My friend Andrea, who is a good and kind person, is participating in a Facebook meme about flowers. It’s a nice idea: Breakup negative posts and images with a pleasant flower. This, like so many Facebook things, comes with a catch: You’re suppose to post a flower if you press the “Like” button on her flower. I liked Andrea’s flower, less for the flower but more for the person who posted it and the idea of putting something nice into the world. But I don’t do chain letters, so I’m posting a flower for Andrea — my very favorite, a dusty miller or centaurea cineraria. But I add no requirement that you post a flower. Just enjoy it or scroll on by.
Robin Williams died Monday. Authorities said took his own life. He was 63.
Williams struggled with alcoholism and other addictions. He also struggled with mental health issues. His publicist told the Los Angeles Times that Williams was suffering from depression in recent weeks. It appears the depression took his life.
Twice in my 39 years, I’ve been to an emergency room with suicidal thoughts. I could have very easily taken my own life on both occasions. For whatever reason — blind luck or divine inspiration — I reached out for help instead of killing myself.
My late mother struggled with mental health issues in her life. My dad tried to get her help, but he always felt guilty. He grew up on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression and loaded ships as a Navy seaman during World War II. To him, psychiatry was akin to witchcraft and asking a therapist to talk to his wife meant she would be confined to a room with padded walls and straightjackets for the remainder of her days.
I want to believe we as a society are more enlightened about mental health than we were when I was a boy. But I worry that people still think padded asylum cells and violent criminals when mental illness is discussed. We are not far removed from a time when Tom Eagleton was shamed out of being a vice presidential nominee because he sought treatment for depression.
Mental illness is a broad spectrum of ailments, but it is all rooted in one thing: The brain is an organ — just like the heart or liver — and sometimes it malfunctions. In exceptionally rare cases, it means people cannot function at all. But in most mental health cases, the disease is simply something that we live with day to day.
I am diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder. The clinical words simply mean I sometimes get very sad or very scared, sometimes both, for long periods and greater intensities than I find tolerable. I control it with medication and therapy. Most days, that’s enough. But sometimes my brain doesn’t work right.
I get very depressed. I work every idea out to its ultimate outcome, which is usually slow, painful death. I feel disgusting and loathsome, even though I have a wealth of family and friends who would tell and show me otherwise, I am unable to feel anything but misery. Panic attacks feel as if my skin is itching on the inside. Everything is an emergency and I can only focus on negative thoughts.
Sometimes, not often and certainly not every day, those thoughts turn suicidal. I am in pain and the only way I can get out of it is to die. The times that I have seriously considered suicide, I don’t really want to die. I want relief. Of course one can’t feel relief when one is dead. But when your brain isn’t working right, it becomes all too easy to forget that.
Robin Williams apparently lost sight of that sometime Monday. The world lost a great entertainer to a disease that affects about one in 10 Americans, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
My second set of parents, the retired east Des Moines hairdresser and printer, would be hesitant about me writing publicly about my mental health problems. They would worry, rightly so, that people would look at me differently or treat me as lesser or perhaps a dangerous nut who will run amok at any moment.
People do react differently to you when you struggle and are open about it. But I talk openly about it amongst my colleagues, on my blog and with my friends, family and sometimes my sources when reporting stories where the revelation is relevant. I talk about it not to brag about it or complain in a “woe is me” kind of way.
I talk about it because mental illnesses are really no different than high blood pressure or diabetes – other health problems that can be fatal. And that’s what suicide really is: the fatal heart attack or liver failure of depression and anxiety.
I talk about it because people who suffer, my fellow travelers, need to know they are not alone. As my friend Bill McClelland, the great St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, once told me: “We are all walking on the thin ice.”
I talk about it because people need to hear from those of us who suffer from the illness that sometimes it is a daily struggle, but most of the time we survive and even thrive. But it is a scary thing. Because I have been to that place Williams visited, with the instrument of my death in my hand, and thought there was no way out.
I found another way out. Williams didn’t.
That Williams lost his fight and I’m still fighting isn’t a measure of character, strength or determination. My cancer just went into remission. Williams’ got stronger.
Mental illness is often a brutal, cruel fight against your own thoughts. And one gets so tired, so very damned tired.
I don’t have any more answers or magic solutions.
But I have a bit of advice: Put as much kindness into the world as possible.
If one measures kindness by laughs inspired, Williams left one heck of a legacy for us to follow.
- 30 -
My back is sore. My legs hurt. I’m tired of carrying this heavy load.
The burden I refer to is books. I have too many of them. The shelves of my overstuffed (and very cheap) bookcases sag beneath the weight of my books. Nearly every surface in my home serves as a holding space for books.
Paperbacks are jammed into the entertainment center behind the TV. Books pile up on the coffee table. There are a few in the closet and a few more in the nightstand. I bet if I looked real close, I’d find a few under the bed.
But I’m too scared to look under there. I saw “Monsters, Inc.” Nobody wants to be surprised in bed by John Goodman and Billy Crystal.
This book problem becomes particularly acute when one moves, which I’m doing this week.
Confession: I have not read all the books I own. I have not read most of the books I own.
I have, for example, a Christian Bible. I keep it out of respect for my parents, particularly my late father, who went to a great deal of hassle to make sure I passed confirmation at the First United Methodist Church in Winterset when I was a boy.
I’ve looked up things in it. There are lots of Biblical references in society, especially made by politicians. I like to look them up and see if they say what I’m told they say. But most of the time the language is very dense and often vague. So, no, I haven’t read it cover to cover.
I watched “The Ten Commandments,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “The Bible” on TV around Easter every year when I was a boy. I know it’s not the same, but I understood those.
A very nice Methodist minister I knew gave me a guide to prayer when I graduated. I picked through it once in a while when I’m feeling desperate, but I didn’t understand the supplementary materials any more than I did the main text. But I keep both, just in case.
I have a very nice hardback collection of Plato’s dialogues. I haven’t read it, either. It makes less sense to me than the Bible. It was given to me by a philosophy professor I had at Drake University. He and his wife, who was the provost at the time, wrote a very kind dedication upon my graduation.
I briefly considered cutting out that page and putting the book in the pile to sell to the used bookstore. But that seemed uncouth. So the book went in a box.
Other books, however, were less fortunate. “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens, three books by James Joyce and a collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories were all sold. These are books I bought because I thought it was important to have them. I thought writers had to read these kinds of books to be writers of any promise or ability.
But I never read them. I’m not sure Joyce is even written in English. I bought those books because I wanted to impress a girl in St. Louis. Her former boyfriend quoted Joyce. She’s married now, not to me of course.
And, well, most of the people I know who regularly quote Joyce are kind of snobs. I can’t become a snob if I don’t read him and, thus, don’t quote him. So I got rid of those books to improve my character.
My apologies to Dickens and Hemingway, whom are often regarded as canon by people who call a writer “a man of letters.” I get more out of the collections of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Anyway, I like those books.
I could never really get into the machismo Hemingway or the Victorian-era Dickens. I loved, however, the “Doctor Who” episode in which the Doctor and Rose meets Dickens. I have that on DVD. I’ll probably watch it before I read a page of “Great Expectation.”
People often give me books by Bill Bryson, the Des Moines, Iowa, native who moved to England and writes books admired by nearly everyone, save me, who prefers Ross MacDonald and Joseph Wambaugh. So a couple Bryson books, both gifts, were sold off, hopefully to land in a home where they’ll be read by an admirer rather than an ignorer.
My bookshelves are heavy with good intentions. There’s an acclaimed book about the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. I bought it at the suggestion of a colleague, who said it was excellent and showed everything the public thinks about that day is a lie. I bought the book used. It was sold with no additional mileage. It struck me as too depressing a topic to want to scratch through while relaxing at bedtime.
I always meant to read “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton. It was the classic insider tell-all about life in the majors. Mickey Mantle reportedly wouldn’t talk to Bouton for years because Bouton revealed Mantle as a drunk. It seems kind of innocent in retrospect, doesn’t it? Entire books are written about all kinds of horrible things done by baseball players and other athletes these days. Being a drunk wouldn’t even rate an item in the celebrity news.
A copy of James Clavell’s “Shogun” won’t make it to my new home. I’ve never been one for epics, but I have the NBC-TV miniseries based on the novel on DVD. I think that’s probably enough feudal Japan for me.
I kept “Summer of ’49” by David Halberstam, which I bought as a paperback from the racks at Montross Pharmacy in Winterset. I read it on long baseball road trips from Winterset to Nevada. I felt the hot sun on my arms and fell in love with the New York Yankees as they beat back the Boston Red Sox on the final game of the 1949 season.
I had several books by Charles Finney, who writes about time travel. I was impressed by the title of one book collection: “3 By Finney.” The guy had the same last name as me. Maybe I could write three novels. But its doubtful. I never read “3 By Finney” or any of the others.
For years, I owned a guide to being an action hero. I bought it one night after a writing class I took with my friend Syd Spink. We laughed uncontrollably under the section that advised what to do if you’re wrongly convicted of a crime and sent to prison. Advice included: “Take a lover if you need to. Do whatever it takes to survive.” But I never really read it more than that.
Of course, there are books that will always be with me. “Nobody Asked Me But … The World of Jimmy Cannon,” by the great columnist Jimmy Cannon, was given to me by the best teacher I ever had, a journalism professor at Drake. I was struggling to come up with a column idea one week. He picked up the book at a used sale. It was a revelation. I keep it close, a reminder of the great teacher and the great writer. That’s the book I save in case of fire.
Collections of columns by Mary McGrory, Mike Royko, Roger Ebert and Andy Rooney all made the cut. Most of my comic books and graphic novels make the trip. Yeah, I know they’re books with more pictures than words, but people who say that have never enjoyed the sublime pleasure of Jack Kirby’s kinetic art with Stan Lee’s prose in something as perfect as “Captain America No. 105.”
So I culled the collection, not as much as I probably should have and certainly not as much as my movers would have wished I had. But there are fewer books headed to the new apartment.
I would like to believe I’ll be content to enjoy the books I have — especially those gone too long unread. But I ordered a collection of Hunter S. Thompson works just this morning. I don’t think that cleared shelf space will stay vacant long.
- 30 -
“I’m having a bad day,” I complained to my friend Memphis Paul, the co-founder of this blog.
I had him on speakerphone as I went through a drive-through window. I ordered a strawberry-banana smoothie. It’s one of those beverages that sounds healthier than it really is. I ordered it anyway.
My brain is in knots, I explained to Paul. Sunday night, I became obsessed with something and my brain wouldn’t let it go until almost 8 a.m. I ended up taking a sick day.
The obsession was a paperback book. I wanted to read a few chapters before I nodded off. I couldn’t find it. I tore up the apartment. I looked in all the usual spots. I finally found it wedged between my mattress and the wall. By the time I found it, my heart was racing and I was so angry I could have chewed nails.
I was in the midst of a panic attack. I didn’t recognize it. I was slow to take my medicine to abate the symptoms. And thus I ended up tossing and turning and staring at the ceiling until it was almost time for work.
The causes are varied and complex. The bottom line is sometimes my brain doesn’t work the way it should and the emotions I’m feeling don’t match with the reality I’m living.
I tried to regroup during the day. Then a malingering depression settled in like a thunderstorm. All the usual thoughts — how worthless I am, how stupid I am, how poor a human being I am — rattled my brain.
Finally, at about 8:30 p.m., I managed to rise from bed and go out for some food, including the aforementioned smoothie.
Paul, my good friend, listened as he usually does.
He replied in his mild Tennessee drawl. He recalled an incident a week or so ago when I had him on speakerphone in the car. I had spilled my smoothie on the passenger-side mat. I cursed as I beat the mat against a tree to get the milk and ice off the rubber surface.
Paul then asked me, “Did you manage to get inside your apartment with your strawberry-banana drink?”
In fact I did, I replied.
“Well,” he said, “that is progress.”
I love my friends.
- 30 -
Time travel is possible, in a way. Sometimes when I catch a whiff of Aqua Velva after shave, my mind floods with memories of Dad 1.0, who used the product. For an instant, I can almost feel the prickly edges of his mustache as he gives me a kiss goodnight when I was a boy. He’s been gone 26 years, but one whiff and I’m adrift in the time vortex.
This happens with chance encounters with old friends and loved ones, too. I often snarl at the social media age, but I celebrate the connections it helped me revive with my friends from Winterset, classmates I had to leave for reasons too complicated to detail here.
Last week I had the chance to interact with a couple of those classmates. This was all done in 2014, of course, but there was a strong flavor of childhood there. One classmate, who I estimate was my first crush, wanted my helping looking up some federal court records. I was happy to oblige. She’s married with children, a breast cancer survivor and as beautiful as ever. What I remember about her was that when I we were in middle school, she would always let me dance with her during mixers. That was really sweet, and for an overweight and awkward boy, it was terrific thing. I will remember that the rest of my life.
I commented on another classmate’s photo of her garden, which to me looked more like a farm. We chatted briefly by message. We were in the same church confirmation class. She was sweet and kind. I remember her as an excellent singer. She’s married with children, too, but I always value an exchange with her. Life is fleeting and our time on this earth is eventually forgotten. When I left Winterset, I was afraid all my friends forgot me. But they didn’t. And some have said very kind and tender things about how they remembered me.
So for those two fine people, and to all those whose lives have touched mine, and whose lives I have touched, I offer this 1994 song, “I’ll Remember,” by Madonna. It was the theme for the underrated film “With Honors.” Thank you all for being my friends, and enjoy this song.