Important Note: I am not condoning or supporting Robin Williams' decision to commit suicide; I merely refuse to condemn him for it. Anyone suffering suicidal thoughts needs to seek help. If you live in the US you can call 1-800-273-8255. If you live in another country please look up the number to call for where you're at.
Most of August 11th was a good day for me. I awoke feeling kind of low, took a shower got lunch and headed to the gym to work out. When I got home, I was feeling damn good. Then I saw a post on Twitter mentioning Robin Williams and the words "in memory" and thought, "Is there some Internet rumor or hoax going around about him being dead?"... and then I found out it wasn't a rumor... then I found out how he died. After decades of struggling with depression and or bi-polar disorder, one of the greatest comedians of the 20th century and arguably in human history succumbed to dark thoughts and awful urges.
I was hit with a plethora of emotions by the news... I'm still trying to process it all. The biggest emotion I have to deal with is empathy. At times like this, some are tempted to say "There but for the grace of god/fate/the flying spaghetti monster go I". The truth for me is there's no "but for the grace"... just "There go I?" hanging over my head like a storm cloud in the sky. I hold no ill will towards Robin Williams for hanging himself, because it's all too easy for me to understand why he might have done it...
10. Some People Are Just Broken
In popular culture it's common to see stories of people pushed to the point of suicide by circumstances or machinations. The characters who go through so many horrific incidents that they no longer have a a life good enough to be worth living. While this does happen in real life, it's less common that we'd like to think.
Feelings of worthlessness and despair that often accompany suicide do not need a minimal level of misery to exist. There is no required external catalyst for wanting to die. The worst thing is that wanting to die isn't even the worst part of mental illness. There's a soul crushing despair that can set in which takes root and goes deep. I can declare, from experience, that it's possible to go weeks, months even years without feeling suicidal while still being in awful pain.
I've had people explain to me that crazy people don't know they're crazy, because you have to be sane to know you're crazy. The kindest response I have "THAT'S FUCKING BULLSHIT!" because any words less abrasive are a lie. It's akin to telling someone "You can't really be aware of having the flu. Only people who think they're healthy have the flu." Just like the body, the mind can be so obviously unhealthy that everyone, including the person it belongs to, knows it. Yes, it's possible to be insane and not know it, just like it's possible to be sick with a viral disease and not know it. That doesn't mean that it's the only way to be sick.
The most important step in addressing the huge mental health problem in the US, is to get rid of the toxic attitude that treats depression as some kind of earned privilege or trophy. The cultural attitude that someone doesn't have a horrible enough life to deserve sympathy for being depressed ties directly into the idea that mental health is an active choice and can't be anything else. Recognizing depression as a mental illness means one must also recognize that wealth and fame do not grant immunity from that disease.
There's another reason that fame doesn't eliminate depression...
9. Success Can Feel as Bad as Failure
As fitting as it would feel to use a Robin Williams clip for each entry, the video above has a quote by Neil Gaiman that is very important to this subject. For those who can't watch it right now, the quote is "The first problem with any kind of even limited success is the unshakeable conviction that you're getting away with something."
Neil's right. I won't say how much money I make with freelance writing, but the simple answer is that it's not enough to keep a roof over my head. It's supplemental income that greases the wheels of suburban comfort a bit. Still, I sometimes do wonder if I'm earning my keep. If you've never created artwork but have friends who do, and if you've ever wondered why they get awkward when complimented on their work or even try to minimize the compliment, it's because they have the unique knowledge of how good their work isn't as opposed to how good it is. We know how good we wanted it to be, all that other people get to see is how close we got to what we wanted.
Back in 2007 I was at Eugene Pride and I saw a rapper on stage named Katastrophe who sang a song called Halfway Happy with the following chorus:
You're halfway happy with a hole in your heart
You think that someday you'll fill it and you'll feel that part
But you waste countless hours
And priceless days
Hoping that somethin' will save you
As you watch your life slip away
This guy knows what's up. He spoke of a deep truth that affects the lives of billions. For artists and entertainers, the thing a lot of us hope will fill the hole in our lives is fame and fortune. The fact that Robin Williams hung himself shows that at least for some people, success is not a cure what for ails us. Watching the video of Gaiman talking about his own struggle believing that he deserved his success, it's not unreasonable to think that Williams's problems with bi-polar disorder, depression and various other factors may have been exacerbated by a sinking feeling that he didn't deserve the acclaim and wealth that he'd amassed through the application of his talents.
Williams spent years getting treatment for his problems and in the end that treatment didn't salve his emotional wounds any more than the fame. It's incredibly heart-wrenching to realize that a lot of people who commit suicide never even find out if therapy could have worked for them because they never took that step. One of the many reasons why some people don't take that step is because...
8. Getting Help Is More Terrifying Than Staying Broken
My first serious battle with suicidal urges happened in 1998. During this dark time, I pulled a prank on a friend/gave a cry for help. I had him convinced that I had taken a lethal dose of sleeping pills. As he was walking me out the house and down the street to the hospital to get my stomach pumped, I told him the truth in the most hurtful way I could. The fact that he even talks to me at all anymore is something that I've never stopped being extremely grateful for. When he told me that I needed to get professional help, even knowing that he was right and being so grateful to him... it wasn't enough for me to overcome the fear of therapy.
There are a lot of things wrapped up in that fear. A big part of it is the fear of getting locked up inside a loony bin and never coming out again... but that's not the worst part of the fear. Another big part is that it won't work. If a guy like Robin freakin' Williams couldn't get permanent success, how the hell can I hope for anything better? And that's not the worst part of the fear either. The worst part, at least for me is contemplating the answer to the most horrifying question of my life... what if it works?
Maybe this is something that other nerds feel, but I've always suspected that there are such things as emotional stability, and being well adjusted, and that I don't have those things. If I were to go to a professional and find out that I have a psychological condition, that is something I would know forever. Whether or not I did anything to resolve it, I would know a new fact that would forever change my state of life. I might decide to go get some help from a therapist... and then what?
Mental health services are a valid, vital and necessary institution in human society. Therapy works. I don't just believe that, I know it because I've seen it work for people. The ignorant and widespread belief that people can just magically erase their conditions through the power of positive thinking alone, or that they need the one true social cure (whether it's religion, love, family or what the fuck ever) is one of the most destructive memetic parasites to ever latch onto the collective consciousness of humankind. I honestly and wholeheartedly believe that therapy can help ease my problems and help me to manage them...and that scares the fuck out of me.
When I picture the potential future me that is a well adjusted and emotionally healthy person... I'm not picturing myself. I'm picturing someone who isn't me anymore. I'm picturing someone who will take my place when I stop existing as who I currently am. This fear creates the ultimate "fight or flight" sensation. I can't get over the terror of thinking that in order to get well, I must give up some essential part of my true self. It feels like my very existence is threatened by a better version of me.
When looked at in such terms, I think it's easy for people fall into the common trap of thinking of suicide as the ultimate act of cowardice, but here's the fucked up part...
7. It's Not Always an Act of Cowardice
Courage is not an inherently good thing. Courage is not something that should be idolized. It can be a destructive force of harm. People who strap bombs to their chests and go kill other people are not cowards; they are examples of what happens when courage is used for awful ends.
This is not a validation of ending it all, by the way. It's important to understand a problem in order to solve it. Without acknowledging that Robin Williams may have had more courage than most people can ever comprehend when he did himself in, the effort to spare others the same fate will be an incomplete endeavor.
One of the greatest people to ever try to help his fellow man is Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Most people are unaware that he's a great painter because Kevorkian has a much bigger reputation as the doctor who created a machine that helps terminally ill patients to end their own lives and ease their suffering. There's a seemingly wide amount of distance between ending one's life because of a physically painful and debilitating disease, and doing so because of mental anguish. Without getting into the question of which is the greater or lesser form of suffering, society needs to address the question of whether or not people have the right to decide that decision for themselves. Outlawing suicide, for any reason, is the ultimate expression of the idea that a person does not own his or her life. If we as human beings want to value freedom, then it's important to know how valuable it truly is.
If I ever have a disease like cancer, or a degenerative flesh eating virus, I might decide to stick it out and go the distance because I love life that much. Even if I did make that choice, I'd still want the option of choosing. By the same logic, if someone is suffering mental anguish so severe that they want to bring their life to an end then it has to be asked how society can justify telling him or her no. Part of answering that question depends on whether or not that suffering can be alleviated to a non-detrimental degree. With proper help and treatment it can, so far as I know. In a situation where it cannot though, I don't know what to think. As I've said, I don't advocate suicide, but at the same time I don't feel justified in telling another person that they have to go on suffering.
Too often suicide is dismissed as being possibly only in a moment of cowardice. Having stared into the abyss I can tell you right now that one of the reasons I'm still here is that I'm not brave enough to die. That doesn't make me feel better, though, because it just means...
6. Continuing to Live Can Feel Cowardly Too
There's nothing quite so devastating as feeling like a coward for not killing yourself. It feels one with the kind of despair that would be easier to convey through a song (like the one above) than through a normal conversation. The hopelessness of feeling like you're better off dead but lack the balls to make things better.
I think a big part of the life of a nerd (at least from my generation) is wrapped up in feelings of cowardice, the path of least resistance and regret. We get so much flak from the world and from ourselves for not living up to what is expected of a normal and rational person. Every great and painful regret in my life stems from something I was too scared to do. All of the best pleasures stem from things I did. Refusing to commit suicide is the one act that falls into both categories. Being unable to let go of regret for not killing myself is sometimes in direct conflict for the relief that I'm still alive.
Nothing gets under my skin more than the idea that people might think of my decision as "brave". My decision to remain alive is no braver than the decision of a domestic abuse victim to stay with his or her abuser. The difference is that it's my own mind abusing me and I'm not brave enough to leave it through therapy or death. I know in the rational sense that death is not the answer. I'm aware that dying will solve nothing. Sadly, knowing something, and being aware of it, is a very different thing than believing it!
I don't know how to convince myself that I'm better off alive, and the frightening thing is that there's no real limit on how long I can go without solving that problem. See, it turns out...