Robin Williams and Suicide Stigma

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[Originally written for my other blog on August 12, 2014.]

Last night was tough.

My phone alerted me a little after 6:00 that Robin Williams had died, and then the media released details indicating that he appeared to have died by suicide.  The loss of such a gifted and beloved man is already painful, but I’m devastated that he took his own life.  It makes the loss exponentially sadder and more tragic, at least for me.

I was already having a bit of a shaky day yesterday.  I’ve been feeling good lately, courtesy of my new antidepressant, but the last week or so has reminded me that I still have a long way to go and that taking an antidepressant doesn’t mean that I’ll never feel depressed again.  So yesterday wasn’t a great day to begin with, and then the Robin Williams news broke and I completely fell apart.  It scares me, all the way to my bones, to see someone succumb to the same illness I have.  Robin was wealthy and successful and admired by (it seems) pretty much everybody, and his demons still got him.  In spite of all he had going for him, his depression hurt so much and made him feel so worthless and hopeless that he thought the only way to make it stop was to die.  And I can’t bear it.  I can’t stand the thought of how he must have been feeling over the last few days and in his last moments.  I can’t stand that this disorder has the power to do this to a person.  When you really think about it, it’s shocking – the primitive urge to stay alive, to survive, is hard-wired into our biology, into every cell of our bodies, and depression has the power to twist your mind so badly that your brain overrides that most basic instinct.  It has the power to make you feel that killing yourself makes sense.  A lot of people don’t realize that, so it’s easy for them to pass judgment on people who commit suicide.  “What a selfish thing to do,” they say.  “He took the easy way out.”

Several years ago, I was going through a period of extreme emotional turmoil.  My life got turned upside down and I was so scared and in so much pain and I truly could not imagine a time when I wouldn’t feel that way anymore.  I hated my life and I hated myself and believed that I always would, so I actually began formulating a plan to die.  I decided on a method and researched how to get my hands on what I’d need.  That was as far as it went, fortunately, because when push came to shove I wasn’t so far gone that I couldn’t find something to cling to and live for.  But I can tell you that there was nothing easy about being in that much pain and feeling too scared to tell anyone because I was afraid I’d be locked up and that stigma would follow me forever.  There was nothing easy about that mental and emotional suffering and believing that I’d never get better.  That is one of the many ways that depression wears you down – in addition to dragging you down into despair and self-loathing, it also tells you over and over and over that you’re never going to get better, so what’s the point of trying?  You have nothing in your future but more of this pain. (Mine also likes to tell me that even if I get better, no one will ever love me or want to be with me because I could relapse again at any time.)  The deciding factor in going on medication this summer was the surfacing of suicidal thoughts.  It’s something you can’t truly understand unless you’ve been there yourself, but believe me when I say that that state of mind, where thoughts about suicide intrude on your thoughts without warning multiple times a day, is completely terrifying and absolutely unbearable.

So to the people who claim that suicide is selfish and taking the easy way out, I say this: Educate yourself, because you have no idea what you’re talking about.  People deep in depression don’t kill themselves because it’s the easy way out.  They kill themselves because they believe it’s the only way out.

People don’t die of AIDS.  They die of an infection (or complications of an infection) that their body can’t fight because they have AIDS.  But we commonly say, “That person died of AIDS.”  I wish we could learn to talk about depression in a similar way.  When a person with depression dies by suicide, no matter the method, what they are really dying of is depression.  You wouldn’t pass judgment on the character or moral fiber of a person who died of cancer or heart disease.  Passing judgment on a mentally ill person is just as unfair, but the stigma surrounding mental illness in our culture makes it an all-too-common practice.  And that has to stop.  Having a mental illness is awful enough already without being judged for having it and feeling like you have to hide it or, worse, ignore it.  I’ve been blogging about my depression because I refuse to treat it like it’s some kind of weakness and I refuse to be afraid of people judging me.  If we’re going to wipe out the stigma, we have to talk about this.  We have to be gutsy and honest, and we have to educate ourselves and each other.

So let’s start here:  Robin Williams is not dead because he was weak or cowardly or selfish.  He’s dead because he was sick.  Period.

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