Michael David Crawford, a friend and fellow mental health activist, committed suicide earlier this week.
Michael and I met online a year or so ago, when he posted something about mental illness in a Facebook group for Caltech alumni. He, it turned out, also had bipolar disorder, and wrote about his experiences with mental illness on his website. (Technically, he had bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder, which is basically equivalent to having Type I bipolar disorder and schizophrenia at once. This sounds terrible, and is even worse.)
People who have a mental illness and are willing to talk openly about it are rare – even rarer, if they are still struggling with it, as Michael was. Aside from me and Michael, I only know one other person who is public about having bipolar disorder. (I hope he’s doing okay.)
Michael and I were in many ways kindred souls. We were both intelligent, articulate, creative people; we both graduated from Caltech; we both suffered from severe mental illness and were committed to raising awareness about mental health issues.
But there was one big difference between us. I had been able to find an effective medical treatment for my mental illness. He had not.
As a result, as his mental illness got worse, Michael hadn’t been able to keep his job as a software engineer. He worked as a contractor for awhile, but wasn’t able to keep that going, either. By the time I met him, he was living in housing provided by a nonprofit, eating from the food stamp program. When the food stamps ran out, he would sing for tips on the street – or, if no tips were forthcoming, simply go hungry.
Beyond the mental health problems, which were serious and getting worse, other medical problems were plaguing Michael – painful and potentially lethal ones. He spent a lot of time in the emergency room because it was the only place where – without money or health insurance – he could get treatment. Over the last few weeks, his health, mental and physical, continued to nosedive.
When he committed suicide, I think Michael was tired of fighting. I think he was tired of being in pain, saw no positive outcome, and decided to end the pain the only way possible.
The thing about a chemically driven mental illness is that when it’s with you, it’s with you. Every waking moment. The only ways to stop it are by dulling your brain with alcohol or other drugs, by fixing the problem medically, or by killing yourself. The people who survive are the ones who can suffer the pain long enough either to outlive that period of mental illness (some mental illnesses come and go periodically), or survive long enough to find a medical solution.
I spent six months struggling with continuous bipolar depression in 2003, before finally finding a medication regimen that worked. That took every ounce of my strength; I was within a day or two of killing myself when we finally found a medical solution. I vowed afterwards never to subject myself to that much pain again. I would not do that again, not even for another four decades of life. The pain was unbelievable.
So how Michael had the strength and courage to live with so much more untreatable pain for so long is beyond me. And to do so with compassion, grace, and a sense of humor – he must have been superhuman.
Michael was not a saint, and he had his own share of flaws, like every other human – but he made the world a brighter place, and he helped put a personal face on mental illness.
I cannot help but have spent the last half-week thinking how similar he and I were, and how easily his story could have been mine: “There, but for the grace of a teensy-tiny difference in brain chemistry, go I.”
And I wonder if, had my story been his, I could have handled it with half the grace and strength that he did.
Rest in peace, Michael. The world is a poorer place without you.
If you ever need to talk to a survior or need just to talk…kathe
Appreciate the open and honest didcussion.
Melissa Wiliams says
Oh I am so very sorry for your friend, and for you as you lost your friend. There have been far too many self-inflicted deaths this week, all of which are such terrible losses not only for the families for for all of us. Bless you for your strength and courage and for your friendship with your dear friend. Mental health and the fragility of mental illness has never been truly addressed by our society or by the general medical community, and that is wrong. We must all stand up for improved medical help and more transparency in the treatment options.
Stephen Puibello says
I’m sorry for your loss and our loss of another mental health activist. Suicide thoughts go hand-n-hand with bipolar I’m a suicide attempt survivor more than forty years ago as a boy, I tried to strangle myself and in the process stopped by older women. Like you and me on medication, I also go to therapy weekly, see my Psych Nurse Practitioner monthly, it was him who got me on low dose 150 mg Lithium which has lessened my suicidal thoughts and feeling of internal rage. I’m proud of my now 3.6 months clean from very bad meth addiction but now struggle with not being able to connect with others on a personal level. I admire all you are doing Tien, I know where the creativity comes it’s great that you have been able to make it work, you are an inspiration. Thank you for this post, for keeping Michael David Crawford’s activism going strong.
Holly Shaltz says
I am not bipolar, but have MDD, currently mostly controlled with Lamictal (SSRIs and SNRIs make me much worse – have tried 4 plus another class of ADs and won’t go there again). The difference Lamictal has made for me has been amazing, though I’m not where I used to be (in part due to other health issues), and I probably never will be again. Suicidal ideation was a daily, sometimes hourly, thing for me. All that held me back was the grief and guilt my family would feel – and that was being eroded by the feeling I was a burden they’d be glad to be rid of. For those who relate but aren’t in some sort of treatment that helps, please see a counselor and get the ball rolling to a better place. It will take all the grit you’ve got – but you have a lot, or you’d be dead already (NOT saying those who die don’t have grit – takes a lot of courage, for a whole lotta years, before the need becomes too dire to deal with any longer, and the decision to die also takes courage). At my core, I’m a survivor, and so are you. If money is an issue, there are counselors who will discount their services significantly and who know about community services to pay for the rest. But it takes your willingness, determination, and grit to make that first call or ask someone you love to do it for you. My heart goes out to you!
Karen Tenney says
Thank you for continuing to so eloquently and honestly raise awareness about mental health.
I’m so sorry for your loss. It must have been a very difficult week for you. I’m glad that you were able to write about Michael, his life, his illness, and his passing. You made your and his illness much easier for me to understand, and to almost walk for a moment in your shoes. Please do take care and don’t let this happen to you. You are love, respected and cared about by so many.
Daniel Howard says
I am sorry about Michael. I am grateful that you and he have been proponents of helping people with their mental health. Keep up the good work!
Brenda Giesbrecht says
I am truly sorry for your loss. Although I do not struggle with your conditions, we all need someone who speaks our unique language of the soul, and to lose one of those kindred spirits is to lose a bit of our own spirit.
Karen Mallin says
I am so sorry for your loss. Your words so eloquently honor this fine man who advocated for himself and others suffering with mental illness in the best way he could. We need so many more like him, and get on board with making known the need for better accessibility to mental health care and public awareness that it is not shameful to seek it. I am a Complex Weaver and Clinical Health Psychologist. We have met in the past, but if you ever want someone to talk to, I am here to support!
I’m very sorry you lost your friend.
Margarete Miller says
What a wonderfully written tribute. I appreciate you taking the time to explain the struggle. So many of us will never fully understand how difficult it is to deal with mental illness at such an intense level. I hope Michael has found peace at last.