Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sadness over Robin William, Outrage over Michael Brown

I didn't sleep last night. I tried, I really did, but it was past 3 am when I turned my back on the clock, and later than that when I finally fell asleep. I read about Robin Williams' suicide in the late evening and it sent my brain whirling into DEFCON 5 hyper-aware red alert, and so I made friends with my ceiling since I knew I'd be staring at it for a good long while.

I never attempted suicide, but once, roughly a decade ago, I got to the point where the idea seemed attractive. That was enough to finally push the rational part of my brain to get help--therapy, medicine, years of it. I still take anti-depressants and probably will for the rest of my life, since the one time I tried to stop them I relapsed. You'll look at my life, my lovely, lovely, life, with a good husband and wonderful children, a successful career, a safe healthy life--and all that was true ten years ago as well as now--and you, you who have never battled mental illness--you'll think, why are you depressed? Yet I've never heard anyone say, You have such a good life--why did you get cancer?

Depression is not sadness. Depression is an illness of the brain. We don't completely understand it, but there seems to be both a genetic component and a trauma component. We've learned that trauma can cause physical changes to the brain, especially during early childhood. Therapy is useful, but for me at least, less useful than medicine, and while I sometimes wish this weren't true I don't apologize for it. I take antihistamines, too; I notice no one seems to have a problem with them.

Here's what I know about suicide: if you're living in torment, it looks like peace. It's not about getting even or failing or even feeling that you're not worthwhile. It's about stopping the pain. I felt so sorry about Robin Williams because I understood him better than I'd like to. He was brilliant, gifted, compassionate--and he reached a point where he couldn't go on. The only good thing to come from his death might be that more people will talk about mental illness. Already I've seen on Facebook many of my friends saying that they or someone they love suffers, too. Maybe we can help each other more.

This morning I planned to only write about Robin Williams, until I saw on my computer a photo of the mother of Michael Brown. Michael Brown was the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot dead by a policemen in Missouri last Saturday afternoon. The policeman says that there was a scuffle, that Michael reached for the policeman's gun. Michael's friend, who was with him, says that there was never a scuffle, and that Michael had put his hands in the air.

He was shot eight times. He was two days away from starting college.

What no one disputes, as far as I can tell, is what set the whole incident off. Michael and his friend, a black man of the same age, were walking down a street at two o'clock in the afternoon. The policeman drove by, rolled down his window, and told the boys to get off the street, to walk down the sidewalk instead. The boys said they were nearly at their destination, no problem, they'd be off the street in a minute.

That's the offense. They were walking down the street. While black, of course. They were black and they were young and they were walking down the street, and now Michael Brown is dead. His neighbors are rioting; of course they are. Can you imagine, just for a moment? They live in a neighborhood where their children could be killed for walking outside.  I think of my son and one of his friends, walking down the middle of a street in Bristol. Laughing, cracking jokes. I don't worry that he's going to be shot for doing that.

Michael Brown was killed for jaywalking.

While black.

Yeah, I could get pretty outraged about that. In fact, I am outraged.

I'd like to see more outrage among my fellow white people over this. I'd like whites, like me, to put our children in Michael Brown's shoes, to imagine for one moment that this could happen to someone with our color of skin. How would we feel? And how would we feel when this was one senseless murder on the heels of another, and another, all of them young black boys? I'd like to see the outpouring of grief and internet odes and there-but-for-the-grace-of-Gods that we're putting out for Robin Williams be put out also for Michael Brown.

I'd like to sleep tonight, but it I don't, while I'm staring at the ceiling I'll say prayers for the family of Michael Brown.