Maybe the worst thing about suicide is its finality. It is the one mistake that allows no second chances. When Robin Williams took his life in August of 2014 an entire nation grieved. Our grief was of a partly selfish nature as we realized that there would be no new Robin Williams characters to move and delight us: no more Mrs. Doubtfires, John Keatings, or Dr. Sean Maguires. On a deeper level we grieved because the world had lost a wonderful human being who touched us with his warmth and humor. Whether the cause was lifelong depression, or the undetected Lewy Body dementia that had begun to affect his mind and body, his suicide felt like a tragic mistake.
That August, while struggling with my private grief as the father of a child with a serious mental health condition, the news of Robin’s death hit me in an unexpectedly forceful way. I wrote about it in a blog post, A Father’s Grief at the Loss of an Iconic Actor: In Memory of Robin Williams’ Gift to All of Us. It was the most personal and deeply felt piece I had written for my blog, and it quickly became the most read page on www.rtor.org.
More than 30,000 people have read that post since it was published. Most of them were drawn by a desire to share in the public outpouring of grief surrounding his death. But I was also grieving for my daughter – not because she had left this life as Robin did, but because I believed she had given up the fight against her mental illness and I was afraid I would never get her back.
Listening to the reports of Robin’s suicide as I drove to pick her up from camp two weeks early nearly broke my heart. The pictures on the camp’s website showed her doing the most amazing activities during the day. But at night her anxiety and depression would kick in and she would feel unable to cope. Once more, it felt like her mental health challenges had ruined everything.
When the camp director called to say I had to bring her home, I felt her life was over. Camp was the one thing in her life that was meant to be fun. If she could not make that work, what chance was there for her to have any kind of satisfying life?
I realize now that I grieved not just for my daughter, but for all the milestones and celebrations my wife and I might never share with her: the high school graduation we might never attend, her acceptance into college, a career after that, and a family of her own. During the five-hour drive to camp in Vermont I struggled with the possibility that the challenges she faced as an anxious, depressed, dysregulated teen might stay with her for the rest of her life, and the fear that the hopes and dreams we held as parents might need to be adjusted, if not abandoned.
My daughter’s situation worsened before it improved, which makes her comeback all the more astounding. The turning point was a class trip to India and Nepal organized by the special needs school where she is now a senior. At a cost we could really not afford, the trip was going to be a two-and-a-half week ordeal through crowded cities and remote terrain, with grueling itineraries, shared sleeping arrangements and unfamiliar foods, sights, sounds, and culture. If she could not make it at a therapeutic camp in rural Vermont, how would she fare in India?
The thinking part of my brain warned me that sending her on a long class trip across the world was a set-up for disaster. But I wanted to believe that she could make it work this time. When she insisted on going, promising there would be no calls in the middle of the night begging to come home, we bought her ticket, helped her pack, and placed her in the hands of the school staff who organized the trip.
The first few days were promising. No emails, no texts. We eagerly checked the school’s website every day to view the daily photo uploads. There she was at the Taj Mahal, a smile on her face! But we had been fooled by photos before. A picture of a happy, smiling daughter by day, was no assurance she was coping at night. An email from the trip leader notifying us that she was feeling stressed and wanted to come home, did not help.
Three days after that I received a text message in the middle of the night India time. She couldn’t sleep. Not again… I asked her what was wrong. “The monkeys are keeping me awake.” She was staying at an old Hindu ashram in a remote forest somewhere in India and there were chattering monkeys outside her bedroom window. That was a new one. Too hot, too cold, too much light, too much noise, cars in the street, wind in the trees… Back home, any number of sensory triggers could destroy her equilibrium and ruin sleep for all of us. But never monkeys.
I texted back, “Are u ok?” “Yes.” She replied and I did not hear from her again, though the pictures kept coming, every day on the school website, my daughter and her classmates happy, smiling, exploring a new world of foreign adventure. No more emails, no more texts. When I met her at the airport, eighteen days later, she told me it was the most awesome experience of her life. Then she left me standing in the airport, eager to spend more time with her friends and travelling companions whom she could not bear to say goodbye to.
A few months later, she announced that she wanted to go to college once she finished high school. My wife and I were stunned: she completed the entire online Common Application and submitted it to her colleges of choice without any help from us.
Something changed for her in India. I found out what when I read the personal essay she submitted with the Common App. It was in some ways the stereotypical college application essay: ‘the foreign travel experience that changed my life’ in 650 words or less. But in my daughter’s case it truly was a transforming experience. In the essay, she described how a spiritual leader from the ashram addressed her classmates and her on the subject of their disability. The leader told them that far from being a curse, their challenges were a gift, and it was their journey in life to discover and use that gift.
Those words alone could not have caused the change in her. Most likely it was a combination of things: the time and distance away from her parents; the contrasts between the rich and poor, beauty and squalor, abundance and scarcity; the newness of the place, where every food, lodging, person she met might be a potential trigger or a new adventure; the monkeys at the ashram window. It was the places she visited, people she met and ideas she was exposed to, that helped her to stop catastrophizing long enough to actually see and experience the world around her. In a way, the trip was one big lesson in mindfulness.
Eighteen months ago, I was not sure if my daughter would finish high school, let alone apply for college. That she would do so almost entirely on her own, without coaching and cajoling from my wife or me, feels like a miracle. We did not know it at the time, but sending her to India was one of the best things we ever did as parents. It was also a learning experience. To paraphrase an overused college essay title, here are the…
“Things We Learned from Our Daughter’s Trip Abroad”
Never Give Up Hope – Hope often leads to pain. The drive to Vermont would not have hurt so much if I never had hopes to dash. But without those hopes, the trip to India never would have happened either.
Believe in Your Child (But Don’t Hesitate to Get a Second Opinion) – We wanted to believe our daughter when she said that she could handle the trip. But we would not have sent her halfway around the world unless her team at school assured us she could do it.
Don’t Rush In to Fix the Problem – When our daughter was struggling at camp it was too easy for us to get on the phone with her and her counselors to try to solve the problem. We did not have that luxury while she was in remote parts of India and Nepal. She was forced to rely on her own inner resources to solve these problems.
Be Prepared to Spend Money – Would you take on debt to send your kid to college? Unfortunately, if that kid has a mental health problem she may not even get that chance. Like most serious health conditions, mental illness is expensive. But an investment in quality treatment, education, and enrichment activities early in life may cost less in the long run than a lifetime of dependence.
Take Some Risks – We frequently tell our daughter that the way to beat anxiety is to face her fears and take some risks. We as parents must be prepared to do the same.
Learn From Your Mistakes – Making mistakes is how we learn and the great thing about being alive is that we get the chance to do things differently the next time around. The most important thing I learned from this experience is that a series of bad decisions does not lock a person into a lifetime of unhappiness. It is important to give our children time and space to process their mistakes so they can learn and grow from them.
When All Else Fails, Bring Out the Monkeys – There is something about these funny little creatures that make even the most depressed and anxious person laugh. Kind of like Robin Williams, come to think of it!
Earlier this month I received the call that so many parents of high school seniors anticipate this time of year. I knew it was important when I saw it was my daughter, who almost never calls me at work. “A college wants me!” she couldn’t wait to tell me. A week later she learned that she had been selected by the other of her top two college choices. She was not just wanted. Now she had a choice, which came with a Provost’s Scholarship covering most of the cost of her education!
I guess this is the part of the story where Robin Williams stands up on his desk and exhorts his students to see things in a different way, to seize the day, to make their lives extraordinary. “What good amid these, O me, Oh life?” Sadly, Robin is no longer here to tell us the answer. But if he were, he would say “That you are here—that life exists.”
The Dead Poets Society is my favorite Robin Williams’ movie. In it, the charismatic English teacher John Keating is unfairly dismissed from his job after one of his most promising students ends his life by suicide. The final scene offers hope in the aftermath of tragedy, as we see the transformative effect that Keating has had on a handful of his students. The boys who honor Keating by standing on their desks and calling out Walt Whitman’s famous refrain “O Captain! My Captain!” express a belief not just in the man who opened their minds, but in themselves. Unlike their missing friend who despaired that the reality of his life would never match his idealized vision of it, these boys seem to know what they want and, thanks to Keating, are ready to go after it. That is how I feel about my daughter now.
If you or someone you know is in need of mental health resources, contact one of our resource specialists.
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