I was sitting in front of my laptop when I saw “Breaking News: Robin Williams Found Dead” flash across my screen. A few minutes later, I found out he had taken his own life. He had recently been suffering from severe depression and apparently had addiction issues over the course of his life. He was a beloved man who seemed to have it all. Yet, clearly he didn’t.
None of us will ever know the full story about the issues he faced. For that matter, none of us ever knows all there is to know about the issues anyone else faces, even those closest to us. I know that feeling well. Before I started telling my own story, I couldn’t even admit it to myself. Though I have never seriously contemplated suicide, I’ve certainly had times in my life when I couldn’t be certain it would ever get better.
On the surface, no one really knew anything at all about my woes. I was adopted at a very young age, but my parents decided to adopt two older boys when I was 2. While I always felt like I was part of the family, including the extended family, the house became chaotic and unruly in fairly short order after my brothers’ adoption. I went from being doted on and getting all the attention to feeling pushed to the side by a couple of rowdy kids whom I had never met. Suddenly, they were my “brothers,” and I went from only child to youngest child. I felt overwhelmed and intimidated, but I kept that to myself.
My middle brother, John, developed behavioral issues relatively quickly. We would go to church, and he would go stand somewhere apart from the rest of the family. On the way home, he would inevitably scream and yell until my parents couldn’t take it anymore and he would be let out to walk the rest of the way home. The rest of us would go out to breakfast, and when we got home, he would be inside, even though the door had been locked. By the time he reached the age of 14, he was no longer manageable and had to be placed in a residential setting.
Frank was much more covert and sly with his behavioral issues. At times, he would blow up unpredictably, but he knew enough to do it when responsible adults weren’t around. He used his temper and unpredictability to instill fear. When he began sexually abusing me when I was 11, it was made very clear that I would never tell. I didn’t even want to contemplate what would happen if I did.
So life went on. In school, I used humor to hide the pain. I did well, but I was a wise guy, and could easily get people to laugh at my antics. Nobody seemed to know what was really going on in my life, and that’s the way I wanted it. That’s the way it was safe for me. Thankfully, I made it through high school relatively unscathed, and I couldn’t wait to go away to college. But it would take me until my mid-20s before I ever told a soul and until almost 30 before I realized I needed to do something about it.
Here I am in my mid-40s. The pain has never completely gone away, and it never will. But I have worked hard to face the dark days head-on and develop strategies to bring myself back to the present moment whenever an uncomfortable trigger arises. On the surface, people see a family man who has a good job and a comfortable life. But most have no idea what it has taken me to get to where I am.
Clearly, no one knew the extent of the demons Robin Williams faced in his seemingly perfect life either. And that’s just it. Rich, poor, middle class: No one knows what’s really going on in anyone else’s life. They really don’t. And that’s why we need to practice compassion and empathy every day with everyone we come into contact with. That’s humanity.