Last week the Internet exploded with the news of Robin William’s untimely passing.
I liked Robin Williams and I thought he was funny. My favorite movie is probably Mrs. Doubtfire, and Joe and I watched his creepy turn in Photo Booth and ate pad Thai on our old brown couch in Buffalo. I could hardly sleep that night.
So here and there I read blog posts and articles about his struggles and success, addiction and sobriety. But I was taken aback to see the conversation quickly turn from grief and disbelief to a discussion about depression and medication.
A lot of people, it seems, have an opinion about medication.
My ten-year old son, Jack, is on medication. Without it, the child wouldn’t be able to put one foot in front of the other before his anxiety got in the way and told him to check the wind chill factor.
See, one day when Jack was six, anxiety hit him like a ton of bricks. It felt like he went to bed snuggled under his blue and red plaid quilt one night, and woke up in the morning a different child altogether.
He was afraid of the toilet. He was afraid it was too cold to go outside. He was afraid of the wind, of dogs, of spiders, of the rushing water in the shower. He lost potty training and had accidents all day long.
He started talking to himself, gesturing and pointing and frowning at some invisible person. If we asked who he was talking to, he’d look over slowly with vacant eyes, drop his finger, and walk away.
For six weeks, he never smiled or laughed or giggled. And we were frantic.
I’m sure there were warning signs we missed, little telltale clues that should have tipped us off. But we missed them, and spent the better part of two months battling a storm raging within our young son’s mind and heart.
We struggled for months trying to decide if this was right for us—for him. We explored alternative methods for reducing his anxiety; something called the Wilbarger brushing technique, joint compression, deep breathing. But nothing seemed to abate the snake and return Jack’s smile.
At the end of that long spring, either Jack or I was going on medication, and I decided it should probably be the person who was actually diagnosed with anxiety.
Joking aside, starting Jack on medicine was hardly something Joe and I took lightly. But it worked, he is still on it, and I don’t regret it for one single minute.
Did I ever imagine having a child on regular, daily medication? Of course not. I no more imagined this than I did his autism. I mean, no mother holds her tiny newborn son and wonders if when he’s in first grade he’ll need to take a tiny white pill before bed at night just so he can walk to the bus stop in the morning without freaking out because he thought he saw a spider on the driveway.
The way I see it, it’s like the cavemen looking around at each other and saying, hey listen, there’s this thing called fire out there. It’s bright. It’s warm. It will make our food taste better and keep our bodies comfortable and light up the darkest of nights. But, nah. We don’t need it.
They didn’t say that. They didn’t tell each other to look for alternatives or try spirituality or to just live with their cold, wet conditions. They lit the fire and warmed their hands.
Cavemen didn’t use it for everything. They didn’t bathe in it. They didn’t huddle around it in the middle of summer, when the sun was strong and bright and lit the days with a long golden yellow. They used it when they needed it.
For some reason, when I glanced over the tributes to Robin Williams in my Facebook feed and blog posts and People magazine, I didn’t immediately think about Mork and Mindy or Mrs. Doubtfire or Awakenings. I thought about Mr. Rogers.
You know, Mr. Rogers. The childhood icon who wore cardigan sweaters and changed into different shoes when he walked in his front door.
But it wasn’t the cardigans or the shoes that sprang to my mind. It was this quote:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
I first heard this passage after the terrible Newtown tragedy in Connecticut, and it soothed me a great deal. It helped me understand that with every heartbreak, there can be goodness.
But still, I couldn’t figure out why my mind kept bouncing back to this quote whenever I saw a piece about Robin Williams. And one afternoon last week it occurred to me; reading about the heated debate over medicine and depression and anxiety in my newsfeed scares me. It scares me because I have a son who will likely struggle with this treacherous trifecta throughout his life.
So, like Mr. Rogers suggested, I wanted to see the helpers. But suicide, by its very nature, is solitary and lone. At first glance there are no helpers.
But I looked a little closer, and I saw them.
Robin William’s helpers are those who surrounded him all these years, people who laughed at his comedy and listened to his woes and kept his secrets. Who, for the time being, kept his demons at bay.
His wife and children, mother and father, neighbors and friends, directors and co-stars. Although his life was shorter than most, it was still longer than many. Because people helped him.
I certainly hope Robin Williams has found his peace, and that high above the wispy white clouds people like my Aunt Jean and the children of Newtown are laughing at his characters and jokes and imitations.
But mostly, I hope his helpers find their peace. I hope someday soon they emerge from the darkness of grief and move toward life’s colorful flames.
May they begin once again to behold all of life’s precious gifts; chubby toddlers and surprise rainbows and chocolate cupcakes with a lot of frosting. Warm summer evenings with a touch of fall’s cool breeze, and the beautifully mysterious smile from a little boy with autism.