COLUMN: A dark, lonely stigma

Harry Caines contributes a weekly column to CacheValleyDaily.com. His column is a work of opinion, and does not reflect the views of Cache Valley Daily, the Cache Valley Media Group, or its employees.

<em>”You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”</em>

<em>—Robin Williams</em>

I have been clinically diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In short, I panic quite a bit. I am prone to bouts of melancholia, depression, sadness and an occasional episode of agoraphobia now and then.

I have just done something which is irrevocable. I admitted in a published column that I suffer from a debilitating mental illness. And I know what some of you are saying:

“Don’t worry about it, Harry. No one reads your columns!”

Funny. And possibly true. But the point is still made—I just admitted to something that could very well affect how I am viewed by others. This information, at the least, might be used subliminally to form opinions about my character, judgement or to evaluate the weight and breadth others give to my opinions. It can diminish my credibility. It can make it difficult for me to procure employment.

Mental illness is not the last social stigma left in our civilized, literate society. I do believe it is the darkest. It most certainly is the lonliest. And for those who suffer from some form of serious mental disability, we could sooner jump over a tall building than to discuss in detail what it is like to be inside of our heads.

Every once in a while, the unfortunate plight that people like me suffer through daily is brought into public conversation. The effects of mental illness has once again come into the the top ten Twitter stream because of the tragic suicide of Robin Williams.

I will not eulogize Williams here. His work as a stand-up comedian puts him in the rare air of the immortals with Richard Pryor and George Carlin. I personally would put Sam Kinison and Steven Wright above Williams…but that does not take away from my admiration of his genius. No one could match his artistry of improvisation.

And much like Richard Pryor, Williams only made a few films that would be considered great. Many of his film vehicles were incessantly irritating. I would much rather watch Williams in reruns of his appearances on Johnny Carson or David Letterman than to stomach 5 minutes of “Patch Adams” again.

When it was announced that Robin Williams had committed suicide many people brought forth the idea that this should be the catalyst for a conversation about how people suffer from depression. As I stated earlier, those of us who are in the fog and despair of these illnesses are wary of such a personal issue. I genuinely am pleased that compassionate voices want to help—it certainly trumps the verbiage used regarding the mentally ill whenever one of those sociopaths goes on a shooting spree. Unfortunately, the American dialogue is now limited to a 48 hours news cycle that is had in spurts of 140 characters.

Few of us talk. We mostly opine.

Consider the unfortunate case of Zelda Williams, Robin’s daughter. She took to Twitter to write an innocent and sincere message regarding her father’s death. Her punishment for this was to be bombarded with messages and fake photos so obscene that I am disgusted thinking about it now.

Social networking: the sole murderer of interpersonal communication and the fuel that runs the machine piloted by cowards.

Yeah, I really want to have a conversation about this issue with people who can anonymously take shots at me. They do it already in the comment section provided beneath my columns. I can handle that. I usually laugh it off. But it precludes me from any optimism that a “conversation” will accomplish anything.

And what if most of us who have a mental illness do not want to have a conversation? I will speak only for me…however, if I could scientifically poll most people who are like me, I would bet ⅔ would say they do not want to talk about it. We are not a museum exhibit. We do not want to be spoken to in that syntax and cadence usually reserved for 1st graders who are asked to clean up before nap time. Most of us just want to get from sunrise to sundown without a headache; or to succomb to the overwhelming desire to pass out from mental exhaustion.

I am no more dangerous than any other man that would fit the “According to Hoyle” definition of normal. I do have a weird sense of humor and I tend to have a multitude of anal retentive quirks. Those admitted facts do not suggest that I am an axe murderer, nor should a Zion Curtain be placed around my table when I eat at a family restaurant.

I am just a guy who panics a lot and must find solace in the company of great friends and aesthetic pleasures. I laugh, cry and sneer at the same things anyone else does. If those who know me personally or through my columns and radio work finds me to be rude, overbearing or just outright unlikeable, it has nothing to do with my mental illness. I just may be a jerk.

And that is as close to a conversation as I will have regarding this issue. There are stories that should be told by journalists that are germane to the mentally ill. And I would like to believe that this dark, lonely stigma will one day disappear. My cynicism feeds my caution when it comes to me seeing this in my lifetime.

Because for all the well-intentioned people out there in the world, the worst angels of our nature still rears its ugly head daily. We are still a society that sticks people who are different into a closet so that we do not have to face the fear that lightning might strike our idyllic lives. Ignorance is bliss. And if we do not call things by their name, they simply do not exist.

And if you read my column or see me on the streets and you think of me firstly as that guy who wrote a column about having a mental illness, then you embolden the stigma that is a tormenting burden to me and to everyone like me.

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