Robin Williams has apparently killed himself. Or at least the initial reports say that it’s most likely suicide. And as the nation mourns one of its most famous funny men, the social media circus revs up again. Mostly, it is post after post about what this ‘stranger’ meant to someone, about how sad they are even though they did not know him. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is hard to escape the cloud of sadness – he was a hometown boy made big – made huge, really – and it seems every other person has had a personal encounter with him.
And not because people are lying – or stretching the truth- but because, by all local accounts, he was that kind of guy. He was kind to people he didn’t know, people who served him, and he was generous with his time and his humor, in all kinds of situations. When someone so funny and so kind-hearted ends their own life, there is a distinct layer to the sadness – for everyone who hears it – an inability to reconcile that kindness with despair.
At the edge of that sad and somber mourning, though, is the same storm of callousness and rage that shows up whenever a celebrity kills themselves, whether by a decisive single act or by addiction. Cries of selfishness. Accusations of being unworthy of respect. Loud ramblings about how this choice is not an illness, but a flaw of character, a moral failing, a way to fail all those who loved him.
Never mind that selfish is rewarded in all kinds of American realms. I’m out to get mine. I gotta look out for myself. That company was just trying to get the profit it earned. Don’t let anyone get in the way of what you deserve.
Does suicide feel selfish to those left behind? Absolutely. Does the family member of an addict feel their own feelings are being disregarded? Yes. Those left behind feel abandoned, discounted, not important enough.
But looking at the fish in the bowl doesn’t give us any sense of how it feels from the inside, of what the view is while looking from the inside out.
I don’t know the details of Robin Williams’ death and I’m not discussing his struggle specifically. I’m saying that unless you’ve been to the depths that make you seriously plot, plan and even start to execute your own death, then you just can’t know. And even then, you know what it feels like for you.
I can’t know. I can still empathize, imagine, try to understand how to remove my own selfish feelings about another person’s pain so that I can better understand what it is that gets someone to that irrevocable point in time. I can’t, though, even begin to surmise all of the ways that the decision does or does not feel selfish to the person in the throes of making that decision.
Some defenders of those struggling with depression, when faced with the selfish cry, claim that it’s like being angry or chastising someone who dies of cancer. And I see the point being made – mental illness is an illness. Not a choice. But the analogy has some major flaws and so I think, sometimes, it does more harm than good. At best, it fails to break through to someone who is convinced that suicide is selfish at its core.
I think suicide is more like someone with cancer who refuses treatment, or gives up on treatment, or who decides that the prognosis is too dire and they end their own life. We, most of us, have more compassion for that suicidal choice. After all, they have cancer, not a character flaw that makes them weak and selfish. They are taking charge of their own life, choosing not to suffer.
At heart, all pain is equal if it feels insurmountable to the person suffering. Whether it is caused by cancer cells or a brain wired for despair. In either scenario – cancer patient or severely depressed person – the death is a means to end the pain.
There’s more to it, of course, nuance after nuance, but the act itself is an end to suffering and that seems to be its most attractive feature.
Death, any which way, is devastating for those left behind. And when it’s a suicide, there’s a sadness that digs a whole different whole – one where the what ifs and the I wish I hads can bury the survivors in guilt and regret. And sometimes the way to unbury is to be angry. It’s a natural step in the grieving process.
Some people stay mired in that step. They carry that anger out to everyone who has felt so alone, so worthless, so full of ache and hurt that they ended their life.
If we could only end the stigma of mental illness, and by extension, depression, then people would have more compassion. That’s the party line. And I buy into it. The stigma keeps millions silent. Or, even if not totally silent, it creates a sort of public closet where only those closest to the individual know what is really going on.
I read an article today citing statistics showing that increased awareness of mental illness hasn’t decreased the stigma. Frightening statistics. Those of us who want to remove (or at least minimize) the stigma, who want to look at and treat mentally ill people like the full-fledged human beings that they are, we say awareness is key, that people breaking their silence will only help.
I don’t think that’s untrue. Since dealing with mental illness, very personally, in my own family, my awareness has led to even more compassion and understanding on my part. But I have also never been more afraid of becoming mentally ill than after my mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 50.
If her, at this age, when am I ever safe?
It is this fear, that we all have, to some degree, that keeps us from being able to address this as we would any other disease.
I was afraid, to some degree, as soon as I became aware of the different kinds of crazy one could be – I used to wonder if I would be the one in my family to lose it. But years passed, as they do, and that fear passed. Only to resurface when my mother leapt clear from the plane of reality – or so it felt at the time.
It was a traumatic time. For the whole family. Hard to comprehend for close friends of the family. People chiming in that she was just fine when we all knew she wasn’t.
I could lose my train of thought here, get mired in the details of what went wrong, what went right, how the whole mess of madness affected me and my family. But that’s not what I’m trying to get at here.
One of the things I had to come to terms with then – and yet again very recently as another very close family member was hospitalized for bipolar illness – is my own deep-down terror at the thought of losing my mind.
I’m afraid of cancer, of Alzheimer’s, of all sorts of terminal and/or chronic illnesses. But not in the way that I am of mental illness. My mind. It’s who I am – how I have always defined myself. And to be mad is to be dismissed, to be marginal, to be background noise in the everyday.
Unless you can hide it. Unless no one knows. Then, perhaps, you have hope of being taken seriously, of still being a real person worthy of someone else’s respect – not just pity, or even worse, scorn.
I don’t know any solutions. I do believe, though, that if we ignore the fear we all have, ignore the place inside of us that makes it hard to talk to each other about mental illness, the core of terror that makes us afraid to ask a depressed friend if she’s alright and really want an answer – if we can’t face and acknowledge that fear, we will always keep mental illness and those we see as mentally ill at an extended arm’s length away.
If we are guided by that fear, we will always be afraid to ask the real questions and listen to the real answers.
And so isolated people will remain alone to decide to end the pain on their own.
And people can call them selfish instead of looking at ways we all may have failed to reach out and help them see beyond the fish-eye lens of despair.
When do we stop counting on awareness to work as a magical salve and start figuring out how to engage with each other in ways that make working with, living with, sharing space with mentally ill people not seem awkward or uncomfortable or weird? Awareness is a big piece. So is visibility. So is acting past the fear.
How do we break through, as a whole, as a culture, and say yes, this shit is really scary without saying you are not whole? Without saying I am afraid of you?
Because, really, the most selfish thing we can do is let someone we care about suffer alone.