Please, Don’t Tell Me Robin Williams is at Peace.

In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, I’ve seen a lot of people post things like “I hope he’s found peace,” or “I hope he’s at peace.” And while I understand that those things come from a place of good will, they really, really bother me. Because to me, it reads like “I hope that committing suicide worked out for him.”

I’ve been fairly open on this blog about my own struggles with depression. On occasion, I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts, and one of my ways of combating those thoughts is the knowledge that suicide doesn’t work out. There’s no peace, no joy, nothing positive to found in killing yourself. It’s a tragedy that strands your friends and family in a sea of grief, and denies yourself every good experience and little bit of love you might have had between now and your natural death. It’s a horrible, terrible permanent response to a temporary emotional state. Because even though depression is a chronic condition, the emotional states that it brings with it usually are more temporary, coming in episodes, and even if not, seeking help and treatment is still a vastly preferable response to taking your own life.

Ultimately, depression killed Robin Williams, in a similar sense that cancer killed my mother. It’s a disease. It’s not a failure of will, or a fault of personality, it’s a fucking awful disease, in which a problem with the neurotransmitters in your brain causes deep depths of despair and anxiety that aren’t necessarily related to any outside life event. The nature of clinical depression is that it doesn’t have to have an outside cause; it doesn’t care who you are, any more than cancer or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s does. It can strike anyone, even one of the world’s most successful entertainers. Robin Williams didn’t kill himself because he was a coward, as Shep Smith suggested, or because he was a bad person, or because he lacked a failure of will. He killed himself because he suffered from severe depression. Cancer killed my mother. Depression killed Robin Williams.

The death of Robin Williams is a tragedy, and he is a victim of a disease. I suppose it’s the nature of the way our culture mourns that we attempt to wring anything positive from terrible events, in an effort to make ourselves feel better; usually this comes in the form of platitudes like: He’s in a better place. Or, I hope he’s found peace.

But even typing those words makes me tremble with anger. If you must take something positive from the death of Robin Williams, then be nicer to people, because you never know. Share and publicize the suicide prevention hotline. Educate yourself on the nature of depression, and learn the best ways to listen to friends and family who suffer from the disease. If you think you might be depressed, if you find yourself feeling sad and anxious often for reasons way out of proportion to any rational cause, then please seek help. And maybe through his death, we as a society can become more educated about a widespread, tragic disease that is nevertheless often mocked or dismissed by media and culture.

But Robin Williams’ death– indeed the death of anyone who commits suicide or has their life cut short by a terrible disease– isn’t something to be validated, any more than I would try to validate the cancer that killed my mother.

For the sake of anyone else still alive who struggles with depression and suicide, please don’t suggest or wish that suicide is a valid way of finding peace. It’s not. It can’t be, not if we don’t want to lose more people the way we lost Robin Williams.

My 2014 Attack Plan

This is the fifth New Year’s post I’ve had the opportunity to write on this blog– hard to believe my little writing experiment has been going this long. From a writing perspective, 2013 has been a fairly good year: I had three stories published, and wrote half a novel during the Clarion West Write-a-thon. On the flip side, I didn’t actually finish the novel… but more on that later.

Of course, looking back on 2013 in the future, I won’t be counting stories published or places seen or anything else. 2013 will be indelibly etched in my mind as the year Mom passed away. And even though it’s been ten months since then, and a lot of good things have happened this year, it’s impossible for me to really say 2013 was a good year, in a larger sense. Losing a family member isn’t like most pain, in that it doesn’t fade away with time. It’s just one of those things that you learn to live with, because you have to. So while other successes and triumphs and failures and losses will fade with time, that will not.

But that said, I did lay some groundwork in 2013 for things that I very much hope will result in many positive experiences and memories in 2014. In mid-November, I quit my well-paying I.T. job, with the intention of focusing on a few creative and business-related ideas that I’ve long pursued in some form or another. I’ll be writing, of course; I’m also planning start a hypnotherapy practice and I also want to work on monetizing my photography. My goal is that by the end of the year, I’ll make enough money from a variety of sources that I won’t need to return to the world of I.T.

If not, then I hope I’ll at least have a couple novels, some epic photographs, fond memories, and a fantastic year to show for it.

From mid-November until now, I’ve largely been on vacation, enjoying some time off and travelling to see friends and family on the East Coast. But it’s January 2014 now; this is where the rubber hits the road. I have a long to-do list, which I won’t post in its entirety here, but suffice it to say I have two new websites for my photography and hypnotherapy businesses that I’d like to get up and fully running by mid-January. I also want to get into the rhythm of writing– actually writing, not just social media content or blog posts– for at least two hours a day, and work to increase that as I settle into a routine.

It’s always been tempting for me to try to clear the rest of the to-do list first so that I can focus better when I sit down to write, but the problem with that approach is, there’s always something else on the to-do list. So writing is my top priority this year; even if I don’t make a cent, I’ll consider this year a success if I have a publishable story or two by the end of it.

I have other weekly and monthly goals as well. I plan to have at least least one interesting “photo expedition” every week– whether it be exploring Seattle or some part of its surrounding environs, going to a big event like a convention, or doing a pre-arranged photoshoot. And I want to keep going to the gym and doing full workouts at least twice a week (preferably three).

There’s a personal goal I want to strive for as well. In my New Year’s post for 2013, my second resolution was to find a talk therapist and work on my depression, which is something that I’ve been struggling with for a long time. I did find a talk therapist and worked with him for a few months, but we never really clicked. That’s okay, though. I feel like I did pretty well in my struggle against depression this year; I switched from taking Sertraline to taking a combination of Escitalopram and Bupropion (aka Lexapro and Wellbutrin), and overall feel pretty good about where I am. My confidence has generally improved, and I feel more in control of myself and my goals.

Yet I still feel quite a bit of anxiety when it comes to interacting with others. This manifests most strongly in how I interact with romantic interests, but to some level affects my interactions with family and friends as well. Looking back, I can even see how I’ve unconsciously sabotaged relationships in the past, because I was confronted with a new and different set of anxieties with which I was not familiar.

In essence, it comes down to this: I know how to be depressed and alone; it’s something I’ve spent years doing, and even though it’s not healthy, on some level of my subconscious it’s nevertheless home. It’s a natural state of being; a comfortable blanket I can wrap around myself, because even though I’m depressed, at least I’m used to it. I think on some level all our minds seek out homeostasis, that comfortable mental and emotional status quo with which we’re most familiar. When something threatens that (even if it’s a positive change), it can take a strong conscious effort to embrace the change and not recoil in fear.

I feel like I’ve learned to embrace a more positive state of being on a personal level. I have the confidence to confront and dealt with the things that come my way, and to set difficult challenges for myself (as evidenced by my career plan this year). in 2014, I want to work on extending that to how I interact with others– to have confidence in my ability not just to confront unknown challenges for myself, but to confront unknown challenges with others as well.

When confronting personal challenges, it’s easy to shove anxieties to the back of my mind and successfully deal with whatever comes my way, but when confronting interpersonal challenges my subconscious mind seems to actively work on creating new anxieties, and it’s much harder to just push things to the back of my mind so I can deal with what’s in front of me.

So in 2014, I want to work on not being so anxious when new people get close, to work on improving my ability to trust, and not to defensively wall myself off. Because that defensive recoiling doesn’t just protect me against negative things, it sabotages positive things. (And it’s not a particularly great way to deal with the negatives either.) It even hurt my relationship with my Mom in the year before she passed. I need to trust myself enough in how I deal with others that I no longer feel a need to withdraw into that safe, comfortable shell of loneliness. Or, at least, to gain better control of that need.

So I’ve got plenty to keep me busy in 2014. Working for myself is going to be a huge exercise in self-discipline: to actually buckle down and motivate myself on all these goals, and to accomplish everything I want to get done. In a year, I don’t want to look back with regret and feel like 2014 was wasted; I want to look back and be proud of what I was able to accomplish.

Wish me luck. And here’s wishing for a wonderful 2014 for you and yours.

Fear and Hoping in 2013

One year ago today, I was sitting in a hospital waiting room as Mom underwent surgery to remove a tumor from her brain. And while 2013 looks like it will start off on a better foot than 2012, it’s also the first time in a while where I look on the coming twelve months and am scared. Not happy, or depressed, or hopeful, or disappointed, or angry– all emotions I’ve felt in the past– but scared. Because even though the surgery was successful, and there’s been no sign of recurrence in her brain, Mom’s cancer is still at the front of our minds. The tumors in her lungs have resisted chemo so far, and she’s having radiation treatment for tumors under her skin. It’s been a rough year– full of good things, yes, but also full of scary things, and 2013 looks to be more of the same.

So with that in mind, My New Year’s Resolution Number One: Be as supportive as I can be for my family, make frequent trips back to North Carolina, and stay engaged. I have to tendency to distance myself from emotionally volatile situations. It’s a natural defensive reflex for me, but it’s caused problems in the past year, and needs to change.

I suppose that’s a heftier resolution than most people put forward, which tend to be along the lines of “lose five pounds” or “redecorate the bathroom.” But that’s the kind of year 2013 is going to be for us.

As for as myself– my own feelings and goals– I actually feel pretty good about where I am. I’ve sought treatment for some longstanding depression, and started taking Sertraline. It’s helped a lot. And to be honest, I don’t know how much of that can be attributed to general improvement in my life– enjoying work, pursuing hobbies, getting published– and how much can be attributed to the medication. Probably it’s both. The medication has helped me appreciate what I’ve accomplished, and moreover it’s prevented the sort of long-term, multi-day and sometimes even multi-week depressive episodes I used to fall into, where my whole soul just seemed to hurt, where everything felt like a weight, and I felt so overwhelmed I didn’t want to move. I still do have depressive episodes occasionally, but they’re usually sparked by something specific, and when I do have episodes, they last hours, not days.

There’s been another change, too, that’s harder to explain. As I’ve crawled up from the pits of depression– whether through my own efforts, the medication, or both– I feel, well, more like I’m somebody. I don’t mean metaphorically, I mean in actuality, like there’s a core part of my being which was missing before. This is mostly manifested in how I interact with other people. Previously, when I hung out with people, I often felt like a mirror– like I had to “reflect” the mood and the energy level and even the temperament of the people I was with. I think everybody does this to some degree, but now I feel like I’m not just reflecting. Like I have a better grip on who I am, I’m more confident and comfortable in my own skin, and rather than just trying to act like a fully functional human being I actually am a fully functional human being.

To be honest, I think part of that was reaching an acceptance that everyone else is just as messed up as I am, that everyone has their own anxieties and neuroses and weaknesses, and that even if someone acts supremely awesome and confident it’s often (maybe even usually) just a facade behind the same flawed humanity. That there are things I actually am good at, and I’m not just faking it, and my accomplishments are actually pretty darn cool. I mean, I suppose that’s odd, isn’t it? But it’s one thing to know it rationally, and another to actually feel it in your gut.

So, New Year’s Resolution Number Two: find a new talk therapist (I tried one and didn’t mesh well with him), keep taking Sertraline, and for the love of pete do not fall back into the pit. It’s only now, looking back on it, that I’m starting to feel like I know what I escaped. When I was in the midst of it, I didn’t even realize it– or at least, I didn’t realize exactly how bad it was.

So some New Year’s advice to you: if you think you might be depressed, or if you feel depressed a lot of the time, seek help. It’s not normal. And you may feel like you’re doing okay, like you can struggle through it on your own, but getting help can be the difference between climbing up a mountain with a backpack full of bricks and climbing up a mountain with no backpack at all. Sure, the first way is possible, but the second way’s gonna be a lot more enjoyable, and you’re probably going to find yourself able to climb far more mountains than you used to.

I could keep going on this, but I’m getting ready to head out for New Year’s. Maybe I’ll expound more in future blog posts. This was typed up in a bit of a rush, so I can’t even guarantee that it will make complete sense. But to sum it up, if I could have a wish for 2013, it would be that I stay on the same track I’m currently on, and that Mom gets shifted to a better track than what she’s on. And of course, I’d also wish for a wonderful 2013 for you and yours.

Thanks for reading.

With Love,

Andrew S. Williams

Rage, Depression, and Action: a Post-Newtown Discussion

Over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve scattered my thoughts across Facebook, Twitter, and e-mails. But for my own sake, as much as anyone else, I wanted to consolidate them here, and come up some cohesive thoughts on the topic so I can continue to function. I’m a writer. I think better with my fingers than with my brain.

My soul hurts today. It’s that deep, aching hurt that seems to penetrate every limb, that feels like an ulcer in your gut, that leaves your entire body tense and leaves your tear ducts permanently on the edge of pouring open. I haven’t felt this in pain from the news since 9/11.

But at least with 9/11 there was the cathartic knowledge (as raw and barbaric as it is) that we would have our revenge, that we would take our planes and aircraft carriers and cruise missiles and bomb the ever-living shit out of the folks who made it possible. It wouldn’t bring back our murdered friends and family. But it would be an act of revenge, a healing process for the nation.

I suppose that sounds pretty bad, that we went to war to find healing. And in the process we created a lot more hurt. Was it worth it? I don’t know. That’s a topic for another time.

See, in a mass shooting like we witnessed in Newtown yesterday, there is no revenge to be had. Even if the gunman had survived, there is no act we could inflict that would make us feel better, except maybe the sort of excruciating personal torture that always makes us feel a bit uncomfortable when it’s lived out in fantasy on a movie screen.

And even that wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t honor or respect the victims, and it wouldn’t provide the sort of needed change in the world to prevent such acts in the future.

There is only possible thing we can do in response to this– hug our families, tell our friends how much we love them, and then have a reasonable, adult discussion about how to prevent these sort of atrocities from occurring again. And in today’s political climate– amid polarization and pundits and a media that thrives on short-term conflict– that sort of thing is far harder to start than a war.

But the debate on gun control is already raging, and for once, I agree that it should be. Even after the shooting in Aurora, I was reluctant to “politicize tragedy.” But here’s the thing: politics are how we, as a society, set standards and rules for behavior (i.e. “laws”). It’s the forum in which we discuss, via our elected representatives, how to solve society-wide problems.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Our political system is pretty dysfunctional. But if discussing concrete actions on how to prevent mass shootings is “politicizing tragedy,” then so be it. Because simply grieving is no longer enough, just like it wasn’t enough after 9/11. Then, we went to war. Now? Now we have no choice but to turn to politics.

I think when having this debate, it’s important to realize one thing: we can’t truly prevent these tragedies, in the sense of guaranteeing that they will never happen again. Every policy is flawed. But if we can reduce the probability of one of these events, or reduce their potential severity, isn’t that worth pursuing? Just because we can’t do everything, doesn’t mean we should do nothing.

My intention in this post isn’t to have a comprehensive debate on gun control. That would take a whole other blog. But as an example, let’s consider tighter restrictions on semi-automatic handguns and assault weapons, which are responsible for the vast majority of shootings in America. Well, we could register and track every sale (more on this in a moment). On an easier note, I’d suggest requiring they be kept in a gun safe, or locked down in some manner when stored.

“But people won’t necessarily follow those rules!” I hear you say. Maybe not, but maybe they will. And maybe the next school shooter will live in a house where their law-abiding parent does follow the law, and lives will be saved. Reduce the chances. That’s all I’m asking. And as for emergency “under the pillow” sort of home defense, you could still use a revolver.

My intention here isn’t to resolve every argument. It’s more just to demonstrate the sort of discussion we need to have. Could someone still shoot up a school with a revolver? Yes, but if it happened, the death toll would probably be less. Reduce the probability. Reduce the catatostrophe. We can’t prevent. All we can do is reduce.

If we tracked the sale and ownership of semi-automatic weapons, we could potentially build a national database which could be used– much like counter-terrorism efforts already do– to correlate data and identify potential problems. Like, if a guidance counselor received reports of a deeply troubled kid, they could use a database to determine if that child’s parents had a 9 mm Browning at home. Please understand, I do not like making these arguments. It strikes hugely of a “Big Brother” sort of government playing an overly paternalistic role, and that drives me crazy.

But here’s the thing: in the Declaration of Independence– the very founding document of our country, arguably more so than the Constitution– there is the following text:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Yesterday in Newtown, 27 elementary school children were deprived of their right to be alive. On Tuesday, it was two people in a mall in Oregon. This summer, it was twelve people in a theater in Colorado. In May, it was five people in a coffee shop in my own city, Seattle. In fact, fuck it, here’s a list. How many of those do you actually remember? And that’s just from this year! And that’s just mass shootings. It doesn’t even consider individual crimes and gang-related violence.

So as much as I don’t want to talk about restricting freedom– as much as I don’t want to see government take on more of a Big Brother role– everything needs to be on the table now. If we need to apply counterterrorism-type efforts to domestic weapons, then maybe we should, because as much as it sucks to restrict freedom, the alternative is more and more deaths from gun violence.

Here’s an example from my personal life. I could own a gun– in fact, I’d kind of like to. There’s a raw, emotional appeal to them, and in their mechanisms and variety, guns are an interesting topic. It’d be fun to take up shooting as a hobby.

But over the past few years, I’ve battled with depression: heavy, clinical depression. It’s only recently that I’ve even realized it, or at least come to accept it. I’m getting treatment– taking Sertraline, if you must know– and it’s helping quite a lot.

If I had owned a gun, in the time since I was eighteen, I am pretty sure– and this utterly terrifies me to admit– that there would probably have been at least once where I would have turned it on myself. Even now, I would be too frightened to have a gun in my house, because I simply don’t trust myself with one. I have made the personal decision that I should not own a firearm.

That is my personal choice. It’s not one forced on me by anybody else; it’s a realistic acknowledgement of my own restrictions. It’s a decision to limit my freedom for the sake of my life and my safety. Now, it’s time for us to have that same discussion, but on a society-wide level. We– as a country– have proven, consistently, that we cannot be trusted with firearms laws as they stand.

I am very, very angry; I feel like my temper is a molecule-thin string. I read Mike Huckabee’s thoughts on the massacre, and got so mad I wanted to burst. (For the record, if your God is dependent on government sponsorship to enter schools, you need to get a new God.)

But I’m holding onto that anger, because the alternative is depression. Anger can be channeled into positive and productive motivation; depression, clinical depression, cannot.

I think my project over Christmas is going to be to write a letter I can send by postal mail to Barack Obama, and to every incoming Senator and Congressman– yes, every single one— asking them to take part in this discussion, motivated not by lobbyists or political agendas but by moral imperative. We need to do something. And for the record, it’s not just gun control that we need to discuss. It’s the rebuilding of our broken and shattered mental health care system; it’s adequate funding for our schools. It’s investing and encouraging technological solutions, like the development of better nonlethal defensive weapons, or biometric IDs for firearms.

I kind of feel like if we can’t have this discussion, if we can’t take some sort of concrete action on this, then America is fundamentally broken. I’m just one person, and I know it probably won’t do shit, but writing letters still strikes me as something concrete that I can do– I’m a writer, after all. If you’re in the Seattle area, and you want to join me for a letter-folding and envelope-sealing party, let me know. I’d welcome donations to pay for postage, but I am willing to pay for 536 stamps myself if I have to. So that’s my plan. I hope our country can come up with one.

For now, I’ll hold onto my anger because as long as I do, I can still be optimistic, about my country, and about humanity. As long as I’m angry, I still have hope. Depression is the lack of hope. And I can’t do that anymore.