I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world
It is dark and heavily raining as I write this, a sound that is at once mournful and comforting. A poignantly fitting backdrop for a day when we’re all still trying to make sense of the death of the man who brought great laughter and emotion to so many.
Like most people my age, I grew up watching Robin Williams. My family’s TV was tuned to Mork and Mindy every week. I remember his earlier movies, like Good Morning Vietnam. I laughed at Mrs Doubtfire. Adored him in Patch Adams. Was deeply affected by What Dreams May Come. Thought he was brilliant as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting.
The one that stays with me the most though, for a variety of reasons, is Dead Poets Society. It was released when I was teenager. My family and I were on a camping trip that weekend, the four of us happily crowded together in a little pop-up. We woke up to a day of heavy rain, much like this one, and we decided to wait it out in a nearby movie theater. Dead Poets is arguably just a really fantastic movie. I left the theater that day feeling touched and inspired and newly excited about life. What I didn’t realize at the time of course, was that I would go on to base my entire life’s philosophy – as a person, a parent, and an unschooler – largely on that movie. Carpe Diem, boys. Seize the day.
And now, 25 years later, Robin Williams has died. All sources are saying that Williams – like so many of us – was a victim of depression, and that he sadly took his own life.
As is usually the case when a beloved celebrity dies, social media has lit up, awash with expressions of shock, condolences, heartfelt words…. and a whole lot of insensitively and ignorance.
Cowardly. Selfish. These are the two words I’m seeing over and over in reference to the nature of Williams’ death. There are some very good reasons why we should never use these words to describe suicide, which I’ll get to in a minute, but first I want to address something else that I read yesterday, something that angered me on a level that I can’t even describe.
A popular blogger called his suicide a “bad choice.” A choice that he wouldn’t have made if he’d only had more faith. If he’d only chosen joy instead.
If preventing suicide was as easy as advising people to just not choose it, it would cease to exist.
But it doesn’t work that way. Depression is an illness. An illness that lies to you. An illness that is so deep and so pernicious and so consuming, that by the time it’s taken you to the depths of actually believing that suicide is the only answer, you know longer even feel like you have a choice.
I can sit here with a clear head and list all the many, many reasons I have for staying here on this earth …. God, my beautiful family, my writing, my yoga, my ability to reach others, coffee and cupcakes and sunsets and the smell of the desert after it rains… My list would go on and on. But a person on the brink of suicide is NOT clear-headed. Depression has stolen their ability to think rationally. DEPRESSION LIES.
So writing it off as something that’s simply a bad choice is insulting and insensitive. There are lots of bad choices out there: Talking when you should have remained silent, texting while you’re driving, eating that double bean burrito right before you go to sleep.
But succumbing to the soul-crushing despair, loneliness, and hopelessness that precedes suicide? That is a heartbreaking tragedy, not a “bad choice”.
The fact is, unless you’re IN THE SHOES of the person in the throes of depression, you simply cannot know what they are thinking, what they are feeling, and what they are and are not capable of rationally deciding. I have dealt with depression for most of my adult life. I have been medicated, I have tried natural therapies, I have Googled at 2:00 AM in the deepest pits of desperation, just hoping someone, somewhere, could help me. I didn’t talk about it for the longest time, mainly because talking about it generally garnered me little more than “cheer up!” comments, and other well-meaning but misguided admonishments. But I have been there. I have been in that place. I have been that broken. Feeling like I am suffocating.. Drowning. Immobilized. With my heart ripped open and the belief that the only thing I had left to live for was my faith. I have been there. And I still can’t pretend to know what Robin Williams, or any other suicide victim, was thinking or feeling before he died.
I know this, though: Depression does not discriminate. It crosses all racial and religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. It can strike anyone. It is a painful and crushing and complicated illness, one with as many different many paths to healing and wellness as there are people in the world.
By all accounts, Robin Williams was seeking treatment for his depression before he died. He was trying. He was reaching out. He was doing what he was supposed to be doing, and the depression just won. That is sad, and it is tragic. Suicide is always sad and tragic, which is why that same blogger’s worry that twitter comments saying things like, “You’re at peace now” would glorify suicide is so misguided.
Being glad that someone is no longer suffering and in pain is not glorifying suicide.
Showing empathy and compassion is not glorifying suicide.
Suicide sucks. Depression sucks. Those truths aren’t debatable.
But this was a person. A person carrying so great a weight, so great an amount of pain that he took his own life. Would it have been better – better for him, better for his family and loved ones – if he hadn’t done it? If he’d found a path to peace on this earth? OF COURSE! No one should commit suicide. No one should live, or die, in that darkness. But the fact remains that he did commit suicide, and the resulting worldwide discussion about it should be about bringing about awareness. It should be about learning about tools to help others. It should be about empathy and compassion and understanding. It should be about reaching out to each other… frankly, honestly, unabashedly sharing our stories. It should be about letting others know that there is help, that there is someone to talk to, that there IS a path to peace on this earth.
It should not be about shaming anyone, ever.
And finally, as to the “selfish” and “cowardly” and “they just didn’t have enough faith” comments:
You know what those kind of comments do? They tell the poor souls out there who are currently contemplating suicide that the lies of their depression are true. That they’re selfish. That they’re cowardly. That they’re not good enough. Not strong enough. I ask you, from the bottom of my heart, is that really the message we want to send? Is that really a message that is somehow going to help?
Because from where I’m sitting, the message we need to be sending people in the grips of depression is very much the opposite.
You ARE strong.
You ARE loved.
You ARE good enough.
You ARE worth it.
Let’s practice love. Let’s practice grace. Let’s practice kindness. Let’s practice compassion. Let’s create an environment where people who are depressed can come forward for help without feeling like they’re being judged and condemned. Let’s create an environment where people who are depressed can be supported, and encouraged, and lifted up, instead of feeling that they have to hide. Let’s create an environment where people know they are loved.
If you are struggling with depression, talk to someone. Talk to a friend, a therapist, your parents, a pastor, ME. Talk to someone.
Because no matter what depression tells you, no matter what twitter or Facebook or insensitive bloggers may tell you….. You are worth it.