|Tribute to Willis Lloyd Hopkin|
Welcome to this web site dedicated to the life of Willis Hopkin!
Please be sure to read the thoughts below, for they are an attempt both to pay tribute to Willis and also to face squarely, even in the midst of grief, the issues that arise from his death. I believe the end result is an orientation that is in keeping with everything that Willis stood for. Please take the time to explore freely and read the other links. Finally please note that the right-most link "Website builder" only exists because this site was built using a free utility & our cost is an advertising link for them - I am grateful for the excellent program, without which I could not have produced this site.
To the world of newspapers and TV, Willis Hopkin is an unknown name, but to the thousands whom he touched (over a thousand at his memorial service), he was a truly humble person who had that gift to see and coax out the goodness in anyone. While normally a person of his size and physical strength would more likely intimidate people, Willis had a presence that drew people in, invited them to be part of his warmth and acceptance. If ever there was a person who exemplified the qualities of human decency and compassion, it was Willis.
But I want to do more than simply pay homage to a great person. For beyond the obvious lesson of trying to emulate his affirming way of relating to people – images I will carry with me that will continue to influence me for the better - there remains an opportunity to strengthen our social fabric well beyond any individual’s bolstered efforts to be a better person. It revolves around our societal understanding of those who suffer from forms of depression.
You see, Willis suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) and due to the complex depression-inducing dynamics of this illness, he committed suicide. As the name implies, the effects of S.A.D. depend on the season, cued by the amount of sunlight. Willis was likely affected by it from his early years. As fall approached and moved into winter he would feel more and more depressed and when spring came around, his sense of well-being would elevate again. As an adult, the effects were more pronounced and he needed to take antidepressant medication starting each fall, and then could go off them in the spring. Until this year, this approach worked fairly well for him. But this fall, for some unexplainable reason (whether due to medication or dosage or other unknown factors), Willis became caught in that black vortex of deep depression.
To be clear, this illness mustn’t be confused, for instance, with my own feelings during the fall and winter seasons. I get grumpier during Vancouver’s prolonged gray skies and then find my spirit picking up when the sun shines. But the chemical levels in my body don’t go off the scale.
My point is that while our sense of well-being can be viewed as a multi-layered continuum of various chemical and electrical dynamics continually interacting throughout our ourselves, most of us tend toward normal ranges. Thus, while my feelings may vary according to the amount of sun, they are still somewhat at an innocuous point on the continuum. But for those with S.A.D., those chemical influences can take even a person as strong-willed as Willis, and sap the life from him. It remains a statement on the difficulties present in our medical understanding and care of this illness– on the one hand, our current medical knowledge may have indeed prolonged his life by years through the use of anti-depressant drugs and light therapy; on the other hand, the treatment of this illness still needs significant refining, research and resources.
Not only do some people suffer from the illness itself, but their feelings may be minimized or dismissed. Willis was one of the lucky ones, in that people respected his feelings and tried to be attentive to his depressed condition. But others hear comments such as “just look on the bright side”, “so what’s up with you these days?”, “just get over it”. There is a pervasive feeling by some that those with depression just need to ‘choose differently’ to control it. There is a growing list of other illnesses which are equally misunderstood: Schizophrenia, Bipolar or Manic Depression, Attention Deficit Disorder with/without Hyperactivity (ADD or ADHD), Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). So often, those suffering with these illnesses are ostracized for being “weird” and are abandoned by much of society. What if we looked at these diseases as chemical illnesses rather than ‘mental’ ones - would our attitudes change?
I refer back to the lessons we can learn from Willis. The opportunity to strengthen our social fabric revolves around our societal understanding of those who are ill, those who are viewed differently, those who suffer on the fringes due to undiagnosed or ineffectively treated illness.
Part of our role then is to inform ourselves, to be alert, sensitive, and supportive. While these may sound simple, we also recognize the complexity of being human, that ultimately no one can see completely into the soul of another. That is why preventive measures are so important, yet so often take a back seat in our world. And so we are left to try our best to be alert, and alert we must be! But Willis' suicide mournfully reminds us, that even with the most loving family and even with the strongest of wills (Willis), we cannot always prevent the chemical imbalances from enveloping someone into that black vortex.
Apart from our terrible personal loss, society lost a great source of leavening. Through his life, Willis naturally fought against the needlessly hurtful dynamics and brought dignity and self-respect to those on the fringe, simply treating them as equals like everyone else – he saw worth in everyone! His death should be a clarion call for us to stop labeling people or behaviours - and to realize that even the strongest of people can have their essence and will drained away through chemical imbalances which are no fault of their own. More importantly, Willis’ death should create or reinforce a resolve in each of us to help sway our societal resources to focus more on preventive measures, research and development that might someday eliminate or at least help us to be able to fully control such illnesses.