“It’s the same voice thought that … you’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice that goes, ‘Jump.’ The same voice that goes, ‘Just one.’ … And the idea of just one for someone who has no tolerance for it, that’s not the possibility.” Robin Williams, 2006 Interview with Diane Sawyer, ABC News.
I’m not a psychiatrist, or any type of mental health professional whatsoever. Just a regular, overthinking human trying to understand her place in the world while occasionally battling inner demons and alternately partying with inner angels. But like half the world, I’m caught up in the loss of Robin Williams to apparent suicide. It affected me in ways that surprised me. I wrote much of this post last December after a high school classmate of mine died suddenly. I never posted it. Mr. Williams’ death made me revisit it, add to it, revise it, and finish it.
There’s at least one thing I think needs to happen before we have a shot in hell at helping people overcome or cope with depression in a non-destructive way: recognize that depression and “mental illness” of varying kinds are fairly normal and common. All over social media people are imploring each other to “help those with mental illness.” I completely agree with the sentiment to help. What I disagree with is the laymen among us calling depression (and its cousins) mental illness.
Like I said, I’m no shrink. I’m not even going to argue about whether or not depression (clinical or otherwise), bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorder (pick your poison) are mental illnesses. That is for the scientists and mental health professionals to debate and decide. I’ll concede they are in the strictest sense of the word “illnesses.” But the rest of us average Janes and Joes need to stop calling them, or thinking of them, especially depression, as mental illness, or we have no hope in helping anyone afflicted. In no way do I mean to discourage anyone who is depressed from seeking professional help. I think all the tools in the toolkit should be on the table as an option, and each person must find their own path. But the reality is there can be very serious consequences for those who admit they’re struggling with something all too common. Stigma. A record of “mental illness” slapped on official documents. Loss of job. Never getting that job. Pity. Behind the back whispers. Humiliation. Loss of some rights. Even a trip to the mental hospital, or involuntary incarceration. For people to feel more willing to seek professional help, it starts with re-framing the entire thing. And it starts with us being there for each other. Really, truly being there for each other.
Suicide is not just an angsty teenager problem. According to the CDC, in 2010 (the most recent comprehensive data) there were 38,364 suicides in the United States. That’s an average of 105 per day. It’s the leading cause of death among those ages 15-24, second for those 25-34, and fourth for those 35-54. And people who are 45-64 years of age – Mr. Williams’ age group – tend to be the most depressed of all cohorts. One in ten adults report current depression. That’s ten percent. If you expand the range to adults with any type of mental illness, it jumps up to more than 18 percent (close to one in five). By comparison the total number of homicides in the same year was 14,772, less than half the number of suicides. That’s startling really. When such a large number of people are afflicted (right now, that doesn’t cover past affliction), I feel it does it a disservice to call the affliction an illness in every day conversation. Leave that to the medical professionals, but for us regular people, let’s just call it life. “Mental Illness”, especially depression, seems to be, for whatever evolutionary reasons, a part of the human experience. Perhaps a wide spectrum of experience, but a common experience nonetheless. We all have moments of mental torment, even if they don’t arise to the level of “illness.” Yet there is still such a stigma. Why is that? It’s easy to understand why some choose not to seek professional help, but why do we ignore the cries for help from those we love, and fail to reach out to willing friends when we’re the ones in need?
I’ve often wondered what it is that pushes a person to that final moment. I’m sure it’s different for everyone. I once watched interviews of survivors who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. They said the second after they jumped, already in freefall, they regretted it. I believe nearly all human minds are capable of being pushed too far, and of coming back from it. All of us. Not just the “mentally ill.” The tricky part is making it through the gauntlet of despair (each time we travel it) to learn this, and to remember it – and believe it — the next time we’re feeling at our lowest. After all, who among us has not been blue one time or another? I understand that clinical depression is different from sadness, but it’s a close relative. Robin Williams once said this in an interview when asked if he’d been diagnosed with Clinical Depression: “No clinical depression, no. No. I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, ‘Whoa.’ Other moments you look and go, ‘Oh, things are okay.'”
I’ve often heard people make comments like “I can never understand why someone would” commit suicide, or “it always gets better,” or “it’s not worth it,” or “pain is temporary, death is forever.” Survivors are often angry with the deceased for being selfish. I can’t blame them. We all grieve in our own way, and almost no response to grief is really wrong. And suicide is a selfish act. But we have all had moments of selfishness.
I can only say, if you can’t understand that level of despair, I’m happy for you in a way. It means you’ve either never been in a truly deep and dark depression and/or you have a natural born mental toughness that many people don’t have. I used to think I had that kind of toughness. I was wrong. Almost four years ago, I was pushed to my near breaking point. I won’t go into the details in this post. I’m not sure I ever will frankly, as that may lead to another discussion of stigma I’m not ready to address publicly. For me, it wasn’t a sudden drop. It was gradual, came at me from many angles, and took many years of fighting through an intolerable (to me) situation followed by a severe trauma to my sense of self-worth. I believe my descent was probably obvious to most people who knew me.
At the time, I read a book called For Richer, For Poorer, by Victoria Coren, a writer and professional poker player. She talked about a time in her life when she was at her lowest, and she framed so perfectly what I was also feeling at the time. To paraphrase what she wrote, “it wasn’t that I wanted to die, but I didn’t want to keep feeling the pain.” When you’re at your lowest, it really is like a persistent physical pain. It’s all you can think about. You can’t think about what it will feel like when it’s better. You can’t remember what better feels like. All you have is the intense pain in the moment. That is what depression is. Combine depression with a momentary lack of impulse control, and disaster strikes. It only takes one microsecond of weakness to enter oblivion.
Those of you who claim not to understand suicide or even deep depression, can you honestly say you’ve never cheated on a diet, or missed a workout, or lashed out in anger? Have you always maintained 100% perfect discipline with everything you wanted to achieve? If you can say yes to that question, you may not be depressed, but you definitely have other mental issues. As Han Solo said, “I’m out of it for a little while, everybody gets delusions of grandeur.”
We all have moments of weakness. We all experience pain. Some of us just have more moments than others, and they manifest themselves differently in each person. Some people can recover more quickly. Some of us – the luckiest or heartiest among us — may never experience that trigger that begins our downward spiral beyond feeling a bit blue. I never reached that point of actually wanting to kill myself, but I stepped closer to it than I ever had before, and that was bad enough. I think of a quote I read once by Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, where he talked about understanding his character’s evil and capacity to do bad things. The GQ reporter asked him if he believed in evil, and Cranston responded:
“Yeah. I think it’s right next to good, inside every person… I had one girlfriend I wanted to kill… And I envisioned myself killing her. It was so clear. My apartment had a brick wall on one side, and I envisioned opening the door, grabbing her by the hair, dragging her inside, and shoving her head into that brick wall until brain matter was dripping down the sides of it. Then I shuddered and realized how clearly I saw that happening. And I called the police because I was so afraid. I was temporarily insane—capable of doing tremendous damage to her and to myself. “
While I don’t believe in supernatural evil, I do believe that we are all capable of dark things as well as beautiful things. Depression and suicide are part of that darkness. Sometimes they win us over. It only takes a second.
What can we do about it? Ultimately, that’s why I wanted to write this. I don’t proclaim to have the answers. I don’t think every, or maybe even most, suicides are preventable. I don’t think the living should blame themselves for the actions of our loved ones in their weakest, or most selfish moments. Our psyches are fragile creatures, easily frightened. But I think back to my darkest hours… and while there were friends occasionally asking how I was doing, at the time I felt abandoned.
I struggled writing that last sentence. In no way do I mean to condemn my friends, or tell them I think they were terrible, or make them feel bad in anyway. I’m sincerely sorry if any of them take this that way. It’s entirely possible – likely even — that my memory is clouded with the selfishness that is inherent with so much mental pain. When you’re depressed, all you can think about is yourself. It’s not that you want to think about yourself, it’s just really, really hard not to. Again… mental pain is not that different from physical pain. Try breaking a bone and not thinking about it. But I think we all (and I include myself here wholeheartedly) talk a big game in our culture about helping those with “mental illness,” or ending bullying, or preventing this or that tragedy, yet we often continue on with the same behaviors that make all of those things inevitable to continue. We talk about being there for each other, but how often are we really there?
Have you ever seen one of those “the most annoying things your friends do on Facebook” types of lists? There’s almost always something in the vein of “that friend who fishes for sympathy” category. I know I’ve fished. I know I’ve been annoyed by people who I see fishing. But why are we (raising my own hand here) so cold to people who are clearly crying out for attention? Is it because in our minds they are just narcissistic whiners who are otherwise perfectly fine? We think they should just “get over it” and “up their attitude?” Or do we just not care about them? I know with me, my annoyance increases the less close I am to the person. It makes me sad that a tool that could truly save people’s lives is still often just a vehicle for high school type gossip, and pushing people further down. All life is like high school I guess. That’s a shame.
Four years later, after a lot of biking-by-the-lake therapy, kitty cuddle therapy, and improvements in my overall life situation have made me begin to forget what that pain was like. I think when we’re in a happy place we judge those who aren’t more harshly, even when we’ve experienced near similar pain in our past. We get on with our lives, and tell ourselves that person will be ok, if we even notice their pain to begin with. It’s part of the human coping mechanism. Again, I’m just as guilty of this as anyone. But, I keep trying not to forget what I felt like during my rock bottom moments. I never want to feel that way, for that persistent a time, again. I am working on reaching out to people more when I need them. I have a long way to go. I recently lost my cat after a long six months of fighting for his life, and it devastated me. He really had been a bedrock that supported me through that dark time. He didn’t pass judgment, just snuggles. It’s difficult to pull a human friend into your inner demonic battles. Fear of judgment lies in the shadows. No one wants to be the cause of deep eye rolling in others (you’re this sad about a cat???). But we have to try.
On the flip side, I understand that it is difficult to be a friend and reach out to someone we see in pain. As an introvert who fears conflict and who does better with the written word than in person, reaching out directly to give help is more difficult for me than almost anything. Although Facebook and other social media can be loathsome vehicles for perpetuating pain, I believe they can also be amazing saviors. I have found friendships online that never would have existed. For myself, I have tried to recognize when my friends are fishing. At worst, not hold any ill will towards them, and at best ask them what is wrong, or give them a virtual hug. We all need a pat on the back – or massive bear hug — from time to time. Sometimes we need it often. Some of us need it more often than others. Some of us just haven’t hit that wall yet.
Thinking back to my own abyss, I wonder what might have helped me climb out sooner. It’s impossible to know for sure if anything would have. For me, I think my darkest moment of prolonged depression was tied very closely to a specific situation, and once that situation no longer existed, healing began. Even so, I can’t completely ignore some inherent traits within my biology that might make me more prone to relapse than others. But I think for me, the occasional thoughtful words “Do you need anything?” “I’m thinking of you?” “How can I help?” “Do you want to talk?” from friends have always gone a long way. Just knowing that someone out there had literally been thinking of me was sometimes all I needed to lift my spirits. Even if I didn’t take them up on their offer. Everyone is different. When someone would tell me “it’s going to get better” that honestly made it worse. I wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn’t feel that? I logically believed what they said, but as Coren said, I just wanted the pain to end now. You can’t see the future when you’re in that kind of pain. You live in the moment. Sometimes acknowledging how much things suck is what you need. Sometimes you just need a friend to listen to your bitching without judgment. Everyone is different, and that makes it hard for friends and family to navigate.
It is difficult being a happy (at the moment) friend listening to a depressed friend drone on in selfish reverie. I’ve been on that side as well. We all have been on both sides. For me, healing took time (and frankly, it’s still happening, perhaps I’ll never truly heal, I’ll just scar over). For others, the struggle might just be a continual part of who they are. Needing constant maintenance. We’re all fragile in our own ways.
Ultimately, when someone takes their own life, they are responsible. They leave a swath of pain from that hasty, selfish moment in time that probably will never leave those who loved them. We can’t blame ourselves for what might have been, or what we didn’t do, even though we will. All I hope is that we forgive them, and not ignore each other, those left behind. We are all capable of losing track of what matters most in life. Those of us who took the final steps to end this short life far too soon, and those of us who remain… we’re all capable of darkness and light.
Robin Williams’ pain is gone. So is his capacity for joy and his genius to make us laugh. I will try to remember the lesson of his choice. We’re all flawed and beautiful creatures. We all need help from time to time. We all fail to recognize when to ask for it, and when and how to give it. I promise to work on improving those failings in myself. I promise to remember that we’re all merely human. I promise to try very hard to be a better friend. That’s all I can do. I hope it’s a start.