Several years ago a friend called and asked me if I wanted to go with him to see a film called, simply, “Milk.”
I like movies in general, and this one sounded innocuous enough. So I said, “Sure!”
I left the theater sobbing.
I was furious with my friend – for inviting me, for not warning me, for reminding me of how deadly stigma and fear can be.
I was furious with the whole world – how could such a bright light be permitted to burn out just when we need bright lights the most?
I was furious, period.
I have never forgotten the movie, and I will never forget what Harvey Milk posthumously taught me.
In his San Francisco mayoral election campaign, Milk exhorted voters, saying:
Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better. [emphasis added]
In the film, he explains his strategy by saying that when someone close to you knows that you struggle with a particular type of issue, they are more inclined to vote favorably on that issue at the polls.
Their inclination has nothing to do with the issue itself, and everything to do with how much they care about you – one single person who struggles with that issue and will be helped by their vote.
In other words, when given a choice, people don’t vote for issues. People vote for people – people they know, people they care about, people they love, people they don’t want to lose.
As you may know, I suffered with anorexia and bulimia for 15 years before I started my recovery work. I suffered with severe, crippling depression and anxiety for another decade beyond that. So approximately three-quarters of my life to date has been spent battling one type of issue or another – and battling the stigma and fear surrounding it.
This has formed my belief that the specific type of issue I have, versus the specific type of issue you may have, versus the type of issue a loved one of yours may have, doesn’t really much matter.
We basically need the same building blocks to begin healing – love, empathy, an open door to share and be heard, laughter, friendship, a way to serve, a willingness to be served, and the awareness we are not – are NEVER – alone in our struggles (even if the names of those struggles may change from one person to the next).
Harvey Milk taught me this.
On that note, I have a very dear friend who struggles with bipolar illness. She is one of my oldest, closest friends, and I care for her very much.
You see, I work from home, so I don’t go out every day.
Last month we were shocked – flattened – to discover our beloved Robin Williams had taken his own life.
I blogged about it the day I found out….and I’m still very sad. I miss him.
Knowing more about the possible “whys” – he had been diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s Disease; he may have been struggling with bipolar illness as well as depression; he found aging to be a ponderous and difficult process – makes his choice perhaps less mystifying.
But it doesn’t make it one bit easier to accept.
I will admit sometimes I feel like I should have been asked. “Is it okay with you if I just go now?” I would have answered him: “No. No, it is not okay with me. No one else makes me laugh quite like you. I feel like you know me – even though I know you don’t. Please stay. Promise me you will.”
Watching someone we love lose their battle with depression kindles a bit of that same capitulation in each of us.
I am definitely no exception.
In times like these, I can’t help but remember my first big suicide scare. It was in college. One night the bottom just dropped out of me. I ended up in a local ER. The nurse diagnosed me with a “runaway eating disorder” and recommended counseling.
That night was the first time I’d ever considered there was an “it” ruining my life – that it wasn’t just me screwing things up all by myself.
I felt hopeful, but also very scared. Suicide seemed, well, easier, and certainly quicker, than fixing what was wrong with me.
In fact, the “terrible twins” of cyclical anxiety and depression have stalked me nearly all my life, but I was in my early 30′s (and newly in strong recovery from the eating disorder) before I had enough energy to notice.
Many, many times in the in-between years, I continued to toy with vague notions of suicide. Usually these were couched in the form of remote philosophical queries: “I wonder – just hypothetically speaking of course – if I drove off this cliff, how long would it take before anyone noticed?”
As a traveling marketer living out of state and away from her family and friends at that time, I had many weeks and months on the road to ponder all possible answers.
Later on, as the anxious and depressive cycles widened and deepened, thoughts of suicide became more functional. Recognizing my addictive personality by this point, I was terrified to take drugs (prescription or otherwise), and yet I couldn’t make heads or tails of how to end the unbearable cycling any other way, other than the obvious.
After a long course of neurotherapy treatment, I began to experience some relief from the anxiety.
Then all of a sudden the depression worsened again. Neurotherapy didn’t help this time.
Finally, through a truly strange series of twists and turns, I began to take anti-depressants at last. This was three years ago.
A week or so ago I was talking to one of my colleagues.
We were discussing stress.
I asked her how she copes with stress in her life – her answer surprised me.
She said, “I am an ‘emotional sleeper.’”
It didn’t take me long (i.e. about two seconds) to figure out that I, too, am an ‘emotional sleeper.’
In fact, even on low stress days I am barely out of bed before I am looking forward to being back in it again.
On high stress days, I can barely wait for it to be time for my favorite activity again – sleeping, of course.
What I found most odd is that I’d never heard of this term before….or even thought to think it up for myself.
I’ve blogged a bit here and there about my ongoing work to resolve conflicts between “me now” and “me then.”
One of the most effective techniques I use is a simple Q&A.
For instance, if I wake up (like I did this morning) and realize I spent all night dreaming about painful periods from my past, I will ask my younger self questions.
Since my younger self is, well, younger, I use simple, open-ended questions.
I might ask, “What do you need from me?”
Or “What can I do to help?”
I also use statements.
Sometimes I say, “I’m so sorry.”
Or “Thank you for not giving up.”
Sometimes I just wait and listen and let my younger self vent.
The other night I was watching something…..I think it might have been “Longmire” but don’t quote me on that.
Speaking of which, while watching, I paused the show to write down this great quote:
There is no past that we can bring back by longing for it….only a present that builds and creates itself as the past withdraws.
Since then, I have read it every few days (on account of having written it down right on my in-phone grocery list).
Each time I re-read it, the quote makes me pause yet again.
You see, I’ve never been a “past gazer.”
I’ve just never wanted to go back – not a day in my life.
If anything, I have spent more time gazing into the future, wondering when it will finally get here.
Perhaps this is because for approximately 20 of my 44 years to date, I struggled with anorexia and bulimia.
Even after that struggle ended, I had another good long decade to follow of fighting tooth and nail with cyclical anxiety and depression.
Maturity, medication, meditation (and feathers – plenty of feathers) helped me break free at last.
When I broke free, I felt like my past had released me into my future – the future I had been longing for ever since I was born.
The other night I had a dream that a big lion bit me in the stomach and I died.
It was a sad dream.
My family was there, and many friends, but no one could do a thing to save me.
Please understand – this kind of dream is nothing out of the ordinary for me.
I have always dreamed vividly and do not anticipate this will ever change.
I don’t even really mind it – over the years I have learned my dreams are often teachers – especially the ones that come over and over and over again.
Also, I have learned that often my pets will take on roles as “me” in my dream state (understandably, over the years this has made repeated episodes featuring the dream-time demise of my beloved parrot much easier to bear).
The lion dream especially interested me, because it followed a mystifying two-week episode of intense stomach distress of the kind I used to get when I was recovering from my eating disorder.
It is awfully hard to believe he is gone.
I am so very sad!!
In a recent Facebook post about his death, Williams’ friend, writer Anne Lamott, shared how sad she is, and also shared how she has always viewed laughter as “carbonated holiness.”
As a fellow depression sufferer, I too have found much-needed upliftment and release through laughter….and often through laughter at Williams’ antics.
He had that rarest of gifts – the vision to perceive exactly where the fine line lies when addressing serious subjects from a lighthearted perspective.
Two of my favorite Robin Williams movies are “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Good Will Hunting.”
But my current reigning favorite is this six-minute interview clip from 2011.
In the clip, Williams speaks about his work, his life, his kids, his childhood and young adult years, his fame, his addiction, his recovery…..and his fear.
Recently I read the story of Robin Korth – called “My ‘Naked’ Truth.”
Truth be told, I’m not exactly sure how I came across it.
But once I started reading, I couldn’t stop.
Here is a beautiful woman, vibrant and alive in the decade just one ahead of mine (Robin is 59, I am 44) being told by her 55-year-old boyfriend that she is “too wrinkly” to be desirable in the bedroom.
Lately it feels like everywhere I turn, I am confronted with another story like Robin’s.
And lately, each time I read another one of these stories, I discover another courageous mentor – someone I desire to emulate, to embrace, to thank, to join.
Here I have to share that, in the two decades since my eating disorder battle subsided, I have maintained an uneasy truce with my ever-changing body.
I have agreed not to mention the parts I don’t like, and it has agreed not to flaunt them in my face when I look in the mirror.
But I know they are there. And it knows I don’t like those parts.
After reading Robin’s story in particular – and even though her tale is not unlike many others I have heard in the last several months (years, decades) – something inside me just put her foot down.
It said, “Enough.”
Enough of this.
Enough waffling over whether or not to really “go for it” – for the full experience of genuine body love.
Don’t get me wrong.
I don’t love making mistakes.
But I love mistakes themselves.
Mistakes are great mentors.
I usually hate mistakes when I’ve just made one (especially if other people notice) but then I start learning whatever cool new lesson it has to teach me, and everything shifts.
At that point, I fall a little bit in love with mistakes….all over again.
For the past couple of months, I have been successfully guarding a slip of fortune cookie paper from the sharp and eager beak of my parrot, Pearl.
The fortune reads:
It was when you found out you could make mistakes that you knew you were onto something.
Yet for most of my earlier years, I didn’t realize mistakes were okay….allowed….expected, even.
I didn’t think any of the people around me ever made mistakes.
I didn’t think I was supposed to make mistakes either – not if I was living right.
Yet mistakes kept happening, all the time and in so many ways.
I made mistakes about what I ate (or didn’t eat), what hobbies and classes I pursued, what friends (and boyfriends – don’t get me started on this one) I chose, what I wore, what I said, and what I did.
For a time I thought that I myself was a mistake.
This was the most painful time in my life to date.
The other day I cracked open a fortune cookie.
The fortune read:
Better face danger than be always in fear.
I nodded sagely….totally on board with this philosophy.
But looking at my own life, I can see how, time and time again, I still forget I am brave in the very moment a new danger appears.
For instance, I forget I overcame a deadly eating disorder.