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.