Rest Well, My Friend

Riley 3Through 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.

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When Words Just Won’t Help friend of mine has been in a deep hole of depression lately…suicide attempt, hospital…the works. I called him the other night and reached him at his Iowa home, where he was sitting alone, mindlessly watching TV, hoping he wouldn’t wake up tomorrow.

We talked for over an hour about everything from our mutual desire to understand why things in the world are the way they are to whether the Falcons were going to be any good this football season. At the end of the conversation, I felt the sense of impotence that my wife must feel when talking to me about my depression: I WANT TO SAY THE MAGIC THING THAT WILL CURE HIM, BUT DAMN IT! I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS!!!

What’s ironic is that I, as much as anyone, know that when I’m depressed, no logical argument or perspective can drag me from the hole. Yet I still had to fight the constant temptation throughout our conversation to wrack my brain for just the right perspective-inducing comment…

“You have so much to live for!”

“Tomorrow is another day.”

“Let go and let God.”

Or even the guilt trip method: “Think how much pain you’ll cause if you kill yourself!”

But from an unfortunate amount of experience, I can say that none of that does the trick. EVER. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, simple human presence and preferably the presence of someone who doesn’t want to try to fix me, is the only thing that does much good.

That’s it. The end. I have no advice to offer you on this subject. I suppose my point in posting this is simply to say that depression is really fucking hard to deal with, both for the person suffering from it and for the person trying to find the right words that will help.



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Seinfeld and The Embarrassment of Mental Illnesses

george costanzaYesterday I was talking with a friend who has recently become a therapist. She is treating someone with OCD who feels humiliated by her obsessive thoughts (scrupulosity in particular, a very common form of OCD), yet also compelled to confess them, thinking that might help her. Boy can I relate! The embarrassment of mental illness might well be the most crippling aspect of the whole disease!

If you’ve read my book, you know that one of my obsessive fears has been impotence (in layman’s terms “not being able to get it up” for sex). This particular thought burdened me throughout my college years and into my 20’s My compulsion regarding impotence was constant “checking,” a common compulsion for all sorts of obsessions. Obviously, this checking wasn’t anything anyone could see (unless I wanted to get arrested for unzipping my pants 23,498 times per day), but every time I’d pass a pretty girl, I’d check to see if my penis had moved (there’s a hilarious Seinfeld episode about whether “it” moved and whether George might be gay AND there’s a great article on this form of OCD by Steven Phillipson here). Essentially, all day every day, I was monitoring my penis’s state of alertness against how alert my obsessive brain thought it should be.

Some of you are probably thinking, “I can’t believe he’s writing about this!” and there’s a part of me that does indeed find it embarrassing to share this. But that’s my whole point in this post: Mental illness is embarrassing and therefore isolating. When you have a broken leg, there’s external proof that a problem really does exist. No one’s embarrassed to wear a cast or use crutches in public. But because most people naively think that human beings have complete control over our thoughts at all times, those of us with a mental illness who have at some point “confessed” our terrible thoughts to others have likely been met with some version of this response: “Just think about something else!” Or there’s the spiritualized version of this thinking: “Just pray about it” or “Quote this verse about trusting God,” yada, yada, yada.

If we were even brave enough to confess our thoughts in the first place, we find ourselves even more embarrassed when we can’t make our brains quit thinking the terrible thoughts or when the Bible verse fails to do the magic we had hoped for. The embarrassment, shame, humiliation, and sense of isolation eventually become the only true friends we know we can rely on.

My advice for those who want to know they’re not alone, though I am not an expert in these things, would be as follows:

  • Find someone to talk to honestly and openly BUT DON’T tell just anyone. Most people are not remotely qualified to deal with a mentally ill brain, and many people, even professionals, respond the wrong way to our confessions. In terms of finding a therapist or friend to divulge your secrets to, start by asking them how familiar they are, in general terms, with OCD, depression, etc. (whatever you’re dealing with) and let them prove to you that they are ready to hear what you have to say before you spill the beans. Also, consider starting with one of your less embarrassing confessions to gauge their reaction; then go from there.
  • Read as much as possible about your particular source of embarrassment. I guarantee you you are not alone. Just start with Google and look up “common forms of ocd” or “things depressed people think about”…and start digging. You’ll find “friends” quickly!
  • Start right here! This website is intended as a place for people to find community online. You don’t have to share your real name or anything like that…but if you need a place to “confess” or to ask if anyone else understands, this can be the place to do just that! Leave a comment on this post, or go into the Chat Room (just be aware that it’s still under construction and somewhat clunky, so for now, the comment section would be best).
  • Feel free to email me at I’ve heard all sorts of “confessions” since I went public with my own internal struggles. I dare you to try to shock me! I doubt you will succeed.


I Think It Moved by Steven Phillipson

Steven Phillipson’s tremendous OCD website: OCD online

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