Remembering Elisa Lam: honoring the people behind sensational stories

elisa lma
Elisa Lam, who was 21 years old at the age of her death

Life is the most precious of all treasures. Even one extra day of life is worth more than ten million ryo of gold. – Nichiren Daishonen “On Prolonging One’s Life Span” (WND, 955)

In 2013, the world was abuzz about a shocking and tantalizing story: a young woman’s body found in a water tank, on the roof of a historic Los Angeles hotel. The story makes for a fascinating read, and there are certainly many unaccountable circumstances within the account which make it one to tell over the campfire or at a slumber party. How did she manage to climb into that tall water tank and pull up that heavy lid? Why wouldn’t the elevator close right away? Who was she talking to? What were those hand gestures? It’s all a strange, creepy mystery that makes you want to pull the covers up, right?

If you dare, you can look at the spooky elevator footage, or the pictures of the workers excavating her body from the water tank, three weeks after her death.

But I won’t.

Because I’ve lived what she was possibly going through at that time – a psychotic breakdown. I’m on three of the same medications she was on at the time of her death: Welbutrin, Lamictol, and Seroquel. It’s acknowledged on the Wiki page about her death that she may have been having a psychotic episode. Elisa Lam could have been me. It could have been anyone who suffers from psychosis. When I read this story, I can’t be roused to curiosity about what happened between the elevator ride and her climbing into the water tank, because I already know about the short-circuiting that might have been happening in her brain, and I know that, at the moment in time, whatever she was doing felt like the most logical and important thing in the world, no matter how weird it seemed to everyone else, or how “creepy” and “strange” it looked on security footage.

What many non-psychotic people don’t realize is that you can have a psychotic breakdown even when you are taking your medicines faithfully. Just like when antidepressants stop working, medications for bipolar with psychosis like Lamictol, Seroquel and Welbutrin can lose their potency, and since many patients don’t hallucinate all the time, that means that a psychotic break can happen without warning. Elisa may have been acting fine and happy to her friends and family just a few days ago, and then everything went off the rails within the course of a two or three days. It’s entirely possible.

When you’re psychotic, you think you’re acting normally, or if you’re aware that you’re acting unnaturally, you don’t think it’s as bad as it really is. You’re not thinking about how you look to other people: your self-consciousness is usually totally gone as it’s the very first thing to go (at least in my experience). If Elisa was having a psychotic break, she wouldn’t think about the fact that her behavior looked strange or spooky to other people. There might not have even been anyone there in reality that she was talking to.

nikola tesla
I always talk to Nikola Tesla when I’m psychotic and supposedly he’s not there, either.

It’s very common for people to talk to themselves, or to imaginary people, during a psychotic episode. I know that I mutter a lot or talk out loud to myself when I’m psychotic, and I do things I would never do when I’m “normal:” dance in public, sing to myself, stare at other people, and etc. I also get paranoid and worry that other people might hurt me or are out to get me. It’s definitely possible that Elisa felt the same.

The police report suggested that Elisa committed suicide, but her friends and family said that she wasn’t sad and was happy and excited about her trip. If she did have a psychotic episode, that doesn’t automatically make it suicide. It might mean that she made a decision while mentally impaired that led to her death. That’s not suicide: she didn’t actively want to kill herself. She simply died as a result of her mental illness. And there is a big difference. Neither action deserves shame, but it’s important to understand that dying because of actions related to your mental illness is not the same as intentionally dying as a result of your mental illness. It helps loved ones process their loss and also helps to educate others about the realities of bipolar disorder, psychosis, and related disorders.

It saddens me every time that I read another story of someone dying because of psychosis, and then having their life and death labeled as “weird,” “bizarre,” and “spooky” because they were having a psychotic breakdown and were behaving strangely. Psychotic disorders are constantly treated as “bizarre” and treated like a petting zoo for other people. Elisa is now known as little more than how she died and a viral YouTube video of her worst moments, when she was suffering from her mental illness the worst. I know that if I had died during a psychotic episode, and someone had taken the surveillance footage from buses or trains I had been on right before and shared them with the internet – that’s not how I would want to be remembered.

I don’t think that’s how Elisa wants to be remembered either.

elisa lam 2
Beautiful, happy, smiling Elisa. This is how she should be remembered.

What’s interesting is that in other cases, the victim is remembered for their life. This isn’t always true, and of course sometimes other victims are also remembered for their strange or mysterious death, but in other accounts, everything is done to humanize them and focus on much of their life before death, rather than their final moments and their demise.

I am not saying this is specifically because Elisa (possibly) had psychosis, and thus she was singled out for it. Likely, the author never even considered this bias, but merely wanted to focus on the sensational aspects of the story. However, it’s important to remember that just because someone is acting strangely, that doesn’t negate that they are still a person. Mentally ill people are still humans, and even in their final moments – and after – they deserve dignity and humanizing characterization. This author did better than other writers at acknowledging that Elisa had a life and interests, but, when considering that she had a history of mental illness, it may have been appropriate to consult individuals who have that mental illness and ask their opinion about her behavior on the day of her death.

What also saddens me is that people are more interested in developing conspiracy theories around her death, and postulating about everything from the Men In Black to the creepy history of the Cecil Hotel, rather than discussing the tragic fact that psychosis can directly lead to someone’s death when they are actively having a psychotic episode. Temperature-related death, suicide, and even cardiovascular failure related to medication are all risks for patients with bipolar disorder. The scary thing is that even if she had not had a psychotic episode before, even situations of excited stress (“eustress”) could have triggered a brief psychotic episode that led to her death.

The thing is that we simply don’t know, but as someone with bipolar disorder with psychosis, this case has all the hallmark symptoms of a psychotic episode – not the paranormal. But we are simply more comfortable thinking that some scary force beyond our control took this woman, rather than a mental illness that people don’t like to talk about, and that anyone could struggle with during their lifetime, even if they don’t have bipolar. It’s easier to shift the blame to something beyond our control than to discuss the lack of resources and support for mentally ill people.

nami
These folks are the real MVPs, though.

Regardless, I find it hard to view this as simply another “spooky mystery story.” For me, this is a tragic tale of a young woman with psychosis meeting an early death because her medications stopped working when she didn’t have a psychiatrist available, and her support system was far away. If she hadn’t been on that trip, maybe she would be alive today – who knows? There is little mystery beyond logistics. All that remains is the horrible loss of another soul to mental illness.

When you’re performing gongyo and praying for the beloved dead today, please consider adding Elisa Lam, and all those who have lost their lives to mental illness, to your prayers.

Shakyamuni taught that the shallow is easy to embrace, but the profound is difficult. To discard the shallow and seek the profound is the way of a person of courage. – Nichiren Daishonin

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