Through my own struggles with OCD and depression, I have become acutely aware in recent years that mental health challenges are a life and death matter. Robin Williams’s recent suicide drew attention to the devastating, and usually silent, impact of a long-term battle with one’s brain. On Monday, this hit much closer to home when my dear friend, Riley Sisson, was found dead in his apartment at age 26 after a painful battle with crippling OCD and its frequent friend depression.
I saw Riley just last week when he came over for a cigar. His anxiety was palpable, as it had been every time I’d seen him recently. His OCD focused on telling him that he had inadvertently left something behind that might harm someone else (perhaps we should rename this disease Over-Caring Disorder because every single obsessive thought I’ve ever heard of comes from excessive caring and concern, often for others. What a cruel trick for one’s brain to take something good – care for others – and turn it into a prison that won’t allow one to leave a room without checking it countless times to see what he might have left behind!).
He arrived an hour later than planned because it was so damn hard for him to leave his apartment. He also told me that, as he got near my neighborhood, he was reminded of the 2 years he spent in a nearby treatment facility for his challenges. He broke down crying in his car as he circled my neighborhood, reliving the pain of the past, fearing the pain of the future.
As it often did, our conversation turned to the topic of death. We had shared many conversations, some light-hearted and funny, some somber and scary, about wanting to just be done with our brutal brains. I remember laughing hysterically as we mocked people who express concern for our nutritional habits or our affinity for tobacco products. He told the story of a girl in college who approached him while he was smoking a cigarette and said, “You know those will kill you, right?!” He re-enacted his hyperbolic reaction: he bolted out of his seat, threw down his cigarette and said, “Oh my God! You’re right! Thank you so much for telling me!” and then he gave the girl a giant, derisive hug. She called him an asshole and walked away. (Oh, how I wish I had the guts to do something like that just once!) But even after telling me that story, Riley’s deep compassion won the day, and he became his normal, soft-spoken person quickly, saying, “I shouldn’t have done that,” with real sadness in his voice for treating this girl “unkindly.”
But last week as we spoke, Riley reiterated many times that he really did want to find a way forward in life. He was convinced that suicide was not the answer to his ever-present problems, and he had recently started grad school in order to become a therapist so he could help others from the vantage point of one who understands. (And just for the record and out of respect for Riley’s memory, I want to add that, whatever happened on Monday, it was not suicide. I’m sure of that, though that wouldn’t change my feelings in any way about Riley’s life or death…just feel the need not to imply that his death was intentionally self-inflicted.)
Oh, the brutal irony of the fact that the conversation turned to my struggles when Riley said, “I’m worried about you, Tim.” In our many conversations about our mutual desire to be liberated from our brains (aka dead), I often wondered how he kept going and felt like I was the one in a more stable place, at least for right now. So I was a little taken aback by his concern; I didn’t realize I seemed that bad off. I tried to reassure him that I was not (am not) suicidal. We agreed that wanting to be dead and being suicidal are actually very different things. We agreed that “dead” sounded great. Suicide, not so much.
There again you see who this guy was: I invited him over to care for him, and he ended up caring for me. That was Riley to the core, and I don’t simply say that out of funereal respect for my departed friend. He told me multiple times that the one thing that always kept him going was knowing how much he’d hurt others by killing himself. It caused him palpable pain to think of what it would do to his parents and sister if he died. He nearly broke down when he once told me how painful it was to him that, while his number one desire was to keep others from harm, his personal demons had created pain and anxiety for those he loved the most. That devastated him.
Last school year as I was teaching Hamlet for the 97th time (just an estimate; it might be 96), Hamlet’s final words hit me like a freight train, and in the wake of Riley’s death they seem even more relevant than ever. As he is dying, Hamlet says: “the rest is silence.” Throughout the play, Hamlet is battling obsessive uncertainty: Words are Hamlet’s problem – he can’t adequately express or pin down what he thinks and feels, yet his over-active brain won’t shut the hell up and give him peace from the fruitless quest for understanding of himself and his world. Having focused on this aspect of the 400-year-old play, Hamlet’s final words took on a brand new meaning for me: “the rest is silence”…silence is rest…rest = the bliss of turning off our ever-chattering brains. Ahh, silence. Ahhhhhhhh, rest. For Riley’s sake, I am glad he can rest now. For my sake (not to mention his family’s), I want my friend back.
So, Riley, I miss you and I love you. It feels like a bit more of a cliche than I’d like to express, but I told your mom that we won’t let your pain and untimely death go to waste. Until I join you, I will do my part to share your story (and mine); to say what others like us can’t or won’t say; to tell the world what you and I have lived through so that it doesn’t go unnoticed or untreated.
Rest well, my friend. You deserve both rest and silence. But you are also profoundly missed.