn’t stop laughing for thirty minutes straight, until our sides hurt and we were gasping for air, and we essentially forbid one another from mentioning it again, lest we lose it during dinner.

That didn’t work, of course, because one of us would begin giggling – just the tiniest of bits – and then the other would see, and then it was all downhill from there. We laughed thinking about it the following morning .We laughed on the plane. We laughed during our layover. We laughed when we told the girls about it the day of our return. We’re still laughing about it now.

So, to the man I surprised and stunned on the balcony of the Sheraton Old San Juan: I apologize. Given the gale-force winds that whooshed along the streets all day and night, you’d think I might have anticipated the doors slamming, but I did not. I assure you that I was just fine – my husband was not up to anything nefarious, no matter how it seemed – and the rest of our night went on as scheduled. Except for the laughing fits. Those were not originally planned.

Puerto Rico: La isla de muchas risas.

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This photo has absolutely nothing to do with my story, but Old San Juan sure is perty.

 

 

 

 

Things that go “Yo Daddy” in the night

This is probably one of those things where you had to be there, but I’m sharing it anyway, mkay?

Between the time change and all manner of general crazy schedules these past few weeks (plus maybe extending lights-out just a bit too long in order to read Harry Potter with Ella *ahem*), bedtime and sleeping have been a bit of a crapshoot at our house. Annie actually swore that she was awake all night on Saturday, which explained why she could hardly keep her eyes open last night through dinner.

(As a matter of fact, so awake was she, she insisted that she’d been faking her snoring when Nick groggily left the room several hours post-bedtime, after having fallen asleep while tucking her in. She’d also been faking it when I checked on her before my bedtime and brought her to the bathroom for a sleepwalk tinkle. That kid is good, yo!)

In any case, we were all for getting the girls to bed at a decent hour last night, and, with the time change working in our favor, we actually succeeded. More miraculously, Nick and I managed to both watch Homeland (really, Jessica? Dana can just move out and you don’t even get a forwarding address? And WTF with the hoarding of the pregnancy sticks??) and still get ourselves off to bed at a reasonable time. Can I get a what-what!

I was happily mid-sleep when I shifted in the bed, doing one of those sort-of-but-not-really wake-up things, because maybe the dog moved too loudly in her kennel or Nick had gotten up to go to the bathroom. I was just turning over to return completely to sleep when I cracked my eyes open a bit and noticed the Cousin Itt-like silhouette hovering inches from the bed.

You know when you’re so thoroughly shocked and surprised, you do one of those full-body jolts that’s so extreme, it’s like in the movies when someone’s been electrocuted, and suddenly everything hurts? Yep. One of those. It’s a damn good thing I didn’t jolt myself right onto the floor.

It wasn’t a ghostly specter, however, nor an intruder, but my own darling offspring. See, if Ella needs something in the middle of the night, she doesn’t tap us on the shoulder. She doesn’t gently shake us awake. She doesn’t even whisper our names. No, she just stands there, fixedly staring at us, until we magically sense her presence and awaken. Which isn’t creepy at all, nor is it terrifying to wake up and discover a phantom in the darkness, frozen centimeters from your face.

(Actually, I should clarify this: I’m the one who sleeps closest to our bedroom door, so I’m the one Ella scares the bejeebers out of. Nick, blissfully on the other side of the bed, doesn’t even know the little apparition is there. Unless I blast him awake with my full-body jolt.)

Once I realized it was Ella standing there and not some ghoulish spirit who’d come to finish me off, I whispered and asked her what’s up. Why are you just standing there? What terrible thing has befallen you? Did you consider knocking? How about sweetly prodding me awake? WHY ARE YOU JUST STANDING THERE?? She then whispered back, “Something’s making a scary noise and I don’t know what it is, but I can’t sleep.”

What’s making a scary noise?
“I don’t know. But it’s beeping and then talking and it woke me up.”

Beeping and talking?
“Yes. It makes a beep and then it says something like, ‘Yo Daddy.’”

It’s saying “Yo Daddy”?
“Or something like that. It won’t stop and I can’t sleep.”

I got out of bed to investigate what was Yo Daddy-ing and waking Ella up, but I couldn’t hear anything. “It only happens every once in a while,” she explained. “Like it’s far off… Maybe it’s coming from the bathroom…”

And then it dawned on me that it was probably a smoke detector gone awry, chirping jauntily away, which everyone knows is super fun – because playing find-the-malfunctioning-smoke-detector is an awesome game to play in the daytime, but even more awesome at 3:45 in the morning.

At last, I heard the bleep and was able to immediately identify it as the smoke detector in our hallway (thank God for not having to play hide-and-seek at that hour). But it didn’t just chirp. No, this was a newer, smarter smoke detector, and after emitting the signal that had awakened Ella, it then said, “Low battery.”

Which, when you’re eight and scared awake by freaky beeping and talking right outside of your door at three-something in the morning, apparently sounds an awful lot like “Yo Daddy”.

I removed the detector from the wall and took out the batteries, mercifully shutting it up, and ushered Ella back to sleep. I figured I’d change the batteries in the morning, and was just crawling into bed myself when I had visions of the house burning down and the neighbors shaking their heads in bewildered sadness, muttering about how it was all because of the missing smoke detector, which meant, of course, that I slipped back out of the covers – careful not to awaken Nick – and crept downstairs to the kitchen to find the AAs. After creeping back upstairs, inserting the batteries, and putting the smoke detector back where it belonged (careful not to awaken Annie, who was actually still sleeping; thank goodness she wasn’t pulling another all-nighter), I snuck back into bed, grateful that I had moved so stealthily and everyone was heading back to sleep.

But then they started: the giggles. “Yo Daddy”. It was nearly 4 a.m. and all I wanted to do was sleep but because the smoke alarm batteries had to run low right then, the stupid thing started beeping… and talking… and my daughter thought some intruder was saying “Yo Daddy” over and over, and now I’m awake. It was all so absurd. “Yo Daddy”. I absolutely did not want to be laughing – like when you get the giggles in the middle of a sermon or during a funeral – but the more I tried to take deep, cleansing breaths, to calm the hysterics, the more they seemed to roll up from deep within and force themselves out of my mouth. I stuffed my face into my pillow; I bit my lip. It was no use. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Could. Not. Stop. Laughing.

Which, naturally, woke up Nick, and then I had to try to explain – in short bursts, through my uncontrollable giggling – why the hell I was chortling like a buffoon in the middle of the night. Ella was up… standing by the bed like she does… so freaky… and she’d heard beeping… it was just the smoke detector… and it was saying “Low Battery”… but she thought it was saying “Yo Daddy”… “YO DADDY”!… why on EARTH would it be saying “Yo Daddy”???… why did she think that??… why do I find this so funny right now?… omg, I can’t breathe… 

And then Nick started to giggle, too. Just a single chuckle at first, as he rolled over to reposition himself to go back to sleep. Then silence. Then another chuckle. Then another giggle from me. Then deep, cleansing breaths and blissful quiet… And then a guffaw would burst forth from one of us, setting the other one off. “Yo Daddy”.

At last, we calmed down, able to squelch the giggles when they threatened to erupt, and started to settle back to sleep. I nestled more firmly into the comforter as Nick got quietly up to use the bathroom. The last thing I remember, just as I finally began to drift off, was Nick’s voice through the darkness from across the room – “Yo Daddy” – followed by a giggle.