I remember the day when I discovered that my friend was having suicidal thoughts. He didn’t exactly give me much time to prepare.
We used to message each other late into the night, every night, pretending to be philosophical. We talked about crushes and AP Psych homework and inside jokes and the meaning of life.
But late one night, an IM popped up on my screen that shook me to my very core.
As I read the words – his confession that he had just tried to take his life – my heart caught in my throat.
I used to think that, when a situation like this presented itself, I’d know what to do immediately. Without a moment’s hesitation, I’d respond heroically; I’d save the day. After all, isn’t the right course of action so obvious?
I always used to think that would be me.
But instead, I went completely numb with shock.
My hands shaking, I typed something in reply; it was something like “hold on” or “breathe” or “I’ll get help” or whatever desperate thing my 16-year-old brain could come up with first. I grabbed my little pink flip phone, clutching it for a couple of seconds, staring at my knuckles as they turned white.
I don’t know why I didn’t call 911. I still don’t.
I dialed his home phone, praying that his mother was there, hoping to any god that may exist that I was doing the right thing.
The phone started to ring.
I remember vaguely thinking that of all people who would attempt to take their life, he would be the last person I would expect. Except, no, it wasn’t a thought; coherent thoughts didn’t present themselves during my panic. It was more instinctive, something I knew even when I couldn’t think.
He was so charismatic, so vibrant; his laughter was contagious, infectious, booming. He was one of the most hysterical people I knew. He could keep a crowd laughing as long as he liked – and oh, did he like to. He had it all – a lovely family, a beautiful house, and even a pool (a bit of a rarity in our small town).
He was so intelligent, filled to the brim with potential.
How could a guy like that feel so wretched inside when he seemed to live such a charmed life?
Oh my god, I should have called 911.
The ringing stopped.
His mother picked up the phone.
She’s one of my dearest friends now, but at the time, I had never spoken to his mother. And I felt terrible that I, this mystery girl, had to be the one giving this news to her about her son. As I frantically explained the situation, I braced myself for her reaction: panic, desperation, grief that her son would even attempt to remove himself from her world, anger that I called her instead of an ambulance.
But when she responded, there was none of that.
There was nothing at all except calm, mingled with a muted melancholy.
“You’re Sammy,” she said. “He’s talked about you.”
After she and her husband checked on him and found that he was OK, she told me his story.
I had known my friend for a little less than a year at that point. Not a lifetime, sure, but we had become quite close. I knew he struggled with moments where he was depressed. I thought I already knew his story.
I hadn’t had a clue.
He had been struggling with mental illness ever since he had hit puberty, she explained. He had been living with these struggles for years.
Her voice was level. In that moment, it sounded steadier than anything I’d ever heard.
That made it all the more heartbreaking when I heard her pause, then say, “I am constantly afraid that one day I will wake up, and he will be gone.”
My friend survived that night, and he kept on fighting for four more years…until eventually, his mother’s worst fear came true.
This September marked two years since he’s been gone.
It didn’t matter that he was funny. It didn’t matter that he was charismatic or that his laughter could electrify the most frigid room in a matter of seconds. It didn’t matter that his family was as wonderful and supportive as humanly possible or that he lived in a beautiful house. And it sure as hell didn’t matter that he had a nice pool.
Though I, like the rest of the world, mourn the loss of the wonderful, energetic, kind, and hilarious Robin Williams, his death proves what I have already learned the hard way: Mental illness knows no bounds.
It doesn’t care about fame, fortune, or family. It doesn’t care about personality. It doesn’t even care about the way a person can light up everything – everyone – they touch.
Mental illness tries to steal that light, to extinguish it altogether.
And we, as a society, have turned our backs to it as it stealthily moves through the crowd, extinguishing flames one by one. We can hear the hiss, smell the smoke.
But we dismiss it.
“Get out of bed already.”
“Everyone has problems – deal with it.”
“Just live life normally, and it will go away.”
“You’re not even trying to be happy.”
“Don’t be so selfish.”
It’s time that we start having honest conversations about mental illness. It’s time we realize that not everyone experiences the world the same way, that a smile or a joke doesn’t always mean someone is OK.
It’s time that we saw mental illness for what it really is. It’s an illness, a terrible sickness of the same caliber as any physical illness, that can claim anyone – a famous comedian, a talented actor, a son. My friend.
It is only then can we start approaching how to treat those struggling with mental health in a new way. It is only then that we can go after that terrible thing dimming the lights in our world, one flame at a time.