Editor’s note: This article contains language that may be offensive to some readers and may be inappropriate for younger audiences.
I was 8 years old the first time I remember peeing my pants from uncontrollable laughter. My little brother and I were watching one of our favorite shows, Mork & Mindy. We both peed our pants and soaked the carpet beneath us. Let’s just say that “Shazbot” was not the word my dad used when he noticed the damp spot a couple of hours later. If only we had been sitting upside down the way Mork from Ork would, we might have spared the carpet.
Now, I don’t have any direct connection to Robin Williams, never knew him, wasn’t related, and in many ways, it’s not my loss to grieve. It’s his family’s loss, it’s the loss of all his loved ones. But, like millions of people who heard the news this week of Robin’s passing, my heart sank with grief and sadness. Like millions of others, I loved a man I never met.
This morning I wondered if anyone ever really knew Robin, knew what he was struggling with inside, knew the depth of his pain, knew the hopelessness he must have felt. Was it self-contempt? Guilt and shame? Anxiety? Many things can push a person toward suicide, but there is always hopelessness.
A friend of mine posted this on Facebook last night: “Depression is a motherfucker. If you ever need an ear, I’ve got two good ones. Don’t be afraid to hit me up, it doesn’t matter who you are.”
Thank you, Kenzo, you are so right.
It made we wonder about Robin. Who was his ear? Did he have anyone in his life he could trust enough to fall apart on? Because of powerful, backward, ill-conceived stigma, it’s hard enough to consider seeking help when you’re not famous. People don’t want to be viewed as weak or flawed or helpless.
I can only imagine the conflict that many celebrities face when they need help but fear the consequences to their career, their reputation. Certainly, Robin seemed to be more transparent and comfortable than most with his demons, but most everyone has skeletons they don’t want others to see or they’re afraid of seeing themselves.
Many people come to therapy afraid of looking inside. They want to feel better, and they usually want to get rid of some part of themselves they don’t like, whether it’s anxiety, self-criticism, anger, addiction, grief, etc.
In healthy therapy, we don’t help people to amputate parts of themselves they don’t like. Even Sigmund Freud knew this was a bad idea, and he keenly warned how if we remove a person’s primary defense mechanism, another one would take its place. So, instead of amputating, we help people to shift into curiosity, to get to know the part of themselves they don’t like, to understand why they do what they do, and to have compassion for how these parts are trying to help. As Carl Rogers once wrote, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
But accepting ourselves is not easy. You can’t simply transcend your struggles by telling yourself lovely affirmations all day. If you’re going to once and for all untangle and transform, unburden and heal, and truly love yourself, then you’re going to have to find all the parts of yourself you haven’t loved, all the parts that were hidden away so you could survive your childhood. These are the parts that Richard Schwartz, founder of the Internal Family Systems model of therapy, calls “exiles.”
Exiles often hold tremendous pain. They are stuck in the past, like a feedback loop or short circuit, still remembering and still experiencing the suffering. These are the parts that feel worthless, shameful, not good enough, lousy, neglected, abused, hated, unaccepted, and kicked off the planet.
In therapy, I often ask people what they would do if there was a crying baby in their arms. Would they carry it to a room and leave it to cry, closing the door on the way out? Or would they hold the baby close against their heart for as long as it took for the baby to settle? Would they ignore the baby or find out what the baby needed?
Many of us know how to take care of babies, but because we weren’t compassionately cared for as children, we don’t even know how to take care of ourselves. So many people don’t know how to have a good cry, how to hold themselves with compassion, tenderness, and feel whatever pain needs to be felt. If the majority of people on planet knew how to have a good cry, I could sleep peacefully at night knowing that my children’s grandchildren will still have a planet to live on—that’s how important crying is.
Instead, most of us run from our pain. And it makes sense that we do. People in therapy typically fear being overwhelmed by their “exiles,” making them worse, or discovering that they’re true—that they really are worthless or flawed. This is a big reason people never seek help. It’s a big reason people fall into the black hole of hopelessness.
It breaks my heart that Robin may have been alone with his pain. It breaks my heart that he may have, like millions of others, gone through life without ever tending to whatever dark burdens he was harboring.
Like my buddy Kenzo, I want everyone to know that you don’t have to continue suffering alone. You were born a loving, lovable, and beautiful person, fully equipped to love yourself, to find joy and satisfaction in life.
Yes, shit happens. We get hurt and we protect ourselves from ever feeling or getting hurt again. We isolate and quarantine the hurt parts of ourselves, compensating for them, pretending they’re not there, not letting anyone see or know. Indeed, we all struggle, we all suffer in this life; many do it alone. The anxiety can be so great that we become paralyzed by fear, the depression so heavy that we can’t get out of bed in the morning. The self-criticism so intense, we come to hate ourselves. The anger so great that we want to destroy and destruct everything in our path. The hopelessness so thick that we see no option other than taking our own life.
Once you’ve fallen into that abyss, it’s hard to climb out. But you can. Everyone is capable of healing, untangling, and returning to the calm, compassionate, confident being they were born equipped to be.
But getting out of that abyss isn’t easy and isn’t going to be pretty. It’s going to be hard. It may take time, a lot of time. And you will have to grieve in a way you’ve never let yourself grieve before. Your heart will break. It will break for yourself; later, it will break for everyone else. Your body may shake and tremble. You will cry for hours, maybe days. You will fall apart for a while, if you need to.
But your therapist will be there for you, witnessing compassionately, supporting you, trusting the process, knowing you will get through to the other side if only you keep going, remembering and seeing who you really are even when you can’t.
It’s not hopeless. It never has been. I don’t care who you are, what you’ve been through, or what barriers may be in the way. If you commit yourself and keep asking for help, help will come your way.
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