I was visiting a friend in Lucerne, Switzerland when I learned Robin Williams committed suicide. I remember my friend’s response when I relayed the news to her. “What?! Why? That’s just so selfish,” she said. That seemed a little blunt, but she wasn’t completely wrong. The loved ones left behind by the person who commits suicide inherit a great deal of suffering and grief. And it’s a lifetime burden. I always hope anyone who’s suicidal, holds on and lives past that desperate moment to see things can and really do get better.
Robin Williams suffered from depression and anxiety. A while after his death, his wife said he found out that he also had Lewy body dementia, a degenerative brain disease. So perhaps he felt he was granting his loved ones a mercy by preventing them from having to endure the burden of his increased care needs as they witnessed his gradual deterioration. I don’t know. But his death hit a nerve. Yes, he was someone suffering from a mental disorder, like me, but there was another reason his passing struck me and in addition to empathy, I felt nostalgia.
Williams starred in “Dead Poet’s Society,” one of my favorite childhood films. I related to the film on many levels; feeling isolated as a young boarding school student; immersing myself in the classic literature of my English class’s suggested reading list as an escape from that isolation. Boarding school in Switzerland was quite different from my middle school years in Yemen where I had many friends and social activities to engage me. My alone time during the Yemen years were by choice and I relished them. Whereas in boarding school I often found myself by myself during any down time when there wasn’t class or formal dinner.
Many students hated formal dinner nights mostly because it was mandatory attendance and boys had to wear ties and suits, which we normally only wore for classes. However, formal dinner night was my favorite night of the week. For one thing, I’d be guaranteed to not have to have dinner alone. Students were assigned tables that would be groups of eight to ten people, as well as one member of the faculty, and the seating assignments would change monthly. I liked talking with other students with whom I normally wouldn’t get to socialize. I particularly remember when I was assigned to sit at a table with two sisters, Sophia and Elsa.
They were from the Canary Islands and both were gorgeous. The older sister, Sophia, was elegant, polite, very sophisticated, and quiet. Whereas Elsa’s ample confidence translated into her being quite loud, brash, and much more temperamental. Sophia had longer, straight blond hair that she often wore in a ponytail. Elsa had an unruly black curly bob that she didn’t bother to tame. The sisters were so different, but both were quite popular. Particularly Elsa as she was gregarious and boisterous, her presence was always acknowledged. I remember engaging them at formal dinner and getting along with both of them really well. After that dinner rotation ended, I’d wave to them upon seeing them on campus and say, “ciao,” but didn’t actually mingle with them again as they weren’t assigned to sit with me.
But one Saturday night, during the Saturday night movie (this was a movie selected by a faculty member to be shown to any students who were actually on campus and didn’t have anything to do), I saw both Sophia and Elsa together. I was watching that Saturday night’s movie, “Dead Poet’s Society.” It was my first time seeing it. I was already engrossed in the movie when the curtain behind where we all sat was opened and in came the sisters with some other Spanish and Italian students (boys mostly). I was surprised to see them there. Why weren’t they on a weekend trip, or somewhere downtown on a Saturday night? To be with the campus-bound students seemed unusual for them. And they had already missed the first twenty minutes of the movie, so I didn’t think they were particularly interested in it. In any case, they caught sight of me when they entered, so I waved to them. Sophia smiled and waved back. They stayed for another ten minutes or so before departing to probably more suitable and lively Saturday night activities. As the group shuffled back out through the curtain to leave, Sophia tapped my shoulder. I looked up and she waved bye to me. I smiled and waved back to her. Then they were gone and I became re-immersed in “Dead Poet’s Society.” Strange, the memories we keep.
Anyway, the day news broke that Robin Williams had passed away, I wrote, “O Captain! My Captain!” as my Facebook status. (That was before we all knew Facebook to be an instrument of evil). In “Dead Poet’s Society,” Williams’ character recites the Walt Whitman poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” to his students in class and they adopt it as a mantra. “O Captain! My Captain!” the students chant with the vigor fueled by youth. Almost as if saying the declaration aloud fortifies them with superpowers along with the Navy ideals of honor and valor. It’s a terrific film. And one that reminds me of childhood, when so much of life’s path still lay ahead, untraversed. As kid I was a dreamer, ever hopeful of life’s possible bounty if one followed one’s dreams. So, the film is comforting for me because it harkens me back to a time in life that I wasn’t just happy, but exuberant. Vigorously so. Even when isolated at boarding school, I was still very hopeful of the future. Williams’ death took me back to childhood. And in fondly remembering my youth, I knew I felt saddened by more than Williams’ passing.
I learned the full meaning of the poem years later. It’s about a ship that survives a stormy and dangerous voyage, due largely to the guidance of the ship’s brave captain. But the shipmen aren’t rejoiceful when they reach their destination because their captain perished near the end of their journey. So rather than triumph and celebration, the shipmen are in mourning for their great loss. And they must now journey ahead without their dear captain. Whitman wrote the poem as an extended metaphor about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a man he greatly admired. When I learned the poem was written as an ode to Lincoln, another one of my heroes, I liked it, and the film, even more.
As the years passed, I somewhat skidded off that ambitious, hopeful path of my childhood. Much of it was my fault and much of it was OCD. I don’t write that for sympathy. I’m not in need of it now. Since my last post, written several months back, much has changed. It’s been a year since I moved back to Los Angeles. I now work for a large technology company doing a job I quite like. Having such a commitment occupying a decent share of my thoughts and time is nice. My relationship with my family has improved greatly and we’re all very close, again. I’m no longer severely depressed and feeling completely alone amidst the resurgence of my OCD. And that’s because my OCD is largely back in check. I have a new psychiatrist that has placed me on a new medication regimen which seems to be working. And I have a new therapist who’s been very helpful in my “recovery.”
My life has become very routine and rather uneventful, but for me, at this stage, that’s a good thing. OCD hates structure and with my job, I have that now. OCD hates being ignored and with my new meds, I have a new outlook and better chemical balance to help me ignore OCD more now. I still hear OCD’s wretched voice giving me instructions, trying to make me ever fearful, but its voice is much more muted. It’s no longer at the helm of my brain but tucked back in the nasal ganglia, restricted and encumbered by will. My will. This almost makes the voice more sinister as it’s a kind of whispered hissing. Hopefully, it’s the muffled sound of dying desperation.
So yeah, my life is routine but stable. And considering the path OCD was dragging me down not that far back, routine stability is something to celebrate, I think. While I’m doing much better now than this time last year, I still have moments when melancholy visits. I think as I start to engage socially more, that will wane. It’s difficult for sorrow to take root when one is distracted by external stimuli. So yes, I need to get out and about more. But I have something else that’s helped me get through the darkness and, like “Dead Poet’s Society,” gives me comfort whenever I think of him. My dog, Cooper. He’s been with me and providing the comfort and unconditional love that dogs are so apt at and generous with. Cooper lives almost 3,000 miles away in Boston so I haven’t seen him for a whole year. That has undoubtedly been one of the most difficult consequences of my relationship ending. But Cooper grew up in Boston. My ex’s family adores Cooper and he loves them dearly as well. Cooper’s support system is in Boston. That’s his home, so there he stayed.
His full name is Cooper Cuddles and he’s often referred to as CC. I would mostly call him Coopies. I still have a close relationship with my ex’s family, so I receive Cooper pics, videos, and updates from them. And for Christmas, they sent me a blanket and a mug covered with photos of Cooper. I love receiving anything and everything Cooper related. But I would be lying if I said such visual anecdotes of him have been a remotely adequate substitute to his presence. Separation from him hasn’t been easy. I have shed more tears for that dog than I ever have for any human. Thinking about him both comforts me and often gets me emotional. Thank goodness for the universally accepted rule among dog parents that strangers are allowed to pet your dog when in public, if the dog’s parents are just asked politely first. I owe a debt of gratitude to all the dog parents in Los Angeles who have kindly indulged me doting on their pups. But still, they’re not my Cooper.
The last year I lived in Boston, when I was in the throes of OCD’s formidable resurgence, it was Cooper who showed me the most love and gave me the most comfort. And while he’s not with me in Los Angeles, he still comforts me often. That’s the gift of dogs. They take residence in your heart to always protect you regardless of physical limitations. When I lived with Cooper, he would almost instinctively know when I was feeling low. He would come onto the couch with me and lay his head next to me or on my lap. More than once he placed a paw on my leg to let me know it will be ok because he’s there. And because he’s a rambunctious boxer, he needs a lot of playtime. So I’d give his play needs priority over the OCD screaming in my head. Our little game of ball chasing kept both him and my mind occupied.
My ex hated our running around the house chasing the tennis ball, but it was therapeutic for me. Cooper was my therapy and when we were together, he was the best therapy I could have asked for. His company alleviated my mental health and nourished my soul. So yes, despite being an entire country apart, he still comforts me. I know I keep saying that, but such support matters. That’s another thing about dogs. They won’t ever abandon you. They will always love you. Even when you’re sick, they stay and love you. We may not be in the ship together anymore, but thoughts of him still guide me. And now that I’m much better, I want Cooper to see that I’m doing well. As a thank you for staying with me through it all and seeing me through. And of course, because I miss him terribly. Every day away from him has been…not easy.
His handsome face is my screensaver on my iPhone. So now when I walk to a nearby coffee shop before the workday, or as a mid-day break, after I order my coffee, I see if I can use my Apple Pay. If I can, just before I scan my phone, I see Cooper. Every time I smile. Then I miss him. Sometimes I get wistful and tear-eyed, which isn’t great when it occurs in public. But sometimes I can distract and just be grateful instead of sad. After I get my coffee, I walk home. It’s a nice walk. The neighborhood is picturesque. I like the neighborhood a lot. After I return home, I get to my computer and check my work email. I see if there’s a new assignment, project request, meeting request…typical work things. If there isn’t, I return to my current assignment.
My new job entails a lot of writing and I like that. There are stringent editorial guidelines to ensure the writing properly represents the brand and products, which can be challenging, but it’s a challenge I enjoy. It’s actually the challenge of honing communication within well-defined mandates and producing effective messaging within the editorial confines that makes the work rewarding. I like the sense of achieving a clear message despite limitations. Perhaps it’s a skill I’ve been working at for quite some time. Anyway, I like it and the people. I really appreciate my colleagues. I have always been a people person. Another thing OCD worked very hard to sabotage. OCD wants isolation and hates social engagement. OCD had the upper hand for a quite a while, but I’m “reclaiming my time” and becoming part of the social milieu again.
Sometimes, as I work away writing for my job, I’ll pull up the calendar to see the day’s calls and meetings. And every once in a while, I look at dates to travel back to Boston. To visit my fur baby boy. To show him I’m better. And thank him. And slather him with love and attention. Undivided attention. I want him to see he doesn’t have to share head space in my thoughts with the demon anymore. The demon is restricted and tucked away so Cooper and I can run free. And run and run, always chasing that ball.