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EMOTIONAL ILLITERACY

A comedian’s confession: The more successful I became, the more I wanted to kill myself

Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
Hollywood is not immune to mental illness.
This article is more than 2 years old.

Driving drunk 105 mph weaving in and out of traffic; going into debt buying $35,000 of domain names (in the late 90s when they were $70 apiece) all of which were worthless; having a complete stranger poke his head into my car at a traffic light and tell me to “get ahold of myself”; looking at porn for six hours at a time. These are the ways I used to cope with my feelings, addictions, and undiagnosed mental illness.

Since my podcast, The Mental Illness Happy Hour, focuses on all the battles in our heads and many of my guests are comedians, a lot of people reached out to me after Robin Williams took his life to get my take on it. I can’t comment on him specifically since I didn’t know him personally or what he was going through when he made the decision to take his own life; I think to do so is not fair.

I have, however, talked with thousands of people over the last decade in my support groups and on my podcast about their struggles. I have read over 10,000 surveys that people filled out anonymously on our website, sharing their deepest darkest thoughts and actions. I get emails every day from people telling me things they’re afraid to share even with their therapist. I even get emails from therapists who are ashamed of their own secrets. It’s a very privileged position that I take seriously. I don’t fool myself into thinking they’re looking for my expertise. I know they’re doing it because they feel safe and they want to unburden themselves. I won’t judge them because I have fucked up so much in my life and told them so.

We are not bad people, we are not weak—we just needed to find ways to cope.

My first thought when I heard about Robin was sadness that he was in so much pain. How weird it is to find out the person you so badly wanted to be when you were 14 has killed himself. I never missed an episode of Mork and Mindy. He was my idol growing up.

Then I wished I wasn’t so cynical, thinking nothing will really change once the news clips stop playing. Real change won’t occur just by people being sad and talking about it. Change will have to take a different form.

We live in an emotionally illiterate world. We can’t tackle mental illness if we don’t have the words or concepts to make it safe and attractive to get help. The ripples from untreated mental illness and trauma have probably started more wars, produced more crime, tore apart more families, and hurt our economy more than all of history’s natural disasters combined. It makes financial sense to make this a priority.

The three biggest places I see a need for change are:

  1. Education. We need to educate both children and adults in what are healthy and unhealthy ways of expressing emotions and signs that an addiction or mental illness might be present. I don’t think this can be done in a textbook. I think we have to hear the information in a compelling way coming from real people because nothing commits something to memory like a personal story instead of a statistic.
  2. Communication. I grew up in an upper-middle class family without shouting or screaming or hitting. I didn’t realize until I was 40 years old that we were emotionally illiterate and that I didn’t even know I had spent most of my life sad, lonely, angry, and afraid. I just knew it felt good when I got drunk, that I hated seeing the sun come up, and when my wife talked I couldn’t wait for her to finish her sentences so I could go back to watching whatever crap was on television. I thought that was normal. I didn’t know how to communicate my emotions because I couldn’t name my emotions.
  3. Healthcare. Broken arms are always covered by insurance and I’ve never seen anyone die from one. Talk therapy for depression often isn’t covered and I know lots of people who suffered from depression and killed themselves.

In my opinion, people aren’t usually suicidal over situations, they’re suicidal because the prism they view the world through has been warped by illness, trauma, addiction or a host of other reasons. A mentally healthy person is resilient. A mentally unhealthy person is usually not. Healthy coping mechanisms can mean the difference between life and death.

I was at my most suicidal when I was also the most financially successful. It actually exacerbated my depression because I felt that if I couldn’t be happy with my face on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Beverley Hills, what was it going to take to make me happy? That made me scared and hopeless. So I drank more and withdrew into myself.

A bad prism will take down everything with it. Very few situations are life threatening in the way a bad prism is, because it distorts everything.

I recalibrate every day. I have to. I use meditation, support groups, talk therapy, meds, psychiatrist visits, prayer, exercise, etc. Mental illness is that persistent. It is cunning.

I once went off my meds, felt fine for five months then suddenly in the span of a week or two thought killing myself was the only rational thing to do. My psychiatrist had strongly urged me to not go off my meds, but I figured since I was pre-med for two years in college I knew more than him. I was crying a lot and hopeless. I was sure the rest of my life would be like that. Then I realized it was the darkness and not the truth. I went back on my meds and within a week was feeling like myself again.

Artistic people are often afraid that going to therapy or taking meds will hurt their edginess. My experience is the opposite. My comedy now comes from a place truer to who I am. I can still access the anger that used to drive my comedy but I can now access feelings of vulnerability and self-effacement that were impossible when I was emotionally illiterate. Therapy won’t kill your artistic life, it will broaden the ways it can be expressed.

I hope people will someday realize that money fame and power are not shields from unhappiness or mental illness.

I saw more than a few posts on Facebook from people who had no sympathy for Robin Williams because he had so much material success. They thought he was just ungrateful.

He was not ungrateful—he was sick and they are emotionally illiterate. But I don’t hate them, I’m not mad at them, I used to be one of them.

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