Tonight we learned that Robin Williams is dead, and the consistent information is that he took his own life. Social media being what it is, there are many comments. Most are of shock and acknowledging the incredible talent and genius of a brilliant actor and comedian; another who is gone too soon. There are some comments that are just rude and clueless. But there are also those who just don’t understand how someone could get to the point of feeling that it was just time to give up on life, that it was too painful. That there is no hope in sight, and that the people closest to him/her would be better if he/she was just gone… Thank God most people don’t understand what it’s like to be so far down in a pit of ‘no hope’ that suicide makes sense.
Suicide isn’t as much about dying as it is about wanting the pain to stop. The cause of the pain isn’t really that important, though addiction is often a component. Alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, gambling, etc. are ALL ways to numb some sort of emotional pain. I worked as an RN in drug/alcohol rehab and adolescent psych for years, and nobody ever listed death as the main reason they considered suicide. I had a good friend (also a co-worker) who was so solid in his sobriety and recovery when I knew him. He became a well-known therapist in the city where we worked. Recently, I found out that he killed himself a few years back , while I was searching for him online, hoping to reconnect. He had great local resources about where to get help (including where he could get away from town for treatment). He knew the warnings… and yet, he relapsed into drugs, and overdosed in an amount that was said to be inconsistent with an accident. I was able to find a close friend of his who could help me fill in the blanks, enough to know that something happened to take him into that dark hole of depression and relapse. Those are never good together.
With Robin Williams, he had resources and had recently gone back to treatment for a ‘tune up’ of sorts, knowing that he was feeling a need to protect his sobriety, not that he’d relapsed (common knowledge). He was getting help. None of us know what his pain was from. We look at the professional aspect of the man and can’t make sense of what could have been so bad in his life that he decided to give up. But even if we knew the ‘reasons’, for most, the decision to end one’s own life will never make sense.
In 1982, I was battling an eating disorder, and got to the point of feeling very overwhelmed and unable to see that things were going to get better. I don’t remember wanting to die. I overdosed and was in a coma for 3 days. I was lucky to have survived, and was able to get past those feelings of just wanting to go to sleep so I didn’t hurt (in my situation, nutritional ‘rehab’ was a huge part of clearing up my thinking). I remember taking the sleeping pills, but don’t remember ‘death’ being my goal. I don’t remember taking the 50 antidepressants. I don’t remember the ambulance trip, or anything else until I woke up in ICU three days later. At other times, always when dealing with eating disorders, I would find myself in a mindset that didn’t see an end to the overwhelming hopelessness I felt. I would feel myself on the edge, and yet I didn’t ever want to die. I just didn’t want to feel so much pain. It’s an incredibly dark place to be… and there’s a feeling of loneliness that has no words to adequately describe it. Even with people in my life, they didn’t understand what was going on in my head, and the surrounding circumstances made things more isolating.
For those that don’t understand, please be thankful that you have no frame of reference for that kind of despair. Please look around and see if there is someone who might need a quick phone call or note to say that they matter, and to just check in to see if they’re OK. If someone you know has changed and either seems really down, OR suddenly ‘up’ after a period of severe depression, see if they’re really OK. When someone makes the decision to give up, sometimes they are so relieved at making the decision, that their mood improves. That type of ‘improved’ mood (sudden) is an alarming sign. Gradual improvement is more likely due to good treatment ( medication for the biochemical issues, and/or psychotherapy to resolve emotional pain). Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions. When someone approaches from concern, it’s unlikely that it will make a situation worse.
Clinical depression isn’t sadness. It’s not about ‘reactive’ grief that many people will feel during their life when they lose a friend or family member to death, or the loss of a job, pet, or if someone moves away who had been a part of daily life. Clinical depression is often a biochemical disruption to normal thinking and feelings. Hopelessness and helplessness become so pervasive that the ‘normal’ way of seeing solutions to problems just doesn’t work. While suicide is a permanent solution to temporary despair, it doesn’t feel that way to someone who finds it worth considering. It doesn’t feel temporary. It’s kind of like being too far underwater after falling off of a boat, and wondering if getting to the surface is ever going to happen… like there’s no air left in life, and no ability to feel that the surface could be reached with just a couple of kicks to reach the air that restores hope. Even if getting back on the boat is a ways off, at least there would be air. It’s like treading water UNDER water, and never getting closer to the surface. It’s hard to withstand that type of hopelessness and helplessness for a long time, and each person has their own threshold for how long they can hold on.
People can’t snap out of it. They can’t just go pop in a funny movie and everything is OK. It’s a disease, that needs treatment, and support of friends and family that understand that the person is doing the best that they can. And when the ones who are depressed are finding themselves going further from their normal way of looking at life, they need someone who can help them hang on…
But sometimes, it just isn’t enough. And those left to make sense of the loss will never have a good reason to satisfy the ‘why’ questions that inevitably come up. It definitely isn’t fair to those left behind. And while it’s something they have to live with for the rest of their lives, it really wasn’t about them. Sometimes, there is nothing that will redirect a tragedy. But nothing can take away the good memories the person leaves behind… always remember the good.