I feel like I have to say something, because in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, there is a lot of misinformation out there, and a fundamentally unsound, if not frankly dangerous, understanding of what it means to commit suicide, attempt to take your own life, and/or display suicidal ideation and planning.
The first and most important thing to know is that mental illness does not discriminate based on age, gender, religion, creed, race, orientation, fame, obscurity, wealth, poverty, or any other factor. That means that the bipolar disorder that Robin Williams had in California is effectively the same as the one ravaging the mind of a homeless man in Miami. Obviously, the significant difference in their two stories, is that Williams most certainly had access to the finest doctors, medicine, rehabs, and services, that our homeless friend likely did not. However, at the end of the day, the diseases are elusive and insidious parasites, that worm their way through brains, and weigh heavy with depression or burn fast and furiously through the night as mania has her tireless way with you. Robin Williams was under the care of a doctor, and had been seeking help for years. You must understand that just like chemo can’t always get the cancer out, these disorder are chronic and persistent, and all the medication in the world can’t necessarily save you from a devastating bout of depression. And that’s exactly where he was, when he decided (or his unstable brain decided) to take his own life. Doctors aren’t paid to follow you around and make sure you don’t die.
The comments I found most objectionable, were only written with the best intentions. And sometimes, those are the most dangerous and insidious kind. The stigma surrounding mental health is not born in the hearts of backward plotting deviants. It is passed and accepted and permeates ALL our households, as we gaze from afar, but make judgements all too near. The first fallacious argument asserted that Williams could have simply employed the power of positive thinking to wish suicide away. I saw a lot of suggestions that Robin should have swallowed his own medicine from ‘Good Will Hunting’ and simply told himself, “It’s not your fault.” Whereas, I understand your hearts may be in the right place, but it is nearly impossible to whisper a clever catch phrase from a movie, and somehow hope you’ll speak truth to power. It doesn’t work like that — not in these terrifying moments of abject hopelessness. Similarly, there is often little to be gained (BUT still worth trying on both sides) from summoning the love and affection of your closest and dearest friends and family. They can, and should make all efforts to intervene, but often for the suicidal, that ship has already sailed. Don’t you think the suicidal man has already berated himself over the hurt and anguish he’s painfully aware that he’s just hours from inflicting on his beloved friends and family? Trust me….they’ve carried that anguish from the very first dark seed to this last stage of execution. Indeed, the family has been with him the whole time, and I’m sure it was no different with Williams. And if the idea of those he loved the most could not sway him, the love and adoration of his fans would hardly do much more. By that time, he was more than likely beyond all consolation. In his mind, he was bringing peace to chaos, and sparing his family any further pain or turmoil. You may think that weak or ultimately selfish, but to the clouded logic of the anguished, it is a mercy killing, not only for themselves, but for the trouble and pain they see themselves cause everyone that they love, and even those who bear no love for them. There is very little reasoning that they can engage themselves in and rational talk has all but abandoned them by then. The planning has been done for days, the affairs are all in order, and now, the tools of their own destruction are at their fingertips, and only the vast nothing lies ahead. No, there is no rational talk or impassioned reason, for this is no longer a courtroom of reason and mercy. It is the gallows of their own making. They are their own executioner. By that point, there’s no sense in reasoning with the axe man, for his fate is now your own. Perhaps in that room that’s not quite nothing yet, there is something, and life is made from spoke wheels of something. And so maybe in that liminal land where life is soon erased, the words of man’s most cherished love, may find audience in a land still of somethings. If Robin Williams had had the fortune of a loving intervention, he may very well have lived to see another night. Sadly, statistics show that even those who are close to the act, but snatched from the jaws of death once, or even twice, still manage to find their way back to finish the job they started.
The reasons why it is so impossibly difficult to disengage from such a cold and brutal act, is not just that it’s nearly impossible to whisper those words and phrases of positive thinking to oneself, but because there are chemicals in the brain that are churning and burning, and obstructing us from sense, while compelling us to go on, whatever the cost may be. Because, you see, ailments like Bipolar, are debilitating neurological disorders of the brain, and you can’t just hope to whisper happy thoughts in there, and disregard the witches cauldron, brewing uncontrollably. In depressive episodes, manic depressives are beyond consolable. They may spend 18 hours a day in bed, as they try and disappear, effectively ending their pain and unburdening their guilt and aggregate shame. Robin Williams was in such a depressive episode. Had he been manic, he would have spoken uncontrollably fast, not unlike we’ve seen him before. Those frenetic moments were always funny, but also disturbing. Because when you are manic, it is the mania in control, and you are but its rag doll. Manics can sometimes take their lives, but they are far more likely to succumb during the excruciating transition and inevitable crash from mania back into depression. It is the time when most bipolar suicides occur.
I will leave you with this. No one wants to take their life. All of us have people we love, things we enjoy doing, and things we hope to accomplish. BUT NOT IN THAT MOMENT. In that frightening wormhole of regret, there is nothing else. There is no mother…no father…no car…no dog. In order to take our lives, we must rid ourselves of everything that makes us human. It’s as if we know we cannot take it with us, but even more than that, it’s really just a way of cleansing the palate and removing any and all possessions which may deter us from the course. Naturally, this is not true for everyone, and I can only imagine that there is something intimate and ritualistic in the ways each man and woman leave this earth. I have never made it to the flat plane of negative existence, where I imagine we shed the things we do not need. I cannot help but wonder which way the door does swing, or even if it swings at all, for perhaps it just revolves. I am not curious enough to find out quite yet. I picture a cold and barren field spread out before you, open to anyone who might tempt it, but closed to all all who carry more. I’m not sure if it takes the greatest amount of courage to take your own life, or the saddest and most despicable cowardice. I don’t believe it need be either, or is ever reducible to such simple motivations. I would guess, however, that when those who’ve suffered as far as they can suffer, and have already weighed the hurt they shall inadvertently cause to those they love, against the unbearable anger, pain, guilt, ennui, hopelessness, emptiness, and everything else that has filled each of their days, since they can remember, the choice may be more apparent. Perhaps not. I cannot put myself in the psyche of a man about to take his life, but I would guess that it probably wasn’t enough for Robin Williams to tell himself ‘It’s not your fault.’ With a society as conflicted and often unsupportive as ours, it’s hard to imagine that anyone suffering from mental illness could do anything but blame themselves.
I cannot help but think of one of my favorite Robin Williams’ movies, ‘The Fisher King,’ and how deliciously (yet tenderly) mad his character Parry was. And like Don Quixote, this knight-errant took to the urban city streets in search of his own brand of dragon. But in the end, Parry’s dragon was too fierce and nearly broke the man in two. If only Robin’s dragon could have spared such a brave and noble knight. He will be sorely missed.