“May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
When I saw The Fellowship of the Ring movie for the first time, those words struck me like a hammer on an anvil. They were spoken to Froddo, the hobbit whose task it was to take the dreaded One Ring to Mount Doom, as encouragement by the Lady Galadriel when she gave him a small crystal phial, filled with the light of Eärendil's star. She knew that dark days lay ahead for Froddo and his companions and in an act of mercy, compassion and support she gave him light for those times when it felt like the darkness is overwhelming, that there was no other source of light.
So, why were those words so powerful for me?
For years now I have been asked by friends, family, counselors, leaders, teammates, advocates and spokespersons to write about faith and mental illness. While the two have been covered in enough written words to fill the Library of Congress, I feel that we have not seen the two discussed together enough and when it is there is far too much clinical writing and not enough first-hand accounts. So, like two awkward teenagers slow dancing for the first time under the lights, faith and mental illness are often seen touching hands, when in reality they should embrace in an intimate setting that can bring hope, light, love, peace and strength that only a strong relationship can.
Let me state right now that I am not a trained therapist nor mental health professional. What I'm going to write is merely my opinion intermixed with my faith and what I have learned through my own journey with mental illness.
Over the past few our hearts have been saddened by the tragic loss of Robin Williams, an incredibly strong and brave soul whose ability to make us laugh endeared him to each and every one of us.
Having spent over half my lifetime living with, investigating, battling, treating and overcoming my own struggles with mental illness in the form of anxiety and depression, I can perhaps better understand what Mr. Williams went through during his impactful life. And as we all remember his wonderful, yet adversity-filled life, some may wonder...how do I help the other Robin Williamses around me? How do I help my spouse, sibling, parent, neighbor, friend, coworker, teammate, etc.?
Here are five ways that you can help that person in your life. While I do not profess to be an expert, these come from personal experience from dear friends, teammates, girlfriends, siblings, counselors and religious leaders who have reached out when I needed help the most.
1. Be Compassionate:
In this world of Facebook statuses, selfies and this-is-my-life social outlets, most people are almost loath to open up about their everyday struggles. Now, add that societal pressure to the far too common stigma surrounding mental illness and you can see why many who struggle with mental illness hide their problems, especially men.
If you have someone in your life who you think is struggling, open your heart and be compassionate enough to ask. Oftentimes those who struggle the most put on a brave face, or in Robin Williams' case laugh the loudest. But that doesn't mean they aren't silently hoping that someone will come to their rescue and help them carry the load. So ask. And keep asking until the truth comes out. "I'm ok" is not an answer you should be satisfied with.
Also, when someone is feeling like they are in a dark place, your love may have to be the light that shows them the way. Yes, someone who is feeling anxious or depressed may not be the chipper life of the party, but they still have infinite value and worth and deserve respect, love and support. Hug them. Hold them. Write them an encouraging note. Make them cookies. Go with them to a support group. Whatever comes to mind, do it. At the most basic level, depression is a thief in the night who steals your loved one's ability to feel, love and enjoy life. So at whatever level you can, shower them with love and support.
"How can we help you today, sir?"
"I don't know....I'm just not sure I want to live anymore."
When the ER nurse asked what I was there for that day in my past, I hardly knew what to say. I didn't want to die; I just didn't want to live. This life can be fleeting and with our technology-focused modern society, every day seems to fly by even faster. But when you are contemplating ending your life, well...time enters weird flux of state.
It's a place in life that many understand through experience and others try to tearfully understand when their loved ones take their lives. I can't describe it; those who have been that low before will nod when they read this because they know exactly what I mean. It is an extremely dark, lonely, and painful place to be. What people don't understand is that the thought of dying is no longer scary at that point: you look forward to because it means an end to the suffering.
I've had a lot of time to think about that period of my life. As you can imagine, it sticks with you. Everyday you wake up is a day you almost didn't have, whether that day be good or bad. There are those who see me as broken, flawed or weak because of my struggles. In my attempt to embrace a second chance at life, they see fit to prove this precious time I almost didn't have is a waste.
This past Saturday, October 5, I had the opportunity to attend an anti-bullying event held in Salt Lake City, Utah. As I stood there watching the various attendees come through I spent a portion of the day pondering the bullies I had faced in my own life. From fellow students in school to fellow athletes in sport, I have tasted the bitter results of those who for one reason or another felt the need to force their own pains on another.
This time of meditation led me to think of another bully, one that can inflict true hurt and heartache. I speak of mental illness, a bully that no school Principal or mortal parent can ever put in "time out." No sibling can stand up to this bully on the "playground" of life and no spouse, friend or teammate can fully protect you from. This bully is the first to steal hope, happiness and energy from life.
I have often wondered what my life would be like if I had not been asked to carry this "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7). Would I be married with a family by now? Would I have a more successful professional career? Would I have done more in my sport of bobsled and gone further? Would I have deeper relationships and friendships? Would I be a better light unto this dark and troubled world? The questions, and possible answers, are infinite and beyond my ability to comprehend.
This past weekend I had the humbling opportunity to attend and speak at an inspirational and touching "Out of Darkness" community walk at Pleasant Grove High School. What a beautiful facility and what a beautiful day, all for a beautiful purpose. A huge congratulations to the many, many volunteers who worked tirelessly to make it happen.
It was a moving experience to see so many who came to honor the memory of those who decided to take their own lives. All across the United States, teams of volunteers give of their time and resources to organize these walks to raise awareness of mental health and suicide prevention as well as fund-raise for educational and supportive efforts to prevent more lose. As the AFSP's website states:
"In the United States, a person dies by suicide every 13.7 minutes, claiming more than 38,000 lives each year. It is estimated that an attempt is made every minute, with close to one million people attempting suicide annually. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. among adults 18-65, the second leading cause of death among teens and young adults, and individuals ages 65 and older account for 16 percent of all suicide deaths. This is a public health issue that does not discriminate by age, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status."
It was an amazing opportunity for me to participate because of all the wonderful people I met, but also because this is a subject that hits so very close to him since it was only years ago that I almost took my own life. Below is a copy of the speech that I gave to the event's attendees that I hope can inspire and comfort you in your own tough times. Don't give up. There is always hope.