I have great sadness in my heart tonight, as I'm sure many of you do. Yesterday, Robin Williams was found dead, due to suicide. *Sigh* Where do I begin? With the media's complete lack of empathy or compassion, for example Fox News anchor Shepard Smith calling Williams "such a coward"? Or ABC News setting up aerial views of Williams' home? Maybe Todd Bridges making comments on Twitter, criticizing Williams?
Or how about, gee I don't know, the obvious severe mental illness Robin Williams was fighting that led to such a devastating and tragic loss?
Let me start with what I think us, society's, problem really is. We are FUCKING SCARED. We are scared people. We live everyday in fear. All the time. We fear making money, we fear losing money. We fear living, we fear dying. We fear trying new things, we fear NOT trying new things. And most importantly, we fear bad things happening to us. We go to great lengths, all the time, to make sure bad things don't happen to us.
So, when something horribly tragic does happens, we find ways to point out to ourselves, and others, that could never happen to me. Never. And that is what society, as a whole, has been doing for the past day. We can't imagine someone who was successful, wealthy, and married with children taking his own life. If that could happen to him, could it happen to me??
I don't have the answer, sorry if that's what you had hoped. But, I can tell you this. No one is immune to depression, depressive thoughts, or even suicidal thoughts. I'm sure every one of us knows someone who has seriously contemplated suicide, or has themselves. It's a lonely, isolated, scary head space to be in and all I can think about is the fear Robin Williams must have felt in his last moments. The complete, empty, hopeless, lonely FEAR.
Those who say suicide is taking the "easy way out" may mean well, however, in my humble opinion, it misses the mark. That mental place is neither brave nor cowardly. It's EMPTY. It's NUMB. It is, in essence, void of any feeling whatsoever. Granted, there are people who kill themselves to exact revenge, but that is still due to mental illness. Most likely a personality disorder, but I digress.
How can I speak to suicide so confidently? Well, I worked in a mental health clinic for three years, as a clinician, and most of my clients had been, or currently were, suicidal. Also, as you read yesterday, I have my own demons. While I have never been what, in the clinic, we called "actively suicidal" (i.e. has a plan, intent, and means to kill oneself), I have been, what we called, "passively suicidal" (i.e. feels like life is "too much", sees suicide as a break from the everyday struggle mental illness can be, or something I can "turn to" later if need be).
My most recent brush with passive suicidal thoughts occurred I became burnt out from my job in February of this year. I was slammed with a caseload fit for three counselors and everyday another crisis arose. Day after day after day. For WEEKS. It got to the point where everything felt urgent. I couldn't leave anything for later or (heaven forbid!) another day. I also became obsessed with my students (I was a school counselor) killing themselves.
None were currently suicidal and for any students that were or had been, I had followed the proper procedures for additional assessment and they were okay. But, I couldn't let it go. I ended up admitting myself to the crisis unit at Yale-New Haven Hospital, for the night, where I tearfully admitted to every doctor I spoke with, I was so anxious about my kids killing themselves, I had decided if any of them did, I would kill myself too. Because I felt I couldn't live with letting them and their families down. It would be a mercy suicide. I had no intention of actually following through, I knew that and so did the doctors. I knew if anything did happen, it was beyond my control and I had done everything I could to prevent it. I knew that, intellectually. But mental illness doesn't care about intellect or reason. Mental illness cares about emotion and doubt and obsession and, most importantly, fear.
I share this story about my experience in February, because no one would know from the outside looking in. No one. The only people who knew were the people I confided in. If I didn't want them to know, they wouldn't have. Granted, I'm certain to my co-workers I appeared run down and drained, but not severely depressed, enough to check myself into the hospital. Also, my Facebook posts remained campy and witty, although admittedly bordering on dark comedy leading up to my hospital stay. I joked about my "mental breakdown" on Facebook and received many Likes from acquaintances far and near, who didn't know what was really happening and likely assumed I was having a rough week and blowing off steam via social media. In fact, without realizing it myself, I was crying out for help. No, I was actually screaming.
I imagine that is very much how it was for Robin Williams. Always the entertainer, he may have kept many people in the dark, either because he didn't want to share his struggles or, more likely, he didn't know how. I was still cracking jokes on my way to the hospital that night, even though I was in the worst shape of my life and had considerably frightened many of my family and friends. I remember my uncle couldn't find a place to park his bad-ass pickup truck, because it was too big for the parking garages. And I made jokes. With my face stained with dried tears, my body in physical and emotional turmoil, my heart pounding out of my chest; I was still entertaining. Why? Because that's what I have always done. It's my deflection. It's my charismatic show to distract you, and myself, from what's really going on.
David Wong from Cracked.com wrote an amazing piece that puts into words, more eloquently, the connection between severe depression, suicide and funny people. I think my need to make people laugh, even at my own expense, is part of my drive to be a constant caregiver-helping someone laugh or smile. I have always felt completely satisfied and fulfilled when I have successfully made someone double over with laughter. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that, unless you are still looking for laughs when, inside, you are dying slowly and painfully and you don't know how to ask for help. So you think "the show must go on" and you power through, continuing to entertain.
I want to leave you with a thought. Instead of all of us trying to find someone to blame (Robin Williams, his therapist, his wife, his career, blah, blah, blah) for this tragedy, why don't we 1) honor Robin Williams' life, his tragic death does not discredit his 63 years on this planet and 2) find ways to support those struggling with mental illness, even if we don't understand it. The stigma associated with mental illness still, in 2014, is appalling. And the stigma associated with those who complete suicide is even more so. Let's educate ourselves and others and celebrate life, everyone's life. No matter how they left this world.
One of my cousins shared this picture on Facebook today and I want to share it with you. It speaks volumes and touches me greatly. Thank you, Claire.
*Title credit: Song "Behind Blue Eyes" by The Who released in 1971*