Like millions of his fans, I was stunned by Robin’s suicide, both by the event and by the strong emotions it evoked in me. I’m sure that by now, everyone is experiencing Robin Williams overload, but last night after I discussed it for the first time with my husband I realized that I was going to have to write about it for my own therapeutic reasons. I’m including some links to some of the articles that I felt expressed my own feelings or helped me to clarify my thinking during the past three days.
A lot of the comments I’ve seen or heard about led me to believe that even though we have come a very long way in our understanding of depression, there is still a lot of ignorance and some outright prejudice and cruelty about mental illness out there.
Even my husband said that after a lot of analyzing his feelings about Robin’s suicide, he found that he mostly felt disappointed in Robin’s actions. I could understand that feeling as well as some feelings of anger that I’ve seen. They are normal reactions to a personal sense of loss. I still feel disappointment and anger at my father at times for his choice of refusing medical procedures that could have prolonged his life and given me more time with him.
However, it confirmed my own knowledge that only someone who has experienced clinical general depression or bi-polar disorder could possibly understand what it feels like at the bottom of the hole. A person who has never experienced addiction is not capable of understanding what addiction is really like. These conditions transcend logic. If anyone thinks that a depressed person, especially a suicidally depressed person, can pull out of it by choice or for the sake of the ones s/he loves, that person does not “get” severe mental illness.
I remember visiting a friend who I dearly loved in a mental health facility after she had a psychotic break and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. In my ignorance, I brought her a crystal and a small framed drawing of Quan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. She knew that these offerings were precious to me and I brought them to her as symbols of our friendship and my spirit being joined with hers during this time. When she returned them to me, the glass in the frame was broken and she told me that she had considered swallowing the crystal. At the time I left them with her, she seemed quite normal and lucid and I didn’t see the danger.
You cannot know what is happening in the brain of another person, not even a person who you feel is a soulmate.
To know that it is possible to lose that logical dialogue with your brain and emotions (or lack of them) is horrifying.
To a suicidal person who has lost the ability to use logic, the only choices they can see that they have control over is the continuation of suffering or death. They do not see the choice of hope.
Yes, suicide is a choice. It may have been that mental illness compelled Robin and others to make that choice – blinded them to the choice of life or hope. We can’t know. But we do know what people who have survived suicide attempts have told us, and we must never abandon the idea that hope is a choice. It may be a dim vision, but that’s where we need to step up and try to clarify that vision for those who are suffering.
That’s not easy when our society continues to make mental illness a source of shame. How can we identify those who need help, those who aren’t capable of seeking help on their own, those who cover up their suffering with jokes and masks? One way we can help is to talk about it with compassion and remove the stigma from mental illness.
I felt fear when the news of Robin’s death broke. This was a performer who I have followed from the beginning of his career and I felt connected to him as if he was a friend. Comedy is one of my talents and at one time I aspired to comic acting or stand-up, so I follow a lot of the comedians who inspired me from the 70s and 80s. I felt fear because I am convinced that others will hear about his choice and the choice of hope will fade from their vision.
I felt fear because, although I have not been suicidal, I remember one afternoon when I lay on my bed, thinking that death could not be worse than feeling nothing. The good thing is that I haven’t feared death since then. But I am terrified of another trip to the bottom of the hole where I cannot feel joy or happiness or anger or sadness or anything much at all. I managed to drag myself to a doctor and get help. I would have done it sooner, but I couldn’t make myself do it, and I couldn’t make myself ask a friend or my husband for help. If a friend had stepped up and said, “Can I help you make an appointment and drive you to a doctor?” I would have been so grateful.
I have lost a cousin and a friend to suicide. I don’t think that either one would have made that choice had they been able to see the top of the hole. They didn’t mean to hurt anyone else. Their vision was clouded from their own suffering, and the disease that blinded them to the choice of hope.
If you have a loved one or friend who is suffering from depression, I beg you to read some of the following articles. They will help you understand, and maybe you can help.
21 Things Nobody Tells You About Being Depressed – Yes, it’s a Buzzfeed list, but it makes some very good points if you can’t make yourself read something heavier.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass