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…
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…
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
It’s never too late to seek out help or fund those who make help available
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…
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…
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…
5. Life Can Be Empty and Painful for Several Decades
Life can eventually get better. Keep your spirits up.
Age ain’t nothin’ but a number, or so it’s been said. It’s also been said that you’re only as old as you feel. Looking at the video above, it’s not hard to tell that Robin Williams had been alive for quite a bit of awhile, whether he felt old or not.
Robin was born on the 21st of July, 1951. In his lifetime time he would have heard about the building of the Berlin Wall, and its destruction 19 years later. He was around when heavy metal and punk rock were exciting new genres changing the face of music, and still around when they were older parts of mainstream music. In his childhood, comedy and cinema were completely different entertainment landscapes than the ones that exist today. During his adulthood, an entirely new medium of entertainment eventually called video games rose to prominence and so captured his imagination that he named at least one and possibly two children after video game characters (his daughter Zelda was named for the princess from The Legend of Zelda and his son Cody is rumored to be named after a character from Final Fight, though this is not confirmed). 12 men served as President of the United States of America during his lifespan, only one of whom was born after him.
All of those factoids above are meant not to impress you with my Wikipedia skills so much as they’re meant to contextualize the vast gulf of time contained in the lifetime of a gifted man. That vast gulf of time was either mostly or entirely spent with his mind being torn asunder by the conflict of mania and depression that Stephen Fry might call “an uppy downy, mood-swingy kind of hell.” A whole generation came after him and got old during his lifetime. A generation that looked up to him as children that became adults. All the while he was suffering the slings and arrows of neurochemical distortion of what a brain should be presumably be doing under normal functioning circumstances.
I have gazed down the barrel of aging with the realization that the entire internal journey might be as harsh and ugly the ones that lead people like Williams, Cobain, Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Picasso, Hemingway and so many others to bad ends at the hands of drugs and or self-initiated death. I often tell people that if I die any younger than 147 years old, I’ll be severely disappointed. I’m not even remotely kidding when I say that. The oral history of my family includes a maternal great-great grandmother who was in her 130s when she died and a paternal great-grandfather who shocked his siblings by dying young at the age of 96 (and was said to have been buried by two older brothers who returned home and went back to work on their farms). Yes, I know that probably sounds like bullshit to most readers, but frankly, my dears, I don’t give a rats ass.
There are also people who’ve told me that I’m out of my mind for thinking that medical science will advance enough in my lifetime to make a lifespan of a century and a half attainable, or that the very idea that society will last long enough for medical science to still be a thing in the next 20 or 30 years is insane non-sense. To all such criticism I blow a raspberry. Wants and desires are by their very nature irrational. While I recognize that I can very well die at any time, that will not change what I want out of life, the minimum of which is 147 years of it.
It may seem unthinkable that someone who suffers from such depression and thoughts of self harm as I do would want to live so long. To which I respond that closer attention is needed to depression and the people that have it. It’s often the case that depression is merely a part of manic depressiveness, or as it’s now known, bi-polar disorder. There’ve been statements claiming that Robin had bi-polar disorder. While I’ve not found any confirmation of this, it’s something that may have been true of him, might be true of me and is definitely true of many people the world over. It’s possible to have ups with the downs. It’s possible to be in love with life and the world while still suffering inside. I know because I have…and I do. For as much as the state of my own mind drives me to loathing, it also drives me to gratitude. I’m grateful to be alive and to be part of this world. It’s incredibly awesome here and I like it. I want to stay around as long as I reasonably can, even if it means having another century+ of living with aching misery in my head, I want that like nothing else.
Some might ask why I might want to live to be an old man and still have the problems in my head that I do. That’s simple: I’ve already lived through worse.
4. It’s Possible to Feel What Robin Williams Felt, Even as a Child
Look, I know this habit is getting repetitive, but sometimes repetition helps.
I have had a long and powerful relationship with the concept of Nintendo Games. It stretches back to 1985 when I was six years old. My relationship with depression stretches back even farther. Just as depression requires no minimum of impoverished lifestyle to take hold, it has no age below which it can not reach… at least none that I know of.
It’s hard to find the words to describe what it feels like to be a child with mental health issues. Aside from it having been a lifetime ago, back then I didn’t have a frame of reference. Imagine if there were a fourth primary color and you were one of the rare people who could see it. How long would it take you to understand or even be told that other people can only see three of them? Okay now imagine that the fourth primary color is Cthulhu… If you find that last bit confusing and bewildering, that’s a vague approximation of what my childhood mind felt like. Not the analogy itself; just the way it stops working at the end. That jarring grind of verbal gears that failed to run smoothly is the best way I can describe it and it falls so short it hurts.
Childhood itself is already so damned bizarre and surreal that it’s hard to tell how strange my brain was. The things that have been recounted to me by several friends and acquaintances of their childhood experiences like imaginary friends, weird games that were made up like slug bug (where you get to punch someone in the shoulder because you spotted a certain kind of vehicle [the VW Beetle]before they did), elaborate and strange interactions with toys (like tea parties with elaborate rituals) and on and on… the whole thing makes it really hard to isolate which parts of my early life were typical and which were off-kilter.
Sometimes it seems that all children are born insane and some grow out of it, while the rest grow into it. The best part of my childhood is that it’s over. Same with my teenage years. Being a wild slacker, petty outlaw and all around weirdo was a blast, but the parts of it that sucked… they sucked bad enough that I’m fine with never being able to go back. At this point there’s no way but forward, so I might as well enjoy that direction. The fucked-up thing to contemplate is that if I didn’t want to go forward I would feel obligated to do so anyway, for fear of causing any grief to the people who would still be here when I’m gone…
3. Being Told That You “Owe It” to Your Family to Not Give In is Fucking Cruel
Recommending all these anti-suicide pages might make me seem like a broken record, but I told you that some people are broken.
During his beautiful eulogy for Robin Williams, our own LYT wrote the following words towards the end:
“If you feel the loss of Robin Williams, imagine how his family feels, and vow to never deliberately inflict that much pain.“
While I don’t disagree with this sentiment, it enrages me… probably because it’s true. Being true and being cruel are, of course, compatible things. It’s very true and unavoidable that most people know at least a few other people who would devastated by their deaths, especially if it happened by intent rather than circumstance. The question arises, though, how far this obligation to not inflict distress must go. If a family member would be upset to find out that a person is queer, or is undergoing the process to change their gender/sex would that person be obligated to stop what they’re doing? Would they be required to keep it a secret outside the public eye? What about a change in political or religious beliefs? Should a man lie to his father about no longer being a Democrat? Is a woman required to not tell her sister if she’s converted to Taoism or even that she doubts certain parts of their faith like transubstantiation? These revelations can all cause distress and anguish, especially to family members who will believe their loved ones to be hellbound.
If a person would argue that the obligation to not commit suicide is valid, yet those others are not, I’d have to ask “why not?” and demand a satisfactory answer. At what point must a person lose autonomy over their own lives and why? Can a family member demand a total cessation of alcohol use under any circumstance, or only when a sufficient level of damage to the person drinking or those around them can be established?
Whatever level of obligation can be decided upon, it shouldn’t be too hard to see how awful a burden it is. I’ve spent many a desperate and dark moment of my life feeling that the only reason to keep dealing with the pain of moments crawling by is to spare others from pain. Some nights I want to shout “fuck you guys, I don’t owe you shit!” until my throat is hoarse. Some of them, I’d like to yell in their faces “For all the pain and agony you heaped on my shoulders, you deserve the pain of knowing I’m gone and that it’s partly your fault!” Neither of these things is ultimately true, but as I said, there’s a difference between knowing something and believing it.
Someone I know had a cousin or a sister who committed suicide when she was in her 30s or 40s. She had a teenage son at the time, who was sleeping over at a friends house for the weekend. When he was gone, she locked her garage with the car inside of it, barred the door from the house into the garage, turned on the engine and let the exhaust take things to their final consequences. That was not her first attempt, but it was her last. My friend was so upset at the selfishness and cowardice and the irrational irresponsibility. When I pointed out that at least the woman had been responsible enough to spare her son the sight of the body my friend was shocked and offended. The notion that this was part of the reason her sister or cousin had barred the door from house to garage hadn’t occurred to her, and it was immediately rejected. My friend was so attached to the anger she had at selfish and irrational behavior, that the idea that they weren’t total and all-encompassing was too necessary to part with.
Here’s the scary truth, though: a lot of suicidal people do think of things like that. A lot of us do feel like if we’re ever so low that we give in to the worst of our selves…maybe we can salvage something by minimizing the pain and the damage and the horror and the strife and the…all of it. It might be small consolation to the people left behind, but it’s rather hard to compare an “if” to an “is.” The simple difference of whether or not a person uses a pistol or a belt or locks a door might make more of a difference than anyone will know. It might not, but if the only reason someone is staying alive is minimize the suffering of others in their life, there’s little joy likely to be found. Then again, finding a new reason isn’t such an easy answer as we might like…
2. Finding a Reason to Go On Can Feel Incredibly Pointless
You always have a chance to find another way out of your misery.
Last week that video meant only slightly less to me than it does right now. Aside from being one of my favorite films of all time, Good Will Hunting reminds me of an uncle I don’t see nearly as much as I’d like to now that I live on the west coast. When I was in my 20s I was just as much of a self-absorbed know-it-all as Matt Damon’s character. Uncle Ed helped remedy that. He called me out more times that I’d like to to recall, but never more times than were needed to point out to me that I was full of shit on a given topic.
That lack of experience that Williams talks about isn’t something that ever truly goes away… at least I don’t think it is. We spend our lives reducing our lack of experience, but there are always a batch of things that elude us. In one of the other videos posted, Neil Gaiman talks about how he had a list of things he wanted to do as a writer and that rather that moving forward with an organized career plan, he just did things on the list. Some of us get to do all the things on our list and have to start making new items to be crossed off. Others spend a lifetime trying to cross off just one thing. Most of my list remains empty. I’m not the same kind of person as the Damon character in that video clip, but I don’t feel like I’ve leveled up to the point of being comparable to the character played by Williams yet.
There’s an odd sort of dread that goes with deciding not to kill yourself. Once the decision is made, once the object of self murder is put away, once the wave of relief has washed away… you might find yourself wondering “Well… now what the fuck am I supposed to do?” When I was reading the DC Vertigo series Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, I would talk about each new issue on a forum with a bunch of digital strangers. When the final issue was released, one of them made a joke about how he’d been avoiding suicide so that he could see how the story ended. When everyone freaked out and he explained that he’d been joking and sincerely apologized for getting us worried a conversation started up about “what do we read now?” Recommendations started flying around such as 100 Bullets, Poison Elves, Lucifer, Hellblazer etc. I don’t think any of us wanted to admit what we were doing… hell I’m not sure all of us knew what we were doing. At some level though, it felt like we were trying to get that guy hooked on another story… just in case.
That’s a thought that haunts me still. It’s been so long since those days that I don’t recall what that guy’s username was any more, but I still think about him. I still wonder if he’s going around from story to story, keeping the chains going so there’s always one or more tales he needs to hear the next installment of. Sometimes, I feel like I took on his habit even if he never really had it. Since that time, I’ve never had a moment when I was done with all the stories I was reading or watching. When I finished the final issue of 100 Bullets, I was in the middle of watching The Sopranos. When I finished watching that I was reading the final Dune novels. The list goes on and on.
The list goes on in real life too. I’ve put effort into starting up various creative projects, a few of which have neared or achieved some level of completion. In 2007 I moved back to Oregon for the second time in two years, and have made a better go of it than I did during the first round. Later that year, I started attending a community college with the intent of spending four or five years getting a degree… I’m at seven coming up on eight and still trying to get that crossed off the list. In the past few weeks and months, I’ve started working on some long term plans to set up something better for myself in my day-to-day life such as having a routine of working out once or twice a week.
In the dread hours of the day, when I lie awake in bed… each and every one of these efforts feels vain and hollow. They feel like lame-ass efforts to ignore the inevitable: not that I’m going to die… but that I’m going to live alone. Even with two roommates, a city full of friends, more friends scattered across the country and family who love me I feel as alone as I did as a child or an adolescent. I could go to a place with the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen and feel alone. Sometimes it’d feel so nice to have the courage to take the final plunge and bring my loneliness to its ultimate conclusion… and that, my dear reader, is ultimately why I don’t condemn Robin Williams for committing suicide.
1. I Know I Could Someday End up Like Him
If you were expecting another anti-suicide org, here’s a chance of pace.
As a way of coping with my pain, I’m going to make a video on Monday the 18th of August with as many people as I can gather doing the “stand on your table/desk and say the lines from Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting” bit and at the end I’ll add in that list of phone numbers from the beginning of this list. I’d like for you dear reader, to participate if you would be inclined. Robin Williams deserves a tribute and I want to give him the biggest one possible, not for him so much as for the people who could be him, the people like me.
I’ve spoken enough about myself, I think. Let’s talk about you. Do you feel that same despair? The despair that lead Williams to his awful end? The despair that took so many great musicians from us in the last century? There do not exist the words I wish I could grab and speak out into the Internet to remove that despair.
Did you ever have a childhood ambition that crashed against the rocky shores of adult expectation? I did. I wanted to be a super-hero and my heart broke when I found out that wasn’t possible after grown ups explained why it can’t be that way. It’d be nice if I could joke about Phoenix Jones proving those grown up wrong, but he didn’t. He’s not the kind of super-hero I want to be. Spider-Man is the kind of hero I wanted to be, and he still is. Knowing that I’ll never have super powers sucks all kinds of ass, dear reader.
Did you ever want to be a super-hero? Do you still want to? Then here’s my plea to you: if you are suffering the kind of mental anguish that lead Robin Williams to make a fatal neck-tie out of a belt, find someone that has the same despair and help them. It’s so easy and typical to tell a depressed person to go get help from someone else as though we can walk into a room, talk to a guy and be sane in the following week. Not bloody fuckin’ likely, but we can help each other…at least we can try. It’s a lot easier to help someone else, than it is to ask for help sometimes, so let’s use this moment in time to give help if we aren’t ready to receive it.
I’m not asking you to solve someone’s problems, by the way. You’re not expected to remove anyone’s suffering. All that’s being asked is to do something to alleviate the pain. Go buy your friend a ticket to a movie and see it with them. Maybe you can find a cheap matinee for a dumb movie and make fun of it until you laugh so hard your stomach hurts. Help ’em clean up their kitchen and make some dinner. Sometimes a little bit of love and fun is enough to keep the light of the universe burning at a more enjoyable luminescence. So all I ask you dear reader, is to do what little you can to rage against the dying of the light.