I heard the news of Robin Williams’ death late on Monday and felt the familiar, hypocritical shock when I learned it was suicide.
The same shock that makes people say things like, “But (s)he didn’t look like a stalker/extremist/Conservative.” Hypocritical because we all know that outer appearance can be as much a mask as an indication of the person inside.
I’d written some thoughts a few weeks earlier when a similar tragedy occurred closer to home. Knowing the anguish that precedes such an act, I bristle when people use words like ‘cowardly’ and ‘selfish’. Where do they find the audacity to judge something it’s been their good fortune never to know? What gives them the right to determine someone else’s breaking point?
The subject is a poignant one for me as it’s invariably a reminder of how things could have been for my loved ones, indeed how they may yet unfold. I don’t mean to sound morbid or melodramatic – for me every suicide is a warning of what can happen if I let go. I’m bipolar, as are others in my family. Statistics reflect we’re 20 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. You could say the suicidal impulse runs in my blood.
Depression is a great leveler; wealth, status, success – none is insurance against it. It dissolves self-worth like acid, William Styron called self-loathing ‘depression’s premier badge’. Whatever disparaging thing you can say about someone who took their own life, however many unflattering comparisons you make to illustrate their ‘failing’ (there’s always someone worse off, right?), trust me, they will have already owned it way before it occurred to you.
Because the reality is the people most likely to believe the stigma of mental illness are those in dire mental straits themselves – hence the mask. Mired in depression you lack the strength and objectivity to fight judgment. In fact, you’re actually more receptive to negative ideas, to anything that validates what you presently feel with every fibre of your being: that you’re ‘pathetic’, ‘a burden’, ‘worthless’. You cannot envisage an entire life lived under the weight of this knowledge, nor can you bear the shame every time someone else confirms what you’re so desperately hoping people don’t see.
Suicide is an impulsive act (not always a flick-of-the-switch impulse, more often the kind of slow burn that fuels a crush on someone you later feel indifferent about). Its an idea that becomes more powerful the more you think about it, and suicidal ideation is a hallmark of major depression. Many who contemplate it, when it comes down to the wire, just need a reason not to go ahead. It’s why so many lives have been saved by the installation of suicide hotline phones in sites where suicide is common. Some only ever face this dilemma once, others will wrestle periodically with it throughout their entire lives.
Most people think depression is like seeing the world through a grey veil, but actually, to the depressed person it’s like seeing the world without a veil, with nothing to obscure the cruelty, despair and pain that is such a huge part of human existence. This is depression’s trump card – the absolute conviction that a depressed state is reality and everything else illusion.
Others seem able to blot out this grim certainty but to you it’s now obvious you’re seeing everything clearly: happiness is just a break in the clouds, reality is misery and suffering, at least for you, with your knowledge of the truth. There’s no point in holding on anymore. Holding on for what? More of the same? It may be seen as selfish, but it’s also selfish of society to be so intolerant of imperfection.
Jonathan Swift must have thought the same when he said, “Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived” I came across that quote when I was fifteen and immediately recognized the sentiment. For all those who say, ‘it’s not all doom and gloom, stop dwelling on the negative’, some studies suggest depressed individuals actually do see the world more realistically.
Depressive realism suggests positive self-deception is an integral part of most people’s outlook. Typically, people see themselves in unrealistically positive terms. They believe they have more control over their environment than they actually do, and they hold views about the future that are more positive than the evidence justifies. The ‘average’ person depends on these delusions beliefs for the self-esteem needed to get them through the day. The depressed person is better at recognizing situations over which they have little influence/control. Yet at the same time, this viewpoint is what distances them from the accepted reality. Anyone else see the irony in this?
The heartbreaking thing is that if you can just hold on, the desperation that drives you to suicide – like its polar opposite extreme joy – inevitably recedes and life continues on the other side, until the next time. But depression extracts all pleasure from existence, as though it were an eliminating antibody for every last cell capable of experiencing joy or even mere contentment. It fogs the mind and renders any ability to focus frustratingly impotent. The internal pain is a distraction from the world outside – it drowns it out, makes it impossible to be conscious of anything else. Exist like this for any protracted length of time and you grow deeply ambivalent about being alive. What is depression if not a slowed down way of being dead but conscious?
I have a talisman I carry in my heart. It came into my possession only recently, read somewhere and logged away in my brain, a seed that germinates whenever I become preoccupied with death and dying. It’s the knowledge that, if I killed myself, I would condemn my children to a lifetime of wondering why they weren’t enough to keep me here. I never want my children to think they aren’t enough – not for a day and certainly not for a lifetime. This is my reason to hang on. I hope it holds.
A good way to honour Robin Williams’ memory would be to make his death the turning point that finally wakes us all up to the reality of mental illness, but something tells me we’re a long way from that capacity for blanket compassion. Until then those who can’t hang on any longer will continue to be blamed for society’s inability to recognize itself in them.
If you are dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts you’re NOT alone. There are resources out there ready to help.