Suicide challenges our assumptions and beliefs about the way things are supposed to be, and death always leads us to try to make sense of life. Death substantiates life and reminds us to make each day count.
Many of us, I suspect, experienced an anguished sting at the moment we learned of actor/comedian Robin Williams’ recent death. Suicide usually surprises, and it always raises questions. We try to understand why, perhaps wonder if anyone tried to intervene. Over and over, we hear and speak that word: Why? Why? Why? If the person who died was someone we knew or a loved one, we wonder why he or she didn’t come to us or if there wasn’t something more we could have done. Along with our pain at the loss, we may feel shame, even fear or anger, all normal feelings in the wake of such tragedy. Suicide challenges our assumptions and beliefs about the way things are supposed to be, and death always leads us to try to make sense of life. Death substantiates life and reminds us to make each day count.
That someone who brought so much laughter into the world could feel such despair seems incongruous.
We want to believe it impossible. Seeing that it is not, we imagine reasons for Williams’ choice. Even those close to him, who loved and understood him better than any others, have likely struggled with such questions. No doubt they tried to talk to him, to give support, engender hope. Somehow it wasn’t enough; whatever happened, he chose to leave us. Some say a prescription he was taking to treat his Parkinson’s disease may have triggered suicidal thoughts. As most of us know, it wouldn’t be the first time that an otherwise useful medication has led to such tragedy. But we don’t know the circumstances or Williams’ reasoning, how clearly he was thinking or carefully he had weighed his options. And we certainly have no right to judge.
Stigma and shame are the products of others’ ignorance and emotional bias and block people from getting the help they need.
Sadly, few of us recognize the tell-tale signs of serious suicidal threat or know how to respond helpfully. We all have personal beliefs about depression and suicidality, sometimes well informed by training or experience, but all too often motivated by ignorance and emotional bias. While we care and mean well, when faced with another’s despair we tend to be at a loss for what to say and do. Perhaps we feel expected to “fix” the problem, and feeling frustrated or impotent, end up turning our backs. Or maybe we look the other way because shows of emotion, especially when “heavy,” make us uncomfortable. Sometimes others’ depression and suicidal feelings challenge our beliefs or frighten us, so we judge and ridicule so as to push the threat they represent away. “Get over it!” we say, or “Stop wallowing!” or “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself! Nobody likes a pity party!” Maybe we try to help by pointing out what we see as positives and say, “So c’mon, you’ve got nothing to complain about!” Does anyone find such statements helpful? I doubt it. All such words do is diminish and invalidate what the suffering person is feeling, as if the pain is something to be ashamed of or inconsequential; they make it sound as if he or she should be able to simply flip a switch and find everything okay.
Being stuck emotionally points to a need trapped in confusion and begging for illumination.
Needless to say, if it was that simple, people would do it. Contrary to what some believe, people don’t like to suffer. Folks who imagine there are those who enjoy misery should try it. Serious misery, I mean, the kind that comes from wounds beyond belief or things that can’t easily be made sense of. And who but the one who has been injured can describe it as beyond belief? No one. Pain is subjective, and can be hugely complicated. So is change, hard. Being stuck emotionally points to a need trapped in confusion and begging for illumination. Until a person can peer into the darkness and see at least some light, or at least have some reason to trust there is no drop-off or trip wire, it’s not easy to take steps forward.
Denial doesn’t help either. For some, being stuck means sticking it out. Such people think toughing it out and building up defensive armor to stomp down or do battle with one’s inner enemies is a better way to go than any of that “touchy-feely” stuff. Once again, the message is that revealing depressed feelings or asking for help is something to be ashamed of, and the effect is to cut off theperson’s pathways to help. Finally, there are the do-gooders who offer ill-conceived, supposed “help” that’s more about their own ego needs to be seen as caring people than about genuine concern; while many are fooled by such “good” people–they even fool themselves–their narcissistic shallowness, sooner or later, is seen by those they minister to.
We just need to learn to be more care-full.
The hard part is, of course, that even when we’re well-intended and sincere we can say and do things that instead of helping just end up making those suffering feel the same or worse. When an empathic connection isn’t made, a suffering person feels misunderstood, then more depressed and alone. But it isn’t always that way, nor does it have to be. We just need to learn to be more care-full.
It has seemed to me that what a seriously depressed person needs most is someone to just be present, really present, and listen. That’s why suicide “hotlines” are so important, and have helped to prevent so many from progressing to suicide. While hotline counselors are trained to respond in specific ways to depression and suicidality, and have many other resources they can call upon or refer to, above all, they listen, with patience and empathy. Almost every community in America has a suicide hotline, and every household should know the number. Of course, medications and psychotherapy are important aids to helping people out of depression, but before distressed people can hear and act on the advice to obtain such help they need to feel basic respect, that they are worthy of being seen and heard, even in the midst of extreme dysfunction. And they need to feel at least some shred of hope.
The best way to a technicolor life is to experience the full spectrum. In the beginning of the journey you need only trust that there are no rainbows without blues.
—Sam Keen, Inward Bound
I think it’s important to remember that feelings are never wrong. They just are. Our thoughts, our ideas and opinions, can be misguided and confused, but the emotions that we feel are vital signals of distress (or happiness) that facilitate recognition, assessment, and response to our own and others’ needs.
I also believe the common tendency to label behaviors as “normal” versus “abnormal” should be stricken from our repertoire of responses, because I have found even the most dysfunctional, “crazy” behavior, when empathically viewed in the context of a unique individual’s life, makes sense in the wake of what they have learned (or not learned) and experienced—in other words, while there are some psychological conditions, such as schizophrenia and serious mood disorders, significantly linked to brain chemistry, more often than not what troubled people say and do are understandable, expectable responses to crazy-making events or interpersonal interactions. In my book, that is the very definition of normal.
Wounds need healing. Dysfunction—when our thinking, emotional equilibrium, behaviors, or communications are working against rather than for our well-being—needs adjustment. With some work, such goals can be achieved. But as I see it, a “normal” versus “abnormal” dichotomy isn’t helpful. Nor, quite frankly, is the common usage of the term “mentally ill,” or that insulting abbreviated version popular today, “mental”—but I’ll save that for a discussion another day.
So rather than minimizing, invite expansion. Instead of “You shouldn’t feel that way” ask, “What are you feeling?” Patiently listening and simply reflecting back what a depressed person says he or she is feeling, even if unclear (“It sounds like you’re feeling all alone.” “I hear you saying you feel confused.” “It’s hard to feel that there is any hope.” “That must be very difficult.” And so on, minimally.) can go a long way to helping the individual feel seen, heard and understood. When people feel validated, that their pain is seen and wounds recognized, space can open up so that steps toward change can be made.
Asking someone if they are feeling suicidal does not give them the idea.
Talking openly to someone about depressed feelings and directly asking if he or she is thinking of committing suicide does not give the person the idea of suicide or make matters worse; on the contrary, it gives the depressed individual permission to talk about it and “let’s the cat out of the bag,” so to speak, lessening the likelihood that he or she will act on such feelings and opening the doorway to getting help.
Uninformed beliefs are one thing. Stubbornly held egocentric attitudes are another. People often assume that just because their life has been or is similar to another person’s they can know how that individual “should” think or behave. The questions I want to put to such people are: Just why and how do you think that’s possible? Are you identical to him or her physiologically? And have you had precisely the same cognitive input and life experiences from birth to now? No two people, even in the same family, are that much alike. Even when we seem to have traveled the same pathways, our journeys can only be similar at best, and similar isn’t enough because our individuality is the root of the differences in how we think and behave.
I’ve always thought of our development as being a lot like the piling up of various weights on a balance scale, with who we are as individuals determined by our genes and the accumulated bits and pieces of our histories on each side of the scale; there are positive influences on one side and negative influences on the other. The tiniest genetic component or fragment of experience can change the balance, alter any similarity, make us unique. And the balance can be adjusted over time! Get rid of this, get rid of that. A little more here, a little more there. How, then, can we ever be sure of what is behind another’s choices? We can only guess. To potentially know better, we have to listen carefully; or perhaps we need only accept that we can’t ever know.
When the merry-go-round goes faster and faster, it becomes harder to get off. For some, it must seem like there is no alternative but to jump.
I’ve heard people say Robin Williams was “so loved” and ask why he “didn’t know” that, as if his fans’ love of the remarkable, overflowing gifts he gave through his performance and celebrity should have been enough to overcome his personal difficulties. Of course, he knew he was loved for his talent and in the public arena. How could he not? But we can never know what remained hidden behind his actor’s persona. However much he revealed his true self, his public persona was likely more or less in the way of his being seen for who he really was. That, I think, we can be sure of. Beyond that, we just don’t know. Sometimes it is very hard to separate out the private from the public, the real from the unreal. And when the merry-go-round goes faster and faster, it becomes harder and harder to get off. For some, it must seem that there is no alternative but to jump.
I think Krista, the lead character in my novel, The Flying Girl, would empathize with Robin Williams. She would sense the need to be seen and loved for the real person beneath his outer presentation: perhaps there was a boy still searching for approval, a man longing for connection and fulfillment in ways his celebrity couldn’t provide, and maybe, as one diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, there was a man feeling the hope of that fulfillment slipping away from him. Such surmising is, of course, the product of imagination. After all, Williams valued acting “crazy” for the sake of sanity; that is a gift he gave us all. While there was no restraint on his part, we need to hold back our tendency to project onto him or others who we imagine or want them to be. There needn’t always be tears behind smiles. But sometimes, without knowing it, we can get caught up in the whirlwind of others’ projections and let the expectations they generate whisk us away from reality so that our feet are no longer firmly on the ground. Krista is aware of how she often takes on the persona of an actress, that she performs rather than shows her real self, and at one point in the story, this thought crosses her mind: She walks. She talks. She does a little dance. I wonder if Robin Williams didn’t perhaps feel like that sometimes. I hope he knew how much he was loved even when he wasn’t whirling and twirling to entertain us.
If you or a person you love are depressed or having thoughts of suicide, don’t hesitate; talk to someone. Call your local suicide hotline, or connect with resources by contacting the NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE: