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Tuesday, August 28, 2007
(11:23 AM) | Stephen:
Owen And Me

That Owen Wilson apparently attempted to commit suicide has made quite a splash. You'd think that Americans would be more jaded about this type of thing; certainly entertainers are in the news for self-destructive behavior all the time.

But I've heard radio DJ's and read blogs about how much of a surprise it is that Owen Wilson would do this. Some people trot out the standard stuff about how dumb it is for some rich, famous actor in the height of his success to feel bad enough to do this, castigating him for apparently forgetting all the people who aren't rich, aren't famous yet manage to not attempt suicide.

The real reason for the shock surrounding Owen, though, isn't so much that he's successful as it is that he's so likable, so appealing a person. He has managed to completely steal every scene he's been in, at least in the movies I've watched. He doesn't always appear in great movies, but he's always great in them. I hated Meet the Parents. It was the worst collection of miserable, unsympathetic characters I've ever seen. Except Owen Wilson. He was supposed to be this "so-perfect-you-hate-him" kind of guy, except that you just couldn't get around to the hating him part. Zoolander is another example. That movie had 2 good parts: the scene at the gas station and whenever Owen Wilson was in front of the camera. He makes other actors better, more comfortable, the scenes flow more naturally.

Many actors are revered, some reviled, but everyone likes Owen. You walk out of his movies with a friend, it seems. And that's why people have been shaken by his suicide attempt.

It's self-centered* of me, but I have my own type of experience with this. As far back as I can remember, I have been the leader of every single group I've been a part of. Sometimes there's a formal process, but most of the time people just turn to me for leadership. Whether it's as one of the Starbucks managers on the district, as a youth pastor in the church district or on the innumerable academic group projects and discussions. One of the things that's been disconcerting, but good for me, is how I'm not automatically the first among equals when I discuss things in blog forums or write a post. It's certainly helped me to understand that a lot of why I've always been made a leader and been so persuasive is due to personality more than brilliance. Which is why my grades don't always reflect the deference paid to me by my academic peers.

I'm good at parties and conferences. I can get up and speak in front of a couple of thousand people, or lead a group of 5 in almost any discussion you want. When I started to open up about my Depression, a lot of people had a hard time accepting it, because they saw me as this confident, funny guy, with lots of friends, a great family, etc.

But this persona - which is the real me, but only a part - is not to be understood as existing in spite of my Depression, but largely because of it. I've come to grips with the idea that I have some leadership qualities, that I have some good ideas - and yes, it's been hard to accept that, to really believe it, and I still feel very guilty for ever thinking it - but for a very long time it was a combination of an act intended to deceive people into thinking that I was OK and an act intended to deceive myself for the same purpose.

Lots of Depressives - and people who suffer from other psychological illnesses - end up in creative and/or leadership positions because of this dynamic. We set up outer lives of who we want to be, or think we should be, and we can be incredibly successful with them.

For a while, at least, until the inevitable crash happens. That crash often takes place at precisely the moment when it outwardly seems most unlikely, because it's when we appear the most successful, the happiest, the most put together that mental illness sufferers are expending the most energy to not only keep the streak going but to also ignore the doubts, fears, panics and damaging self-talk. The thing about the Voice - or Voices, depending upon what disorder might be present - is that it will always be heard. The Voice will always be louder than applause, louder than acclaim, louder and more insistent than your friends, your family, your agent, whoever.

Sometimes success is the worst thing that can happen to a Depressive, because it puts the disconnect between public and private into such sharp relief that the discrepancy becomes intolerable, too painful to bear, and it can cause not just a downward turn but a crash so steep that self-inflicted death becomes a thing lovely to behold, a sweet release from all the garbage strewn around one's life.

Another aspect of all this is how it doesn't help for people to be surprised that a particular person is depressed, or bipolar, or suicidal. On the surface it seems like a compliment, and surely that's how people always intend it to be. But to have everyone express shock and wonder that you've got a mental illness only serves to increase your sense of alienation. That it was my wife who first spoke of depression to me, who insisted that I seek help has been an immense comfort to me, because it showed that she knew me, the real me, and knew there was a problem, and she cared enough to want to fix it. When I told my mother about it, she wasn't expecting it, but neither was she in shock. "I've known there was something for years," she said, "But I never could put my finger on it. And I never knew what to do for you."

That comment did far more good than all the people who simply couldn't believe that I could be depressed. I knew that my mom really knew me and really cared for me. We of course don't know how Owen's friends and family are taking this and how they're talking to him. Hopefully someone will have the good sense and insight to tell him that while they didn't expect him to try to take his own life, they could tell something was off, and now that they know how bad it's been they'll make sure he gets the help he needs.

*I'm a depressive and a blogger. It's a wonder I can ever think or write about anything but me.

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