A number of thoughts and emotions went through my head in the minutes and hours following the announcement that Robin Williams had killed himself. My first thought was that the world was now a lesser place without his wit and depth of personality. My second thought was to feel sorry for him, as he was obviously in a lot of pain to do something so rash. My third thought was for his family, because I know all too well what comes in the aftermath of a family member’s suicide. In the wake of that notion, I began to reflect not only upon the effect that the suicides of my parents have had on me, but also upon my own struggle with depression and the fleeting but frightening feeling that I sometimes get when I realize part of me doesn’t want to be here anymore. It doesn’t happen often, that feeling, but when it does I try to pay attention, because it’s trying to tell me something. Whether it’s that my meds need adjusting, or I need more sleep, or my diet needs to be better, or that there’s something in my life that’s stressing me out unduly, it’s a message that something needs changing.
I’m lucky in that I’ve never actually tried to kill myself. The closest to a truly suicidal impulse that I ever get is a deep-seated feeling that I just don’t want to be around anymore. It’s typically accompanied by the very quiet but unignorable sensation that others might be better off without me, because I’m often engaging in destructive behaviors when I’m feeling that low. The thought that I might be hurting the people around me makes things even worse. All I can do is retreat and try to cut off as much stimulation and sensory input as I can until the storm inside passes.
It’s difficult for me to talk when I’m feeling like this, which is the strange curse of a depressed or suicidal person. I find it embarrassing to feel that way, for a variety of personal reasons, and just really don’t care to discuss it most of the time. There’s a Chinese saying – “talking doesn’t cook the rice”. Unfortunately that’s very much true for me when things are bad. It’s not that I haven’t tried it: I have. It’s just not effective and causes me even more pain. Which leads me to a truth about being depressed: sometimes it’s enough just to be around someone who’s in pain. You don’t have to say anything. We don’t really want to be alone, but we also can’t really tolerate any stimulation. There’s an internal process that will eventually work its way through the dark place, but it takes time. Too much time for some people, it seems.
There’s also the societal stigma against any kind of mental illness, however mild it may be. We’re almost more afraid of mental illness than we are of diseases like AIDS. It’s considered one of the worst fates, to lose your mental faculties. It’s seen as a sign of weakness at best, and a sign of danger at its worst. The news only picks up the most sensational of mental illness stories: the schizophrenic who goes nuts and shoots his family, or a bipolar person who went on a manic rampage. When someone kills themselves, some will say that they were being selfish by not thinking about the people around them, not understanding that the mental processes of a depressed person don’t work like a happy person’s. All personal connections fade away into dimness, like having your ears stuffed with cotton and dark glasses on your eyes.
I feel bad for Mr. Williams’ children and wife. Almost everyone who is left behind by a suicide wonders if there wasn’t something that they could have done to prevent their death, and this is doubly so for the family, the people that spent the most time with the person. They may be left with a persistent guilt, however unfounded, about having not been able to do anything for them. I myself deal with this regarding the death of my mother. We were nearly estranged at the time of her death, and I sometimes wonder if she might not have decided to hang on if our relationship hadn’t been better. She was a very difficult person to get along with, though, and suffered from severe mental illness for most of her life. Before she died she told me not to ask her to come live here rather than with her abusive husband. There may be some insight in a suicide letter that was given to me by a friend of hers recently, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it.
What I can do is take the best care of myself that I can, which first and foremost means taking my medication (though I’m not suggesting Mr. Williams necessarily needed it – for all we know, he was taking some). That’s not always enough, though, so it’s important to eat and sleep well and exercise when I can. It’s very difficult sometimes, though, because my illness sometimes makes it hard to do anything, let alone go out and exercise, or cook a healthy meal. Then all I can do is hunker down and wait, and if necessary let my shrink know how I’m doing in case I need a med tweak. I may not be entirely forthcoming with those around me about my true feelings all the time, but I know when I’m a bad place and need to ask for help, or at least maintain my connections with people so I don’t get isolated.
I pray that a ray of light, however tiny, continues to shine on my existence so that I am not ever completely in the dark. I pray that my other friends who struggle with depression never succumb to that dark impulse. But most of all, I pray I never feel as bad as Robin Williams did when he decided to end his own life, someone who brought so much laughter and joy to so many, but in the end could not feel it himself.