mental health, nostalgia, poor judgment, psychology, social media

AITA? Nah… I don’t think so, even if you do…

Lately, I’ve been following Reddit Ridiculousness on Facebook. Every day, the person who runs that page shares certain over the top threads from the Am I The Asshole page on Reddit. I don’t follow Reddit much myself, but it seems to me that the person who shares the threads on Facebook deliberately picks the posts in which the person asking is very obviously NOT the asshole. Sometimes, the posts are a little bit triggering and provoke unexpected enlightenment. I share them with my friends and conversation develops. I like it when conversations develop, since they promote understanding… especially among people I actually know offline. A friend might reveal something about themselves as they comment on these threads which offers insight into who they are as people. Sometimes, I can relate.

For instance, back in my college days, I had a lot of “issues”. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was suffering from clinical depression and anxiety. The reason I didn’t know I was depressed was because I had been that way for so long that it was “normal” for me. I was always a very emotional person. Everything affected me, even really stupid things that should not cause me a moment’s pause. I would either think something was insanely funny and laugh inappropriately, or I would be so overcome with shame, humiliation, or anger that I would melt down in tears. I had a real problem regulating my emotions to the point at which some people thought I was bipolar (I’m not). I’m now surprised I got through those years without some kind of black mark on my permanent record.

I was also suffering from “disordered eating”. I hated my body, so I would attack it by doing unhealthy things. I used to skip meals all the time, which would make me kind of temperamental and mean. I hated going to the dining hall for many reasons. One time I didn’t eat for a few days, but then I broke the fast by drinking a lot of beer. I tried to exercise a lot. I wish I could say I did it because it made me feel good, but I probably mostly did it for optics, and to escape my roommates. I often thought of suicide, mainly because I didn’t know what to do with myself or why I was born.

My problems with dieting started when I was about eleven years old. I grew up with three sisters, and they were constantly dieting and running to lose weight. One of my sisters was like a rodent. She would always eat half of things and leave the rest in the packaging for someone else to find. We actually did have mice in our house, so this wasn’t a very hygienic practice. It was also very annoying for obvious reasons.

I never was one to be ritualistic about food. I didn’t count bites, hide food, or eat a certain number of bites. I would just skip meals. Because I went to a highly residential college, people would notice and sometimes say things to me. I would feel both embarrassed and kind of gratified that anyone cared. I’m sure it was annoying behavior, though… and I’m not particularly proud of it. Sometimes I did it for attention, and sometimes I did it because I actually wanted to self-destruct.

There were other times, besides my college days, when I engaged in these kinds of weird food related behaviors. I usually did them when I had to live with other people who weren’t family, but I did it with family, too. Often, I would skip meals after my dad yelled at me, criticizing my weight or appearance or touching me on the back, telling me I had “fat” I needed to lose. I remember one distinctly humiliating incident involving my father. My mom had been trying to force us all to lose weight and I ate more than my dad thought I should have. So he screamed at me and said, “You hog!” A few days later, my mom asked me what I was “living on”, since she hadn’t seen me eat. That was the only time I remember her ever being concerned, even though I regularly skipped lunch at school. My parents were very image conscious, and I never really did seem to measure up, at least when I was a child. They often had a complaint about my appearance, personality, the way I smelled after being at the barn, or even the way I laughed. So I tried to change, sometimes in the very needy, attention seeking ways that I thought might “show them”. It was all very stupid and immature, but I was definitely not the only one doing it.

There were times when skipping meals caused negative consequences… like the time I lost out on Champion of my division at the state 4H horse show because I had neglected to eat. I was so dazed when we finally got in the show ring that the judge never saw me and my beloved Rusty. We had won first place in the first class, but didn’t even make the “cut” for the second. After the class, we went back to the barn and I was unbraiding Rusty’s tail when I heard my name, summoned back to the ring. It turned out we’d ended up tying for Reserve Champion and had to hack off for the honor, which Rusty and I won. As I was accepting the ribbon, the judge asked me where I had been! Maybe the end result would have been the same if I hadn’t been so focused on not eating instead of what we were doing. Either way, I felt like such an asshole after that class because we hadn’t done our best and it was my fault.

We won this class out of maybe 75 ponies or so… I was shocked.

We could have been champs! Oh well… this was still kind of a thrill. Not a day passes that I don’t miss Rusty. He was my best friend.

Although I was never a thin person, I did used to skip meals all the time. Most of the time, I didn’t seem to suffer any ill effect, except on the occasions when I would faint. But even those episodes didn’t seem to be because I skipped meals. It was more because I would be drinking something on an empty stomach, swallow too hard, cause myself a lot of pain, and have a vasovagal response. I haven’t had one of those fainting episodes in a long time, but when I was younger, they happened occasionally.

When I think back on those days, I feel like an asshole for wasting my youth on so much nonsense. It really was a waste of time to be so obsessed with something as pointless as dieting and weight loss. But in those days, it felt very important. I felt like no one cared, even though I know now that that wasn’t the truth. The truth was, in those days, there were people in my life who cared about me. They just weren’t necessarily my parents. I do know my parents loved me, but they had their own issues, and were trying to run their own business. And I had “crashed” their party by being born when they thought they were done having children. I was too loud, too opinionated, and too rambunctious and obnoxious at a time when they had hoped to relax.

Because I often cracked jokes, people thought I was witty and funny, and they equated being funny with being happy, which I definitely was not. The ability to make people laugh is not a sign that a person loves life. Just look at the number of comedians who have committed suicide or suffered from substance abuse problems. I know a lot of people like to point to Robin Williams as an example of a brilliant comic who committed suicide and hold him up as a poster child for treating depression and suicidal ideation. Personally, I don’t really lump Robin Williams in with people like Richard Jeni and Ray Combs.

Although Robin Williams did commit suicide, he also had a devastating neurological illness that was going to kill him after it made him lose his mind. Robin Williams had Lewy Body Dementia, which is absolutely horrifying. That was the disease that ultimately killed my dad, and after seeing what my dad went through, I would never judge someone for opting for suicide instead of going through that hell. Actually, I generally try not to judge people for committing suicide in most cases. I don’t think it’s my place. Now, I might judge someone for attempting suicide when it’s obvious they’re doing it to be manipulative. But even in those cases, I figure a person has to be hurting a lot to go to that extreme for attention. On the other hand, having to live with someone who pulls kind of manipulative bullshit is also hell.

It bugs me when people hold up Robin Williams as someone who just needed a caring friend and some antidepressants, and that would have prevented him from killing himself. Although he reportedly didn’t know he had LBD when he took his life, he did already have the symptoms of it. Having seen my dad go through that disease, I can tell you that it legitimately makes people irrational, taking away their minds as it wastes their bodies. Think Parkinson’s Disease mixed with Alzheimer’s Disease and all of the indignities that go with either of those diseases; then think of having to suffer both at the same time. That pretty much sums up LBD. Robin Williams was diagnosed only after he died, and doctors said it was one of the worst cases they had ever seen. And it had come for him heartbreakingly early. Robin Williams was only 63 when he died. My dad was 81 when he died, but he’d been suffering from LBD for years.

In just a few months, I’ll be 50 years old. I don’t know what I have to show for it, which sometimes bothers me. But then I realize how much time is wasted on stupid shit, like social media. Yesterday, I quit a Facebook group because I got “modded” for something really trivial. In the past, I might have stuck around and tried to argue with the admin. But when I got a message saying that a comment of mine was “removed by an admin” and I should “click for feedback”, I just shrugged and said to myself, “this group is not for me.” And I said “fuck it” and clicked the “leave group” option. Then I wondered for a moment if that was the admin’s goal… to drive people away. But they’ve got 15k members, anyway, so my presence isn’t needed. Then I said “oh well” and took the dogs for a walk. By the time we got back, my mind was on something else… finishing my latest jigsaw puzzle, which I didn’t manage to do.

Why so serious? I’m in the middle, second row, looking depressed, as I often did in the early 90s… and also in the 80s. I was a lot thinner and prettier in those days, too. I should have enjoyed it more, and fretted and obsessed much less. I came very close to quitting this choir because of a row I had with someone. Ironically, it was my dad who talked me out of doing that.

I remember college to be a lot of fun, but it was also a cesspool of people who were dealing with personal problems that most of us knew nothing about. There was often a lot of silly drama and high school antics that went on in those days… things that I thought were so significant at the time, but I now see were ridiculous. I can remember judging people for the way they behaved, without ever really considering why they behaved that way. Years later, I have had the chance to reassess a few people I used to dislike because I didn’t know them very well, and they didn’t know me. I don’t always get those second chances, though, so when they happen, I try to be grateful.

I have since learned that most people who seem like assholes really aren’t; they’re just dealing with something big that no one else knows or cares about. And I think people in their teens and twenties tend to be mired in a lot of drama, anyway. In many cases, it’s really petty drama, but even petty drama can seem huge when a person doesn’t have the life experience they get as they age. On the other hand, there are some unfortunate souls who never learn from the petty dramas and act like they’re about sixteen when they’re in their fifties. Those types of people are always fun to deal with… and in many cases, they really are the assholes that become the banes of everyone else’s existences.

These days, I don’t skip meals very often. It’s probably because Bill notices when I’m hungry and feeds me. He says he can tell when I’m hungry by the way I look, and the fact that I will sigh a lot and get short tempered. I’ll flush red, then get pale and shaky, then plunge into confusion if it goes on for too long. It amazes me that I used to be able to go without eating for as long as a couple of days or more. I can’t do it anymore. I feel pretty sure if I tried, I’d probably pass out… or Bill might decide I am the asshole and file for divorce. I do still have issues with depression, though, and sometimes anxiety, although that’s not as bad as it once was, either. I don’t even cry very often at all anymore, although I still laugh a lot and crack inappropriate jokes… or fart loudly at the breakfast table. Okay, maybe I am the asshole for doing that. Fortunately, Bill doesn’t mind laughing with me.

Thanks to Livingston Taylor for this… it could be my theme song for life with Bill.

Even when I feel like a huge failure when I look at my life and where I feel like I *should* be, I realize that where I am isn’t actually a bad place to be. At least I managed to marry someone who likes me just the way I am. Yes, he also loves me, but more importantly, at least in my opinion, he likes me. He doesn’t want me to change. He doesn’t call me names or tell me I’m disgusting. He doesn’t say he’s sick of me, as my father did on more than one occasion. He also doesn’t do things like pee in the toilet and leave it for me to discover, as my dad did on occasion when I was in my twenties and temporarily living in his house. Somehow, in spite of everything, I found the right man… at the very least. As Livingston Taylor sings, “I Must Be Doing Something Right”. 😉 At least he doesn’t think I’m the asshole, right?

There’s a lot of wisdom in this song. Just remember… just about everything is insignificant, when it comes down to it.
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book reviews

Repost: A review of Dave Itzkoff’s Robin

I posted this review on my original Blogspot version of this blog on August 30, 2018. It appears here exactly as it was posted then.

Sorry about the lengthy intro to this review.  If you just want the review, skip down a few paragraphs.

In August 2014, Bill and I had just returned to Germany so he could start a new job as a government contractor.  That summer was one of the most stressful and horrifying of my life so far.  Weeks before our international move, my father died somewhat suddenly.  And just after our return to Germany, I got the news that my mom had breast cancer (she had surgery and is fine now). 

Robin Williams’ suicide on August 11, 2014 was just one of many traumas during the summer of 2014.  I remember being absolutely shocked to hear about this man, who had been such a big part of my young life, had suddenly killed himself.  From his time as Mork, the gentle alien, on Mork & Mindy to his standup routines featured on HBO, to his many wonderful movies, I had so many memories of watching Williams be a genius.  And now he was suddenly gone.  He was 63 years old.

Robin Williams as Mork.

I seem to have a knack for being in Europe when legends die.  I was in Europe when Princess Diana was killed.  I was also here when Michael Jackson died.  I lived in Europe during 2016, which was when a whole host of legends passed away, and last week, we lost Aretha Franklin.  Still, I was pretty blown away when I heard about Williams’ suicide.  At the time of the announcement, many people thought he had simply been an addict suffering from depression.  Quite a few people were angry about the suicide; some even went as far as to call Williams a coward.  They didn’t know the truth.  Robin Williams suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, the same neurological disease my father suffered from during his final years.  Having seen it firsthand, I really can’t blame Williams for what he did.  It’s a horrible way to live, and ultimately die.

When I saw that Dave Itzkoff had written an exhaustive biography about Robin Williams, I decided I wanted to read it.  I downloaded Robin in May of 2018 and just finished it last night.  It’s taken me a few weeks to get through Itzkoff’s book, mainly because it’s quite long and detailed.  Also, I don’t have the attention span I used to have.  Back when I read real books, I’d whiz through them in a matter of days.  Now, I read most things on my iPad and get distracted by social media, games, or email.  Add in the fact that I usually read in bed and you might guess that sleep often also interrupts my reading sessions.

I see that I bought Robin just five days after it was released.  It was also just weeks before celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain killed himself.  When Bourdain died, many people compared his situation to Williams’ situation.  Although they may seem similar on the surface, I truly believe Robin Williams’ decision to commit suicide was caused by a very real neurological illness.  I have seen Lewy Body Dementia in person.  It really brings the “crazy”.  Not only do sufferers lose their physical faculties, they also have hallucinations, experience paranoia, and lose the ability to articulate their memories, even though they still have access to them.  It really is a special kind of hell. 

I don’t know if Williams killed himself because of acute symptoms of the disease or because he got a glimpse of what was coming.  What I do know is that I can hardly blame him.  In fact, his death was probably a blessing, not just for him, but also for those who love him.  I can speak firsthand about how hard it is to see someone you love turn into a stranger who has lost all ability to take care of themselves.

Anyway… about the book

Robin is an extremely detailed accounting of Robin Williams’ life.  Itzkoff knew Williams, having interviewed him for the New York Times.  I get the sense that they were friendly, if not outright friends.  At the end of the book, Itzkoff reveals that he and Williams shared a love of comics and Williams had even invited him to go shopping for collectibles.  The author notes that many celebrities, hoping that the reporter will be kind to them, will try to ingratiate themselves.  In Williams’ case, the offer to go shopping was genuine and based on a real desire to get to know the man who shared his love for comics.

In Robin, Itzkoff starts at the very beginning, detailing Williams upper class but lonely lifestyle.  His parents each had sons from other relationships– two half brothers, with whom Robin was close.  However, Williams himself grew up by himself, playing in attics in empty mansions and attending private schools.  It was during those years that Williams found his voice as a comedian, which he later parlayed into standup routines at open mics in the San Francisco area.

Williams’ big break came in the form of Mork & Mindy, an adorable sitcom that aired in the late 70s and early 80s.  I was a young child in those days and I loved that show, which also starred Pam Dawber.  Williams played Mork from Ork, a kind-hearted, gentle alien who had come to Earth to learn about the ways of mortals.  Every week, at the end of each episode, Mork would communicate with Orson, his boss on Ork.  He’d deliver that week’s theme mallet/moral, often with witty aplomb. 

During and after Mork & Mindy, Williams started making films.  The first one I remember seeing him in was Popeye, which was released in 1980.  I actually remember seeing that one, probably in the theater.  Itzkoff writes that Popeye was one of a number of films Williams did that wasn’t all that popular.  But when Williams hit the right project, there was magic.  I want to say it started with 1989’s Dead Poet’s Society, which was a huge hit.  He went on to make a string of other good movies, as well as a few that flopped.  Itzkoff offers some good analysis about the vehicles that worked, as well as the ones that were less successful.

Williams had three wives.  His first wife, Valerie Velardi, bore their son, Zak.  While Williams was married to Valerie, he hired Marsha Garces as a personal assistant.  They ended up falling in love and Williams divorced Velardi and married Garces in 1989.  Garces had a knack for helping Williams pick out projects.  She kept him stimulated and organized his life.  She also had his daughter, Zelda, and son, Cody.  Twenty years after he married Garces, the marriage fell apart.  Williams’ last wife was Susan Schneider, an artist and fellow alcoholic who had sort of a healing effect on Williams.  He married her in October 2011. 

As lovable as Robin Williams was to so many of his fans, he did suffer from many demons.  Williams struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, and anxiety.  When he was sober, Williams was unstoppable.  When he was under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or mental illness, he crashed into misery.  Williams would use his experiences in his comedy routines and characters, making him likable and relatable to many more ordinary people who had struggled with the same things.  I appreciated that Itzkoff took the time to explain Williams’ demons and why they helped make him a better performer, even if they also tortured him.

Another important message from Mork…  I have to admit, Mork was probably my favorite incarnation of Robin Williams.

Robin Williams was also a good friend.  Itzkoff includes a very informative section on Williams’ relationship with the late Christopher Reeve, who was his roommate at Juilliard.  The two made a pact that they would always be there for each other.  When Reeves had his horseback riding accident in May 1995, Robin and his second wife, Marsha, where there for him immediately.  Robin even dressed up like a Russian doctor and made Reeves laugh at a time when laughter seemed impossible. Williams was also friends with Billy Crystal, who would call him on the phone impersonating people like Ronald Reagan.  He was friends with Bobcat Goldthwait, too, and appeared in a couple of Goldthwait’s movies.  Williams would go to open mics, even when he was very famous, and hang out with young comedians just getting their start.  He’d be one of the guys.

Robin is basically well written and loaded with details and information, as well as pictures and an extensive reading list.  I really think Itzkoff did a good job capturing who Robin Williams was, reminding me that Williams was a warm, funny, real person who was incredibly unique and irreplaceable.  But he also reminded me that Williams was fallible and did have his disappointments and failures.  As amazing as Williams’ talent was, he was still a man. 

Some readers have pointed out that this book has some factual errors.  I’m sure an obsessive Williams fan would be able to point these out better than I can.  I liked Robin Williams, but I wasn’t someone who studied his life on that level. 

A criticism I could personally make is that this book is very long– to the point of being exhaustive.  It took me considerable time and effort to finish this book, and I’m usually a pretty speedy reader.  If you prefer brevity, Robin may not be the best book for you.  I see on Amazon.com, many people had the same complaint I have.  This book could have used a talented editor to help pare it down just a bit.  440 pages is a long haul, even if a book is enormously fascinating.  On the other hand, as a writer myself, I can understand how easy it is to get bogged down in minutiae.

Overall, I liked Robin.  I learned new things reading this book and got an appreciation for who Robin Williams was.  If I were going to assign a rating, I’d probably give it 3.5 stars out of five.  If it had been maybe 100 pages less, I’d bump it to four stars.

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